MY JOURNEY TO THE BBC IN THE DARK AND BACK IN THE DARK OF YORKSHIRE AGAIN
By Sophie Mei Lan
Stepping into the chilling pitch black of the morning, I carefully navigated myself and my four-month-old daughter into the car. I secured her tight into her car seat as she attempted to suckle the cold air searching for my bosom, her mother’s skin and milk.
She had been by my side feeding all night, I was exhausted, and I longed to pass away the rest of the morning in bed. But like most mornings, it was a military operation, we had to be up before sunrise to go on our journey together from Wakefield, West Yorkshire to Salford, Greater Manchester and were always at the mercy of the M62.
We were off to MediaCityUK, 'the Theatre of Dreams’ for northern journalists, as it was the new home of the BBC, some of ITV and where I thought I could ‘get my foot finally in the door.’
So, for now without a clear route to get inside the secure glass BBC buildings, I had opted to study journalism at University of Salford in MediaCityUK, even though it was far from my Yorkshire home where there are some incredible universities, I was determined that after years as a freelance journalist managing mental illness (mostly on ‘work experience’ except for paid work as a local newspaper reporter and investigations for Channel 4 News) and now young mum, that I would become an inspiration to my daughter as well as the "impoverished community" I was brought up in Sheffield.
I had actually discovered I was pregnant whilst undertaking work experience at The Guardian Newspaper in London after a stint at The Sunday Times, all unpaid, whilst continue to hustle hard back home, working as a dancer and starting a range of businesses to supplement my income and fund my passions as I could barely afford the travel down to London let alone eating when I was there or even the expensive pregnancy test! If my work placement over-ran, I would stop on a friend’s floor or when I had an interview for ITV, I caught the overnight bus down and rocked up, hoping my flask of coffee and mental preparation on the journey, would plaster my lack of sleep. It was all worth it, as I could see the glow of my ‘dream,’ changing the media for the power of the good. My life-long purpose is to show that no matter what your background and how you present, that you deserve to be heard and treated equally.
Now, with a newborn baby and managing severe mental health problems, unable to relocate with my support network all in Yorkshire, I could not afford the mental and financial cost of chasing my dream.
I am fiercely proud of where I am from, I thought it could be fate that MediaCityUK had landed up north. This could be my big break. I could show the world that despite my abusive past, despite my disability, despite being a mama, that you can still aspire to make waves and have an impact on your own life but most of all those of others who get shunned.
So off I went to university with my daughter in tow, our long commute, where I would drop her off at 6am as the doors opened to her nursery inside MediaCityUK.
I didn’t want to be separated from her so young, but I thought it was the sacrifice I had to make, and at drop-off I would see all the other parents enter, many beckoning BBC and ITV staff badges. I would sometimes allow my head to get the better of me, and I felt inadequate, not only were their children older as they had had paid m/paternity leave but they also had the rights of employed parents and the comfort of knowing that they were getting paid for what they did.
By this time, I had already won awards for some of my human rights reporting I had carried out, but awards didn’t mean a ‘job,’ nor did it mean that the industry was ready to hire someone like me. I was over-trained for many schemes, under-connected with those at the top and I didn’t have enough money to endure many more years of work experience and still having to earn from an eclectic range of side hustles.
I had Yorkshire grit and passion and was grateful for any opportunities, yet becoming internally depleted by the false hope these bright lights which many media schemes offered.
By this point, I had already studied one degree whilst battling a severe eating disorder, having time off as an in-patient at Seacroft Hospital in Leeds and I somehow managed to do regular work experience for BBC local radio and newspapers. I had even been offered the odd job in the industry but most of the roles required me to relocate down South.
The only way to get close to the new media hub of the north was for me to study next door to it, hoping I could bump into the right people.
But the more time I spent in the fake world of MediaCityUK, the more the novelty wore off and it just felt excruciatingly close yet further than ever to wedge my glass slipper in the door. Not to mention, that without an invite you wouldn’t have a chance to get inside the high-security buildings, unless you were an audience member for a gameshow.
I managed to discover the odd project with the few people that really did have a passion for northern people, but the structured system and community schemes weren't set up to truly include those who can’t conform to the London-centric vibe.
Every opportunity I discovered following university involved reams of application forms, a sharing of my thoroughly researched story ideas which had been acquired following years of living, volunteering and working within the ‘diverse’ communities I am from. Most of the time my investigations were appreciated and utilised as a 'scoop' but not credited or paid for and the very few low paid national ‘jobs’ I could have secured always involved me relocating or travelling far from my home and my vital support network in Yorkshire.
Yet, I was always grateful that the industry was showing an interest in acquiring “diverse talent” like me, they saw my depth of interest, colourful life and the fact that I would normally have been a ‘case study’ in one of their documentaries, meant that I had “insider info.” But the industry still hadn’t changed to include and fully embrace people like me who still live in “adversity” and the older I was becoming, the more confidence I gained that I couldn’t conform. I was never stubborn, I would still complete work experience placements and free projects if I thought they would serve the community. But my health deteriorated and so did my finances as I struggled to bring up, now two children without adequate leave... I answered calls during labour through fear of not proving I was dedicated enough. I went above and beyond to up-skill myself and prove my worth despite my perceived flaws.
As I dropped off the cliff of the ‘18-25’ age bracket, the harder it became to secure any work, I was too old, too qualified now and too experienced and yet not experienced enough to get a ‘proper job and especially not one on my own terms to suit my location, disability and family life.
On the surface however, I had become a beacon of hope for aspiring journalists, inspiring others with my “award-winning scoops,” setting up a popular blog and YouTube channel during my battles with mental illness. Yet I was rarely paid, still hustling, as I struggled to conform to the status quo and just serve as another tick-box exercise on diversity forms. On reflection, my online platforms and side hustles, have been a brilliant tool for me to change the way I work but that's because my deep desire to work as a journalist on my own terms has been dwindled, so I make the most of the free tools available... I have a Yorkshire grit so whatever I put my mind to I can do, if it is just down to me, not a huge corporation.
Freelancing is obviously tougher than ever these days, it requires you to have a lot of unpaid time to build, develop and sustain relationships, not to mention the fact that most commissioning editors are hard to reach in person, the time it takes to research and pitch ideas, keep on top of briefs and the news. Whilst I am definitely not in journalism for the money, I have thick skin for knock-backs and it is my life’s vocation, you get to a point where it is hard to afford to carry it out mentally without a supportive team or the financial ‘backing.’ If it was just a case of it being about my actual work, I can take that, but the issue is institutional, and it is easy to exploit people like me who are optimistic, hard-working and grateful for any glimmer of hope.
I understand Lockdown has meant it is exceptionally more challenging than ever before with paid work sources drying up left, right and centre for everyone and, I have tried to keep a positive mindset and take part in the opportunity which national news outlets have invited me to participate through watching their commissioning briefings and training online. But I have spent weeks in Lockdown on a variety of different briefings and training ‘opportunities’ with national and global news outlets, yet following a pitch and sharing of ideas there is no feedback, no new contacts or relationships formed and at best an email address to send ideas to.
I am realistic. I have failed lots. And I am OK with that. But there is deep fire within me that knows I am being utilised to tick their 'diversity boxes' just so they can prove that as publicly funded broadcasters, they have tapped into ‘local talent.’ Better still for them, I tick most of their boxes, other than not being young enough now to hit their youth quota.
But I am depleted by grand moves up north. My faith has dwindled because I have experienced the stark reality of it all.
Whilst I am a largely optimistic person, there is an air of cynicism now each time there is a ‘ground-breaking’ media move announced such as Channel 4 coming to Leeds and even more so with BBC coming to the north.
Many mean well and offer exciting ambitions, but the reality is they are relocating the same bubble of people, ideas and it’s just another gesture to tick more boxes.
It actually feels closer yet further than ever when it comes to real opportunities for those of us who don’t fit the institutional setting, yet have the talent, knowledge and skills to truly shake up draconian institutions.
I rarely share my views on the issue as I fear of losing any possible work-related opportunities, but now I have the hindsight to know that there are rarely that many real opportunities anyway. I am building the confidence to not try and 'fit in' anymore as I am not simply straddling two worlds or a rag to riches tale - we live in one world; one region and such a huge institution has the responsibility and money to truly invest in us rather than exploit our nature.
I am attempting to live congruently with my values by writing this to truly begin to empower the seldom-heard of us to be properly heard and valued.
And, to truly ‘empower’ us institutions need not just appreciate the beauty of what diversity looks like, they need to adequately pay, nurture, include and harness ‘diverse talent.’ Actually, become part of the communities we are living in through partnerships, adequate funding and deeper change… I have had enough of exciting headlines and initiatives.
This isn’t a blame game for me, I realise that I am part of the picture and I am working on my own ‘poverty mindset,’ building my self-esteem so I can appreciate my unique talent, and most of all charging what I am worth so I can honestly empower others, rather than just recite verbal statements, half-hearted gestures and get energised by campaigns from the powers that still be.
But I am fed up of always side hustling, being dangled carrots and exploited for my background.
To truly empower “us,” we need to be truly valued in the same light, if not sometimes higher esteem for our ‘grassroots’ work as 'local talent,' local media... all of which those at the top could learn from.
To truly get inside our hearts, minds and most of all, create a change in the world. This isn’t about just the institution, it's plea to give us northern folk genuine opportunities because "our BBC" could actually help to transform the future lives for many of us.
Read more from Sophie on her personal blog:
https://www.mamamei.co.uk and her professional work at https://evokemediagroup.co.uk
Business - Media Consultancy @TheSparkleCoach
Journalism - Author/Presenter @SophieMeiLan
Health & Mindset - Personal Blog/Vlog @MamaMeiBlog
HOW-TO DO YOUR OWN PR: Get featured in Newspapers, Magazines and on TV/Radio- PR tips from a publicist and journalist
Beat the scroll hole of social media by creating evergreen content, gain credibility by getting featured in the press and most of all share your story to have the greatest impact.
But how do you get into newspapers, magazines and acquire online articles and features?
I’m Sophie Mei Lan, an award-winning journalist who has worked for local and national TV and newspapers and I continue to work from home as a newspaper columnist, author, documentary maker and PR coach/Media Consultant aka The Sparkle Coach (https://TheSparkleCoach.com).
I am far from anti-social media - I have amassed an online following of 100k plus across platforms and utilise social media as one of the fundamental keys in sharing my own stories and building my businesses. But too often, I see over-stretched business owners, brands and influencers flog their guts and mental health over creating and consuming micro content… and overloading their brains consuming all the information being churned out. Whilst I love social, it is just one pillar of marketing (granted, there is always the exceptional story of someone going viral, but often there is more to it than just a simple tweet or social post, so I would always begin by creating the macro content (e.g. the newsletters/mail-outs, press releases, blog posts, vlogs, podcast episodes etc..) and then break this one piece of macro content down into micro content for social media.
As social media is increasingly competitive, many of us are already creating huge valuable chunks of content which could be slightly refined and used as macro content then broken down into snippets.
Further still, if your content is featured on a website, online blog/newspaper or YouTube channel, for example, this can serve as evergreen content which keeps reaping you rewards rather than getting lost in the overpopulated world of social.
Here are some PR tips to get you started:
Try not to feel defeated by the social media algorithms, up your game, they are also marketing companies with an agenda, so utilise it but swap scrolling for brain naps and get laser focused on speaking your truth and building your brand for life!
For more focused help, email: email@example.com
and read https://SparkleUpNorth.com and EvokeMediaGroup.co.uk’s blog post.
Or follow me @TheSparkleCoach on social media
or go to my new site (coming soon) at: https://TheSparkleCoach.com
Identifying yourself as a leader
By Sophie Mei Lan
Now etched onto my wall, shoved in between my littering of positive affirmation cards, are my certificates. I certainly didn’t get trained in DIY by the way I have wonkily hung my array of qualifications and awards.
I shudder at the thought of someone seeing this collection inside my home office, not because of my ‘creative’ hanging skills but because I wouldn’t want to look boastful.
And then I remember why I hung these frames up. I need to remind myself daily to stop ‘downplaying my potential’ because I do have the knowledge, experience and even awards to ‘put myself out there’ as a professional, as a woman.
“I’m not really a business, I just do bits of work for clients,” “I’m not qualified enough to do that role,” “I’m just juggling home, work, life and family the best I can but not doing anything well.” Those are not just the statements in my head I have been conditioned to hear, but so many women I cheerlead, have this inner thought process which holds them back not just in their confidence and the feeling of ‘imposter syndrome,’ but it prevents them from achieving their dreams, simply because they don’t identify as leaders. Not to mention, the fact that we need more female leaders driving this world forward, shaking up the status quo and to inspire other women to be part of the growing movement to challenge gender bias, pay disparity and celebrate women’s achievements.
This week which marked International Women’s Day calls for these necessary strides forward, notably during a pandemic which has exposed huge inequalities, not to mention a huge variety of females in tech, science, media and on the front line who have steered us through the Covid crisis.
But whilst it’s easy to focus on the end goal, this journey to a more equal and powerful world for all starts from within and acquiring the skill of confidence, which is easier said than done if you’ve grown up in a world of being prejudiced against explicitly and faced unconscious bias, by others and even ourselves.
Here’s how I’ve done it and still do it when I have my lapses.
So firstly, let’s unapologetically recognise our own achievements and remind ourselves of them, even if it comes from sticking up certificates and jotting down our achievements where they are visible. Then begin to connect with women you admire who also respect you and support your core values. As you consume more content or spend time with these women who cheerlead one another, that’s where you can start to discover or even build communities who can campaign together to create this much needed change.
I too have pledged to be part of this change after surrounding myself with ‘cheerleaders,’ albeit virtually in Lockdown, who give each other strength to ‘show up’ through the highs and lows of running businesses and a home. One of those is fellow entrepreneur Amy Downes and we decided to launch our lockdown-made initiative Sparkle Up North Magazine this International Women’s Day to celebrate the stories of female run businesses in the north of England and to foster a community of like-minded women. And written in one of my last cards from a heroine in my life my Aunty Didi who passed away last week, which was sent during a challenging time in Lockdown One: “We all need you. Don’t let all the hard work you have achieved be blown away.” That’s your rallying cry too when you have another hurdle to strut over. Look how far we've come and how far we can go!
To get involved with our new magazine and initiative, go to: sparkleupnorth.com
and follow @sparkleupnorth or you can find me @thesparklecoach https://thesparklecoach.com
It’s been a year of resilience, hurdles and setbacks for many, but two female entrepreneurs are determined to add the sparkle back to the business community by launching a new magazine and online community to showcase the best northern businesses and influencers.
Two Yorkshire-based business women wanted to transform the lives of female-run businesses, brands and influencers by sharing their stories in a new magazine which showcases “the best businesses in the north” with a passion for highlighting northern talent, championing businesses up north and to grow a ‘sparkly community’ together following the challenges of the Pandemic.
Multi-award-winning business owner, Media Consultant and “Blogger of the Year” Sophie Mei Lan and fellow Small Business Owner and Influencer Amy Downes launched Sparkle Up North - a new magazine, online community and learning platform on International Women’s Day as they want to change the perception of the north and women in business as well as sharing the wide range of transformational success stories of businesses, brands and influencers here.
Journalist, Wellbeing Influencer and Media Consultant Sophie Mei Lan started her career as a journalist by setting up a blog “as well as getting a part-time dancer job” to fund her studies, young children and to use her passion for community driven journalism to shake up the media industry online and offline in the mainstream media.
She said: “Even the barrier for women in business… from leaders to personal brands, from online influencers to people managing a job, family and a business… it can be hard for women to even have the confidence to identify themselves as business owners in their own right, let alone shout about their success and find unwavering support, no matter what challenges they face.”
Single Mum-of-two Sophie, 32, who lives in Wakefield, West Yorkshire and originally from Sheffield knows what a juggle it can be managing her work as a journalist, business owner and online influencer alongside family, health and home life.
“Not to mention my need to spend time with my daughters, to eat well, sleep and exercise. It can be hard trying to ‘do it all, especially without a cheerleading community around you!”
Sophie turned to online media, such as blogging and vlogging, as a young mum, to vent her struggles with mental health problems and her passion for cheerleading those who “don’t fit the status quo,” like her, she says.
She won awards for her human rights blogs and mental health vlogs whilst being a student at University of Manchester (BA Philosophy, Social Sciences and Italian) and later University of Salford (PGDip/NCTJ Broadcast Journalism- funded by Journalism Diversity Fund/NCTJ) which secured her work freelancing at Channel 4 News, ITV News and BBC News whilst working from home in Yorkshire and setting up all female media company Evoke Media Group.
Sophie, who continues to work as a newspaper columnist, mind & body fitness influencer and now published author, said: “I have been stubborn about staying up north despite all the amazing opportunities London had to offer, I was determined to create my own opportunities for myself and others up north through setting up my own businesses.
“I originally set up an influencer marketing network alongside creating my own content online and in the press.
“Blog Up North has been a great platform over the years to connect northern influencers with brands and media opportunities as well as setting up what’s on guides for Yorkshire and the north of England.”
But as lockdowns meant that TV documentaries and feature films came to a standstill in her company, she focused on writing newspaper columns “my huge luxury and honour to write about social affairs and mind & body fitness” as well as working online as a media consultant @TheSparkleCoach…
Sophie was determined to emerge from Lockdown even “stronger and sparklier than before” and to help other women like her. After chatting to fellow mental health and flexible working influencer Amy Downes aka the Content Planning Wizard, the pair who have a shared love of feminism, football and media, decided to set up Sparkle Up North - a magazine to share positive business stories up north to showcase and support northern business women.
Mum-of-two Amy Downes, 37, who lives in Leeds originally from Ipswich, said: “The last 12 months has been horrendous for many but after every storm, the sun must come out and I believe amongst the sad stories of businesses closing, there are also tales of incredible business people who have adapted their business through the pandemic so that it not only survives but thrives.
“Lots of these are women who have overcome terrible circumstances and those are the entrepreneurs we want to shout about for Sparkle Up North.”
Amy is a social media coach who helps small business owners wave a magic wand over their social media pages, by making content creation easier and less time-consuming. She offers one-to-one coaching through her Power Hours, as well as group support in her popular Facebook community.
Together the pair have launched Sparkle Up North Magazine and Community as a social business in its own right.
Sophie added: “We’d love to hear powerful stories from business owners and for women across the north to join our online community of entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds, all adding sparkle back into the northern economy and showcasing the incredible skills we have on offer.”
For more information, go to:
https://sparkleupnorth.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
and follow them on social media @SparkleUpNorth @TheSparkleCoach @ContentPlanningWizard