Benefits of Experience

Written by Sam Macrory on 3 November 2014 in Culture
Culture
In this day and age of fame-by-lens it isn’t strange for colourful characters to leap suddenly from obscurity into celebrity, and this year it has been the turn of Deidre Kelly to travel from Benefits Street to Celebrity Big Brother and beyond. But there’s more to White Dee, as she is better known, than the usual reality-celebrity circuit. Sam Macrory meets a woman who is bringing a different, intelligent and authentic, voice to the political debate. Photos by Paul Heartfield

A 3am finish in a student nightclub, hundreds of photos with hundreds of drunken undergraduates, and now a film crew to share your breakfast with: it’s just another 24 hours in the baffling and yet rather brilliant life of Deidre Kelly, the latest in a long line of reality television stars who find their lives turned upside down.

But despite the sleep shortfall, Kelly, or ‘White Dee’ as she’s better known, is still standing, offering a commentary on the news headlines – a committed smoker, she likes the idea of a smoking ban in parks – and finding a smile for everyone. As well she might, having first appeared on our TV screens at the start of the year when Dee emerged as the unexpected star of a Channel 4 reality documentary called Benefits Street. She insists that she and her neighbours thought the programme – she says she first heard it would be called Benefits Street only a fortnight before it aired – would be about their close-knit community, not an expose of life out of work, but the show changed Dee’s life.

In the last year she’s recorded a single, been offered a modelling contract, appeared on Celebrity Big Brother, and sat on the This Morning sofa.  And she’s no longer on benefits either. “If you were to say to me what’s your job, I’d probably say I haven’t got one,” she admits as we meet in a Loughborough hotel – Dee was doing the ‘selfie’ circuit at the university the night before. “I kind of haven’t. It does feel weird, but because I’ve started receiving an income… I took myself off. That’s the right thing to do.”

White Dee is now tabloid fodder, a minor celebrity who, says The Sun, has hired a fitness trainer to “get a body like Kelly Brook” and has hopes of cracking America. If she’d been asked 20 years ago where she wanted to be in 2014, what would she have said? Dee laughs – and it’s very much a smoker’s laugh – at the thought.

“I definitely wouldn’t have said being in every single newspaper going, or on the television, in documentaries,” she replies in her broad Brummie accent. “Twenty years ago it was just… left school, went out, got an office job because that’s what girls tended to do, find someone to settle down with and have a family, that kind of thing. If someone asked me 20 days ago… it hasn’t even been that long. It’s a bit of a whirlwind.”

We have, of course, been here before. Stars of fly-on the-wall documentaries have a knack of clinging to the limelight once the cameras stop rolling: think the bearded Jeremy Spake from Airport and his brief stint as a TV presenter, or Maureen Rees from Driving School and her atrocious cover of Madness’ Driving In My Car.

Dee insists that away from the cameras she has plenty of “average days... I’m still a mum, that’s my main focus. Two kids, everything else I fit around them”, and makes clear that she’s only prepared to pose for endless photos – she’s said to receive £1,500 per appearance – and stay up in the early hours because of her children. “Me standing in a nightclub for an hour, having a few hundred photos taken, is very out of my comfort zone, out of the norm for me, but it’s going to benefit them two children so that, in reality, is why I do it.”

She now has a manager/ agent to look after the bids, but Barry, a local music publicist, is away in New York. While some of his deputies run Dee’s day, she’s left alone for our interview, free to say what she thinks and utterly unspun. If she weren’t, she wouldn’t be the draw she is today.

For while she may have been ticking off the inevitable offers of the post-reality TV world, she’s also doing things a little differently. Having been sacked as a council administrator after she was caught stealing £13,000 and then declaring herself too depressed to work, Dee was accused of being the worst example of Britain’s benefits culture and was labelled “the patron saint of drug users and drop outs” by Katie Hopkins, whose own route to fame came via a turn on The Apprentice. “Bossy cow” is Dee’s straight-talking assessment of Hopkins, but she has surprised everyone by proving herself to be an eloquent and persuasive commentator on the merits and perils of the welfare state.

Building on her role as de facto leader of the out-of-work and out-of-luck on James Turner Street, Dee has emerged as something of a spokesman for the many people whose voice is rarely heard in the national political debate. She appeared on Channel 4’s Big Benefits Row, has written the diary for The Spectator magazine, and last month caught the political imagination when she spoke at the Conservative Party conference.

“Hand on heart, I can honestly say I prefer more the conference thing,” Dee replies when asked to compare the politics to the publicity circuit. “I’ve got an interest in the country because I’ve got an interest in the future, because I’ve got two children that are going to be a part of it, my daughter sooner than my son. He’s eight at the moment, and I do worry what this country will be like in 10 years’ time. As a mum, I’ve always had an interest in it. I know it’s going to affect my two kids.”

Dee, it seems, is at a crossroads: take the traditional path of a reality TV veteran, or engage in the political process? So what does she do next?

miles away from Dee’s home on James Turner Street, but the Conservative Party’s annual autumn get-together is a world away from the rest of the city. Tory-supporting men and women, usually white and middle-aged, amble around the Escher-esque creation, listening to speeches and talks by politicians who, in many cases, have enjoyed some of the most expensive educations the country can offer. Policemen and airport-style security keep those not lucky enough to have paid a premium fee for a pass at a safe distance.

There aren’t, it’s fair to say, many here who, on first glance, have much in common with Dee, but with her recently acquired celebrity status, she was invited to speak at a fringe event hosted by the Policy Exchange think tank.

“I was very shocked that I was invited to start off with, more specifically invited to the Tory Party conference,” says Dee of her conference turn. She then adds, with a smile. “Obviously, you see them as being a very upper-class political party and you know, obviously I’m a couple of levels lower class.”

So she went in expecting the worst. “I was really scared. I thought, ‘I don’t know why they’ve invited me it; maybe because I’m topical at the moment’. I thought they were going to kill me, to be honest with you, but then I thought, ‘You’re a mature woman, you know what you’re talking about, you can hold your own, if someone tries to kill you, you can fight back.”

And yet, it went well. Very well. “The reception I got was unbelievable,” Dee admits, proudly. “Just because you’re classed as common, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid and you can’t have an interest in politics. It’s part of life, part of a learning curve.”

Steve Hughes, Policy Exchange’s head of economic and social policy, was part of the panel. “White Dee gave a brilliant insight into her experience of living off benefits,” Hughes recalls. “Her performance brought to life a subject that is too often dominated by wonks, journalists and politicians within the Westminster bubble. In every area of policy we should be looking for people, like Dee, who can offer a different perspective.”

Also speaking at the fringe was Mark Hoban, a former Treasury minister, who described Dee as “no fool and, as one or two present found out, she gives no mercy if you treat her like one. Yes, she is forthright – but she is also thoughtful… she talked a lot of sense.”

If Dee surprised some of her audience, she too came away with a few preconceptions shattered. “You do stereotype, don’t you? We all do it, and it’s like, I was thinking, you know, ‘public school boys, this, that and the other’... but it wasn’t like that at all. To attend something like that you realise that they, too, are just normal, everyday people.” Dee pauses, before adding with another cackle: “It’s just that they support the Tories... Everything I do changes a kind of perception that you’ve got instilled in your head. Even though you say you don’t judge people, I wouldn’t judge people, subconsciously you do, but once you meet those people, and you talk to them, you realise that you do have to judge them on them being an individual. It was fun.”

What surprised the audience was how Dee thought much the same way as many of them: benefit payments are too generous, and often encourage the unemployed to believe that there’s little reason to go looking for a job.

“I’ve always kind of supported it,” she says of the government’s efforts to reform the welfare system. “When I was part of the benefits system, on a weekly basis, if you work it out, I would have had, say, £220 cash free to spend on whatever we wanted to spend it on. I know people who work 40-plus hours a week who probably haven’t got £200 a month cash to spend, but is that my fault? Whose fault is it? They need to look at these companies that are paying people crap wages. It’s about balancing things out. People on benefits shouldn’t have more to live on than someone who is at work for 40 hours a week. But again, that’s not my fault.”

It has, she admits, “been made very, very comfortable for people to sit at home and not do anything,” but that is not the norm. “You’ve got an awful lot of people who apply for 15, 20 jobs a week. You can’t force an employer to give you a job, you can only keep trying and trying and trying. You could be working for someone for 20, 30 years, if something happens to that company – bang – you lose your job. You’re on benefits, into that system. It’s going to be so hard for you. It’s harder nowadays to get out of that system. There’s plenty of jobs but I don’t think there are enough.”

And Dee has thoughts on every area of welfare reform. She supports work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s idea of a pre-paid benefits card that would prevent claimants spending on cigarettes and alcohol. She agrees with the government that pension-age benefits should not be cut. “Leave the pensioners alone. Let them retire in peace. They’ve fought wars, they’ve brought up kids, they’ve done what they have to do. Let them retire comfortably.” As for tightening up the welfare system for those too disabled to work, Dee wants the government to “get realistic… I know someone who is ill, medical professionals say she can’t walk, so why are you contradicting them? They should be left alone.” 

However, on immigration, a debate she admits is not “easy”, Dee has concerns about benefits being claimed and sent overseas. And guess what? She’s recently watched a programme on TV that confirmed her worries. “You watch another documentary – and I was absolutely furious – this man was coming over here just so he could claim benefits, and he worked out that after five years he had enough money to buy practically a whole town in the country he was living in. That’s rubbing it in people’s faces, and that doesn’t help.”

Not long ago Dee would have been on benefits, watching that documentary and no doubt shaking her fist angrily at the TV screen. And yet, many who watched Benefits Street did the same when they saw her. Dee was receiving benefits because she was depressed, so where does she fit in with the government’s categorisation? Was she a scrounger, a shirker, a striver, or whatever word it is that a minister settles on when attempting to frame the debate over benefits reform. The people they are describing, or insulting, Dee warns, are often “the lower working-class families – a lot of people who vote”, and they are alienated by the words they hear from politicians.

“I think they’re very, very disrespectful. The big word is ‘scroungers’. They’re not scrounging, they’re in a position where the circumstances have put them… How is it scrounging when you’re just claiming what the government says you’re entitled to? They’d be perfectly happy if the government said they were entitled to a bit less. At the end of the day, 90% of them are just grateful there’s a system in place that will see them and their families through until their circumstances change. It’s not scrounging at all. It’s very, very disrespectful – a lot of people in government, politicians, need to choose their wording a lot more carefully.”

How about when the wording is a little more eye-catching? Iain Duncan Smith has compared his quest to get people off welfare to Wilberforce’s fight against slavery. Is that how it feels to be on benefits? Dee shakes her head. “That’s a bit dramatic of Mr Duncan Smith, you know? It’s a hard one. Welfare and immigration are two of the most hated topics in the country but the people on benefits didn’t set up the system. So are the government the slave masters? Do they see it like that? They’re just demeaning normal, everyday people. Sometimes they do need a bit of a reality check.”

A reality check is exactly what Dee is bringing to the political debate, along with an element of novelty value. That, she says, shouldn’t be the case. “I’m not a unique person. You’d be surprised how different we are, what we actually do, sit down and discuss,” she says of her neighbours. “It’s mad. You talk to people. There’s a lot of older people as well, and we all mix together. We speak about wars, about sport, about government, about changes. It’s just that normally we’ll never, ever be heard. It’s just a little conversation in the morning over a cup of tea with the news on – I love the news. People on benefits aren’t stupid, they do have minds, they’re able to hold their own and have a conversation about things that do matter. That’s a stigma that’s attached to a lot of people in the system.”

But if these conversations are happening in the kitchens and on the corners of roads like James Turner Street up and down the country, do the politicians listen? Dee rolls her eyes. “I haven’t had a councillor knock on my door, hand on heart, for over 10 years. I don’t know if we’re classed as being in a high-risk area, the slums of Birmingham, let’s just push a leaflet through the door. That’s not helping. When I was a child, the amount of face-to-face contact you had with someone who was running, the local candidate, that tended to sway you a bit more. You can tell more by sitting facing a person than you can just by looking at a little of picture of them, and ‘This is what I want’. You don’t get hands-on, door-to-door canvassing or even the cars that used to drive round and drive you crazy with the megaphones: they’re completely out of touch with the voters.”

That sounds like one of Labour’s favourite lines, attacking a Conservative Party led by an Etonian (David Cameron) and an alumnus of St Paul’s (George Osborne), both of whom studied at Oxford and rampaged through the city with the notorious Bullingdon Club. Are they just too out of touch to lead?

Dee says many of the people she met at the party conference “blew my preconceptions out of the water”, but she warns that politicians of all stripes “are not helping themselves, because they’re not people persons.”

The solution, she says, is simple. “If they just made a bit more of an effort to connect and find out exactly what would make the country a little bit better… they need to humanise themselves a bit more. It’s all this in-shop battling. Politics just seems to be a constant slanging match between Labour, the Tories, and the little Lib Dems tucked at the back. I don’t think it should be like that any more: stop your squabbling and start thinking about what would work to make this system work and the country a better place.”

It’s that tired, old “slanging match” that has led Dee to conclude that she might well vote UKIP next year and give her support to Nigel Farage.

“He’s playing a clever game,” she says of the UKIP leader, “but Labour and the Conservatives are killing each other on his behalf. I, as a voter interested in this subject, don’t want to sit there watching you two going at each other like… you don’t see that in the school playground any more. Farage is coming across as the grown-up of politics. And obviously that’s more of an appeal to me… at this precise moment in time.”

And here’s where Dee’s willingness to engage with politics becomes even more interesting. There is, she confirms, a part of her that is tempted to stand for Parliament and become an MP. “I’ve spoken to a few people, MPs and that… things like, doing stuff for them,” she admits. Has Farage approached her about working with UKIP? “No he hasn’t,” Dee replies, adding, with a hint of a smile, “but if he wants a cuppa, I’m always willing to talk…”

Is she seriously considering a career in politics? “I have been asked. It’s something I’ve always been interested in. I’ve never seriously considered it up until now. I’d have to be 100% serious about whatever I was going to do. I wouldn’t just run into it and take the mickey out of it – that defeats the object. I don’t know if I would attach myself to a certain party, because I don’t agree with how they’re going on. And 2015 is probably a little bit too soon…”

Five years later, however, and we could yet see White Dee putting her name forward. “Probably 2020 is a bit more realistic, isn’t it? I wouldn’t mind doing it then, not being a known face. You don’t know a lot of these people who decide to run. I don’t think I would do it just jumping on the ‘I’m topical at the moment’ bandwagon. If I do decide to do it, I’ve got my policies, I know what I want to stand for, and if you can get that across to the public it doesn’t matter who you are; if they agree with you, they will vote for you.”

According to one Tory MP, however, they wouldn’t. Kwasi Kwarteng, the Tory MP and Old Etonian, says Dee is “too common for the House of Commons”. She laughs when I remind her of Kwarteng’s assessment:

“Well, I did say that if I did decide then I could stand against Mr Kwasi Kwarteng. Then we’ll see who is too common.” She breaks out into laughter at the thought, but Kwarteng has obviously left her baffled. “I can’t understand comments like that,” she continues. “They aren’t really very helpful. I’ve never said I’m not common, but I’m not stupid. Comments like that just make people think, ‘Check him out, little public schoolboy, blah, blah, blah’. I’ve got more common sense…”

I wonder if it frustrates her, that for all her common sense, she has never had the chances, both in terms of education and financial support, that those like Kwarteng, Cameron, Osborne or so many others at the top of public life were born into. In another life, another set of circumstances, Dee could be someone else entirely. “I am 100% happy with what I was born into,” she states, slowly and clearly. ”I wouldn’t, hand on heart, change a thing for all the money in the world. I’m happy being common.”

And whether or not she ever acquires the letters MP after her name, the mouthpiece of benefits claimers everywhere is, for now, a voice for a disenfranchised part of society. It’s a responsibility she seems to be relishing.

“It’s just nice. It makes a change to have someone from my background, which is reflective of however many thousands of people out there who are exactly the same, that someone would be interested in listening and does think, ‘Hang on a minute, maybe these people who put a cross in a box do understand where we’re coming from, they have got minds, they can think for themselves. It makes a refreshing change,” she explains.

Not everyone wants to hear from her, however, not least some of the people she once classed as friends. “There are a few people who I’ve had in my life for a very long time, who have accused me of selling them out,” Dee admits, “but they’ve never told me how. I can’t work out in my head how I’ve sold out. Do you mean because I’ve tried to better the life of my kids? When I came out of that Big Brother house, the second my fee went into my bank account – bang – it was split into two and went into two little bank accounts. How is that selling out? That’s motivated me more. I will do what I deem right to enable a better future for my two children.”

Despite everything, Dee insists life hasn’t changed for her as much as you might think. She’s “still got my old friends, I’ve just got some amazing new ones as well”, and she’s planning to move back home to her old house on James Turner Street: “I am. ‘She’s been on Big Brother , blah, blah, she’s moved house’. No, she hasn’t. I came out of an environment where I just knew I couldn’t go straight back to my house. I’ve still got my house and I will be returning to my house. I’ve got the same friends, we still look after each other’s kids...”

But what will her message be as a mother? Almost overnight, her life turned around and not, even she would agree, due to hours of toil or a lifetime of hard work. The cameras liked her, the audience loved her, and that was all it took. What does she tell her kids to do? Work hard, or wait, and hope, for a break in life?

Her daughter Caitlin, she says, is determined to make her way, and has a sixth form place to study sports science. For her eight-year-old son Gerrard there are challenges to come. “Fingers crossed what I’m doing will give him a little foot on the ladder,” she says. “I don’t want him to be part of the system. There’s an awful lot of hate out there for people on benefits. The majority has been directed at me personally, but… broad shoulders, I don’t care. My friends and family know what I’m like, and that’s all that matters to me.”

And if this all ended tomorrow? If the journalists stopped calling, the cameras stopped rolling, and the offers stopped coming in? “If it finishes, next week, next year, whatever, you just go with the flow,” she says philosophically. “I don’t do this every day. I’m a mum, do you know what I mean? But I am grateful for this opportunity. I’m just a normal person that people will listen to and people in the real world can connect with. You never get this opportunity, do you? But I wouldn’t mind if it ended tomorrow.”

And with that, she heads off to the next date in her bizarre diary. She departs with hugs, both for me and the photographer, and, inevitably, is stopped for a selfie by our taxi driver before heading outside for a cigarette and a few minutes of the quieter life she once knew.

 For now, however, the world wants to hear more from White Dee. We haven’t heard the last her, and politicians everywhere would do well to listen. This strange chapter in the life of Deirdre Kelly won’t end any time soon. ■

Tags: Benefits, Dwp

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