Portrait: Law unto herself

Vanessa Walters was just 18 when her first novel, `Rude Girls', was published. The so-called Spike Lee of north London is now 22 and working on her third book while studying law. But she still worries about how she looks ...

I've always been paranoid about my appearance. The amount of time the girls spend getting ready to go out partying in Rude Girls, well that was me back then when I wrote it, living in Leyton. When you're 15, 16, you think everybody will notice if you have a hair out of place or if you haven't got the cool stuff on. But the camaraderie between the characters, that was more of a fantasy because I didn't have those black friends. I went to a private school in Harley Street, where I had a scholarship. There were three black girls in my year. It was very upper middle class: one of my best friends from then is still Imogen Lloyd-Webber, Andrew's daughter. When I went there I was 11 and my mother explained to me beforehand that we had no money and the other girls would have a lot of money. I remember in the first year one girl asking me if I was rich or just well off and I said, "Oh, we're poor, we're very poor." And she said, "No you're not, you don't look it, you must be just well off."

I missed having black friends as a teenager. A white girl can't understand what it's like to get your hair straightened for the first time: that's a landmark for a black girl. And the fashions were different. If I was wearing new footless tights, the girls at my school would be a bit sniffy and say, "Oh, they're very you." But if I showed them to my cousin, she would say, "Where did you get those footless tights from, they're so nice." My mum was quite conservative generally. I couldn't wear a lot of Lycra or spandex - showing the outline of your body was anathema to her. But for some reason I could wear short skirts, and she didn't mind bright colours.

I've always had a problem with low self-esteem, although outwardly I think I appear quite confident. It used to be much worse: some days I just couldn't leave the house because I felt too ugly. I'd look in the mirror and think, "Oh my god!" Now I think I'm more able to put it in perspective. I can just say, "OK, stop, nobody gives a damn whether you've got matching shoes on, let's just go." I have two kinds of wardrobe now, the things I wear at home around Leyton where I still live with my mum, and the things I wear for college where I'm studying law. I remember in the first year at college everyone turned up in their favourite outfits to begin with - someone had a biker jacket, someone had their favourite red leggings on - but after a term they were all in loafers and Levi's because of the pressure to conform. In my first term I had a silver puffa jacket and everyone called me Michelin man so I stopped wearing it: they're quite snobby in the law department.

I do genuinely appreciate people who really don't care what people think about how they look, and I find they look more beautiful because it's their choice and it reflects their personality. I find that much more interesting than people like me, who go and buy the latest safe thing from Morgan or Top Shop. But London is a very trendy place: it's very difficult to back out of it. For instance, everybody's wearing pedal-pushers, so to leave the house in something which kind of look like pedal-pushers but are clearly not is just out of the question. But I'm trying to conquer that mentality.

In my new book, The Best Things in Life, I've written about the grassroots black music industry. When I was 14 I made a rap video and it was shown on Channel 4. I think I would have been a rapper if I hadn't had parents: they wouldn't hear of it - I had GCSEs to do. After that I got into writing. There were no books about young people from the Anglo-Afro-Caribbean community in London. Studying law was a parental thing as well. My mum said she wasn't going to support me if I did an English degree and ended up working in Dillons for the rest of my life. She's quite rude about my literary skills. I think it's an immigrant mentality: you have to get a secure job like a doctor or lawyer. I could have breezed my way to a first in English. Law is not so easy.

Vanessa Walters' novel, `The Best Things in Life', is published by Pan on 13 August at pounds 5.99

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