Stella English: How a star was born on Kubrick's mean streets
How did the 'Apprentice' winner overcome a childhood on one of Britain's worst estates? Rob Sharp and Terri Judd report
Tuesday 21 December 2010
It is a sprawling south-east London housing development so rotten that it was used as a location for Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange, a film synonymous with urban violence. So it's something of a surprise that the graffiti-lined avenues of Thamesmead have generated a winner of The Apprentice.
The series of housing estates, known for their high crime levels and grey concrete buildings, exemplify the rags-to-riches tale of 31-year-old Stella English. The businesswoman and mother-of-two, whose early life was typified by violence and neglect, was crowned winner of the BBC reality contest on Sunday evening.
Her prize was a £100,000-a-year job with businessman Lord Alan Sugar and a life far removed from the canals and underpasses of the overcrowded inner London ghetto she once called home.
"My childhood was a painful one," Ms English said on the programme's spin-off The Final Five. "My mother had a lot of problems coping with things. It was quite a lonely hard time for me." The business manager said she was "on cloud nine" after beating 24-year-old investment banker Chris Bates to win the show.
Ms English described how her father had abandoned her at a young age, leaving her mother Drusilla unable to care for her due to illness. She was taken in by her great aunt, Stella Brockman, who raised her in loco parentis. "Stella had a hard time," Ms Brockman told the programme. "Her mother wasn't a homemaker. She was unable to look after her, simple as that. Stella was able to do more or less what she wanted and she didn't know right from wrong. She was turning into a proper wild child."
With her father absent, Ms English also spent time in children's care homes and was once sent to live with her uncle in Cornwall to keep her away from trouble in London. She also had aspirations to become a model, reportedly posing in her underwear aged 19 on a balcony overlooking the Thames.
Situated between the towns Woolwich and Belvedere, what is known as the Thamesmead Housing Estate is a series of social housing developments built in the 1960s on former marshland. It is home to some 50,000 people.
In recent years the estate has become known as the "fraud capital of the UK" because of its association with West African criminal gangs. One fraud prevention service told the BBC last year that Thamesmead's SE28 postcode had the worst record for credit card fraud of any postal address in the country.
In the 1990s, when Ms English was a teenager, gangs with names like the Goldfish Gang, the Natty Turn Outs, the Firm and the Woolwich Mafia patrolled the streets of Thamesmead. Racially motivated murders were common, and the British National Party once planned a "Wogs Out" campaign outside the area's rows of run-down shops.
It was within this environment that the steely blond Ms English drank in one of London's most notorious pubs, The Wildflower, where gangs with knives and clubs would fight after hours. On Bentham Road in the heart of Thamesmead, the pub has since been converted into a squat redbrick church called the Christian Life Centre, and is surrounded by barbed wire. A sign outside it now reads "Jesus Is Lord – Your Blessing Awaits You". "It wasn't the nicest pub to be honest," said one local barman, who did not want to be named. "There were always fights breaking out and it wasn't the kind of place you'd like to be caught after dark."
Yesterday, along the estate's darkened walkways, only the odd flashing Santa seen from the street through net curtains provided respite from the gloom. "Thamesmead has a terrible reputation," explained one local, Karen Thacker. "Good luck to her [Stella], she has bettered herself. If she can do it, anyone can. It might encourage other youngsters."
Nigerian-born Charles Omoighe, who runs a local convenience store, added: "Good for her. It paints the area in a positive light. It has improved a lot. There is good racial co-existence here in sharp contrast to the not-so-distant past. It is an opportunity a lot of people would give an arm and a leg for, not just for the salary – we could all do with that – but also it could make her."
It was at The Wildflower that Ms English met one of her former boyfriends, Danny Johnson. Her current partner, scaffolder Ray Dewar, was reportedly cleared of threatening witnesses due to give evidence against the son of a notorious gangster in 1993. Ms English has dismissed rumours that she used to socialise with some of London's most notorious crime families as "laughable".
But whatever the truth about her past, those days are now firmly behind her. Despite her troubled beginnings, Ms English subsequently reinvented herself as a businesswoman who was not averse to working 80-hour weeks.
She studied a one-year business course before adding City firms such as Merrill Lynch, Nomura and Daiwa Securities to her CV. She has spent the past year quietly working for IT firm Viglen, one of the companies in Lord Sugar's business empire, as a project manager in schools and hospitals. She lives in St Albans with Mr Dewar and her sons, Frank and Edward.
"As well as setting an example to my own children, I would like people generally to realise that you are in charge of your own destiny," she said in an interview earlier this week. "I want my children to see that and do things for themselves as well. I'm not going to hand that to them on a plate."
Lord Sugar praised her drive: "At an early age you never had all these qualifications, then went out of the way to train yourself and get yourself the job that you've got – and that shows me a lot of determination," he said. At the very least, that drive has resulted in Ms English trading urban decay for a seal of approval from one of the business world's highest-profile spokesmen.
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