By Alexis Parr
Made in Chelsea: Lucy Haythornthwaite-Shock, left, Fi Wishard and Fiona Culley were sent to a Newcastle estate for a new TV series
It was the ultimate culture clash – Chelsea’s affluent King’s Road meets Newcastle’s notorious Bigg Market.
When four well-off young ladies left the Home Counties and spent ten days living on a deprived Tyneside estate, they and the locals they encountered were exposed to lifestyles neither had seen before.
In a unique social experiment, Lucy, Fiona, Steph and Fi, all educated at some of the country’s top public schools, were paired up with four Geordie girls of the same age.
Shauna, Makylea, Lyndsey and Kimberley all had difficult upbringings in families largely dependent on benefits.
Through them, the privileged southerners learned about life in an area of Newcastle where unemployment runs at 18 per cent and a quarter of children live below the poverty line.
The southern girls were given just £59 each to live on for ten days – the equivalent to what they would receive in Jobseeker’s Allowance – and had to learn to manage their tight budget.
They were confronted with social problems including drug addiction, poverty and theft, as well as being taken on typical Geordie nights out in pubs in the Bigg Market area of the city.
The fascinating experiment, for a new BBC programme called Geordie Finishing School For Girls, was intended to reveal the girls’ social prejudices and challenge them.
Here, the southern girls and one of their Geordie counterparts – the other three did not want to speak publicly – reveal which preconceptions were proved false – and which turned out to be accurate . . .
I was shocked by how smashed everybody gets
Lucy Haythornthwaite-Shock, 24, is the daughter of a millionaire financier and attended the £28,000-a-year Badminton School in Bristol. She works as an events promoter in exclusive London nightclubs. She says:
My parents have always been very generous with me. My dad bought me a flat in London and he’s made provisions so that I don’t have to work. I love my London life, going out every night to exclusive clubs, but I know I live in a bubble.
Found inspiration: Ex public schoolgirl Stepha wants to work in politics
Before I went to Newcastle, I didn’t even really know where it was, although I’d been to Manchester for a Britney Spears concert.
We stayed on an estate in Walker, one of the city’s most deprived wards, and it was covered in graffiti with buildings which had been vandalised. But the worst part of arriving there was being told we had to survive for ten days on £59.
I spend that on breakfast at the Bluebird Cafe on the King’s Road in Chelsea. I didn’t think it was possible to get by on so little.
When we met the Geordie girls, they were very friendly, but I thought they seemed much older than us – I suppose because they’ve experienced a lot more and have more to worry about.
Two of them had children. They were wise about things I’ve never had to consider, like how to make a small budget stretch as far as possible.
With their help we managed on the money, but it was incredibly tough not to even be able to buy a coffee without thinking whether we could really afford it.
Lyndsey, the girl I was paired with, had been in trouble with the police as a
teenager but had turned her life around and become a youth worker. I had a lot of admiration for her.
She worked long hours, but her sister got more money than her from the dole, which doesn’t seem right. She explained that when you’re managing a small budget, if your washing machine breaks down or something else goes wrong, you can end up in debt. It showed me how much of a struggle life can be for people.
Alcohol plays a big part in a lot of people’s lives in Newcastle. One night, we couldn’t get to sleep because a load of youngsters were dancing on a car outside our house.
It was explained to us that it was the day they got their dole money, so they were celebrating by spending it on alcohol.
In Chelsea, a Jägerbomb, a cocktail made by putting a shot of Jägermeister liqueur into a glass of Red Bull, would cost about £12, but in Newcastle it was £1.
I was shocked by how smashed everybody gets there, and spending dole money on booze doesn’t seem sensible.
I’ve learned not to be so judgmental, though, because their lives are tough. Before this, I didn’t really give anybody outside my immediate world much thought, which I see now was ignorant.
People talked about their poverty but had BlackBerrys
Steph Hislop, 21, is the daughter of an Army colonel and attended the £28,000-a-year Sherborne Girls’ School in Dorset. She has just completed a degree in Politics and International Relations at Cardiff University and plans to join the civil service. She says:
Before I went to Newcastle I’d never been on a bus, let alone visited a council estate. I took part because I want to work in politics and I thought seeing the way people live in deprived parts of the country would give me a better grasp of society’s problems.
I’d always believed that people who don’t work and live on benefits were taking the easy way out, and that they should take more responsibility for themselves.
Some of what I saw in the city confirmed my preconceptions. I noticed that people I met on the council estates would talk about their poverty, but they often had BlackBerrys and their houses were kitted out with expensive modern appliances. They all lived on take-aways and junk food, which must cost them a fortune.
But I also revised some of my black-and-white views. One night, I explained to the Geordie girls that my parents had made sacrifices to send me to an excellent school.
Lyndsey answered that her mother had made sacrifices too. When she was little, her mum sometimes had to feed Lyndsey and her sister instead of herself because there wasn’t enough food. It was a moment which put things in perspective.
I was paired with Kimberley, whose husband is serving in Afghanistan and who has a toddler, Jayden. She lives with three generations of her family in a house which is too small for so many people, but they all support one another. When Kimberley is working, Jayden is with his grandmother or aunt, which seems very healthy.
That community spirit is something I saw often in the city, particularly when we went to see Newcastle United play at St James’ Park. Everyone in the pub afterwards knew one another and it felt warm and friendly. In many other parts of Britain, that sense of community has been lost and people can be isolated.
I found meeting Makylea inspirational. She was desperate to find a job and made me realise there are people on benefits who want to work. Meeting another girl called Natalie, a heroin addict who had turned to prostitution, also changed my views.
Desperate to work: Geordie Makylea, with her twins, was keen to find a job and not claim benefits
Her story was so sad. I’d always thought people who take drugs bring all their problems on themselves, but now I realise it’s not that simple. They do need to help themselves, but they also need outside help.
The experience has made me a more compassionate person. I’ve realised that if these girls are hard, it’s born out of hardship.
I was warned my £20,000 ring would be stolen – and my finger with it
Fiona Culley, 25, is a trainee beauty therapist who lives in Chelsea with her banker fiance. Her father is a businessman and her mother runs accountancy firm Culley Lifford Hall. She attended £23,000-a-year Abbots Bromley School for Girls in Staffordshire. She says:
The first moment I really felt out of my comfort zone came just after arriving in Walker. I was asked to remove my £20,000 engagement ring by our mentor, who explained that if I didn’t it was likely someone in the neighbourhood would steal it, taking my finger with it.
I agreed to go to Newcastle because I wanted to see another side of life.
I’ve always had strong views about people who live on benefits, thinking they need to get off their backsides and go out to work. I’m privileged, but I’ve been brought up to work hard and I’ve never had much sympathy with people who aren’t willing to do the same.
I wanted to know if my assumptions were fair. The Geordie girls were all very welcoming but I soon realised we had very little in common with them. Things which are important to me, living in London, just aren’t to them.
I run miles every day and eat healthily in order to stay slim, but they have atrocious diets and some live off cigarettes and energy drinks. When I tried to teach them how to make healthy food, like a stir-fry, they weren’t interested.
On the other hand, I find it hard to understand some of the things which matter to them. They have very
little money, but they send their children to school in designer trainers and spoil them with computer games. When I was little, my parents wouldn’t pander to me in that way, although they had a lot more.
One day on the estate, I saw a two-year-old girl fall off a trampoline into a pile of bricks and hurt herself. Her father didn’t even run over to see what was wrong.
I picked the little girl up because it upset me to see her crying, but the father just made some glib comment about how she was fine. The mentality seemed to be that Geordies are expected to be tough because life is tough.
Each of the four girls we were paired with was trying to make a success of their lives under difficult circumstances. I was impressed by Makylea and also by Shauna, who was doing A-levels and hoping to go on to higher education.
It annoyed me when Kimberley proudly announced she had a job, though. She worked for one day a week as a care worker, which isn’t really a proper job as far as I’m concerned.
Lyndsey was brilliant: she’s a youth worker and on call night and day to mentor teenagers. I think we need more people like her, who kids can identify with, to help them make the right choices.
It was the first time I’d met people who don’t have passports
Fi Wishart, 20, is the daughter of an international banker and was educated at the £24,000-a-year St Mary’s School in Shaftesbury, Dorset. She is studying drama at Goldsmith’s College, London.
She says: I’m known for my strong views about jobs – I don’t want one. My parents give me an allowance of up to £1,000 a month to keep me going while I’m studying.
I’m dyslexic but I don’t mind people thinking I’m dumb. I don’t want to look after myself and I love it when men buy drinks for me when I’m out at Mahiki or Boujis.
One of the most obvious differences between the Geordie girls and my friends and I is that they are much more feminist.
They are tough girls who’ve had to take care of themselves. They thought it was strange when I said we’d never pay for ourselves.
I think I’ve inherited my attitude from my mother, who used to be a model and worked as a PA to Richard Harris, the film star.
Difficult lives: Geordie girls pictured from left, Lyndsey Balfour, Shauna Henry, Kimberley Allen and Makylea Munroe
I’ve lived all over the world because of my father’s job, and it was the first time in my life I’d met people who don’t have passports.
It was shocking and upsetting to see how difficult it is for some of them to make ends meet, but I also envied them for their close-knit relationships with their friends and family.
I grew up thousands of miles away from my own family at boarding school. I don’t even know who my neighbours in London are.
I was shocked when some of the girls told me they’d been drinking since they were 13.
On nights out, they really go crazy, much more so than my friends and I. But I
really liked Shauna, the girl I was paired with, because she was so warm and friendly to me.
She was curious about my possessions, such as the diamond earrings Daddy bought me for my 21st, but she showed no sign of jealousy.
She so badly wants to go to university, but she is worried she will be out of her comfort zone socially and is concerned about the debt involved. She made me realise what I take for granted.
After I came home, one of my friends said she would never associate with such a chav, but she’s been to stay at my house and I’m planning to keep in touch. She’s taught me there are intelligent, kind people everywhere.
It’s not their money that I envy – it’s their loving families
Makylea Munroe, 25, is a mother of two and lives on the Riverside Park estate in Newcastle. She would love to be a singer but during filming she was unemployed and living on benefits. She is now working with the elderly as a social care worker. She says:
I often feel as though my life has been a constant struggle to get by. My mother never worked and until two years ago, I didn’t know who my father was.
At 17 I fell pregnant with twins, and now history has repeated itself because my relationship with their father is over and they no longer see him.
It’s my greatest wish to set a better example to my children, Laylah and Jayden, than I had when I was growing up.
I want them to see it’s important to work for what they want in life. When I was
unemployed, it was so demoralising.
I searched and searched for a job, but there weren’t any going around where I live. Now I work long, exhausting hours, but I’m happy because I’m not dependent on handouts.
When I met Fiona, Lucy, Fi and Steph, they seemed so lucky, it was hard not to wonder why my life’s been so hard by comparison.
It’s not just the money they have that makes me envy them, but their loving families. I haven’t spoken to my own mother for years and have no family support at all.
Meeting them made me proud, though, that what I’m achieving I’m doing by myself, without anyone’s help.
None of the girls seemed to know much about the realities of life, but they were all much friendlier and open to learning about our lives than we were expecting.
Newcastle: The southern girls were taken on nights out in the city and had to manage a tight budget
We thought that they’d be snooty and look down on us, but we were wrong. Lucy and Fi seemed very immature.
They appeared to be overwhelmed by everything they saw in Newcastle, and stayed silent for most of the time. Steph and Fiona were a lot more grounded, more open to joining in.
I think that by meeting us they realised there are a lot of talented, hard-working young people who are from a benefits background and who just need a bit of encouragement and help.
I learned not to allow my own prejudices to colour the way I see people. Steph, in particular, is a fantastic, generous girl who invited me to a university ball in Cardiff with her. I like to think I’ve made a real friend.
* Geordie Finishing School For Girls is on BBC3 on Tuesday at 9pm