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Radio star Gemma Cairney shines at Monmouth Literary FestivalJune 28th, 2017
Radio personality Gemma Cairney inspired a theatre full of teenagers with her beautifully open and honest talk about growing up, dealing with tough times, and reaching for the stars.
Concluding Monmouth Literary Festival’s Motivation Day, the former BBC Radio 1 host answered pupils’ questions about her new book, Open, at The Savoy Theatre on Tuesday.
Organised by students from Monmouth School, Haberdashers’ Monmouth School for Girls and Monmouth Comprehensive, the event is now in its fourth year.
Gemma, who was fresh from Glastonbury, said: “The literary festival rocks. It’s been lovely to hear pupils’ questions about the book and have an intergenerational dialogue.
“It’s brilliant that the schools have come together to organise this. Regardless of what education system – whether you’re in a fee-paying school or not – we can all learn from each other and it’s nice to smash down the barriers through being inspired by words and literature.”
Open: A Toolkit for How Magic and Messed Up Life Can Be came out in March. It took Gemma a year to write, but she believes it’s been a lifetime in the making.
The colourfully-illustrated hardback is crammed with advice about topics from mental health to families, first love and everything in between.
Gemma told the audience, made up of Year 10 and 12 pupils from the town’s three senior schools, not to worry about fitting in to a particular box.
“I’m not easy to put into a box,” she said.
“I’m a mixed race woman, I wear crazy outfits regularly, I like weird things, so sometimes it’s difficult because people don’t know where to place me.
“I’ve been told I’m not girly enough, not black enough, not white enough – but enough for what? I don’t understand. My advice to you is to shake the box up a bit.
“It’s okay to be an individual, we’re all smoothies made up of different things and that’s very exciting. Whatever you want to do, reach for it and don’t ever think that you’re not worthy.”
Having bought a double-decker bus to promote Open’s positive message around the country, Gemma never shies away from trying something new.
She has been an agony aunt on BBC Radio 1’s The Surgery, made tonnes of documentaries and now has her own company, Boomshakalaka Productions.
There’s no doubt she’s learned an awful lot about life on her journey.
“I was in a violent relationship from the age 12 to 17 because I was young and experiencing love for the first time; I wasn’t told this was a problem. But all these years in, I’m now way more streetwise when it comes to toxic relationships and I’d never put myself in that position again. All the tough times you go through in your life, they make you stronger.”
After reading an extract from Open, a tear-jerking letter to her 14-year-old self, Gemma gave the pupils some invaluable advice for the future.
“To give yourself knowledge is the most powerful thing you can do,” she said.
“I got an E in maths GCSE, but I’ve had an eight-year-long career at the BBC. It’s life you should focus on more than grades. You guys are at a very exciting point. There are jobs available to you that have never been available to anyone before. It’s not just based on a test.
“Be keen and hardworking without being desperate, push yourself and realise that you’re worth it – inexperience can really mess with our self-esteem. Be gracious in learning on the job. If it’s right for you, you will get there. Don’t be too tunnel-vision, take chances – you will be so surprised how it correlates down the line.
“You are capable of doing anything and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I know I can never be perfect and as soon as you realise that, it’s so liberating.”