MilliOnAir July edition By Beauty Editor Steven Smith

Decades ago, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead and Frida Kahlo blazed a trail with gender neutrality, taking what’s perceived as a masculine style, redefining it and making it their own, despite the outrage that often greeted them.

Today diversity is the buzzword everyone is talking about, reshaping not only the world of fashion but, increasingly, the workplace.

Great gains against bigotry and prejudice have been made in recent years but there have been signs recently of a backlash, which is being felt around the world by the LGBTQ community, minorities and those with disabilities.

Two of the leaders of the drive for diversity in the UK are Linda Riley, who runs the European Diversity awards and educates in schools across the UK, and her friend Denise Welch, the actress, presenter and author. Denise is an ambassador for MIND and was named “Ally of the Year” by Diva, Britain’s most popular magazine for lesbian and bi-sexual woman and their friends.

The two struck up what might be seen as an unlikely friendship two years ago and, to celebrate MilliOnAir’s Diversity issue, they got together for a photo shoot in which they return to the Berlin of the 1920s – and the woman who was the first to ‘strike a pose’.

Here they talk to Steven Smith about their friendship and how they see their roles in promoting and protecting diversity today.

Linda’s story

It is two o’clock on a sunny Tuesday and Linda has just arrived at the location for our shoot, an art-themed apartment off the Tottenham Court road. Dressed in a white shirt, black suit and masculine black shoes, Linda has a reputation as a formidable woman who not only knows what she wants, but gets what she wants.

Having met Linda several times, the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” springs to mind. She may be sporting a traditionally masculine look, but she has a sensitive, almost girlish aura about her.

She tells me that people see what they want to see and many presume that if you appear as a stereotyped butch lesbian then you must be as hard as nails. She’s working class too, which she says makes some people assume that she’s not very bright when in fact she’s highly intelligent.

Exploding the assumptions that people so often make is one of the reasons she wanted to do the photo shoot: she is keen for people to look beneath the covers.

No, she doesn’t wear make-up, but that’s her own choice – “I just can’t be bothered,” she says. But there’s no reason why she shouldn’t wear it if she wanted to. You can be as butch as you like and still wear make-up; it’s your own choice. Linda wants people to see the person not a label.

Linda is happy to have her make-up done on this occasion and sits down quietly as she lets our make-up artist paint her magic.

One of the many things she loved about Denise Welch was that on one of their first meetings they were asked to do a picture together and Denise asked whether she had any lipstick on her.

“I could have just snapped, ‘No, judge your audience Denise!” Linda says, with a laugh. “But actually, it was great that she asked, because it meant she had not judged me and not put me in a pigeonhole based on how I looked. It was one of the things that made us gel.”

Linda stands out as someone who made a huge difference to attitudes about diversity and the LGBTQ community, where she is spreading her message across the Atlantic and to Australia, where she is in partnership with the publisher Silke Bade.

In the UK, she publishes Diva magazine and is executive producer of the hit online show, Different for Girls. She is also a patron of Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity that helps homeless LGBTQ youth in the UK. Linda created the Diversity in Media Awards and is founder and director of the European Diversity Award.

In her personal life, Linda has twin girls, Sophie and Phoenix, with her former partner of eight years, Sarah Garrett. Sophie made her acting debut this year in Different for Girls.

“For me diversity is about equality in life and the workplace. We should not see others as different but instead recognise their individual talents,” Linda says. “I am not suggesting that we should have quotas, but we must not discriminate.”

Linda left home at 15 after she came out as gay to her mother and was given the stark choice of undergoing electric shock therapy to “cure” her or get out of the house. She chose the latter and built an empire against all odds.

“There are so many inspirations that I draw from,” she tells me. “Nelson Mandela had a huge impact on society. Then there are people like the beautiful actress Sophie Ward, who gave enormous hope to many gay women when she came out publicly. It wasn’t long ago that being gay would have meant the kiss of death to a career in the film and television world; Sophie helped so many.”

Linda credits Martina Navratilova as a front-runner in the drive for acceptance of diversity. One of the greatest tennis players of all time, she was, however, the only female player not to receive sponsorship. “Today Ellen Degeneres and Cara Delevingne have plenty of sponsorships, so things are moving, but let’s not forget women like Martina who led the way.”

Linda met Denise two years ago. Denise had been nominated as Ally of the Year at the Diva Awards and Linda wanted to see if she was the real deal. Linda has a reputation for taking instant likes or dislikes to people, but it’s not like that, she explains. “No, it’s just that I’ve been about a bit and I know those who are just cashing in, or who have nothing more to them than their celebrity.”

“For me diversity is about equality in life and the workplace. We should not see others as different but instead recognise their individual talents,”

But they clicked immediately and since that first meeting have struck up a great friendship.

“You just feel relaxed with her. She is funny, real and not show-bizzy, although she is professional. She is interested in you and among gay women she has become a hero. The gay men love her too, but they have Kylie, Madonna and the likes, whom we love too. There is something about Denise – you feel you have been on her journey and that she gets you.”

Denise is up for Ally of the Year again, along with Jemma Redgrave of the Redgrave acting dynasty and Catherine Russell from the BBC’s Holby, whose character in the show is lesbian, as well as Sinitta, whose hit song So Macho has become a gay anthem.

“Sinitta is a huge hit among gay men, maybe because she iconic and camp and because of the song. But she does an incredible amount to aid diversity and in general among the LGBTQ community, not just for the boys.”

“It is obvious that from an early age Denise just did not see labels. She has so many gay friends and is open and funny. She has raised her boys not to judge and her son Matthew, from the band 1975, talks about diversity and gay rights like a chip off the old block.

“It was not so long ago that eyebrows would lift if a gay woman had a platonic relationship with a heterosexual woman. In my own experience women have often presumed instantly that I am coming on when we are just chatting.” This is one of the things Linda is trying to stomp out when she goes into schools to talk to the kids about diversity.

“For many kids the idea of kissing someone of the same sex is something they are uncomfortable with and I’m greeted with nervous coughs and shuffling about. I asked at one all-girls school ‘if this were a mixed school, would you presume that every boy would fancy you?’ It is the same with gay women – not every gay woman will fancy you either. It is quite amazing how you can make kids see things in a different light just by talking about it.”

Linda lets her two daughters make their own choices in clothes and one tends to go for the prettier side of fashion while the other opts for a more traditionally masculine look.

“Recently they were both attending a wedding and I actually encouraged the tomboy daughter to wear a dress like her sister. She came right back at me: ‘I will wear a dress mum when you do.’ Fair point! I thought back to the day I was forced into a dress and cringed.

“That’s not to say I won’t put my foot down. I am quite a traditional parent and for a time Nicki Minaj [the American-Trinidadian rapper] was banned from the house as it was far too provocative. I want them to make sensible choices and, as mum, it’s my job to guide them there.”

The shoot is nearly over, and Denise is trying to force more lipstick on Linda for a laugh. Linda has loved dressing up and says she may wear the black tie to an event again – but not the make-up.

A few days later some of the pictures are leaked online to applause from many of Linda’s friends and followers. “You look even more gorgeous with make-up,” many posted, although others were not so enthused, saying that a butch, strong woman does not need make-up.

Linda laughs. “Who’s to say? It’s what we need at the moment. It did take me aback when I arrived at the school gates to pick up the kids and the other mums were telling me how it suited me and how good I looked. It made me wonder just what I look like normally! But what I would tell the 15-year-old me is ‘just be you, and be proud, it will be alright, the future is bright, and you do need make-up to get there.’

Denise’s story

It is twelve thirty and Denise has arrived early at the shoot straight from an appearance on Channel 5’s Matthew Wright show. She’s thirsty and hungry and in need of sparkling water and snack.

The actress looks stunning but is not feeling good about herself today. However, she takes a deep breath and bustles around making the crew and her friends feel special. She’s enthusiastic about the project and can’t wait for Linda to arrive and get made up.

Denise tries on some of the clothes and makes up for the lack of a full-length mirror in the apartment by standing on the toilet seat so she can see herself in the bathroom mirror.

She can’t believe there’s not a proper mirror – “I am not being a pain, it’s just I want to get into a character and can’t if I can’t see myself,” she laughs.

Since the birth of her son Matthew, Denise has been battling anxiety and mental health issues and takes each day as it comes. She can’t predict how she will feel but has learnt to cope.

She is an advocate for mental health and a spokesperson for MIND, one of the many charities she supports. Denise hosts an annual ball in Manchester for The Gem Appeal, a research facility set up by her friend Karen Sutherland, which is developing lifesaving treatments for genetic diseases.

Denise’s work with the LBGTQ community has won her awards and her short film, Black Eyed Susan, which portrays a woman struggling with depression, has been widely acclaimed.

Soon she’s in make-up and the crew are in fits of laughter as she regales them with funny stories.

Denise received her Diva Ally of the Year award last year at a glittering ceremony at London’s Cafe De Paris and she confesses her biggest shock was when one of her heroines, Jennifer Saunders, handed over the trophy with the words: “This is a woman I would want on my team!”

Saunders presented the awards along with fellow Ab Fab veteran Harriet Thorpe. Says Denise: “The fact they had even heard of me left me speechless. It was all so surreal and friendly, and I could have bathed in the crowd, there was so much love. I was totally in awe of all these remarkable women.”

She admits it would be a dream to appear in Ab Fab – “some of my friends already call me June Whitfield so maybe I could be her long-lost daughter!”

Asked how it feels to have been so taken to heart by the lesbian community, Denise tells me that she regards it as a real honour.

“Honestly, I am grateful anyone has taken to me, but it maybe we have empathy for each other. I was lucky and raised not label or judge people. My dad’s a drag queen called Raquel and my mum, bless her soul, had many diverse friends. Being gay was nothing unusual and I have always just had friends. Their sexuality is not the important thing to me. They are my pals.

“It would be great if we could raise all kids like that. My son Matthew, who’s in the band 1975, jokes with me “when are you coming out mum?’ as yet again I am featured in a gay magazine. Matt is all about diversity and would defend to the end people’s rights to be themselves, as would my youngest, Louie, who’s 16. It makes me very proud.

Among the many causes she supports, Denise is a huge advocate for the transgender community and starred in Boy Meets Girl, the first BBC comedy series to feature transgender issues prominently.

“It is totally bizarre to me – any kind of homophobia, racism or discrimination – what are people frightened of? Many of my leading men have been gay, as are my friends. It’s just normal for me.”

For Denise, the word diversity means inclusion and equality. But she worries that for some it may just be a trendy word that they use as a box tick. She is hugely against that – and against certain groups claiming the word diversity as their own. She says tv and the media generally should do more to promote diversity – “It’s insulting to any minority group to be included just because they are a box tick. It should be whoever is best for the job.”

“It is totally bizarre to me – any kind of homophobia, racism or discrimination – what are people frightened of? Many of my leading men have been gay, as are my friends. It’s just normal for me.”

Denise loves the fact that she’s become an “honorary lesbian” since she and Linda became friends. “I didn’t have many female gay friends – no idea why not – but since meeting Linda I’ve come to know so many. I adore them, they make me feel so comfortable and happy. ”

She met Linda at the LGBTQ awards through a friend of hers, Dan Hughes. “When Dan said Linda Riley, who created the LGBTQ awards, wants to meet you, I was a little nervous as she is a powerful figure and has a formidable reputation.

“When I walked in she was sitting with Bobby Norris from TOWIE and we just instantly clicked and got on like a house on fire. Then I started to learn about all the wonderful work she has done. She’s a trail blazer is Linda, and she puts her money where her mouth is, and champions causes all over the world. I think I bring out the girly, fun side of her and in turn she has made me more of a warrior.”

Denise is about to appear in the second series of Different for Girls and Linda is the executive producer of the show. The lesbian drama sees Denise come out in her fifties, much to the amusement of her screen sister, played by long-term friend Charlie Hardwick.

Denise is a huge fan of the first series, which is based on the book by Jackie Lawrence. She loved the show, as it showed women in a different light without the stereotypes. So often lesbian women, like a lot of transgender people, are portrayed either as prostitutes or victims.

“Jackie wanted to write something where it says, ‘no lesbians were killed during the writing of this book.’ My character is called Maeve and she comes out when she realises she fancies Theresa May.

“Jackie is talking about writing a spin off for Charlie and me in the genre of Grace and Frankie but set in Newcastle. She has also created a forum called Lesbian Box Office, which is not just for lesbians but for everyone in the community and their allies. There is talk of me fronting a lesbian dating series and I would love that.”

Denise also has her first lesbian screen kiss in the show. “It was quite daunting – it always is when you have to kiss someone you’re not romantically involved with. My love interest is Sophie Ottley, who is the director’s girlfriend. It was funny after doing it and I did think this is a little too familiar!”

After a great shoot, she kisses good-bye to Linda – but not before trying to add even more lipstick to her and take a selfie. You have the feeling that this is friendship for life.


Photography Graham Martin Corporate Event Photographer London

Styling Chris Groom 

Hair and makeup by Sherrie Warwick www.sherriewarwick.com

Wigs by Derek Easton Derek Easton Wigs

Clothes Thomas Farthing Thomas Farthing London

Oxfam GB leading UK charity fighting global poverty

Moss Bross UK’s Suit and Formal Menswear Specialist

About Melanie (185 Articles)
Entrepreneur and digital creator.

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