Singer and businesswoman Kate Hardcastle knows all about ‘glamming-up’ for her performances with the Charity Dreamgirls, but her public persona hides the fact that as a geeky teenager she was bullied for how she looked. She’s now fronting a new national campaign to challenge the way today’s celebrity-driven, appearance-focussed culture is affecting young people. HILARIE STELFOX reports
It is estimated by the Government-backed Media Smart organisation that the average person is now exposed to as many as 1,500 advertising images a day.
Such images, says businesswoman Kate Hardcastle, give the false impression that artificial blemish-free, unlined, slender perfection is not just attainable, but also highly desirable.
And it is damaging young lives.
“The statistics are frightening,” says Kate, who co-founded a business transformation service in 2009 and is an original member of the Charity Dreamgirls show group.
“A least one quarter of all teenagers are suffering depressive symptoms because of the way they look and 73% of adults say they still have problems with their image.”
In fact, research by Girl Guiding UK has found that 75% of girls aged from 11 to 21 restrict their diet in order to look more attractive.
An obsession with image can have tragic consequences – eating disorders, addiction, even suicide.
Kate, 35, is all too painfully aware of how difficult it can be for a young person who stands out because of the way they look.
“I was bullied at school,” she says. “And it ruined my school life.” She is a past pupil of Brooksbank High School in Elland.
“I had glasses and teeth that stuck out,’’ she said. “From the very first day when, unlike everyone else, I turned up in the regulation uniform I was singled out for physical and psychological bullying. I was the butt of every joke.”
It would be trite and also inaccurate to say that in the end Kate had the last laugh by turning her life completely around, founding a successful business, becoming a glamorous singer and having the confidence to stand up in front of crowds to give inspirational lectures because she maintains that the scars left by bullying remain with her today.
“I have no good memories of school at all and it still upsets me,” she said. “My parents said I should rise above it and that the bullies were jealous of me but I thought that was quite ridiculous. How could they be jealous of me with my glasses, my prominent teeth with braces on and messy hair?
“In the end the only way I could cope with it was to join every single school club – from photography and public speaking to singing and chess – to keep me out of the way of the bullies and in the company of a teacher as much as possible.”
However, the one positive among all the negatives of school was her discovery that she could sing.
It was, she says, “my saviour and a turning point.”
She added: “As a singer I had to be presentable and that’s when I started to become more confident.”
She sees parallels with her experience and the American high school musical series Glee which features a group of misfits and their struggles to be accepted for themselves. Understanding that performing can boost self-esteem, the Charity Dreamgirls founded a youth section called the Dream Stars.
After leaving school Kate, who lives in Holywell Green, even considered becoming a professional singer – she met her husband at a band audition – but gave up the idea to get a ‘proper job’ in marketing. By the age of 19 she owned her own home and had developed a confidence beyond her years. She had also learned how to make the best of her physical appearance.
“There’s nothing wrong with wearing a bit of make-up and looking nice,” she says.
“The experience of bullying forced me to grow up quickly. I had an opportunity to go to university but thought that I might face more of the same there. I was driven to make a success of my life and wanted to work.”
Today, as a co-founder of business transformation company Insight With Passion, Kate is invited into schools as an inspirational speaker. She has even been back to her old high school.
“Things have changed a lot,” she said. “Schools deal much better with bullying but there’s another threat to children now in the shape of social networking.
“I could leave the bullying behind when I went home, but now there’s no escape.”
Its because of these increasing pressures on teenagers that Kate has decided to launch a new initiative called Positive Image Month. It will begin this November with a series of national and local events.
As the mother of a three-year-old daughter, Nya, she is particularly concerned about the effect of peer pressure and media on girls.
“Already I can see that she is being influenced,” said Kate. “Everywhere you go there are images of airbrushed women and celebrities.”
That’s why the initiative will provide a free downloadable book with personal stories offering help for parents and children.
She wants to push the message that positive role models come in all shapes and sizes.
“No-one should be admired just for how they look,” she said. “I’m proud of what I’ve achieved because of who I am. I haven’t tried to get somewhere because of the way I look.”
The leg work for the campaign is being done by Kate and her team at Insight. The company has a policy of corporate social responsibility and its 10 employees give 20% of their time to community and charity work.
They have used this time to find well-known spokesmen and women to support the campaign. Actress Sue Pollard and television agony aunt Jenni Trent Hughes are among those to come on board.
Kate believes that today’s teenagers have been equipped with the digital tools to make it possible to wreak havoc with each other’s lives.
“They simply don’t have the maturity to deal with social networking,” she explained. “They have the power but they can’t handle it. They are still growing and developing, their hormones are all over the place and they don’t understand how life works.”
The whole business of how image affects us is, she admits, an enormously difficult and complex issue to tackle.
But Kate has never been afraid of a challenge.
Parents and teachers can currently access help with lessons on positive body image from www.mediasmart.org.uk, a non profit-making organisation that shows how digital trickery is used to enhance media images of models and celebrities.
Kate’s website will be launched later in the year.