A couple of days after I was born, my mother advertised me in a magazine called Nursery World. I've seen the original ad but no longer have access to it. It said something like 'Nigerian baby girl needs new home.' Back then - in the 1970s - literally thousands of west African babies and children were advertised in this way. Not only in Nursery World but also in the Evening Standard and in local newspapers in the Home Counties too. Naturally, these advertisements were like gold dust to paedophiles and other shady types- they could flick through the pages of ads and select children to abuse who met their requirements.
I know very little about the first person who responded to my mother's ad. All I know is that this person sent away for me after seeing the Nursery World ad and my mother duly delivered me to them - somewhere in Somerset. I was about nine days old when I arrived. For reasons as yet unclear, my mother supposedly didn't visit me again for four to six weeks. When she did finally visit me, she was, she's said, appalled by the state I was in. I don't know what is meant by that - it's not clear whether I'd been neglected, abused or was simply unhappy because I was pining for my mum. Anyhow, my mother removed me immediately and took me back to live with her. I would have been about 7 weeks old at this point. But by the time I was 9 weeks old, I was advertised in Nursery World again! This time a white woman in her late 50s, based in West Sussex, replied to the ad and I was sent to live with her when I was 10 weeks old. I called her Nanny. She'd previously fostered two other west African babies who she'd seen advertised in Nursery World - but their birth parents had finally taken them back.
After more than a year with Nanny, who dressed me up like a little princess and seemed delighted to look after me, my real mother took me back, seemingly for good. Nanny was devastated and found a new African baby girl in Nursery World's classified pages and sent away for her. Several weeks later, with her new foster-daughter installed in her home, Nanny was flicking through Nursery World just out of curiosity when she came across an advert that looked very familiar. My reunion with my mother clearly hadn't worked out - she had advertised me in Nursery World for a third time. Nanny sent away for me again and I returned....
More than 30 years later a journalist from Nursery World contacted me to interview me about my history with the magazine. And here's the piece:
I was just thinking about how the things and situations and people we quickly write off as being dysfunctional can actually be nurturing in their very own way.
One of the recent reviews of my memoir said something like "Against all the odds she went on to become a writer". But I think it is because of "all the odds" that I achieved my ambition of becoming a writer.
I was raised by an elderly, very, very eccentric white woman who called me 'coloured' and seems to have wanted to foster me mainly because I reminded her of Topsy in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. The situation looked - and was - odd (huge understatement). But this same woman also spent her state pension buying me endless books and writing paper and pens and paints even when it meant she couldn't afford to pay the electric bill. (Which meant that her own grown-up children often had to help her out with the household bills). She introduced me to the works of Chaucer and Dickens when I was little more than five years old.
As a young kid I was forever making excuses as to why I couldn't go into school that day (my attendance levels were almost laughable some years). I just wanted to stay home and write short stories and poems and read books. A functional parent would have made their child attend school regularly. Instead my foster mother indulged my ridiculous excuses for not going into school that day and often let me sit at home writing, daydreaming, reading my poems out loud to her. She acted as though every verse I wrote was on a par with Shakespeare.
Bunking off from school again?
My foster mother would tell everyone who'd listen that I was going to be a published writer one day, stating this as if it were a fact. I'm sure many of our neighbours on our council estate laughed behind her back and thought that both my foster mother and I were utterly out of touch with reality. Truth be told, I think she prided herself on being out of touch with reality.
When I was about ten I was still writing my mini-novels in exercise-books in felt-tip pen but I felt a bit frustrated that my foster mother was the only person who read my words. "How much longer till I'll be a published author?" I asked her. "Well you'll need a typewriter first," she said. She got me a typewriter for my twelfth or thirteenth birthday. I spent hours and hours typing up my latest work-in-progress and sent it into a major publishing house who were sweet enough to send me an encouraging, hand-written rejection note. Twenty or so years later, when my agent submitted my memoir-in-progress, that very same publishing house made an offer to buy my memoir Precious, A True Story (although in the end I signed with Bloomsbury)!
My foster mum died in 2009, in her mid-90s. Just a few days before she passed I'd told her I was about to have my first book published. She said: "I'm not at all surprised, darling. It will be the first of many."
hip-hop's Professor Higgins, teaches rap stars the rules of etiquette by Precious Williams
article first published in The Times
“Sometimes I’ve had to approach rappers during interviews, ask them to
step outside, discreetly hand them a bar of soap and a flannel and tell
them to go wash their body,” says Angelo Ellerbee, founder and CEO of
Double Xxposure, the world’s only finishing school for rappers.
in New York as hip-hop’s answer to Henry Higgins, Ellerbee charges
about £140 an hour. He teaches clients how to pose for the camera, order
in restaurants, get into shape, eat healthily and express themselves
without “cussin’ ”. “It’s an institute of knowledge,” he says.
, a 47-year-old gay former ballet dancer, may seem an unlikely mentor
for socially challenged urban-music stars, but his clients — who include
Mary J. Blige, Sisqo and the rappers DMX and Ja Rule — beg to differ.
His clients, he points out, are “from some of the rawest environments,
where they don’t know the basics of social skills and etiquette.”
manners, he says, are a worldwide epidemic, particularly in the urban-
music industry, which is why he plans to open an office in London next
year. “You people have slightly better manners, but it’s changing.
Rappers wherever they are in the world seem to pride themselves on being
“Things have changed for the worse. During the Motown
era, recording careers were well planned and images created and enhanced
by professionals who helped the artist develop every aspect of
themselves. Diana Ross and the Supremes came from poor backgrounds but
they were fabulous and elegant. Those days are long gone.”
in his office opposite the Empire State Building, Ellerbee is
resplendent in a Gaultier pinstriped suit jacket. His office is
decorated with signed photographs of clients. A typical challenge was
the rapper DMX: “ He turned up days late for a shoot with GQ. They had
hired a tiger for the shoot and the tiger was getting tired of waiting
for DMX, and everybody else was getting tired of waiting too. DMX would
agree to do interviews and then only do five out of 25 of them.
Eventually we had to resort to doing e-mail interviews, and then it
would be me actually doing the interview.”
himself on being resourceful — his mantra is “by any means necessary”.
He will do what it takes to whip wayward rappers into shape. Sometimes
that includes teaching them how to read and write. “A quarter of my
clients can’t read,” he says. “Nobody even knows because they can get
away with not writing their lyrics down and simply reciting them
straight into a tape recorder. But I have a subliminal reading test. I
invite them to my house, put on the video of the movie Native Son, and
get out the popcorn.
“Afterwards I hand them a copy of the novel
by James Baldwin that inspired the book. I give them two weeks to read
it and then ask them how they thought the book compared with the movie.
The book is entirely, 100 per cent different, from the film. If they say
it was the same, or if they have no comment at all, I conclude that
they can’t read but are too proud to admit it. And if they can’t read a
book, how are they going to read and understand a recording contract?
“If you can’t read, there’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for
Ellerbee first noticed the plight of talented but
illiterate and socially challenged artists when he worked briefly in PR
at Chrysalis Records in the 1980s: “They were raw. They made fools of
themselves often and had no idea. There was nobody to teach them the
basic social graces that we should be taught by our parents.”
Ellerbee grew up in the projects of New Jersey, his mother taught him
manners. Now he’s going back to the projects on a reality TV show called
Charmed to share what he’s learnt, like a modern-day My Fair Lady.
Today, the etiquette guru is providing a crash course in manners to
Field Mob, a burgeoning rap duo from Georgia. The rappers — who want
Ellerbee to teach them how to behave in restaurants and impress
music-industry executives — are late. Two hours late. “But that’s still
early for rappers,” says Ellerbee. “They’d have to be five hours late
before it’s considered late. Some of them turn up days late.” He
chuckles to himself then shakes his sleek head.
Mob arrive, two and a half hours late, their waistbands drooping almost
to their ankles. Ellerbee swoops out of his office to meet them and gets
straight down to basics. “Y’all reading contracts these days?” he asks.
“Do you have a lawyer?” The rappers mumble an incoherent response.
assistants have set up a makeshift restaurant table in a corner office,
with crystal wine glasses, candles and a damask tablecloth. The rappers
are seated and wine is poured. “S***! He gave us real wine,” exclaims
one, taking a gulp.
“What’s the first thing you should do when
you sit down at a table?” Ellerbee asks. “Eat!” they say in unison. “The
napkin,” says Ellerbee, grimacing. “Do either of you know what to do
with it?” There are confused stares. “You put it in your lap,” Ellerbee
says. “Not like a shawl around your shoulders. Don’t use it to wipe your
nose with. Making it in this industry is not just about getting cars
and jewellery and women.”
At the mention of the word “women” the
rappers’ eyes light up. “Some of these rappers get carried away by their
fame and start imagining that they are Tom Selleck or something, that
they are sex machines,” Ellerbee whispers.
“They will demand a
female journalist for interviews and then spend the whole time winking
at her and imagining she is there to have sex with them. They lose the
point of who they are and why the journalist is there and then get upset
when the article comes out stupid.”
Speaking of interviews, the
Ellerbee alumnus Mary J. Blige challenged an interviewer to a fistfight
early in her career. Was this before or after she’d graduated from the
charm guru’s boot camp?
“Mary,” says Ellerbee fondly. “She needed
work. That happened before I worked with her. Like a lot of people, she
needed to learn to express herself without resorting to anger. It was a
long journey. Working with these artists is like brewing real coffee:
it takes time for it to be ready. The good stuff is not instant. But
Mary has finally brewed into a lady. And she’s reading books now, too.”
on the knuckles: Angelo’s tips for new stars
Stay as humble as blueberry pie out of your mama’s kitchen. Be a
pleasure to be around.
2. Defer to God no matter
3. Have commitment. Put in the work to
promote yourself in the best light possible. Invest in yourself.
Remember that it’s your career, not your record label’s career.
Remember that reading is fundamental and educate yourself. A
class in accounting is a good idea too.
travelling don’t bring nine people along for the ride — remember that
ultimately you’re paying their expenses, not the record company. Leave
the entourage at home.
6. Understand timing and
7. Don’t arrive at a photo shoot or
8. When meeting people for the
first time remember that first impressions create a lasting impression.
Wash — you may think you know how to wash yourself, but do you? Pay
attention to hygiene.
10. No cussing. Learn to
be articulate. Try to talk about your life experiences without using the
word “motherf****” in every (or in any) sentence.