Faye Nottage discovers why Britain’s very own ‘Orange County’* is more desirable than ever.
(* that’s fake tan, not the fruit)Slowly but surely I am beginning to see the great qualities that those from the county possess - the drive, confidence and blunt honesty. This doesn’t mean I’m about to slip into a mini dress and layer on the fake tan however, but a deeper appreciation is certainly beginning to develop. Finally I, like many throughout the nation, can see the true and unrelenting charm of Essex.
Watching Stacey Solomon win I’m A Celebrity was more than just a nice thing to see, it struck a chord. Not only was she winning for herself, but for many young women watching at home. I’m an Essex girl, and getting prouder by the minute.
It has been a good couple of months for Essex. First the nation was gripped by ITV2’s documentary series The Only Way is Essex, in which they were given a fly on the wall insight into the dramatic and glamorous lives of the county’s brightest and hottest, then the Queen of Dagenham Stacey Solomon was crowned Queen of the Jungle and now Colchester’s very own Matt Cardle promises to top the charts by winning The X Factor.
Yes, the place once ridiculed for its caricatured and somewhat outrageous inhabitants, with its peroxide blonde, white stiletto wearing, fake tan loving, promiscuous and loud stereotype, is now more popular and, dare we say, alluring than ever.
The term Essex Girl is beginning to signify so much more than its Dictionary definition of “a young working-class woman from the Essex area, typically considered as being unintelligent, materialistic, devoid of taste, and sexually promiscuous”. Yes, our Essex Girls and Boys are beginning to steadily redefine this stereotype.
It seems everyone wants to know about Essex Life. There is a new intrigue and even an affiliation with the Essex Boy or Girl. But why has the nation suddenly taken this once mocked county to its heart? What is the sudden charm of Essex?
The widespread stereotype of an Essexonian has always existed. The short skirted, skin tight dressed, mahogany tinged girls and the predominantly metrosexual boys with their ‘Brentwood Sweep’ hairdos, both with their colourful choice of words and expressions, are known all over the country (and I’ve found even the world). It is a stereotype that resonates throughout the nation. Yes we have our Geordies, Scousers and Cockneys, but it is the Essex Boy and Girl that everyone knows and has an opinion on. Sophie, 25, from Norwich agrees, “before I had even been to Essex I had a colourful image of what the people were like. Fake tans, cheap clothing, personalized number plates, promiscuous and uncouth behaviour, all these things said Essex to me.”
As a born and bred Essex girl I had always strived to rebel against the typical stereotype and idea attached to me and my neighbours. Keeping my skin naturally pale, leaving the false lashes safely in Boots stores and preferring to cover up in tights instead of the obligatory bare legs and short skirts combination favoured in my neck of the woods, seemed the simplest and most effective way of distancing myself. And spending as much time in Hoxton and Islington bars instead of populating Essex favourites Faces and Sugar Hut, was once my ‘ticket out’.
But why should I want an escape I hear you ask? Shouldn’t I be proud of my roots?
I know many girls who are the epitome of the stereotype and are proud to be so. Natalie, 21, from Hornchurch is a self- confessed Essex Girl. “I know who I am, what I like and the lifestyle I want to have, so why shouldn’t I play up to this perceived idea?” This is a common feature of an Essex Girl. Strip away the thick layers of fake tan, foundation and bravado, and what you’ll find is someone who is totally unapologetic about who they are. “People from Essex may be perceived as common and crass, but we are honest and approachable, why should this be considered a bad thing?“ They do not care what anyone else thinks, just as long as they themselves are happy. And this is just one of the characteristics that make our Essex brothers and sisters so refreshing and charming.
But when were the Essex Boys and Girls born? The first memory of this kind of individual has to be Lesley Joseph’s character Dorien Green in the popular 1990s sitcom Birds of a Feather, of course set in Chigwell. With her big hair, glitzy ensembles and sometimes outrageous behaviour and outbursts, she was the epitome of all things Essex. Shocking but lovable, she made the notion of Essex even more intriguing to all who watched. Granted, today’s Essex sister appears to be even more extreme, vulgar and, some may argue, out of touch with reality, but she is still just as fascinating and even entertaining.
She has of course evolved with the help of much publicised ‘celebs’. The image has been personified and used to even degrade in celebrity culture with the likes of Denise Van Outen, Jade Goody, Jodie Marsh and Big Brother’s Chantelle Houghton all rising to fame with the help of their Essex Girl image. The media took the bate and now these ladies, known for their outlandish appearance and behaviour, more often than not sum up what Essex is to the majority of the country.
But the concept is evolving further and all Essexonians can now breathe a sign of relief. Long gone are the days of ridicule and contempt, as our fellow inhabitants have captured the nation’s interest and are beginning to charm their way to success. Take Stacey Solomon for example, a young girl from Dagenham who eventually became Queen of the Jungle late last year. Her bubbly, rather ditzy personality, fierce pride of her roots, zest and unrelenting ambition struck a chord with the nation. She is now one of our most loved TV personalities, and even an unlikely modern-day heroine for many young ladies. Not bad for a former fish and chip shop worker. And Matt Cardle, a former painter and decorator from Halstead, proved popular on The X Factor because of his working class roots and grafters principles, something that greatly appealed to the nation.
And now the cast of ITV2’s The Only Way is Essex are set to make it big, with tabloids and gossip magazines lining up for exclusive interviews and photo shoots. We have taken these glamorous girls and Jack the Lads to out hearts, but why the interest?
Why has The Only Way is Essex struck such a sudden chord and produced great public interest? Since it first debuted on October 10th 2010 it has shown real people going about their normal lives with no help from a script. Above all, they are characters that we can all relate to. Friendship, love, work and money is what drives us all, and there was definitely no shortage of this throughout the series. To see such primitive feelings and needs splashed across our TV screens for 60 minutes a week is an easy way to live out our own problems, concerns and even insecurities, and all from the comfort of our sofa. And the charm of escapism is often too alluring to ignore. Where else could you watch a real life lad present his girlfriend with what he believed to be a micro-pig, only to be told it was infact the regular sized farm animal, ala Arg and Lydia? But did this bother or humiliate them? Of course not. Essexonians have a great sense of humour, formed from years of being the target of jokes - “why do Essex girls wear so much hair spray? So they can catch all the things going over their heads” is my personal favourite - so a glitch like this is effortlessly transformed into a funny anecdote to later relay to friends. What could be better, more entertaining and indeed easier than watching and experiencing this? The fact that these are real people showing true, raw emotions only makes for better viewing and subsequently creates a stronger affiliation towards them. Why are Essex girls the best in the world? Essex girls’ dreams are more vivid than anyone else’s because the county itself is so monochrome. We are grafters, too, and independent: we have had to be“. This innate sense of drive, ambition and extraordinary work ethic is what sets our Essex brothers and sisters apart from many young people today. There are no tidy nest eggs in Essex, thus there is an instilled awareness of the need to work hard and succeed, no matter what profession or path is chosen.
In a recent article posted online journalist, and fellow Essexonian, Liz Jones wrote “
Much like their ancestors, who in the 1930s and 40s moved to the county from the East End in order to better themselves, this idea of the self-made man still resonates deeply with the people of Essex today. There is something extremely attractive and endearing about someone who is prepared and willing to graft for the finer things in life - indeed there are no Paris Hiltons residing in mansions throughout Chelmsford, Brentwood and Upminster.
Yes, Essex hasn’t changed much over the years, and yes it is a bubble. The generation gap is admittedly tiny, sons are like their dads and daughters like their mothers, but isn’t this positive? Surely a society based on good old-fashioned morals and ethics can’t be a bad thing.
The truth is, our Essex stars - be it Stacey, Matt Cardle or the cast of TOWIE - are simply offering and displaying advantageous qualities. Drive, confidence, humour, vigour and the want to succeed are all assets to be proud of, and characteristics that we would all benefit from adopting.
The people of Essex today, and our The Only Way is Essex favourites in particular, are simply reflecting the values of the culture in which they have been brought up. This honesty, ambition, humour, confidence and pride - which has so perfectly been propelled into the social and media consciousness - is the real delight that this county has to offer.
So back to my earlier question, the simple answer is yes. I am proud of the place in which I was raised. Infact I am a little smug, and why shouldn’t I be? No longer do I tell people I’m from London instead of Essex, no longer do I mock and stereotype my own. And I certainly do not think us Essex Girls need the charity set up to help us overcome our criticised image, thank you very much The Essex Women’s Advisory Group.