Michelle Mone started off poor. How will her daughter find life in Glasgow’s East End? | Kevin McKenna

Channel 4’s Born Famous sends rich kids back to their celebrity parents’ disadvantaged roots

Television producers and the media in general must always take great care when attempting to portray the reality of poverty and multi-deprivation in 21st-century Britain. There also needs to be a degree of compassion at all stages of the production process and in the filming, as there is a very thin line between making such programmes audience-friendly and merely exploitative.

The best programmes are those that resist the temptation to apply too much makeup and direction and that allow their subjects to speak in their own language and on issues of their own choosing. BBC Scotland’s 2010 series The Scheme, I think, managed to get the balance right. Here, we followed the lives of six families on a working-class housing estate in Kilmarnock as they daily met a spectrum of social challenges beyond the imagination and experience of many in the media who were paid to judge the programme’s worth. By no means was it perfect and there were some queasy moments in the course of the four programmes but there were moments of genuine hope and humanity that lifted it beyond a lazy human-zoo perspective. It was clear, too, that the producers had displayed genuine empathy for the cast of memorable characters that fell beneath their gaze.

Last week, it was revealed that Michelle Mone, the Glaswegian former lingerie entrepreneur who has gained fame and amassed a fortune from building a business empire, is to add her own vivid stamp to this programme genre. Her daughter Bethany will visit Bridgeton in Glasgow’s East End for a four-part reality television show called Born Famous. Bethany is one of four children of affluent celebrities who will be filmed over a week in a disadvantaged community.

Not having watched a preview of the programme I’m not in a position to comment on what it hopes to achieve. However, the accompanying blurb, I think, hints at the programme-makers’ motivation: “To live the life they would have lived had their parents not found fame”.

Mone is now Baroness Mone, having been ennobled by then prime minister David Cameron and following her late conversion to the Conservative party. The extent of the deprivation she encountered growing up in Glasgow’s East End is uncertain, but what cannot be doubted is the intelligence and astonishing capacity for hard work that lifted her out of relative poverty. The rewards she has reaped for this – a multimillionaire lifestyle tinted with glamour and celebrity – are all thoroughly well deserved.

In the course of this, it seems to me that she has been unfairly vilified and become subject to a whispering campaign that has questioned her ability and the real source of her success. Much of this seemed to be rooted in jealousy and more than a degree of sexism. Perhaps some corners have been cut along the way and there have been some embellishments and belligerence too. I doubt, though, that these have been any worse than similar stratagems deployed by successful male tycoons and for which they are respected and admired.

I was disappointed, though, when she chose to embrace the politics of Conservatism. Perhaps she felt that the Tories’ philosophy of hard work begetting its own rewards chimed with her experience. The reality, I’ve always felt, is that they actually scorn this theory by promoting unearned privilege and financial gain above all else and that these have contributed more to the poverty experienced by generations of people in the East End of Glasgow than any other single factor. Nevertheless, this was her choice and it’s one she has earned.

I hope that the Born Famous programme that features Mone’s daughter will be an authentic portrayal of the challenges faced by people in disadvantaged communities, but I have my doubts. You can’t simply experience poverty by dipping into it occasionally and treating it like a visit to a theme park. How can you properly portray the challenges associated with it when you will never feel the sense of jeopardy and despair that accompanies it; of living from one day to the next simply thankful that you and your family have survived with body and soul intact? The psychological stress of poverty can never be comprehended by someone who knows that a luxury yacht awaits her at the end of the week and a holiday in St Tropez. I’m sure that the baroness has taken account of these factors in helping her daughter to arrive at her decision to participate.

In the meantime, I long to see a programme being made called “Poverty Party”. In this, we would observe a group of poor people and imagine what their lives would have been like if their parents hadn’t been born in the East End of Glasgow and forced to follow the Shettleston diet plan (weight loss guaranteed) where you eat only on alternate days. It would show how you made it to adulthood only after a social obstacle course involving violent crime, drug and alcohol abuse, unemployment, low wages and the universal credit system, aka Tory roulette.

I’d make it a gameshow format where the regional heat winners get to live for a week in the houses of the judging panel: Michelle Mone, Gordon Ramsay, Paul Ince and Mel B. They would each be given a budget of £100,000 and required to throw a champagne party for their hosts’ celebrity guests while answering questions about the average price of a bottle of Dom, school fees and their plans for the big Brexit getaway. The winner would be given two minutes to run round Waitrose with a shopping trolley in a heartfelt tribute to the late and much beloved Dale Winton.

• Kevin McKenna is an Observer columnist


Kevin McKenna

The GuardianTramp

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