The Big Issue’s Letter to My Younger Self makes its mission to feature some of the most brilliant and successful people from the worlds of entertainment, politics, food, sport and business, with one simple question.
If these megastars could send a letter back in time, what would they say to their 16-year-old self? In the 10 years since books editor Jane Graham started the series, interviewees have included Paul McCartney, Olivia Colman, Mo Farah, and Jamie Oliver.
And in a year like no other, which saw Covid-19 dominate and many Big Issue vendors unable to sell the magazine, the letters still kept coming. Each week, a different famous face has imparted life advice we can all benefit from. Here are some of our highlights – words of wisdom and humour from a turbulent 12 months.
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Jon Bon Jovi (rock musician and philanthropist)
“What I got from my parents was the ability to make the dream reality. They always instilled that confidence in their kids which, in retrospect, I realise was so incredibly valuable. They truly believed in the John Kennedy mantra of going to the moon. ‘Yeah, of course you can go to the moon. Just go, Johnny.’ And there I went.”
Terry Gilliam (film director and Monty Python member)
“I got interested in politics because of a little thing called the Vietnam war. At school we were inundated with all sorts of terrible propaganda, that America was gonna be a communist country by 1972, blah, blah, blah.
“I grew up thinking, I believe in truth, justice and the American way. And now, in my high school years, I’m seeing the underbelly of America. And it’s a dark, ugly place. I decided: I’m getting out.”
Gregg Wallace (TV presenter known for Master Chef)
“In the first years of living alone my diet was fish finger sandwiches, fry ups, McDonald’s and kebabs. If I could go back to talk to my younger self I’d tell him to start eating healthier. I’d say, mate, learn to cook. A whole new world will open up for you.”
Alesha Dixon (musician and TV presenter)
“Looking back now, when I was 16 I was so anxious. I wasted a lot of time worrying. I wish I could go back to that 16-year-old and tell her everything’s going to be OK. And actually, failure is not a bad thing. You don’t realise that actually, it might be the making of you. And I wish that back then I knew that challenging times and up-and-down moments are just the landscape of life.”
Jason Isaacs (Hollywood and TV actor)
“I remember the first time I got drunk. I was 12 with my friend at his sister’s wedding. The barman sneaked us a full bottle of Southern Comfort. I vomited, pulled down a giant curtain, snogged a girl, god bless her, ran out into the street, vomited again, tripped, smashed my head open on the pavement and gushed blood all over my clothes.
“The next morning, I woke up with a splitting headache, stinking of puke with a huge scab and the memory of having utterly shamed myself. All I could think was… I cannot fucking wait to do that again. Why? I’ve no idea. Genes? Star sign? I just know I chased the sheer ecstatic joy I felt that night for another 20 years with increasingly dire consequences”
Gregory Porter (jazz and soul singer and actor)
“When I was 30 I had this pain in my chest that I thought was a heart problem. The doctor said there’s nothing wrong with you. I went to a therapist and she brought up my father and right away said, oh, that’s what’s wrong with you. For years, I had a lot of pain about the lack of interaction between us.
“I went to his funeral and person after person got up and said, your father when he was singing, it was a beautiful, extraordinary thing. So he didn’t leave me with nothing. And I don’t have any pain any more.”
Jarvis Cocker (musician and broadcaster)
“When I was 16 I didn’t move at all on stage, I was petrified. Then, at a concert in a pub on the 9th of October 1980, my exercise book tells me, my guitar amp broke and I just had this big freak out, basically just a tantrum. I just kind of rolled around on the floor. And people clapped at the end of it.
“I wrote in my diary, ‘freak-out on my part, enjoyable’. And I realised performance isn’t just about playing the right notes in the right order. It’s actually about acting it out. And gradually over the years I just kind of evolved.”
Susie Dent (lexicographer and co-presenter of Countdown)
“If you find something you are passionate about I’m not sure it really matters if you don’t have lots of friends. I was always an eavesdropper, always listening to things that people are saying or writing. I remember my mum saying ‘Oh my giddy aunt’ and thinking ‘Who? What aunt? What does she mean?’ And I’d jot it down in my notebook to investigate.”
Cherie Blair (lawyer, writer and wife of former Prime Minister Tony Blair)
“He managed to charm me eventually, but when I first met Tony we were rivals for the same scholarship. My pupil master said to me, Cherie, there’s only one place here and there’s a boy and there’s a girl and, obviously, we have to go for the boy. I knew more about the law than he did, but of course it was a disadvantage being a woman, especially a working-class woman with a Liverpool accent. Which just goes to show how wrong stereotypes can be because I’m still a practising lawyer 45 years on and he gave up the law after seven years for some other career.”
Noel Clarke (actor, director and writer known for Kidulthood films)
“My younger self was unaware of the battles he would face. I’m glad he was naïve. Going through this industry as a person of colour, there is a lack of respect and opportunities. You have to achieve 10 times more than other people to be considered near their level. I have won awards that would open a shitload of doors if I fitted the cookie-cutter mould. I’m glad my younger self didn’t know, because if he had the knowledge I have now, it might have stopped him.”
Rupert Graves (film, TV and theatre actor)
“When I was about 15 I took an overdose of pills to try to die. I remember my senses closing down. Heard the flush of the toilet but it was like a dream. I had a thought of, I really think I’ve gone. Then I vomited so much I knocked myself out. I was off school sick for about three days; everyone just thought I had a bug.
“If I could go back to just before I took the pills I’d sit down and hold my younger self’s hand and say, listen, I can help you through this. It will pass. And while you’re waiting for it to pass, just try and be kind to yourself. You feel overwhelmed, but rather than giving up, stand up and remain aware. This amount of life coming at you, that’s when you can actually learn.”
Fearne Cotton (TV and radio presenter)
“It was really intense in my 20s. I had a very unhealthy relationship with the press. You feel misrepresented and misunderstood, and you lose your sense of who you are. From the start, I definitely had this anxiety that I didn’t belong. I remember so clearly standing in the studio looking around thinking, how are these pop bands taking up that space and feeling really solid about it?
“I feel like I’m still the suburban schoolgirl. And I felt that until I got into my 30s, I’m not joking. Later I realised that lots of people feel like that. So many of us go along, silently worrying we don’t fit in, and not saying it out loud.”
Wendell Pierce (actor and businessman)
“In New Orleans, life is defined as pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. So I left home pre-Katrina and returned post-Katrina. I moved back because everything was destroyed and my parents were elderly. I wanted to make sure to get them back in their home before they died because everything they had worked for in their lives was in that home. If anybody understands the importance of that stability, this publication does.”
Richard Dreyfuss (actor and writer)
“I wanted to be a bachelor until one day when I was 36. I was in bed with a girlfriend and my mother called. And I told her I wanted to introduce her to someone. She said, Is it a woman? I said Yes. She said, Do you love her? And all of a sudden, I went from being a confirmed bachelor to wanting to get married and have children.
“I turned to Jeramie [Rain], my girlfriend, and I said, Would you marry me? We were married for 10 years. Then I married again for 10 years, and now I’m married for the third time. I don’t think men are mature enough to have a loving, caring relationship until we’re in our 50s. Everything before that is practice.”
Peggy Seeger (folksinger and musician)
“Joan Baez came for my autograph in 1961, at the Newport Folk Festival. Dylan wanted our autograph too, in Minnesota, when he was still a student wearing a tie and carrying a little briefcase. Two years later, Bob Zimmerman had become Bob Dylan. And the promoter said, ‘Remember that funny little guy who followed you around a couple of years ago…?'”
Vinnie Jones (actor and former footballer)
“I still remember the first time I saw Tans [his wife Tanya, who died of cancer in July 2019]. We were 12 years old in Watford. We met while the dads were playing cricket. And then we met again when we were 16 and I walked her home from the pub. I was showing off. Was she impressed? I think so, because we stayed together forever.
“Now I take things day to day. I get up in the morning and I have a little chat with her when I’m making my bed. And then I somehow muddle through the day. The grief sort of creeps up on you like the fog. And you have to get through it and get to the sunshine on the other side.”
Cat Deeley (TV presenter)
“If I could go back to any moment, it would be when I hosted the Brits in 2004. It was always something I wanted to do because I remembered watching it when I was a kid. The show opened, and I heard The Black Eyed Peas – oh my god, I’ve got goosebumps now – doing this big medley. Then I got on top of this giant bottle of champagne and waited for my cue to rise up on to the stage sitting on it. It was terrifying and so exciting.”
Richard Osman (TV presenter and writer)
“I was just growing into my height at 16 – I was already around 6’4”. I was becoming super awkward and self-conscious. Being very tall is very othering. I always say to my son, and this is the advice I would give to me if I went back now – there’s only two ways people are going to see you the first moment you walk into a room. They’re going to say, there’s a really tall guy, or they’re going to say, there’s a really tall guy who looks really awkward about being tall. So you have to find a way to love who you are.”
Kevin Rowland (musician with Dexys Midnight Runners)
“I enjoyed success… for a couple of weeks. You think it is gonna take away all your feelings of low self-esteem and it doesn’t. It’s an illusion. Now there’s a phrase for it, imposter syndrome. It’s exhausting. It’s a ridiculous way to live.”