When we’re very young, everything we recognise as tools of self-expression – clothes, hair, behaviour – are controlled by someone else. Parents are our moral guides, school rules and uniforms restrain us. All that grey wool, regulation hair-length and the treatment of individuality as insubordination – it’s no wonder teenagers rebel with purple hair and a septum piercing the first chance they get. Being yourself is even harder when you’ve no idea who you should be, or where you fit in. I realised, as teachers repeatedly marched me out of the Wendy house or liberated dolls from my pudgy, clammy grip, that, to them, I was malfunctioning. Toy trucks left me unmoved, footballs sailed over my head. I was the kind of little boy who had footballs kicked at me, not to me. Once I learned how to read and write, I retreated into words, where nobody could get me.
When you’re picked on for not conforming, you think the answer is to shrink away. You self-edit, question yourself. Why do I, aged 12, walk like I’m on a catwalk and the world is my front-row? Why’s my voice much higher than the other boys? Why can I improvise relentless eviscerating clapbacks, yet my detractors can barely deliver a limerick? Who made me like this? If you cut me open, will rainbows laser from my glittery veins? How do I make it stop? Looking back, I see I was lucky to be different – but in the moment, with no escape route except your own imagination, it’s tough.
I’ve never believed in revenge; “showing the haters” is a hollow motivator. Who cares about red-faced bullies and low-rent nemeses? Thrive for yourself. Eventually I stopped torturing myself and considered instead why it was important for them to keep me down. You can’t control them, but you must try not to let them control you. I know it’s hard. The first step on the road to self-acceptance is recognising who’s trying to run you off it, before speeding off and luxuriating in the distance between you.
I’m driven by self-improvement and curiosity, doing the things I’ve always wanted, or things I never thought I could do, be it a novel or two, or handstands – still working on the latter. I turned my experiences into creative energy. My voice was shaped from the humour I wore as armour, and motivated by the memory of that boy who thought he’d have to hide forever. This is why I’m so open in the things I write and, I assume, why people want to read me. I’m always moving forward, but I never forget.
Confidence can’t appear overnight, though – it needs coaxing out. I resolved to take control of my voice, my style, my sense of being. Show the world who I was, maybe. My first act of self-expression was through fragrance. I’m no beauty, but I’ve always felt untouchable and handsome when complimented on my scent. It certainly set me apart from most guys at university, believe me. People – mainly women – would lean in and ask which of my extensive Calvin Klein arsenal I was wearing that day. I remember my two sharp skooshes of Eternity every morning before lectures without fail, guaranteed to get a reaction wherever I went. It was my first flirtation with getting attention for the right reasons and, reader, I ran with it. Everything started there.
How would a man who smelled so good, that strangers stopped him to tell him so, dress? How would he take care of himself, and hold that attention? I dreamed him up, and decided to be him – as much as financial constraints and my genetic windfall, or lack thereof, would allow. And now? Well, I know I’m never going to stop traffic (quite literally – I’ve been hit by a car on no less than two separate occasions), but I’ve learned to be comfortable with looking into mirrors. Even clean ones.
Whether it comes from reading books, splurging on scents, or changing your style to better represent how you feel inside, there’s nothing fake about forging your own identity. You’re still being true to yourself, but making the most of your potential.
“Follow your dreams” is empty rhetoric beloved of those already bolstered by money, influence, or connections, and having survived this long with very little of any of those I can reveal they’re not always necessary. Instead I’ve focused on building my reputation, being consistent, noticing kindness and rewarding it, paying it forward. I have pride in myself, both in the distance I’ve come and how much farther I still have to go. Knowing who you are, being the best version of yourself, and doing all you can to be comfortable with it, that’s the key. When you nail it, it radiates from you. Go with it. Shine.
Eternity Calvin Klein, available on Boots.com