Interview with Helen Allen

Our very own M&S Leading Lady

 

A couple of weeks ago whilst rushing through the Trafford Centre I spotted a woman with two children, trying to take a ‘selfie’ on her phone in front of the M&S window display.

“Wow – she must really like that outfit” I thought to myself, before offering to take the photo for her. It was only then that I did a massive double take. The woman that I was taking a photo of was the same woman in the massive Leading Ladies poster in the window sitting right there next to Tracey Emin!

 

Helen Allen M&S Leading Ladies

 

Leading Ladies is M&S’s Autumn / Winter campaign. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz it features Olympic boxer Nicola Adams, author Monica Ali, Ellie Goulding, Katie Piper who was the victim of a shocking acid attack, Darcey Bussell, the model Karen Elson, Tracey Emin, singer Laura Mvula, Jasmine Whitbread (CEO Save the Children), fashion power house Grace Coddington, Dame Helen Mirren ……. and Helen Allen.

Doing a frantic scan of the names and silhouettes next to the window display I immediately misread it and decided that I was speaking to the new urban break through artist Laura Mvula! She didn’t look like an urban breakthrough artist – but what do I know?

 

 

It transpired that Helen was awarded Nurse of the Year 2011 – works on a cardiothoracic ward at Wythenshawe Hospital and lives just around the corner from me in Sale. Now what are the chances of that?

 

I booked an interview immediately

 

Helen is a normal Sale mum, with children George (7) and Sophie (5). Her kids go to the local school, she works at the local hospital and she runs around spinning plates like the rest of us.

The story of how she came to Sale and to be an M&S Leading Lady is, as you might imagine a really interesting one. Born in prematurely in Zambia, at 3lbs in weight she occupied the regions only incubator. Her twin sister Mary was sadly still born. The family left when she was 16 months old, returning to the UK – but never returning to Zambia.

The need to go back stayed with Helen and when she decided to become a nurse she chose a course (Nottingham University) which allowed her a placement in Zambia, so that she could visit the country where she was born and the grave of her twin sister.

Her plan was to observe the catastrophe of HIV/AIDS and try and understand why it was happening. She travelled through the bush on the back of a motor bike keeping a daily diary of what she encountered. Her conclusion was that it was a big cultural, historical poverty driven mess.

Many people at this point would have stepped away, but not Helen. Her motto is that you should be the best that you can be – and if you don’t do something to help then who will?

And so the charity PEPAIDS was born (Peer Education Programme), to show people, especially women, that they have a choice – and to then give them the practical support they need to extract themselves from dangerous situations and poverty.

 

PEPAIDS

 

Co-incidentally my husband (Tris) worked in Zambia through VSO, teaching biology in a rural school from 2002 – 2004. I went out there with him at the beginning of the year to see where he lived, so I was aware of some of the myths around Zambian culture and HIV.

For example – if you’re a man with HIV you can be cured by having sex with a virgin. Or if your husband dies, in order to move on you have to be sexually cleansed, which means having sex with all his male relatives. The stories are horrifying and there are plenty more.

When a group of young Zambians were asked whether they thought they would still be alive in five years time – none of them put their hands up! It’s heart breaking!

But PEPAIDS is trying to move people on and by working with a local Zambian charity is making a big difference. It’s this fantastic work which helped Helen win Nurse of the Year in 2011 and PEPAIDS win a Vodofone World of Difference Award in 2010.

 

Zambian craft

 

Zambian children

 

It’s all a long way away from sitting in Sale and talking about exchanging tweets with Katie Piper. But if ever there was a Leading Lady then it’s Helen.

When M&S’s production company contacted her about being involved in the campaign she had no idea who the other ladies would be. She was told it would be just a couple of photo shoots and a piece to camera. When she found out the week beforehand who else was involved she asked them whether they were sure they still wanted her!

 

M&S Leading Ladies

 

What started as an initial email has grown into a massive advertising campaign with her face in every glossy magazine and on hundred of billboards – trips down to London for London Fashion week and being the celebrity special guest for Vogue’s Fashion’s Night Out (10th October), the hottest shopping and fashion event in the calendar. Needless to say I’ll be shadowing her and reporting back for 4Manchester Women.

 

Helen Allen

 

After some serious chatter, what should have been my first question was actually my last – Do you actually like fashion? The answer was of course “Yes – I think that if you present yourself well, people will have confidence in you and listen to you, which is especially important when you’re a nurse.”

It’s hard not to listen to Helen and be drawn in by her engaging stories. I’m looking forward to keeping in touch and being part of the launch of her Christmas fundraising campaign – watch this space!

To find out more about PEPAIDS visit pepaids.org

 

Alison x  (your 4Manchester Women Editor)

 

Photographs: Marks & Spencer, PEPAIDS, Alison Staples.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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