Many of us have felt the pressure to keep up appearances on social media during lockdown. After all, if you weren’t ‘gramming yourself in a Sports Banger tee on your daily exercise walk, whacking a Top Cuvee Chin Chin delivery on Stories or crafting a wry status about Bridgerton, were you handling the pandemic like a true millennial?
What if part of your job depends on a ‘public’ persona? Jools Walker is an original influencer (though she probably won’t like that title). Part of the original blogging movement, Jools has built a career in media as an author, TV presenter and podcaster - and is a vocal Black voice in the UK cycling movement. Her book, Back in the Frame, is punctured with knocks including a depression diagnosis, recovery from a mini-stroke, an enduring love of, and return to cycling. I’ve known Jools for over eight years, our friendship founded on a shared love of Lil’ Kim and open dialogue on mental health - and so, during a long-overdue Zoom catch-up, delved into her honest perspective on public/persona personas in a time of crisis, the future of blogging and what’s kept her going over the past year…
Hey Jools, what’s making you blue right now?
I think I’ve hit the wall with lockdown, whichever one we’re on. World leaders aren’t particularly getting it right, watching stuff about the election in America, it feels like we’re on this relentless train of bad news and bad vibes at the moment. We’re desperately trying to grab onto bits of joy where we can and they don’t tend to last very long at all so yeah, I feel blue because I feel stuck. Doing the right thing, following precautions, doing what you’re supposed to do, washing your hands, covering your face, giving space, etc, etc, etc… It feels like there’s no end in sight and that’s weird!
As someone who walks the line between cycling, fashion, mental health and everything in between, do you think there's more longevity for content creators with a varied scope?
That’s an interesting point because I never set out to be an influencer and there are weird connotations that come with that word - there’s nothing wrong with influencing people to be interested in something: I’ve been influenced plenty by people! When I started out 11 years ago, there were elements of influencing people to get on bikes, influencing people to try out cycling, influencing people’s clothing for when they do hop on a bike… For me, the bicycle is something that feels like it’s never going to go away, it’ll always be there and people are always to be trying it out and the sporting element will always exist so there’s longevity in that… I began to feel like I’d come to the end of the road (excuse the pun) with what I talking about in cycling and there’s also the element of being the ‘old auntie of cycling’. I’ve been around for a long time and I’m seeing other people coming along and doing what I was doing at the very beginning of my journey can sometimes feel a bit like you’re watching history repeat itself but at the same time, it shows there is longevity. I’m not a fashion or style influencer in the traditional sense, it’s just one of the facets of the things I enjoy and I like being able to focus on different things, like the Adventures in Coffee podcast and certain fashion elements I’ll dip into, like my obsession with big glasses. If I could be a glasses influencer, I’d absolutely love to do that! Fashion will never go out of fashion, style will never go out of style, bikes will always be bikes, someone will always go on that new adventure... It’s been interesting to see the birth of other influencer trends, especially in lockdown where people might be at home and be like, ‘I’ve got a massive record collection, maybe I’ll start talking about my journey with vinyl”. There’s an interest and a niche everywhere in every single thing that you look at and things like that will never stop.
As someone who talks passionately about your interests and to an extent your life, on social, how do you separate what’s out there for public consumption and what’s just for you?
Getting things out my head or writing stuff down is cathartic and I think that in all the years I’ve been putting myself out there, there are some things that I’ve just known that I need to keep to myself. There’s the risk of oversharing for starters, there’s always that worry that you’ve just put too much out there but then I really like being honest because you have that thing with social media where you see people presenting their perfectly polished squares on Instagram and everything’s great but I can’t do that. I can’t not put the shitty stuff out there because it’s the truth. I want to be honest with people about when things are quite terrible especially, where I’ve ended up on panels or doing interviews about living with depression, it wouldn’t be very authentic or genuine of me if I didn’t talk about the bad things.
My biggest wakeup call was in 2019 when I finally had therapy via the NHS after months of waiting. Every Friday morning I had this sacred space with a therapist for an hour where I could talk about the things I would not put on social media, I’ve since dabbled with sharing some of those things but that was my dedicated space to be able to do that. It made sense for me to have those conversations there and for me to pull out the things that were properly buried away to discuss. For far too long I sat on things and hence I’m in therapy in my thirties, it’s not necessarily good to keep pushing down and pretending that it’s fine. I was fortunate enough to have outlets like the blog, getting stuff down in the book, sharing on Instagram now and then and the first portal I had before therapy was VeloMail, my newsletter. When it started, I had to put content warnings like ‘only sign up to this if you understand that there is more to Jools than two wheels’, as a heads up that I’d be talking about things that have fuck all to do with bikes. It was incredible to see people sign up for it but even more so to see people replying, that was a pure accident (I’d actually forgotten to switch off the reply function) and they were talking about things that had happened to them that was similar to the shit stuff I’d been discussing. I made the conscious decision to leave it on and keep up the conversation: there was an element of anonymity as there were people I’d never met before who may be followed me on social media and signed up to the newsletter, plus some who I did know who emailed me saying, “I’m so glad you talked about this because X, Y, Z…” It’s sporadic but it’s my outlet for when I’m ready to write those thoughts and feelings down. It’s important for yourself to have that balance, not every single bad thing needs to be out there for public consumption because there has to be a point where you draw that line and actually, this is for me to process and deal with.
There’s a similarity in sexual wellness and mental health, in that if you want to talk about it there are spaces to do so but if you’re quite not at that point, it can be harder to find those conversations. What do you think?
I think that with sexual health and mental health, there are taboos around talking about these topics and unless you don’t indulge in such things, everyone’s got an element of it going on in their lives. Even when I think about sex education at school, there were some girls who were not allowed to partake in some of the PSHRE as it was known then, sessions and they had exemption letters from their parents. Everything was shrouded in taboo, there were the usual giggles when your male teacher showed you how to put a condom on a cucumber and there was the element of humour, as it seemed like the go-to way to address the embarrassment. It was very clinical, purely biological terminology, very straight and there were no real discussions about sexual health in the sense of happiness or pleasure, that just wasn’t discussed. You wonder if they thought they were going to corrupt these young girls’ minds by talking about that stuff! For me, some of my biggest sex ed moments came from having an older sister who read More magazine and you were lucky if you had elders who were liberated enough to discuss this kind of thing with you. I know I haven’t shouted about this subject as that as it’s not necessarily the space I’m in but I’m more than willing to have frank conversations about it because it’s so important.
I was working as an admissions officer at UEL, minding my business in the staff canteen when some dude walked over and boomed, "JULIEANNE WALKER?" I looked up and it was the guy who did my sex ed, as well as our PE lessons! He was a lecturer there and it was honestly really weird that the guy who’d done my sex ed was in the staffroom with me! That association of teachers being the people who teach you this stuff when you can bring someone in from, for example, the School of Sexuality Education, would be incredible and so much more comfortable to have conversations about sex with someone external who will listen to all of your questions, however embarrassing.
As people turn to reactive, content-led platforms like TikTok and Clubhouse - is blogging still relevant?
I’m going to say something controversial: it feels like a dying art form. Before Vélo City Girl, there was the Black Barbie Experience and this was at the beginning when blogging still was super exciting and fresh. Everyone had a BlogSpot! Moving from one platform to another was a big leap, leaving an identity I’d established and it didn’t feel like there was pressure to put up content like there is now… It would come to you naturally, sometimes it’d be once a week and then other platforms started to emerge as additions to your mothership, like Twitter. I miss being able to smash out a blog post that’d be 1,500 words long that I’ll enjoy writing and someone will enjoy reading but now it’s all about micro-blogging and as you said, snackable captions. The amount of people I know who were OG bloggers who were just like, ‘I’m not doing this anymore because people are just getting their content from Instagram and have moved over there’. When I’ve done work for people and their brief might include one tweet, an Instagram carousel post, an IG story... There’s no mention of a blog post: it’s gone! I’ve had instances where I’ve gone, “would you like a little cheeky blog thrown in on the side?!” and they’re not fussed, they just want the post to stay on your IG for a certain time and don’t need that kind of content.
I rarely post on Vélo City Girl and if I do, they don’t get much traction anymore or I have to link it off somewhere for it to be of interest. I’m actually stripping my site back to be a landing page with selected highlights of blog posts over the years that I’ve really enjoyed and resonated with people and a section for other writing I’ve done for other places but it’s not going to be the full-bodied blog that it was because now it feels like it just needs to be a shop window for people to find. I’ve previously written about Ayesha Mcgowan who’s a female, African American road cyclist and that wasn’t about cycling at all, rather it’s about her life, her influencers and her family. It’s taken me 11 years to get to 11.1K followers on IG and the whole blue tick verification thing makes me laugh because it’s absolutely insane. Instagram selected me a few years ago as one of their top female storytellers and it was assumed that instant verification was on the cards but pretty much everyone featured was verified apart from me. I applied a couple more times and again got rejected - Ayesha’s verification came when she hit about 30K followers and she had a real bee in her bonnet on my behalf! I applied again just to prove to her it wasn’t going to happen, submitted it and even when the book ended up a bestseller on Amazon, nope. Within 48 hours the notification appeared stating that I didn’t meet the criteria. There’s a pressure for stuff like blue ticks, that’s one thing I don’t like about social media.
What’s bringing you hope?
It’s very clique but burning candles! Every festive season, I treat myself into a Diptyque candle - don’t sit and wait to burn them, you’re spending so much time at home, get joy however you can and make it a happy space. Indoor cycling has been pretty lovely too, I taped a pair of trainers to my mum’s old exercise bike, then I got sent a turbo trainer so I’ve set that up and I’ve just been hopping on when I feel like a ride. I’m taking joy where I can get it, so if that means sitting down, sweating in my living room on a bike… I’m happy with that!
What To Do Next:
Follow @ladyvelo for musing on cycling, life and serious eBay saved search ‘spo: Cazal glasses crew, here we come!
Big on beans? Subscribe to Jool’s new podcast, Adventures In Coffee, here.