Vogue, Glamour, the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Telegraph – you’d be hard pressed to name a media outlet that Ateh Jewel (BA 2000) hasn’t written for. Ateh is best known as a beauty journalist, but during her incredible 20-year career she has also written about politics, culture, wellbeing and everything in between. She has used her platform to kickstart difficult discussions around institutional racism and to act as a diversity advocate.
This year, she launched the Dr Ateh Jewel Education Foundation, which aims to help generations of Black and mixed-Black heritage students enter and thrive in higher education. We caught up with Ateh to learn more about her time at Bristol, her career highlights and the advice she gives to her young twin daughters.
What is your favourite memory from your time as a History student at Bristol and how was your University experience?
My best memory is of my first ever lecture. I’d never been away from home and I only had about £30 to my name. I was thinking, how the hell am I going to do this? The lecture was packed and then in walked this very good-looking boy. He looked at me, weaved across the lecture hall and sat next to me. That man is now my husband! We’ve been together for 24 years and have twin daughters who are turning 10 in June.
My University experience was incredible in terms of the teaching. Studying modules like Women, Work and Wealth blew my mind! I also studied Medieval History with Dr Ian Wei who was really inspiring. I remember writing an essay about the minority Medieval man and it sparked something in me. Learning about the caste system, status, power and wealth spoke to things that I had been feeling as a Black woman, and as the only Black person out of 200 people to be studying history in Bristol in 1997. It helped me to start understanding power structures and all the things that I talk about today.
But as a student I faced financial pressures that were a real emotional burden. I worked four jobs to put myself through university and I didn’t have a laptop or a PC, so I had to walk to the computer lab in the dead of night. I served the drinks in the student union and watched other people have a good time. Then I would study through the night and do it all again the next day. But being there was a pleasure in terms of all the knowledge that I was exposed to. I just knew this was my place. I love Jane Austen so I would waft around Clifton Village, dreaming of Mr Darcy. I grew up in a busy part of central London and Bristol was green, spacious, elegant and decadent. It inspired me. I wish I’d had the financial security that would have allowed me to enjoy it more. But I knew university was the rocket fuel that would get me where I needed to go.
What drew you to beauty journalism in particular?
After University I would have loved to do an MA or a PhD but I couldn’t afford to, so I did an advertising course instead. I hated every minute of it! I felt very lost and my mum said, “Make your hobby your job and you never feel like you’re working.” Being a history graduate I loved people, stories, patterns and power. Beauty is all of those things, but with colour and artistry.
I knew that I could write, so I went and politely stalked my way onto Instyle magazine. I would call every day until they said, “Oh just come in!” I stayed there for a year and then went to Tatler before going freelance. Beauty is something that shows us our values and our culture. If you look at old beauty adverts, you’ll see exactly what society thought about women, children, animals, Black people. It is an expression of who we are.
You’re a diversity advocate in the beauty industry and beyond. Could you tell us more about that?
One of my campaign areas is hair. Did you know, that until very recently it wasn’t compulsory for trainee hairdressers to learn how to work with afro textured hair? It marginalised people with hair like mine and told us we’re not important. How can you say you’re a professional when you haven’t trained to do millions of people’s hair? It didn’t make any sense. Thankfully, after a fantastic campaign from the British Beauty Council and other brilliant voices, the guidelines were update this summer and now trainee hairdressers must learn how to cut and style afro and textured hair.
I’ve been to make-up launches where there were five shades of foundation, but not mine. Why is that? Marketing people have told me, “Well we don’t think that Black people can afford this price point.” I’ve been told there’s not enough shelf space and all kinds of nonsense. It’s just covering up the fact that having more melanin in your skin means that you’re of a lower status to some people.
How many people who look like me are in seats of power? How many people who are plus-sized, dark-skinned, with naturally 4C coily hair are the boss in your industry? Probably zero and that’s a problem. So I’ve been having those conversations, showing up, talking about it, exposing it through the articles that I write and through TV appearances. People are scared to talk about racism and allyship because they don’t want to be cancelled. For me it’s about creating a safe space because you cannot go forward and heal without having the difficult, uncomfortable conversations.
You’re also a producer, director, influencer and a mother. How do you take care of yourself when there’s so much on your plate?
Well you know what, I’m learning! I was a workaholic in my 20s and 30s. I pushed myself too hard, ate sugar as my go-go juice and eventually I crashed and burned. I learnt that if you don’t care for yourself your body will say “enough”. The 16th of August 2016 was my D-day, the day I was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes. That was a warning shot telling me to chill out. So I moved to the countryside and now I go walking every day. I also took up yoga and ballet. As a woman you’re taught to put yourself at the bottom of the list. You’re taught that it’s selfish to look after yourself and have boundaries. You have to unlearn all of those bad habits in order to take care of yourself.
The University recently launched its Black Bristol Scholarship programme, which will provide funding for 130 Black and mixed-Black heritage students over the next four years. What impact do you think these scholarships will have?
A scholarship like that would have been such a lifeline when I was at University. I came from a privileged background and my dad was a wealthy diplomat. But we had a very difficult relationship and by the time I was at university I was estranged from him. It meant I fell through a lot of the gaps because I didn’t meet traditional hardship markers. To have had a scholarship would have been incredibly self-esteem building. It’s not charity, it’s levelling the playing field. Society hasn’t been equal. You can cut it any which way but if you’re Black – things will have been more challenging.
Diversity is a win-win. When you have people with different backgrounds and experiences you are an enriched institution. Think of the issues we’re trying to solve; we’re racing to find a cure for cancer for example. Imagine all the students who have heard their headmaster or headmistress say, “University is not your place”, or “You can’t afford it.” All that wasted talent when people should be in the lab looking for the cure for cancer. When more talented people get the opportunity to shine, we all win.
What has been the proudest moment of your career?
I was awarded an Honorary PhD from Solent University which really touched me. My daughters were only seven at the time but one of them burst out crying during my speech and said, “I’m just so proud!” For my children to see me get that honour because of all the work I’ve done and to be an example of what you can achieve meant a lot.
But I have had millions of proud moments: every time I write an article, every time I connect with someone, every time someone tells me that I’ve made them feel seen or that I’ve changed their relationship with their hair. When you get people to love and accept themselves and to see others in a different light, that is culture changing and that’s what I’m about.
What advice do you give your twin daughters to help them navigate the world?
I tell them, “You do not bend yourself to the world. The world must bend to you.” That applies to body issues, feeling that you have to be a certain size, feeling you shouldn’t be a funny woman because apparently men won’t fancy you – it covers everything! You are the centre of your own universe and things need to bend to you. I also tell them to love themselves and to love others. You will have a really happy life if you have self love and you give back. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you have those two things.