A real life ‘Samantha’ from Sex and the City, Melanie Blake’s own incredible life story reads like the plot of an outrageous novel itself.
From a working-class background, Blake pulled herself out of a life of poverty and homelessness as a teen by working as an extra on various film and TV sets. Now 44, Blake has re-invented herself to become one of the UK’s most successful businesswomen. She is a self-made multimillionaire, property entrepreneur, and bestselling author. She went from being a TV extra to becoming one of the most powerful celebrity agents in the UK and an award-winning businesswoman. Melanie Blake is also one of the UK’s most vocal champions of women in business.
Melanie Blake has represented some of the most famous faces on British television and international screens. Her debut novel, the No. 1 bestseller The Thunder Girls, was inspired by the early years of her career spent working in the music industry working on Top of the Pops, to selling out arenas across the UK, her follow up novel Ruthless Women is heavily influenced by the last 15 years Melanie has spent representing more female TV actresses than any other agent in her genre. Melanie is passionate about championing women and challenging the double standards set for women by the media and the entertainment industry in the UK. As an agent Melanie has continuously fought for her female clients who have been sacked because of their age, or because of what they look like, or because a TV producer has told them they need to get plastic surgery, or because the director wasn’t sexually attracted to them – terrible things. Keen to expose what goes on in the TV industry, Melanie has used many of these horror stories in her new novel Ruthless Women.
In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Melanie Blake about her life as a media entrepreneur, the challenges faced by women in the media & entertainment industry and why she’s chronicled her experiences in her bestselling novel, Ruthless Women.
Q: Did your early life influence your drive to succeed?
[Melanie Blake]: I had a horrendous start in life, a violent upbringing, poverty and religious extremism… it was the stuff of nightmares. In my experience, if you have an unhappy childhood and an awful beginning, you go one of two ways- you either let it break you, or it makes you incredibly driven and strong to escape.
When I say we lived in poverty – our house was condemned… there were no handles on the doors… there was no washing machine… we rarely had clean clothes… we often didn’t have food. It was the 1980s, and when I looked at the television all I saw was this decadent era of glamour – and I looked at that and thought that’s what I’d like… I’m going to do whatever it takes to get it.
Q: How did you go from wanting to get into the industry, to making your way?
[Melanie Blake]: I knew where I wanted to be rather than what I wanted to do. I hadn’t worked out the ‘what to do’ bit! I was from the ‘wrong side of the tracks.’ I didn’t have an education… I didn’t have friends in the industry… and Manchester in the 1990s was not the city it is today, you had to be in London to make it. Aged 17, I arrived at Euston Station and got myself a room in a shared house where I started looking through the Stage newspaper for opportunities whilst also working handing out flyers and leaflets. That journey took me to the Brit Awards where I was handing out drinks! I was in the bubble… but not in the bubble…
It was about 2 years of doing menial jobs… taste challenges in supermarkets… giving out free samples… really basic stuff and I was finding I couldn’t get a break. I wrote to TV stations, promoters, publishing houses, PR agencies and nobody replied – then as luck would have it, I was handing out drinks at Euston Station and the agency that I was working for rang me and said, ‘have you ever been a camera assistant?’ – I’d never been a camera assistant but said yes and made my way to Elstree studios.
Going back in time… my Dad was a religious maniac who believed that anything that wasn’t in the bible was a false idol. That’s how crazy it was. If it wasn’t in the Bible, you couldn’t watch it and so we couldn’t watch Top of the Pops where all these people were ‘flaunting their devilry. Guess what… my first job was at Top of the Pops. I’m not very religious because of what my dad did, but I went ‘I thank you God, you are looking after me, not him’. And the door opened, and I was in.
Q: Tell us about the advocacy you are doing around women in the media.
[Melanie Blake]: I spent 3 or 4 years in the lowest rungs of showbusiness it was my apprenticeship. I carried cables, became an extra, and was on the floor – the least important person in the room. However, I had the ears, and the access. I began talking to talent and noticed that the older talent, the bigger girl in the girl group, were always ignored and not given attention. I quickly realised that showbusiness wasn’t fair… I would connect with the people that need an ear or need support… management of talent was about divide, conquer and rule. Back then, if you were a soap star and were 40 or over, you were ignored… no front-covers, no nothing. I would be in Coronation Street, Emmerdale, Eastenders and would make friends with the cast – Gillian Taylforth, Beverley Callard, Claire King, Gaynor Faye and Michelle Collins… I would ask them why they’re not on front covers and they told me it was because they were considered old! I started to realise that if you weren’t thin… if you were older… if you were working class… you were in the room, but you weren’t at the table.
I started to realise that there was a space for me to support those women. I broke ranks and spoke to Claire King (who plays Kim Tate in Emmerdale) and said, ‘you just won a soap award, you’ll be on the front cover next week!’ she told me, very frankly, ‘I won’t be on any front covers because I’m 40 and they don’t do that’ – she was right… she wasn’t on any covers… this was so wrong! She said, ‘if you can do any better, I’ll give you a trial!’ – I went to a corner shop, grabbed all the magazines I could, took them back to my bedsit and cold-called the editors saying I was Claire King’s publicist and made my pitch- by the end of the day I had 3 magazine covers for her and a fitness deal, the agency was born!
As a woman, I took on several male bosses at any one time in defence of other women. I’ve discovered that in entertainment, women have a ‘best before’ date stamped on their head – people watch the clock and use horrid phrases like, ‘she’s on her way out’ – that only happens to women that happen to be attractive too… If you’re not a femme fatale and you play the comedy relief, or you’re the bigger girl, they don’t scrutinise you in the same way. But god forbid you should dare to consider yourself attractive and older, someone is lining up to take you out.
Q: What does success mean to you?
[Melanie Blake]: Ruthless Women – my latest book – went straight into the Times bestseller list at #4, that’s huge for a book turned down by 30 publishers – some of whom told me that nobody would ever want to read it. The reason I wanted this book to be released is that every female character in the book is over 40, over 50 and the lead is 70. There’s so much ageism in showbusiness, it’s endemic, it even finds its way into fiction. I have spent my career finding for the older woman – I’m 44 now – I’m now one of those ‘older’ women. I feel proud that I have been able to pave the way for change.
[Vikas: Why do you think Ruthless Women has been such a big success?]
People love this story because it’s one where women take control and fight back. No woman is sexually taken advantage of in this novel, it’s the antithesis of 50 Shades of Grey. If a man in this book grabbed a pair of handcuffs and a blindfold, the women would convince him to wear them and would go and bang his mate. These women do not get taken to bed by men and cast aside. And that is true of the new generation of women. We are standing up for ourselves, we are saying no, we are refusing to let men do that to us. Although men are still intent in the boardroom at beating us down.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Melanie Blake]: I’m proud of the fact that I’ve been able to change a lot of women’s lives. I’ve been able to save a lot of women’s careers which would otherwise have fallen to the wayside. I changed the direction of a lot of TV shows by introducing (and reintroducing) older female characters in sexually empowered roles which- in turned- caused the audience to believe more in themselves.
I feel so offended when I see an actress like Claire King in Emmerdale being referred to by another character as an older woman… she’s only 58! She’s attractive! She’s sexual! If she’s being called that, how does it make the woman at home feel, who maybe isn’t quite as glamorous as Claire? Representation matters in every way, shape and form.
There was a campaign recently where L’Oreal had Sharon Osbourne and Jane Fonda celebrating going grey. Please… they don’t want to be grey; they’ve been paid a load of money to say that they feel empowered. The average women doesn’t have a make-up team, a retoucher, a stylist. On a superstar, grey may look great on a photoshoot – but in real life? It may make you feel pretty rough.
I would like to think I’ve been able to bump that ageing-code for women in media from 40 to 52… I’ve bought women an extra 12 years in television before they start getting pushed. I want to do more, and am working hard to do that.
Q: What would be your advice for the next generation?
[Melanie Blake]: Today, you don’t need anyone’s approval – back when I started, you needed approval… you needed someone to back your idea… you needed finance… today, streaming platforms and social media put you in control. Your content is going out into the world, and people come to you. You have the power.
I had to fight tooth, nail and claw up through the humiliating ranks of being treated appallingly. You don’t have to do that now. You can put yourself and your product out there.
I’m not really into influencing. I get asked to do lots of things, I don’t do gifting, I don’t do that kind of stuff. If I want something, I pay for it, I’ll post about it. I don’t want to live that life. I don’t condemn that as a future for someone else, I say all power to them. My brain capacity is much wider than trading sound bites for free products. But it’s a business that someone can make a lot of money from. And good for them. Not everybody has the brain skill set to have a multi layered career… That doesn’t take away the fact that that one layer can be ginormous and successful for someone and that is to be applauded because now no-one can tell you that you can’t do it. Because no-one can stop you.