June Sarpong is one of the UK’s most recognisable faces. The TV presenter, author and charity campaigner began her career at MTV in 1998, and went on to host T4 for eight years, interviewing everyone from Kylie Minogue to Kanye West. In 2005, Sarpong gained unprecedented access to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair for the one-off special ‘When Tony Met June’. She went on to present the UK leg of Live Earth, launched the Make Poverty History campaign, and hosted Nelson Mandela’s 90th Birthday celebrations in Hyde Park. An Ambassador for the Prince’s Trust for 15 years, Sarpong was awarded an MBE for her services to broadcasting and charity in 2007. Having been awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the London College of Fashion, she spoke to UAL and Kate Wills (Marie Claire) about her stellar career, dealing with prejudice, and how her new book ‘Diversify’ is tackling some of the UK’s most difficult diversity issues.
Q: How does it feel to be honoured by University of the Arts London with this award?
A: I’m so excited, well my parents are super excited! It’s really cool, amazing, I’m delighted!
Q: What was it like working for MTV and T4?
A: Amazing, it was a lot of fun. I think for me, for anybody who starts out in youth, TV or whatever, I think we had the best time… All of those shows were part of an era, I think, a golden age in youth TV, and it was just wonderful to be part of that.
Q: What would you say was the highlight from those TV years?
A: I think duetting with Tom Jones was pretty cool, we had to rehearse it, so that was the most fun of all. Imagine rehearsing with Tom Jones, and you can’t sing, I mean, amazing!
Q: How do you look back on your interview with Tony Blair?
A: It was a wonderful time. I was so young at the time, and he was so generous, as was Cherie. I spent three or four days with them travelling around, and it was amazing to see the life of a Prime Minister. I’m not a big Theresa May fan, but I do have to say that is the hardest job in the country, and we do have to cut our leaders some slack because it’s not easy… Obviously I didn’t agree with Iraq, but I still think that he did a lot of good when he was in office, and for my generation it was a really exciting time in Britain.
Q: Have you faced discrimination throughout your career?
A: Of course! Throughout my career, and in the book I talk about some of the experiences I’ve had, but one of the main ones was years ago when I was at MTV. At the time I had one of the highest rated shows on the network, I think maybe even the highest at the time. And they did a magazine shoot which had ‘Mmm-TV – however many reasons’ (I can’t remember the number) ‘to watch MTV’, and they used all of the MTV girls, because obviously we all started together, so it was Cat Deeley, Sarah Cox, Edith Bowman, Lisa Snowdon, Kelly Brook, all of the girls. And they didn’t include me… It wasn’t Sky that didn’t want me, the head of PR at MTV didn’t include me, because he didn’t think I was appropriate for that shoot. That’s even worse… Throughout my career I’ve had so many of those.
Q: Does your new book, Diversify, deal with these issues?
A: It’s really about difficult conversations that need to be had around race, gender, class, sexual orientation, disability, age, all of those things that we sort of discriminate against and sweep under the carpet, and you need to discuss in order to move beyond. We’ll never know our full potential as a country when we’re not allowing everybody to contribute to the best of their ability.
Q: What do you think we could do about the lack of diversity on TV, and at the top of our professions?
A: I think what we need to do is twofold, we need a skills audit, at a government level, that really looks across the board at where the gaps are, and where we are sort of not, where we are under-utilising people. And then the other thing is that as an individual, really look at your life, and ask, is your life diverse? And if your life isn’t diverse, it’s highly unlikely you’re gonna make the sorts of professional decisions that encourage diversity.
Q: You do an enormous amount of charity work; what motivates you?
A: It’s always been a part of my life. I believe you have to give back, and I enjoy it, you know, I think I probably get more out of it than the people who are the beneficiaries. And I think the wonderful thing about charity again is that it puts you in contact with people who are completely different to yourself, and you’re able to see the strength of the human spirit when you see people who’ve gone through some really tough stuff, and they’ve come out the other side. It’s pretty humbling.
Q: How did the social enterprise, LDNY, come about?
A: That came about from just wanting to be able to do something to help kids that come from similar backgrounds to mine, grew up in low-income communities, school dinners – free school meals, I had that, all of those things, that can define you if you’re not careful, and so I wanted to be able to give kids an opportunity… So we did a project with the London College of Fashion and the UN and Parsons in New York that did very well, Liberties were our store partner, and that’s spun off now that I have apprentices that are with Huntsmen of Savile Row. And it’s great, they’re learning how to tailor, and they’re just really talented great kids.
Q: What advice would you give to students now?
A: Your life is ahead of you – go for it, it’s all for the taking, and don’t let your self-doubt doing what you wanna do. You might never stop doubting yourself, but don’t let it stop you from pursuing your dreams.