One of the most embarrassing things that ever happened to me played out in Wimbledon. Venus and Serena Williams were renting a house on the road where I grew up. Like me, they were barely out of their teens – Venus had just turned 20 – but while I had just finished my A-levels, they were busy tearing up 120 years of tennis history. That was the first year Venus won Wimbledon, which prompted my mum to insist on baking a cake, frogmarching our whole family up to the road, and handing it over to the bemused Williams sisters, declaring that as the mother of two black girls, she knew exactly how they felt.
I was mortified, but in hindsight I rate my mum for this. She looked at the Williamses and saw role models for her own daughters. And she was right. The arrival of Venus and Serena had a profound impact on me and my sense of self. Their skill was so exceptional, even in an environment that proved repeatedly hostile – becoming the best athlete of her generation didn’t stop the press trolling Serena. They literally changed the game.
But what really inspired me about the sisters was that they did so while unapologetically owning their cultural identity – wearing their braids with white beads, bringing their Compton family with them, Serena once even raising a fist in a gesture reminiscent of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
So it was no surprise to me that, when 15-year-old Cori Gauff triumphed at Wimbledon on Monday, she turned her defeat of Venus into a tribute to Venus. Gauff is remarkable – she is the youngest player to qualify for the main Wimbledon draw and won the French Open girls’ singles aged just 14. She was so in awe of Venus, she was too scared to even speak to her, so large had the elder Williams loomed in her consciousness. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her,” Gauff said.
Everyone needs role models. The classic formation of why role models matter – “you have to see it be it” – is really a slogan for a deeper truth. It’s nearly 60 years since books such as Psycho-Cybernetics revealed just how influential self-image is to our psychology. If you have a role model at that crucial, formative stage, providing a positive image of what you can be, you are more likely to create a positive self-image too.
My own self-image was built from a mishmash of different role models: writers, journalists, lawyers, film-makers – women doing the things I have aspired to do, in a way that has opened doors for other young women. Read More