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The Vivienne: ‘There’s a big stigma around talking about money’

The Vivienne, winner of the first season of RuPaul's Drag Race UK, shares her advice and experience on managing debt.
The Vivienne build up debt at the start of her career because of the 'stigma' around money. Image: Experian.

Debt is a fact of life. There are all kinds of arguments about why that should or shouldn’t be and the myriad forms it can take, but if you want to extend your spending power beyond your immediate earnings then you have little choice but to borrow. If you want to invest in your future, be it with a mortgage or a business loan, be prepared to sell a bit of that future to get there.

The paradox is that most people don’t like talking about money. It’s taboo. And in the gap between these two inescapable truths is where life can get messy. It’s a tension The Vivienne, bona fide drag royalty after winning season one of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, knows too well.

“I was just thinking, ‘I’ll just sweep it under the carpet, put the bills in the drawer’, you know. No one’s ever gonna come knocking at my door,” she tells The Big Issue. “Little did I know that once you’ve stopped paying your council tax you start getting nasty letters. A bailiff turned up at my door asking for 1700 pounds, and then other letters were coming in, then it’s embarrassing phone calls to parents…”

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Before becoming The Vivienne, at least on stage, James Lee Williams grew up in Colwyn Bay, a bright and breezy town of thirty-odd thousand on the north Wales coast. The big city had always beckoned, though, and by his teens he was performing in drag with sights firmly set on leaving town.

“I think I finished school on the Friday and was in Liverpool on the Saturday working as a makeup artist,” Vivienne says. “And then it just kind of spiralled out of control from there. You move out, and suddenly you’re an adult. You know, I never got taught these things in school. It just wasn’t conversations that were being had in school.

“I learned a lot of great things at school, had an absolute brilliant time. But, you know, when it actually came to being an adult and bills coming in, I was just very lackadaisical about it all.”

She’s not alone. Research by Money Advice Service in 2016 found only one in four children between seven and 17 had been given basic money management lessons at school. Less than half felt confident managing their money and a third had never put money into a bank account.

“I think there’s a big stigma around talking about money and being honest with our friends and family about a problem that we may be in. That was definitely my problem, I found it really hard to speak to people about it because I did feel shame, you know, that I kind of left school and headed to the big city. I liked to project to my parents that I was fine. Whereas, in fact, you’re completely losing sleep over it.”

And that’s why she joined forces with credit rating company Experian, to be “money positive” and remove the stigma that comes talking about cash. Lenders do it, after all. Any time someone applies for a loan or buys something on credit, the lender will run a credit check to see if they’re good for the repayments. 

If you’re not checking your credit score regularly it can have a severe impact on your ability to manage your money and improve your situation later in life. It’s one of the reasons the Big Issue also teamed up with Experian for our recent Financial Health series.

“What started with little things like when I was trying to get a phone contract, you know, they check your credit score. I want to buy the house that we’re renting at the moment and if I hadn’t got my finances in order, then a credit score is probably the first thing they’ll look at.

“Any kind of financial product you’re looking at getting, whether it be something small, like a phone, or bigger thing like a car, or a house, your credit score really affects everything down the line.“

So what to do? The Vivienne has tips for staying on top of your money and make suer to check out the rest of The Big Issue’s Financial Health series as well.

Talk about your finances

As with many problems in life, conversation can be the best medicine.

“I know it might seem difficult to talk to your friends about it but do it because a problem shared is a problem halved.”

It doesn’t just have to be you friends and family, although that will certainly help in terms of advice and feeling better about a situation. Most lenders will be understanding about debt too and will help sort it out.

“One of the best things I learned is speak to your providers speak to lenders. If you can’t pay a bill they’re more than likely to give you a payment plan or an option so that you don’t get yourself in a bigger mess.

“I didn’t want to phone up a company and be like, ‘oh, by the way, I can’t pay this month’s bill’, because I just thought that was the end of it. Or, worst case scenario, they’ll cut my phone off and I’ll never hear from them again.

“But in fact, your phone will get cut off, and then the bills keep coming. And the letters keep coming, then you’re scared to answer your door, then you’re scared to answer the phone. It’s just not a nice place to be mentally.”

Check your credit score 

Keeping an eye on your credit score is more straightforward than ever and, with the new Experian Boost service, you can actually improve it quickly and easily.

“Check out Experian Boost, you can actually get a boost on your credit score instantly,” said The Viv. “But it’s also completely free. It’s super easy. It takes about three minutes.”

Spend wisely

If you have to get into debt, do it for a good reason,  she said.

“A credit card might be seem like a great option but is it the best option to run off shopping with? I got my credit card to invest in my future for Drag Race. And you know, once I paid that off, I’ve never really touched it again since then. So invest wisely and make sure you can pay anything back that you do borrow.”

Pay your bills

All of The Vivienne’s money worries started when she started ignoring the mounting bills.

“I know that sounds like such a trivial tip that everyone should know. We all know it, but sometimes we don’t choose to act on it. 

“So pay your bills, make sure that you’re up to date with your credit health and history.” 

The Vivienne is working with Experian to help people take control of their finances and improve their credit score with Experian Boost.