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'My hands are blue': Colin Murray, Melanie Sykes and James O'Brien sell The Big Issue

It was bucketing in London when friends of The Big Issue James O'Brien, Melanie Sykes and Colin Murray went out to sell the magazine.

Colin Murray, Melanie Sykes and James O'Brien show their support for The Big Issu

Colin Murray, Melanie Sykes and James O'Brien show their support for The Big Issue during Vendor Week. Photos: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

On a freezing cold day in London, rain pelting down, three celebrity friends of The Big Issue took on the challenge of selling the magazine. Colin Murray, Melanie Sykes and James O’Brien had come out to mark National Vendor Week – a celebration of the men and women across the UK who sell the magazine every day – and to get a deeper understanding of the sellers’ work. This is the story of the day. It got pretty competitive…

Melanie Sykes with Big Issue vendor Kelvin
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

“Right, tell me what I should do.” It’s Wednesday lunchtime and autism rights advocate and editor in chief of Frank magazine Melanie Sykes has joined Big Issue vendor Kelvin Gregory on his regular pitch near Somerset House in central London. As he takes her through a training crash course, she admits she’s nervous. “I’m a bit shy, really. So it feels very out of my comfort zone to just approach random strangers.”

Melanie Sykes attempts to drum up Big Issue customers
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

“It’s not as easy as you think it might be. I feel all the charm in the world isn’t going to help on this particularly rainy day. It’s interesting, actually: people’s reactions to you even saying hello. People are very ‘head down’, aren’t they?”

Melanie Sykes
Melanie makes a sale
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Persevering as the rain gets heavier, Melanie finally makes a sale. “It’s something that I think about all the time: don’t just walk past vendors. Please just pick up this magazine. I don’t really care about the weather, what’s important is spreading the word and getting people to engage with some proper literature about real issues.”

Melanie and vendor Kelvin smile together
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

It’s all smiles as a sodden Melanie finishes her selling shift, and thanks Kelvin for his support. “I sold four, which sounds really lame. But it’s not easy.”

James O'Brien and Colin Murray face off
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

It’s an LBC vs BBC sell-off as we roll into the afternoon. Combative talk radio host James O’Brien is up against Radio 5 Live and Countdown star Colin Murray. And neither is backing down. Let’s do this…

James O'Brien meets fans
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

James has played a blinder by using his hit radio show this morning to tell 1.3 million listeners he’s going to be out selling The Big Issue. When he arrives, there are already customers waiting to score a magazine and a selfie.

James O'Brien meets fans
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Within minutes, James is five sales up.

Colin Murray on the street in London, trying to sell The Big Issue
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Colin Murray’s looking worried. “You couldn’t have picked a worse day, but in a way you couldn’t have picked a better day because [for Big Issue vendors] there’s no just luxury of not coming out when it rains. It was snowing last night. It’s pouring down today. The first job is just to keep this thing dry. And then try and sell as many as I can.”

James O'Brien tries to sell The Big Issue
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

As the initial rush of fans subsides, James too is getting more of a real sense of the struggle involved in selling the magazine. “You put this thing on,” he says, pointing to his red Big Issue tabard, “and it’s as if you suddenly become absolutely invisible to about 60 per cent of passers-by. I’m doing it because it’s important to know what it’s like. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever done, not just people not noticing you but people almost wilfully ignoring you.”

Colin Murray calls for customers
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Competitive instinct kicking in, Colin resorts to dirty tactics. “Buy a magazine and I will donate £20! This is a one-time offer, you buy a magazine for £4 and £24 will go to support The Big Issue!”

Colin meets Big Issue customers
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

It works! Colin’s acquired a gaggle of customers, and has roped regular Big Issue vendor Dave Martin (who has formerly also coached Prince William about how to sell) to help with the card transactions. Flushed with success, Colin interviews his new-found customers for his 5 Live show.

James O'Brien, Dave Martin and Colin Murray
Photo: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

It’s time for the big reveal. Colin or James: who has won the sales battle? “15 all!” says Dave. It’s a draw! James and Colin are delighted, but it’s been a hard slog. “It’s been pouring down. My hands are blue,” says Colin. “I have a home. I have a car. I have a job. And it felt terrible when people ignored me. Imagine if I was doing this today in order to buy food tonight, it would feel 100 times worse. My final message of my day selling The Big Issue would be: when you see someone in the street doing it, just give them a smile.”

The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
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