As The Big Issue approaches its 30th anniversary, we look back at 30 defining moments in the magazine’s history. When influential voices meet important ideas, change can happen. We start, of course, with the 1990s.
30 moments that made The Big Issue. Illustration: Lisa Sheehan
To celebrate The Big Issue’s 30th anniversary, we highlight 30 moments that have helped the magazine progress to where it is today. This first set takes us from the original idea through to a world exclusive interview with George Michael. Some 105,000 people have been helped by the magazine to date and there are plenty of famous faces who have supported The Big Issue along the way.
1) Issue 1
In 1991, homelessness was a big issue. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people were sleeping rough on the streets of London alone.
Urgent action was needed and Gordon Roddick, co-founder of The Body Shop with his wife Anita, had a plan. Inspired by a project he’d come across in New York, he decided to start a magazine that people who needed to earn an income could buy cheaply and sell on, pocketing the difference and working their way out of poverty.
He asked John Bird, an old acquaintance who he’d met in an Edinburgh pub in 1967, to be the editor and The Big Issue was born. Thirty years on, The Big Issue has given a hand up not a handout to 105,000 marginalised, long-term unemployed or homeless people.
After a year the monthly magazine went fortnightly, then by 1993 demand was so high that we became a weekly title. By this time The Big Issue had spread outside of London across the UK to tackle homelessness across the country.
2) Going Supersonic
Definitely maybe you know you’ve made it when you’re namechecked in one of the defining songs of the era. Supersonic, the debut single by Oasis, mentions a girl named Elsa who, among other things, is “sellin’ The Big Issue”.
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3) Second Coming
In retrospect, the ’90s were all about Britpop and The Big Issue. So when the biggest band of the day, The Stone Roses, were preparing to release their second album after a prolonged period of media silence, everybody wanted to talk to them. But they decided only to talk to us.
“The last time the NME had us on the cover it was one of the biggest-selling issues of the year,” Ian Brown said at the time. “We’d rather the money went towards helping the homeless than into the coffers of a big organisation.”
With the magazine supporting growing numbers of vendors we set up The Big Issue Foundation, our charitable arm.
The aim was to help vendors move on, linking them up with other support services dealing with issues like benefits, housing and addiction, and helping them get established with the essentials when newly housed.
We now deliver a huge range of support programmes, from employability to helping vendors get into training courses and education.
We also help them access healthcare and wellbeing support, improve their finance and budgeting skills and help identify their personal goals and aspirations – from passing GCSEs to reconnecting with family, getting a passport to creating their own art. Find out more about TBIF’s work at bigissue.com/foundation
5) A meeting in Wisteria
One day, in a Crouch End café called Wisteria, John Bird had his lunch interrupted by a woman who’d read a recent interview about his work and wanted to show her support. Fast forward a few months and that woman was having a different conversation about how to promote her brother’s new album.
She was Melanie Panayiotou, her brother George Michael.
She wrote about what happened next after this chance encounter in an edition of The Big Issue in November 2019, just a few weeks before she died, three years to the day after her brother.
“A short conversation took place about which of the many competing glamorous magazines should benefit from a front cover interview with our beloved Yog, who was at the time promoting his 1996 album Older, and gave rise to a quick, easily taken decision,” she said.
“During said lunch, I suggested that a way out of his and his much-loved PR’s predicament was to offer The Big Issue the interview, his first for many years, which I thought would, as well as solving the dilemma, save offending any editors, avoiding problems in the future. Consequently, a new positive precedent was set.”
George, his team and supporters remained loyal to The Big Issue, with the star giving many exclusive interviews over the years. He recognised that an exclusive interview with The Big Issue is not just about self-promotion but creating a positive impact for hundreds of men and women.
6) The Big Issue goes global
After the Big Issue Foundation was set up in 1995 to link vendors to vital support services to help them move on, The Big Issue became a growing international movement.
Australia was the first country to launch its own version of The Big Issue in the summer of 1996, with South Africa following in December that year.
Big Issues also popped up over the years in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, while the success of the magazine has inspired around 100 different street papers in 35 countries. They all work together through the International Network of Street Papers, which The Big Issue co-founded in 1994.
7) Leading policy
from January 1997
We spoke to Tony Blair in January 1997, outlining ideas for change. He won a landslide election in May. Was it The Big Issue wot won it?
Within the week, John Bird led a group of campaigners to Downing Street armed with copies of The Big Issue and a 10-point plan to tackle homelessness.
We’ve always had the ear of PMs, taking the big issues of the day to the highest office. David Cameron guest edited a special edition. And Boris Johnson acknowledged the vital role The Big Issue plays in society.
“The Big Issue is as much a part of the fabric of our great city’s streetscape as black cabs and red telephone boxes, ” he said when London mayor.
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A momentous meeting of minds took place as David Bowie was interviewed by Jarvis Cocker. They focused on a specific theme, smoking, which led to a remarkably intimate philosophical reflection on the power of addiction, family and the meaning of life – and death.
Looking back on the interview Cocker said: “The idea of talking about smoking came from Damien Hirst because he was guest editing that edition.
“He asked me if I’d talk to Bowie – I don’t know where the idea came from but I think it was a good thing to talk about because where do you start with someone whose work you admire a lot? If you gush and say how much you admire them they’re just going to get defensive. It was good we had a central, controlled subject to talk about.”
Hirst is just one of many high-profile guests who have taken the helm. Others include Jamie Oliver, Mark Millar, Charming Baker, Joan Bakewell, Rutger Bregman, Floella Benjamin, Caroline Lucas, Trudie Styler and, last year, Jarvis Cocker himself.
9) Prince Charles’s school reunion
We were given the royal seal of approval in 1997 when Prince Charles visited our London offices. While he was there he bumped into an unlikely acquaintance. Clive Harold had been a classmate of his at Hill House School. He later became a journalist and author before falling on hard times and selling The Big Issue. Harold joked with Charles that he remembered him from their school days more than 40 years earlier because they both had big ears.
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