For most presenters, the harsh studio lights only served to enhance the less finer points of the variety of showbiz guests, some stunning, some already going stale. A wrinkle on the forehead, (Zoe in Make-Up frantically dabbing away before mic-live), grey hairs peeping through the scalp, moistening of lips to hide the cracks. But for Penny-Jade Allen, her honeyed skin resplendent against the marine-blue velvet studio sofa, sporting sleek black leggings, heavy biker boots and leather jacket with angry silver studs, she oozed attitude, mixed with urban charm and a beauty that her young Instagram followers could only try to copy with jet black eye-liner, cheek highlighter and lots of pouting.
Rob Salter, chestnut quiff in place, sharp-suited and clean-shaven, interviewing her live for the “Wakey Britain” breakfast slot, was employing his usual magnetizing yet easy manner, encouraging his sofa guests to relax, share and simply “tell-all.” However, Penny-Jade was no pushover and he was certainly working hard to justify his exorbitant salary. A subtle sweat was beginning to break out on his smooth forehead, but he was ever the professional and he ploughed on, determined to break her.
“So.” Hands clasped, resting on his lap. Leaning forward conspiratorially. “Penny-Jade,” he said softly, in his buttery, compassionate tone so famous for making tough, uncompromising celebs cry live on camera, “the suicide attempts. You can tell me. We’re … the audience and me... we are on your side. What happened Penny?”
She glared at him, keeping her bare-nude lips together, the hint of a smile curling her mouth. Toying with Rob Salter. She had the answers. The secrets. He wanted them. Along with the rest of the nation.
It was 8.30am at Parkwater Terrace and Emma was sipping her hot tea, flicking through the morning papers. She rarely watched daytime tv, but as she was waiting in for the dishwasher repair man and had nothing else to do, she flicked it on. The screen lit up and a face stared out at her. The physiognomy was nearly identical, yet a sharper version of her own soft image. As though her face had been pulled through a pasta maker, flattening the soft bumps, smoothing it out. Unnaturally smooth. The lips narrower, harder. The eyes more pinched with a hint of the untrustworthy. Emma’s eyes were open, even when they were closed, her husband Jack always said. Honest, warm, comforting.
Cursing, she reached down to dab the spot of tea she had spilt on the lavender fluffy rug, her hand trembling as she watched her sister on the studio sofa, giving Rob Salter a run for his money. Her little sister.
Emma and Penny-Jade had not spoken properly for five years. Their father had died when Emma was 17, Penny-Jade just 15 and already knowing she was all about fame. Their gentle mother had watched on helplessly as Penny-Jade had thrown herself into low-paid, degrading situations, involving dubious portfolio photographers and fashion agencies hidden in basements of seedy slivers in Soho, just to get her name out.
Emma. Academic, strong-minded, quietly confident and “way too serious” as she had been teased throughout their childhood, had been on hand to offer support, practical and sensible, but her foolish, fame-hungry, insecure younger and somewhat manipulative sister had cast her aside as she started to revel in the addictive glory of social media adulation and eventually, a substantial following, daubing herself a “fashion guru” and being sponsored by POSY, an online handbag and shoe retailer who gave her a substantial booty to wear and advertise on her Instagram account.
Five years ago, at the funeral of their mother, Emma, still young at 28, had walked away in anger and frustration at her sister’s failure to comprehend that not everything needed a hashtag. She had invited her personal photographer to the funeral, getting close ups of a comically tragic, over made-up face, concealed beneath a notably branded POSY wide-brimmed black hat, dabbing her eyes tragically with a handkerchief.
Emma was devastated at turning this heart-breaking occasion into a soap opera. “You are NOT Jackie Onassis,” she hissed, her hand desperately wanting to make contact with Penny-Jade's smooth skin, wanting to streak the perfect foundation with the mark of a slap, to remind her of the intimacy of their small, once happy family. But Jack had pulled her away, hugging her tight before returning to the comfort of their home.
The sisters never spoke again.
There had been calls. Over the years. Her phone ringing. Cutting off before she could answer. Emma would draw in a sharp breath, her mouth dry, seeing “P-J" appear on her screen. Sometimes it would cut off before she could answer. She would pause, palpitating, then dial back. She would always dial back. Normally to hear Penny-Jade laughing, sounding stoned, leaving Emma feeling deep despair and a sense of discomfort.
She resolved to try to oversee the welfare of her younger sister, knowing her mother would want this. Months researching drug abuse, the best clinics, personality disorders, insecurity. But the phone calls were never returned. Penny-Jade was not ready to be helped. She followed her social media accounts, watching despairingly at the falling out of nightclubs, the pouting lips pressed to the cheeks of z-list pop stars, a hint of stubble, snow-white teeth. Who was using who, she thought gloomily.
But Penny-Jade didn’t want gossip magazines. She wanted tabloids.
Two years ago, Penny-Jade got her break. She was offered the opportunity present PERFECTION REJECTION, a show dedicated to the “young and beautiful” who surely deserved to date each-other. Only the most Adonis-like young men and exquisite beauties need apply, and the nation was hooked. Nearly all the nation. Emma couldn’t believe such shallow, meaningless nonsense could dominate the ratings but it was all her friends and colleagues talked about.
The presenter, seemingly more confident, mature and ready to dominate the screen, also had her share of minor media coverage. They built her up. She still dazzled on the front covers of magazines, always with a pop star or fellow presenter. Her star was in the ascendant. But when she came down, it was with a hefty bump. Caught taking drugs with a younger member of the Royal Family at a club in Kensington, Penny-Jade was ostracised for a time by the “Sloaney circle.” Emma continued to follow her sister’s profile but she the stories became less frequent, and the ones that were bandied around were always negative.
TV STAR IN BOYFRIEND BUST-UP yelled Column Girl
NOT SO PERFECT PENNY screamed TV Tonight
DRUGS, TEARS AND TANTRUMS FOR OUR PENNY GIRL cried Stars Magazine.
Then came the suicide attempts. Front covers were back with a vengeance, but was it the coverage she craved? Emma could only sigh in relief that her parents were not around to witness this, whilst simultaneously craving her parents’ support, not knowing what to do. She sent Jack round to her Kensington flat, but he always returned sorrowfully, shaking his head. “She sent me packing,” he would report back. Emma stepped up the phone calls, trying to reach out to her sister, but with little result. She phoned counsellors, but they needed Penny-Jade to be on board. And she just wasn’t interested. She was lost but she didn’t know. How could somebody with thousands of Instagram followers every truly be lost. After all, they knew her every move.
A sudden hit on the phone came when Penny-Jade picked up the call. Emma thought she would faint, but kept her composure as she tried to reason with her sister, reminding her of their childhood and how successful she had become. She had everything to live for.
Penny-Jade sobbed down the phone. “They hate me,” she cried. “The bloody gutter press. Reporting my every move. So what if I take drugs?!”
Emma cut in but Penny-Jade's vicious voice left Emma reeling. “You,” she spat. “Miss clever bloody two-shoes. Dad always proud of your damn maths results. You’ll always have a safe desk job. A husband. But me?? I can lose it all if they see what I’m doing? I need sympathy. I need people to love me again!” she shrieked like a maniac.
“But we do love you PJ,” Emma soothed. “Why do you need the public to love you, who really cares? I’m your sister and I love you. Mum and Dad loved you. Why isn’t that enough? And... what exactly are you doing?” Emma questioned, nauseous now with worry. If only she had tried harder over the last five years, instead of thinking she was on top of Penny-Jade's life, whilst she married Jack, set up home, focused on her own career in IT.
“I’m... planning stuff,” she returned mystically. “If I look like I want to end it all, the public will love me. Feel sorry for me. Just... watch this space.” The line went ominously dead. That was a year earlier and Penny-Jade had made celebrity front magazine covers a few times with attempts to end her life, whilst always being “saved” in the nick of time.
“POOR OVER-DOSED PENNY RESCUED IN TIME BY ADORING DRUMMER BOYFRIEND EZE-CALLUM"
“DOES OUR PERFECTION REJECTION GIRL NEED A SPELL IN REHAB”
The celebrity magazines were overloaded with Penny-Jade's dicing with death. But it wasn't enough for the tabloids. The national press. And tabloid coverage, she craved.
At approximately 9.03am, Emma watched her sister, sitting glowing on the sofa, explain how hard she worked at cleaning up her act, her constant cries for help.
Rob sat back, sighing. “But Penny, in all of your dark days, what about your family. Your sister? You do have a sister, right?”
Emma froze, transfixed, praying the dishwasher repair man would not ring her bell yet. Dirty clothes can wait. This was dirty gossip.
“Well, yeees and no.” Her thin lips curled menacingly at the corners, ready to deliver the blow. To increase her search engine hits.
“I do have a sister. But she chose to abandon me in my hour of need. I have nobody. Nothing.” She flicked her flaxen fringe over her left eye, peeking her eyes up at Camera-One, Diana-esque. Rob whistled out in shock and nodded to her to continue. He was getting her to open up. Or so he thought. Penny-Jade was in charge but he didn’t yet realise. She spoke when she was ready.
“My sister is very... let’s say...suburban,” she said with exaggerated melancholy. “I’m afraid I am a total embarrassment to her and her perfectly structured life. She has never once reached out to me. But …. I have you guys. I have my fans. I need my fans. Thank you. I’ll be ok. I promise. Knowing you all love me is enough.”
Rob smiled in satisfaction before adopting his compassion face, and invited viewers to text in with questions, similar tales of family rifts in one’s hour of need, and of course leaving the number of the Samaritans for viewers with similar destructive thoughts.
“Emma.” Pause for effect. “My big sister. If you’re out there,” she pleaded to the camera. “Don’t be a stranger.”
And the phones and the live feed went crazy...
Back in suburbia, Emma’s chest tightened. The knot forming in her stomach was agonising. She straightened her spine, opened up her shoulders, trying to remember her Pilates’ moves to open her tight chest. And … breathe....the screen blurred as her eyes welled up, whether in ire or misery, she couldn’t differentiate. The ungrateful, twisted, fame-chasing little... Emma pressed the OFF button on the remote and resolutely vowed never to think of Penny-Jade again.
Six months later, Emma and Jack had just left the maternity hospital, after her midwife appointment. They were now on their way to their local store to look at cots and prams, ready for the day when two become three. Emma had tried her best to put her sister out of her mind, knowing stress was not good for her during pregnancy. Jack had gone mad and made her promise never to mention her again. “The times I drove into London, to her flat, banging on the door...” he had breathed in disbelief. “The lies she told. To you. To the public. How can you joke about killing yourself!” he shrieked before banning her name. “She will never be aunt to my child. Never!”
And although Emma agreed, excited for their new future, a part of her heart slightly cracked.
Emma’s life moved forward, without her sister as it had for many years. There were more suicide attempts that she could not avoid reading about in the press. There had also been a WITHHELD number on a few sporadic occasions, in particular one she had answered to hear giggling, drunk sounding voices. She knew Penny-Jade was taunting her and she refused to be moved. Penny-Jade simply had to grow up.
The baby changed everything. Emma felt finally complete. Her sister was an adult and had so much opportunity at her fingertips. Emma had made a good life, so it was up to Penny-Jade to do the same. Emma felt finally a sense of peace, with Jack and baby Isla. She knew her sister would be ok as she was financially secure and a household name. What more could a person want? After all, the public adored her, just as they adored tv shows like PERFECTION REJECTION. That was true love. Right? Just as Jack adored Emma. And that really was true love. And it was enough for Emma.
It was a breezy spring day. A delicate Japanese pink blossom tree greeted them majestically as they left the house to take a stroll with a gurgling, pudgy-faced Isla. They walked through the park, out the iron railings and towards the small parade of shops to get an ice-cream. The daily papers were laid out on the bottom shelf.
A headline caught her eye. Her face paled, her knuckles turning white as she gripped the pram with a vice-like intensity.
PENNY-JADE ALLEN FOUND DEAD IN HER SLOANE SQUARE FLAT.
Jack turned to his wife as her eyes directed him to the shelf of papers screaming out at them, before catching her falling, fainting body.
Penny-Jade had FINALLY made the front splash of the national press.
A cry for help or a game gone wrong? Emma would spend her life wondering, as she replayed the breakfast television clip over and over and over for years to come and Rob Salter would famously be known as the man to give the last tv interview to an ever so damaged, tragic young celebrity of our times.
When his book was published some years later, My Blue Sofa, by Rob Salter, Emma could not resist buying a copy. Leafing through the pages, rather than the rough looking tabloid copies, she showed her 7 year old daughter studio stills of her deceased aunt, looking at her most vibrant, in those solid black biker boots and her healthy, caramel, gleaming skin, and that’s how she liked to think of her. Glowing.
Author Notes: Hope you enjoy my story! xx