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Please Save Me From TOWIE and This Horrible Essexism

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Dame Maggie Smith is one. So is Helen Mirren. So are Charlotte Rampling and Juliet Stevenson. Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery is one, authors Jilly Cooper and Ruth Rendell are, and Germaine Greer is one by adoption.

What are they (and what am I, apart from co-founder of SoSensational.co.uk)? Why, that most maligned of species, Essex girls. Watching the first of the new season of TOWIE which began on Sunday night, I was pondering the gulf between the popular myth of Essex Girls as portrayed in this weirdly successful ITV franchise, and the reality, represented by Dame Maggie, Helen Mirren, the uber-Sloane Jilly Cooper, et al.

Are there Essex Girls who have shrill estuary accents, bleach their hair several shades too light, turn their skin Jaffa colour with an excess of fake tan, bleach their teeth and wear their hemlines 10-inches too high? Yup, of course there are.

But there are identikit overprimped, underdressed females in every area of London and, indeed, around the country (give or take a regional accent). So why has Essex become a byword for bad taste, vulgarity and excess, not only in its females but in all its inhabitants.

We know the Daily Mail and Spectator columnist Simon Heffer played his part when he identified 'Essex Man' during the 1984 general election. But Heffer's Essex Man wasn't the nasty, brutish stereotype that the epithet has since come to signify. Back then, Essex Man epitomised Thatcher's archetypal voter: a man who aspired to put his working class roots behind him, own his own semi, run his own business or work in a firm unhindered by the tyranny of a capricious union, and go abroad a couple of times a year on holiday.

A few years later, the Essex Girl Joke Book, co-written by Daily Mail columnist Richard Littlejohn (using the pen name Ray Leigh) and 'Brent Wood', the pseudonym for another well-known columnist and author, ensured that the Essex Girl's reputation was trashed forever.

TOWIE, of course, now on its ninth series, has just served to confirm the stereotype. The interests of the women in the current series - Lucy, Sam, Billie, Gemma, Abi and Jasmin - begin with men, and extend to clothes, cosmetics, teeth-whitening, fake tans, Botox and shoes, before coming back to men. Naturally TOWIE wouldn't be the place for a discussion about the place of religion in the 21st century or the UK's role in a post-imperialist world, but there is not even the merest glimmer of an intellectual hinterland to any one of the participants, female or male.

The truly annoying part for someone who lived most of their life in Essex, and who has two adult daughters, both brought up there (one even still lives there), is that the county truly does not deserve to be a by-word for tawdry and uneducated. Essex girls' schools consistently rank highly for GCSE and A-Level results and every league table of state secondary schools published in the last 20 years reveals a high number of Essex schools -boys' and girls' schools - in the top 10.

High achievers in academia, science, medicine, the judiciary, the arts and many other fields, are Essex men and women, not just Z-list celebs and wannabees with fake tans. In fact, if I was the head of Essex County Council I would run a PR campaign calling for the end of Essexism and pointing out that there's more to Essex than TOWIE, teeth-whitening and fake tans.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm just off to make an appointment for my highlights. I may now live in North London but you know the joke: you can take the girl out of Essex, but you can't take Essex out of the girl...

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