"Do you ever see a number on your phone, and you think it’s someone wanting money, so you don’t take the call?”
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Lucy-Anne Holmes, the 38-year-old founder of the No More Page 3 campaign, chose not to pick up when her phone rang on 19 January this year. She did pick up the second time, after a friend told her that Sky News were “desperate” to get in touch.
Holmes sensed something was up when the journalists immediately offered to come to Stansted Airport - determined to film her before she got on a plane to Germany that evening. She didn’t fly, in the end. The Guardian called her next, and then published the article that launched a week of frenzied media speculation that The Sun was finally ditching its flagship Page 3 topless models.
In 2012, Holmes – a romantic comedy novelist from Brighton – started the petition that now has 240,000 signatures, asking the paper’s editor to stop “conditioning your readers to view women as sex objects” and drop the semi-nude pictures.
Since then, the campaign has been her life: travelling, speaking, masterminding social media and targeting advertisers, MPs and supermarkets in a bid to get Britain’s biggest newspaper to remove its most iconic feature. After living off savings, she’s “so skint I have to move back in with my parents”, she’s suffered burnout and exhaustion. She had waited for that moment for two-and-a half years.
When it came, Holmes “just stood there crying”.
She recreates her emotional response for me in a high-pitched, slightly delirious voice, not drawing breath: “I-think-Page-3’s-gone, I-think-Page 3’s-gone, I-think-Page-3’s-gone!”
But now, sitting in The Huffington Post UK offices with a cup of tea and a suitcase, Holmes sounds more measured, and hesitant.
“Ok, so I think Page 3 is gone as we know it. In over a month there’s been one traditional, topless image and that’s unprecedented in all the years it’s been going. So I think, you know, it has gone. But part of me thinks, yeah, it could come back.”
The one image she refers to was the winking topless women that The Sun published after bare breasts didn’t appear for four days, in a snide dig at the media which had reported the page’s demise. But since then, there hasn’t been a nipple in sight, and Holmes sees her campaign as at least partly responsible.
“I would say confidently that yes, we had something to do with it. Because we kept the debate going, and that’s just negative PR about their brand that’s going on for two and a half years. I was kind of curious as to how long they would let us keep doing that, in a way.
“We were going into schools and coming out with really, really passionate reasons why Page 3 had affected us, with statistics and evidence. What did they come back with? [ex-editor Dominic] Mohan said something about it being meant to represent ‘youth and freshness’. They really didn’t have anything because they knew it’s had its day, it’s disrespectful.”
For the last 18 months, Holmes claims, Sun journalists and editors were asked about Page 3 whenever they were interviewed, and advertisers such as Marks & Spencer would question what should be done about No More Page 3 lobbying at conferences and AGMs. In 2014 she increasingly felt the paper ‘hit back’ against the campaign, through moves like partnering Page 3 with breast cancer charity Coppafeel!
“We were getting bigger and louder, and we were quite relentless,” she says. “But it wasn’t just us, there’s a wider movement that wants to discusses issues of inequality – it’s really grown even since I started the campaign. When society is trying to evolve, The Sun can’t pretend it’s a modern paper with that 1970s clanger going on there.”
Even nearly two months on, it feels like today is the first time Holmes has reflected on what has happened. When I ask her to name No More Page 3’s most effective action, she takes a long time to answer, repeating the question quietly to herself, turning it over in her mind.
She settles on their success in convincing Tesco to place tabloid papers out of the line of sight of small children, after a persistent campaign of emails with charity Child Eyes. Another highlight was when they cut out all the pictures of men and women in the paper and compared how they were presented, in a video that went viral. “They got really cross with that,” she says.
But she says her fondest memory is “the tenacity, and the kindness. I think it was that sense that we just kept going with humour and kindness, we never really bashed The Sun, we kept going with warmth.”
The campaign now has active regional groups around the UK. Page 3’s death knell perhaps began as early as 2013, when The Sun’s owner Rupert Murdoch responded to a tweet saying Page 3 was “so last century” with the message: “You maybe right, don't know but considering.” A day before, he had been bombarded online by supporters of the No More Page 3 campaign in a “Tweet Murdoch Day”.
Holmes was shocked that The Sun appeared to drop Page 3 dramatically rather than gradually. “I never thought we’d have a victory moment. I never thought they’d give that to us,” she admits. “We had 24 hours of just being on every news bulletin going. I thought they’d eek it out, so [there would be no topless model] once, or twice, a week.”
But it was still a muted victory. The Sun hasn’t released a statement, and looks unlikely to ever do so, refusing again to confirm to HuffPost UK this weekend on whether the semi-nude pictures are gone for good.
But Holmes is pleased – if not quite overjoyed. “You can’t be satisfied with how they’ve done it. We can’t be. But to be honest, being realistic, we’re dealing with The Sun, they were always going to do it on their terms. So it doesn’t surprise me,” she laughs.
“We said no more Page 3, they have got rid of Page 3 as we know it.” She smiles knowingly as she says this, acknowledging that the cause she’s championed for two and a half years is only a start. Page 3 now stars women wearing bikinis or lingerie, in images not too different from the ones she has fought to remove.
“I can’t sit here and go it’s a great day for women, because we’re now seeing women in underwear. The Sun are still using women, and saying their bodies are there to be judged on Page 3, and they’re not representing women for the things they say, think and do. [Our campaign was] still pretty amazing in terms of people speaking up and affecting change, but in terms of how we represent women in our newspapers there’s still such a long way to go. It’s a tiny step forward, and we’ll continue in some form.”
That tiny step nearly broke her: she had a breakdown in the early days, when she worked alone with no team, using “all the free tools the internet provides”.
“It was really dark and I didn’t know what to do,” Holmes says. “Social media is amazing for starting campaigns: it’s free, its easy to use, you can really build a movement, but it doesn’t sleep. It starts from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to bed. It’s relentless and you get into a bit of a mania with it and what’s coming at you is not always nice. I couldn’t go on Twitter without getting almost a panic attack.”
Online abuse is still a daily reality: “You always get people saying ‘eff off, you’ve got shit tits’. There have been death threats, but not to the extent that Caroline [Criado]-Perez, Stella Creasy and Mary Beard get – those are orchestrated campaigns.”
A friend diagnosed her with “activist burnout”- a common phenomenon, she discovered - and she took some time away from the internet. “I realised that although nothing had changed, the inbox was bigger, how I was relating to it had changed. I kind of detangled a bit.”
As a result, she emailed six people she had met at protests, or seen on Facebook, who were passionate about the cause, and began to build the network which then ran No More Page 3. “I said ‘Hello, I’m Lucy from No More Page 3, and I’m kind of, like, fucked, would you consider forming a team?’ And they all replied with caps lock yes and the kindest words. It was the worst period to be in but it totally informed the best.”
She adores her fellow campaigners, some who have been “putting in full time hours but they’ve got other jobs and they’ve got families.” No-one has a specific job title, and all are volunteers. They make a small amount from selling No More Page 3 t-shirts, giving some profits to charity and using the rest to cover travel costs.
For from the prudes that opponents brand them as, “everyone’s really funny,” Holmes says, grinning. The team’s sole man, Steve, is particularly good with statistics and rallying MP support. (She giggles that I might “out” him because until now he has been “secret Steve”.)
“He’s got sons and he just got really concerned about the way The Sun was marketing to him through kids toys,” Holmes explains. “His kids were asking him to buy the paper because they wanted Lego.”
The 15-strong team is now taking a break, regrouping for the next stage. “We’ve all been working really hard and we’re all a bit knackered. You’re running on adrenaline, and then this happens, and we’re almost a bit… I don’t know… shell-shocked.”
Would they have continued until the page was removed, at any cost? “We’d have kept on.” Even for, say, five years? “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Would it not have got exhausting? “Yeah, totally, totally exhausting. So we wouldn’t have stopped it but we would have got more organised.”
Many high-profile organisations supported the campaign: all the National Union of Teachers, the British Youth Council, rape charities, UK Girlguiding, the National Assembly for Wales and 140 cross-party MPs. This backing was key to dispelling one of the main arguments against them, she says – and this is the one moment I see her getting truly riled up: “The Sun were trying to make out we were just some middle class people who don’t read the paper. What about Rape Crisis – those middle class people at Rape Crisis who object? What about all the people who are teaching your kids?”
The retort of “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” was the most-used comeback against No More Page 3. “Everyone says that so triumphantly like they’re the first person to have thought of that, I love it,” says Holmes, who started the campaign after asking “Why do I hate my boobs? Where does it come from?” and finding Page 3’s message to be part of the problem.
So she was dismayed when Nick Clegg used the same reasoning not to support them: “He clearly hadn’t come across the campaign. Most of us grew up with [Page 3], so I’ve spoken a lot about feeling most affected by this when I was age 11: I didn’t buy it. You don’t have to buy it to be affected.”
Ironically, she did end up buying it in the later stages of the campaign: “It was the last thing we wanted to do, but we realised that we were responding so much that it was actually not clever for the campaign if we didn’t have access to a copy every day.”
The Sun’s decision to bring back a final winking Page 3 girl only seemed to build more momentum for them, Holmes claims. As she pointed out on her Change.org page, “the petition gained an extra 25,000 signatures and we sold lots and lots of t-shirts.”
“It felt a little bit like they’d shot themselves in the foot,” she tells me, “but I don’t know, I may be in a bubble where I just see it like that.”
If she’s a winner, Holmes is a gracious one: she doesn’t gloat, and she understands that not everyone agrees with her. She’s no militant; she’s gentle, considered and sensitive.
Throughout it all, No More Page 3 campaigners never chained themselves to railings, never stormed The Sun’s office. “We’ve always said anything legal and polite, do it,” she says. “I think I put on the petition that we were ‘asking nicely’. People were always saying oh you should be angrier, you should be bolder, but I’m not particularly confrontational.”
After 30 draining months, though, they were reaching a tipping point. Holmes was considering escalating to a particular piece of direct action, but says she’ll have to consult the team before telling me about it. She gets back to me later by email, saying she’d better not as they may use the tactic in future and “It's so badass we have only been talking about it in person.”
But in the end, it was The Sun that acted. The disappearance of topless models was timely for Holmes personally: she is due to have a baby in August.
Hers is not a story of combat but endurance. She had never been involved in activism before she launched No More Page 3, but had just penned four romantic comedy books back-to-back. The publishing world’s approach to women had long frustrated her as a novelist.
“I wanted to write a story about a woman who had an abortion and I was told I couldn’t by two publishers. So I wrote a story about a woman who went through the whole decision-making process, and then lost the baby through a miscarriage. I felt like I’d sold out.
“I kept having issues with cupcakes on covers. Why were they putting cupcakes on my covers? My last book was titled ‘Just A Girl Standing In Front Of A Boy,’” (she says it in a twee, sing-song voice) “and that wasn’t the title I wanted when I’m doing a feminist campaign. You think you’re going to be really creatively free and you’re not, because it’s marketing.”
She was perhaps naively optimistic when she started the petition on Change.org in August 2012. “I really thought that Page 3 would be gone by that Christmas. I blithely set the total for signatures needed at a million. I thought it was such a no-brainer, and that when everyone realised they’d all say ‘oh yeah’, but I hadn’t realised that hundreds of years of sexism are quite deeply ingrained.”
Holmes sees a clear distinction between The Sun - the sexist brand - and the newspaper’s staff, with whom she emphasizes. She quotes former assistant editor David Banks, who said he didn’t take the newspaper home because he didn’t want his kids to see it. (“Fine for other people’s kids though,” remarks Holmes indignantly.)
She recalls talking about the page with a female Sun employee at a member’s club: “She got really emotional. People like working at The Sun, they’re really nice people and are really good at what they do, and when you point out that this one element is really not great for women, how do they align themselves with this? It’s hard.”
Holmes has some realigning of her own priorities to do, and will be playing a smaller role in No More Page 3’s next stage. Her interest in “uncovering female sexuality, in a society that tends to present female sexuality through men” is what led her to feminism, but she wants to “get back on that journey, so I think sex and porn is something I really want to explore.”
She is determined that others in the team will decide what the next stage for No More Page 3 will be – but imagines it will broaden: “Something calling out media sexism and championing positive representation for women, whooping about the good stuff that might not be being covered.”
Despite obsessing over the same publication for years, Holmes had almost no contact with its leaders. Her letter to then-editor Dominic Mohan to launch the campaign received no response. His successor David Dinsmore initially “tried to be quite funny” on Twitter, but then his communication petered out. Holmes met him only once, with her youngest team member Yaz (“a super campaigner, she’s like my sister.”) The pair waited outside a radio studio where Dinsmore was being interviewed, and walked alongside him as he went in.
“It was just ghastly. He wasn’t warm, and I think I was really passionate,” Holmes remembers. “Yaz at one point said, ‘Do you like tits in family newspapers?’ and he said: ‘Yes’ and then he walked into the wrong building which was really funny. He started saying he was concerned about porn and I was like, ‘I totally came to this thing from porn, let’s talk about porn.’”
The journey continues for Holmes. It’s back to writing – hopefully without unwanted cupcakes on her covers. She has just finished one book on how the campaign began, ‘How To Start A Revolution’ and is now working on one on sex, porn and feminism, called ‘Don’t Hold My Head Down’. A documentary, ‘The Trouble With The F Word’ is also in the works, which sees her swap places with TV presenter Nick Lancaster, an ‘equalist’ who is opposed to aggressive feminism.
When HuffPost UK contacted The Sun for comment about Holmes, a spokesperson said: "The Sun will always be written for its readers rather than the middle-class twitterati that don't actually buy the paper. The Sun's readers support our campaigns on domestic abuse, breast cancer and the armed forces that have made a real, appreciable difference, raising money, awareness and support for causes that really matter."
Despite this dismissal, it is apparent that Page 3 became one of the causes that really mattered, if not to The Sun’s readers then certainly, eventually, to its bosses. For now, the comedy writer seems to have had the last laugh.