Today (April 13) in London History – “she was twelve years old”

A chance encounter in Covent Garden on April 13, 1996 and what it led to is the subject of this Today in London History podcast.


London Calling. This is the Today in London History Podcast. Riding shotgun with it, a Today in London Recommendation. Eezy Peezy that one: get thee to the Fashion and Textile Museum at 83 Bermondsey Street. Just a three-minute walk from the White Cube. How cool is that direction?

Now, for Today in London History – this one’s about being twelve years old, getting up, getting dressed, tucking your teddy in and then, a couple of hours later, getting up on the catwalk. Here we go. 

A lot of April 13ths – nearly 2,000 – have paraded on the London catwalk.

The one I’ve picked is completely quixotic. Far more important things have happened in London on this or that April 13th than a 12-year-old girl’s chance encounter in Covent Garden in 1996. But I couldn’t get the story out of my mind – so I’ve gone with it. The whole thing assisted by her ordinary name and some of the connections that led to. And, finally, the tale’s important in a cultural sense. It says some disturbing things about who we are, what our priorities are. Disturbing things that we maybe should give some thought to. 

But my conscience is tugging at me – I really ought to mention one or two of the more important April 13th happenings. For example, April 13th, 1829 – the Catholic Emancipation Act becoming law in the U.K. Ok, yes, since you asked, I’ll do that –  translate that for you – put it in a slightly less starched form of words.  On April 13th, 1829 King George IV gave royal assent to the Catholic Emancipation Act, which, amongst other things, allowed Catholics to become MPs. And how’s this for a frisson of a coincidence? On April 13th 1598 King Henry IV of France signed the Edict of Nantes, which granted rights to the Protestant Huegenot minority. Quick history lesson here: 93 years later France lay down and opened its veins. It revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. That revocation was what today we’d call a dog whistle. It meant the Catholic majority could persecute that Heugenot protestant minority. So most of them left. A lot of them came here. These were hard-working, highly-skilled, upstanding people – exactly the kinds of citizens you want. Our gain, France’s loss. 1685, the year France lay down and opened its veins. Think of the Du Mauriers in Hampstead, for example. Or Jean Tijou, Christopher Wren’s master ironworker. But that’s another story, another podcast, another stop on various and sundry walks, indeed a whole walk given over to the Huguenot settlement in London.

Any other notable London April 13th anniversaries. Sure. On April 13th, 1935 the first London to Australia commercial air service was inaugurated by Imperial Airways and Qantas. Imperial Airways, there’s a name redolent of yesteryear for this country. And one more for the road. On April 13th 1951 Scotland’s Stone of Destiny, which had been stolen on the previous Christmas Day by Scottish nationalists, was returned to Westminster Abbey.

Ok, those are the ones in the books. 

Let’s get to my find. Let’s do the one you won’t have heard of. All in that best London Walks schtick: we take you places you wouldn’t find off your own bat, show you things you wouldn’t have spotted on your own, tell you stuff you didn’t know.

Sort of like talent spotting. Sort of like what Chrissie Castagnetti did on Saturday, April l3th, 1996. Chrissie Castagnetti was the director of the Select Model Agency. She was in the Covent Garden branch of GAP. She spotted an attractive girl-child who was shopping with a friend. Chrissie approached her and said, “hello, have you ever thought about being a model?”

The girl – the child – was 12-years-old. Her name was Rachel Kirby. A London girl. Girl. Child. I’m not quite sure what to call Rachel. She was 12. She wasn’t a teenager.

Aside here. Looks like Covent Garden’s the place to hang out if you’re a youngster hoping to be discovered, packaged and presented – and, yes, well-paid – hoping to walk the walk on the walk – the cat-walk. Rachel Kirby was discovered in Covent Garden. Ditto Lily Cole. Ditto Naomi Campbell. Yes, Naomi Campbell. The super-model of super-models. She was window-shopping in Covent Garden when somebody from the Elite Premier Agency spotted her. Window-shopping. How perfect is that. 

And you know, there’s nothing new under the sun as regards talent spotting in Covent Garden. I’m thinking of innocent young Moll Hackabout, fresh from the country, being warmly greeted in Covent Garden by Mother Needham in Hogarth’s famous 1732 print, the first of his Modern Moral Subjects. Look it up and you’ll see what I mean. 

Anyway, the Rachel Kirby discovery created something of a sensation that April. Just a week later she was on the beach at Hastings modelling an eight-page fashion story for the June issue of ID magazine. A week after that she was in Paris shooting the brochure for Sheiseido, the Japanese cosmetic company. And she was on the front page of the Telegraph. And, goes without saying, she was making big bucks.

It wasn’t just that she was nearly six feet tall and beautiful. It was that she wasn’t even a teenager. She was twelve years old. Probably had teddies on her bed, – played with barbie dolls. And even that – as queasy making as it was – wasn’t the whole story. It came out that in her first shoot the photographer told her to flirt with him. The tabloids of course were all over the story. There was a feeding frenzy. The tabs – as always – had their cake and ate it too. They were simultaneously thrilled and censorious. It came out that Select had 70 school-age children and 10 girls under 15 on its books.

The Telegraph – to give them their due – asked some pretty searching questions. “Why so young? Why do we need flat-chested children to sell clothes clearly designed for adults? What is the attraction in one so youthful and so obviously undeveloped? One cannot help but feel there is something faintly sinister in the use of innocence to promote clothes designed to attract the opposite sex.”

Rachel’s parents were accused of robbing her of her childhood. Scorched by the terrible blaze of publicity they decided to restore their daughter’s childhood to her. For a short while. They temporarily retired their 12-year-old daughter. It was a short retirement. Six months later Rachel, now 13, was back on the catwalk. In Milan. In the words of Hilary Alexander, writing in the Telegraph, “six feet tall, pouting and heavily made-up, the 13-year-old London girl was in Milan to model flimsy adult clothes for Albert Ferretti – she was promoting the visible panty line, knickers under transparent chiffon.”

That was 26 years ago. Rachel Kirby is now 38. I wondered – and wonder – what happened to her. My brief encounter with what happened to Rachel 26 years ago left me feeling a bit like a circus performer with plates spinning on poles. The plates being, in the first instance, the most thought-provoking things that were said about the episode. Spinning Plate Number 1 was Rachel’s mother saying, when her 13-year-old daughter was on that catwalk in Milano, “her schooling is everyone’s priority.” Spinning Plate No. 2 was the very experienced model Cecilia Chancellor saying, “the basic truth about the glamour industry is that it’s not real, you’re not really fabulous or anything because you’re a model. If you buy the idea that you are, you’ll have trouble later on.”

Spinning Plate No. 3 was Cecilia Chancellor saying, after she’d looked at the photographs, “it’s a bit yucky isn’t it – the idea that adult women should aspire to look like innocent 12-year-old girls, that they should look at these pictures and compare themselves negatively with them. It sort of gives one a sinking feeling.”

Aside No. 2 here: I think I like – and more importantly, respect – Cecilia Chancellor.

Spinning Plate No. 4 – Cecilia Chancellor again – “on the whole the fashion industry has no interest in who you really are. You can get very successful, and everyone’s very interested in your success and fame and how it might rub off on them.”

Spinning Plate No. 5 was my attempt to track down Rachel Kirby today. What happened to her? She was still modelling in the early years of the 21st century. Then the trail goes cold.

Partly because her name is pretty common. There are any number of Rachel Kirbys that a Google search will fetch up.

Which brings me to Spinning Plate No. 6. The recent post by Rachel Kirby-Rider, the Young Lives vs Cancer CEO. The post opens, “Today is International Women’s Day, and it led me to thinking about women who’ve inspired, helped, supported and empowered me.” It’s a good read.

Spinning Plate No. 7 was a remark made by Peter Thomas, a chap who ran a family garage in a Norfolk Village. Peter’s daughter was a 16-year-old supermodel. Peter said, “People are telling us she’ll be earning half a million dollars a year and I’m scraping to make £15,000 a year.”

Spinning Plate No. 8 was psychotherapist Susie Orbach’s considered response: “these photographs are no more ghastly than usual. It has just taken advertisers a long time to think about the impact on young women.”

And finally, Spinning Plate No. 9. A chap named William Shakespeare once said: Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while,

Till we can clear these ambiguities.

I think the mouth of outrage in this instance goes some way toward clearing them. But we’re not there yet. Which in turn makes me think these matters aren’t quixotic, aren’t trivial – in fact, they’re a matter of emancipation. Every bit as important as George IV giving royal assent to that Catholic Emancipation Act that allowed for Catholic MPs. In Which connection – MPs I mean – a later MP, one Winston Churchill, once said, “we make our houses and then our houses make us.” There’s a piece of wisdom for you. It’s modifiable. You could, for example, say, “we make our value systems – and then our value systems make us.”

And that’s it for tonight. You’ve been listening to the Daily London Walks podcast.

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