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Should the past stay in the past?


Gemma Middleton wonders whether letting the skeletons out of our proverbial closets can ever be good for our careers?

Prostitution...secrets...humour...anonymity...were words that up until recently described the past world of Belle du Jour. For those of you who haven’t heard of Belle or chose simply to avoid her unusual life because of what she represents, she worked as a call girl in London and kept a blog, which later became a collection of books and several TV series. I must admit I own all three books and watched Billie Piper’s portrayal of Belle’s life with fascination, disbelief and dare I say, enjoyment!
The stories and insights were humourus; ideal holiday reading! Some parts so much so that it left me dealing with the embarrassment of startled looks from fellow holiday makers after having let out humongous belly laughs, whilst reading the book on my sun lounger. Needless to say my partner was not impressed and did not find the line funny when I read it back to him; it must have got lost in translation.
As I was reading the books, it didn’t feel like a person’s real life as the stories were so far removed from my own. Funnily enough prostitution is not one of my hobbies and a choice of employment that I deem to be anything but glamorous or enjoyable, unlike what the books lead you to believe; maybe that is why they were so popular the world over … fantasy that was supposedly reality?
But low and behold on the 15th November 2009, Dr Brooke Magnanti stepped into the limelight to show the real face of Belle Du Jour. Not only is she attractive and self-confident but clever and witty with an incredibly successful career as a research scientist into childhood cancers at Bristol University. Her short-lived ‘whoredom’ life, as she says, was to support her whilst completing her PhD at Sheffield Hallam.
Whilst Belle’s antic’s created a storm when she was published because of the ‘positive’ and even slightly glamorous slant on prostitution, since Brooke’s outing to the world the reception and articles that I have read have definitely been mixed.
Her employer has publically backed her saying, “This aspect of her past bears no relevance to her current role at the university.” A move that did quietly surprise me and got me thinking about how many other organisations are willing to fully accept ‘past’ lives and not let it impact on an individuals’ future employment and promotion? Would they stand by senior managers if their past was viewed as seedy?
Obviously what constitutes someones’ past would dramatically affect the answer; committing serious criminal acts compared to, say my not-so-secret obsession with Girls Aloud, is unlikely to have many organisations back them, particularly if they went out of their way to hide it. Would Bristol University still be such a strong supporting employer if Dr. Magnanti wasn’t a famous author?
What would have been the world’s opinion had Dr. Magnanti not been the picture she had painted when describing Belle (successful), and had actually been a homeless addict; we will never know. It maybe that the reason many ‘normal’ people accepted her reason for entering the sex-trade was because it was actually a worth-while one; to fund career development and further education and not to feed from an addiction.
Whatever your opinion is on the matter, I believe one thing is likely to happen in Dr. Magnanti’s work life; the dynamics in her environment are bound to change, which may affect her future career. I hope it doesn’t and whilst she says she doesn’t regret anything, not all of society will be on the same blog post that she is!

Gemma Middleton is a regular columnist for and the marketing coordinator at Righttrack Consultancy. Read her other features: Bigger isn't always better, Generation Y hits the wall, Social media for learning?, Can discrimination ever be positive? and The British Resolve: Leading us to greater things

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