Text and Interview by CHRISTIAN GUILTENANE
If you were to believe certain media outlets and bigoted politicians, all kids from broken homes or have grown up in foster care will amount to nothing in life. But as we all know, that simply isn’t true. Sure, there are lads and lasses out there who have endured the toughest of times that they think may scar them for life, but for many, it turns out that with the loving support of friends, family or carers as well as a lot of drive and determination, they can overcome those obstacles and emerge triumphant.
Meet gorgeous Paul Miller, 27. He may look like a sorted kind of guy, but that wasn’t always the case. Born premature to a heroin-addicted mum, he spent his first few months of life hooked to the drugs already in his system before being placed into care. As Paul got older, he developed anger issues, suffered depression and experienced suicidal thoughts which subsequently landed him in hot water at school. Thankfully, the support of one set of foster parents during his teens eventually helped him see the light and turn his life around.
In this frank and brutally honest interview, Paul shares his memories about growing up in care, how he proved one of his doubting teachers wrong to become a success in business plus reveals how coming to terms with being gay early on in life meant that he is now happy to be living away from the ‘predatory’ London scene.
First of all Paul, tell us about your early life with your mum.
My mother was born in 1958 in Springs (The Free state), South Africa. Her mother and father had endured quite a nasty split and so my mother was raised in a convent, then sent to England at 16 to try and rekindle her relationship with her parents who had both moved to the UK. Sadly, her father wanted nothing to do with her and her mother said she would have to sell her body to get money for her rent if she wanted to stay there.
What a horrid situation to be in.
She then met my stepfather Glynn, who is dad to both my older sisters Victoria and Siobhan and an older brother Simon who sadly died at birth. My mother was a nurse for the NHS and fell ill one winter and became bedridden – this is when her life would started to take a down spiral…. My step-father Glynn said he would take care of her and get her medication from the pharmacy. However, unbeknownst to her, he was feeding her heroin. It turns out that Glynn suffered from paranoid schizophrenia and spent most of his adult life in and out of Wormwood Scrubs prison. Over time mum became addicted to the drug.
Good lord. It sounds like his mental health condition led him to being very destructive.
Yes, his behaviour was very unpredictable and we endured some tough times.
So what happened when you were born?
My mum had met my biological dad during one of Glynn’s prison stints and fell pregnant with me. I was born two months before I was due via C-section and incubated for a period of six months. I was born not only addicted to heroin but also to methadone. When I was released from hospital I was put into foster care and went to stay with Midge and Tom. There was a fear initially that I would not make it but somehow I managed to pull through. Meanwhile, my mum told my dad that I had been sent to South Africa and adopted so he couldn’t get any info on me as she had put my step dad on my birth certificate.
How long were you with your foster parents?
I was in care from the age of six months to two years old, before being returned to my mum when she passed a urine test to prove she was drug free. I later discovered that the test had been taken by my sister. Eventually I ended up in care again from the age of eight for another ten years.
What was that like as an older child, being taken away from your mum?
The temporary carers I had when I went back into the care system at eight years old were absolutely horrendous and I endured the worst two years of my life.
Why, what happened?
I would have separate dinner times to them and their kids. I remember one of the meals served up to me was just plain couscous. They used to leave me in the house alone while they all went out when they thought I was asleep. There was a time I had my birthday cake pushed into my face and then my face forced into it, all because I cut myself a slice. No word of a lie, the foster mother was the devil reborn!
She sounds absolutely horrid! Were you able to seek help?
I became depressed and ended up on suicide watch and having to see a counsellor twice a week for depression. I was between eight and ten years old, it was horrific.
It sounds absolutely awful.
It was. But then the most wonderful lady called Jenny and her husband Keith came by to visit with the view of becoming my long-term foster carer. She could see what was going on where I was and urgently told social services that they had to get me out of there ASAP and would take me there and then. It was then when my life truly began and I started to become the person I am today. She saved my life.
Was life at the new foster home better?
It was the happiest I had ever been. Jenny even told me years later that I used to sing around the house with happiness. There is no amount of money I can give or do for them to show just how appreciative I am that they came into my life when they did! Hand on my heart, they kept me out of prison and most importantly they kept me alive!
They sound like angels.
They are the loveliest people you could ever meet in your life! So kind, so loving, so caring and so true to themselves – what parents should be! They have three of their own kids too; Melissa, who sadly passed away due to ongoing health issues, Matthew, their eldest who is the best big brother you could ask for, and a younger sister Mirielle. They immediately welcomed me into their family as one of their own. I had such a nice, warm, wanted feeling. It was such a healthy environment to grow up in!
Did you keep in touch with your birth mum?
I had regular supervised contact but I knew it was for the best that I was in foster care. Sadly, my mother passed away when I was eleven When this happened I started to develop extreme anger issues and attended counselling sessions regularly. I also took up sports like rugby, taekwando, shot put and discus.
And your foster parents helped you through that rough time?
I cannot stress just how lucky I was to end up with the people I did. They helped shape and guide me through growing up and adolescence, loss, grief and many other things. They provided me with so much love and attention.
How did all this impact on your life?
When I was with the first foster parents, I was deeply troubled. I was filled with hatred, depression and anger. When I went to stay with Jenny and Keith, things got better and I started to take control of these feelings. But I was still carrying around a lot of anger. There were a couple of incidents when I got into fights – but I always felt justified as the other people had started it in someway.
Were you popular with the other kids at school?
I was reasonably well behaved once I managed to control what was going on in my head and deal with situations in a different way. I found and used coping mechanisms that worked for me. Life at school was varied; sometimes good, sometimes bad. I was lucky that I was never bullied at school or felt isolated. I was not ‘popular’ as such but got on with everyone and have always been family built, lucky in that respect.
How were you academically?
I was actually pretty smart. I didn’t have a massive drive to pursue academia as I found it rather boring and unchallenging for the most part. I had a head of year called Mr Goode – he was a proper top guy who always believed in me and sang my praises and had my back in the school. But then there was an electronic technology teacher who definitely had it in for me, and took pleasure in telling me that I would fail my GCSEs and amount to nothing.
That must have pissed you off! Did you work harder to prove people wrong?
I wouldn’t say I worked harder, but I ended up being one of the head boys and graduated with twelve A*-C GCSE’s. I was in the top 2% of the school and top 10% of the district. I also managed to come third in a UK mental mathematics competition, losing to twins, who were good friends of mine in school.
On top of all this, you realised you were gay.When did that happen?
When I was much younger, around nine, I had previously dabbled with friends, as you do, but I knew for sure I was gay when I was eleven. When I watched porn I realised that the guy in the videos was the one attracting my young little mind, not the woman. At the same time, me and met best mate ended up fooling around with each other like kids do.
Who was the first person you told?
My foster mother Jenny. She hugged me and told me that she already knew and had for some time and that she was glad I finally found the courage to tell her myself. Sadly, my mum passed away shortly before I came out but my older sisters were cool with it and said they weren’t surprised as they remembered that I used to parade about in my mother’s nighties and her underwear and heels.
With everything that was going on in your life, was there anyone you were nervous about opening up to?
When I was eighteen I reconnected with my biological dad. He found me via Facebook. I was nervous about telling my dad I was gay, I just wasn’t sure how he would react, especially as we had only just formed a new bond by this time. But he was grand with it and simply replied that I was his son and he will love me no matter what.
When you were properly out did you throw yourself on to the gay scene?
Not exactly… but I did dabble in clubbing and going to a few gay venues. I found it was a lot ‘camper’ and seedier than I had expected it to be at the naive age of 18. But I enjoyed it for the atmosphere in terms of knowing there was minimal risk of trouble and the drinks were cheap. I did find it a but seedy – guys would rub against you as they walked past, grope and grab you as if you were a piece of meat…. I know not all gay places are the same but in London it seemed very predatory. I wouldn’t say I didn’t feel I belonged, but I didn’t think it was what I thought it was going to be.
Rugby has played a big part in your life and helped you through the toughest of times, hasn’t it?
Rugby helped cope with the loss of my mum. I channelled my inner aggression and hurt and sadness into the game. I was lucky enough to be pretty good at rugby and ended up playing for my county before moving on to play regional level and played semi-pro. After some time out for injuries, I got to play overseas in the Swedish Premiership (their pro level – equivalent to semi-pro here) for a season. But as the season drew to a close, I ended up with sciatica and unable to play for three months due to how severe the pain was and the inability to stand up straight. After that I was a member of several LGBT+ teams as well as straight teams. My dream was to be able to put on the shirt for Ireland or South Africa and smash it up, but due to various injuries, that has remained a dream.
But at least you managed to achieve a lot in rugby. After your troubled beginnings you’ve gone on to launch your own company.
I helped set-up a community interest company in Kent, focusing on delivering employability programmes for young people aged 16-25 with a focus on sport and health and well-being. The company delivered the Get On Track programme on behalf of the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust. Due to relocation, I was forced to leave my role and I have gone on to launch a hospitality management consultancy in London, helping people to open venues, train staff, do stock takes as well as branding design, fit-out and project management to name a few. I have also set-up another community interest company that is currently developing life skills and employability programmes for young people aged 16-25 who were not in education, employment or training, this time with a focus on the hospitality industry.
You must be pleased that after people thought you’d amount nothing, you’ve achieved so much.
I am pleased with where I am in life in comparison to where many thought I would be. I have spent many years working my way up to directorship level and building an extensive network within the industry. However, I will continue to drive myself forward to always strive to better myself and my situation.
How is your mental health these days? Do you feel invincible?
I wouldn’t say I felt invincible. I am only human after all! I still have moments of sadness and sometimes question life and its purpose, but then who doesn’t? Everyone has these moments for one reason or another, but right now I have a good support network around me and I feel as good mentally as I can, especially with the current situation for everyone. I also suffer from Aspergers and am Autistic. I have also been diagnosed with OCD, which thankfully I manage much better nowadays compared to years ago. Back then, I was known to line ashtrays with foil so they would not get dirty and order my console games alphabetically and by year, colour-code my wardrobe and chests of drawers.
You look great… you’re a stickler for fitness, aren’t you?
Because of lock down I’ve recently rediscovered my love for fitness as I actually have the time to workout and not feel tired after a 14-18 hour day. The lockdown situation forcing the rugby season to end early has been a real big push to me to get in shape ready for next season. I think it’s important to feel healthy within yourself but by no means do I think I have a good body… I am what they would call a ‘daddy’ or ‘bear’ so I have been told.
Have you always been happy about the day you look? Have you ever felt a pressure to look a certain way?
I haven’t felt completely content with the way I look since I was probably 18/19 when I was in prime fitness condition. I was slim, toned yet built. Let’s just say my love for food is showing right now. I haven’t ever really felt a pressure to look a certain way as such but I do feel there is a general consensus that you have to look a certain way within the gay community although, that now seems to be shifting to include other body types, which is a welcome change for all, I am sure.
What do you like most about your body?
Erm, I would say I like my smile and my legs. I think they are probably my two best features for sure! I am not currently a fan of my ‘dad bod’ so am working to eradicate this.
Do you think gay men are obsessed with the body beautiful?
I think a lot are, but not the majority. I feel there is far more insecurity and acceptance of others than many may think within the community in terms of looks.
A lot of gay men use Instagram as a means to boost their self-esteem – do you have a healthy relationship with social media?
I’d say I do, yes. I use Facebook and Instagram a lot, but I think I prefer Instagram there is a lot less drama, because it is all about pictures and not status updates.
When you were out on the scene, was love what you sought? Or were a you just a bit of shagger?
When I hit the scene I was looking to connect with others as friends, to be able to experience the London gay night life, enjoy the company and have a laugh. I have to admit I was more of a sexual being before I turned 18 to be honest. I think coming out at a young age and doing what I did, I developed through the ‘gay timeline’ quite quickly compared to some of my friends. By the time they were out and about, I’d been there and done it and was bored of it. I was looking for something serious more so.
The LGBT+ community is so varied – some are monogamous, others prefer to keep things more fluid. How does it work for you?
For me, if I am with a partner, I am with them, only them and no-one else. I couldn’t ever have an open relationship as for me it doesn’t fit me as a person nor my personality or how I am. But everyone is different and others are happily in an open relationship. I have friends who are and we get along, they live their life, I live mine. Everyone has their opinion and a long as it doesn’t interfere with my life personally who am I to pass judgement on them and their situation.
How has this Covid-19 situation impacted on you and your work?
Covid-19 has changed the world as we know it, hugely affecting the UK economy and the industry that I work in. My businesses are both on hold due to the current situation. However, once lockdown starts to ease and we return to normal as much a possible I feel my community interest company can take off rather rapidly owing to what it focuses on and the fact that 99% of people would be our target audience owing to the fact everything will effectively be starting from scratch again.
What have you learnt about yourself during this time?
That I can motivate myself and keep motivated more so than I thought or previously let myself believe. I’d say I have also learnt that I am not one for social isolation and time with just myself, I thrive on communicating with others, mingling etc etc.
Do you think we will all come out of this changed people?
I think yes, most definitely we will all come out as changed people, I think spending such a long period of time confined to one place and with yourself, you do learn a lot. You realise things you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on in every day life as it was before this pandemic took over.
Finally, what would you say to your 12 year old self about the future?
Don’t listen to negativity. The only approval you need in life is your own. Dream, strive, believe, achieve, be the best you, you can be!