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Leaving school without qualifications, plus bankruptcy and dealing with discrimination, couldn’t stop Joanne Anderson from becoming Mayor – and then cancer came along.
She’s tall, striking, charismatic and warm, with natural glamour. Yet the demeanour of Liverpool Mayor Joanne Anderson masks a life of combating poverty, racism and, now, cancer.
After growing up on a council estate and leaving school with no qualifications, the 52-year-old single mother was declared bankrupt twice before Liverpool’s electorate voted her Mayor in 2021. However, a year into the role, a routine mammogram led to a diagnosis of breast cancer.
But she still decided to take on the challenge of bidding for Eurovision, winning it for the city, and now staging the extravaganza. It is expected to bring £25 million to the Liverpool economy in May alone.
Anderson had a lumpectomy and radiotherapy to address her stage 2 cancer and is now undergoing preventative treatment.
“When you’re facing cancer, the first thing you need to do is get it out of you,” she says.
Within two months, she was fronting Liverpool’s bid to become the city to host the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest. And within five she had secured the event, despite considerable opposition. At the time, central government was running parts of Liverpool City Council because of maladministration that happened before her tenure.
Normally, the host city is in the country that won the previous year’s competition. But 2022 victors Ukraine bowed out because of Russia’s invasion. So the baton passed to Britain, as UK entrant Sam Ryder had finished in second place.
The Eurovision final took place at Liverpool Arena on Saturday May 13 and was expected to be viewed by 160 million people worldwide – in the UK, it was the most watched Eurovision final in the competition’s history, with an average viewing figure of 9.9 million. A boost to the Liverpool economy of £25 million is expected before the end of the month, and long-term international tourism predicted to grow that figure tenfold by 2026.
“The only credit I can take for Eurovision is that I was the decision-maker,” Anderson says modestly. “From the minute there was a chance – ‘Do we go for it or not?’ – during a really challenging budget situation, I was always saying, ‘Yes, we will go for this’, with the support of Cabinet and the Labour group.
“Some people were saying, ‘Well, actually, I don’t think we should.’”
Anderson is well aware that should the bid have failed, fingers would have pointed at her for spending the city’s money when it could least afford it.
She is talking in her office on the fourth floor of Liverpool’s Cunard Building with its panoramic views of the Mersey, and between the Royal Liver Building, with its iconic stone birds, and the Port of Liverpool building. Together, they constitute the city’s ‘Three Graces’. But she is not letting the setting go to her head. “I’m not a Lord Mayor, or Mayoress,” she says. “I’m not a fan of pomp. I don’t get any chains, or cloaks or a nice car.”
Maybe that’s just as well, as her two-year term finishes this month. Local government reorganisation in the city is doing away with the post. But Anderson will continue moving forward, and is planning to do an MBA at Liverpool John Moores University.
Being optimistic and confident, as well as modest, is in Anderson’s make-up, and that of her background.
She says that although she could “tick all the boxes” – “a Black kid in the Seventies…from a poor background…in a disadvantaged area of Liverpool…” – she “couldn’t have had a nicer childhood”.
Anderson continues: “I’m not one of life’s victims. I’m horrified at the thought of being depicted as if I was born poverty-stricken – in the workhouse…”.
The way she views her childhood is explained by the amount of supportive family she had around her. Her mother, Charlotte, had her at 18, and was one of ten children, with six sisters – “all incredibly competent, capable women,” she says. Her dad is one of seven. Some of her aunties had sweetshops, which she and her cousins greatly enjoyed. “I was spoiled rotten,” she says.
“My mum was the person on our estate who everyone went to with a problem to solve. She worked at the Citizens Advice Bureau when I was about four, and, later on, a law centre. She was a community activist.”
Anderson can see the influence her mother has had on her. “I used to push her hand away and say, ‘I don’t want your advice,’ because you rebel against your parents, don’t you? But I’ve ended up doing similar things,” she says.
She says that “giving or doing for others” is how she wanted to “live my life”. She proudly adds that her mother started a law degree and qualified as a solicitor in her forties, and is now a retired judge.
As a mature student, Anderson got into Liverpool John Moores University, graduating in Business Studies at 28, and much of her work before becoming Mayor concerned promoting equality, diversity and inclusion across the public and private sectors.
She married and had a son at 32, who is now at university, but became a single parent when he was two.
She credits the women around her for helping her through those years, particularly with taking her son to school. “It’s really hard being divorced and a single parent. Without the support of the women in my ex-husband’s family, my mother and other women…I wouldn’t have been able to work,” she says.
In 2019, having noted a lack of Black people on Liverpool City Council, she stood as a Labour candidate for the Princes Park ward, which elected her as councillor that October with 73% of the vote. However, in the same year, she was declared bankrupt for the second time in her life.
“I’d got myself into debt using credit cards in my early twenties and found it hard to get out of. Then, sometimes, being divorced and a single mother at the time, you have to make difficult choices, juggling plates, facing that negative spiral.” She also blames the second occasion on not being paid several thousand pounds she was owed for a completed business consultancy contract, and also losing a part-time job.
She believes the worst, as well as the best, of times are all about learning and are inextricably intertwined.
There was subsequently a crisis in the ruling Labour party in the city, which prompted Anderson to run for more senior office. Police arrested her predecessor as Mayor, Joe Anderson (no relation), on suspicion of bribery and witness intimidation, and three of her Labour colleagues were barred from standing for Mayor. And then it was revealed that mismanagement in one department was going to cost the council millions of pounds for which it had not budgeted.
“Three women were knocked off the shortlist for the new Mayor by the Labour Party,” she says. “I didn’t want someone imposed on my city, which I felt was in peril. I thought, ‘I could step up.’”
She did and became the first Black, female, directly-elected Mayor in a major UK city – and the first female Mayor of Liverpool.
But then came the letter following a routine mammogram, and a biopsy that revealed breast cancer.
“It couldn’t have been worse timing,” she says. “Out of all the jobs, of all the years…”
After her lumpectomy and radiotherapy, she now actively urges women to go for their mammograms.
A major reason for Anderson going into politics was because she wanted greater Black representation on the council, and she sees the effect that has had, with young Black women coming up to her in the street and her receiving texts out of the blue from people saying ‘You’ve really inspired me’. She says this is “incredibly heart-warming and not something I’ve taken lightly”.
She adds: “It is hard when you get to the higher levels of politics. There are a lot of barriers for women to be politically active. Sometimes, often, I’m the only Black person in the room – with very few women. I show it can be done.”
However, she sees the effect she has had, particularly as Mayor, spreads way beyond race.
“It’s incredibly heart-warming having an impact – on Black people, on women… What I hadn’t realised was the positive impact on young white men, who say, ‘I feel really different about politics – because you’re different to what’s gone before,’ That’s really positive.
“I imagine I’m quite relatable as well,” she says. “When people talk to me, I’m down to earth and I think that impacts.”
Anderson adds that she feels she can sense them thinking: ‘She’s just like me. If she can do it, I can do it.’
Her inclusive agenda stems from a childhood that, although happy, was still touched by racism, particularly when she lived on the Isle of Man for a while when she was 16, and felt very out of place.
However, she sees racism, and other forms of discrimination, as problems across society and not dictated by geography.
“I would have experienced racism in Liverpool as well,” she says. “I can see there’s a lot of misogyny and racism in society generally.”
But this is no deterrent to her. “I’ve dealt with that all my life. I wouldn’t get out of bed if I let that stop me.”
She says she has tried to take an equally inclusive approach to other communities, such as the LGBTQ+ community. Last year she was a judge at last year’s House of Suarez Vogue Ball in Liverpool, which celebrates vogue culture (vogue is an art form with its roots in Black and Latinx queer and trans culture). She says she was told by one person there: ‘“I’d always felt out of place…You don’t know how important it is for someone like you, who represents the establishment, to be there with us, judging the Vogue Ball.”’
The theme for Liverpool’s Eurovision is ‘United by Music’, which is reflected in its brightly-coloured logo. “With my background, my stamp on it is inclusivity,” says Anderson, although she is at pains to praise Culture Liverpool for its work in staging the event.
The city capitalised on being picked as the host city by holding a ‘cultural festival’ to lead up to the grand final on Saturday. This has included a Eurovision ‘village’ on the city’s waterfront, and various events, installations and celebrations of both British and Ukrainian talent. After all, Liverpool is twinned with the Ukrainian port of Odessa. And there is even a trail throughout the city of 20 cut-outs of 1993 Scouse Eurovision runner-up, Sonia.
Contrary to what longstanding TV viewers might expect, Eurovision actually consists of several shows – strung across five days at Liverpool Arena – which culminated in the grand final on Saturday May 13.
Anderson feels that the city certainly has the credentials to host the competition. “Liverpool is recognised with UNESCO City of Music status; the only one in England,” she says. “I went to Nashville last year – they haven’t got it!”
She adds: “I’ve certainly got a lot of mileage out of The Beatles – absolutely. No-one can beat The Beatles, can they?”
She also approves of how Eurovision 2023 managing director Martin Green has described Liverpool – as the UK’s ‘music brand’. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah. I’ll have that!’”
She sums up bringing Eurovision to Liverpool with her trademark mix of modesty and confidence.
“I think I’ll look back on this period and feel that I made a valuable contribution to a time and place when our city needed my help,” she says.
But then adds: “Liverpool is putting on some amazing events as it turns into a playground for Eurovision. It’s out of this world what is happening. Ukraine, you have my promise – we will do you proud.”