I started an apprenticeship when I was eighteen or nineteen and worked in central London for a company with contracts at Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Somerset House of Justice, you know, those sort of places. I believe I had one of the best apprenticeships in the decorating business. My company had a lot of experience and I enjoyed every minute with them.
I found out I was pregnant with my eldest daughter shortly after finishing my apprenticeship, and about a year and a half later, I was expecting my second daughter. I took some time off from work to be at home with my children but quickly got bored.
When my second daughter was about 18 months old, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis as well as a brain condition. Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a condition that affects the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including vision problems, arm or leg weakness, numbness or loss of balance.
I ended up having surgery, and then after a while I was able to get back on my feet. I had a critical illness payout, which I used to pay off my debts. That freed me up financially, and I decided to start my own decorating business.
I started out small and inexpensive offering general painting and decorating services around my local area, but I had a lot of references from the mothers at my daughter’s school. That is how I got my first customers, and my business really started to grow from there.
A Male Dominated Trade
I feel that there are not as many qualified, experienced female decorators as I would like. However, there seem to be quite a few women who maybe decorate their children’s bedrooms, think it’s easy and decide to try and make some money doing it. From the work I’ve seen from female decorators like this, it draws a lot of negative attention. Unfortunately, this can cause all professional female painters and decorators to can “tarred with the same brush”.
On the other hand, I think people are more reluctant to call women cowboys. Personally, I think there’s no reason why a bad or unprofessional female decorator should not be labelled the same as a man.
My business name is Smith Nicholson and I try not to promote or advertise myself as a “female painter and decorator”. I think that the quality of work should be enough, but at the same time, I do understand that some women who maybe have had some bad life experiences involving men would prefer a female decorator.
I have never really experienced any sexism or discrimination when working. There was one time I turned up to give a quote for a job, and I think I must have been signing my emails off as Vic, so they were a bit shocked when I turned up! So some people have been a bit surprised, but never anything in a bad way.
Working With Multiple Sclerosis
Being a painter and decorator with MS isn’t always easy. It does give me problems with dexterity which isn’t great when you’re a painter, but I’ve found ways around it.
It doesn’t affect me every day, but spraying is certainly a massive help. It brings that labour intensity right down. I’ve got a six-inch scar down the back of my neck after an operation on my spine and head so ceilings are just a real killer for me.
Advice For Anyone Starting Out
For anyone wanting to start a career in the painting and decorating business, I would say be patient, work hard, and learn all you can about the trade. Be persistent and don’t expect to be successful overnight. If you want success in this industry, you have to do the work and dedicate yourself to the job.
When I started out, I was earning £3.50 an hour, and I had to pay for my travel into London. I had to get up at 5:00 or 6:00 and didn’t get home until 7:00 or 8:00 at night. Obviously, no one wants to work tirelessly for little money, but you have to persevere with it. It’s a long game, and like any trade – you’ve got to start from the bottom up.
Yes, you’re going to get the crappy jobs. I think I spent six months painting sash windows in Sunset House — I never want to see another sash window again in my life! But you do your best, and it’s all a learning experience.
Away From The Brush
I have been doing a lot of weight training as part of my lifestyle because I want to stay strong and healthy, not just because of my condition, but also because I am in a physically demanding trade.
I really love health and fitness and the transformation I have seen since taking training seriously has been amazing. I now actively compete in fitness modelling competitions and recently came 2nd in my first ever competition for body transformation. I loved every moment of it and can’t wait to do it all again!
I’ve often thought about getting into teaching as I have MS and 10 years from now I’ll probably be looking at slowing down a little bit because it is a physical job. So teaching is something that I’d like to get into. Maybe teaching at a college where I can help other people start their own careers as painter and decorators.
I’m not entirely sure yet but for now I’m focused in growing my business and getting more spraying experience under my belt and see where that takes me. I know there will be challenges along the work, but what I have learnt in my career is that hard work always pays off.