The authority of Jackie Weaver - the most unlikeliest of celebrities
- Credit: Kirsty Thompson
There's a range of T-shirts with her face on, she's appeared at The Brits, gets asked for selfies wherever she goes and wouldn't mind an offer from Big Brother, but it's talking about local government she’s gets most excited about
For someone who was so unexpectedly propelled into the spotlight, Jackie Weaver has taken her new-found celebrity very much in her stride.
TV shows, red carpet invitations and personal appearance requests – some quite bizarre – have been met with her trademark pragmatic approach.
If there’s one thing the nation learned about Jackie, when that now notorious Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting went viral, it is that she’s a woman who likes to get a job done.
But, while she relishes the opportunities accidental fame has created, she does still find the interest in her, more than a year on, to be 'endlessly surprising' – especially when it happens in the ladies' loo.
'I was invited to an awards dinner and I was sitting next to Maureen Lipman who was hosting the table,' Jackie recalls. 'Partway through, I needed to go to the ladies, but what I hadn’t factored in was as soon as I was on my feet there were so many people who wanted photos.
'So then I was standing there with my legs crossed thinking, which is going to be more embarrassing, just making a run for it or wetting myself? I made it to the ladies, walked back out and outside the cubicle there was a group of women waiting for selfies with me. It’s at moments like that you think, yes, this is overwhelming. I said something like, would you not like me to wash my hands first?'
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The selfies were all taken because they are a part of Jackie’s new job description. 'And I never ever want to be rude to anybody,' she stresses. 'I just can’t imagine having that kind of reaction. One of my TV heroes was Anton du Beke, I’ve loved Strictly for years. I’ve done a couple of shows with him over the last year and he was on my podcast, he was really nice, but I would no sooner have dreamt of flying than saying "can I take my picture with you"?'
As chief officer at Cheshire Association of Local Councils, a job she’s held for 25 years, Jackie began 2021 in much the same way as any other.
Instead of up to 10 events in one day, which it has now, her diary for an average week would contain no more than seven entries, all council-related.
The main difference was that instead of travelling around the whole county, which she regularly did, Covid meant her work was done virtually. As a result, the heated ‘you have no authority here Jackie Weaver’ Zoom confrontation was seen by millions instead of the dozen or so who would normally have witnessed it. Looking back, Jackie admits she had anticipated a difficult experience, although obviously not the eventual outcome.
An external investigator’s report into the infamous meeting, released this March, offered some sympathy for Jackie’s response, although concluded it was 'without any formal footing in terms of appropriate process and procedure.'
So, did she in fact have no authority after all? Jackie maintains her own jury is still out, explaining that she didn’t actually remove them, simply steer them into a virtual waiting room until councillors officially voted them out. Such is the minutiae and technicalities of council life.
'One of the blessings and curses of a parish council is that it is highly parochial. It is neighbours making decisions on things that affect neighbours, so you can get real personality clashes on them, but usually they’re occasional spats with no bad feelings afterwards.'
What you don’t ever normally get is celebrity status: appearances on TV, including introducing The Brits with Jack Whitehall and Line of Duty co-stars Martin Compston and Vicky McClure; a highly successful podcast – cheekily named Jackie Weaver has the Authority – and an autobiography.
There’s even a range of merchandise with Jackie’s face on, which has its own search header on Etsy –T-shirts, mugs and birthday cards – although she points out she has nothing to do with that.
'It quite surprised me that people could freely use my image without my permission, I just wish it had been a better picture,' she laughs.
Throughout it all, she seems remarkably at ease. 'Which, of course, is not how I feel on the inside, most definitely not. I work with the clerks to our local councils and often I’m their go-to person when they’re worried about something so I’m comfortable talking to people. I like to put things into context, what’s the worst that can happen? That’s how I live my life, with the attitude of what’s the worst that will happen?
'The only time I really get nervous is when I’m talking to my peers because for me that’s the important bit. Doing the telly doesn’t make me anxious but talking to people from local authorities, I feel that anxiousness about getting it right.
'One of the funniest things about doing media stuff, especially live TV, is that nobody ever says, "can you do this?". Nobody auditions you, there’s no dry run beforehand, it just happens and you wing it.
'With Channel 4’s Big Fat Christmas Quiz, there was a script but none of what you saw was scripted. One thing I’ve learned, and it’s particular to comedians, is there’s no point in hanging too tightly onto what a script says because they’ll always go off-message. Then you have to be able to roll with that and not look too much like a rabbit in the headlights.'
As time has gone on, Jackie says the focus of invitations she receives has changed slightly. Alongside the glitzy TV ones, there are those asking her to be a guest speaker, often talking about her role as part of a team looking after 230 parish and town councils. And it's those she’s really most excited about.
'What I’ve been trying to do is help people see that a council is a tool, it’s a mechanism for effecting change, it’s not an end in itself,' she explains. 'If you want to see change in your community, then local council is a great way to make that happen but it needs people to come forward with ideas and have real passion for their own area.'
With a background in retail management with Mothercare, Jackie’s own involvement in politics came after she and husband Stuart relocated to Cheshire and had their three sons within four years.
'We moved to Cheshire because my husband was the son of a Cheshire farmer so he part-time farmed and worked part-time as an engineer. We lived alongside the farm in a small rural community, Burleydam, and we continued to until about five years ago when we moved 15 minutes away to rural Shropshire.”
She was briefly a councillor before moving to her current job, taking with her a determination to 'make things fair'. Now, she says, the upside of becoming a household name has been having a platform to encourage more people, especially young people, to do the same.
'That’s absolutely why I’ve put as much effort in over the last year or so as I have done because my fear is it’ll all disappear tomorrow and if it does then I’ll be really angry with myself that I didn’t do everything I could today to make use of it.
'Sometimes at national meetings colleagues have said to me, "I don’t know why you do it, why did you open the door?" and I just think, you must be mad. We’ve spent 25 years trying to highlight what town and parish councils do and the value that they bring to their communities, then suddenly you have the press knocking on your door, and you’re going to tell them to go away? I don’t think so.'
For Jackie, the idea that the attention could go as quickly as it came has been there from day one. 'At first I thought it might last a week and then suddenly a month had gone by, and six months, and you think, surely this couldn’t last a year, that would be crazy? And yet here we are.
'I’m really lucky that this happened to me at this particular time in my life. I feel reasonably good about myself, I haven’t always, but now I’ve got a job that I value and I feel valued in, I’ve got three children who are doing well for themselves, a lovely husband, two dogs, a nice garden. I’ve got all the other things that matter to me in terms of a successful life and when the fame disappears I’ll still have all of that.
'If it happens when you’re 25 it must be incredibly difficult to find something to replace that and I think that’s why we end up with people who become suddenly famous doing increasingly stupid things to stay famous.
'If this all stopped tomorrow I’d miss it, there’s no doubt about it. That’s not to say I’d die in a ditch over it, but you spend more than a year having everyone say to you how marvellous you are and tell me that when that stops you won’t miss it. Of course you will.'
Jackie Weaver on…
Being in the public eye…
Left to my own devices, I’m actually quite reclusive, other than when I’m working I really don’t go out much. My idea of heaven is Christmas Eve, when the shops shut and you close the door and that’s you entrenched for the next few days. I love that.
Embracing social media…
Before all of this I’d probably tweeted a couple of things about sitting on a train eating a sandwich, but I just didn’t get the point. Then Twitter actually got in touch with me and said, ‘would you like @jackieweaver’ so I said that’s very kind, but I had this vision of some poor person who was Jackie Weaver having their account whisked off them. They gave me a blue tick and tutorials on how to use Twitter so now I’ve got 42k followers and I tweet at lot. Sometimes it’s my weekly nail style, or what Stuart’s been doing, and sometimes it’s things about local government that I think people should get excited about. I never really know what followers want so it’s a mixture.
Her spat with Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber…
He wrote ‘A Song for Jackie Weaver’ and what really annoyed me was seeing him on TV touting this anthem because I thought, you’ve never even once contacted me, not by text message or by social media. One of his minions could have done it. I just thought that was really arrogant.
Doing reality TV…
Yes, I’d do it, although I don’t know which one. I think on ice I would be an absolute disaster waiting to happen, so something like Big Brother probably. I think I’d end up being the group counsellor.
The oddest request…
That’s got to be when I was approached by the Disney+ channel which was running a competition around The Walking Dead because they’d just got seasons 1-10. If you won the competition then a professional zombie, and apparently there is such a thing, would turn up at your Zoom meeting and take your place instead. They came to my house and I had my face done up as a zombie, they did prosthetics which took two hours to put on. Did I look amazing? I looked dead actually.