Jackie Weaver: my unlikely rise to national stardom

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Of all the candidates for Britain’s most famous person, Jackie Weaver must never have thought herself a possibility. As she tells me, “I have often referred to myself as the magician’s assistant.” The limelight was never something she sought for, and for 27 years she has worked outside of it, in the important sphere of parish and town councils, acting as Chief Officer of the Cheshire Association of Local Councils.

The limelight was, however, forced upon Weaver in 2021 when she became a global superstar after she was called in to moderate a Handforth Parish Council Zoom meeting as clerk. Greeted with difficult parish councillors, one famously declaring “you have no authority here Jackie Weaver.” Weaver dealt with such treatment by removing the disruptors from the Zoom meeting. The meeting went viral, and she shot from obscurity to the pinnacle of British stardom. She was the hottest topic on Twitter for a while; opened the Brit Awards; and Andrew Lloyd Webber even wrote a song about her called “An Ode to Jackie Weaver”. Weaver was a household name, and she is now one of the most memorable names from one of the most memorable periods in recent British history.

No meeting like that comes out of the blue. There’s history […] so it brewed for a long time

Throughout our interview, she remains grounded and humble, and strikes me by her in-depth knowledge and concern for local councils. The viral Zoom meeting we all know her for was merely the continuation of years of service to a field that she is deeply passionate about supporting.

Born and brought up for a while in Scotland, Weaver tried to become a nurse, but circumstances got in the way meaning she moved into working for a number of computer companies and management training for Mothercare. Soon, however, she became hooked on the passion she would become renowned for: local councils.

Weaver feels as though she has made a concrete difference in her role as Chief Officer. Her role is not to make decisions, but to help the right ones be made. “I don’t know what’s important, but I facilitate the people that do know what is important.” “My job is to provide advice, guidance, training and support to, at the moment, 230 town and parish councils across Cheshire to help them deliver what they think is important in their communities.” It is undoubtedly a difficult job, in which one encounters unusual situations, not least the Handforth Parish Council meeting.

After watching the viral moments from this parish council meeting, I wonder whether such dysfunctionality is commonplace on parish councils. Weaver is keen to point out that such situations are rarely down to fundamental dysfunctionality, but the chaos caused by a few disruptive parish council members. “No meeting like that comes out of the blue. Nobody gets that wired up about something in an instant. There’s history […] so it brewed for a long time. Are many meetings like that? No. But when you have a disruptive member […] the effect they have is absolutely disproportionate. In no time at all you have a council that is full of people that don’t know what to do next.”

Unlike so many people who chase fame, fame chased Weaver. The council meeting had finished, in fact it took place in late 2020, weeks before the video went viral. For her, therefore, it was done. “I have moved on, there are 230 councils in Cheshire so there’s always the next thing waiting for you to do.”

As Weaver recounts the process by which she became aware of her fame, it is almost comical. After receiving texts from friends speaking about her ‘trending’, she spoke to her son who confirmed that is must be a joke. She was blind to the fact that the one topic the nation was talking and laughing about was her activity in the parish council meeting.

It was only the next day when a reporter came to the door that Weaver suspected something. “Part of my job is to deal with things that are often really random, so you get kind of really used to winging it I guess. Wait and see what unfolds and then see what you can do with it. And so when the first reporter talked to me I was then able to pick up what we were talking about.” This image illuminates the sense in which fame and publicity ambushed her. This really was the collision of two worlds: the first, which Weaver worked within, away from the social media world of ‘going viral’; and the second world, the internet, which is fixated on ‘views’ and ‘content’. Part of the beauty of Weaver’s story is her not being from this second world, and the way it caught her, and us, by surprise.

“The day was simply full from eight o’clock in the morning to nine o’clock at night of interview after interview […] when I look back at my diary I must have done 40 interviews in that first week. Easy because most of them were virtual. And that just continued for the next twelve months.” As Weaver notes, the story did not fizzle away as she first expected, as typically happens with viral videos. Instead, she remained as a legendary figure in the eyes of millions of Britons who lit up the country in what was quite frankly an awful period.

I must have done 40 interviews in that first week

I cannot help but think that being launched to being an internet sensation and national treasure must have felt utterly daunting for this “magician’s assistant”. But no. “It happened at such a pace, I don’t think I ever had the chance to sit back and think how do I feel about this. Because in almost every interview you were in you were thinking about the next one.”

Working away from the limelight, and never seeking it, I sense that keeping grounded can not have been such a problem for Weaver, as it may be for other people who become viral, especially young people thirsty for fame as influencers. I am not wrong, for throughout my interactions with Weaver, she seems convinced that “I’m perhaps not as special as people tell me.” But such a grounded mentality is what has made Weaver special, and her relatability made her such a beloved part of this nation’s collective memory. As well as an inherent instinct towards humility, “one of the things that has been really important in grounding me is I have three sons who are utterly unimpressed.”

Weaver does not believe that her treatment during the parish council meeting was sexist. “I don’t think that that was a sexist rant. Don’t forget, I know the history.” This said, “one of the things that shocked the hell out of me was the amount of communication I had from women’s groups […] lots and lots of different organisations that I never even knew existed contacted me and asked if I would talk about my experiences.” This meeting was, therefore, illuminating, because it reminded Weaver that sexism still lingers.

All of Weaver’s emails end with a smiley face emoji, perhaps testament to the positivity that she is known for radiating. Even after the interview, she is happy to spend ten minutes talking about interviewing styles and giving me advice. This is the mark of a lady not blinded by any sense of self-importance, but defined by kindness, humility and warmth. Her enthusiasm for, and dedication to, the continued health of local councils in Cheshire and further afield is without question. This is also someone whose story I, like many, find refreshing, for we live in an age where people chase empty (and boring!) fame and recognition. Weaver’s story is the reverse, and that is what makes it so gripping. Indeed, it gripped an entire nation.

Image: via Jackie Weaver

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