She’s worked in care, flourished as a fashion and beauty vlogger, and embraced the body-positivity movement – and now she’s breaking into TV. TenEighty meets Gracie Francesca, the self-styled “internet’s big sister”…
“Sometimes, if I’m honest, I forget how lucky I am,” admits Grace F. Victory, who vlogs to over 200,000 subscribers as Gracie Francesca. “I came from a horrible town, and I grew up on a council estate, never had any money growing up. And now I’m living out the dream, essentially.
“I’m my own boss, and have a nice flat, and have a nice car, and I get to do so many amazing things,” she explains. “I’ll have days where I really, really remember how lucky I am, and I get emotional. I think, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that I’ve changed my life around’, because I was in therapy five years ago, and I was very, very depressed, and now I’m out here doing what I hoped I would always do.”
Grace grew up around “a lot of poverty and a lot of crime”, and saw people her age “turn to drugs or alcohol”. Although she “couldn’t articulate it” herself, she “always knew that something wasn’t right” about her early years. “Going to school, and seeing friends that were middle-class, or had massive houses, and could afford to do this and that – that’s when I started realising,” she elaborates. “I definitely knew, in my heart, something was wrong and something was different.
“I didn’t have a childhood,” she says, “in the sense that it was a very difficult and hostile upbringing. I learned very, very quickly that I couldn’t be a child, and I had to help my mum, and I had to be there for my baby cousins and stuff like that, who have also had a difficult childhood – I was the oldest of all the cousins, and I’m a big sister to my little sister. I didn’t have time to constantly play, or constantly cry and moan about the situations that I was in, because essentially there was nobody there to help me and listen to me. I had to grow up really quickly.”
But Grace had an escape. “I was able to dance,” she says, “and that kind of kept me on the straight and narrow. That was the one thing that I focussed on, no matter how difficult a situation I was in at the time. I never tried smoking. I didn’t really drink alcohol. I always had a focus and a vision. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I just knew that, if I stuck at something that I liked, I would somehow get there.”
She attended the Jackie Palmer Stage School, where her uncle taught dance, and Grace did “dance and drama and gymnastics and singing”. That led to background roles in Harry Potter, Family Affairs, and The Bill – “I guess I’ve always been able to talk on camera,” she suggests – and taught her that her performance skills could become a career. “I saw people in films that went to my dance school, I saw people make it,” she recalls, “and so I always knew that that could be me. I always wanted to be a popstar, or in a girlband, or in a theatre show.”
“Growing up, on every cover of every magazine was a white, thin woman – and that would never, ever be me…”
But as she got older, reality set in. “I realised that there was no money in that,” she laughs, “unless you were famous. So I went through the whole care route – working with children and young people in care, and domestic violence centres.
“It was just the best,” she enthuses, of that period. “I miss working with kids so much. The children’s home was literally like my second family. Sometimes I was there more than I was with my own family. I still talk to the kids now, and they watch my videos!”
She taught dance to children at a women’s refuge, and “knew that, when I was there, that was a chance for the kids to be kids”. Did Grace see herself in her pupils? “Yeah, a hundred percent. I think that’s why I did it.” In those sorts of places, “every staff member has to have some sort of reason to be there”, she says: “You have a connection with helping people, or you’ve been where they’ve been, or whatever it is – and mine was definitely that I’d been through what they were going through. It was nice to help someone through a situation, because I didn’t have the help when I was their age.”
How different would her own childhood have been with that sort of help? “If there was someone like me when I was younger, it wouldn’t have been as bad,” she considers. “I don’t want to say I wouldn’t have had an eating disorder, or I wouldn’t have had issues with self-harm, but I definitely feel like I would have been able to be myself a lot more, and not pretend that everything was alright when it wasn’t. And probably think that I was beautiful, cos growing up, on every cover of every magazine was a white, thin woman – and that wasn’t me, and would never, ever be me. I didn’t get that when I was younger, and I thought that’s what I needed to look like to be beautiful, and to be appreciated, and to love myself and for someone else to love me.”
Aged 21, Grace “wanted something else to do”, and as she browsed YouTube and read blogs, it sunk in that “there was nobody I could relate to” on those platforms. “So I basically decided to make myself the person that other people could relate to that looked like me,” she remembers. “Curly hair, curvy, bit urban. It just took off from there.”
And so her channel, originally called UglyFaceOfBeauty, was born. “I started because I liked fashion, and I was getting into beauty at the time, and it was a bit of a community,” she explains. “As you grow up, you sometimes really want a community feel. I didn’t have that in my hometown, and I lacked that in my life, so it was a nice way to meet people that had the same interests as me.
“Now, I get to do a bit of performing, and a bit of my creative side, as well as helping people. So for me, it’s sort of like the best of both worlds.”
How welcoming was the YouTube community to Grace, given that she felt bodies like hers were unrepresented on the site? “I think it was quite an open space,” she says, “because how many there was of us wasn’t actually a lot, compared to now. [So] although, at the time, it was very much middle-class white woman-led – which it still is now – it didn’t stand out as much.”
Diversity remains a problem for the world of beauty vlogging. Many people of colour who were part of the community back then have “kind of stopped doing it”, Grace explains, “and now, as it’s kind of gone boom, and it’s a massive business, you do see the majority of people who are the biggest vloggers, or they’re doing this campaign and that campaign – they do all look the same.
“I do speak up on that on my social media handles,” she asserts, “and I’m very proactive in trying to get other people more well-known within the community, because I still am probably one of maybe three mixed-race girls who are on YouTube and getting paid work, and getting opportunities. We’re lacking women of colour, massively. So although it was an issue back then, I wasn’t really aware of it as much as I am now.”
Grace’s channel thrived, and at the beginning of 2015, she decided to do YouTube full-time.
“I won the Cosmo Blog Award, and I got signed to a management company, and I started noticing an influx of more work, more opportunities,” she explains. “And I made the decision to quit my care job. At the time, I literally was poor. I was broke. I don’t tell people to do this, but I literally didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills – I just knew that I had to make it work. And I’ve never looked back, really. I just took the leap of faith that I could make anything happen. And luckily, it paid off.”
Although fashion and beauty were her first focus, her aim was always “to help people, and make people laugh”, she says. “I wanted people to come to my channel and leave feeling better about themselves, and I think that’s what I still do today.”
Leaving the care work behind was “kind of bittersweet”, she adds. “I knew that if I left the children’s home, I could help more young people, and that’s what I’m doing now. But the kids there were like my little brothers and little sisters. It was the best, and I would go back in a heartbeat if I had to.”
“I think, in the long run, I have a lot of longevity, because I’m very honest…”
Grace’s videos have racked up over 8.5 million views to date, and frank discussions of mental health, domestic violence, and sex are mixed with ASOS hauls and holiday lookbooks on her channel – where she’s branded as “the internet’s big sister”.
“I can’t remember where that came from, you know,” she admits. “I think someone called me their big sister, and then I kind of went with it. What it means to me is being the voice for people that don’t really have a voice. That is talking about certain subjects like self-harm, like depression, like sex and boys and relationships. I’ve experienced all of that stuff, and I’m not afraid to talk about it.
“At the end of the day, all I’m here for is to help people. All I’m here for is to be the most raw and honest version of myself. And if I step on people’s toes, that’s fine. And if brands don’t want to work with me because I’m not clean-cut and I don’t talk about MAC lipsticks all the time, then that’s cool. But I think, in the long run, I have a lot of longevity, because I’m very honest.”
But she wasn’t always that open with her audience. “Quite early on, I started receiving messages [saying that] I was an inspiration, I was amazing, all this stuff,” she sighs, “and I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’m literally one big lie’. I was self-harming. I was very, very depressed. I had an eating disorder. I had anxiety. I just wasn’t happy. And people thought I was, because of my videos. So I did a video called The Pressure To Be Perfect where I spoke about that, and I opened up completely. That was the moment that I became that person that spoke about mental health, because at the time, there was nobody talking about it – or nobody who looked like me talking about it, who wasn’t middle-class and white.”
“I don’t want to be remembered for my favourite lipsticks – I want to be remembered for helping people…”
The impact was incredible. “I received an email from a woman who was a mother, and she said that I’d saved her daughter’s life,” Grace marvels, “because her daughter realised she had a problem and checked into a clinic for eating disorders, and watched my videos while she was having treatment. That’s when I realised that what I was doing was actually helping people – on a global scale, because she was from Australia.
“I would say that I’m probably known more for that now than I am for fashion and beauty,” she says. “I want to go deeper than that. Yeah, I can do Instagram posts for a brand, or I can do a blog post on lipstick or fashion or whatever it is, but when you chip all of that away, I have a lot more to give. I don’t want to be remembered for my favourite lipsticks, or what I look like. I want to be remembered for helping people.”
Many of Grace’s earliest videos are no longer online. “That wasn’t me anymore, and I just couldn’t cope,” she says. “It was just horrendous.” Recently, she “kind of rebranded”, because she “wanted to be a little bit more professional, and share content that was more ‘me’. I’m 26 now, and I’ve lived quite a big life, and I wanted to share content that was real for the person I am today, and not the person I was five years ago – because a lot has changed.”
Like what? “One of the few mistakes that I’ve made is that I’ve done some sponsored stuff, in the very beginning, that I would never do now,” she admits. “I did some stuff on dieting, and all this stuff that I’m not really into any more, like the detox teas and things like that. I think they’re quite harmful, and I don’t like telling people what to eat, and how they should look, and they should lose weight, and things like that. Back then, I was quite unhappy with the way I looked, so that came across in a lot of the content I produced, whereas now I’m very happy kind of just being who I am.”
“Growing up, I never realised that you could be fat and healthy and happy…”
That started a couple of years ago, when Grace “met a group of girls who are in the plus-size community, and they have this thing called the body-positive movement, and they were talking about reclaiming the word ‘fat’. If you take away the negative [connotations] of the word ‘fat’ – like ‘lazy’, like ‘greedy’ – then it’s just another word. And I really, really took hold of that, and I embraced myself and that community.
“Growing up, I never realised that you could be fat and healthy and happy,” Grace continues. “There are people living their lives amazingly who are overweight, who have stretch marks and have cellulite, and look different. And that blew my mind, because I grew up around women who constantly wanted to be thin. I had people around me telling me that I needed to lose weight, and look a certain way, so all my life, I thought that I needed to be thin to be happy – when in actual fact, if you accept yourself the way you are, you can be happy at any size. What I tell people now is that society needs to change, and not you. You’re perfectly fine, and people need to be less judging.”
Earlier this year, Grace had the opportunity to bring her voice to TV, fronting BBC Three documentary Clean Eating’s Dirty Secrets.
“I help a lot of people on the internet, but I also want to reach a wider audience,” she explains, “and I think TV does that. Young people’s problems and mental health are issues that I’m really passionate about. Parents need to learn about [them] as well, and I think that parents are going to watch documentaries more than they are my YouTube videos.”
She admires documentaries by Louis Theroux, Reggie Yates, and Professor Green (“I just like people that come from a typical, normal background, and they’ve kind of made something of themselves – I love presenters like that”), but her favourite presenter is Stacey Dooley, “just because she’s female and she does wicked documentaries”.
In the future, Grace would like to move into other media. “I’d love to write a book,” she reveals. “That’s one other massive goal of mine, is to write a book about my journey, and give some advice – like a self-help book, I guess – and for it to be in mental health units, for it to be in schools, and youth clubs and women’s refuges and things like that. I’d love to have a book that is like a bible for young girls and young adults, and also [grown] women, and parents.”
“I haven’t got the most subscribers, but I have stuff to talk about…”
So what’s it like being the internet’s big sister? Does that responsibility come with downsides? “It can get too much,” Grace nods. “I get a lot of messages and comments from people who want help, and it’s really hard to give myself to everyone. So I put in boundaries, and I’m learning when to say no. I’m learning to have days off. I have a day off every single Wednesday, at the moment – I call it my ‘mental health day’ – so I can chill out, meditate, and just take a bit of time to really self-care and practice self-love. I have the weekends off, as well. So no matter how busy I am, I make sure that I have time for me. I have baths, and I light candles, and things like that.
“My management are really good in turning down jobs, or telling people, ‘Grace just can’t do that’, so I think I have a team around me who get it. And I have friends who really understand when I’m not okay, and when I need help and support. People on the internet know that, if I’m not okay, I’ll tell them. I’ll say, ‘I’m not okay, I’m having a break’, or, ‘I’ve got some personal problems going on, I’m not going to be around as much’. People get it. I rarely get messages [with] people demanding I upload, because they understand. And I think that’s because I am so open, and I’m quite transparent with my problems.”
Grace’s journey has been fast and dramatic. How comfortable does she feel in her new life? “YouTube isn’t the be-all and end-all for me,” she explains. “I would go back to the care home, or I would go back to work in the women’s refuge. But I’ve also got my foot in the door with TV now, so I’ve always got my hands in lots of different pies, so I never get bored, and I never stand still – I’m constantly striving, and I think that’s why I have success in my life.
“I haven’t got the most subscribers. I don’t get the most amount of views. But I get a lot of opportunities, because I have substance, and I have stuff to talk about, and I think brands and TV channels and people like that are interested in that. They don’t want the same kind of old blogger who looks the same and talks the same.
“I do think sometimes, ‘Oh my god, what if I get no work in next month?’ – what a lot of freelance people would think. But that’s the risk that you take. And I think, if you really believe in yourself, and you work hard, and you strive constantly to work and be on the grind… Like, even though I’ve got management, and I’m comfortable, I am constantly looking for something else to improve on.
“I don’t worry at all,” she sums up. “I have self-doubt maybe three times a year? I think, because I’ve felt a lot of pain, I recognise a lot of happiness.”
Want more from Grace?
Why not check out these exclusive photosets:
- Grace F Victory TenEighty 2016 Photoshoot: Set 01
- Grace F Victory TenEighty 2016 Photoshoot: Set 02
- Grace F Victory TenEighty 2016 Cover
Alternatively, read some of our previous TenEighty interviews:
- Melanie Murphy: Glass Half Full
- Lex Croucher: Social Justice Worrier
- Hazel Hayes: Kill Your Darlings
- Dodie Clark: Quirky Little Thing