The journalist and satirist can more than keep up with Boris and her other brothers
Boris Johnson’s sister Rachel. Such is the moniker with which the second-eldest Johnson sibling is frequently saddled. With one brother a government minister, one a partner at PwC, and one whose reputation as London mayor and Conservative MP has seen him transcend his surname to become simply Boris, Rachel Johnson, who turns 50 this month, is perennially accused of riding on her family coat-tails. A party girl by nature, there is a certain public perception of the sole Johnson sister as a posh, over-privileged social butterfly with a tennis racket welded to one hand, a champagne flute to the other.
In fact, Rachel Johnson is as clever, ambitious and shrewd as her famous siblings — if not more so. After all, keeping up with the Joneses is a doddle compared to keeping up with the Johnsons.
Rachel might always be at parties — but she is invited because she is a dream guest. It is impossible to feel unwelcome in her presence: a childhood spent globe-trotting with her ebullient father, the former MEP Stanley Johnson, means she has the ability to talk to anyone, about anything. As a result, she possesses a veritable — and tantalising — treasure trove of gossip. Laughter pours from whichever corner of the room she inhabits. This naturally makes her an unrepentant nightmare for her elder brother’s PR team. Witness the tweet she sent out on election night in 2010, when a Tory victory seemed impossible — “It’s all gone tits up. Call for Boris” — or her gleefully public revelation of young Boris’s desire to be “world king”. But an ear-bashing from a public relations officer could never quell Rachel’s desire to have what she calls “bags of fun”. She will not be defined by her brothers. This is not “Boris’s sister Rachel” but “Rachel, who happens to have a brother named Boris.”
The mayor himself is eager to corroborate this fact. Had Rachel not been born, he insists, “he wouldn’t be Boris”: her precocious drive to surpass her elder sibling in matters both mental and physical drove his own ambition.
For Rachel Johnson is quite ferociously intelligent. Those who criticise her privileged upbringing seize upon an education at fee-paying St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, and a classics degree from New College, Oxford. What these detractors conveniently forget are the intensely competitive examinations that must be sat for entrance into both institutions.
As sole sister to three brothers, it is little wonder that she became the first-ever woman to secure a graduate traineeship at the Financial Times. From there she moved to the BBC, before a freelance career that has seen her write for almost every national broadsheet, as well as become contributing editor at the Spectator. Her column for the Mail on Sunday takes an irreverent view of the week’s news, frequently playing devil’s advocate on contentious female issues in order to provoke debate.
When there is the inevitable backlash Rachel’s automatic response to any jibe is self-caricature. She is always first in line to poke fun at that image of a posh, entitled socialite. Thus her reality television appearances: charting her editorship at society magazine The Lady and slumming it with the destitute in Famous, Rich and Hungry. Then there are the deliberately provocative articles, such as the Times feature in which Rachel visited cut-price supermarket Lidl (“This was like entering a morgue, only colder and deader somehow”). By jumping in and owning the media’s derogative image of her, Rachel displays that most attractive of qualities, the ability to laugh at herself.
The greatest satire, however, she saves for her Notting Hell series of novels documenting the lives of the super-rich in the affluent Notting Hill area of west London, where she lives with her husband Ivo Dawnay, London director of the National Trust; they have three children. That she writes for both her readers’ pleasure and her own is, of course, anathema to many “highbrow” writers. The playwright and novelist Hanif Kureishi refused to believe that he and Rachel shared the same agent. When pressed for his reasons, Kureishi eventually exploded: “He can’t be yours, he’s a literary agent.” She may have written five books and been a judge for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, but the literary community will not accept her into the fold. Rachel doesn’t give a hoot. She’d rather romp her way to winning the Bad Sex in Fiction award (as she did for Shire Hell in 2008) than strain ponderously for the Booker.
Like their author, the Notting Hell novels bring a wicked joy to people’s lives. What could be more worthy? And of course they earn Rachel the money she needs to keep up with the Johnsons. One might accuse her of hiring herself out to anyone who needs a controversial opinion on the topic of the day, whether it be discussing the election on the Andrew Marr show, or the appropriate skirt length for a forty-something woman in the Mail on Sunday. But then, in the words of another Johnson, “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” And a blockhead Rachel Johnson most certainly is not.