By Frances Hardy
Last updated at 1:00 AM on 25th July 2009
Winning streak: Miss England Rachel Christie has high aspirations
Rachel Christie is setting out the ground rules for any man brave enough to be a potential suitor - and you can bet there will be plenty, after she became the first black Miss England this week.
She won't countenance indolence, sloppiness or lack of respect. 'I don't want to end up with anyone who will hold me back, treat me like rubbish or be a bad influence,' she says crisply.
'I want someone who'll take me seriously. If that sounds old-fashioned, it's because in personal matters I am.'
Rachel has beauty, attitude and talent - and her aspirations are high. In three years she hopes to compete in the London Olympics - she excels in both track and field events - an ambition fostered by her uncle, Linford Christie.
'He says I have potential. If he didn't think I could do it, he would tell me,' she says.
She shares the steely self-belief that propelled her uncle to the Olympic 100m title. In that way they are similar. In one pertinent way, however, they are not.
It was once said of Christie that he was the most balanced athlete of all time because he had a chip on both shoulders.
As a young man he would rail against the tabloids for their infamous obsession with his 'lunchbox'.
He would inveigh against institutionalised racism in sport; against casual racism in society. A mix of arrogance and hypersensitivity fuelled him.
His niece has similarly robust views, but she seems neither conceited nor temperamental.
And, although her childhood was, as we shall see, marked by both poverty and tragedy, she does not cast herself as disadvantaged just because she is black.
'You hear black kids say: "I can't do anything with my life. I live in a ghetto." I say: "Well, get off your backside and get out of it. Stop making your ethnicity an excuse."
I want to show them you can do anything you want, whatever your colour. I don't like hearing: "I can't do this or that because I'm black."
'They should stop behaving in a way that stereotypes them. If you come across as smart, if you dress nicely and speak well, it shouldn't make a difference if you're black or white. Maybe some people have experienced racial discrimination. Not me.
Fast track: The 21-year-old training for the 2012 Olympic qualifiers
'My main focus in winning Miss England is to show black kids that they can be whatever they want to be. If they sit about moaning and being negative, they won't get on. So my message is: "Just go out and do the best you can."'
Rachel, it would seem, has lived by this adage since her own young life disintegrated into chaos when her father was murdered in a street brawl over drugs. She was just eight years old when he was stabbed to death.
She was born into a West London sink estate in 1988 - the family had a cramped council flat - the daughter of Linford's younger brother Russell and his partner Diana, a white Irish Catholic.
'My main focus in winning Miss England is to show black kids that they can be whatever they want to be'
Russell, two years younger than Linford, was born in London to their Jamaican parents, James and Mabel Christie.
Although both brothers were blessed with sporting talent, it was Linford who converted his into real success. Russell ignored his athletic abilities, routinely ending up in trouble with the law.
In 1989, while Linford was winning laurels as the captain of Britain's men's athletics team, his brother was starting a three-year jail sentence for attacking a former lover with a baseball bat.
Five years later he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for theft and beating another girlfriend.
Victorious: Rachel becomes Miss England 2009 earlier this week
Rachel, now 21, remembers her dad's frequent absences and the quiet stoicism of her mother. She also recalls visits to her father in Parkhurst Prison on the Isle of Wight.
'I can still see those massive black gates. It looked like the entrance to a dungeon,' she says.
'We went in, saw Dad and he was smiling as always. Then Mum took us crabbing at the seaside. It was the first time we'd been to a beach where you could lift the seaweed and see crabs in the rock pools.'
She insists that the intervals when her father was at home were happy. 'He was a good family man, devoted to his kids.'
'I heard Mum saying "Yes, yes, that's him", as if someone was describing Dad. Then suddenly she looked like a ghost'
She is fiercely loyal to his memory and refuses to admit to a scintilla of shame about his law-breaking. He was also a philanderer. Rachel's half-sister, Leanne, who is 20 and born to a different mother, is evidence of this.
They met when they were six years old: 'I couldn't believe who she was. I thought: "How come she's my sister? Where did she come from?"' Rachel smiles ruefully at the memory. But still she refuses to condemn her father.
The day when the relative peace of her young world was shattered remains scorched into her memory. Her father had been absent from home for days when Diana made a call to the police.
'I heard Mum saying "Yes, yes, that's him", as if someone was describing Dad. Then suddenly she looked like a ghost. The colour drained from her, her eyes widened, her face dropped.
'I will never forget her face. Then she just said: "He's dead." I was sitting there with my older brother, James. I didn't cry.
Coming out on top: Rachel with second place Lance Corporal Katrina Hodge on the right and third placed Viki Bailey
'I didn't see his body in the morgue, but I saw him at the funeral. The coffin was open and he didn't look like Dad. He was a big man, 6ft 1in and stocky, and he looked so thin and pale. That was when the grief kicked in.
'I didn't realise it then - I was a little kid - but I got depressed. I had to learn how to overcome it by myself. I had to build up my strength and confidence.'
While Rachel was nursing her own loss, her mother, who was pregnant with her fourth child when Russell Christie was murdered, steeled herself to raise her children alone.
Aside from Rachel and James, 23, she also has Rhease, 14, and Rebecca, 11. They moved to a council house in West Kensington.
'Mum didn't want us staying on the estate. It was rough,' says Rachel with quiet understatement.
'Mum always gave us a massive plate of food - she still does - and had a tiny bit for herself'
The Christie children were dressed in hand-me-downs; there was no family car and they walked for miles across London to their state schools, Diana making the trek twice a day to escort them. She made sacrifices so they would not go without.
'Mum always gave us a massive plate of food - she still does - and had a tiny bit for herself,' recalls Rachel.
Underpinning the family was the reliably constant presence of her grandfather - Linford's father - James Christie, who by then was a widower, an upright and fiercely religious man who took Rachel to Sunday worship every week at his Pentecostal church.
Rachel remains close to him and divides her time between his house in Acton, West London, and the family home in which she was raised.
At some point in her young life she grew determined to make the most of herself. 'I was 16 when I knew I wanted to succeed, to change things,' she says.
Was her Uncle Linford a positive influence? 'I didn't realise at the time, but he must have been,' she says.
'We would all go round to Grandad's and watch his races on the telly. It was quiet until the gun went off, then we'd all be cheering until the house shook. Grandad would be shouting: "Come on Linford!"'
Rachel attended a multi-cultural, all girl convent school - Maria Fidelis in Camden, North London - which, despite the lustre of its name and smart uniform, was a tough school.
Inspiration: Linford Christie, Rachel's uncle, crosses the finishing line to clinch the 100m gold medal in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics
She was ribbed and heckled for being skinny. 'I was tall. I had no hips. Girls being girls, they would say horrible things. But I never cried, it just made me stronger.'
She mixed with girls who got pregnant in their teens, smoked and drank, but she chose a different course. Did she ever take drugs?
She looks genuinely aghast. 'No! I'd never touch them for fear of getting in trouble with my big brother. He's very protective. I'm glad he's like that. When Dad died, he took the father's role.'
Academically, she failed to distinguish herself, but she excelled in drama and sport, qualifying as a fitness instructor.
When she was 19 - the age her uncle was when he took up running in earnest - she started to train for the 400m and heptathlon at the stadium named after him in West London, and at Brunel University, Middlesex.
James, also an athlete, trains there too. Linford mentors her and her coach is Ron Roddan, the man credited with turning her uncle into a world-beater.
'I train for two hours every day. I've been sick with the effort, but my uncle tells me to push, to be stronger, go faster. He doesn't take messing about. He doesn't do nonsense.
'I went warm-weather training in Portugal - my team manager paid out of his own pocket because I've got so little money. But I realised I had the talent. And I know I have the will.'
'Linford wants me to stand on my own two feet. He doesn't dish out cash every second'
For all her self-confidence, Rachel Christie does not come across as a braggart. Her voice is soft and low, but her resolve is steely.
She has chosen a taxing route out of poverty, and money remains tight, but that is precisely what fires her to succeed.
Her father's wider family has chosen not to throw money at her. 'Linford wants me to stand on my own two feet. He doesn't dish out cash every second. If he did, I'd be sitting at home on the couch,' she smiles.
That, too, was one of the reasons she was first inspired to try modelling. She had been spotted by scouts several times as a teenager, but always resisted applying to an agency.
She is 5ft 10in, so she has the catwalk credentials. What held her back?
She fumbles for an explanation, but it seems she was always such a tomboy that she didn't think she'd have a chance.
But here she is today, elegant in a floral mini-skirt and stilettos, poised on the cusp of modelling success. In November, she will compete for the Miss World crown in South Africa.
What does she covet most, the Miss World title or an Olympic gold? 'First I have to win Miss World,' she laughs, 'then the future is on the track. I really love athletics, but I have to pay the bills and that's why I went into modelling.'
She says there is no room for a man in her life at present. 'Obviously I'm interested in men, but I haven't got a boyfriend. I've only ever had one,' she admits.
Was she in love? 'No,' she says firmly. 'I didn't love him. He didn't have any ambition.'
What did he do? 'Nothing! That was why he wasn't right for me.' Did he use you?
'No, I never allowed that to happen. I have my self-respect.' I ask if she lost her virginity to that ex-boyfriend. 'I am not telling you that!' she retorts, still quiet but firm.
'No matter what we've been, my family has always remained proper, presentable.'
These days she is coming round to her grandfather's point of view on pre-marital sex. 'He used to say: "Wait until you're married or it's fornication." And I would be like: "Yeah. Whatever."
Now I understand what he means because all men want one thing and they'll tell you anything to get it. But if they marry you and then say they love you, you know it's true.'
Clearly, Rachel Christie is an admirable young woman. Certainly she will inspire other young black women to follow their dreams.
Perhaps she will be the next Kelly Holmes or Naomi Campbell. But for her part, she simply says she wants to do things that would have made her father proud of her.
Paradoxically, she misses him more as she gets older: 'He would have been thrilled to see me win Miss England,' she says.
Of course he would. And I suspect - although she would never admit it, perhaps not even to herself - that Russell Christie's short, squalid life of crime and drug-taking has been the most potent force in firing his daughter's own astonishing success.
Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1202029/I-won-Miss-England-prove-black-NEVER-excuse-failure-says-Linford-Christies-niece.html#ixzz0MFEajNOL