Pilton finds a place in the heart of a millionaire

Secret Millionaire Ivan Massow, in short sleeves, with volunteers at Fresh Start in Edinburgh
Secret Millionaire Ivan Massow, in short sleeves, with volunteers at Fresh Start in Edinburgh
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When Channel 4 persuaded Ivan Massow to swap his luxury lifestyle for life in a deprived area of Edinburgh for their popular reality TV show, Secret Millionaire, little did he know he would come to love his new home

SCRUBBING a mould-ridden bathroom with bleach and stocking up on baked beans at the local corner shop are not everyday activities for self-made millionaire Ivan Massow. Yet, in a bid to settle into his new home on a housing estate in Pilton, north Edinburgh, in May, this is exactly what he found himself doing.

The reason was Massow’s participation in the Channel 4 series Secret Millionaire, in which the wealthy swap their lives of luxury for a week living “undercover”, under the gaze of a camera crew, in a deprived area, to identify who needs their help.

Built as council housing in the 1930s, and comprising mostly of two or three-story blocks of flats, Pilton was once counted amongst the most deprived areas in Europe. Today it still suffers many of the socioeconomic problems that go with such a label.

Yet despite the odd encounter with a makeshift missile thrown by a resident of the estate, and having to don his Marigolds on more than one occasion, Massow says that his experience – which can be seen on Sunday at 9pm – was wholly positive.

“I was sceptical when I was approached at first and the phrase ‘poverty tourism’ flashed through my mind,” he says. Massow is a 44-year-old entrepreneur and financial adviser who normally lives in London’s trendy area of Hoxton.

“I also wondered whether it was all made up for TV. I thought I might be able to sneak off to a hotel at night as long I was filmed doing the occasional ‘sad’ shot during the day.

“It wasn’t like that, though, and it turned out to be rough – the apartment was filthy when I moved in, the furniture was in a bad state and I had to rely on the production company to give me clean sheets for the bed. Incredibly, I grew to love my little apartment, and by the end of it, I had also learned things about myself – it was a very life-affirming experience.”

Determined to submerge himself in his new life completely and not break the Channel 4 cover story (that they were filming a documentary charting people’s recession-induced career changes – in his case from insurance to counselling), he resisted the temptation to kit out his new abode with the home comforts he’s used to. Instead, Massow estimates that he spent about £40 during the week – all of it locally – and made a commitment to swap his close friend Joan Collins for the company of his new neighbours.

His efforts to integrate into the community were rewarded: “I wasn’t nervous about the poverty gap. I live a relatively low-key life – I get the bus and cycle around London and still shop in Argos like anyone else. I was more concerned about being a gay Englishman in a deeply Scottish area and being branded a ‘soft Southerner’.

“In reality, I found the kids that hung about pretty easy to deal with. I got to know my neighbours and local shopkeepers and went for a walk every morning. By the end, I felt like I’d gained a true understanding of what people on the estate are going through.” Massow also got to work during his stay. He visited a number of local charities during the course of the week, including Fresh Start. An organisation helping people who have been homeless get established in new homes throughout the city, Fresh Start operates a number of services, including their Starter Pack scheme, in which clients are provided with essential household goods.

Under the pseudonym Evan, Massow thus found himself working alongside volunteers on the Starter Pack assembly line, which makes 9,000 boxes a year containing bedding, pots and pans and cleaning materials. He also worked with their “hit squad”, which helps clients decorate their new home to encourage them to take ownership of the property.

Although Massow – a one-time model and colourful gay rights crusader who made his money offering mortgages and life assurance to the gay community – adjusted well to his new life. It was, he says, a far cry from the side of Edinburgh he’d seen in the 1990s when his business had premises in Moray Place.

“It was very different from the grand Georgian office and the insurance company lunches I’d had. But the reality is that I grew up on estates like Pilton and experienced a lot of the issues that residents do today so I could relate to a lot of it. I suppose I’d just assumed that everyone had grown out of that kind of life, like I had.”

However, rather than feeling depressed at being dragged back to a reality he had long since distanced himself from, he felt reinvigorated by it.

“It took away my fear of poverty. It’s scary when you start to make a bit of money because you worry that who you are is wrapped up in your success. Having lost it all once or twice already, it was reaffirming to realise that, if it happened again, I could be quite happy living like I did for the programme. I could see what I would do and that would be to get involved. Survivors get out there and help other people.”

Massow is certainly a survivor. Born Ivan Field, he had what he described as “a rough old childhood”. He was adopted at 12, and left school with few qualifications. Yet after making a name for himself in the insurance industry, when he publicly came out as gay, his adopted father is said to have cut contact with him. He then suffered further personal tragedy in the late 1990s when his partner killed himself.

On top of this, he has also faced financial turmoil thanks to a failed multimillion-pound court case against insurance giant Zurich, which had bought his company. And, more recently, he fought a drink problem that was, he has said, partly fuelled by the life of excess he’d found himself living.

Yet after a stint at a Los Angeles rehab clinic, he bounced back. A regular attendee at Alcoholics Anonymous, he has just started another issue-based company that aims to divert commission earned by financial advisors to the investors themselves.

In Pilton, drive and determination that drew him to those who demonstrated the same spark. “It’s not poverty that’s the problem – it’s about attitude,” he says. “People make their own their own reality and it’s our duty to get out there and not be a victim. I can’t judge anyone else, but I was never one of those people who hit out as a result of being hit themselves – I was just determined that the cycle would end with me.”

It is attitude which, he says, makes the difference between the people he met living happy and healthy lives on the estate and those who are not. “At the end of the day, if you live your life in a good, clean way, the world is good back to you and the vast majority of people living on the estate are decent, hardworking and honest.

“The kids with the huge dogs selling drugs on the street corner represent a small minority of the community, but because they are the most visible side of the estate, they’re what it becomes known for. Action needs to be taken to put them into perspective and support the community at large.”

These kinds of conclusions informed his decision about where to send his money at the end. Fresh Start received the largest single donation ever given by an individual, and that – together with the other charities Massow chose to support – means the issues he experienced first-hand will further be addressed.

“I made it clear that I don’t want to enable bad behaviour but encourage people to stand on their own two feet.”

Although the film crew has long departed, Keith Robertson – the managing director of Fresh Start – hopes that Massow’s influence will be long-lasting.

“Massow struggled with the same kinds of problems that our clients do and was taken completely out of his comfort zone,” Robertson says. “We’re absolutely delighted with his donation which will allow up to manage our services but, in addition, as someone who has carved their own successful path in life, Ivan’s resilience and determination have set a good example as well.”

• Secret Millionaire will be aired on Sunday at 9pm