Minefields and motherhood

You might not expect a Love Island contestant to be able to defuse a landmine but that’s exactly what Camilla Thurlow can do

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Sleeping in a bedroom while rats the size of small cats scuttle along overhead beams might be the stuff of nightmares, but for Camilla Thurlow her new rough and ready surroundings provided a sense of relief. She was 23 and in Cambodia on her first placement as part of the HALO Trust, a charity that clears landmines in former conflict zones.

“There were so many challenges but my overwhelming feeling on arrival was really positive and just everything falling into place. I was suddenly on the right track and where I was supposed to be,” says Thurlow, 31, whose three decades have been filled with wildly contrasting experiences.

From working in communities devastated by war to walking into the Love Island villa in 2017, she revisits the turmoil, triumphs and turning points in her memoir Not The Type, examining how it’s possible to re-evaluate life when you’ve been pigeonholed by society – and yourself.

Sharing a dormitory with rodents, or glamorous housemates on national TV, wasn’t what she’d envisioned growing up in a middle-class home in Dumfries, Scotland with her parents and three siblings.

It was an idyllic childhood and although her inhibition left Thurlow feeling “overwhelmingly like the odd one out” at boarding school, she excelled academically and, from the outset, had a clear trajectory.

“I always had these targets set out ahead of me and I could’ve carried on that way,” she explains but then, at the age of 18, she was in a car accident that profoundly shook her.

Before her departure, she made a will. There was little more than a phone charger and BaByliss roller set to bequeath

“It was such a pivotal moment and taught me something I was woefully lacking. It was the first time I realised life wasn’t as simple as I thought. I know to only realise that at 18 shows how fortunate I was, but I’d never thought: what do I really want to get out of life? What do I want to achieve? It’s so embedded in our society, this straightforward path you should be on and the types of success you should be looking to achieve, I hadn’t realised there was a way to live your life differently to that.”

It took a few more years before she was bold enough to take the path less trodden. She admits she distracted herself, going to university, where she graduated with first-class honours, travelling during a gap year and then moving to Edinburgh where she enjoyed fleeting moments of joy – but she wasn’t happy or fulfilled.

“I just wasn’t filling my life with anything I thought was of worth and because of that I wasn’t making myself into a worthy person I valued. That’s when you need to take stock and think about how you’re going to change things,” says Thurlow, who decided she had nothing to lose by applying to the HALO Trust.

HALO stands for Hazardous Area Life-support Organisation. She’d grown up near its headquarters and had an enduring interest in its work, but given most applicants were ex-military held little hope “they’d ever want someone like me”.

But she did get an interview, culminating in a panel interrogation that was “as intimidating as anything I’d faced”, and was offered a position.

Before her departure, she made a will. There was little more than a phone charger and BaByliss roller set to bequeath, but it meant her life would be insured should she be killed or suffer a life-altering injury.

“People go it was brave to work for something like HALO, but it was far scarier not to have the chance to do that. I just knew it was somewhere I could make a difference.”

Four weeks later, Thurlow landed in Cambodia and was tasked, as a projects officer, with collating first-person stories from those affected by landmines.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, 2015

“I travelled the country and got to go to minefields that had been cleared and speak to locals about the value of the land returned to them. I loved it, but in time I felt I wanted to be involved tangibly. I wanted to be able to do it myself so I could feel I was genuinely contributing to a process that empowers communities.”

After 18 months in Cambodia, and relentlessly arguing her case to superiors, Thurlow travelled to Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus, for operations training. As the only woman she faced distinct challenges, such as inappropriately sized uniform and not knowing where to pee discreetly but safely during the long and arduous shifts – issues, she writes, that seem inconsequential but “it means women are systematically being told they don’t belong”.

“I let myself worry that if I said it’s different for me because I’m a woman, people were going to see me differently and then it would be hard to be taken seriously and be a part of the team, but I’m pleased I did say something because they were things that could and should be overcome to encourage equality,” notes Thurlow, adding that there have been significant changes within HALO’s operations in recent years with more women on the ground.

From the icy surroundings of Nagorno-Karabakh, Thurlow travelled to sun-torched Zimbabwe, a place that “felt so instantly like home”, for the second phase of her training, and then onto Mozambique in late 2015 to work on unplanned explosions at munitions sites. But the workload was immense, leaving little time to eat or sleep properly, and over time Thurlow became disheartened by the work.

“Regenerating land for a nature reserve doesn’t really fall under the humanitarian imperative… it certainly wasn’t the same as other projects… where it’s essential in order to allow people to live safely,” she observes in the book, and she made the decision to
leave HALO.

“I don’t think I’ll ever not feel conflicted about leaving, but I do think it was the right time, and I’ve had many amazing experiences since.”

Not least her stint in the Love Island villa, which came about shortly after her return from Afghanistan where she’d been working as part of the Danish Demining Group.

In her own words, she wasn’t in a great place, feeling adrift, anxious and unsure what to do next when a message popped up on her Instagram from someone casting for a primetime ITV show. Emails and phone calls ensued, and Thurlow was invited to the studios for a chat.

“The casting execs were so nice to me during the process, and because I didn’t think they would pick me, I didn’t sit around thinking too much about the show. It was just happening in the background.”

To an outsider, the abrupt change of environment might seem bewildering, but Thurlow says: “I’d got so much out of other experiences I’d been fearful of, I was able to make it fit to what I understood about life. Plus, at the time I was really struggling and really didn’t know how I was going to move forward with my life, so when they called and asked me to be in the opening cast, that gave me an answer.”

Eloquent and introverted, Thurlow wasn’t an archetypal Love Islander. Where most contestants revel in the spotlight during the show’s challenges, Thurlow could only cringe. The public was initially bemused by her participation. She felt out of place, too, and asked if she could leave in the early days.

“That first week was a real adjustment but I’m so glad it worked out in the end. When you’re in there, you have no idea what people are thinking, or whether anyone’s watching it.”

They were, in their millions, and eagerly followed the romance between her and Calvin Klein model Jamie Jewitt.

Despite his appearance late on in the series as one of the island’s “bombshells”, the pair emerged from the villa in second place, and life as they knew it changed irrevocably.

“We didn’t realise it was going to be as big a show as it was that year and obviously you do come out and there has been a huge shift in [social media] followers and it did take me time to adjust to that,” says Thurlow, who’s expecting a baby with Jewitt next month.

She contemplates the meaning of incidental fame in Not The Type, confessing she found a fleeting false sense of security in it, and explores the contradictory nature of social media.

“It’s a complex arena that I have a complicated relationship with,” she remarks, and admits knowing what to share with her 1.5 million followers is a minefield in itself. “But I did come out of Love Island feeling so much better, like I’d got a bit of myself back.”

Thurlow doesn’t say this flippantly. Seeing communities ravaged by war has had a lasting impact on her. She’s experienced anxiety, OCD and panic attacks over the years, which she candidly reveals in the book is largely prompted by guilt, not only at the injustice of people’s suffering but the “unforgivable” relief that it isn’t her or her family.

“I always wanted to write the book but I knew it was going to take me back down some traumatic paths. Having a tight deadline meant I had to just sit and write every single day and that’s what helped me get it done,” says Thurlow, who hopes to write more (“fiction would be a dream come true”) and is still striving to “do better and be better”.

“A lot of the decisions I’ve made have come from a place of fearfulness in that I’m not living life to the full. I think it’s important we try and take the time to get to a place where we find life fulfilling, or we’re able to contribute, because it gives you a chance to be a different version of yourself, a version you can perhaps ultimately feel proud of.” ν

Not The Type, Finding My Place in the Real World by Camilla Thurlow (John Blake Publishing) is out now

Trust issues

The HALO Trust was founded by two army officers in Afghanistan in 1988. They trained local Afghans to clear them safely.

Today it employs 9,000 men and women in over 22 countries, clearing landmines, cluster munitions and improvised explosive devices (IEDs), and has worked in conflict zones such as Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq.

“Camilla Thurlow is a brilliant advocate for HALO. She has been vital in showcasing that demining is not a job for the boys,” says Louise Vaughan, global media manager for
the HALO Trust.

“More and more women are joining and rising through our ranks. In fact, it’s been transformational. In Sri Lanka, many women were widowed during the war, so demining jobs
have enabled them to provide for their children.

“The focus of the work has changed in recent years in that it’s increasingly urban, which requires special equipment to sift through collapsed concrete. IEDs are more prevalent. They are essentially ‘homemade’ mines, as factory-produced mines are now illegal.

“Moving forwards, we’re looking at working in new countries such as Nigeria and the Philippines, as well as advising governments on how to store explosive material safely,
to prevent disasters such as the tragedy in Beirut.”

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