Royal friend Tessy Ojo reveals surreal moments at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding

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Tessy Ojo’s social media bio is heavy duty – “CEO of royal charity The Diana Award, Anti-bullying pro, Civil Society Leader, Social Change Advocate, Philanthropist, Wife & Mother and Brand Ambassador.” It’s exhausting just reading the list, let alone fulfilling her superwoman role every day.

Her incredible efforts are why she’s such a worthy recipient of her new CBE, having been named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list earlier this month.

The award recognised her work heading up the charity in the late Diana, Princess of Wales’ name, which offers mentoring and support for young people and anti-bullying schemes.

One person who was quick to applaud her was the Duke of Cambridge, who sent Tessy a personal letter of congratulations, having previously thanked her for continuing his mother’s legacy.

Although she’ll be the one accepting the accolade in person from a senior royal (yet to be announced), she says it wouldn’t have been possible without the support of her husband Stephen, 51. He encouraged her to quit her well-paid corporate job 20 years ago to pursue charitable endeavours.

At the time, the couple had two young children, Keren and Jonathan, now 22 and 20 respectively, and Stephen’s support meant that Tessy, 49, could be both mother and CEO.

Here, after inviting OK! into her beautiful home in Kent, she chats about her journey so far and why the award is bittersweet…

Congratulations! How are you feeling?

I’m on cloud nine. I feel like I should justify it and be doing more to earn this, but everybody’s telling me, “This is a reward for what you’ve already done!” I’ve known since May, but only told my husband, children and one of my brothers, Ambrose.

Where were you when you found out?

I was working from home when I got the email from the Cabinet Office. My husband was in another room working, so I forwarded the email to him because I couldn’t believe it. He came to me and we just stared at each other. I said, “For real?” and he went, “Yes, for real.”

Tell us about the letter you received from the Duke of Cambridge, too.

It was a beautiful congratulatory message, which was amazing. There was also a lovely message from The Duke of Sussex’s office too, offering his congratulations. I feel incredibly honoured to receive these messages and will certainly cherish it for a very long time. Both brothers are very involved in our work, so it felt special to get this from them. Prince William is particularly involved in our Anti-Bullying Programme and only a few years ago, brought all the tech giants together to try to tackle cyberbullying, and that came off the back of him meeting young people who’d wanted to take their own lives. He felt connected, and set up this incredible taskforce. Prince Harry is also involved in our Mentoring Programme and last year, he gave the keynote speech at the very first UK National Youth Mentoring Summit. Both the brothers are the best. I love the fact that they care deeply. They never do things just for the photos, they roll up their sleeves. They’ve been brought up to look after their mother’s legacy.

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Can you recall meeting William and Harry for the first time?

My earliest memory was in 2007 in the lead-up to the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death. They hosted an event at Wembley Stadium and both princes were so generous with their time, meeting young people who shared how the charity had supported them. When I became chief executive in 2012, The Duke of Cambridge attended one of our events in Newcastle. It is an exciting but nerve-racking experience for young people, but he is so great at making them feel at ease.

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What was it like attending Prince Harry and Meghan’s wedding?

Oh my God – that was unbelievable. It was a pinch-me moment. It was so beautiful. I was sat just a few rows behind Oprah Winfrey who I’d watched on TV as a child. I saw her again at the reception, which didn’t have a seating arrangement and I thought this is my chance. I walked up to her and said, “Hi” and she replied, “I saw you on TV yesterday.” I did a double take as I could not believe that the person I had watched growing up had just told me that she saw me on TV! I was on CNN being interviewed and did mention that I had three dresses to decide between. Oprah then said, “You chose the right one.” It was just such a moment that I will always treasure. I was stood behind Victoria Beckham in the toilet queue, too!

Do you feel the pressure to carry on the legacy of Diana?

More of a privilege. It’s a fantastic job. Diana was someone who I massively connected with, and I never dreamed that I would be doing what I’m doing today. She was about kindness, service, empathy and she broke barriers. The values she demonstrated so many years ago are so much more relevant in today’s society as we are more polarised than ever before. If she was here today, without a shadow of a doubt I know she’d be championing young people, because she often went where the pain was. The princes continue what she started. Even though Prince Harry is in America, he’s still involved. He attended our awards ceremony over the summer virtually. Not being in the UK won’t stop him being involved.

Were you sad to see them leave the UK?

Of course. Not so much on the charity side, but not being able to see what they’re doing every day as working royals. It was sad to see them go, but at some point people have to do what’s right for them.

You recently said that it took a “village” to get you to this point in your life. Who is in this village?

So many people, but I always say that my husband is the “unseen” volunteer. He’s totally amazing at supporting everything that I do and picking up at home when I’m working crazy hours. My son was only seven months old when I joined The Diana Award, so he’s grown up with me doing this job. I’m proud that my children have my values. It’s such a relief that I’ve got it right at home, and this hopefully means I’ve got it right at work, too.

What has been your biggest achievement with the charity?

Firstly, transitioning from a 100% Government-funded charity to a more self-sustaining financial model. Also, we went through a rebranding process with our logo. We wanted something vibrant, charismatic and forward-looking. It’s now a silhouette of Diana looking up rather than down. We made sure that their Royal Highnesses were happy with it. Shortly after, we were at an event and Prince William said to me, “Thank you for all you do to keep our mother’s legacy alive.” I just wanted to cry. I had to pause and take that comment in.

What made you swap from a corporate job to the charity sector?

I was in this crazy corporate world, and I didn’t have time to give anything back or feel like I was doing anything useful. But I had a eureka moment when my son was born. I felt so blessed to have two children, and I knew I would do anything for them to have a good life. I then thought of the children who wouldn’t have that. That was the moment I decided to leave my job and I began looking for other opportunities. The Diana Award job meant a significant pay cut. The money just covered childcare and wasn’t even enough for a travel pass. But my husband said, “This is what you want to do. We’ll work it out,” which I’ll always appreciate. Doing good is more important to me than earning big money. I’ve gained so much peace going down this route.

Did you have a champion growing up?

I was very lucky to have my parents who taught me I could do anything. I was very tall when I was younger and would get constantly teased by a group of girls at my dance class. My mum, who was a head teacher, said, “Fine, leave, but set up your own dance class for young people at my work.” She didn’t allow me to wallow, but gave me hope and resilience. Now I’m an ambassador for tall-fashion brands! She also taught me how fulfilling it is to give back. Bullying still happens today and people think it’s character building, but it’s not. At least one in four young people who experience it contemplate ending their own life. They spend 11,000 hours at school – imagine if every single one of those hours was horrible. That drives me to ensure that schools are safe for them via the anti-bullying campaign.

Why did you decide to tell your brother Ambrose about your CBE?

He’s always been my number one supporter. Sadly he passed away in June, but it’s a slight comfort that I got to tell him – he was so excited. He always said that I should be on the list. When I was the first British person to win the Martin Luther King Award last year he went crazy on social media calling me his little sister.

You’re currently writing a book. What is it about?

It’s my reflection on life, and how we can rebuild and push the boundaries for young people. Our lives are so disrupted right now, but we have the potential to reset. We all have tough times – like losing my brother a few months ago has been a huge rebuilding process for me, personally. I had to adapt when my children left home, too, for university. I’ve been through many seasons when I have had to reassess and reset. This book aims to inspire the “how to”.

Did you ever find it hard juggling your amazing career with family life?

I gave myself a gift from the onset, which was to never do the whole “mum guilt”. I know that I’m a good mum, but sometimes I may drop some balls. I learnt to never be afraid to ask for help and I’m lucky to have a great husband who was always ready to rejig his plans to fit in with mine.

You’ve spoken before about how racism should be a conversation in every household. Was that important in your own?

As a society we’re really uncomfortable talking about race. We need to remove that fear because if we don’t talk about it, we can’t treat it. I’ve had people undermine me and treat me differently because of the colour of my skin until they find out my status. Everybody should be treated like a human.

What experiences have your children faced?

We’ve had to have “the talk” with them about how they might not be treated fairly because of their colour. I recall my youngest brother telling my son about stop and search. He told him he must keep his hands on the wheel if he gets pulled over, so they are visible and he can never be accused of reaching for a weapon. It was shocking to even hear that. Just after lockdown, my daughter went back to unpack at her university accommodation and wasn’t let into her flat by the security officer who accused her of not paying for the accommodation. It turned out he had mistaken her for another girl. He hadn’t bothered asking her name, but had just racially profiled her. He apologised. Education is the key to change – and young people. Change might be gradual, but it’s happening.

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