The former street worker helping ex-convicts to reform their lives at her Preston salon

Crime, drug abuse and prostitution was the only life that Gayle Oakey knew of. Now, she has come out on top and transformed her once chaotic lifestyle - as owner of a salon supporting ex-convicts on their road to recovery.

Friday, 18th September 2020, 3:45 pm

She was notoriously known across Preston for all the wrong reasons - it is a troubled past that 44-year-old Gayle Oakey isn't proud of.

She was most recently jailed in 2017 for robbery, following years of living in the care system, drug dependency and prostitution.

Now, the former sex worker, from Ingol, stands a world away from her former life as owner of Eden Hair and Beauty, Newhall Lane.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Gayle opened her salon 'Eden' in February after a 15 year battle with Class-A drugs

"I was heavily dependent on class A drugs and was a street worker for 10 years. I was lucky that in prison, I had special people there who put time and effort in to helping me achieve my dreams," says Gayle.

"I was labelled by the media and by society as a predator looking to steal from old men. The reality was, I had lost myself. I got to the point where I knew enough was enough through the help of the tutors in prison that changed my pattern of thought. It was how I learnt to conduct myself in prison that set me up on my path to success. I worked hard, set myself goals and achieved them.

"I was going to different salons, offering to work for free and even sweeping the floors just to get my foot in the door but no one wanted to know because of my past. I began working mobile and saving money - the people around me saw how hard I was working to better myself. As soon as I got my salon, I made a vow to myself to help other people in my position by giving them direction and encouragement."

It was these tough barriers that she had to overcome that made Gayle so determined to support other women facing struggles after prison.

The salon supports ex-convicts to qualify in hairdressing and beauty courses

Since opening in February, Gayle has only taken on ex-working girls who have tackled with restrictions to employment. She claims that their troubled past has made it 'almost impossible' for anywhere else to give them a chance.

Working alongside Gayle is lash technician Lyndsey Watson, junior stylist Emma, hairdressers Nomi and Lori and Stella, who fits extensions.

"I know these working girls inside out. If they were given the right opportunities they could recover, but they need a much higher level of intervention. There are a lot of services available, but a lot of the homeless girls that have drug addictions, like I once did, get lost down black holes," says Gayle.

"I am out there on Saturday nights making relationships with girls on the streets because I want to get the message out there that with the right level of support and guidance, they can turn their lives around in the same way that I have.

Gayle learnt hairdressing skills when in prison

"When I came out of prison, I couldn't get any experience anywhere. With the help of Preston College, I am trying to support girls who have aspirations by giving them a job. It is amazing what guidance can do."

That support was a lifeline to her lash technician Lyndsey - 12 months ago, she was living in a refuge and actively addicted to drugs. Since being given a chance, Gayle says she is now 'one of the best lash techs in Preston'.

In the UK, only 17 per cent of ex-offenders manage to get a job within a year of release despite them having full employability rights.

And as part of her mission to help the working girls and ex-offenders of Preston, Gayle is reaching out for support as she plans to form her new charity UP2U.

Gayle says: "A higher level of intervention is what many of these girls need. The problem isn't solved by going in and out of prison. When many of them are released, they fall again because society doesn't have anything in place to support them. I want to be able to give these girls a safe home and 24 hour support working with the council, the police and the local society. I want people to see how much us ex-working girls can really achieve."

Streetlink is a Preston-based support service for street workers that Gayle works along side, offering information and signposting women to a relevant agency including drug or housing services.

Operated by the Foxton Centre, they offer vital daytime services to rough sleepers and other homeless and vulnerable adults in and around the city.

Jeff Marks, from the Foxton Centre, says: "I know Gayle has worked closely with the Streetlink team supporting some very vulnerable women which is much appreciated.

"Any initiative like this from people in our local community can help people turn their lives around is a positive benefit to everyone."

For more information, visit thefoxtoncentre.co.uk.