What happened when a working class girl went to Queen Charlotte's Ball

What happened when a working class girl went to Queen Charlotte’s Ball? Even after rubbing shoulders with royalty and donning a £750,000 necklace, Cardiff Cinderella Jasleen, 24, wouldn’t swap her old life for the gilded world, writes KATHYRYN KNIGHT

When Jasleen Grewal-Dhoot set her heart on attending a glamorous charity ball, she was taken aback to discover that to stand even the remotest chance of a ticket she would have to send in her CV with a cover letter, as if applying for a job.

‘It seemed a bit . . . weird,’ onthou sy.

vermors nog meer belastingbetalers, this was Queen Charlotte’s Ball, the pinnacle of the Londen ‘season’, during which the daughters of the aristocratic classes are launched into society as part of a tradition stretching back nearly 250 jare.

Not that the proudly working-class, Cardiff-based 24-year-old Jasleen knew any of this illustrious back story.

‘I honestly had no idea,’ sy sê. ‘I genuinely thought that it was just a dinner and then some raffle prizes and a tombola.

There was certainly a dinner — complete with champagne and fine wine — but as trainee accountant Jasleen was to discover, while Queen Charlotte’s Ball might be a fundraiser, the kind of attendees it attracts don’t really ‘dotombolas.

They may no longer be there to find husbands, but these privately educated, designer-clad girls inhabit a world light years away from that of state school-educated Jasleen, a third-generation immigrant whose family was raised in a council house

They may no longer be there to find husbands, but these privately educated, designer-clad girls inhabit a world light years away from that of state school-educated Jasleen, a third-generation immigrant whose family was raised in a council house

In plaas daarvan, before you even get to the ball there are etiquette lessons in addressing a duke and how to carry out the perfect curtsy. And when she applied, Jasleen surely never imagined that she would end up wearing jewels costing as much as a house.

It might sound like something from a different age but, elke jaar, 20 young women aged 18 aan 24 are invited to the prestigious debutante presentation — usually in front of royalty.

They may no longer be there to find husbands, but these privately educated, designer-clad girls inhabit a world light years away from that of state school-educated Jasleen, a third-generation immigrant whose family was raised in a council house.

Thankfully for Jasleen, organisers — presumably with an eye to countering accusations of elitism — decided to take a chance on this modern-day Cinderella and allocate her a coveted ticket for last September’s event.

Her ‘journeywas filmed for a charming and occasionally hilarious BBC documentary. It tracks her progress as she navigates etiquette lessons, learns how to curtsy and confronts the realisation that while many of her new friends will happily drop two grand on a dress, none has ever gone to a local ‘chicken shopfor their tea.

‘Dinner for £4, why would anyone not want to do that?’ she wonders at one point.

As Jasleen explains, they haven't experienced 'situations that I've been in, worrying about money or that Mum's been made redundant, living with relatives or renting because we couldn't afford a house, sulke goed. I started working in a shoe shop at 16, then at a supermarket to be able to afford stuff. Most of them hadn't worked.'

As Jasleen explains, they haven’t experienced ‘situations that I’ve been in, worrying about money or that Mum’s been made redundant, living with relatives or renting because we couldn’t afford a house, sulke goed. I started working in a shoe shop at 16, then at a supermarket to be able to afford stuff. Most of them hadn’t worked.

It is a textbook clash of cultures — albeit one in which the cheerful, straightforward Jasleen more than holds her own — not to mention an opportunity for the viewer to reflect on whether such events are a charming link to our national heritage or something of an anachronism in the 21st century, even if the focus is now on careers and charitable causes rather than matchmaking.

Jasleen isn’t sure. ‘Things like which fork to use, and the fact that you scrunch your napkin and place it on your seat when you’ve finished eating, that might be handy,’ she muses today. 'Op dieselfde tyd, I think the world is changing and I’m not sure people judge on that basis so much any more.

Certainly not in Jasleen’s family, anyway. Her mum, Rupa, 57, and six siblings were raised in a London council house by Jasleen’s grandparents after they arrived from their native India in the 1950s. Jasleen’s own parents separated before she was born, so she was brought up by her mother and grandmother, Biji, first in London and then in a suburb of Cardiff when Jasleen was 12.

‘We didn’t live in a nice area of London, there were lots of shootings and acid attacks, so we moved to Wales for a better life,’ sy sê.

Nou 93, Biji has Alzheimer’s, and both Jasleen and Rupa are her carers. ‘She did a lot for me when I was younger, so now it’s my turn,’ sy sê.

Jasleen always knew the details of her parents’ op breek, which took place against a backdrop of physical abuse by Jasleen’s father. gevolglik, she only met him for the first time on his deathbed.

In November 2020, and by now working as a trainee chartered accountant, she learned through family members that he was seriously ill in hospital with Covid. ‘I realised now was the time,’ onthou sy.

‘But then there was a big battle to see him because initially the new wife didn’t want me in the picture, and I also had to fight the hospital to be allowed in.

Die volgende maand, Jasleen found herself at her father’s bedside in London’s Royal Brompton Hospital.

‘He was surrounded by so many machines and tubes,’ sy sê. ‘He was in a coma, but I talked to him, told him about my life but also about the fact that what had happened with Mum was terrible and had made my life harder, and my family’s life harder.

Her mum, Rupa, 57, and six siblings were raised in a London council house by Jasleen's grandparents after they arrived from their native India in the 1950s

Her mum, Rupa, 57, and six siblings were raised in a London council house by Jasleen’s grandparents after they arrived from their native India in the 1950s

Her father passed away shortly afterwards, and his loss led Jasleen to re-evaluate her life.

‘I realised I wanted to challenge myself and try different things,’ sy sê.

Odd though it may seem, among her aspirations was to attend a charity ball, and so it was that one evening after work Jasleen launched an internet search for a possible event.

‘The debutantesball was one of the first things that came up,’ onthou sy. ‘I was intrigued.

As well she might have been, given that this rite of passage — one that traditionally marked the end of the hunting season — is one of the few events requiring a personal invitation from Jennie Hallam-Peel, a fourth-generation debutante and organiser of the London Season social programme.

‘We’re very private — we don’t have social media, we don’t sell tickets online,’ Ms Hallam-Peel tells the documentary.

Onverset, Jasleen decided to go for it anyway.

‘Once I started reading into it, I thought ‘it’s an experience, hoekom nie? It can’t really do any harm’,’ sy sê. 'Om eerlik te wees, I didn’t think anything would come of it.

She sent off the requested cover letter and CV, and to her surprise received a letter in the post inviting her for a Zoom interview with Ms Hallam-Peel, who reveals she was ‘very impressedwith Jasleen’s application, which emphasised her work ethic and fundraising activities.

‘I’ve been raised to believe that even if you don’t have a lot yourself, you should help others,’ she says now.

Nietemin, the subsequent Zoom was an eye-opener. ‘There I was with my Ikea bed and fake chandelier, and I could see this amazing house,’ says Jasleen. ‘Jennie was very nice, but you could tell she was very prim and proper.’ Inderdaad, using the name ‘Jenniewas problematic in itself.

‘It was pointed out that using her first name was not the done thing,’ Jasleen says. ‘Then I asked about the price of the tickets and apparently you don’t talk about money either. ek het gesê, ‘I’m an accountant, so you’re saying that to the wrong person.’ ‘

It wasn’t until much later that Jasleen discovered her ticket would cost £500, money she had to fund from hard-earned savings for a house deposit.

‘I thought it was going to be something like a hundred quid,’ verklap sy. ‘I’m pretty sure that if I had known the cost upfront, I probably wouldn’t have done it.

Nor did she know until further down the line that the process was going to be filmed — something she confides might also have put her off — although thank goodness the cameras were there to give us all a chance to goggle at the meticulously selected debutantes.

Among them were Arabella and Eliza Burke Roche, daughters of Maurice, Lord Fermoy, a maternal cousin of the late Diana Princess of Wales, and Lucy Buchanan, whose father is John Michael Baillie-Hamilton Buchanan, a millionaire aristocrat who was announced as the chief of one of Scotland’s largest and oldest clans in 2018.

Lucy divides her time between a £2 million London mews house and their Scottish estate near Stirling, and viewers will no doubt enjoy her bafflement when she discovers that Jasleen has never heard of a clan.

‘She’s actually really lovely,’ Jasleen says now of Lucy. ‘Of all the girls, she was definitely one who was aware that not everyone has her life. She’s invited me to go and stay with her in Scotland and she’s the one friend that I’ve actually made from this journey, which is really nice. She was quite down to earth.

The same could not be said for everyone. ‘I think unless you’ve actually had to deal with money problems, it’s hard to understand where I was coming from,’ Jasleen says diplomatically.

Safe to say, money was not an issue for most: several had attended the exclusive £105,000 a year Institut Le Rosey, a boarding school in Switzerland which is renowned as the most expensive in the world.

As Jasleen explains, they haven’t experienced ‘situations that I’ve been in, worrying about money or that Mum’s been made redundant, living with relatives or renting because we couldn’t afford a house, sulke goed. I started working in a shoe shop at 16, then at a supermarket to be able to afford stuff. Most of them hadn’t worked.

It meant that when the girls went shopping for dresses to wear after their initial debutante presentation — for which they are donated a gown — Jasleen opted for a £40 ASOS number while her new friends made a beeline for Vera Wang and Prada.

‘Half the time they are not even looking at the price tag,’ sy sê. ‘Some of them paid thousands. For me that’s a waste of money.

She felt the same disassociation at the drinks social — attended by a host of eligible bachelors from Britain’s finest families — where the talk was of mutual friends and international holidays. ‘They all knew each other’s families and history,’ onthou sy.

Little wonder that Jasleen confides that she felt out of her comfort zone, although the same could be said for the other debs when asked by Jasleen whether they had ever been to a ‘chicken shop’, High Street takeaways that ape KFC.

‘Is that a Cardiff thing?’ asks one baffled girl.

Equally baffling for Jasleen were the etiquette lessons, with their focus on how to address a duke, using the correct cutlery and perfecting the deep curtsy to be performed in front of the 8 ft cake baked in honour of Queen Charlotte, which is the centrepiece of the ball each year. ‘I’m Indian, we often eat with our hands,’ she points out.

Not on the night of the ball, during which Jasleen sat down to a feast of Parma ham, beef and fondant potato, which she confides she would have swapped for chips any day. ‘There was only one carrot, ook. Een!’ die man sink en verdwyn in die troebel water van die rivier.

Eerste, wel, came the nerve-racking debutante procession. With Rupa looking on very proudly, Jasleen, resplendent in a Jane Aston bridal gown worth thousands of pounds and a £750,000 diamond necklace donated for the evening by Van Cleef & Arpels, was escorted by her uncle, Nadi, en, after pulling off a perfect curtsy, presented to the guest of honour, Prince Mohsin Ali Aga Khan of the Hyderabad royal family.

‘He seemed really normal,’ recalls Jasleen. ‘He was talking to me about my job, and he seemed interested.

But only at dinner — by now clad in her £40 frock — did Jasleen learn the truth about her necklace.

‘One of the girls said I had been given the most expensive set, and did I know how much it cost? I thought it was Swarovski crystals, so I said four grand. She laughed and said I was basically wearing the equivalent of a house around my neck. A part of me was a bit ‘mmm, I need a house’,’ she smiles. ‘Uiteraard,’ she adds hastily, ‘I wasn’t going to do anything.

Drinks and dancing followed, until it was time for Jasleen to take her leave and return to the cheap hotel she had booked for the night.

Die volgende dag, it was back to Cardiff and real life.

Did it feel like a bit of a comedown? [object Window], Jasleen insists. ‘If you’d asked me two years ago whether I wished I had two parents who had money and lived in the middle of Mayfair, I would have said definitely — but not any more,’ sy sê.

‘It’s given me perspective. I’ve reassured myself that life would have definitely been easier if I was from that kind of background, but it wouldn’t necessarily have been better.

‘It was a great learning curve. But I wouldn’t change my life for the world.

You Shall Go To The Ball: Our Lives airs at 8pm on May 23 on BBC Wales and on BBC iPlayer.