13 December 2012
Readers might recognise Melbourne vendor Johnnie from The Big Issue’s 2010 national advertising campaign, which featured a beaming Johnnie holding a copy of the magazine with George Clooney on the cover. Both men are charmers, but Johnnie is a man of fewer words, tending to let his signature boyish grin and quiet chuckle do most of the talking.
Johnnie was born in the Victorian city of Geelong, the apple of his mother’s eye right from the start. “My mother always wanted a little boy,” he explains. “And in 1964 she got me!”
Growing up in the bayside city, Johnnie’s mother was
the central figure in his life. The two were very close, but she died when Johnnie was still a very young man. He thinks of her often.
“She was very sick and in a lot of pain,” he says. “When she went into hospital, the nurses asked her if there was anything she needed. She said, ‘I want to see my son.’ That was the one thing she wanted.”
After losing his mum, Johnnie moved to Melbourne. He sold lollipops on the street for a bit of extra cash, but after a while he grew tired of the job. “I had to stay in the same place all day,” he says. “It was boring.”
So, in January 2009, Johnnie took action. “I used to see the Big Issue vendors out on the streets with their vests and their badges, so one day I went up to one of them and said, ‘Where’s the Big Issue office?’ He told me to go up to Lonsdale Street, so I did.”
Johnnie became a Big Issue vendor that very same day. “I got my photo taken and I got a Big Issue badge and I met [vendor support staff] Kirstie and Gemma. On my first day, I sold three magazines.”
Since starting at The Big Issue, Johnnie has become a much-loved part of the team. He’s a regular fixture at fortnightly vendor breakfast meetings, where he tends to make grand late entrances, the faded flags on his wheelchair fluttering behind him. An Essendon Football Club fan, Johnnie is also a model of restraint in the face of regular playful jibes concerning his team.
“[Vendor support worker] Kirstie goes for Collingwood and she always picks on me when they play Essendon,” he smiles. “I like to watch football on TV…I just hope we can play well next year.”
When he’s not working or watching AFL, Johnnie likes to hang out in the city. “I don’t sell the magazine on Saturdays and Sundays, but I still come into the city on the weekend. I like it – it’s just something to do.”
For Johnnie, one of the best aspects of selling The Big Issue is getting the chance to meet new people.
“Most people are really nice; sometimes customers make me laugh,” he says. “People come up to me at my pitch and say, ‘When are you going to be in the magazine? When will we see your photo?’ People say it to me all the time!”
Interview by by Sophie Quick / photograph by James Braund
Johnnie sells The Big Issue on the cnr of Elizabeth Street and Flinders Lane, Melbourne.