Bad Habits, Holy Orders: meet the girl who gave up partying for life in a convent

Channel 5’s new documentary sees five selfie-obsessed girls abandon booze, boys and smartphones and move into a Catholic convent

bad habits holy orders

Gabbi Ryan

21 Dancer and model

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Before I got to the convent in Swaffham I could have counted on one hand the number of times I’d been to church. When I arrived wearing high-heeled boots, leather jeans and giant hoop earrings, I just thought, ‘What are the nuns going to think of me?’

I love my work, but it’s an industry with a lot of nastiness to it. Sometimes there are dodgy clients, if you work day and night you don’t get much sleep, and you can be picked up and dropped; I’ve built a shield to protect myself from things I’ve had thrown at me. People are regularly told they’re too fat, or not good-looking, and it takes its toll.

I used to be the kind of girl who didn’t really worry about her image, and I became someone who couldn’t leave the house without getting glammed up. I was constantly asking if I was good enough, and was desperate to be accepted – by other women as well as by men, who often see women just as sex objects. I was completely addicted to Instagram, and pleasing people on the internet that I’d never even met. I was almost scared to be myself. I think I’d lost control of my life by being a product.

I was almost shaking before I showed the nuns pictures of myself on Instagram, thinking they’d judge me. Once I was in there, isolation was the hardest thing [the five women stayed in the convent for four weeks]. I missed my phone [it was confiscated], both from going cold turkey on social media and because I wanted to call my mum. It was a challenge.

Whether it was cleaning, praying, meditating, or visiting an old people’s home or homeless shelter, I wanted to be respectful and not miss anything we were asked to do. It was so quiet, which I’m not used to – in my job dancing in nightclubs, I’m constantly surrounded by noise.

But the nuns were full of empathy. They helped me to realise that we’re all different and special, and that I’m good enough just as I am. Learning that it’s OK to take off all my make-up was a big step, but it’s an empowering feeling when you realise you don’t need to meet other people’s pressures and demands all the time. They taught me to forgive, and I left the convent feeling like a weight had been lifted off me. I’ve always wanted to be an actress but thought nobody would take me seriously – the nuns said, ‘Who’s telling you that you can’t?’ Now I’m enrolled at drama school part-time. I felt like I could tell them anything. When we left we set up a group chat on WhatsApp called WWSS? – “What Would Sister Say?” – and we can still go to that for advice.”

Sister Francis

Daughter of Divine Charity at Sacred Heart convent, Swaffham

These girls spent an astonishing amount of money on clothes and handbags, were hooked on their phones, and a bottle of vodka on a night out was nothing to them. Or so they told me; we didn’t put that to the test!

Finding out how the girls are treated, particularly by men, was a big shock. They’re being manipulated and controlled, and treated like sex figures. Gabbi, particularly, didn’t know how to stop feeling like an object for people to handle.

People can say that young women have a choice about their behaviour, but I think if you get into the wrong things when you’re young, it’s hard to get out – and parents nowadays are too scared to say no and set boundaries for their children. Whether you’re a Christian or not, this country’s laws are based on Christian values and those are beginning to get flaky at the edges. The whole of society is breaking down – these girls are a product of that, and we can’t blame them.

Sister Thomas More

Daughter of Divine Charity at Sacred Heart convent, Swaffham

The girls’ way of life was what they’d got used to. Without showing them that there’s another way, how would they know? We just wanted the girls to see their real selves.

We all wear a mask, but you can’t wear it all the time. Everyone’s wonderful on the inside, you just need to be brave enough to show it. Also, we want people to see that convent life is not like the films, where nuns are falling madly in love and running away, or are horrible and taking away babies. We’re all very normal!

Interviews by Sarah Carson

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Bad Habits, Holy Orders is on Thursday 19th October at 10pm on Channel 5