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A great British icon

After winning Bake Off in 2015, Nadiya Hussain hasn’t been off our screens, magazines and newspapers. She talks to Amanda Morison about juggling work and family, and her new children’s book about anxiety.


It’s hard to believe that Nadiya Hussain had never been on a train by herself before boarding one for the Great British Bake Off audition. Born in Luton to a Bangladeshi family, she entered an arranged marriage at 20, and had three children well below 30. It was her husband who encouraged her to enter Bake Off. “All my energies were focused on making sure everything was perfect for the kids. My husband realised that I needed to do something for me. When I made it to the final 12, he said just don’t get kicked out in the first week! He’s now at home looking after the kids, so I had the last laugh”.

Nadiya’s effortless presenting style, megawatt smile and complexion that surely makes beauty writers everywhere look up the virtues of a slice of cake has made her one of Britain’s best-known faces. She’s everywhere: a presenter, writer and designer of a homeware range. All while bringing up her children and being vocal about everything from cooking comfort food to women’s rights.

Nadiya suffered bullying at school, which led to her well-documented struggles with anxiety. She spent much of her childhood asking, ‘Why?’ when told girls had to wear dresses, couldn’t rollerblade or even go to university. She won Bake Off back in 2015, and admits that she still can’t watch her emotive winning speech: “I’m never going to put boundaries on myself ever again”. She says that, “People ask if it was rehearsed. Nobody knows that the same interviewer is with you off camera throughout the process. She cried. I cried. And the words that came out when I won were about much more than cake”.

When anxious, Nadiya says she becomes either “much more useful – everything gets very tidy and I don’t stop baking. Or I go to bed and can barely put one foot in front of the other”. As cooking is also something she does when happy, this can make it difficult for her family to judge her state of mind. Which isn’t the case when she “can’t function as a human being and my husband has to explain to the children that mummy isn’t feeling very well”.

After her documentary. Nadiya: Anxiety and Me, aired she watched it with her children. An experience she says involved tears: “Mummy, I didn’t know you were bullied!”. Nadiya explained that her experiences have made her stronger. And she firmly believes that children should grow up knowing their parents aren’t superhuman. “It’s natural to feel vulnerable, and the world is very different to the one I grew up in. Bullying comes into our homes. Flick your phone on and there is abuse hurled while you’re sat on the couch in pyjamas”. She believes that it isn’t that anxiety is new, but that society is braver talking about it. Not that Nadiya feels she will ever discuss these issues with her own parents. Before they watched the documentary they didn’t know anything about their daughter’s problems. “There is no vocabulary in our community for mental health. In English I can say “anxiety” or “panic”. And it’s a British thing too, with the “keep calm and carry on” thing. I’m over that, and I bet those posters are coming down”.

As well as moving away from mental health taboos, Nadiya is breaking away from other traditions she grew up with. She feels her parents hate that she’s the one doing it, but she says she’s done with things like men and children eating before the women: “A dining table is for everyone to eat around together – why should women get the scraps at the end?”.

“When I made it to the final 12, he said just don’t get kicked out in the first week!”

Although Nadiya says she felt empowered on becoming a mother to her two sons, she admits to really wanting a girl and was overjoyed when her third child was a daughter. “I want her to be everything that I couldn’t be, and have everything I didn’t have. She will have her own hurdles to knock down but I want her to know that mummy was there first and knocked down as many as she could”. Nadiya tells a heartbreaking tale about a theatre trip when her daughter was younger. After the performance, she was asked why, “There was no one with “in-between” skin like me? Maybe one day I’ll be that girl”. Then she got a lead role in Les Misérables. Three shows in mild panic she said, “Did I do it, did I do it?”.To fulfil your own prophesy aged eight is just the most wonderful thing”.

Performing comes so naturally to Nadiya that it must be in the family. She made a seamless transition after Bake Off, and says what she loves most about her cookery shows and travelogues is getting to meet people. “It’s not what usually happens but I always want to talk to contributors before we film. We drink tea, and they really relax and start to enjoy it.”

Although Nadiya wouldn’t want an arranged marriage for her own children, her own has clearly been a huge success. Asked how she manages juggling all the different aspects of her life, she puts it all down to her husband: “I would not be able to do it without him”. In her memoir Finding my Voice she talks about all the roles she plays in life, as a sister, mother, daughter and granddaughter, but says, “My husband is the only relationship without a blood connection, and he’s the most important person in my life. I’m going to have to give my children back to the world, but my husband and I are supposed to grow old together”.

“My daughter will have her own hurdles to knock down but I want her to know that mummy was there first and knocked down as many as she could”

In person, Nadiya is every bit as warm and friendly as she appears on TV. She’s as happy to answer questions about racism as about her shoes (super cool pair of green heels, a snip at Primark). Food is a central part of her life – and she hopes her children will always come back to eat around her table. Her favourite comfort food is pad thai: “The family helps. They chop things up and we cook it together. And if no cooking is involved, fish and chips. In the paper and in the garden on the grass”. This thoroughly British icon is truly an Everywoman for our times.

My Monster and Me
by Nadiya Hussain and Ella Bailey

A touching story about a little boy whose worry monster follows him everywhere he goes. It’s there when he gets dressed, when he wants to play with his toys, and even when his friends come over to visit. How can he escape his worries? Having suffered with panic disorder herself for as long as she can remember, Nadiya wrote this heartfelt story to help give children and parents the tools they need to talk about worries and anxiety, to ensure that no child suffers in silence.

“It was one of those mad ideas on the spur of the moment. I called my agent, then the following day wrote the book”

My Monster and Me (Hachette Children’s Group, illustrated by Ella Bailey) and Finding my Voice (Headline) publishes in hardback on 17 October 2019.

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