TV chef and author Nadiya Hussain talks to Georgia Farquharson about balancing fame with mental health and why she hopes to never stop smashing stereotypes.
Five years ago Nadiya Hussain was just like lots of mums baking for fun on a weekend while raising her three children. Today she’s the most successful winner of The Great British Bake Off and, with Mary Berry’s blessing, hopes to be doing this job when she’s 80. But she’s still human. And, like many of us, Nadiya admits she has struggled with lockdown life. When we chat to her over the phone, Nadiya, as someone who hates doing nothing, confesses she’s still struggling to maintain a routine. However, the bubbly chef is trying to remain positive and enjoy the break she didn’t know she needed.
When she entered The Great British Bake Off in 2015, it was her husband’s idea, as a coping mechanism to soothe her anxiety. But rather than just being one of 12 amateur contestants with a keen knowledge of baking, Nadiya’s part on the show became predominantly about her ethnicity. It was the first time she ever felt ‘different’, and she suddenly feared how she would be perceived. Five years on, Nadiya, 35, is described as someone who is ‘smashing stereotypes’ and it’s a title she wears with pride.
Being in the limelight means you’re open to scrutiny all the time. I think being a woman and a British-born Bangladeshi means I have a thick skin, but when you work in the public eye your life is there for everybody to see. I have experienced trolling, but I’ve come to accept that I might get abuse, but I don’t have to allow it to chip away at me.
I’ve suffered with anxiety since I was a really young age. I remember an entire childhood of being concerned about everything. I’ve had to call an ambulance on occasions because I thought I was having a heart attack during a panic attack.
Being thrown out of routine can trigger it, so I kept things in check during lockdown. I manage it with simple things like taking time out to read in the bath and I am very strict about what I eat. We mostly try and eat vegetables Monday to Friday, and try and walk 5km each day.
Body confidence doesn’t come naturally. But I look back on myself at 18 and wish I hadn’t called myself fat. This body has given me three beautiful children.
My fame has had an effect on my daughter. We’ve had incidents where she’s been in fits of tears because the crowds have got too big and people can start hassling you a bit. It once took me three weeks to get her out of the house with me again she’s only nine.
I now have strict rules if I’m out and about. If anybody asks for a picture, I’ll say no if I’m with my children. I think it’s really important for them to know that I can create those boundaries for them.
I went on Bake Off because my husband thought it would help with my anxiety. I didn’t really think of myself as different. It was only after they announced the Bake Off contestants that I realised a lot of what was being written was about my religion and the fact I’m a person of colour. That’s when it really dawned on me. By this point we’d filmed the show, I knew I’d won and I was really nervous because I wasn’t sure how the public would receive me. What if people hate me? I still have those fears now.
To have people say I’m a role model is so unexpected. The responsibility used to make me really nervous, but now it’s like a badge of honour. Growing up as a Muslim woman, I didn’t have anybody that I could look up to. This career is so much more than just cooking and baking. If I don’t continue doing what I’m doing then I won’t create the space for other people. So it’s really important for me to smash stereotypes and keep shattering them, until this is completely normal.
Life since Bake Off feels like a dream. I absolutely have imposter syndrome I just feel like I don’t belong. Quite often I’m the only one of me. So I walk into a situation where I’m the only person of colour or the only Muslim woman.
I struggle to call it my career because it came so quickly. I fear it’s going to go away as fast. But because I don’t accept this is my career, I love it more. I don’t turn up to a job thinking, ‘I’ll be doing this next year.’ Having that attitude allows me to enjoy every moment of what I do.
Mary Berry always tells me she’s proud of me. We don’t have a friendship where I ring her or she rings me, but she always remembers my husband’s name and that says it all, I think. She once said to him, ‘I hope Nadiya does this for as long as I’ve done this.’ I would love to do what I’m doing in my 80s and to get that blessing from Mary is wonderful.
It’s crazy to think my husband and I have been married for 15 years. I hear people saying relationships should be equal and I don’t believe in that. It’s always more of a 70/30 split and I think that’s what works for us. I’m always so appreciative of him holding the fort while I go away, and vice versa.
Our kids won’t have arranged marriages like we did. It’s a lot of hard work and I can’t be bothered with it. And if it doesn’t work out, who are they going to blame me? No thanks! When they’re ready to go off and get married I’m going to buy a sports car and drive around Europe with the wind in my hijab.