Nadiya Hussain talks anxiety, children, diversity… and why she might run for Prime Minister
The UK’s next Prime Minister is going to be Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt. Given that fact, you’ll forgive me for drifting off into a happy dream world where our next PM is a baker, broadcaster and author instead. Or perhaps it’s not just a dream…
“I might just run for prime minister,” said Nadiya Hussain, said baker / broadcaster / author, in her opening keynote at the Children’s Media Conference last night. “Free chocolate for everyone! I can’t change the world but I might run for prime minister. You never know!”
If only. For now, Hussain has plenty of things on her plate. Having won The Great British Bake Off in 2015, she has since judged its children’s spin-off; presented a series of cookery shows; baked a cake for the Queen’s 90th birthday; and written a newspaper column. Plus, earlier this year she made a powerful documentary about her experience with anxiety, with her children’s book My Monster and Me, dealing with the same topic for kids, due out in October.
Interviewed for her keynote by BBC Newsround’s Leah Boleto, Hussain talked about her career, anxiety, diversity in the children’s media industry, and her thoughts on social media.
“I love working with kids, they’re just so wonderful and honest… we could learn a thing from children,” she said, remembering her time as a judge on Junior Bake Off. “These kids: they are better than grown-ups. They are honest! They say ‘I want to win…’ You could see how much they wanted it: you could see when they were yawning how many nights they’d stayed up practising.”
Hussain talked movingly about her motivation for writing My Monster and Me, based on her memory of struggling with anxiety from the age of six or seven, but also struggling to tell anyone about it. “Even now, I struggle to get help. Imagine our younger generation, our children: they will suffer with anxiety,” she said. “I thought ‘right, I’m going to write this book. So I told my agent!… I love baking cakes, but there’s no point in having all this [her media career] unless I’m doing something good.”
Hussain has always called her anxiety her ‘monster’ as a way of making it identifiable. “My monster’s always been very big… we don’t talk about anxiety enough,” she said. “I can’t wait for this book to come out. We are grown-ups, and we’re not talking about anxiety. Imagine what damage we’re doing to our children by not talking about it.”
Hussain’s own children haven’t read the book yet: she wanted to finish it before showing them. She said that the show earlier this year had been an important moment for her family, however. “They didn’t really understand my anxiety until they watched the documentary,” she said. Hussain also talked about some of the parenting tactics she uses to help her own children open up about their worries when they need to.
“Sometimes when you’re feeling anxious we don’t like to talk about it,” she said – or at least, we don’t like to say that we want to talk about it, even if we do. “There’s a rule in our house: the top-step rule. If they’re feeling anxious and they want to talk about it, they sit on the top step. Someone will see them.”
Hussain came back to her desire to use her prominence for good, with the documentary. “We always say we need to talk more: so this was me talking to millions of people! There’s no point in me being sat here and having the ability to make it [a TV show] and not bothering… I say it all the time: we need to talk. This was me putting my money where my mouth is, talking… We have a very open discussion about anxiety in my house. There is no question I won’t answer.”
Nadiya’s oldest child is about to be a teenager, and like many parents, she’s negotiating the challenges of social media. “His first question was ‘can I go on Instagram?’ That’s the one I don’t want to answer!” she joked. “I’m like ‘So who wants to eat ice cream?!”
Her practical response, though: “As long as I teach him the rights and the wrongs, the do’s and the don’ts, with the right guidance I don’t see why they can’t live through it”. Although she did have a good tip for family device-use too: at certain points in the weekend, her family collectively put their devices in a biscuit tin to enjoy some screen-free time. “We just get rid!”
Hussain also talked about diversity in the television industry, remembering the first time that she realised it was an issue when working on a cookery show: “In the entire studio there were 60 people, and I was the only coloured person. And the only time there was a second coloured person was when the runner would come in and make a cup of tea…”
She was also asked about recent comments by Naomi Campbell, who criticised the idea of diversity as a mere ‘trend’ rather than a lasting change. Hussain offered her own views.
“People look at mental health as a trend or a fad too… they might be right: but if we call it a trend or a fad, we’re wishing it away,” she said. “The little diversity we have… I don’t think we should wish it away… look to make it a bigger and better thing. It’s happening, and if that change is happening even in the smallest amount, we should celebrate that.”
She admitted that she still goes to events – some food festivals for example – where “usually I’m the only person like me there” and feels unwelcome. “There are moments when I can almost feel the ‘you don’t belong here’. You don’t even have to hear the words, you can feel it. But sometimes I’ve heard the words.”
Hussain talked about a policy of trying to keep her “elbows out” in this regard. “I am the change. We are the change. I can’t change the world but I can be the change. If I can be the woman that the kid my age, the little me, sees [and takes inspiration from]… it’s about staying here and saying ‘elbows out’. Let’s create that space… for more women and people of colour… I hope that by doing what I do; I’m knocking down hurdles not just for my own children, but for the next generation.”
Hussain also explained why she tackles trolls on social media – “Some of the stuff they say on social media, nobody would ever say to your face! So I think it’s my job to correct them and tell them how ridiculous they are…” – and stressed her willingness to admit to her mistakes as a parent, not least so her children can admit to their own faults too.
“There’s a rule in our house: they get to be kids once and we get to be parents once… so we make mistakes together,” she said, before returning to the topic of her oldest child. “He’s gonna muck up, I’m going to muck up, so let’s meet somewhere in the middle and muck up together… he’s going to make mistakes. I’m not going to lose my rag!”
So what next, apart from those possibly (or possibly not!) prime ministerial ambitions? “I’d love to work with schools,” said Hussain, noting the current pressures on the NHS, and particularly the issue of funding for mental-health services. She thinks schools can play a helpful role — although she’s also keenly aware of the struggles teachers face with resources and time – in making anxiety less of a taboo subject.
“Children need to understand that anxiety exists,” she said. “So often with kids that are very young we have words like ‘a phase’, or hormones, or ‘they just had a late night’. Sometimes they are just anxious. For me it’s important to get into more schools [with that message].”