FROM obscurity to bona fide national treasure, it’s been one hell of a rise to the top for Nadiya Hussain.
In the six years since her Great British Bake Off triumph, the 36-year-old mum of three has enjoyed a string of bestselling cookbooks and hit TV shows, been awarded an MBE and even baked the Queen’s 90th-birthday cake.
But ask her the secret to her staggering success, and she’s momentarily flummoxed.
“I struggle to say why… Is that a female thing? That’s something I’ve really learned – as women, we aren’t very good at saying: ‘I’m really good at that.’ And I’m trying to allow myself to believe that I am good at what I do,” she says.
“I’ve only ever really been myself. There are no airs and graces – I am who I am. I don’t pretend to be strong all the time, because I’m not.
“Also,” she adds with a laugh, “I think people like cake!”
At our photo shoot today, Nadiya is just as warm and engaging as she was on Bake Off in 2015, when 14.5 million people watched her lift the trophy and she became one of the most-loved contestants in the show’s history.
But since then, Nadiya, who grew up one of six children in a working-class Bangladeshi community in Luton, hasn’t just stuck to baking.
As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman of colour, who had an arranged marriage to husband Abdal at 20, she’s broken down barriers by opening up about racism, her struggles with her mental health and being sexually abused by a distant family member, which led to a suicide attempt and debilitating panic attacks.
“It’s liberating to be able to speak out, because I grew up in a community where women didn’t talk about things like that,” she says.
“There was a lot of shame attached to abuse and mental health. There’s not even a word for ‘mental health’ in Bengali. How do you explain something that there is no vocabulary for?
'ANXIETY STOPS YOU FROM LIVING'
“It was really important for me to be a voice. There are people out there who have suffered the same thing but are too scared to say anything. They feel alone, they feel shame and they feel isolated.
“There were moments where I thought: ‘My goodness, what am I doing?’ because there are certain people who won’t be able to look me in the eye any more. But actually, it was important for me to be able to look myself in the eye.”
With regard to her mental health, Nadiya says she’s “managing it,” explaining: “It’s not something that I feel is ever going to go away. There are days and weeks where I feel horrible.
“Anxiety stops you from living. Some days I feel like it’s really under control. I have tools like praying, walking, gardening and journalling.
“I set out what my goals are for the day – not big goals, just kind of ‘try to smile more’. Then I like to journal just before I go to bed, and I look at what I’ve done that day.”
One of Nadiya’s biggest goals is to inspire not just her own children, but also the millions of young Muslims and people of colour who look up to her and could one day follow in her footsteps.
“My responsibility was always to be a good role model for my children,” she says.
“But since having this career, it’s definitely bigger now. If you’d asked me five years ago, I would have said: ‘Can we just stick to baking?’ But now I understand the responsibility of being able to occupy these spaces that I never saw myself in and I never saw anyone like me in.
“That change has to come from somewhere. And I’m a firm believer that I can be a part of that change.
“If I just kind of disappeared now, I’d be responsible for not maintaining that space for young Muslim girls and boys out there who do look at me and think: ‘If she can do it, then I can do it.’ And that’s really important.
“Growing up, I never had that. That in itself is a massive responsibility. Don’t get me wrong, it does weigh heavy, sometimes. I do really struggle with it, because I am human, I’m not perfect and I make mistakes. It isn’t always easy, but I have to do it.”
Since the Black Lives Matter movement came to the fore last summer, Nadiya says there has been a notable shift to improving diversity on screen, but she’s keen to emphasise that racism is still prominent – and she’s been on the receiving end of it.
“We are making baby steps, and that’s good to see. But whether it’s the public eye, television or publishing, there is still a lot of: ‘There’s no room for someone like you.’ And believe me, I faced that and thought: ‘How do I make space for myself if I’m being told I don’t have that space?’” she says.
“Lots of people have said: ‘I don’t think racism exists in these industries.’ That’s untrue. It does, you just don’t see it – it’s very underhanded. If you walk into a room full of Caucasian men and women and you’re the only one who isn’t, then there’s a problem.
“There’s a reason why people are scared to go into an industry that doesn’t represent them. How have I battled that? It’s not always been easy. And sometimes it’s left me in tears.
“But I think the fact that I’m still here six years later is proof that if you work really hard and keep at it, you can work within these industries.
“You just keep going and showing that you are not going away and you’re good at what you do. But it’s not easy, because I do feel like I have to work 10 times harder than my peers.”
Now, Nadiya is preparing her children – sons Musa, 14, and Dawud, 13, and daughter Maryam, 10 – for going into a world where they might experience racism or discrimination because of their religion and the colour of their skin.
I don’t try to paint a horrible picture of the world, but I have to educate my children on racism
“I’m one of very few people in the public eye that come from my background as a Muslim woman. I’m not ashamed to say: ‘I’m Muslim.’
“Our motto at home is ‘elbows out,’ as they’ve got to learn to create space for themselves, because there will be moments where they will feel like they don’t belong. We experience moments like that as a Muslim family.
“I don’t try to paint a horrible picture of the world, but I have to educate my children on racism, and all these kinds of things that many families will never experience in their life.
“My kids have grown up in a world where the only time a Muslim person was mentioned on television was because something terrible had happened.
“I remember one of my little boys asking me: ‘Mum, why do people hate Muslims? If Muslims are bad, why are we Muslims?’ That’s a really tough question to answer.
“They don’t care that I’m on TV or publish books, but they do understand what it means to have somebody like me on there [the TV]. There is a new generation of children like me who are growing up with this normal. And that’s a step forward.”
Although being visible on screen is something that Nadiya is extremely passionate about, she’s still selective about what jobs she takes.
“I would never do Strictly!” she says. “I could do the outfits, but the man being in my space, I’m not into that. It’s too much! I think it would kill my husband as well. And yes, The Curse, of course.
“The I’m A Celebrity! jungle, however – I’d do that. I know I’d end up doing all the cooking. The kids would love it to see me squirm, but I’m not scared of snakes and rats and that kind of stuff.”
A self-confessed “overprotective mother”, Nadiya has banned her children from watching Love Island and gives them limited time with mobile phones so they don’t spend all their time on social media.
“I would hate it if any of them watched Love Island. And if they said: ‘Mum, I want to be on Love Island,’ it would kill me a little bit inside. They’re barely allowed to watch Googlebox.
“We don’t watch much telly – we never owned one until five years ago and it was one of the best things I ever did. They didn’t grow up with screens in their hands.
“We have a tin in my husband’s office and as soon as they finish school, the phones go into the tin. And if I don’t need my phone, mine also goes in. We have alarm clocks by the side of the bed – we don’t charge our phones in the bedroom, that’s the rule.”
Instead of screens, the family, who live in Milton Keynes, spend time hiking, baking and cooking together, while Sundays are spent doing chores. Unlike her own childhood, in which the girls did all the housework, Nadiya makes sure that the males do their fair share.
“We clean the house as a family on a Sunday. It takes us three hours, but we get it done. We don’t do gender-specific,” she says.
“My husband cleans the bathrooms and irons and he enjoys getting the carpet cleaner out. And I’m like: ‘No, I want to do that.’ That’s the most satisfying job in the house!”
Both Nadiya’s sons suffer from asthma, which is why she became involved in Lung Letters, an asthma-awareness campaign.
Admitting being a parent of children with asthma can be “really isolating,” she explains. “You spend a lot of time doubting your own ability to look after your children.”
'I'D LOVE TO ADOPT ONE DAY'
Aware that Covid is worse in people with underlying health issues, the pandemic heightened her fears around protecting them.
“It was so scary when they had to go back to school. They all got sick, one by one [with coughs and colds]. It was fine, but they have to understand their condition and what to do to be safe.”
At 36, she hasn’t ruled out having another baby, but would have to convince Abdal it’s a good idea. Nadiya’s also given thought to adopting a child at some point.
“I loved having really young children. I do say to my husband: ‘Shall we have another?’ He’s like: ‘No way. Absolutely not. Get yourself another cat!’
“In an ideal world, I’d love to adopt one day. It would be lovely to be able to do that, but I don’t know how that would fit into my life and career. But it’s something that my husband and I always talk about.
“If I don’t, I’ll just keep getting cats! I only have two at the moment but Abdal said: ‘We’ll just get you a new cat every two years until you just have all the cats!’”
Meanwhile, her professional life is going from strength to strength – with another cookbook, Nadiya’s Fast Flavours, and an accompanying TV series due in October, she is well on her way to emulating her mentor Mary Berry’s incredible 50-year career.
“I hope I can still be doing this in my 80s. That would be amazing,” she says.
“Mary said to Abdal once: ‘I don’t do all of that sort of social-media stuff like young folk, but I do make sure that Nadiya’s OK. I hope she gets to do this job for as long as I’ve been doing it.’
"I always remember that fondly, because she’s been doing it for such a long time and doing it well. It’s a blessing knowing that she cares.”
Could a damehood like Mary’s be on the cards?
“I doubt it,” she laughs. “Though Dame Nadiya has a nice ring to it!”
- Nadiya is an ambassador for the Lung Letters initiative. For more information, visit Lungletters.co.uk.
In the make-up chair with Nadiya
What are your skincare heroes?
I’ve been using Skin + Me, a prescription daily doser, for six months and it has transformed my complexion.
Any make-up bag essentials?
Bobbi Brown Instant Full Cover Concealer, Trish McEvoy Moisture Stick, Fenty Slip Shine Sheer Lipstick and Mac Powder Blush.
What’s your budget buy?
Simple Hemp Ultra Calming Sheet Mask – perfect for when my face needs a quick rejuvenation.
Who’s your beauty icon?
Bollywood actress Madhuri Dixit. She was the closest thing to representation I had growing up. Beautiful, talented and a style icon who owned her figure, her dance moves and her femininity.
What do you splurge on?
Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream – it’s a total luxury but lasts forever.
What’s your top beauty tip?
Sleep! Lack of it can give us dark circles, breakouts and just really destroys our mood. Sleep will help you look better and feel amazing.
See Nadiya chat Bake Off, fashion and representation in our exclusive video at Fabulousmag.co.uk.
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