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Anita Rani: ‘Asian women aren’t allowed to fail. We have to excel at everything’

Growing up in Bradford, the presenter and author rebelled against taking the path that was expected for Asian women.

Born and raised in Bradford to a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, Anita Rani hosted her first radio show at the tender age of 14 on Sunrise Radio. She studied broadcasting at the University of Leeds before heading to London to get a job with the BBC. A range of presenting jobs in pop and current affairs followed, including Countryfile, Weekend Breakfast on Five Live and Woman’s Hour, as well as a stint on Strictly in 2015, where she reached the semi-finals. In 2021 Rani published her memoir, The Right Sort of Girl, which made The Sunday Times Bestseller List. She lives in East London with her husband.

In her Letter To My Younger Self, she recalls the young girl with big ambitions who had to grow up fast, yet never lost sight of where she came from, and explains why she owes her parents everything.

At 16 I was living in Bradford and spending a lot of time in HMV. I was planning my escape really, looking forward to getting to university and getting the heck out of Bradford. Music was my world. I had left the world of pop music behind, and I was finding my own voice. I was confused, I was angry. I was listening to a lot of The Smiths alone in my bedroom. I was painting my nails black, I was wearing Doc Martens boots and Converse trainers, which interestingly, if you fast-forward many years, I’m still wearing. I don’t know whether I should be worried about that.

Anita Rani as a teenager
In the 1990s beside her New Kids on the Block shrine
Photo: PR supplied

I was very friendly though, perhaps unusually so for an Asian woman. I think I might have blown your stereotype. I definitely remember feeling too brown to be white and too white to be brown. So I didn’t really fit in in any world. But I was quite confident and content. I would always chat to a stranger, I still do.

We were an unusual Asian- Indian family for the 1980s and 90s because most people back then, and still some to this day, live in joint families. My mum came from India to marry my dad; she left beautiful India and moved to Bradford – a shock to her system – in 1976. My dad’s family are a very working-class Punjabi family who have been in Britain since the 1950s. So culturally, my parents are quite different. My dad’s a real Yorkshire man. And my mum came in her early 20s from quite a middle- class Indian family. They left home quicker than was usual for Indian couples – they had me and then my brother and they didn’t stay with my grandparents, which was unusual. So we didn’t really have this big extended joint family around us all the time. 

I think I’m a bit of both of my parents. They are very highly energised people with an incredible work ethic. They just wanted to make a better life for me and my brother, so they started a business and put all of their energy into it. I was especially aware of how hard my mum was working. Writing my book, it really made me think about the power and the strength of these amazing women who came from a foreign country to another land where they were completely invisible. They had to learn so many new things and keep families together in a culture that traditionally treated them in a certain way. And they never complained. I kind of realised it’s because of them that I am where I am today.

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I saw a lot of ups and downs as a kid. I saw my mum and dad’s business do really well and then when I was 13, they lost absolutely everything. Thatcher came in and manufacturing left Britain and went overseas. Everything became more expensive. I don’t really know the full details of what went wrong, my parents protected us from a lot of it. I could see it was traumatising for them but I also saw the true grit of who they are and what they’re made of. They were determined to do whatever it took to keep the family going. My mum went back into education, which is probably the best thing that happened to her as a woman. Up until that point, it was all very much about the family business. And then she found her voice and independence and went out there and met other people and it just was the making of her. 

Anita Rani and brother
In school uniform with her brother Kuldeep
Photo: PR supplied

I grew up quite quickly after my parents’ business went under. I got a job very quickly. I stopped asking my parents for money. I just decided that I was going to stand on my own two feet. I’ve spoken to my dad about it since. He said, we didn’t really have a choice in the matter of what you did. You were always just going to do what you wanted to do. But if anything – and this is something I’ve not said to anyone else before – it probably made me think not only about what I wanted to do for myself, but also what I wanted to do for my mum and dad. It made me think, as soon as I can, I want to give back to them. 

If you had told the teenage Anita what would happen to her, she’d believe the first bit but not the next bit. I moved to London, I got a job working in TV, working in music; she’d understand all that. Because I just felt like the world was mine for the taking. I thought, I’m just going to go for it regardless, what’s the worst that can happen? So I was going out clubbing, going to lots of parties in London, having a great time. But when I fast-forward to where I am now – presenting Woman’s Hour, writing a book telling my story for other Asian women – that would blow her mind. 

The other thing the teenage me wouldn’t believe is that I’m wearing make-up and high heels now. Because I just didn’t wear make-up. I didn’t own a lipstick until I moved to London. I guess because back then the idea that I would be into anything vaguely girly or feminine or anything that sexualised me just felt really against what I stood for. I was going to be taken seriously. And I wasn’t going to wear a lipstick to make myself feel attractive to men. I was quite a hardcore feminist, I guess. Working in TV changed my ideas about that. TV is a visual medium, I can’t just rock up in a duffel coat with no make-up on.

Anita Rani at a rally for refugees
At a Solidarity With Refugees march in London in 2016
Photo: Mark Kerrison/Alamy Live News

I’m still processing just how profound the impact of writing my story has been. As an Asian woman growing up in Britain, we’ve had to contend with fitting into wider society. But at the same time, there’s so much baggage that we carry within our own community and culture and families.

I do remember, as a kid, feeling like I didn’t want to be like my mum or the other Asian women I saw around me, who did everything for everybody. They were like martyrs, while men were just allowed to be toddlers. They could do whatever they wanted. They could behave as ridiculously as they wanted and the women just kept families together. And I remember thinking, that is not going to be me. To have been able to lift the lid on that and say unfair expectations were put on me, to expose the double standards of how I was treated compared to boys, that feels like a real achievement. So many incredible South Asian women of a similar age have come up to me and said: “Well done. It’s like a big secret we’ve been carrying, and you’ve just said it, and now we can finally talk about it.”

My brother puts it really well. He said, throughout my life I’ve known that I can fail and it will be fine. I can make as many mistakes as I want and it’ll be fine because sons are just put on a pedestal. Asian women aren’t allowed to fail. We can’t make mistakes, we have to excel at everything. It was slightly different in my household because my personality was quite forceful, shall we say. But even so, I felt that weight and was very aware of constantly being told, it doesn’t matter how successful you are – until you’re married you’re not going to really be seen as properly successful. I’ve just stuck up two fingers to all of that.

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I’d tell my younger self, getting older is the best. First of all I’d say, make the most of every single second, but I think I actually did do that. But I’d also say, don’t worry about getting older at all. Embrace it. I really look up to amazing older women. They have this confidence and ease that they walk around with. This idea that we should be pursuing youth and beauty is probably some man-made creation anyway. Most women become far more interesting the older they get. Also your female relationships are incredible the older you get. I’m much happier sitting around a table with a load of girlfriends than anything else.

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