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Gina Yashere: For UK Black comics it's a nightclub policy – 'one in, one out'

The London born comedian told The Big Issue years of sexist and racist bullying in the UK made her excited to move to America

Gina Yashere

Gina Yashere. Photo: supplied

Gina Yashere – the popular stand up-comic, once a prolific face on British TV – has spoken to The Big Issue about the relief of moving to California, away from the barriers she faced in the UK.

“I got to a point in England when I was reasonably successful,” she said, in an interview to be published in next week’s Letter To My Younger Self. “A nice house, a nice car. I had a pretty good life. But I felt I’d hit a glass ceiling and there was more I wanted to achieve, but I wasn’t going to get to do it in England because for Black comics there’s like a nightclub policy – one in, one out. Basically we were all waiting Lenny Henry to die.

“So I played the game. I did all the panel shows to show the BBC I was a team player, so that they’d trust me and give me my own project. But I watched people like Russell Howard get plucked to stardom and sell out stadiums and I was left still struggling to get these big TV gigs. So I thought, obviously my face does not fit in England. Well, I’ve always dreamed of living in America. I’m just going to go and do auditions and see what happens. So I put my house in London on the market and gave away everything I owned and I threw a big party saying, goodbye. I’m going to America. And I’m not coming back.”

Yashere, who’s just had the green light on the fifth series of her co-created sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola, spoke frankly about the outsider status which began at school and worsened when she began working.

“School was not fun for me. I was not one of the cool kids. My parents are Nigerian immigrants so the other students laughed at my name, my mum’s accent, the clothes she wore, the clothes she bought me.”

After becoming the first Black and first Black female engineer in lift manufacturers Otis’s long history, Yashere faced a daily wave of shocking racist and misogynistic abuse.

“I was working on building sites with all these white men who did not hold back. I’d come into work and they’d hung pictures of monkeys above my overalls and in my pockets,” she said.

“There was one guy who called me the N word to my face every day. So eventually I pulled him aside and said, I know where you live, and if you call me the N word one more time I’m gonna send my two brothers around your house to fuck you up. And he never spoke to me again. I was proud that I finally stood up to him. I stuck it out there for four years just to prove that I refused to be driven out of the job.”

Gina Yashere in 2008, performing her show Skinny B*itch at Hackney Empire, London. Image: Clive Hewitt/Shutterstock
Gina Yashere in 2008, performing her show Skinny B*itch at Hackney Empire, London. Image: Clive Hewitt/Shutterstock

Though she did go on to make a successful TV career, Gina echos UK actors and directors like Idris Elba, Sophie Okonedu and David Harewood when she speaks about the extra level of struggle she felt when pursuing her career. She said she now feels proud that she didn’t settle for a life that ran short of her childhood aspirations.

“My 16-year-old self would absolutely love to know she’d be a bit famous one day,” she enthused. ”I’d love to tell that girl, you’re going to end up living the dream that you had before. You’re going to be in America, you’re going to work in Hollywood, you’re going to live the life that you didn’t think you could when you were growing up a child of immigrant parents in Bethnal Green.

“The teenage me would be in heaven knowing all those people who bullied me and laughed at me and called me names, now look up to me and want to be my friend. My real friends came to see me off and they were all crying, but my eyes were dry. I was ready to move on. I wasn’t sad at all, I couldn’t wait to get out of this country.”

Robert Carlyle and the Full Monty on the cover of The Big Issue

The full Letter To My Younger Self interview with Gina Yashere will appear in The Big Issue available from Monday 5 June.

The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work, buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today. Or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available from the App Store or Google Play.

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