Culture

Gina Yashere: 'I was terrified some unscrupulous people would try to out me'

Gina Yashere overcame sexism, racism and homophobia to become a success in comedy, but she had to move to the United States to do it

Gina Yashere. Image: Steve Peirce

Gina Yashere was born in Bethnal Green, East London, in 1974. Her parents had emigrated from Benin City, Nigeria, where her mother was a headteacher and her father an academic. After A-levels, Yashere qualified as an engineer, installing lifts at Canary Wharf, London. At 24, she decided to become a stand-up and within months was the runner-up in the 1996 Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition.

Yashere became a familiar face on UK TV, appearing on The Lenny Henry Show, Mock The Week and Gina’s Laughing Gear. But frustration followed as she discovered a glass ceiling for Black British comedians and struggled to make the next step. Yashere moved to the US, where she became the first British comic to appear on the prestigious Def Comedy Jam. Her first comedy special, 2015’s Skinny B*tch, premiered on HBO Showtime and in 2017, became the British correspondent for The Daily Show. Bob Hearts Abishola, the series she co-created and stars in began in 2019 and has recently been renewed for a fifth season.

In her Letter to My Younger Self, Yashere looks back on a life of overcoming expectations and finding success.

Gina Yashere with co-star Vernee Watson on Bob Hearts Abishola
With co-star Vernee Watson on Bob Hearts Abishola, the sitcom she co-created. Image: Michael Yarish/CBS via Getty Images

At 16 I was just discovering a little bit of freedom. I’d done my O levels and I was just dying to go out and do things. My mum was super protective and never let me go anywhere. So I was preoccupied with trying to get out the house. School was not fun for me. I was not one of the cool kids or the fashionable kids. So at 16 I started working part time and getting my own money. And I was able to buy a few bits of clothing. That’s when I started to come into my own. 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. So when I got my own little money I thought, I’m going to be cool now.

I loved my mum, but I had a stepfather who I hated, who was physically and psychologically abusive. And my mum was too busy working hard, trying to put things on the table, trying to provide for the 5,000 to do much about that. African families are not super emotionally invested in their kids, talking and hugging it out. There’s none of that. African families just tend to get on with it.

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Immigrant parents often have fixed ideas about what their kids are going to do with their lives. It was doctor, lawyer, accountant or engineer. From the age of three or four I was meant to be the doctor, that was driven into my soul. I didn’t work out until I was about 17 that I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. So I switched to engineering. But you know, I was quite an arty kid. If I’d been allowed to follow my own interests I would have followed art much earlier. And people used to tell me, you’re funny, you should be an actor or an entertainer. But that wasn’t on the list of accepted careers.

I was an engineer for Otis. I used to build and repair lifts. And for four years I suffered horrendous misogyny and racism. I was the first female engineer and the first black woman that Otis had had in their UK history, and 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. There was one particular 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 performing her show Skinny B*itch at Hackney Empire, London.
2008 Performing her show Skinny B*itch at Hackney Empire, London. Image: Clive Hewitt/Shutterstock

The breakthrough in my thinking was when I was doing volunteer work at various organisations and one day they were doing a fundraiser. They needed poets and singers and dancers. So I wrote what I thought was a play, for me and my friends to perform. But it turned out it wasn’t a play, it was a comedy sketch. And people laughed their asses off through the whole thing. And I was like, cool, I like this. I want to do more of this. We took that sketch to several talent competitions, and we kept winning. One day the other girls didn’t turn up, so I just went up on stage on my own and talked for 10 minutes and got us all through to the finals. And that’s how I discovered stand-up comedy.

After I left Otis I started doing open mics slots at comedy clubs. After a few people started going, I’ll give you £5 to come and perform on my show. Then, I’ll give you 50 quid to come and perform at my show. I thought, 50 quid for 10 minutes, this is brilliant! It started happening almost immediately. And within a few months I got on an ITV talent show hosted by Jonathan Ross.  I was like, oh my god, I’ve only been doing this six months and I’m on television. I’m gonna be a star. But it didn’t happen that way. It took another 25 years to really make it. But getting on TV gave me a massive confidence boost. It made me think, I can do this as a career. I’m going to make it.

If I really wanted to surprise my 16-year-old self, I’d tell her I ended up being a full-time performer and comedian on television and then ended up in Hollywood. I’d always wanted to live in America since I was a kid. So I’d say to that 16-year-old, stick with your guns. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t be whatever you want to be. You’re going to end up living the dream that you had before. You’re going to be in America, and you’re going to live the life that you didn’t think you could when you were a child of immigrant parents in Bethnal Green. And I’d like to go back to that girl in her early 20s and just say, be yourself. Don’t give a shit about what other people think. I was a lesbian but I wasn’t out. I was terrified of being out, and some unscrupulous people would try to out me. So I’d say to that girl, don’t worry about it. One day people are going to accept you for who you are.

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I got to a point in England when I had a reasonably successful career. 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. But look at him, he’s still going strong. 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.

Gina Yashere on the panel at the Empowered Conversations with ICONTalks event, Washington DC
2019 On the panel at the Empowered Conversations with ICONTalks event, Washington DC. Image: Earl Gibson III/Shutterstock

My 16-year-old self would absolutely love to know she’d be a big famous one day. I was an attention seeker as a kid, I was always the loudest and the funniest in the room. So the 16-year-old 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. And she’d love to know I ended up in America. My 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.

I if I could have one conversation with anyone, it would be somebody I’ve never met. My grandmother. She died before I was born but I am a reincarnation of her. Africans, especially Nigerians, believe in reincarnation. My grandmother was one of several wives of a husband. She had a lot of kids, a lot of them died. And she always used to say to my mum, I’m going to come back and I’m going to be British. I’m going to speak with a British accent. I’m not going to have all these kids. I’m going to be a free agent. I’m going to do a job that’s specifically for men. And I’m going to do whatever the hell I want.

She apparently was poisoned by the other wives, who were jealous of her, and when she died she had a mark on her throat from the poison. And then I was born with a birthmark on my throat. So my nickname in the family is granny because I am my own grandmother. And I’ve done everything she said she was going to do; no kids, I did a man’s job as an engineer. I became a comedian, which is not a friendly career for women. Every time I’ve gone to psychics they’ve all said the same thing – you’ve been guided by this woman through your whole life. So I would love to have a conversation with my grandmother and say, I hope that the second time round you’ve enjoyed life a lot better and I’ve made you proud.

Gina Yashere’s Cack-Handed is out now in paperback (HarperCollins, £9.99)

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which 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, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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