Part Yorkshire lass, part good Punjabi daughter, ANITA RANI tells Cole Moreton how living her life trying to be ‘everything to everyone’ nearly broke her. And why now, enough is enough…
Anita Rani looks scared. She is always in control, whether hiking up a mountain on Countryfile, asking fiendish quiz questions on The Answer Trap or hosting Woman’s Hour on Radio 4. Bright, breezy and totally on top of things, that’s her style… until now. ‘Yeah, completely nervous,’ she confirms with a self-conscious little laugh. ‘This book was just a thing I was writing on my own, but now you’ve got a copy and I’m realising: “Oh s*** – people are going to actually read this.”’
The Right Sort of Girl is her autobiography and it is extraordinary. Beautifully written and very funny at times, but also far more ballsy and personally revealing than you’d expect. She writes about growing up in Bradford with a chaotic extended Punjabi family, surrounded by fights and fury as well as love, laughter and fantastic food, and also of how she escaped through school, university and rave culture to slowly rise to become one of Britain’s favourite broadcasters. But there’s also breathtakingly personal stuff about puberty and periods, body image and self-harm, forbidden white boyfriends and a spectacular rage against the way women in her family were treated.
‘Now is your time,’ she writes in an open letter to herself at the start of her book. ‘The pressure cooker has started to whistle. It’s speak or explode. So keep on speaking.’
And the voice that emerges is far more fearless than the carefully reserved Anita Rani we have heard until now. ‘If I was going to write a book about my childhood it had to be personal,’ says the 43-year-old, whose parents, mum Lucky and dad Balvinder, were both first-generation immigrants from India. ‘I have natural nerves about putting something out there that is so exposing, but that’s why I wrote it.’ Anita was caught between worlds as a teenager, wearing Indian clothes at family gatherings but going off in Dr Martens and jeans to listen to The Cure and The Smiths with friends from school and university, feeling like a misfit wherever she went: ‘I was too white to be brown, too brown to be white.’
But that meant she learned to be a chameleon and it served her well during a rise from runner on Top of the Pops to DJ for the BBC’s Asian Network, then from TV presenter on Channel 4’s cult antiques show Four Rooms to The One Show sofa.
Strictly Come Dancing made her a household name in 2015, despite her dance partner Gleb Savchenko putting her through some ridiculously demanding routines. ‘I didn’t question the insane moves I was being asked to do, I just got on with it and worked as hard as I possibly could to make sure I nailed each dance every week,’ she writes. The duo nearly went all the way. ‘I absolutely smashed it and unbelievably the wonderful British public voted for me every week and got me to the semifinal.’
At the same time Anita was establishing herself on Countryfile, although it took a tense moment at a game fair in Leeds for her to realise she was actually being accepted. ‘I’ve never seen so many guns, tweed and red corduroy trousers and there were flat caps aplenty. I was terrified. This was the hardcore Countryfile audience. What the hell did this lot make of me on their favourite TV show? Once again, I was the only brown face there.’ She braced herself as a rotund, red-cheeked man in his 60s looked set to tell her. ‘I stopped breathing for a second, preparing myself for the humiliation.’ Instead he said: ‘You’re doing alreet, lass.’ And she writes: ‘That was the moment I knew I’d been officially accepted on Countryfile. It really didn’t matter about anyone else’s opinion now.’ So by the time she turned 40 three years ago, the ability to get on with anyone, anywhere had made Anita one of the most trusted and prolific presenters around. But success came at a cost, she says.
‘I’ve had to be everything to everybody, but also nothing.’ Does it really feel like that? ‘Until now, yeah. You shape-shift. You change yourself. You think: “What can I do to make sure I get the next job?” Then somewhere along the line, you lose who you are.’
There was a sharp reminder when the ancestry programme Who Do You Think You Are? revealed her maternal grandfather had lost his first wife and children to the violence of the Partition of India in 1947 while he was away serving with the British Army. Anita and her mother travelled there together for a follow-up documentary and she also explored her heritage in a brilliant programme about Bollywood. But it was an incident closer to home more recently that triggered a total rethink and the decision to stop holding back.
‘There was a moment when someone in a work environment called me the P-word, and I just didn’t react.’ The shortened form of Pakistani was used as a term of abuse against her as a child and she finds it highly offensive. Anita was drinking with ‘so-called educated, well-travelled, liberal TV types’ and was too shocked to do anything but laugh it off. ‘Afterwards, I just thought: “Who the f*** am I? What has happened in my life where I just allow that to happen?”’
Was that person joking? ‘Yeah, probably, but it wasn’t a joke. Is it ever a joke?’
Not to someone who remembers the playground taunts, but who is also passionately in love with this country. ‘There’s a generation of us who have grown up here. We are British. We come with our stories and we want to say: “Listen to who we are. We don’t want to have to hide away any more.” It’s liberating.’
The place of her birth and upbringing still feels like home, even though Anita lives in East London now. ‘Yorkshire is mine, I claim it, it’s my Earth.’ She is able to celebrate her own Britishness even while exploring the after-effects of empire. And in the same way, her loving and forgiving description of family life is accompanied by a brutal honesty about the prejudices at home, where her grandmother said, when Anita was born in 1977: ‘We don’t celebrate girls.’ She grimaces. ‘It’s horrendous. The only thing I can say is that it’s the fuel that has got me this far.’ Wives were treated like servants or possessions and daughters vanished to escape forced marriages. ‘Looking back, I realise they hadn’t run away. They’d just walked out and gone off to live their own life.’
Some faced violence, or worse. ‘I knew someone whose husband was doing time for killing his own sister because she’d fallen in love. A so-called honour killing. I fail to see the honour,’ she writes, furiously. ‘Shame, shame, shame on those who treat their daughters like chattel. Who place the burden of being the families’ pride on their daughters, who suffocate their existence, who crush their souls, who believe their only use is to bear sons and make roti. Shame on you, I say.’
She’s going to get some trouble for that, surely? ‘I’m not writing those bits for a big headline. They are written for those girls who need to hear me tell them: “Yeah, I’ve come from that and you can get out.” But that doesn’t mean I don’t love my culture. My god, that love is also evident in the book.’
It certainly is, not least when she writes about her mum and her many aunties – or, as she calls them collectively, ‘the iIlluminaunti’.
‘I have such deep respect for these women. The linchpins of their families, struggling in a land that’s not their own, sometimes with husbands who have no respect for them. Some of them are quiet, some of them vocal, but all of them are selfless warriors and the most powerful forces I know. Time and time again they take a battering from life and every time they rise.’
Her mum and dad gave their all to defy such expectations by sending her and her brother to private school. ‘This was their way of giving us a boost in Britain: by infiltrating the system middle-class white folk used to get ahead, too.’
They kept doing it even when recession swept away the clothing company they had built from scratch. ‘Every single penny they earned went to our schools and I will never forget that.’
But sometimes it was all so fraught that she self-harmed as a teenager. ‘The only time I felt I gained some control over my life and felt some kind of release, felt something, was in those moments when I’d sit in my room and cut myself and watch the blood slowly appear from under my skin. I found it both terrifying and satisfying. I felt alive and present and, in those moments, thought about nothing else. Nothing. I just focused on the pain and the blood and it was a sweet relief from the rest of my life.’
It’s rare to see self-harm written about in such an empathetic way, but why reveal so much? ‘Because I don’t think people expect someone on the telly to have gone through something like that. And it happened, I went through it, so let me just share that to make it easier for other people. I wrote it for the 16-year-old me sitting up in Bradford thinking: “I don’t know what the hell is going on.”’
Even some of the funny passages are bittersweet, like the times she woke as a child to find her mum attempting to knead her nose into a shape she considered more beautiful. ‘I really enjoyed writing the nose bit. Own your nose! I used to wake up in excruciating pain with my mother squishing my nose, trying to mould it. Nutter!’
She took a long time to get over the feeling something was wrong with her face. A plastic surgeon in Los Angeles later offered a nose job for free if she would have the operation on his television show, and she thought about it very seriously before turning him down. These days she says there are bigger things to worry about, like the state of the world. ‘I am who I am now, it’s all good. I’ve stopped thinking about getting a nose job.’
Today Anita looks striking in a white T-shirt, neckerchief and wide flares, but tells me: ‘When you don’t see any representation of you growing up as a teenager – nothing, no magazines – you don’t see yourself as beautiful. You just think: “Oh, the lads don’t fancy me.” They probably secretly did though.’
One lad who certainly did is her husband Bhupinder Rehal. They met at a warehouse party in Hackney in 2008, where he was about to play a DJ set. As a passionate fan of dance music, she was easily hooked. ‘The first record he played was one of my absolute favourites, M J Cole’s “Sincere”. There’s no way I could leave now.’
Bhupi was a technology executive for an advertising company and also – handily – came from the Punjab. Her mother was delighted, saying: ‘Now get married, jaldi jaldi [which loosely means don’t hang about].’ But the moment Anita knew Bhupi was the one? ‘Four months in, at the height of this romance, we get a call at Christmas to say my favourite uncle, my dad’s little brother, has died,’ she tells me. ‘He was an artist, a completely awesome dude. For me and my brother, he was our world.
‘Bhupi shoved us in his little red Corsa and drove us 200 miles to Bradford. We got to Mum and Dad’s at midnight. We walked in and I remember watching Bhupi do something that came so instinctively to him but blew my mind.’ What was that? ‘He hugged my dad, but then he held him and my dad allowed him to do that.’ Her voice breaks a little. ‘I’d never seen my dad just relinquish like that, and with another man as well. I was like: “Whoa! That’s powerful. He’s a keeper.”’ She beams. ‘To see him being comfortable in his vulnerability was mind-blowing.’
Was this a different version of manhood than she had seen growing up? ‘A hundred per cent. In my world, men were angry, shouty. There was pride, bravado. Bhupi is the complete opposite of that.’
He also encouraged her to tell the truth in the book rather than going for a happy ending, which would have been false.
‘I was like, “I’m going to end with our wedding.” But Bhupi was like, “Don’t lie and tell them you were happy. Tell them you were freaking out about it.’” That’s true, as she now admits: ‘I felt like I was making a mistake.’
She and Bhupi had given in to their Punjabi mothers. The traditional wedding preparations and celebrations lasted a week, culminating in a Sikh ceremony at a gurdwara in Bradford and a reception at a hotel big enough for 450 guests, although there were at least 100 gatecrashers.
‘It wasn’t the quiet wedding we wanted. We just made a choice to say: “Right, have what you want, we’ll just turn up.” And it was a hoot. Don’t get me wrong. These things are mini-festivals and our friends had the best time of their lives. But my brother had a small intimate wedding with 100 people and I was like: “He got to do it!’”
So did they do something smaller as well, just the two of them? ‘No, I mean, we have a life together.’
The couple live in Clapton, East London, with a recent addition to the household, a gorgeous grey bedlington whippet called Rafi. ‘She’s changed our world. I’ve never had a dog before. I love looking into her eyes every morning. She’s a very calming, very beautiful little presence in our life.’ Anita realises something and laughs. ‘And now I’ve got a dog – so, another tick that puts me into Middle Britain, doesn’t it?’
Indeed it does. But even as her career has brought joy there has been secret sadness. Anita had a miscarriage at the end of 2018, but was working hard and didn’t stop to process what was happening – not just to her body but her emotions, too. When she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with other celebrities for Comic Relief in early 2019, altitude sickness led to a panic attack. For a long time afterwards, Anita was convinced she was suffering from a serious physical illness, until she realised what was really wrong.
‘I was sad. Deeply, truly and cripplingly sad,’ she wrote in a piece about the miscarriage, which helped unlock her new honesty. ‘The response was immense. I think people just want connection and to talk with honesty about things that are real, especially women.’
I have to ask, gently, if they’re trying again.
‘People stopped asking me, which I’m happy about because it’s really difficult to talk about children,’ she says quietly. ‘No one knows more about what’s happening with my body than me. So when people are like: “Ooh, you’re getting old!” [she turns 44 in October] I’m like: “Really? I have noticed!” Also, I just don’t know…’
She sounds weary and a bit lost for a moment, but the strength returns. ‘Whatever happens in my life happens in my life. And I’m all right with that. So if I don’t have children, that’s just fine.’
Her smile returns when I ask what her parents make of her life now. ‘I think they’re blown away. They’re very happy, very proud.’
She has moved them down to London to be close to her. ‘They’ve had so many ups and downs. Losing the factory was really difficult for my parents. We had nothing. Now we sit in their beautiful back garden and my dad is like: “It’s a fairytale. I never thought our lives would end up here.”’
Her brother cried happy tears when she got the Woman’s Hour job in January, knowing what it would mean for this working-class Asian girl from Bradford to become one of the hosts of a flagship Radio 4 show. She’s part of the Establishment now, right? ‘No,’ says Anita quickly, but then has to concede it does look that way. ‘Yeah, but I’m still an outsider! Don’t get me wrong: I so love being on Woman’s Hour but I’m going to bring my vibe to it. Otherwise, why am I there?’
She takes inspiration from younger presenters who are far more confident in their various identities than she was at their age. ‘I was taught that you keep your head down, blend in and that will get you through. Now the younger generation are like, “Why should we? Let’s just be who we are.” That’s across the board, whether it’s about your sexuality, your background, your class. Whatever it is, people are just owning who they are. So I’m just going to be myself now, too,’ says Anita, grinning with confidence. ‘Amazing!’
Anita’s book The Right Sort of Girl (Bonnier, £16.99) will be published on 8 July*. To order a cop for £15.12 until 18 July, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Don’t miss our exclusive extract in next week’s YOU. If you’ve been affected by self-harm, visit mind.org.uk or harmless.org.uk for support