London Hughes: 'There are no black female household names in the UK, bar Naomi Campbell'


London Hughes is the talk of the town. Every town. At this year’s Edinburgh festival fringe, her sold-out, roof-raising show To Catch a Dick narrowly missed out on the big prize, making her the first black British woman to be nominated. In Atlanta, Georgia, she recently did a standup gig for an African-American crowd which received the besotted-yet-bemused heckle: “What part of ‘black’ you from?” Meanwhile, back in her home town and namesake, she is continuing her regular gig on ITV2’s panel show, Don’t Hate the Playaz, starting her new Spotify dating podcast, London Actually, and kicking up a Top Boy-related Twitterstorm about black representation (“Black British culture is not is not just one way, there’s more to us than grime and gangs and knife crime,” she tweeted).

The offers are pouring in so fast – gigs, book deals, merchandising – that all she can do is laugh: “God, you should see my agent’s emails; it’s, like, ridiculous! She’ll screenshot me the emails and we’ll just go: ‘Wow!’ Because those people were not returning her emails at the beginning of this year, I’ll tell you that!”

Sadly for us in the UK, this is all too little, too late. By the time you read this, 30-year-old Hughes will be in Los Angeles working with Issa Rae’s Insecure co-creator, Larry Wilmore, on the pilot for a sitcom based on her own life. She cannot say much yet, but what she does say is: “I wanna bring black British culture to America; the positive side to black British culture, none of this Top Boy stuff.”

It has only been three years since Hughes first crossed the Atlantic, but things have moved fast. “I feel like something shifted over there and black women’s stories are wanted now. People like Issa Rae and Tiffany Haddish opened the doors for me, so I can easily walk through.” Over here, however, she has felt stigmatised by her association with kids’ TV (she was a CBBC presenter from 2009 to 2011) and overlooked in favour of her pale, male peers. “I’m definitely riding the wave in America. Here, there’s no wave. Like the fact that Michaela Coel had a whole two seasons of Chewing Gum and then it ended and none of you thought: maybe we should replace this? But everyone’s looking for the next Fleabag! OK. There’s no wave.”



Photograph: James Drew Turner/The Guardian

While it sounds as though Hughes’s heart has irrevocably hardened as far as the British comedy establishment is concerned, she was sincerely moved by her Edinburgh nomination. “I literally fell to the floor. It just meant validation. It was like: ‘You’re not crazy.’ The whole of my career I’ve been told: ‘No, not right for us’; ‘Oh no, we like London, but we don’t think she’s right’; ‘Oh she’s not right … ’ Never, never, never, never been accepted. Not in this industry, not in this lifetime. And, for the first time, I finally felt accepted … It will for ever be the best day of my life.”

So, although the award eventually went to another comedian, Jordan Brookes, for Hughes it was mission accomplished: “My whole thing about Edinburgh was, basically – it sounds so big-headed, but it’s the truth – I was like, make them realise they messed up. Go to Edinburgh one more time, kill it and then leave. To let them know, you can’t keep doing this to your black talent. You just can’t.”

She has no regrets about moving on from British comedy. She knows it is not her fault (“It’s literally, systemically, their problem”), yet the rejection still stings. “Because it’s my home! It’s my people,” she says, sounding genuinely pained. “I wanted to make it here first, but I just knew – I just knew – as a black woman, I wouldn’t. There are no black female household names in this country, bar Naomi Campbell.”

Success has been a long time coming for London Hughes, especially when you consider how early she started. Her name was bestowed before birth. She was a “miracle baby” – her parents were not sure she would survive long outside the womb – so they went all out and gave her six middle names, with London being the least unusual option. “My mum wanted to call me Nashwan which was the name of the horse that won the Derby that day and Sonar, after the sonar treatment they used to save my life. So … ” Otherwise, she had what she calls “a normal black British girl experience” growing up in Thornton Heath, south London, the same area as Stormzy. “My parents worked really hard and my story is not different from anybody else’s. I’m not from a gang, I’m not from a council estate, but I’m not wealthy.”

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Photograph: Karla Gowlett

She gets her stage presence and glamorous style from her mother. “I’m, like, Jamaican culture: we show out,” she says. “If I was going to church my mum would make sure I looked legit for God. So now I’m a comedian on stage, do you think I’m gonna do it in jeans and a top? Never!” Her humour, she reckons, comes more from her dad, who grew up in Sussex, the black son of white adoptive parents. “My grandma, God rest her soul, was a very woke woman – like, she got me black Barbie dolls, and was very cultured, for someone who had no black friends and whose own mother had a cat called ‘Nigger’ … So my dad is a very proud black man, but he grew up on Radio 4 shows and I used to listen to them, too. No black girl from south London, at six years old, should be able to quote Round the Horn and The Goon Show, but I could. So for real, like, you cannot put me in a box!”

That box, and Hughes’s refusal to get in it, also helps explain the twists and turns of her showbiz journey. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m not black enough for TV, because I’m not urban … If I had The London Hughes Show, there’d be no graffiti backgrounds, there’d be no ‘Nursery Grimes’,” she says, presumably in reference to Channel 4’s The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan. “It would just be a show hosted by a woman who happens to be black. I would probably reference my blackness, but it wouldn’t be in a way of: “Oh yeah, let me just basically play a racial stereotype.” Like, cool, have shows like that, but then also, have other shows. If you didn’t have any black friends, you lived in Brexit Britain and you looked on TV, you’d think we are all grime rappers.”

Indeed, there is only one point in our interview when the supremely confident Hughes looks uncomfortable, and that’s when she opens up about her own teenage rap alter-ego, Lady Diamond. Why so cringy? “My mum had just moved us to Brighton and that’s when I felt like I needed to hold on to my blackness the most, because I was surrounded by white people, so, I became a rapper. I had these song lyrics like, ‘Brap, brap, brap, come to your house … ‘ Like, what am I ‘brapping’? There’s nothing to ‘brap’! I will not come to your house, I don’t own a gun, I’ve never even seen a gun! So that was annoying because I was holding on to something that wasn’t me.”

No one who has caught Hughes on Don’t Hate the Playaz will be surprised to learn that she still finds inspiration in hip-hop and feels a particular sense of kinship with Lizzo: “She’s been going for 10 years; I’ve been going for 10 years. Two years ago she released Truth Hurts; two years ago I was in Edinburgh doing my comedy and nobody cared. Two years later, Truth Hurts goes to No 1; two years later, I get nominated for a comedy award. And we’re both 30. Everything about her is me.” It was also during the Lady Diamond years that Hughes had her first kiss – with the Godfather of Grime, Wiley, no less (“Great kisser! I don’t think he even knows who I am”), and threw an 18th birthday party attended by future Channel 4 talkshow host Big Narstie (“So, basically I joined MySpace because I wanted rappers to date me … And it worked!”).

Because she’s London Hughes, her Wiley name-drop is quickly followed by a lively anecdote about the time Prince Charles told her she was too pretty to be a comic. “Prince Charles walked in the room, just oozing sex appeal, with all the badges on. I’m like, ‘Yaaaasss, Prince! Yaaaaasss!’ I’m the only black girl in the whole room, he makes a beeline for me, cos we know Prince Charles likes black girls … ” Wiley and Prince Charles? It’s a juxtaposition that amuses Hughes, too: “That’s what I’m saying! Get you a chick that can do both. Round the Horn and twerking!” Yet even as Hughes was mixing in such exulted MySpace circles, and building the bulletproof ego that still powers her performances, she was being bullied; first at school and then by female “friends” at university. “I thought I was the problem and they kept telling me I was the problem. So growing up I felt I had to be like: ‘Please like me!’”

Now, she is keen to build more mutually supportive relationships with other women. “Like, I am amazing, but also my amazingness does not take away from yours. That’s what women need to learn,” she says. “Especially in this industry … I just wish that there was more of a sisterhood when it comes to females in general, and way more of a sisterhood when it comes to black females … That’s why I always big-up Thanyia Moore or Lolly Adefope: I haven’t been in a room with Lolly Adefope for years, but I will always talk about her and how proud I am of her. Or Michaela Coel. I don’t chat to Michaela Coel, but I will celebrate her.”

Hughes rarely lets her inner people-pleaser get a word in these days, but she does acknowledge the crucial part it played in her development as a comic. One of the thrills of seeing her live is the sense that she never weighs her words or regrets something she has said, however scandalous. And it’s no stage illusion: “Now, I’m this age, I’m like, I’m a queen! Do I like me? Yes, I do, and that’s where the ‘no-filter’ thing came from. I’m not a nasty person, but I’m free with my mouth and I say what I want and if you don’t like that, fine.”

And if you do like that? Better get in there quick. That’s the sound of London Hughes not calling us back: “I want my own sitcom. If you can’t give me that, then don’t ring my phone. I’m in America.”

Don’t Hate the Playaz is on Wednesdays, 10pm, ITV2



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