Star baker Nadiya Hussain has an unusual method of managing panic attacks. “When I was on Bake Off, I used to have an elastic band around my wrist and used it for shock therapy, where you ping the elastic band which reminds you of where you are and that you’ll be fine.
“I wore it up to about week six, when it pinged off! I remember asking one of the researchers to find me an elastic band, and after that I used to carry spares.” She had a panic disorder long before appearing on Bake Off, she admits.
“I could just have palpitations and feel sick and that could be it, or I could feel like I can’t breathe any more and someone’s watching me. That still happens, even to this day. It isn’t any less of a problem than it was. It will always be there. To me, it’s like having a monster that hangs around with you and is always behind you.”
Since winning Bake Off in 2015, the 32-year-old mother-of-three has presented an acclaimed two-part documentary about Bangladesh, her parents’ homeland (last year’s The Chronicles Of Nadiya), written cookbooks, been a guest panellist on Loose Women and has just brought out her debut novel, The Secret Lives Of The Amir Sisters, the first of three.
She doesn’t have the elastic band around her wrist any more, but says she still wears it every now and again.
“When I did the Queen’s 90th birthday cake, it was ping, ping, ping!” she recalls, smiling.
“But my kids really helped me. Now, when I’m afraid, I think, ‘What would you tell the kids right now? When something scares me, there’s nothing nicer than conquering that fear and knowing it will never scare you again. I welcome fear now.”
You sense there’s definitely a pre-Bake Off Hussain – the wide-eyed, nervous, unconfident cook – and a fearless, businesslike post-Bake Off Hussain, recently described as one of the most influential people in Britain.
She’s moved from Leeds to Milton Keynes with her family since appearing in the popular series, and is now living the dream.
She still watches Bake Off, and can’t understand why there’s been such a fuss about its move to Channel 4.
“It’s the most British show you’re ever going to get on television and people have taken to it in such a way, they can’t cope with the change of it moving to Channel 4. There are going to be adverts and they’re worried about the format changing but do you know what; what’s wrong with change? I’ll still watch it.”
She distances herself from the controversy over Mary Berry, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins quitting, and the fact Paul Hollywood has not.
“It’s his choice. He felt that for his family and for his life, the right thing to do was to move with Bake Off. What’s wrong with that? Good for him.”
She says Channel 4 hasn’t approached her to be a presenter or judge in the next series and, in any case, she’s too busy to take on that sort of commitment at the moment.
“I’m really enjoying all the things I’m doing and I have a really busy year planned, so I wouldn’t have time for them.”
Right now, she’s focusing on writing. Her first ghostwritten novel, The Secret Lives Of The Amir Sisters, is a contemporary story about four Muslim sisters of Bangladeshi parents, growing up in a quaint English village.
Each has her own problems. Fatima is overweight and trying to pass her driving test; Bubblee is the feisty, rebellious artist who wants to get away from family tradition; Farah is the put-upon housewife and Mae is coping with burgeoning YouTube stardom.
The problems they face are ones many families will relate to, regardless of religion, although there’s an emphasis on finding husbands for the unmarried sisters.
“The girls are first-generation British, which is something I can relate to, and I’m one of four sisters. My parents are immigrants. This was an opportunity to write a story about the things that I grew up with, or the things that are quite common in a community I’ve grown up in,” says Hussain. So, which sister is she most like?
“I can relate to all of them somehow; Fatima’s obsession with cheese and she constantly has that battle of wanting to be someone and not really knowing her place; Farah is the plodder and has her routine and I can relate to that because I was a stay-at-home mum and it was all about the plod. But like Bubblee, I was always the one who pushed the boundaries in subtle ways.”
Hussain grew up in Luton, Bedfordshire, in a Bangladeshi community where her father ran a chain of curry houses. He isn’t your typical Bangladeshi dad, she observes.
“He’s very open-minded. His attitude is, you guys do what you want to do. I was the one who didn’t fancy finding a husband, so I asked my dad to do that for me. I thought an arranged marriage would be fun.”
At 20, she married IT consultant Abdal – the son of a good friend of her father’s – in a huge Islamic ceremony. But she says had she not wanted an arranged marriage, her parents wouldn’t have minded.
“I’m very lucky – I know arranged marriage doesn’t always work. I found it strange at first. I’d just turned 20. I think I was a sensible 20-year-old. I learned in the first two or three years of marriage that I’m very persistent. I’m a fighter and like to make things work.
“Everything to me is a job and I want to do every job really well – my marriage, my children and what I do now when I write. I want to do each job well. I call my husband a job and sometimes he is!”
Now she’s looking to tie the knot again, in a different way.
“I didn’t know my husband very well 12 years ago. I’d like to do it because I like him, I love him, and I’d like to do it in a way I would have done it had I not had an arranged marriage.
“I won’t be getting married in a white dress – I have three kids. I’d like to do it this year but I can’t see it happening until at least October. I’d just have a few people. There were 2,000 people at my last wedding and I didn’t know any of them, apart from my mum and dad and my in-laws and my husband. I’d want somewhere quiet, where you can just sit down and eat your meal – and I wouldn’t bake my own cakes!”
She’s writing two more cookbooks, has begun work on the next novel, and has more TV projects on the cards. But, of course, she still finds time to bake.
“I don’t sleep much any more. I spend less time on the sofa eating crisps. Right now, there’s a frangipane tart, a Christmas cake, ginger biscuits, a ginger cake and vegetable rolls on my work top. I don’t know what I’m going to do with any of it,” says Hussain.
“If my husband’s around during the day, he’ll pack it up, knock on neighbours’ doors and say, ‘Would you like some cake?’ and even they say, ‘No, we’re all on a diet – leave us alone!'”
Written by Andrew Moore
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