Anita Rani: “Asian women aren’t seen as multi-dimensional”

Written by Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist magazine’s features editor.

Anita Rani, the new co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, speaks to Stylist about finding her voice and refusing to be pigeonholed.

“Growing up in Bradford, my little radio was my lifeline,” says Anita Rani, coming to us live from her home in Hackney, east London. “I’d sit in my bedroom listening to the charts and late-night local radio. It’s such an intimate medium. You could be feeling really lonely, but when you switch the radio on it’s like the DJs are talking directly to you.”

When we speak, she’s four shows in to her new gig on Woman’s Hour, covering Fridays and Saturdays alongside co-host Emma Barnett. Having a South Asian woman at the helm of the 75-year-old show is long overdue, and the announcement back in January sparked joy across social media. “Hurrah! Anita Rani is a breath of fresh air,” wrote one Twitter user, while scores rejoiced at her vow to give a platform to those “who may not be heard elsewhere”.

In her segments so far, Rani has chosen to explore the impact of microaggressions, the horrifying statistics around Black women dying in pregnancy or childbirth and the farmers’ protests in India. But she’s serious about balance – discussions about Bridgerton’s Hot Duke and the feminist power of Jackie Weaver are welcome, too. 

“I don’t want my show to be anxiety-ridden, we’ve got enough of that going on,” she says. “It’s important to explore the heavier stuff, absolutely, but I always try to come from a place of hope. I want people to walk away feeling good.” 

With a wide-spanning career taking in The One Show, Countryfile, Strictly and now her very own Channel 4 gameshow The Answer Trap, Rani is a woman who refuses to be pigeonholed. She’s a recognisable face across British TV and radio, and that’s exactly what she had in mind. 

“I had this bugbear from the very beginning of my career that people don’t see Asian woman as multi-dimensional,” Rani says. “We’re often put in these boxes, but I wanted to show that we have a sense of humour, we have style, we can be sexy. We can be whatever we want.” 

We sat down with the multi-talented presenter to talk role models, representation and the life-changing brilliance of Bhaji On The Beach.

How has it been presenting Woman’s Hour so far?

I’ve done four episodes now, so it’s finally sinking in that I am on actual Woman’s Hour. I’ve been listening to it since I was a kid: I guess you don’t really think of Asian men as Woman’s Hour listeners, but my dad would always have it on in the car and we’d be like, ‘Can we get Radio 1 on?’ The classic tussle. To be on a programme that’s got such a huge reputation was terrifying at first – I questioned whether I belonged there, but now I’m like, yes, I absolutely do.

What stories and voices are you keen to champion?

Firstly, I love that I’m in now working in a space that is unashamedly for women. I’m a proud feminist – people might have their own opinions about that word, some think it’s a dirty word, but for me it means a lot. Woman’s Hour has been around for 75 years, and a lot has changed for women in that time. I want to create a space in mainstream media where people who feel discriminated against elsewhere can open up and say ‘This is what’s happening in my life. This is how I feel about it.’ 

It’s also just really freeing to work somewhere where everyone cares about the same things. You know, when Michaela Coel wasn’t nominated for a Golden Globe my blood was boiling. It felt good to walk into the office and go, “I’m a bit pissed off about Michaela Coel, can we talk about that?” And everyone’s like, “Yeah, us too. Let’s put it on the show.”

What does feminism mean to you in 2021?

For me, I became a feminist as soon as I realised that I wasn’t treated the same as the boys. Growing up in an Asian household, you clock that very quickly: the little boys are treated like princes. Which is why I think girls, particularly South Asian girls, tend to become so highly educated and do much better – we recognise early on that no one’s going to hand it to us on a plate, so we have to go and do it for ourselves.

When I was a teenager, I used to think wearing lipstick was me being anti-feminist – now I’m like, the higher the heels the better. We can adapt and change, it’s just about how empowered you feel in your own identity.

Anita Rani is part of this year’s Comic Relief campaign.

You work in such a public space but there still aren’t enough women of colour represented. Do you feel the weight of that?

At 42, I feel like I’m finally able to say what I really think and feel, I’m owning my identity in a way that I never have before. Because when I was in my twenties, there was no space for me to talk about my ethnicity, it was like, you keep that home. When you went to work you put a different hat on, you shape-shifted to what people expected you to be. For a long time, I just kept my head down. But now it feels really important to talk about who I am.

I’m currently writing my childhood memoir [The Right Sort Of Girl, out 8 July], which is so cathartic, and I feel like it’s a really important story to tell. No one’s heard that story of the South Asian girl growing up in Britain in the 1990s. At the same time, I’m really having to explain so much about who I am – but someone has to do it, right? And if it’s me, that’s OK. If I’m not going to get the opportunity to just make art for the sake of it, if mine has to be political or representative, then as long as I’m making it easier for the next generation, that’s OK. 

Did you see yourself in the media growing up?

I rarely saw myself. But I do remember watching a film called Bhaji On The Beach as a teenager, and I was so moved by it that I actually wrote to the creator Meera Syal. I just thought, here’s a film written by Asian women, starring Asian women – I can do this! There’s more to life than becoming an accountant. Not that I was ever going to become an accountant…

It’s funny how, when you don’t see yourself in mainstream culture, you very quickly learn to find the universal in other people’s stories. Powerful women were always my role models: Madonna, Gillian Anderson in The X Files. And I loved watching Paula Yates on TV because she was cheeky and outrageous and didn’t give a fuck. 

What have you been doing to find joy during lockdown?

Music is my world, I have loads of vinyl and my CD collection is ridiculous – I don’t even have a CD player! I’m a bit of a bedroom DJ though, I went to Leeds uni and that’s where club culture became my culture. I love hip-hop, I love drum ‘n’ bass, I’m a junglist.

I recently bingewatched The Rap Game UK on BBC Three which had me addicted, and I love Call My Agent on Netflix too, it’s so French and real. Books-wise, I highly recommend Nikesh Shukla’s memoir Brown Baby, which is him basically figuring out how he’s going to bring up a child in a racist and sexist world as well as grieving for his mother. It’s so vulnerable and so beautiful – and actually really joyful in places too.

Images: courtesy of Comic Relief

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