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Clara Amfo: ‘Don’t make me dim my light’

Sophie Heawood
·10-min read

Clara Amfo makes me want to join in with life. When she talks about the new series of Drag Race UK, I itch to go and watch it. When she’s dancing on Strictly, I want to tune into a show that doesn’t usually hold my attention. And when she’s describing the party scene in her parents’ home country of Ghana, “fast becoming the Ibiza of West Africa – honestly I was last there in December 2019 and everyone was out there”, I find myself wondering about flights. Which is quite something, a year into a pandemic, when spirits are flagging and the will is so weak it might give up entirely. But she knows all about that too, which is why her daytime Radio 1 show, every weekday, works so well.

People text in saying they live alone, they work from home, they just needed to hear that tune she played, that friendly voice. Amfo physically gets up and goes in to work at Broadcasting House, speaking to the nation and meeting the skeleton crew who are still in the building, under endless Covid-testing regulations, “but I do live alone, and I get it,” she says. “I know I have definitely experienced loneliness in this thing. At the risk of sounding trite, well it’s been a time of gratitude, hasn’t it? – but I also believe that everybody, no matter what your life or what you do for a living, should be allowed to have a moan. I’m single and happily single but there have been a few nights where I’ve been like, you know what? Be nice to have a sofa buddy,” she explains, over video chat from the one-bedroom flat in Hackney that she got in a part-buy, part-rent housing scheme seven years ago and that she has grown out of, but not yet managed to leave. (It hasn’t always been thus – “Many memories were made in this flat, that’s for sure,” she says, with a dirty laugh.)

Last summer, Amfo stopped her listeners in their tracks when she told them exactly how she was feeling about race in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of American police. “I didn’t have the mental strength to face you guys yesterday,” she said, live on air, after advising that anyone with small children might not want them to hear the next part. “To ask, ‘Hi, how was your weekend?’ like I usually do, with my happy intention. Because I know that my weekend was terrible. I was sat on my sofa crying, angry, confused and also knowing,” she continued, before pausing to fight back tears.

“Stuck at the news of yet another brutalised black body. Knowing how the world enjoys blackness and seeing what happened to George. We, black people, get the feeling that people want our culture but they do not want us. In other words, you want my talent but you don’t want me,” she said, before quoting Amanda Seales. “You cannot enjoy the rhythm and ignore the blues.”

It was an incredibly powerful piece of broadcasting – not something I ever thought I’d hear on Radio 1. I ask if she risked her job to do it and she says she actually had overwhelming support from her employers, but that yes, she would have gone ahead anyway.

“But I knew with what I said, in my gut, that… I mean…” She sighs. “Yeah. It’s so layered. I said what I said and I could have spoken for longer. I could have spoken about that for two or three hours.” People ask her if she listens to it often. “I say absolutely not! I was there, I lived it. Look, the Corporation in itself is years old beyond me. I do what I do but I’m very aware that I am essentially an amoeba in the BBC’s history. I took my moment and I have zero regrets. Broadcasting is about trust; it’s having a listener trust you. Whether it’s somebody telling you the news, the travel update, what your new favourite song’s going to be. I felt a sense of relief after I shared that because I thought, ‘This is who I am. Yeah, I’m Clara, I play you tunes, but I’m just a whole black person as well, trying to get on with it like everybody else, and this is what’s happening so we can’t ignore it.’”

On her show and particularly on her own personal podcast, This City, which I think is her best work, she slips words like “scholastically”, “misogynoir” and “anthropology” into the same sentences as, “I ain’t mad at it” and, “claim your ends, man,” without needing to draw breath. There is a cultural fluency there that straddles worlds, and which mainstream broadcasting has not previously made room for. I can see why she laughs at me when I mention this (“We pepper it in, hon!”), but she also admits it took a while to find her balance with that. I ask if she secretly longs to do something more intellectually rigorous but she insists that, at the age of 38 with some secret shiny-floor TV shows in the pipeline, she is very happy with light entertainment, and focused on her own longevity.

“I loved the fact that back in the day Zoë Ball and Sara Cox were known as ravers and they went out and had a bloody good time; they lived it, but they’ve also been able to grow with their audiences. I think that’s so powerful and I want to be doing this job in my 60s. I’m not interested in being the hot girl of the moment.”

After getting a degree in media arts and professional creative writing at St Mary’s University in Twickenham (it involved learning how to write Mills & Boons novels – she has “mad respect” for romance novelists now) she interned at commercial station Kiss FM. Her professionalism was noted and promotions were rapid: from admin to stand-in presenter, to scheduled presenter, to BBC 1 Xtra, to Radio 1, to actual celebrity treatment on Strictly and Celebrity MasterChef, to being a guest on Radio 4 – “The only time my parents were truly impressed, ha,” – to the cover of magazines including Cosmopolitan, Grazia and Vogue.

Amfo is devoted to her work in a way that can leave weaker egos feeling bruised, and lockdown has made her assess what she actually wants from a future sofa buddy, or life partner.

“I don’t want to be with anyone who’s going to try to make me dim my light. I want someone who’s so secure in themselves that they don’t have a problem with me just doing me, you know? I’ve definitely been a rehab centre for a few men in the throes of a midlife crisis, and I’m just not going to do that ever again.” She is properly giggling now, says she can see those guys coming since her “detector has become crystal clear. There’s people who like the idea of you, or who just wanted to know that they could have you. I think I have entertained people like that a bit too easily, and I just don’t do that any more. It is a delight to be free of that.”

On her work promoting the dating app Bumble, she said she gets frustrated with the thing that some white people sometimes say, wrongly believing it to be helpful, “that line, ‘I don’t see colour.’ No! See it, celebrate it, let’s talk about it. Because if you don’t see colour, you don’t see me.”

Growing up where south London meets Surrey, in Kingston upon Thames, Amfo was the fifth of six children, trying to be heard, “which is probably why I always have a microphone in my hand now,” she says. The Amfos were a loving Ghanaian family with a little more room for passions than some others, and Clara grew up methodically “borrowing” her brother Andy’s CDs and music magazines before sneaking them back into his room, precisely where he left them.

Now he writes scripts and does voiceovers on ITV2, “so randomly I’ll be making my dinner and then hear his voice, and Chris works in fashion, so out of the six I call us three the triplets. And even though our dad was super-academic and, I’m sure, would have loved us to follow in his scientific footsteps, or to be accountants or whatever, I count my lucky stars every day that he wasn’t the traditional old-school Ghanaian patriarch saying, ‘If you don’t do this, get out of my house,’ or, ‘You’re going to bring shame.’ At certain family functions, us lot used to turn up and we’re all tattooed and pierced and… me and my undercut or whatever,” she gestures to the shaved part of her head. “It’s not radical to us, but you get the looks from certain cousins and aunties, like: ‘Ah yes, that’s Grace and Mannie’s kids.’” She is proud of her more traditional relatives, but adds: “I just didn’t want to be a pharmacist, or marry one, and have four kids. It just wasn’t gonna be my life.”

Dad was a microbiologist who specialised in parasites, working in Saudi Arabia when the kids were small and then for the NHS in London for the subsequent 30 years. Grace was a hospital cleaner, but when the pandemic came her children banned her from it.

“We were lucky enough to pay off her mortgage a while back. I think that was one of our proudest achievements. She always liked to work. It’s in her nature. We FaceTime every day and it’s nice to know she’s safe now. I would not want her to go into a hospital every day, being a woman of a… I don’t want to upset her but she is of a certain age.”

Their dad died in 2015, at the age of 72, but it would have proved even harder to keep him out of the hospital. “Me and my brother were joking the other day, our dad would have been all up in this pandemic. He’d have been like,” she puts on a softly authoritative Ghanaian accent, “‘So you see this is how the bacteria attaches to the…’ And I have no doubt that he would have put his lab coat back on and been straight back out of retirement and into work. He’d always say, ‘I came to this country with £25 in my pocket.’ And I hold on to that and I really embrace it – to make me more proud of myself, and I guess to kill impostor syndrome when it comes up.” She puts on a whiny, self-doubting voice: “Those feelings of, oh God, should it be me, should I be doing this? Well, yes I should, otherwise, what was the point of him and my mum coming here and studying so hard, if not for me to lean into my own achievements?”

And the latest achievement? Why, Amfo is going to be immortalised as a Barbie doll, as part of their Shero range. She burst into tears, backstage at Strictly, when she found out. “You have to send them pictures of yourself in your favourite outfits. Your hair texture. The skin tone – we made sure we have got that exactly right. Accessories, it’s got little trainers on, a little presenting microphone. The little undercut. It’s got it all and I am so chuffed with it. It’s quite overwhelming. Does it make me feel beautiful? I’m not sure if beautiful is the word. It makes me feel – oh God, again, at the risk of sounding corny, but it’s true – it’s really healing. It makes me feel valued. It makes me feel seen.”

Barbie™ honours Clara Amfo with a one-of-a-kind doll for International Women’s Day (tomorrow) and both have partnered with the London charity Milk & Honey Bees

Photographer’s assistant Melinda Davies; hair by Afi Emily Attipoe using Jane Carter Solution; makeup by Bernicia Boateng at AGM Talent; nails by Joanna Newbold at Terri Manduca using Chanel; stylist Peter Bevan; shot at Big Sky studio