Anita Rani: ‘I am the first in a long line of women to have choice about my life’

The Countryfile presenter survived the curse of Strictly Come Dancing and a bumpy start on the This Morning sofa. One of the country’s favourite TV faces, she talks about racism and why she’s fearless

Appear on Strictly Come Dancing and your life appears to go one of two ways: your career leapfrogs several levels or your marriage implodes. For Anita Rani, it was the former. She went into the programme as, she says, “the girl from Countryfile … people had no expectations”. She made the semi-final and went on to appear all over the place. Last month she presented The Refugee Camp, a two-part documentary from the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, and she is about to appear on a three-parter looking at the inner workings of New York. This summer, she has taken on one of the most high-profile presenting jobs in television, This Morning, where she and the chef James Martin have been filling in on Fridays.

The response from viewers, it has to be said, has not been entirely kind. As soon as the pair’s first show aired three weeks ago, tabloid journalists were trawling Twitter for negative reviews, and found quite a few: “unwatchable” was one word used. “Do these presenters hate each other? I’m sensing some serious awkwardness,” wrote another.

So do they get on? “He’s brilliant. I get him – he’s a dour, straight-talking, self-made Yorkshireman,” says Rani. “He’s hardworking and ambitious, and that makes sense to me. There was nothing for me to not get on with.” As for chemistry, you’ve either got it or you haven’t, but the best TV relationships grow over time. They only met for the first time over lunch on a Monday; by that Friday they were presenting the show. Rani says she doesn’t “like to look at negative reviews, I don’t Google my name to see what people are saying. I read Twitter if [I’m directly mentioned] and there are a couple of people saying: ‘She doesn’t let him get a word in edgeways.’ I question if they would be saying that if it was the other way around, if the man was doing the talking.”

Did it shake her confidence? “No. I’ve been working in this industry for ages, and I’ve always been under the radar. This last year has just exploded, so I suppose people are paying more attention. As long as I know I’m doing the best job, I’m enjoying it, and if the bosses are happy, I’m happy. Of course, everybody wants to be liked, but it’s fine for people to not like me; you can’t please everybody.”

Rani was described by one TV reviewer as “relentless perky”, and it’s true that she is the most positive, cheerful person I’ve met in a very long time. We meet in a cafe around the corner from her home in Hackney, east London. Hackney is “wonderful; idyllic”, the pastries in the cafe are “amazing”, being interviewed for the Guardian is “exciting”. She has been working hard since she graduated with a degree in broadcast journalism and now. at the age of 38, she says it feels as if the planets have aligned and it’s all coming together. She is emerging as one of the country’s favourite TV presenters. I can imagine how her irrepressible sunniness might grate with some, but I find it refreshing in the midst of doom, gloom and snark. Her documentary on the Za’atari refugee camp was pretty Pollyanna-ish, with its weddings and bakers, but it succeeded in humanising the camp’s desperate inhabitants. Gruff farmers on Countryfile are no match for her cheer.

There have been attempts to funnel her into other areas. “Lots of people have asked me throughout my entire career to do news. It’s something that gets suggested but I always said when I started working in television that I think the world needs to see that Asian women have personalities and a sense of humour and can be fun.”

Rani with This Morning co-presenter, James Martin.
Rani with This Morning co-presenter, James Martin. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/REX/Shutterstock

Rani is one of very few British Asian female presenters on television, especially on primetime shows with reach (Sunday night’s Countryfile, for instance, pulls in more than nine million viewers each week). Why are there still so few women of colour in presenting roles? “I think it’s two-fold. You need producers and directors and people behind the scenes to make the changes.” In meetings, and on shoots, “I’m often the only northerner, no matter anything else. I’m often the only woman, and definitely the only Asian. People who have the privileged position of being able to give other people jobs need to be able to see beyond themselves. I’ve always thought that, if I ran a TV company, I’d want it to be the most creative space ever, and the only way to do that is to get people from the most diverse backgrounds. Why you’d want this homogenised group of people makes no sense.”

If there have been barriers in her career, she says, “I just choose not to see them or let them worry me. That’s not to say they don’t exist. I see that there are flaws in the system, but I’ll find the cracks. I don’t think about the things that can hold me back. If you’re putting those thoughts into your head, you’re already stopping yourself.” Is she as confident as she seems? She says she’s never worried about getting enough work. “I think I’m a natural risk-taker and I am fearless. I do all the things that women do, like have self-doubt, but when it comes to work I’m more excited about what’s round the corner than worried about what’s not.”

As a child, growing up in Bradford, she remembers watching youth TV programmes with presenters such as Magenta Devine and Sankha Guha and thinking that was what she wanted to do. “Magenta Devine was just cool, different,” she says. “And an Asian man – imagine that, as a kid, seeing a brown face on telly.” At 14, she got a job working on Sunrise, the Asian radio station, and when she was doing her A-levels, a local television channel started in Bradford; she went down the following day and asked if she could help out.

Rani with Gleb Savchenko on Strictly Come Dancing.
Rani with Gleb Savchenko on Strictly Come Dancing. Photograph: Guy Levy/BBC/PA

She was one of the few, perhaps the only, Asian girl at her “really nice, white, middle-class school” (the independent Bradford Girl’s Grammar), but she says she never felt very different. “When we’d go away or on day trips, Mum would cook Indian food and take it with us. That would mortify me, it was so embarrassing. I just wanted sandwiches. I grew up being taken to India and other stuff that made me really grumpy because all I wanted to do is camp in the south of France like my friends and snog Dutch boys. But now I look back, it’s amazing what my parents gave me. I have this understanding of two worlds.”

She says she never experienced “any out-and-out racism”. When a neighbour saw her once wearing traditional Indian clothes, he said: “We didn’t know you were one of those.”

“I’ve always been told: ‘You’re not like the others,’” she says. It made her happy to hear this as a child, but it only recently dawned on her how offensive that is. “Because I am like the others, actually. I don’t know what their perception of ‘the others’ was, what their perception of Asians in Britain was.”

Her family were liberal. “I didn’t have this cliched upbringing,” she says. “My mum and dad just wanted me and my brother to do whatever we wanted to do. It was a cliche in that education was a top priority – that was fundamental, and they would make sure we studied. But I was always allowed to do stuff. I do remember other Asian girls not having as free a life as me. My dad took me to the pub when I was 15, I don’t know if other Asian girls’ dads did that.” But she is not unique, she stresses: “There are loads of cool Asian families.”

Rani’s parents ran a successful clothing manufacturing business, but lost everything in the recession in the early 90s. Her father became a shop manager and her mother became an interpreter at a local hospital. “They never let me and my brother feel the pressure of [losing the business]. It’s only now when I think about it that [I realise] how remarkable they are. Mum went back to college and re-educated herself, which was the best thing ever – she found this whole new lease of life.”

Her parents had moved to Britain from Punjab; her father as a child, her mother when she was 19 (their marriage was arranged and they met at Heathrow airport). In 2014, Rani took part in the BBC family history show Who Do You Think You Are?, which proved to be one of the series’ most moving episodes. She discovered it was very likely that her grandfather’s first wife and daughter were killed during the partition in 1947 – either by suicide, or by members of their own family, to prevent them being raped and bringing “dishonour” on the family.

As borders between the newly created Pakistan and India were formed, women were targeted in the resulting. They were raped, tortured and murdered (the Indian government estimates 83,000 women were brutalised and abducted, although the actual figure is probably far higher). The women in her family’s village “of my grandmother’s generation had three choices at the point of partition – either they kill you, we kill you or you kill yourselves”, says Rani. “That period of history is such a stain, on everyone – on India, Pakistan, Britain. Nobody talks about it, and yet it was a huge atrocity. So many British Asian kids got in touch with me after that and said: ‘We never knew.’” The generation who lived through partition are now dying, “and those stories have to be told”.

How did learning about her family’s history change how she felt about her place in the world? “I am a feminist. It’s a no-brainer. It’s a weird word even to say, because aren’t all women feminists? It made me more determined to tell the stories of these women. It has dawned on me that I am the first in a long line of women to have choice about my life. No other woman in my history has been able to choose – to choose who she married, where she lived.” She smiles, sounding upbeat as ever, but her eyes suddenly look watery. “There are a lot of Asian girls who still don’t have that choice, and that drives me mad. I want all the women in the world to have a choice.”

Anita Rani presents This Morning, Fridays across summer, 10.30am on ITV, and New York: America’s Busiest City on BBC2 later this month.


Emine Saner

The GuardianTramp

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