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Nadiya Hussain Read by Reyna Duong

Nadiya Hussain is a world-renowned baker, author, and TV personality. As a winner on The Great British Bake Off, Nadiya proved that success has many faces. She advocates for mental health awareness and Muslim women around the world.

Get to Know REyna Duong

Reyna Duong is the chef and owner of award-winning Vietnamese sandwich shop, Sandwich Hag! Reyna talks about cooking, naming her restaurant and employing people with disabilities. She narrated the story of star baker and author, Nadiya Hussain!

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Mumble Media. It was written by Meghan Pochebit and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Reyna Duong. Joy Smith was our executive producer. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Nadiya  Hussain stood in front of a kitchen counter, willing her hands to be steady and her heart to be calm. This lemon drizzle cake she was making would be her final creation for the hit television show, The Great British Bake Off. Months of hard work and fierce competition had brought her to this very moment. 

With the lights and cameras focused on her, Nadiya switched off her electric mixer, poured the cake batter into even layers and gently placed the pans in the oven. Then she drew in a deep breath, set her timer and waited to see what would happen.

I’m Reyna Duong. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us.  

On this episode, Nadiya Hussain, published author, tv personality, wife, mother, and world-renowned baker.

Nadiya was born in Luton, a town in eastern England, on Christmas Day, 1984. She grew up in a very busy home, with five siblings, a mum and dad. As she says, “There was always someone to talk to. There was always someone to fight with.” 

With her bright, curious eyes and dark curly hair, Nadiya had big dreams of being the first woman in her family to attend university and experience the world on her own. She loved to read and was very engaged at school. That is, until she started getting bullied. She got teased about her Bangladeshi heritage and the color of her skin. Sometimes the bullies cornered her. She felt like she had to be on guard.

Home wasn’t exactly easy for Nadiya either. As Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants, both of her parents followed a lot of the patriarchal traditions from their own childhoods. That meant that women and girls were treated as less important. While Nadiya’s brothers were encouraged to go to university, Nadiya was told to learn how to cook and raise a family. 

It felt so unfair to Nadiya! Why should her brothers get so many more opportunities than her?

One day, Nadiya got a short haircut. So short, in fact, that when Nadiya saw her reflection in the mirror, she thought, “I look like a boy!” A smile crept across her face. That gave her an idea…

That summer, while on holiday in Bangladesh, Nadiya, passing as a boy, convinced her father and uncle to take her to the night market, a place where women and girls weren’t allowed. Nadiya’s father was a chef and restaurant owner back in England and he loved to come to this market for fresh ingredients whenever he could. As Nadiya stepped into the market, she felt like a whole world opened before her. She stared in amazement at the fishmongers and butchers, the piles of ripe, yellow jackfruit, and stacks of crispy lentil pakoras for sale. 

Nadiya was delighted. The bullies back home, the rules that came with being a girl, none of that mattered as she wandered through the busy market, sampling sweets and sniffing spices. 

After that magical night market trip, Nadiya spent years seeking that same feeling of excitement and possibility. 

But instead, things seemed to get more stifling for her. The more she studied in school and tried to pursue her dream career, the more her parents shook their heads in disapproval. They even told her if she went to university, she would no longer be welcome at home. 

Nadiya started experiencing panic attacks that left her breathless. Waves of anxiety could wash over her at any moment, pulling her into a fierce, fearful undertow. She didn’t know what to do. After seeing a doctor, Nadiya was diagnosed with a panic disorder and started going to cognitive behavioral therapy to help keep it under control. Still, she always felt like she was waiting for the next storm inside her mind.

When Nadiya turned twenty, her marriage was arranged to a man she’d never met before. “We spent six months talking to each other, getting to know each other,” Nadiya said. “We knew what our goals were and what we wanted out of life – but we didn’t know anything about each other’s personalities or what we would be like to live with.”

Everything felt so tenuous and unsure. Nadiya and her new husband, Abdal, found a home and started planning for a family. He was kind and they got along well, but Nadiya still felt like she barely knew herself at this point. The only time she felt calm was when she was relaxing in front of the television, watching cooking shows. Or, trying to bake on her own.

And so, with a cup of sugar and a stick of butter, Nadiya started putting together her first cake. Her hands grew steadier as she sifted the flour, then added the eggs…

It was all a grand experiment, these pieces coming together and blending into a batter. Just like Nadiya’s life, folding into a new beginning…

Nadiya and Abdal grew very close over that first year together. They learned to love and appreciate each other, and they were both thrilled when their first two children were born. Then, when Nadiya was pregnant with her third baby, she decided to do an Open University degree so she could finally pursue her dream of becoming a social worker. It was exciting, and exhausting. In between diaper changes and night feedings, Nadiya poured over her books and crammed for exams. And whenever her anxieties or self-doubts started creeping in, Nadiya put on her apron and dove into a new recipe.

Baking became such a source of comfort and relief for Nadiya. She loved the precision and creativity required of her; the way she could follow every step and still had no idea how her concoctions would turn out. She melted and minced, simmered and stirred, her creations getting more and more complex. And tastier too!

One day in 2014, Nadiya’s husband handed her an application to be on her favorite cooking show, The Great British Bake Off. He had tasted so many cakes of hers and  knew she was just as good as anyone on there. 

What? No way! Nadiya cried. Didn’t he know that she still dealt with a severe panic disorder? But he insisted she try.

Nadiya was stunned — not just because he believed in her, but because somewhere deep inside, she felt a growing faith in herself too. So, before she could stop herself with worry or fear, she filled out the application and sent it in. And soon enough, she found out she’d been selected for the sixth season of the show!

The first day of filming was a wild adventure. Nadiya had to travel from her home in Leeds hundreds of miles to the countryside of Berkshire. It was her first time alone in a taxi, first time alone on a train, and the first time without her kids or husband. She got lost and wound up being five hours late! But when she got to the cooking tent, the show’s crew met her with open arms and she couldn’t help but smile.

For the next ten weeks, Nadiya traveled to and from that tent, trying to hold on to that seed of self-confidence for support. She whipped up towering cakes, flaky biscuits, ice cream rolls, soufflés and tarts. Every week, she was sure she’d be eliminated and sent home. And yet, she was invited back again and again.

Which is how Nadiya arrived here, at the Great British Bake Off finale. This final round wasn’t just about technique or timing. This was about Nadiya believing in herself and channeling all of her energy into her favorite pastime. 

 After she’d finished putting on the final touches, Nadiya carried her three-tiered lemon drizzle cake out of the baking tent and onto a sprawling green lawn. Her friends and family smiled in awe at the cake’s intricate design. Nadiya had decorated each layer of the cake with patterns that looked like the fabric of a sari and jewels typically worn on a Muslim wedding day. The top gleamed with delicate candy flowers that looked like they were in full bloom. Nadiya was truly proud of her work. She placed the cake down and pumped her fist in the air. Then she took her place alongside the two other final contestants and gave them each a warm hug. 

As the show’s hosts began to speak, Nadiya looked down at her shoes, dusted with flour and sugar. She still was amazed that she was here.  

And the winner is…Nadiya!

The applause grew to a roar as Nadiya held her face in her hands and began to cry. Accepting her trophy and a tremendous bouquet of flowers, Nadiya addressed the audience, beaming. 

“I’m never going to say I can’t do it. I’m never going to say maybe. I can. And I will.”

To this day, Nadiya continues to treasure every step in her journey — from disguising herself as a boy, to enrolling in university, to now, finding new outlets for her creativity. She works diligently to overcome her anxiety and is a fierce advocate for mental health awareness. She’s even written a children’s book about it, called My Monster and Me

Nadiya is actually the published author of fifteen books — including four children’s books, a fiction trilogy, and an evolving list of cookbooks. She also writes a monthly column for a newspaper, hosts multiple cooking shows, and is a very engaged full-time mum. 

Nadiya is very proud of who she is — a Muslim woman, a first-generation British Bangladeshi, a daughter, wife, sister, and mother pursuing her passions.

As Nadiya says, “I don’t have a title but when anyone asks my kids ‘what does mummy do?’ they always respond with ‘she lives her dreams.’” 

And that is more delicious than any cake.