Baz Ashmawy: Growing up mixed race, people would remind me, ‘You’re not Irish’

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TV presenter reflects on future ambitions, growing up ‘different’ in Ireland, the challenges of fatherhood - and regrets over his relationship with his own dad

Baz Ashmawy brings me into his office on the top floor of a Georgian townhouse in South Dublin. Beside his desk there’s a large poster for his former podcast, The Good, The Baz and the Ugly. We sit on a couch beneath a very large, framed picture of a terrier in formal wear. “I lost my dog last year,” he says. “I’m still in the process of getting over that … I just needed to have a dog in my office.”

On a coffee table on front of us there’s a pile of books. “A crash course in writing,” he says (he’s been writing a comedy-drama for Virgin Media). The books include Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why we Tell them by John Yorke, The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, and Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s comic book masterpiece Paper Girls.

Stashed in the corner beside us is a large cardboard cut-out of a bear that’s looking the worse for wear. “Someone told me years ago to pick my inner animal and I was like ‘A bear! Definitely a big bear!’ and I’ve been very lucky and I’m afraid to get rid of him now. I’m very superstitious.”

Ashmawy is a bit like a bear. He’s a big, warm and funny TV presence who first emerged on scrappy noughties travel show How Low Can You Go? before eventually having a huge hit travelling the world with his mum on the Emmy-winning 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy.


My mother taught me that there are two ways you can look at things – you can be crippled by negativity and it can weigh you down … or you can goal-set and be positive

Now he’s a fixture on TV with shows such as the heart-warming DIY SOS: The Bigger Build Ireland – on RTÉ One on Sunday night at 6.30pm – in which he and an army of volunteers do necessary refurbishments for families in need.

As a kid growing up in Dublin’s Churchtown, he wanted to be an actor. “I remember talking to people in my estate about what we do after school, and them just falling around laughing at the thought that I would be on telly someday or be in a movie ... They thought that was dreaming.”

Why did he want to do that? “I remember doing plays,” he says. “It’s very immediate. It’s very gratifying ... I remember people laughing and thinking ‘God, I’d like that forever.’”

His mother Nancy was always encouraging, he says. “She taught me that there are two ways you can look at things – you can be crippled by negativity and it can weigh you down … or you can goal-set and be positive.”

His mum was all that he had then. His Egyptian dad left the family when Ashmawy was eight. “It would have been very easy for my mum to badmouth my dad or to comment on him all the time and use it an excuse, but my mum just never did that. She was always positive. There were always solutions to everything. There were always explanations for everything. It was always just an incredible positive energy around me.”

He was always conscious of being different, he says. “I was kind of made conscious of it. Every now and then someone would remind you that ‘You’re not Irish’, or ‘You don’t look Irish’, or summer would come and people would think you were a Spanish student … There were all these little reminders that your name wasn’t Irish or didn’t translate into Irish ... I think when you’re an adolescent you just want to dissolve into everybody else.”

He deflected it with humour, he says. “Growing up mixed-race, being self-deprecating was a real skill. If someone was taking the mickey out of me or trying to be mean, it was easier for me to take the mickey out of myself. I disarmed them. If I could laugh at myself, what did they have? They couldn’t get at me.”

When he travelled abroad, his identity suddenly seemed to change, he says. “I was just Irish. Which was so weird. In London, I had a lad being racist to me for being Irish.” He laughs. “It was the first time anyone was ever racist to me for being Irish. I was kind of secretly like … ” He grins. “‘Really?’”

If I chose to get offended by every little thing that was said to me over the years, I probably would have never got out of bed

How does he feel about being self-deprecating in retrospect? “It’s funny, I had a really interesting debate with a much younger mixed-race girl one day and she said that, by self-deprecating, I was allowing people to use everyday racism and accept it,” he says. “And it did make me think, ‘Is that right?’ And then on the other hand … if I chose to get offended by every little thing that was said to me over the years, I probably would have never got out of bed.”

As a child he was restless and unacademic, and moved schools a few times. “I liked drama and maybe that was a bit sneered at in a way ... an English teacher, Ms Condon, was like ‘You need to do drama.’ And she helped me pick a course … I think it was Trinity Drama and Theatre studies … I went and auditioned and they gave me a place.”

A little overwhelmed, he didn’t take it up. He worked in retail, then went to London and worked in recruitment. “I remember being on the tube and thinking, ‘Is this being a grown-up?’ I’m in my Boss suit, and I’ve got the paper and I’m going to work and I’ve got money in the bank. And I remember just thinking, ‘I’m so fucking miserable ...’ It’s funny, the first month I started at work, I made no placements at all. I had a boss who said, ‘Why don’t you act like you’re a 200 grand a year agent’ and I started to act like [that] and all of a sudden I started earning loads of money. I remember thinking I was much more into the acting than being an agent. I was pretending to be someone that I just wasn’t.”

He took his savings and came back to Dublin where he did theatre, small local and amateur productions, where he was spotted in a play in Andrews Lane Theatre and offered a part in How Low Can You Go? And that was the show in which many of us first saw him, one of a trio of feckless young men touring the world on a budget. “Us getting electrocuted by dominatrices. Working on porn sets in LA … Getting your back, sack and crack waxed in LA.” He laughs. “I knew what we were making felt like something I would watch and that was fun … I ended up being about one-liners … I remember one critic writing: ‘Baz has a mouth big enough to swallow the other two.’ Because I was always so hyper.”

Three episodes in, mum didn’t care about the camera any more, because I was trying to encourage her that who she was, was exactly who I wanted her to be … She hasn’t a bad bone in her body

People occasional ask would they ever bring the show back, he says. “But who the fuck would want to see that?”

It might be funny, like Last of the Summer Wine. He guffaws. “It would be like Last of the Summer Wine! But who wants to see me not drinking, watching what I eat, [saying] ‘I’m off to bed because I’m up early’.”

He’s very grateful for the show. It taught him all about television, something he hadn’t considered before. Though after it ended, he did spend a bit of time trying to find his feet as a presenter. What shows come to mind? “Like Fáilte Towers,” he says. “I was presenting with Aidan Power and he’s probably one of the best presenters I know ... But I didn’t know what I was doing. I was trying to go big. But with TV …” He makes a small TV shape with his fingers. “You don’t need to be that big.”

He learned that for his projects to work, it had to feel authentic and he had to be himself. He began to co-produce his own shows. His big breakthrough was 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy on Sky, in which he brought Nancy around the world to engage with death-defying activities. Was he surprised at how good she was on telly? “No. I never doubted it … During the first season, the camera would come in and she’d be aware and stop talking and wouldn’t give out to me … So I started telling the cameraman to back up … and I would talk to my mum and she would let go. As the series went on, the camera starts to get closer and closer. Three episodes in she didn’t care about the camera any more, because I was trying to encourage her that who she was, was exactly who I wanted her to be … She hasn’t a bad bone in her body. There’s nothing she can say that would be wrong.”

It was a lovely experience, he says. “To get to do that with your mum.” He recalls them both in a presidential suite in Tokyo looking out at a panoramic view and her saying: “Do you believe we came all the way from Churchtown?”

He thinks it was important that the show ended when it did. They could have done more but he was tired of spending so much time away from home. He had, by that stage, a growing family. His fiancee Tanja Evans had four kids when they met. He suddenly had what he calls a ready-made “just add water” family. “I think I kind of needed them.” He talks about how much of what he does wouldn’t be possible without the help and support of Tanja.

He and Tanja had two more children, and more recently he became a grandad. His extended family reflect a country that has changed. “I have daughters, half-Irish, quarter-Serbian, quarter-Egyptian. They go to diverse schools and race never comes into it … they never mention it. They have a Greek orthodox Granny. They have a Muslim Auntie. It is a different world. It’s better.”

He even has a nice relationship with his stepchildren’s dad. “He’s a great dad ... I always say ‘my kids’, because I never want to make a separation and I never want them to think that I ever think of them as not my kids. But on the other hand, I hope their dad never thinks that I’m claiming [them] … One of the girls was in hospital once and it was me and him in this emergency room … he loves these kids and I love these kids and … that’s our bond.”

If I’m vulnerable, and I’m open and I tell you something, it entices you to feel okay to tell me something … It breaks down that wall

Does fatherhood make him think about his own father? It does, he says. He spent a couple of years living with his father’s new family in Cairo in his mid-teens. “It was during the first Gulf War. Me and him got on really well. He was a very funny man. Very entertaining. We had good craic. It was just not sometimes what a father-son relationship should be. There were times when he was very warm and times when he shut that off and was very quick tempered, but also could be very sweet sometimes. But I got to live with my sister then as well … she was just two then.”

He knows a lot more about fatherhood now. “He just didn’t understand what it really means to be a good father. It’s not an easy thing. No one does it perfectly. You’re winging it a lot of time, but I think 90 per cent of it is being present. If you can tuck your kids into bed at night and if they know they can come to you, that’s a lot of it.”

His sister, Mahy, lives in Ireland now, working in film and TV. They’re close and have worked together on projects. He and his father fell out. When he died, the father and son had not spoken for a while. Ashmawy was just 20 at the time. “They have a thing in Islam, they don’t really talk bad of the dead. And when he died, I was very angry. I remember wanting to rant and give out … and everyone kept pulling me out on balconies to calm down.”

What was he angry about? “We had an argument over something silly and we hadn’t been talking … I wanted to be able to fight my case as a man. I was only a boy and there were things I wanted to say … and I was very frustrated and heartbroken I didn’t get to say the things I wanted to say ... That’s why you shouldn’t let that stuff fester.”

Has he always been so open about these things? “I think there’s an empowerment that comes with being vulnerable,” he says. “There’s a freedom with it. If I’m vulnerable, and I’m open and I tell you something, it entices you to feel okay to tell me something … It breaks down that wall.”

Since doing 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy he has realised that this vulnerability is a superpower and he likes projects he can connect with personally. He made a programme about Islam because he knew there were huge misconceptions about that, and one about problem gambling, because he knew people affected by it. I suggest that he must be excellent at DIY given the title of DIY SOS. “I am absolutely useless. I have no DIY skills … I was at dinner with my missus the other night and she told a story of how she had a flat tyre and [how] I put the jack under her car upside down. A guy for the AA drove by and we weren’t even with the AA and he stopped and said ‘What the hell happened?’ and I said ‘Yeah, she doesn’t have a clue’ and pretended that she had done it.”

He loves making DIY SOS because it’s about communities rallying behind people who’ve had a serious setback. He gets to indulge both his silly side with the volunteers, but also his human curiosity when he interviews the families who need help. He thinks that it’s in those interviews when he’s closest to being himself on camera. “The best compliment I can get from the families is that they forget the camera’s there ... that’s kind of my job, to put them at such ease talking to me that they don’t notice the boom and they don’t notice the cameraman and the director and the producer … it’s very hard for those family members to talk openly about those things. It’s your job to guide them through it and make them feel safe and protect them.”

He has become close with some of the families. The day after our interview, he calls me to talk about former DIY SOS participant Johnny Aylward, who had motor neuron disease and had just died. He wants to tell me how special Aylward was, how much fun he was to be around and how much work he did to educate people about his illness. He’s very sad about it. “It’s rare you make new friends in your 40s,” he says.

He’s also protective of the people who volunteer their time and expertise. Before Christmas, anti-migrant protesters targeted the show’s volunteers for restoring some houses in North Cork for Ukrainian refugees. People are “annoyed and angry and stressed and stretched financially”, he says. “And I think sometimes people want someone to blame … I think passing hate on to people doesn’t do much good … I remember thinking, ‘Why are these people channelling so much energy into protesting against these people when there’s so much derelict housing in Cork?’ Some of the volunteers were getting grief for helping. And these are the exact same people that if we were doing DIY SOS next year on homelessness, they would be the ones building ... They’re just good people … I always get charmed because sometimes I see builders or electricians or landscapers and I go to interview them and they f**king leg it … They run away … that shows you the difference between me and them… I’d be like, ‘I’m helping! Get this on telly! Let people know how good I am!’”

All the TV projects on the horizon for Ashmawy connect to who he is as a person in some way. They include a travel show and, a first for him, a comedy-drama called Faithless which he’s written for Virgin about an Irish-Egyptian dad and his family (some episodes are co-written with his friend Mandy McKeon). “I know,” he says. “Nobody was going to give me an acting role, and they have to give this one to the Irish Dublin Egyptian guy, with very grey hair.”

I text him after the news that Ryan Tubridy is stepping down from The Late Late Show, to ask if he’d do that gig. He just texts back: “hahaha” and then: “I think it might be time for a female presenter ... I’d be willing to do a Mrs Doubtfire on it though.”

He seems totally at ease with himself. He paraphrases Jonathan Ross on how “if half the people watching don’t hate you, you’re doing really good”. In the end, Ashmawy says, “You’re better off just being as close to yourself as possible. And then some people are going to like you, some people won’t like you, but at least you’ll be you.”

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne

Patrick Freyne is a features writer with The Irish Times