“My mum would always be like: ‘don’t follow the crowd’,” Kim-Joy Hewlett says to me, during a beautifully sunny day several weeks ago. “She’d always be about not trying to fit in to be Western. I think that’s really shaped me.”
Kim-Joy, 30, is one of those contestants from The Great British Bake Off that you don’t forget; this is some feat, considering GBBO has a knack for picking contestants that all stand out from one another. Appearing on Season 9 of the show, Kim-Joy instantly won over fans with both her unique and artistic culinary designs, as well as her ability to wow the judges, a skill that won her the accolade of Star Baker twice during the show.
Yet despite all she’s achieved since then – including a 2019 cookbook, Baking with Kim-Joy, and a baking column for The Guardian – it’s when we talk about family that her generosity of spirit really shines through even more than one might have thought possible.
“I think she was a bit more unique compared to the rest of the family,” she muses, telling me about her Malaysian-Chinese mother that found herself miles away from home in Belgium long before Kim-Joy was born.
“There were moments when I wanted to be like everyone else, and actually where I grew up was predominantly an Indian and Pakistani area. I was born in Belgium, but my mum came to London to study because that was seen as really aspirational. But she worked too many hours because she just couldn’t afford it. So she got deported. The last country she ended up in was Belgium.”
The story Kim-Joy then recounts to me is a remarkable one. Her mother met her Belgian father when he claimed he could help her with the Malaysian embassy. She trusted him enough to accept an offer to stay with him and his (then) wife. Weeks went past without a smidgeon of embassy help. Fast forward seven years, and she was still living with Kim-Joy’s father and his wife: except that now, Kim-Joy and her two brothers were also in the picture.
I’ll admit that I didn’t expect to be having such a candid conversation about mental health and family history with Kim-Joy. Chatting to her about her life, cats and upcoming house renovations feels a little like talking to joy personified (no pun intended). She’s not afraid to say it how it is with always a modicum of optimism, or to playfully admonish her cats Inki and Mochi if they try to play just a little too much with the new house plants.
Yet it’s with the same attitude that she also talks about her family’s history and experiences with mental health. Irrespective of cultural background, conversations around mental health are still difficult for many, and it is no secret that within many Asian cultures the concept of talking about or dealing with mental health is something that is simply not discussed. Such honesty, openness and compassion around mental health shows why she’s so popular and beloved with her hundreds of thousands of followers.
“Part of the reason I don’t get on with my father is that I think [my mother] felt really trapped. I think it caused her a lot of mental health issues, part of it’s down to that. So she’s been sectioned a couple of times recently. All of it… it’s a bit complicated,” she recounts.
“When I was growing up, it was more my older brother that had mental health issues. He was sectioned a few times. For me I think it was a bit better because I was the second child. But seeing the way he was and his struggles, it made me want to go down that route and learn more. But it wasn’t a conscious decision, I think it was a mixture of things that encouraged me to do [psychology].”
Kim-Joy possesses a Master’s Degree in Psychology from Leeds Beckett University and has actively worked with people who have suffered from depression and anxiety. I wonder if her work and experiences around psychology have made her more perceptive in the way that medical professionals might treat people of colour, especially when it comes to mental health.
“Just this morning I was watching a documentary about the treatment of ethnic minorities with COVID,” she tells me. “And how much more ethnic minorities die from COVID. It's the same with mental health [treatment] as well. With my mom, I think it is a cultural thing in that she really distrusted medication completely. I remember having a lot of battles with doctors over my older brother's care. I think in many ways, she is right because of so many side effects of anti-psychotics, and it is scary: she'd be researching it loads and loads. It’s amazing, really, I think she was really clever with all of it. In some ways, she might have taken the battle with the medication a little bit too far with my brother? But in many ways also she was a little bit right? I've really admired my mom, she's very fiery! But when I was a kid, I used to hate it.”
She'd fall out with [doctors] to the point where they wanted to remove her as [my brother’s] first relative. It’s complicated, because I think in some ways, they had a point. In other ways, it's the way they dealt with her and I think it's a cultural clash that just didn't mix. She just was really distrustful of doctors and stuff like that.
When my mum was discharged from hospital, I think the second time… there's a ‘stay with the family’ thing afterwards [that you can do] if you’re deemed not quite ready to go home, but you're still quite independent so you just need sort of a halfway place. Because of her background, they put her with a Malaysian woman. They probably thought: ‘same ethnicity, that'll be great.’
But actually, for my mom, it wasn't good. I think because she felt like that people would be talking about her, [that] kind of thing. I remember the lady she was staying with spoke to me when I came to visit and she was like: ‘Oh, your mom doesn't open up with me. Do you think it's because, you know, where we're from? That we're both from Malaysia… that kind of thing.’ So yeah, I thought that was interesting. I think it’s well intentioned.
I think it's the kind of easy, obvious thing to do and you kind of go: ‘Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Let’s put them together.’ Which isn't really... I don't know. I feel like at least they've tried. I think somebody with a bit more awareness or experience of working with people from more diverse backgrounds might have known a bit better… or maybe not even that, but maybe it's more about talking to your patient, and just saying: ‘what kind of family would you most like to be put with?’ I mean, maybe they did talk to my mom. And maybe she just said she didn't mind. I don't know.”
It’s after telling me this that she drops a bombshell on me – a long-time GBBO fan – that it’s because of her family’s experiences with mental health that she almost didn’t get onto the show in the first place. She breaks down for me how the team behind the show takes looking after all their contestants so seriously that they worry about potential press intrusion that can seriously disrupt the lives of unwitting family members; not to mention family members like Kim-Joy’s that deal with mental health issues. Such consideration is of course, not without cause. GBBO trends every time new contestants are announced every season, followed by the much-expected public discussion about what their bakes and personalities might be like. And that’s before the show even airs.
“I remember the Daily Mail. I think we all found it really hard,” confesses Kim-Joy. “And some people more than others, but nobody finds it easy. I remember the Daily Mail put up pictures of all of us. The show wasn't even on, so it's just based off of pictures. I made the mistake of looking at all the comments, which I know was not a good idea. But then I got stuck in a pit because obviously people who comment on the Daily Mail are the kind of people who wouldn't like how I look. Because I look very millennial and the kind of person they wouldn't like because I've got brightly coloured hair. You know, they just don't like that kind of stuff. So there were loads of comments about me.”
Luckily, we know it all turned out for the best in the end, with Kim-Joy managing to grace our screens in multicolour splendour thanks to her brother and mother being a combination of unbothered and tough-as-nails. Kim-Joy speaks of her siblings and her mother’s side of the family with so much affection that it’s clear in every word. It’s fun to hear her talk about one of her aunties in Singapore getting so excited about Kim-Joy being on the show that she told the rest of the family and continued to send her links to Daily Mail articles that she was featured in. She remembers making paper dolls with her mother long before the baking bug bit her, and for a moment a bit of sadness passes over her eyes as she wonders out loud if in some alternate universe her mother might have had a different life in design. Such is the talent that the world misses out on, when the opportunities do not exist for them.
Aside from those brief moments crafting with her mum and making mince pie pastry because her father ‘considered that to be the girls’ job’, there was nothing significant to suggest that young Kim-Joy would end up being the baker she is today. Until we get talking about a very crucial type of cake: pandan cake. It’s one of my favourite cakes, and when two of us gush aplenty about the green confection Kim-Joy eventually tells me how this cake became a mini turning point for her.
“I remember wanting to make it at home,” she enthuses. “It's a really tricky cake to make because you have to fold in egg whites! I remember buying loads of pandan leaves and you’ve got to cut them up and squeeze out all the juices and stuff. It’s just a really distinct memory. And I think when I made it probably wasn't the best pandan cake in the world because I probably didn't fold in the egg whites that well. But it's amazing.”
Imagining Kim-Joy haphazardly folding in egg-whites all those years ago seems so different from the meticulous and technical Kim-Joy we saw on the show. It indeed seems a far cry from the precise and pretty bakes she mentions in her book and on her social media channels. On behalf of all the hundreds of thousands of amateur bakers out there – and the many, many more that have emerged because of lockdown – I simply have to ask her if there really is room for winging it in baking?
“I like to wing it,” she laughs. “But on Bake Off, you can't wing it. On Bake Off I was like a robot: ‘This five minutes. This is 10 minutes. This is seven minutes. Meanwhile, do this. That's three minutes.’ I used to have it all written out. That helped keep me on track and keep me calm. But most of the time I'm a ‘wing it’ baker.”
In the pandemic, millions have found comfort in baking, even if that manifests in the occasional sourdough starter just for the ‘Gram. Kim-Joy, in contrast, has found joy in houseplants. For all her skill with doughs and batters, she confesses that she’s not the most green-fingered person in the world. Yet amidst her excitement to be able to care and nurture something green, she puts out a theory as to why baking has really captured the heart of the nation during such difficult times (and not just because it’s hard to resist a gooey cookie).
“It's like something small [that] you can have a bit of control over, you know, when you can't control anything. And it’s baking! I mean, it's always been a relaxing thing. Everyone has memories of some kind of baking or eating a baked good when they're really young. It just has that homely sense… and you want that bit of homeliness and comfort. It's comforting, isn't it?”
Despite the global popularity of The Great British Bake-Off, at the end of the day Kim-Joy is a baker happy to get the chance to do what she loves. Namely, create things that help to encourage happiness and compassion in others. Even though she has a new baking-themed card game called Kim-Joy’s Magic Bakery coming out soon (which is the most wholesome and adorable card game you’ve ever seen: trust me), she’s just as excited to talk about the house extension that’s coming up.
In the world of television and fleeting celebrity, it’s always easy to be sceptical of people’s true personalities, no more so than if they appear to radiate a seemingly impossible level of earnestness and creativity. After all she’s been through, both in the public eye and out of it, Kim-Joy truly is one of those remarkable people who is as she seems. Her recent Instagram post calling out a fitness instructor who reduced her to tears after a class due to aggressive behaviour shows how she talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to encouraging others to not be ashamed of the things that can impact their mental wellbeing. At her core, her belief in goodness and the power it has seems utterly unwavering.
“I think I've always liked colour and stories and I think I've always found baking comforting, so I want my bakes to be comforting,” she says gently. “For me that's making them look cute and colourful. Like an extension of me.”
In the world we live in today, cute and colourful indeed sounds more than welcome. Thank goodness Kim-Joy’s around to help make sure compassion isn’t going anywhere.