Gina Yashere on riches, racism and US success: ‘I don’t like to boast, but I’m doing very well!’

나는t is 14 몇 년 후 Gina Yashere walked out on Britain. The standup comic was sick of accepting second best. It’s not that she wasn’t successful – she was. She had a recurring slot on the BBC’s Lenny Henry Show between 2004 과 2005, sold out theatres when she toured and was a regular guest on the TV panel show Mock the Week. But it wasn’t enough. She felt that any number of less-talented standups had their own TV shows, while she was always on a promise that never materialised. And it was beginning to destroy her. So she packed her bags and headed to the US, where she was an unknown.

“I always knew I had something special, and I wanted to swim with the big boys. I’m not going to stay in England begging for crumbs," 그녀는 말한다. “To get off my arse and start again, knowing it may take me years to get recognition, if any – you’ve got to have a pretty astounding amount of self-belief to do that.” And, to be fair, she did have. “I wasn’t doing it in the way Ricky Gervais and Russell Brand were doing it, where they were coming off hit shows in England, and coming over to America already recognised, with their faces on billboards. Nobody knew who the fuck I was, and I literally started again, doing open mics, performing wherever I could.”

Yashere is Zooming from her home in the heights of Altadena, 14 miles from downtown Los Angeles. She is still selling out live shows, stars in the CBS comedy series Bob Hearts Abishola (which she devised with Chuck Lorre, nicknamed the king of TV sitcoms), has just written her memoir, Cack-Handed, and now at 47 is finally content. Yashere looks younger than she often did in her 30s when she suffered terribly with lupus, developed crippling arthritis in her hands and gained more than 5st in weight (which she lost when she came off the medication). She still talks 13 to the dozen, barking out individual words for emphasis, and cackling like a machine gun. Yashere is magnificently self-assured, unapologetically confrontational, gloriously potty-mouthed and very funny.

She is wearing floral leggings and a T-shirt with “Good Trouble Maker” printed on it. That could have been the title of your memoir, I say. As it happens, it refers to a book by her friend Luvvie Ajayi Jones, but she agrees. “Luvvie made me an honorary good trouble maker because I’ve broken down doors, I never let anybody stop me doing what I wanted to do, and I talk a lot of truth publicly regardless of whether I think it will be good or bad for my career. I’ve always been very honest. A lot of celebrities aren’t.”

Even as a little girl growing up in Bethnal Green, east London, she spoke her mind. Yashere and her two brothers were born to parents who had emigrated from Benin City, 나이지리아. Back home, her mother was a headteacher, while her father was an academic, studying for a PhD in London. But their intellect and social status counted for little in England. Her mother could only get menial jobs till she took matters into her own hands and became a businesswoman. As for her father, he returned to Nigeria when Yashere was three, had another family, and only got back in touch when she performed in Nigeria as a successful comic.

In Cack-Handed she documents the many tribulations of her childhood. She was called Dapo, a shortened version of her middle name Obedapo. At primary school, children referred to her as Bus Dapo. So she became a scrapper. While still at primary school, a white man saw her leaning against his parked car and bellowed: “Get the fuck off my car, you black bastard!” “Piss off, you white bastard!” she shouted back. She ran off towards school, he gave chase, caught her and punched and kicked her repeatedly in front of a teacher. Her assailant was arrested and let off with a caution. Yashere’s mother took a civil action against him for assault. In court, it emerged that he was a firefighter, and the judge gave him an absolute discharge. “This was my first taste of the difference between justice for black people and justice for white people in England,” Yashere writes in Cack-Handed.

At secondary school she attempted to reinvent herself for the first time. By now she used her first name, Regina, and on the whole resorted to humour rather than fighting to make her point. But she was ridiculed even more for Regina than she had been for Dapo. As she was walking away from school after finishing her English O-level, a girl in the year below leaned out of her classroom window, used a racist slur and called her “Regina Vagina”. Yashere lost it. She ran up to the classroom, pushed the girl against a wall and beat her up, dislocating her shoulder in the process. The school expelled her. Yashere, a serious-minded 16-year-old who believed she had screwed up her future, took an overdose. She was taken to hospital, and had her stomach pumped.

When she passed nine O-levels, her school invited her back. But Yashere wasn’t interested and went elsewhere for A-levels. This was the perfect opportunity to reinvent herself for a second time. Square Regina became cool Gina, got herself a new wardrobe and cast off her past. “And I’ve been cool ever since,” she states categorically.

After A-levels, Yashere became the only female engineer installing lifts at Canary Wharf on the Isle of Dogs, east London, as it was transformed into a high-rise business mecca. Her male colleagues were spoilt for choice – they didn’t know whether to abuse her for her sex or her race, so they opted for both. “Whenever I do interviews, they always go [posh voice]: ‘Is it difficult being a female comedian in a male environment?’ and I go: ‘I worked on building sites with guys who used to hang pictures of monkeys above my overalls and stick bananas in my pockets, so no, compared to that, this is a walk in the park. It built up my layers of resilience going through all those things.”

She remembers fantasising about pushing one abuser down a lift shaft. 대신, she took the safer option of quitting. Yashere had no experience of comedy, wasn’t even much of a fan, but at 24 she decided that it was what she was made for. Within months, she was runner-up in the 1996 Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition and was appearing on TV. Yashere’s material, forged from her everyday experience, took no prisoners. She explored cultural differences and was equally likely to satirise whites, Nigerians and African-Caribbeans. When working with Lenny Henry, she created memorable characters, notably stroppy motormouth Tanya (known for her catchphrase “I don’t think so!”) and Mrs Omokorede, the pushy mum based on her own mother. She gigged with Michael McIntyre: he opened, she headlined. Yashere appeared to have the world ahead of her, then hit glass ceiling after glass ceiling.

She runs through them. There’s the time the channel BBC Choice invited performers to host a chatshow, telling them the best would be awarded a weekly show. Yashere claims she had better viewing figures than anybody, but the show went to Ralf Little. “That was one of my first disappointments – I was like, oh these industry people are fucking liars.” Then there was the panel show The A Factor. “It was me and Curtis Walker and guest comedians talking about topical stuff in the news and doing standup and sketches in between. When I look back at that show, it was a predecessor of Mock the Week. But we were relegated to fuck off o’clock and never given any support. Then they make a white version of it years later which gets a primetime slot and all the white comics who appear on it regularly go on to sell out stadiums and become huge stars.”

그때 there’s Mock The Week itself. “When I was doing the show the producers would say: ‘Can you slip in a bit of your mum’s Nigerian accent when you do some of your jokes ’cos it’s really funny.’” So she did it to please them. “Then I got lambasted. People said: ‘All she talks about is being African and black.’” She sees it in a different light now. “They were using me to hide the fact that they didn’t have enough women or black people on the show. And I was like: I don’t want to be anyone’s token any more, I want my own shit.”

Did she become bitter? “Yes," 그녀는 말한다. And she started to hate herself for it. The final straw, 그녀는 말한다, was when Jocelyn Jee Esien, who had made her name with pranks and hidden camera skits in BBC Three’s 3 Non-Blondes, was given her own sketch show. “I’d been vying for my own sketch show for four years, and they kept saying: ‘Oh yes, if you just do this for us …’ I wanted to be happy for her, but because we all fight for the few crumbs thrown off the table of the successful white comics, I found myself being jealous and thinking: ‘I should have got that job; that was my show.’”

It’s a painful admission, but as usual Yashere confronts it head-on. “I thought this is not how I should be feeling; I should not be coveting another black comic’s success. We should all be able to be successful together, just like white comics were allowed to be. Then the BBC had the gall to come and ask me to help write on her show.” She laughs. “나는 같았다: 확인, these guys are taking me for a fool, I’m out of here. I’ve got to get out of this country before I end up killing myself; by eating myself from the inside out and dying of a stroke or heart attack through bitterness and anger.”

Yashere has never been rose-tinted about the US. She knows just how savage its racism can be, but she prefers it to the “insidious pathetic limp handshake of British establishment racism”. As in Britain, 그녀는 말한다, there is a glass ceiling. “But the difference is it’s much higher so at least you’re a multimillionaire when you hit it and you can cry into your money.” And is she a multimillionaire? “예!” she laughs. “I don’t like to boast, but yes I’m doing very well. Look, as a dark-skinned, gay immigrant, not-Halle-Berry-looking black woman, there is a glass ceiling as far as performance and getting on TV goes. I’m older, I’m not going to get the opportunities a younger, prettier person is going to get. So I’ve moved into different directions.”

When she was first approached about Bob Hearts Abishola, she assumed she would be exploited again. She told her agent to turn it down. “My younger brother Edwin and best friend, Lila, called me up and screamed at me for two hours, going: ‘Do you not realise this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for? Get a life, Gina. You’ve been moaning about lack of opportunities and here’s one in your lap.’ And I was like: ‘You’re right, I’ll give it a go.’” She went from consultant, to exec-producer, writer and actor on the show, creating a part for herself because she had the power to do so. After a lifetime working solo, she has become part of the writing team. “It’s a day job. It’s an extremely well-paid day job, but it’s a day job, which I’ve not had since I left my job as an engineer.”

A dog barks in the background. Kemi, named after Yashere’s character in Bob Hearts Abishola, is a mini Australian shepherd. I ask if I can meet her. The door opens and Yashere’s partner carries Kemi in. Nina, a professor of social justice, introduces herself. “I know,” she grins. “Social justice is a novel concept in the US. Nice to meet you.” She heads off, telling me that Kemi is their love child.

Gina and Nina, I say – you’re made for each other. “Yes indeed!” Yashere says happily. They have been together seven years. Has Nina changed her? “Definitely. She’s made me take a look at myself, made me relax more, made me have fun more.” Nina is white, and Yashere sounds proud when she tells me that she is named after Nina Simone. “Her parents were freedom fighters. They rode those buses into Mississippi and got chased by the Ku Klux Klan. She comes from good stock. If I was going to go with a white woman, I’ve picked the perfect one.”

I ask Yashere why she came out as gay after moving to the US. “I had come out to friends and family, but I’d never come out publicly in England because I didn’t want to give them something else to box me in with.” There was also an element of fear. “It was rooted in shame – my mother’s shame. She is a Nigerian Christian. Many Nigerians and Christians are super homophobic. It was more about the fear of my mum being embarrassed and that shame fed into me.” Now, 그녀는 말한다, her mother adores Nina, and has even stopped referring to Yashere as her “gay clown”.

It was only after coming out that she realised how much not doing so had stymied her work. “The day I came out on stage, my life became like an open book. I have no fear of being outed. This is who I am, take me or leave me, I don’t give a shit. And my comedy got way better after that.”

We talk about how comedy has changed in recent years. Does she think it has become too fearful of causing offence? “Yes and no. When it comes to race and misogyny, 아니. White male comics are like: ‘We can’t say anything.’ Ah, shut the fuck up! You’re getting upset because you can’t be racist any more, you can’t touch women willy-nilly without consent any more, you can’t wear blackface any more. Shut the fuck up.” And the yes? There is a world on Twitter where people are just waiting to be offended. I ignore these people.” She has a simple rule of thumb by which she judges whether her humour is offensive. “If I’m talking about a group of people, and I feel uncomfortable doing that material in a room full of those people, then you know your shit is racist.”

After Yashere first visited Nigeria, she went into a slump, concluding that she was “a citizen of nowhere, accepted by no one”. Now she says she feels a sense of belonging in the US. “I’ve found my home and can’t see myself living in England again. But I’m still black, I’m still a woman, I’m an immigrant, I’m gay – so I still have those things to contend with.”

I ask what she is most proud of. “I’m proud that I didn’t get taken under by depression and bitterness, that I kept going. I went: ‘You’re doing something you love for a living, which 90% of the world doesn’t get to do, so enjoy it and stop comparing yourself to others.’ The day I stopped doing that, I swear the universe opened up and abundance started coming to me.” She says it with an almost-religious fervour. “So yeah, I’m proud of that.”

Cack-Handed by Gina Yashere is published by HarperCollins Publishers. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy for £14.78 (RRP £16.99) at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org 또는 jo@samaritans.ie. 미국에서, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.

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