05/12/2020 06:00 GMT | Updated 05/12/2020 06:00 GMT

'I Don't Ever Want To Be A Dickhead': The Rise And Rise Of Clara Amfo

From Kiss FM intern to the Strictly Come Dancing dance floor; we meet the unstoppable Radio 1 star.

Clara Amfo speaks to HuffPost UK

Whether it’s presenting the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, interviewing megastars like Harry Styles for Radio 1 or dancing the jive on Strictly Come Dancing, Clara Amfo’s time is most definitely now. 

Could national treasure status be on the horizon?

“I’d never call myself that,” she tells HuffPost UK with a giant guffaw when we suggest the idea. “The minute I call myself that with no hint of irony then I know I’m a dickhead, and I don’t ever wanna be a dickhead, you know?”

Her time on this year’s Strictly was criminally short-lived, but for now it’s back to the day job. In 2015 when she took over the 10am - 1pm slot at Radio 1, the station gained 750,000 new listeners. At the time, Ben Cooper, controller of Radio 1 and 1 Xtra thanked Clara for “helping [the station] add three-quarters of a million listeners in such a short period of time.”

Earlier this year, she moved the nation with a gripping speech on anti-racism following the death of George Floyd in a moment when her fizzy, optimistic tone shifted to something more sober and serious.

It was a rare break from the upbeat chirpiness that fans have become accustomed to. After missing a show, she told listeners she didn’t have the “mental strength” to face them, but upon her return assured them too in a powerful speech. “I want to say to our Black listeners, I hope you feel seen and heard today,” she said.

David M. Benett via Getty Images
Clara Amfo at the Rising Star Award Party ahead of the 2020 BAFTAs

Right now, Clara is settling into life without her dancing shoes on. “Obviously I’m gutted but I’m actually alright,” she says.

“Ultimately I had a wicked experience: I got to play dress up: when you’re watching at home as a viewer, or if you’re one of us on the contestant side, we got to be distracted from the randomness of this year and everything it’s entailed.”

As for being voted out half way through the competition, Clara’s response is typically positive. “Sometimes it’s better to be a cult classic than a best seller, do you know what I mean?” she says.

Her optimism has become the hallmark of her radio and TV appearances: but does it come as naturally to the star as it seems? “Don’t get me wrong, I am a genuinely happy person, but that doesn’t mean I’m devoid of having sad days,” she says. 

“Of course I have down days. Over the years I’ve learned to develop tools that sort of keep me in a happier place than what I’m naturally inclined to when I do get down.

“I never try and pretend my life is perfect so I try and make that clear to my listeners and anyone that quote/unquote ‘follows me’. I hate that concept of followers, but you know what I mean.”

BBC, Ray Burmiston
Clara Amfo in a publicity shot from this year's Strictly Come Dancing

Those coping mechanisms came in handy during her time on Strictly when Clara’s dancing was critiqued by the judges.

“There were some weeks when what the judges said did knock my confidence, and it gets to you. Even though you might smash it in rehearsal, all of a sudden you remember a not-so positive comment and it can throw you,” she explains. 

“I think, for me, it was just about just trying to zone out, listen to [dance partner] Aljaž and be like, ’look, you know what, it’s not about the cause, it’s about how this song makes you feel, it’s about us having fun, it’s about entertaining people. I think that’s what kinda kept me in the zone.”

Entertaining people is a language Clara understands well. Having begun her radio career in 2009 as an intern at KISS FM, she spent the early part of the last decade working her way through the ranks of music radio. In 2013, she joined BBC Radio 1 Xtra as host of the weekend breakfast show and later that year, began appearing in guest slots on Radio 1.

In 2015, she became the host of The Official Chart Show on Radio 1 and in February was announced as the replacement for Fearne Cotton in the 10am - 1pm slot. In the years since, she has hosted red carpet premieres from Leicester Square and hosted backstage from The Brit Awards for ITV2.

This year taught me that: I am going to be in a good mood because I know there’s someone out there who’s struggling - who isn’t getting to do what they love every day.Clara Amfo

“I’m acutely aware of how fortunate I am,” she says. “And I think more than ever that’s been affirmed this year. I think it’s been quite easy to get in the zone when you know that life could really be a lot worse. I think this year sort of taught me that: I am going to be in a good mood because I know there’s someone out there who’s struggling, who isn’t getting to do what they love every day. 

“That’s why I allow myself to feel things when I’m not feeling great, I’m kind to myself in that sense: I give myself space to be upset and to mourn and grieve like the next person but I stay happy and focussed because I’m acutely aware that I live a very privileged, fortunate and blessed life. It’s not perfect but that just keeps me in a happy place to be honest.” 

Alongside Strictly and her radio show, Clara has had another distraction through lockdown: recording new episodes of her podcast, This City.

On the phone, she comes across as curious and innately social (“I miss the clubs so badly!”), two qualities which lend the podcast its distinct warmth. Although This City takes London as its theme, Clara says it’s really about revealing new things about the famous household names she interviews.

“It definitely satisfies my curiosity,” she says. “Finding out [podcast guest] Louis Theroux cycles everywhere and that someone nicked his bike and that he loves West Indian food. Cool. For me, having those conversations was just a lovely sort of window into their day-to-day life.”

Clara Amfo

With other guests, such as Jade Thirwall from Little Mix, the podcast allows Clara the opportunity to talk about subjects she may not have time to squeeze into interviews on her Radio 1 show.

“I was happy to talk to them about what they’re best known for, but to talk about the absolute opposite as well,” she reflects. “I could have said to Jade: ‘tell me about the latest Little Mix album, and where you recorded it, in London...’”

But they had other topics in mind. “Jade spoke about growing up in the North East of England,” remembers Clara. “Grimmy’s an upcoming guest and he spoke a lot about Manchester and the parallels with London…”

Clara’s conversation with Reni Eddo-Lodge on the podcast, author of seminal book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, epitomises her approach. “She’s sick of talking about her book,” Clara insists. 

“She spoke about it at length for the past two or three years and we made that clear in the interview, and I love that we could be that candid. It was like, look, we’ve spoken about your book loads, we’re not here to talk about that, I want to talk about you getting the night bus with your friends or going clubbing.”

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British journalist and author Reni Eddo-Lodge is one of the guests on Clara's podcast, This City

Night clubs feel like they existed in a long-forgotten past, so how does Clara escape the monotony of pandemic life? “I love riding my bike around London, that’s one of my favourite things to do in the city, I just cycle all the time.”  

On days where the optimism flows a little less steadily, she cycles from her home in east London to Soho where she visits Hummingbird Bakery to hoover up a slice of red velvet cake for a well-earned break.

“That’s my go-to,” she laughs. “Eat it in the park and then cycle home. I get my government sanctioned 30 minutes in, cycle to Soho, get my cake, eat it, and cycle home.”

Joe Maher via Getty Images
Clara Amfo at The BRIT Awards 2020 in February

It could be a metaphor for Clara’s abundant career right now: having her cake and eating it. But Clara isn’t greedy for more cake, or more work: perhaps her popularity stems from how she has never let all her successes change her outlook.

She’s more after a slice of humble pie. When criticism got tough on Strictly she was cheered by viewers tagging her in hilarious memes. “They genuinely made me cackle,” she says.

Of the messages from her supporters she says: “When I haven’t had great weeks on the show it was really special and I appreciate people, man.”

Perhaps best of all, she tells me, is the van driver who pulled over and surprised her while she was out and about since leaving the show. “He was like, ’oh darling, you were robbed,′ and for me, I’m like, cool, that was all the validation that I needed.”

Series two of This City with Clara Amfo is out now on all podcast providers, subscribe here