The joy of baking

She may have been pipped to the post in last year’s Bake Off but Kim-Joy is second to none when it comes to enthusing her fans

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Kim-Joy beams out from a doorway on a Leeds side street, her smile almost as bright as her ensemble. She’s wearing a yellow jumper, a long pale blue skirt and a pair of pink cat slippers.

Oh, and she’s got pink hair, pinker than her slippers, and far pinker than that on the brunette who smiles out from the cover of her new cookbook out this week, Baking With Kim-Joy.

“Hmm,” she muses when I point this out. “Maybe you shouldn’t actually dye your hair so it’s totally different from what you look like on your book.” Then she breaks into another broad grin. “Oh, it’ll be fine!”

Kim-Joy smiles a lot, as those of us who watched (and, let’s face it, who didn’t?) last year’s Great British Bake Off will remember. Kim-Joy, 28, reached the final and was pipped to the winner’s crown by Rahul Madal, a decision that angered a lot of fans who had tipped her for the prize.

Not that she’s suffered much from not winning. Kim-Joy writes a weekly baking column for the Guardian, and her book is much anticipated. She’s hoping to write more cookbooks, and more TV.

“I’d love my own TV show – maybe a kids’ show would be perfect,” she says. “Bake Off made me way more confident with kids. I get parents coming up to me and saying: ‘Oh, my kid really likes you.’ And I’m like: ‘Do you like me as well?’”

“I’m mega-organised. People don’t think that – they think I just float on clouds.”

Surely everybody likes Kim-Joy. Her presence lit up Bake Off, and she’s exactly the same off screen. We’re meeting in the offices of Travelling Man, the comic and boardgame shop chain set up by her partner Nabil Homsi, with whom she lives in what she calls a “tiny little hobbit house” just to the east of Leeds. He has four shops, in Leeds, Manchester, York and Newcastle. Which, not so coincidentally, is where Kim-Joy will be holding most of her northern signings on her book tour.

Isn’t that a bit of a weird mix, though? Comic readers and Bake Off fans? Not at all, says Kim-Joy, who has been an unrepentant nerd since she first discovered the Tekken game on PlayStation many years ago. She rendered The Lost City of Atlantis in gingerbread for her Bake Off showstopper, after all.

“I think there’s a lot of crossover. There are quite a lot of geek people who like Bake Off. Maybe having Noel [Fielding, co-presenter] on there is part of the overlap.”

Last month Kim-Joy attended the huge Comic-Con in San Diego as part of the Travelling Man contingent, and she’s a regular visitor to other cons, including Yorkshire’s own Thought Bubble (she’s good friends with founder Lisa Wood).

“I went to LA recently as well to a comics festival and when I walked in it literally felt like everyone knew me. They were all looking,” she says.

Newfound celebrity is something that Kim-Joy has had to get used to since Bake Off ended last November. “People stare at you because they think they know you, and then it clicks with them that they’ve seen you on TV. If they look friendly, I’ll usually say hi.”

Some fans, though, can get a little over-enthusiastic. “The weirdest one was when I was in the gym and there was this lady with her daughter. I was in the shower and they were hanging around, and when I came out they were like: ‘It is you! We thought it was! Can we take a picture?’”

Kim-Joy posed for a selfie. “I did get some clothes on first, though. I still looked like a drowned rat.”

Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with for Kim-Joy has been a strange fascination with her heritage. I tell her that I saw an online piece with the headline: “Kim-Joy: Where is she from?”

Her smile slips momentarily. “Yes, people do come up to me and say that. They can be quite focused on it for some reason, maybe because I look a bit ambiguous. It sometimes feels very negative and even accusatory.”

The short answer Kim-Joy gives is: “Leeds, or sometimes I say Belgium, which really confuses them.”

Kim-Joy was indeed born in Belgium, and her family history is perhaps a little complicated. Her mother is Chinese and from Malaysia, and was studying in London when she got deported for working too many hours alongside her studies. She ended up in Belgium, where Kim-Joy’s father was living with his wife and their two children, and got a job as the family’s au pair. Her father’s first marriage was in the throes of ending and he married Kim-Joy’s mother, and together they had three children. Kim-Joy is the middle one, with a boy either side. They all have names beginning with K, a little like the Kardashians. Kim-Joy’s surname is Hewlett, but she doesn’t really use it much publicly, as she’s not in contact with her father. He’s since married again and has a son with his third wife, who is from India. “I suppose we’re just this massive global family,” says Kim-Joy.

She remembers her childhood being happy, at least inside the home. When she went to school, she stopped talking. To anyone.

“I was really socially anxious and I probably had selective mutism. I didn’t talk outside the house, I just felt like I couldn’t talk to people. I just kept my head down and didn’t move my body and didn’t smile.”

I find that hard to believe and Kim-Joy laughs. “I saved it all up for now! But the longer it went on, the worse it got because I thought if I did start speaking everyone would look at me and say, oh, Kim-Joy’s started talking, which would have been my biggest nightmare.

“I got myself out of it when I went to university and decided to try to reinvent myself and find out who I was. I didn’t really know how to talk to people so I would just go up to random strangers and say things like: ‘Do you know where the buses go?’ Fortunately those people became my friends, and they still laugh about that.”

After studying at Loughborough, Bristol and Leeds, then entering a career in mental health, Kim-Joy settled in Yorkshire after meeting Homsi at one of the board game nights he organised at his Leeds shop. Board games appeal to her because they are structured and organised, just like she has to be with her baking.

“I’m mega-organised. People don’t think that – they think I just float on clouds. But you have to be organised to get through Bake Off.”

Unlike the superheroes in the comics Homsi sells, Kim-Joy has no real secret origin as a baker. “I never walked past a shop or anything and thought, wow, that’s what I want to do. I made mince pies as a kid, then dabbled a bit more, and one day thought I’d got enough skills to have a go at Bake Off, so I did.”

Now the kitchen of her hobbit house is given over to baking, and creating recipes for her Guardian column and her books. “I just bought a dragonfruit,” she says excitedly, and it does seem extremely on brand. “It was £3.50! For one. To be honest, it tastes a bit like an inferior watermelon, but it does look nice.”

People often describe Kim-Joy as “nice” and she doesn’t mind that. “I suppose I am. I’m quite indoorsy, really. I like the dark and cold weather and autumn. I like just being chilled. And I like baking. People love food. It makes people feel happy, and that can only be a good thing, can’t it?”

Baking With Kim-Joy, from Quadrille Publishing, is out on 22 August. Her tour includes Travelling Man, Manchester, 31 Aug; Travelling Man, Leeds, 1 Sept; Travelling Man, York, 7 Sept; The Little Bookshop, Leeds, 15 Sept; Joy, and Leeds, 19 Sept

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