AJ puts her stamp
on the small screen

When we first tried to schedule our AJ Odudu interview, she was a star. By the time it was in the diary nine months later she was a mega-star

Hero image

When AJ Odudu first moved to London at the age of 21, she encountered that particular form of prejudice well-known to many northerners.

“Basically, people thought I was poor and stupid because of my accent,” says Odudu, 35. Stupid she certainly wasn’t – she had just come out of a degree in English and politics at Keele University. Almost 15 years later, her accent – she was born and brought up in Blackburn, Lancashire – is one of the most recognisable ones on TV. If anyone was laughing at it back then, they most certainly aren’t now.

For AJ – full name Onatejiro – 2022 was quite the breakthrough year. She fronted the revitalised Big Breakfast alongside comedian Mo Gilligan, hair stylist competition the Big Blow Out, and Married At First Sight: After Party, all for Channel 4.

She was on the red carpet for the Baftas, on stage for Comic Relief, acted as the UK’s jury spokesperson for the Eurovision contest, and was the host of the HBO Max show The Bridge, a rugged outdoors competition filmed in Vietnam.

This year has got off to an equally hectic start, returning to Comic Relief alongside David Tennant and Zoe Ball, and appearing on the Great Stand Up To Cancer Bake Off. Her next big projects are hosting the National Lottery’s Big Eurovision Welcome in Liverpool on 7 May and, beginning on 21 April, her new Channel 4 show, The Big Interiors Battle.

Does Odudu – who appeared on Strictly Come Dancing in 2021 and had to pull out of the final after tearing an ankle ligament – ever say no to anything?

“I have to!” she says. “But it really doesn’t feel right to me. I had such humble beginnings – my mum was a cleaner and my dad was a joiner who became a bus conductor – I can’t believe now I’m in the position where I can’t do everything I am asked to.”

For both her upcoming shows – and there’s yet more in the pipeline that she can’t talk about yet – saying yes was a no-brainer though. It meant a return up north.

The Eurovision show will be held in host city Liverpool, and The Big Interiors Battle takes place in Sheffield.

The Big Interiors Battle especially has a place in Odudu’s heart – she is passionate about property development and interior design. The show sees eight interior designers each given the keys to an apartment on the Eyewitness Works development in the heart of Sheffield and challenged to transform a different room each week.

Architect and entrepreneur Dara Huang will judge their work – and those not coming up to scratch will be “locked out” of their apartment. The eventual winner will take their transformed property and keep it as the prize – mortgage free.

“This is an amazing prize, especially at this time,” says Odudu. “People are struggling to buy or even rent their own homes so to be in with a chance of winning a property mortgage free like this is a dream.”

Odudu has a strong interest in DIY and home renovation — she has an Instagram account, @homewithaj, where she posts her projects and tips. And that stems from when she first moved to London, in 2009.

“My first property I got in London was a doer-upper. I didn’t intentionally set out to buy a doer-upper, but that’s what I got! So I know how stressful it is renovating a home.

“And the show has lots of hacks and tips. There are some great ideas around upcycling and making big changes to your home that don’t cost a lot of money.”

But Odudu’s first love is – and has always been – TV.

“I wanted to be on the telly from the age of about eight,” she laughs. “I remember asking my mum how I could get inside the telly with all the people on the shows.”

Odudu’s parents Florence and James had emigrated from Nigeria, and she was one of eight children growing up in the Blackburn home, which made for constant coming and going. But one thing always brought them together.

AJ Odudu helps pack emergency food parcels with food bank manager Gill Fourie at the Trussell Trust’s Blackburn Foodbank. (Photo: Alamy)

“We’d have people going out and doing football practice or seeing friends or whatever it was we were all doing all the time. It was so busy. Mum would be in the kitchen, it would be pandemonium. But we all came together to watch the telly on Saturday mornings and evenings.

“One thing I found fascinating when I moved to London, aged 21, was that there were people who didn’t have a telly. I couldn’t understand it. I was like: ‘Even the poorest people have a telly!’ I didn’t get they had no telly by choice. What do you do? What’s the focal point of the room?”

Despite being fixated on being on the TV from an early age, Odudu took the advice of her mum and went to university. She says: “I chose Keele, in Stoke, because it was a campus university and at the time I felt I couldn’t go to London. I felt very overwhelmed by the idea of living in a huge city – it was just too much.

“Living on a campus was my idea of easing myself into life away from home, and the idea was that with a proper degree I could get a proper job if the dream of being on TV didn’t work out.”

But that was never going to be the case.

“Plan A was never not going to work,” she says resolutely. “I got so many doors slammed in my face in the early days, but things changed a lot when I took the plunge and moved to London.”

As well as telling her to get a degree behind her, mum Florence had some more sage advice: don’t lose your accent.

“I was constantly told my accent was too strong, too northern,” Odudu says. “But Mum was the one who said to me, you can’t go changing your accent. Where will it all end? What will they want you to change next?

“Mum’s still got a strong Nigerian accent even though she’s lived in the UK longer than she lived in Nigeria. But she said to me: ‘You sound how you sound. Don’t change that.’”

As well as being unapologetically northern, Odudu is also fiercely proud of her working-class Lancashire roots.

“I think some of the reaction I first had when I moved to London was definitely a class thing as well,” she says. But Odudu has had the last laugh – and what an instantly recognisable laugh it is. She delivers it several times through the interview, especially when I tell her that I first put in for an interview with her almost nine months ago, and it’s taken until now for her schedule to allow it.

She was famous then, back in summer 2022. Now she’s mega-famous.

“I am trying!” she laughs. It’s all been about rising to challenges, or “leaning in”, as she says. And it paid off.

“I got one dream gig after another,” she says. “Strictly and The Bridge and then everything leading up to The Big Interiors Battle and the Eurovision. And that’s going to be so exciting – most of it is top secret at the moment. I get to kick off the Eurovision party in style.”

With family still in Blackburn and siblings spread out across Greater Manchester, Odudu’s roots are still firmly in the north.

“I’m probably back up north a lot more than people realise, visiting people,” she says. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if I wasn’t that Blackburn born and raised dreamer.”

She knows what it’s like to dream big and the challenges you face when making it happen, which is why away from the TV cameras she’s involved in a host of charities and causes, especially keen to amplify working-class voices.

This month she teamed up with Galaxy to front a campaign to encourage women to thrive after a survey found that 53 per cent of women have suffered imposter syndrome.

She is a supporter of the Trussell Trust and just before Christmas last year visited a foodbank in Blackburn, which she said was an “eye-opening” experience. She also supports charities including Prostate Cancer UK, Comic Relief and Black Minds Matter UK.

“I’m trying to get people to lean in,” she says. She knows that there will be girls in working-class households across the north who might feel Odudu’s level of success is just beyond them – but she wants to show them it isn’t.

The ubiquity of her on our TV screens isn’t ending any time soon — you’ll have seen the Google Pixel ads where she waxes lyrical about the mobile phone’s camera, comparing it to the photos of her youth where “You can only see me teeth!”

She laughs uproariously about that. “It’s true! Me and my mate Emma Turner grew up in Blackburn together and we used to go to Preston to this cinema complex where they had a photo booth. That photo booth did me dirty! It made me disappear into the background!”

Which is the last time that happened to AJ Odudu, the Lancashire lass who refused to compromise her northernness and became one of the biggest stars in British TV.

The Big Interiors Battle, hosted by AJ Odudu, airs on 21 April on Channel 4. She will also host the National Lotteryís Big Eurovision Welcome in Liverpool on 7 May

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to AJ puts her stamp on the small screen

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.