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Clara Amfo: ‘You’ve really got to back yourself’

The presenter on how hustling her way onto the radio set her up for new show The Drop, being inspired by Aaliyah’s style, and the biggest opportunity she – almost – turned down.

You could say Clara Amfo got on the airwaves by trying her luck. Of course, an incredible knowledge of UK music and being a natural conversationalist helped too – but it was “back-chatting” her old boss that finally got her on the radio.

“‘Why are you playing that song? You should be playing this song! Let me do a show please, come on, go on, let me just do one hour!’” she recalls. Back then she was a marketing intern on Kiss FM badgering her boss. And then in the depths of winter, with presenters calling in sick or taking impromptu holidays, he finally gave in, giving her a Boxing Day spot.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Now, Amfo is a household name – she’s presented the Brit Awards and Top of the Pops, done Strictly, and recently took over from Annie Mac as presenter of the prestigious Future Sounds on Radio 1. 

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Amfo’s latest project sees her fronting new BBC Three show The Drop. Filmed in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, it’s all about streetwear, and the hustle required to run your own brand. Think The Apprentice but with young, fashion-forward candidates who face design-focused challenges that are then judged by the general public, rather than an ageing billionaire. 

Amfo is a massive streetwear fan, having worked in shops growing up, and admits: “Everybody knows I’ve got an issue with trainers.” She does, she adds, wear most of them. And it’s what she wears day to day. 

Sat in her home in a slouchy grey cropped hoodie that pops against the bright orange arch painted on the wall behind her – a lockdown project – Amfo lights up when discussing how streetwear is entwined with MC culture, the birth of hip-hop in the ‘70s, and the icons of the ‘90s. How hip-hop took a simple peaked cap from the basketball stalls to the streets, and how baggy trousers or ‘pants’ are influenced by incarceration in America when prisoners would have their belts confiscated. 

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“You know when you’re growing up and you see people on TV or you hear your favourite artist, and you think: ‘I just want to be her!’?” asks Amfo. 

Well for her, as a teenager growing up in south-west London, that person was the princess of R&B Aaliyah. “She was this young Black girl coming up in the ‘90s, who was like: ‘I’m going to wear jeans two sizes too big like a dude, a crop top with it, and sunglasses’, and that was an instantly iconic look.

“That was her saying: ‘This is who I am – I’ve got this sweet sultry voice, I’m hyper feminine but I also love leaning into masculinity in how I dress, I’m also a Tomboy’.”

Aaliyah’s mix of femininity and masculinity has influenced Amfo’s style too. “I’ve got a curvy figure, I’ve got ass and titties, I enjoy and love my body, but sometimes I just want to wear stuff that’s super oversized that’s not accentuating my curves and I can feel really sexy like that.”

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Basically, she says, if she could be mistaken for a “guest star on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air”, she’s got it on the money.

But ultimately, personal style, says Amfo, isn’t about simply emulating those you most admire. You need to find a “happy medium” she says, of finding who you are in relation to those you want to imitate, without being a “carbon copy” of them. 

It’s this kind of originality that The Drop challenges its 10 contestants to achieve. But this is far more than a fashion show, she explains. Each episode of the reality series is geared up to a ‘Drop’ or launch of each designer’s product to be shown to Manchester’s streetwear-savvy public.

“The buck always stops with the consumer, and whether they want to spend hard earned money on that,” she says, which is a welcome divergence from the more traditional, omnipotent-judge focused format. 

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That being said, judges aren’t omitted entirely – world-renowned designers Marc Jacques Burton and Blondey join artist Miguel to give their critiques of the contestants’ creations. And viewers can look forward to a good nod to Aaliyah in one of Amfo’s favourite challenges. 

Her main take-away from the show is simple. “You’ve really got to back yourself,” she says. To succeed on The Drop, creative genius alone won’t cut it. The challenges also test business-acumen, sales skills, and, ultimately, self-belief. 

What most surprised Amfo during filming, is how “some of the most ballsy people got imposter syndrome”.

“Every single person there has got an element of: ‘I’ve just got to go for it’, or you’re going to kick yourself and you’ll always think: ‘What if?’” she says.

So, is there an opportunity that Amfo, an – on the surface – beacon of self-belief, has ever passed over, too unsure of herself to grasp with both hands? 

Almost. 

It was only on the third request that she agreed to do Strictly Come Dancing, having turned the producers down twice already. But then the third time she just thought: “‘You know what Clara, fucking do it!’ 

“At the time I was too scared,” she continues, “because even though I do television I’m used to being in control.”

“That was a point where I had to find the fearlessness.”

The Drop airs on Monday March 14 at 9pm on BBC Three and BBC iPlayer.

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