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Naga Munchetty: ‘Immigrant families have to be that bit better’

How growing up as the daughter of an immigrant family shaped the TV presenter Naga Munchetty’s work ethic and desire to succeed.

Naga Munchetty is no stranger to controversy. It’s not that the BBC Breakfast host goes out of her way to attract attention, but it seems that barely a week can go by without one tabloid or another reporting “outrage” sparked by her comments.

The 46-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants has been fuelled by a “curiosity and never-ending desire to know why”, she says, tempering and channelling her outspoken nature to help people tell their own stories.

Munchetty speaks to The Big Issue’s Adrian Lobb for this week’s Letter To My Younger Self.

My 16-year-old self was insecure and worried a lot. She was happy and confident at times, and very hard working, but the insecurity came from loads of places. It is hard being a teenager, never wanting to fit in but always thinking others fitted in better, or worrying about exams, worrying about not being good enough.

All those typical teenager insecurities. Teenagers spend such a lot of time worrying – and often worrying about things they can do nothing about. I spent so much time worrying about whether people liked me, which was such a waste of time. It felt so important.  

When I think about my younger self, I get quite angry that I didn’t know what I know now. I didn’t know that it was okay to be confident. It was always ‘be smaller’, ‘don’t be so loud’, ‘know your place’ and I just wish I knew it was okay to be proud of being good at something or being chuffed with yourself.

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You can be mindful about other people’s feelings, but you are allowed to celebrate yourself. Because no one is out to make your life the best thing on earth – you’re the only one that can do that. 

If you’re not rebellious as a teenager, you’re not doing teenager right. So I was very rebellious and a real handful to my parents. It sounds contradictory because I was very good at school and everything. But I was argumentative and hard work and rebellious in all sorts of ways.  

I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer if my parents had their way – and fair play to them. They came over here in the early Seventies. Mum was training as a dentist and went into nursing, Dad was training as a nurse. They worked hard and did everything to give us a life, a good education and push us hard. Those are very traditional ambitions, a doctor or a lawyer. I probably veered more towards law than medicine but even though I did my GCSEs early and was smart, I had no idea what I wanted to do. 

I never spoke up enough. So I would tell my younger self to trust your voice, trust your instinctand make sure you are heard. You don’t need to shout but what you have to say is worth hearing. A lot of people will say I did speak up because I was gregarious, but I never spoke up enough when it mattered. So I would tell her that if you leave a conversation and feel you should have said something, go back and say it. Or just say it in the first place. Make sure you are heard. It’s too easy to fall into the habit of thinking that what you have to say is unimportant or isn’t valid. Because there’ll be lots of people who are loud and talk bollocks with such conviction that you get sucked in or just assume you are wrong.

My parents always knew, and I always knew, we had to be that bit better. My parents knew they had to be that bit better because they were immigrants and foreigners. And I knew I had to be that bit better because of my sex, because of my colour, because of where I came from. My parents’ hard work and work ethic definitely shaped me. And that will never recede. I’ve always had more than one job ever since my paper round.

I’ve also tried to avoid debt as much as I can. I like nice things in life, but I don’t waste money. We didn’t have much and my parents had to deal with a lot of money worries. I’ve seen that and it never leaves you. That shapes you. And not necessarily in a negative way.

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My younger self would be overjoyed with my career. But she would be surprised that I’m as thick-skinned as I am now because I was painfully thin-skinned. Hence the anxiety. I took everything so personally. I would think for hours about one tiny thing. I don’t like going to parties and meeting new people – I don’t feel comfortable. So my younger self would be very surprised that I do what I do and I talk to the people I talk to. But she’d recognise that, actually, my biggest asset – and I didn’t know how to channel it then – was my curiosity and never-ending desire to know why. And that’s all I do. That is my job. Asking why. If I knew then that I could tap into that and that it was a valid career, I would have saved myself a lot of angst.

I can reel off names from prime ministers to Olympic champions to Hillary Clinton and my younger self might be impressed by the people I have interviewed. But I’d like to think she’d be more interested and affected – as I am now – by the people who open up their pain or their lives or their joy to you and give you an insight into their life.

2008 On the set of BBC current affairs programme Working Lunch with her co-presenter Declan Curry Photo by Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images

When you talk to a parent who is fighting for the life of their child, or someone who is fighting for justice, or someone who’s lost someone dear to them – those are the real privileges of doing this job. And I like to think that 16-year-old would get it, because she was thoughtful and empathetic and stood up to bullies. She made sure she spoke to people who were being bullied and would declare them her friends. But she also had her moments. Like when she bullied a friend. I spoke about it recently on 5Live, when she refused to forgive a friend and a group of girls ostracised her. But she never forgot that she hurt her friend. So she learned from it.  

I feel quite sad thinking about my 16-year-old self. This conversation’s making me sad. I just wish I had spent less time worrying. I wish someone had taken me aside and said, it’s such a short life – live it and don’t be scared about what other people think. I wasted so much time doing that, and that’s what makes me sad. Youth is wasted on the young. I speak to schoolkids about it now and hope they’re better equipped, and their parents are more worldly than my parents were, which is no criticism of my parents.  

I was never fancied at school. I didn’t have a boyfriend until I was 17. But he was wonderful, my first boyfriend. I was with him for a couple of years. I think it’s so good to have boyfriends and girlfriends when you’re younger, because you learn to accept that things don’t necessarily last, and they don’t have to. You can enjoy the time you have. You’re changing, things change. But ending relationships will always cause pain, so do it with kindness. 

The best advice I ever received was on my wedding day. An aunt in my husband’s family just said, ‘Be kind’. I know it seems trite now because everyone uses it. But this was 17 years ago. So be kind – because you never know what the other person’s going through. I would also tell my younger self you will meet brilliant people in your life so don’t compromise. Go with your gut. Because you’re so keen as a 16-year-old for whatever sex you are into to like you.  

My younger self would be horrified at this world in terms of social media. There are so many angry, unhappy people around. What motivates someone to get on to Twitter or Instagram to say ‘This person is ugly’ or ‘I hate this person’? If someone has actively gone to their phone to type that, there’s got to be something deeply miserable in their lives. So I don’t care about them. I just don’t care.

And the nonsense in the press – here’s my bit of advice: As well as trust your instincts, know the people who truly know you and listen to them. You’ll have smoke blown up your arse, you’ll be knocked down by cruel people – find that balance and just listen to the people who truly know you. 

My younger self would be completely confused and probably ashamed by my playing golf. And she would be amazed that she will run a marathon and bemused by going on Strictly. She would also be delighted that, when I can, I get to travel so much. But she would be disappointed in me for not having lived abroad.

2019 Supporting fellow broadcaster Samira Ahmed at her employment tribunal brought against the BBC over equal pay Photo by Shutterstock

I would tell her, go live in France for a year because you love everything about it – you love the food, you love the wine, you love the way they live. I had opportunities, but they didn’t come off or I chose different things. So I would tell her to live abroad and keep up your French – because once you let it go, spending time in your mid-40s trying to get it back is very frustrating. 

If I could relive a day, it would be a day when I had no anxiety and felt totally free. A day when I had no commitment to anything. I’ve had many brilliant days, and I will continue to have brilliant days, hopefully. But I went to Venice with the girls I lived with at university. And I remember being on a train and we went from Venice to Rome then just spent days just roaming around Rome.

We were partying, we had no commitments, we were just living. So give me one of those days. Give me that train journey when I’ve had a brilliant morning in Venice and I go to Rome and I party and have no commitments, just days full of joy and discovery. 

Naga Munchetty presents her BBC Radio 5 Live show every Monday-Wednesday between 11am-1pm 

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