It’s a strangely unnerving thing to interview another journalist. When talking to a musician or actor our roles are clearly separated, our different professions giving the conversation some mystery. However, with a journalist, especially one as widely accomplished as Riyadh Khalaf, my questions suddenly feel somewhat inadequate when posed to someone who has pulled off countless entertaining and emotional interviews.
I ask him if it’s a strange experience for him also, being on the other side. He laughs and assuages my nerves slightly by revealing his own preference: “If I had to pick one role, interviewer or interviewee, I definitely find it easier to be the interviewer.” He goes on to explain: “Well you know what it’s like, interviewing someone and they just give you gold. You get that clip from them and it’s such a funny or heartfelt moment and you get some beautiful emotion. So when I’m being interviewed, I think to myself, ‘I want to be the best contributor I can be’, and it’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself!”
Neither of us needed to have worried however, Riyadh was so chatty and enigmatic throughout that I felt completely at ease and he provided so much heartfelt and entertaining material I knew I had struck gold.
The first instance of this was right at the beginning of the interview. I asked him how lockdown has been treating him and he conspiratorially replied: “I’ve sort of become a domestic goddess. I’m cooking the most amazing dinners and deserts and I’ve planted all sorts of veg and flowers. This is so not me but I’ve even bought a label machine and I’m labelling everything. I feel like Bree VanderCamp from Desperate Housewives”. I tell him how jealous I am that his life is now “all sorted and tidy”, to which he generously offers: “well, I’ve run out of things to label now so I’m more than happy to run round your pad and sort you out hun”.
However, Riyadh’s lockdown hasn’t been entirely taken up with household duties. He’s been creating some incredible content including recording his Normal People podcast for the BBC from inside a make-shift studio in his Clapham flat. He explains that the DIY feel has allowed him to be more creative as so much of what is being produced during lockdown is a little slapdash. “When I normally go out and shoot documentaries I bring a crew with me, as I know where my strengths lie and they certainly aren’t in operating a camera. So it’s been about scaling back and creating things that aren’t super cinematic.” I remark that this low-fi feel has allowed people, at a time where contact has been so important, to feel closer to celebrities who are normally separated by an air of inaccessible glamour. I tell him that I felt a kinship with Robbie Williams that I never felt possible when watching him do an isolation session in a shabby bathrobe. “Hey”, Riyadh stops me. “A dishevelled Robbie is still a handsome, hot Robbie. We will take him every which way”.
Riyadh is not only enjoying the change to his content however. He states that lockdown has given him some much needed headspace: “I’m less anxious and all over the place in my head.” He reminisces about rushing all over London for work, “you forget how much it takes out of you, not just your job but actually getting to your job and having your face shoved into someone’s armpit on the way”. He hopes that he’ll be able to carry this newfound calm with him into post lockdown life. “I want to come out of lockdown having changed a bit for the better. To keep that calm centered self that I’ve found because I’ve never met him before, and I like him. He’s more chill.”
Another accomplishment that will follow Riyadh into post lockdown life is the recent announcement that he’s just taken part in Celebrity Masterchef. “It’s a show I’ve watched for years, so it’s a complete dream come true to be on a show I’ve been a genuine fan of.” While he couldn’t reveal any details, he does say that due to past experiences Masterchef wasn’t as high pressure as he was expecting. “I had an incredible army sergeant home economics teacher called Miss Farlow. She was basically a dictator in the best way possible, screaming at you for leaving your spoon in the butternut squash, (puts on a high pitched Irish accent) ‘you’re cooking my spoon?!’.
Miss Farlow wasn’t the only major culinary influence in Riyadh’s formative years however. He tells me that growing up with an Irish Catholic mother and an Iraqi Muslim father meant that dinner didn’t exactly follow a ‘traditional’ pattern in the Khalaf household. “When I grew up on a Monday night I’d be eating cabbage and corned beef, traditional Irish food, and the next night I’d be having kofta kebabs and curry.”
“It’s a show I’ve watched for years, so it’s a complete dream come true to be on a show I’ve been a genuine fan of.”
Riyadh’s parents have continued to influence and shape his career far beyond any culinary inspiration. They even wrote a chapter in Riyadh’s book – Yay! You’re Gay! Now What? A Gay Boy’s Guide to Life, guiding parents through the experience of their child coming out. A book written not for just queer people but anyone surrounding that person, Riyadh places its success with the fact that “you get a really in depth visceral feeling of what it must feel like to live in shame and fear as a young person over your gender identity or sexuality.” He states that they were the perfect people to write the chapter as “they had their own ups and downs with me coming out, there was disgust and confusion. Now they’ve done a complete 180 and come to pride parades and absolutely adore my boyfriend.” Riyadh’s biggest piece of advice for struggling parents is: “having an LGBTQ child is a gift. In time this will feel like the most insignificant, boring aspect of your child’s life. There will be a moment, when you’re standing in the middle of a pride parade, where you’re singing and supporting and you’re thinking: what was I afraid of? This is anything but scary or bad. This is beautiful.”
His relationship with his parents even spawned his first foray into media, a row Riyadh had with his mum serving as impetus for his first YouTube video. “I made a comedy skit on a really awful grainy webcam. I was acting as myself and my mother because she wouldn’t let me get an eyebrow piercing. I ended up getting a tongue piercing instead and I was basically using the video to show it off, despite the fact it was most likely infected.” This went live about the same time as he started a pirate radio station entitled ‘The Hook 100 FM’. “It was illegal and edgy and scary and fun. I was the only one on my station, I’d come home from school, ignore my homework and fire up my transmitter and do my show.” He states that even now, despite his many accomplishments in a multitude of mediums, radio still holds a special place in his heart. “It’s the immediacy of it, you put that fader up, the light goes red and you are in people’s ears. Even when I was working at Ireland’s version of capital FM every time I sat down in that chair to do a shift I thought ‘I am so privileged to have a microphone and airwaves open to me’.”
However, the accomplishment he’s most proud of was not broadcasted via radio and is instead a six part docu-series entitled Queer Britain, made back in 2017. “I was jumping into this as quite a privileged white gay guy who had lived in a bubble of happiness and relative freedom. I was meeting my trans siblings and Jehovah’s Witnesses gay guys and Muslim lesbians who had to hide who they were. It really opened my eyes to the struggles that aren’t experienced by someone like me who’s at the top of the queer food chain.” The show was very well received, evidenced by the fact that Riyadh still has fans coming up to him saying “that series helped me come out to my parents” or “that TV show made me feel less alone”. Another marker of its longevity and necessity is that despite its continued positive impact, as Riyadh says, “not that much has changed in the three years since its release.” This is particularly true concerning the lives of the Black and Trans members of the queer community, as recent Black Pride and Black Lives Matter movements have further highlighted. On this issue Riyadh states: “There’s so much work to do. We’ve really got to pull up our socks, the people at the upper end of the gay hierachy, and not just rest on our laurels and go ‘we’ve got nothing to worry about, everyone loves a white gay’. We shouldn’t have the right to feel completely relaxed until everyone has the right to feel completely relaxed.”
Our interview is interrupted by his manager who tells me that we really need to be wrapping up soon. I quickly pose a few more questions and bid Riyadh goodbye, reflecting on an hour that has been completely golden.