Great British Bake Off (or, Great Baking Show in the U.S.) semi-finalist Briony Williams joins Sinéad in London to talk about her identity as a teacher, how she practices resilience and kindness, and her choice not to mention or accept special accommodations for her disability while in the tent.
[01:11] Sinéad Burke: Hello and welcome to this week’s As Me.
[01:17] Sinéad Burke: I’m back in Ireland this week after traveling quite a bit last week. I had the great privilege of attending some fashion shows in Milan. I got to see Gucci and bring my sister along. And one of the things that they did at Gucci was put a spotlight on the design team, those whose roles have been invisible for more or less forever, and give them a platform by which their work and their voices can be honored. I got to bring my sister along to that show and to Max Mara. And I got to see Prada, who’ve just announced some big news. Miuccia is collaborating with Ralph Simmons as a co-creative director from September onwards. And then finally, Ferragamo, who are the people responsible for the most beautiful shoes that I’ve been wearing for about a year now, those pink velvet ones if you’re familiar with? That’s them. There was also a strange time to be in Milan as when I arrived, there was really no talk of the Coronavirus in that part of the world. And as I was leaving, it populated every headline and it began to be tangible. Not that there was panic, but definitely nervousness. From Milan Fashion Week and Coronavirus, we’ve covered quite a lot already.
[02:24] Sinéad Burke: This week’s episode goes to the U.K. and an extraordinary conversation with somebody who I have admired since they first came into my life. Not because we’re friends, but through television. Today’s conversation is with Briony Williams from the Great British Bake Off, which I think everybody is a fan of. Or if you’re not yet convinced, you need to be indoctrinated immediately. Briony and I got to be together in London for this gorgeous conversation about being born with a visible disability — in her case, one hand stops at her left wrist — and how that has impacted her life. From her childhood to parenting to the tent and to her newest adventures with Food Unwrapped, which just launched on Channel 4 in the U.K. on February 24th.
[03:08] Briony Williams: I never, ever felt different. Part of — well, most of that has to do with my mum, my dad who — mainly my mum — who were very keen on, you know, not making a big deal. And they were always very much like, if you can’t do something, you figure out a way to do it. I learned to tie my shoelaces at the same time as my older brother, who is two years older and has two fully functioning hands.
[03:28] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week is advocacy. The extent to which things have changed. The power of individual voices. Being vulnerable and admitting how they’ve been othered, with particular reference this week to Harvey Weinstein, or even in fashion as a whole. And yet, as much change as advocacy has cultivated and created, there is so much more to do. You can’t help but sit and watch these fashion shows and critique the lack of diversity of the models, be it with disability, be it race, be the thinness of models. But I have hope that the extraordinary advocates who are entrenched in these industries will continue to be vulnerable, will continue to speak truth to power, and will make an enormous difference and cultivate a legacy that will be here forevermore. Are you ready for this week’s episode? Let’s go!
[04:26] Sinéad Burke: Sitting across from me today is an extraordinary woman who I got to know through the lens of television. On As Me with Sinéad today we have Briony Williams, who is so many things. And the only incredible way to describe you, I think, is by asking you that first question herself. Briony, welcome to As Me with Sinéad.
[04:47] Briony Williams: Thank you so much for having me.
[04:48] Sinéad Burke: It’s such a treat. But how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[04:53] Briony Williams: My goodness. I’m finding it quite difficult at the minute, the professional side of it. Personally, I’m a mother to my beautiful 3-year-old daughter, Nora. I’m a wife. I’m very family-oriented, so my world revolves around my family and my friends, mostly in Bristol. I like to think of myself as a positive person. And I’m kind. I like to be kind to people because, you know, that’s just the way you should be in life, in my opinion. And professionally, I had this the other day, I was filling out a form and there was the space for occupation. I was like, what do I put? I can’t put former Bake-Off person. I used to be a teacher, but I’m not anymore at the moment. I write recipes, so technically I’m a food writer author, but I’ve also done some stuff on TV. So I don’t really know how I describe myself professionally at the minute Taking opportunities as they come.
[05:48] Sinéad Burke: What did you think you would do and be when you were younger?
[05:53] Briony Williams: There’s a video with me — they did this thing called school days in my school. And they came in and they did these videos. And I found it the other day. And I actually say in it that I want to be a teacher because I like bossing people around.
[06:03] Sinéad Burke: And is that the reason why you enjoy teaching?
[06:04] Briony Williams: Not really. But I quite enjoy that part of it.
[06:08] Sinéad Burke: We don’t talk about that as teachers. We just say, you know, it’s a passion.
[06:12] Briony Williams: Yeah. It’s molding young people’s minds.
[06:23] Sinéad Burke: Tell me a little bit about your experience as a teacher.
[06:25] Briony Williams: I absolutely love being a teacher. I think it’s just a part of me now. And I taught in an all-boys school for six, seven years, and I taught French and Spanish. And it was wonderful. The school I was teaching in, gorgeous school. The boys were just so lovely. And I really enjoyed teaching all boys because, I don’t know, there’s something about it. They don’t take things very personally. And if you tell them off, they’ve forgotten about it two minutes later. Whereas like if you tell off a teenage girl, she will hate you for the rest of her school career. They take it very personally. And I know why, because I was a teenage girl once, and that’s just how we are. But boys are like, literally, you can, you know, really shout to them. And in two minutes they’re like “what?” So I just really enjoyed it. And I worked a lot with the classes that were struggling. Because every boy at the school had to do a languages GCSE. So you’d end up with boys who really didn’t want to do it. They couldn’t be bothered, but they had to you know, they had to push through and carry on. And those were the classes that I enjoyed the most because those were the ones where you really could see them turn around. And a lot of it was confidence. They’d been told, or they thought, that they were really bad at languages. So they just assumed that they couldn’t do it. And that’s where I really sort of relish the fact of being able to build up that confidence and say, no, you can do this. You’ve got this. That was my favorite part about it.
[07:43] Sinéad Burke: And what do you think is in you in order to be able to connect with those boys and to build that confidence? Because I don’t think it’s a skill everybody has.
[07:51] Briony Williams: No. I think, you know, I’m a confident person now. But when I was a teenager, I did lack in a lot of self-belief. Not necessarily academically. That was one area that I had quite a lot of control over. And I worked very hard and was quite, you know, strong in that sense. But personally, I know what it’s like not to believe in yourself. And, you know, even the slightest comment from someone in authority like a teacher to tell you something positive can make such a big difference, you know? And if you have to tell them every lesson, you can do this, you can do this. It just really connected with me, because I don’t wanna see any young person think that they can’t do something ever. And that’s just something in me. And it would frustrate me so much when they just kept thinking that they couldn’t do it. But then I’d see, you know, I’d see them on GCSE day and they’d been predicted an E and they got a B because they’d worked hard and because we got through it together. So yeah, I think it’s just you connect with them.
[08:51] Sinéad Burke: I think there’s an empathy there though.
[08:52] Briony Williams: Absolutely. 100 percent. Yeah. And I am quite an empathetic person. It’s funny, actually, my daughter, even though she’s only three, she’s got so much empathy for a toddler. It’s really stunning to watch. And if, you know, if I’m not feeling very well — I had a bug recently and she’s like “mummy, can I get you anything? Are you okay?” And, um, I think I think it’s a wonderful attribute to have. And I think it’s, you know, undervalued and, you know, some people maybe overlook it, but I pride myself on being empathetic.
[09:30] Sinéad Burke: How did you construct it in the classroom? Because I don’t think empathy is something that we’re all gifted with. I think it’s something we have to practice.
[09:36] Briony Williams: Yeah, I think it was just sort of talking to the boys, you know, as human beings, not just as pupils. Because I only taught four for six or seven years, I didn’t get to the point that some teachers can get to you after 30 years. They get a bit battered down after a while and they lose that willingness to try and connect with the pupils on a human level. Because I was 25, 26, you know, these are some of the kids I taught were 18. We weren’t that far off in age. It was really embarrassing when you’d run into them at a club in Bristol. “Hello, miss!”
[10:10] Sinéad Burke: This is water in my glass.
[10:12] Briony Williams: Act sober. Act sober. I’m sure they were thinking the exact same thing. So yeah, I would just, you know, I wanted to know about them and I want to know why they thought they couldn’t do it.
[10:23] Sinéad Burke: And for you, when you were going through that time in your teenage years when you were trying to figure out who you were and lacking in that confidence, what was the turning point? What changed?
[10:32] Briony Williams: Gosh, I don’t know. I don’t think that was necessarily one turning point. I think just getting a bit older and a bit wiser and understanding that other people’s opinions don’t always matter. And that actually their none of your business. As a teenager, I was always — I didn’t have any self-confidence. A lot of it was to do with my hand, but a lot of it was just being a teenage girl. And I think as the years went on, even into my early twenties, I still didn’t have the confidence. You know, I’d walk into a bar or club and I’d get my friends to hold my hand, my little hand, because I didn’t want anyone to see it. And, you know, they’d help give me that confidence. When I met my husband, that was probably the one of the biggest turning points, and I know it shouldn’t necessarily come from someone else, but because he, from the day that we met, wasn’t bothered about it at all, and loved me for who I am and has never sort of even questioned it. He just, you know, he loves me for who I am. That helped me build my confidence. I’ve accepted my hand and have done and who I am over the last probably 10 years. But Bake-Off made me proud of it. That’s something that happened in the last year for sure. I’m now proud of my hand. Whereas before I just accepted. Does that make sense?
[11:46] Sinéad Burke: Yeah. And was it the reaction to Bake-Off, or was it just the fact that you were part of the show that kind of cultivated that pride?
[11:53] Briony Williams: I think I just felt I was part of the show and I did it. I got to the semifinals. You know. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it. Sorry.
[12:02] Sinéad Burke: But in terms of even being cognizant of your hand, and I’m conscious that this is a podcast, so in terms of audio, we have people listening to us who are maybe not aware that both of us sitting here are physically disabled, which is the power of that, but when did you become first conscious of your hand?
[12:19] Briony Williams: I can’t really remember. I never, ever felt different. Well, most of that has to do with my mom and my dad — mainly my mum — who were very keen on, you know, not making a big deal. And they were always very much like, if you can’t do something, you figure out a way to do it. You know, I learned to tie my shoelaces at the same time as my older brother. He’s two years older and has two fully functioning hands. I do like to remind him of that quite a lot.
[12:48] Sinéad Burke: Siblings. And how do you tie your shoelaces?
[12:55] Briony Williams: Oh, that’s such a good question. I don’t know how to explain it, really. I just like I wrap the — because I haven’t got any fingers on my left hand, but I do have a thumb. It’s slightly misshapen. But yeah, I kind of wrap the lace around my thumb and then sort of do it that way. But I just literally, me and my mum would just sit down and we’d figure it out.
[13:15] Sinéad Burke: Was there ever a point where you were just thinking, I’m going to wear Velcro for the rest of my life.
[13:18] Briony Williams: I’m very determined.
[13:24] Sinéad Burke: Hey, I’m 3’5” working in the fashion industry. I hear you.
[13:29] Briony Williams: Yeah. I’m not gonna just go to Velcro. You know, even as a toddler, my mum was like, you were just flat-out on it. I suppose when I went to school, maybe I started being a little bit more conscious of my hand, a bit more aware.
[13:40] Sinéad Burke: How did other people react to it?
[13:41] Briony Williams: I’ve had some of the same friends since I was two years old, so they’ve only ever known me with my hand. So to them, there’s nothing unusual about it. So, you know, through primary school, I think there was maybe two comments made to me the whole time. Because everyone knew me from nursery or from, you know, when we were really little. And I think when you, you know, expose children to that, they just accepted it.
[14:06] Sinéad Burke: Did that give you a safety net? Or was it also then quite challenging when you went out into a wider world where people hadn’t known you since you were two? Because I suppose my physical disability is so immediately obvious, much like your hand in some ways, but I was prepared by my parents, exactly in the same way that you were. You know, you can do anything you want to do. You may have to find a different way about it. But I was also given some phrases, so when I was in the playground and a child said, “why are you so small?” My immediate reaction was always, “well, why are you so big?” And the child would say, “I was born like this.” And I’d say, “well, so was I.” Or a child would say, you know, “you’re a baby.” And I’d say, “No! I’m four! I’m Sinéad. I have achondroplasia.” I had loads of friends as a child. But it was that kind of not wanting to infantilize myself, and wanting to like challenge other people, is what my parents prepared me with. But like yourself, when I went to school, I went to an all-girls school and those girls protected me.
[15:04] Briony Williams: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. My friends wouldn’t let anything come anywhere, you know. And if anyone said anything to me, I mean they would tear them a new one. And I had an older brother, which helped.
[15:16] Sinéad Burke: I’m the eldest.
[15:17] Briony Williams: Are you?
[15:18] Sinéad Burke: But it did mean that a lot of the domestic chores didn’t fall to me. I was like, “ah, I can’t read the kitchen. What a shame.” Then we got a dishwasher and it was like, “dammit!”
[15:28] Briony Williams: I think I think one of the things when I went to secondary school — I went to an all-girls school — and it was when only when I got to when I was 14 or 15, when the younger kids would notice, and I would sort of I would just kind of catch their eye and say, “you know, you can ask me if you want.” I’d always prefer if they did ask me and just sort of, you know, to stop them staring. Because as soon as people know and you’ve confronted them about it, for me anyway, I find then they kind of move on.
[16:00] Sinéad Burke: Do you find that exhausting, though, constantly having to educate people around you?
[16:05] Briony Williams: No, I kind of almost feel — I feel like it’s kind of like my responsibility, partly. If I want more people to be accepting of it, then I should take on the task of helping that along the way.
[16:16] Sinéad Burke: But if we were both to take a step back, and I ask this question because I feel the exact same. I feel that it’s not just because I have dwarfism, but I’m a teacher, much like you. So I feel like I have skills where I can educate people and challenge the ignorance, which in most often isn’t borne out of maliciousness. But at the same time, sometimes you just want to go to the supermarket, or you just want to exist, and not have to make your life a case study to strangers.
[16:44] Briony Williams: That’s where I’m lucky in that I can put my hand in my pocket and nobody knows. You know, I mean, I can hide it and not have to answer those questions if I don’t want to. I know I’m very lucky in that sense that I can do that. But I would, even at the beginning of the school year, I would go through into all my classes and I’d be, “right. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Mrs. Williams, this is what happened to my hand. Any questions? Okay, let’s move on.”
[17:08] Sinéad Burke: And were there ever questions? What did they ask?
[17:11] Briony Williams: They’d ask, like, does it hurt? Can you tie your shoelaces or can you drive? Can you do this? And it’s just, yeah, and I’d say, “you can stare this lesson, but if I catch you staring in another lesson, that’s it. I’ve given you this time to get used to it.”
[17:26] Sinéad Burke: You dp love bossing people around.
[17:31] Briony Williams: Oh, so much. It worked, though. And I never, you know, because of that, I like to think that all those boys then went on and if they ever did see anyone else who looked slightly different, they would either hopefully, you know, ask them if they really felt like they needed to, or just accept it and go, OK.
[17:44] Sinéad Burke: But isn’t that the power of role models and and visibility and representation in so many different forms? That it’s about having that visibility there because like people like us exist in society. It’s just about providing spaces like at the top of a classroom, or on television and saying we are here.
[18:00] Briony Williams: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s OK, like for me, I am perfectly OK if someone wants to ask me about it. You know, I would much rather they did that than them stand there and stare at me for 10 minutes. And it’s like kids, I’d welcome them to come up and touch it and say,”look, it doesn’t hurt.” And you get like little toddlers trying to like pull my fingers out. And it’s very cute. I don’t mind people asking me like I’d rather that than the ignorance or the hush-hush chatting. Most of the time now people are hush-hush chatting saying, “it’s Briony from Bake-Off.”
[18:26] Sinéad Burke: But how do you manage that? Because that’s two very different things. And how do you — like is it tangibly obvious when somebody is kind of doing that in a complimentary fame way, rather than this kind of malicious curiosity, or curiosity from a disability perspective, I guess? Are you a different person in terms of how you respond to those two?
[18:48] Briony Williams: Yeah, I’d say so because it’s mostly Bake-Off related now. I was on my phone in the train station the other day and I could feel these eyes on me from these four women that were stood in front of me. I looked up and they were all looking at me and went, “ahhh, hi!”. I went, “Oh, hi, guys.” You know, and I could feel their eyes on me. And if I’d wanted to, I could have just kept looking at my phone and kind of turned around and walked away. But I could tell by their body language all they wanted to do was say hi.
[19:15] Sinéad Burke: Do you think being disabled is a help in terms of indicating who you are?
[19:23] Briony Williams: No I think that’s the thing. It’s such a distinguishing feature, I can’t really be like, no, it’s not me.
[19:29] Sinéad Burke: I just pretend to be Peter Dinklage all the time. I’m like, “I’ve just shaven.”
[22:10] Sinéad Burke: You know, we spoke in kind of really briefly about Bake-Off. First off, you know, there’s possibly people listening to this who have never seen the Great British Bake-Off.
[22:19] Briony Williams: What? What? Also known as the Great British Baking Show.
[22:20] Sinéad Burke: Oh, of course. How would you describe the great British Baking Show? It’s basically 12 amateur bakers in a really hot tent marquee in the English countryside, baking every week, competing against each other, doing really random challenges. And then you get judged by a scary man and a very lovely lady. And one by one, you get all voted off by the judges and then you get a winner.
[22:46] Sinéad Burke: And there’s three challenges per episode.
[22:49] Briony Williams: Yes, there’s a signature challenge, which is the smaller challenge, pre-prepared. You know, what you’re going to be doing. So, for example, week one was biscuit week my year. So the signature challenge was regional biscuits. So you had to do your take on a regional biscuit. Then you’ve got the technical challenge, which you have no idea about. That could be anything from wagon wheels, which it was for me. Amazing. I mean, homemade wagon wheels are amazing, but they’re nice in the bucket as well.
[23:17] Sinéad Burke: And also easier.
[23:20] Briony Williams: Much less stressful. Or it could be some random 15th century Arab pastry that you’ve never heard of. And then the second day of filming is the showstopper, which is the big one. That’s normally five hours of baking.
[23:30] Sinéad Burke: You are given advance notice.
[23:32] Briony Williams: You know what you’re doing and you can practice it beforehand. So it could be, again, the biscuit one was a biscuit selfie. So it had be, you know, 50 centimeters by 50 centimeters, big all made of biscuit. And then an image of you, recognizable as you.
[23:48] Sinéad Burke: My 30th birthday is next year. I think this is now what I want, is just a biscuit selfie.
[23:51] Briony Williams: Oh, I’ll make one for you.
[23:53] Sinéad Burke: Oh, would you sign a piece of paper? The dream. Well, listen, we’re done that now. I’m joking. But why baking?
[24:05] Briony Williams: It’s very therapeutic for me. When in 2013 I was off work, I was ill, and they kept saying, oh, it’s chronic fatigue, it’s chronic fatigue. And I was like, no, there’s something else going on. I know there’s something else. I think it’s something hormonal. Went to several GPs and they kept saying this. So I was off work for a long period of time. And the nurse at the school where I worked, she said, what do you try something, you know, at home to keep your mind occupied, like knitting or baking? Knitting I was awful at. So I tried baking and I just find it so therapeutic, the process and then having something lovely to eat at the end of it. I just really enjoyed it. So I only started properly in 2013 and then just built my way up from there. So it’s my happy place, I always say. Because it is. You know, maybe not so much in the tent, wasn’t as happy. Slightly stressful, but worth it. And yeah, I just enjoy it. And I would implore anyone who is having a stressful time to get in the kitchen and try making something basic. Start with biscuits or, you know, a sponge cake. Nothing crazy. I started with shortbread and then built up from there.
[25:08] Sinéad Burke: And baking when disabled. Were you cognizant of the fact that things had to be altered or was there equipment that you had to kind of reconsider or remove in the way that other people would use it? Or am I overthinking it?
[25:22] Briony Williams: No, no. I do think you’re overthinking it all. I think for me, again, I feel very lucky in that it doesn’t massively affect my movements. So it would be things like when you need to get something really thin, the pastry, I wouldn’t be able to put enough pressure down on on both sides. So I’d get like uneven. So it would be things like getting a marble rolling pin, that sounds posh but they’re not that expensive. And that would help because it weighed so much that it would help put the pressure down. I don’t know, just because I never really think about it in the kitchen because, you know, I’ve always cooked.
[25:56] Sinéad Burke: But it’s obviously your norm. So just because it’s different from other people, you don’t consider it to be adapting.
[26:02] Briony Williams: Exactly. I did a podcast with the BBC called Ouch about disability. And they went, oh, do you have some sort of disabled baking hacks? I had to really think about it. And then I was in the kitchen like, oh, OK, there’s a few things I do, but I don’t realize that I do. Like the rolling pin. You know, I hold a lot of things in my teeth. I do it all the time. I basically like balance things on the back of my little hand. So it’s like I use it like a little table.
[26:43] Sinéad Burke: I have two hands and they are small, but my fine motor skills are not very strong. So I find opening things really difficult, you know, and I think that would be a challenge if I was ever to be in the Great British Bake-Off despite not being able to bake. That is the primary challenge. And if there’s a secondary challenge, it would be opening things, like a carton of milk like that. I use my teeth quite a lot. I pay a lot to my dentist. It’s trying to figure out different ways, but the reason why that is is because products in the world is designed by people who don’t really ever consider the different ways in which they need to be opened by different types of people. And what made you want to go on the show?
[27:21] Briony Williams: It was very much on a whim. So it was the year before me and it was the semifinal. And, you know, Noel Fielding comes on at the end of the show saying, “do you think you could be on the Bake-Off?” But I was thinking, not really, but I’ll apply anyway. So I just sent off.
[27:41] Sinéad Burke: Had you ever done anything like that before?
[27:42] Briony Williams: No. You know, I wasn’t nervous. I genuinely didn’t think I’d hear anything more about it. I just sent it off and completely forgot about it. I didn’t tell my husband, my mum, anything.
[27:52] Sinéad Burke: And what did you say in your application?
[27:54] Briony Williams: I just you know, they basically ask you, like, how often you bake, what you bake, you know. So how often you bake puff pastry? Give us some examples and send in any pictures. And then tell me about yourself and blah, blah, blah, blah. So, you know, I just filled in, sent it off. And then I was getting these phone calls from London and I thought it was PPI. So for those of you who don’t know what PPI is, it’s basically cold calling, really annoying. So I was like, “I’m not gonna listen to that.” And then I listened to it, “oh, hi, it’s so-and-so from Bake-Off. Give us a call back.” Honestly, I was absolutely distraught. So I called them back and they were like, “we almost gave up on you.” And then, you know, I went through the audition process, but at every stage. I thought, I’m not gonna get through. But it’s OK because I’ve got this far and this is amazing. And I enjoyed every moment of it. And I had such fun throughout the whole thing. That I was like, I’ll definitely apply again next year and I’d already planned, like, right, so I could spend the year like really practicing, really doing some unusual bakes. And then I’ll be good enough. And then when I got through, I was like “I’m not good enough! Oh, my gosh.”
[28:59] Sinéad Burke: And where were you when you got the news?
[29:02] Briony Williams: I was in the car with my mum. We were driving over to pick my daughter up from my in-laws. And she was on speaker in the car, one of the producers. “I’ve got some good news.” They told me they were going to call me by 5:00 on Friday, and they call me at 4:30 on Friday.
[29:23] Sinéad Burke: What did your mum think because we talked about how your mum was so supportive when you were younger? And all of the sudden now she’s in the car and you’re through to one of the best television shows ever.
[29:33] Briony Williams: Yeah. I mean, she was so wonderful, my mum. And she’s always been so proud, you know, of every little thing that I do. So to do that, she was just desperate to tell people, and she couldn’t for six months.
[29:45] Sinéad Burke: How did she control herself?
[29:46] Briony Williams: I mean, it was pretty tough. So funny thing, on the day that she could tell people, the day that my name was released, she went to the Costa drive-through and told the guy at the Costa drive-through.
[29:53] Sinéad Burke: I needed to tell somebody for eight months.
[29:56] Briony Williams: I wasn’t even in the car.
[30:08] But tell me about Bake-Off. I mean, the show was about to start. You had a conversation with them in relation to the representation of disability on-screen. How did that go?
[30:18] Briony Williams: So before I went on the program, we sat down and we had a chat and they said, “look, do you need any extra equipment, any special assistance? Do you want to be treated any differently, you know, how do you want us to approach it?” And I said that I just want to be another baker. It doesn’t need to be mentioned, in my opinion. There’s no reason to do that. Just let me be let me go in and bake against the others as I want to on an even playing field. And they said, okay, that’s fine. That’s what we’ll do then.
[30:44] Briony Williams: And I think sometimes the only help I ever needed was I think twice I had to lift up something with my right hand, and I needed to pull some parchment paper out. Right. I was like, I literally can’t do it. So I was like, “can I borrow a left hand, please?” and someone would come on and whip the parchment paper out from underneath. But that was the most, you know, I think that happened twice. But they were very sensitive to it. And they were very — there was one one week when there was a possibility of a joke. It wasn’t to do with my hand or anything, but it was, you know, I think it was hand-related. And they were so worried. They just decided, actually, you know, let’s not let’s not do it. They told me what it was and I said, that doesn’t offend me at all. And they said, actually no, we don’t want to that. It’s not going to add to anything. But it might you know, it might take from it, and we don’t want that to happen.
[31:30] Sinéad Burke: And why did you make that decision for it not to be referenced?
[31:34] Briony Williams: I think because I’ve never had to have any extra assistance or anything. So I thought, why am I going to start now? And I always wanted to prove a point. And I don’t think I realized at the time, but I kind of wanted to prove that I could do it with my hand. In spite of my hand. Because of my hand, you know. With my hand. They were gonna go into the press conference and, you know, the press people were saying, all right, so, you know, you’ve got your first disabled baker. And the producers were like, is that how you want to be labeled? And I said, well, look, you know, I don’t mind being labeled that, but at the same time, why do I have to be labeled that? Why can’t I just be Briony from Bristol?
[32:14] Sinéad Burke: It allowed you to frame that narrative rather than it coming, not necessarily from an ablest perspective, but definitely a biased one, because, I mean, we live in a society where disability isn’t spoken about with agency in so many ways. But what I love about Bake-Off is there seems to be a real tangible focus on diversity in this sincere way. Even watching like Mark Davis or Ali Simmons, who are both little people with dwarfism, take part in the celebrity version of the show. There’s like a stage built or there’s a kitchen built to their specifications. I’m like, can they come to Ireland and do that in my house?
[32:52] Briony Williams: Honestly, they’re amazing. Have you watched the Junior Bake-Off? They’re even more so. I think that, you know, they consciously. I mean, I don’t know for sure, but I assume they consciously have someone with a disability on every episode. And I think that was amazing.
[33:05] Sinéad Burke: It’s so empowering. And, you know, obviously you had to wait a certain amount of time until your name was released, and then the show was released. Before things went public and you had filmed everything, what was kind of going through your mind? How were you feeling? Like you were obviously gonna be in this very public arena. And not necessarily that you’d be scrutinized, but for those who can see and watch television and see the show, your disability would be obvious.
[33:29] Briony Williams: Yeah. The thing is, I’d only ever been myself in the tent. I was only ever me. And I just thought if people don’t like that, or people feel like they need to criticize that, then there’s not a lot I can do about it. I mean, I’m not gonna change who I am at the age of nearly 35. I’m very comfortable with who I am. So I just went in and was me. And luckily, you know, people have been very positive in their reactions to it. And I do wonder — and I don’t know how you feel about this — I do wonder in some ways if my disability protected me slightly from some of the harsher — I don’t know. I don’t know. Because I’ve never really spoken to anyone about it except my husband. And he you know, he listens. But I don’t know if he fully gets it.
[34:13] Sinéad Burke: I’m all ears. Tell me.
[34:14] Briony Williams: Yeah, it is just kind of like whether — because I had a disability, whether the press didn’t attack me as much. Does that make sense? Yeah, but I don’t know how you find it. If you know in terms of press coverage.
[34:25] Sinéad Burke: No, it’s really interesting. I try and have been conscious of, say, the media. I think the very first interview I was ever set to do, the first question I was asked was, you know, when did you realize you weren’t normal? And I was like, “wow!” So I’ve tried to do a lot of like the education advocacy piece. This is the language that I am most comfortable with. This is how you should or could possibly define me. These are also the terms. And it’s trying to create that space where people are educated and empowered with language to do so. I find this kind of duplicity between say — my biggest challenges is like walking down the street and people pointing, staring, laughing, calling me names, taking photographs without my consent. So it’s this odd dichotomy where, you know, you’re at the Met Gala for the first time.
[35:11] Briony Williams: You looked fabulous, can I just say.
[35:14] Sinéad Burke: A team of professionals, a team of professionals. I just sat there. It was disgustingly surreal. You have moments like that, and then you have like an ignorance or perception of humor because you were born differently to everybody else. So it’s like trying to challenge the two at the same time. So for me, I think I’m coming from an exact same position as you, is that I have amazing family and friends, and it’s a very small circle. And I take on their criticism and their constructive criticism hugely. It’s their opinion that matters to me. And if I’m being an ass or egotistical or said or done the wrong thing, or caused somebody hurt, then I’ll take it in. But if somebody doesn’t know me, and they’re ridiculing me something, you know, I didn’t choose to be disabled in the womb. There was no listicle given to me and like tick boxes. So if somebody wants to belittle me because I’m 3-foot-5, then that’s not my fault. However, if you want to criticize me because I was rude or unkind or insensitive or not very talented, then off you go. Like, tell me about it. I want to know. And it’s like trying to do that. But also in the public space. I don’t know how you find it. It’s a challenge occupying that space, not just as you yourself, but then also having to be an advocate or wanting to be an advocate.
[36:27] Briony Williams: It’s learning to find that that point in the middle somewhere.
[36:29] Sinéad Burke: We’ve spoken about kind of different qualities that we have. What’s the quality that you’re most proud of?
[36:35] Briony Williams: I think it kind of goes maybe between resilience and kindness.
[36:41] Sinéad Burke: How do you practice them?
[36:43] Briony Williams: I mean, resilience, I think it just comes from almost the way that you’re nurtured. In that, you know, if you’re taught when you’re younger that you just don’t give up, you just keep doing what you need to do, then I just kind of almost do it naturally now. And it’s the same. I try to teach my daughter that now. She’ll say, “mummy, I can’t do that.” Yes, you can do it. Don’t tell me you can’t. Go on. Well, you know, if she falls over, pick her back up and carry on. It’s kind of just part of who I am. And that’s just how my attitude is towards things.
[37:15] Sinéad Burke: How do you have to be resilient now? When the space that you occupy publicly has changed so much?
[37:21] Briony Williams: I think you’re open to scrutiny, public scrutiny a lot more. So, for example, on social media, if you put something up on social media, and then people decide that they want to tear that apart, then you have to be quite resilient in that. You think, these people didn’t know me. You know, they don’t how much work went into that or blah, blah, blah.
[37:48] Sinéad Burke: All the while throwing your phone at the wall.
[37:49] Yes, exactly. And like I said, the other thing’s, kindness. And I will always show kindness even to people who, you know.
[37:56] Sinéad Burke: How do you define kindness, though?
[37:58] Briony Williams: I think looking out for others, thinking about other people as well as yourself, showing loving towards someone and just being a nice person. Like I’m really value being a nice person. There’s very few people in this world that I will not get on with. And those people who I can’t get on with are people who were just not nice and they’re not kind in their hearts. And I don’t understand that. I think as well, as I’m surrounded by kind people in my life.
[38:25] Sinéad Burke: But kindness is interesting because it’s not tangible. It’s not measurable. And it’s that phrase: people never forget how you make them feel. that if somebody is kind to you, you leave like transformed. But it’s also not something that is part of our everyday routine, like the world doesn’t foster kindness naturally, if anything, it suppresses it. So how do you as a person in the world, like how do you develop your kindness? Like are there moments every day that you’re like, I need to practice it here? Or I actually wasn’t kind today.
[38:55] Briony Williams: I always, in everything that I do, I try to be kind. So whether it’s like today at the train station, you know, I held a door open for someone and smiled at them as they went through. You know, there was no older lady waiting for the toilet, so I let her go in first and she smiled, and she was so grateful. And I smile at a lot of people. You know, if someone wants to come and talk to me about Bake-Off, or have a selfie, I will always say yes. You know, I was in the supermarket. I had no makeup on. I was really smelly, hadn’t had a shower that day. I just felt really gross. I wasn’t very well. And these two teenage girls came up like, “ah, Briony, can we have a selfie with you?” Of course! And I was thinking, oh, my God, I look look hideous, but I’m not going to you know — I’m going to show them that kindness. And now I am seeing my daughter show kindness in the way that I do. So she will, you know, she looks after people. She looks after her cousin, who, even though she’s older, she’ll be like, come on, Pippa, let’s do this. Are you OK, Pippa? I say, oh, my gosh, she’s so kind. And my mum says to me I wonder where she gets that from? Because that’s what she sees. She sees me and my husband be kind to each other and look after each other. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being nice. Like you say, we’re in a world where, you know, some people look down upon that and think it’s not a strength. But I think it absolutely is. And like you say, you can change someone’s day by being kind to them and nice to them.
[40:19] Sinéad Burke: And what do you do when faced with a lack of kindness? Like, how are you resilient within that situation? Are you always trying to transform it into something more positive? Are there moments when you’re like, do you know what? This is just not for me.
[40:31] Briony Williams: No, I tend to just kind of block it off. So I’m not very confrontational. If it is something I believe in and something that’s not right, in my opinion, then, yes, I will, you know, come at you and argue about it. If it’s something that I think, you know, that’s trivial, it’s not going affect my life in any way, I’m just gonna just block you out. Things like on Twitter, like somebody you know, I got very little negative reaction from Bake-Off, which was lovely. But someone on Twitter put something like, oh my God, Briony looks like the guy from Freddy got Fingered or something. Some really weird old film that I mean, this guy’s got weird little hands. And I was like block. Then someone said something very rude by where I put my little hand in relation to my husband. I’ll leave that one to you. And again, block. Like why am I going to bother responding to that person? You know, don’t feed the trolls. I don’t care. Go away. But if someone had said something really hurtful, like, I think you’re a bad mother because of this, this and this, then I probably would have gone back at them because that would have — you know, actually no, I don’t believe that. That would upset me.
[41:43] Sinéad Burke: It’s just trying to manage all of that. But in terms of like fostering kindness, I think there’ll be people listening to this — I mean, you have had such a dramatic and incredibly positive impact, not just on yourself, your family and Bristol, but genuinely like on the world, Briony, in terms of, you know, looking at representation, but also that confidence of being able to do what it is you want to do. Perhaps finding a different method by which one to do it. But that perseverance and that tenacity to do it. How do you think people generally and genuinely can have an impact?
[42:17] Briony Williams: Gosh, I think, you know, in your environment, you know, in your little world that you live in, if you can make that a positive space, then I think that then will generally have an impact on other people. It may sound a little bit naive, but I find I surround myself with positivity and surround myself with positive people. And I find I get a lot of positive feedback from my little world. But it has also now extended onwards to things like social media. I have never said anything negative about anyone on social media, and I’ve had very little negativity said about me. And I like to think that it’s because I am trying to put positivity out there. I have made that promise to myself that I will only put that out on those platforms. And I think if you’re going to have an impact on, you know, not just the people around you, but society in general, you have to start with, you know, small actions and doing things like, like I said, holding the door open for someone, not getting angry at someone for something really small that doesn’t matter. Just smile and move on when you can, you know. Save that passion and the energy for something that really matters.
[43:28] Sinéad Burke: It’s also about being conscious isn’t it? Being present. Because so many of those moments that you’ve listed is you had to be aware that that woman wanted to use the bathroom before you in order to be able to offer. You had to be aware. But we live in a time where time is a currency and everything is so fast-paced that you may have the best of intentions to be kind, but you’ve no awareness around you of those who may need it or require it. So like being present.
[43:55] Briony Williams: Yeah, I mean, I’m guilty of it a lot of the minute because of, you know, I feel like I need to be building up my social media presence in order to try and be present in people’s minds. Yeah, exactly. Which I never thought would be a thing. And, you know, so I do find I’ve got my face in my phone a lot. And I’m having to make sure at the moment that I make myself present in my life, you know, play with my daughter, speak with my husband, talk to my family. And even when I’m out and about as well, I’m looking at my phone a lot more. So, you know, look up, just put your phone away for a minute and look up, look around you look. Look at what’s going on.
[44:35] Sinéad Burke: A very good friend gave me a mantra: Be where your feet are. I think is quite good. And you know, we started this off by you talking about your teenage years and perhaps not having the abundance of confidence that you now have. If you had to go back and talk to teenage Briony. What would you say?
[44:54] Briony Williams: I would say that the silly boys in the clubs don’t matter. And the ones that, you know, start trying to chat you up and then turn away when they realize that you’ve got a hand like you do, they don’t matter. And that you will find peace with yourself in time. And it will be nothing to do with these awful human beings that you’ve encountered. And keep good people around you, because that’s — my mum always says to me to “drains and heaters,” you know, people are drains or they’re heaters and just keep those people who build you up and who look after you and, you know, keep them close. Because I’m still friends with people who I was friends with when I was a teenager. And I’m not friends with a lot of people who I was when I was teenager because drains. And makes sure in your 30s you think, yes, I’ll enter the Great British Bake-Off.
[45:54] Sinéad Burke: And answer the phone.
[45:55] Briony Williams: It’s not PPI.
[45:56] Sinéad Burke: Briony, this has been such a treat. You’ve given me the confidence to attempt biscuits and bread in a non-accessible kitchen. Sorry, mom and dad. Thank you so much.
[46:08] Briony Williams: It was a pleasure, thanks for having me!
[46:14] Sinéad Burke: There was so much in this conversation that has stayed with me. But over the past couple of weeks I’ve been talking to people about my experience of interviewing Radhika. And the one point of conversation that I’m continuously coming back to is her answer when I ask her about how she felt stepping into the role of editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. And she casually said, “Well, why not me?” And how rare is it to hear someone, particularly a woman, even more specifically a woman of color, someone who is a minority voice within a space like publishing, say something like, why not me? And in many ways, it has become my mantra. When projects or ideas come about, and they seem scary or intimidating, or that I don’t have the qualifications or the skills or the expertise or the experience to do it, I reflect on Radhika’s words: why not me? So I’m sorry to say yes a bit more, because really, well, why not me? And because of that, what a privilege it is to be able to have a space like this on the podcast to talk about topics and issues and human feelings and experiences that aren’t part of our mainstream. It is such a joy that you join me each week on this platform that discusses disabilities, gives people the language and context that you might need to understand how to view and talk about differences because, well, aren’t we all different?
[47:33] Sinéad Burke: Next week’s conversation is going to be, as per usual, outstanding. I’m so thrilled because next week we talk with actor, producer and writer Aki Omoshaybi, who has appeared in Star Wars and has just created his own film. We talk about identity and the way in which acting has transformed his life.
[47:51] Aki Omoshaybi: When I was in Portsmouth, I just knew there was something in me and maybe it came from my mom’s side, that I just knew this wasn’t my place. I kind of love — I did like it, but I knew I wanted something more. And so going to the audition, I remember I had I just dislocated my shoulder. I remember going to the audition and the teacher teaching the routine and I was like, oh, my God, what is this? It was to Hairspray, which I was just kind of like, I could feel the vibe, the music. And they were like do jettes across. I don’t know what a jette is. I was doing it like I was jumping hurdles. I was laughing at myself because I was just kind of — rather than being really insecure, just be like, I can’t do this. I’m just gonna laugh and just have fun.
[48:41] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is Franklin Leonard. He founded a platform called The Black List, which is home to many of the scripts that have won Academy Awards, Golden Globes of recent times. It’s a space for writing to be seen that otherwise perhaps would go without. I had the great honor of having dinner with Franklin while in Los Angeles recently. And going back to the notion of Radhika’s, why not me? Franklin is one of those people who amplifies voices, challenges the status quo and lifts people up and provides space for them to cause chaos. You can find Franklin on Twitter @FranklinLeonard.
[49:17] As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.