She may not have won The Great British Bake Off, but being a finalist has been enough to change Kim-Joy Hewlett’s life forever. Catherine Scott meets the star baker.
With her quaint animal-inspired baking creations, a nation took Kim-Joy Hewlett to their hearts during last year’s The Great British Bake Off.
Her constant smile, cutesy designs and neon fashion sense should have been too sickly sweet to endure week after week, but her vibrant positivity and genuine nature just left a feeling of goodwill.
But behind the smile was a character full of anxiety and self-doubt. No one is more surprised than Kim-Joy that a nation, especially children, seemed to warm to her.
“I always wanted to take part in Bake Off, but I was very nervous, not about the cooking, but how the other contestants would perceive me,” says the 28-year-old who lives near Leeds with her partner Nabil.
Like many former contestants, although normally mainly experienced by the winners, Kim-Joy is riding the crest of the Bake Off wave.
She has given up her work in mental health, has a national newspaper column and this week saw the publication of her first cookery book Baking with Kim-Joy: Cute and Creative Bakes to make you Smile – timed to coincide with the start of the next Bake Off series on Channel 4.
The cover of the book is, as you would expect, all primary colours and animal biscuits and Kim-Joy is thrilled with the result.
It is interesting that someone who had a form of selective mutism as a child should become a television personality.
“I can’t go out now without people recognising me, but it’s lovely. As a child I was pretty much mute at secondary school. I had a lot of social anxiety.
I always worry in social situations that people are going to hate me. Which is why I was nervous at first going into the Bake Off tent.
“But baking seems to attract a certain kind of person. Everyone was so warm and supportive, a lot of us keep in touch.”
Kim-Joy was born in Belgium to an English father and Malaysian mother.
She moved to the outskirts of London aged nine but she didn’t get her baking skills from her family as none of them really bakes.
“All I remember of baking as a kid was having to make mince pies, which I really hated,” she says. “I don’t think I even made cupcakes.”
She started baking when she went to university.
“If you make something, it makes people like you. It’s just about making people happy, I guess. But I was never really into decoration it was more breads than anything else, I found it incredibly relaxing, all the kneading. I got into the decorative side of it later.”
She studied sociology at Bristol and then moved to Leeds to do a Masters degree, working with adults with learning disabilities in the community to help fund her studies. After leaving university she started working in adult mental health services as part of gaining her full qualifications.
But even before Bake Off she was starting to wonder if she was following the correct career path: “It was very stressful working in mental health. I did really enjoy it but I was starting to question whether it was really for me.”
She met her partner Nabil through their mutual love of board games. He owns four board game shops in the centre of Leeds, and she met him at a board game club night. They played board games for a year- and- a-half before anything happened.
Having watched the The Great British Bake Off for years, Kim-Joy had always fancied having a go herself. “People kept saying that I should apply but I knew I wasn’t ready. I wanted to do a bit more baking, especially cakes as most of my baking had been around breads and pastry. I didn’t want to apply until I knew I had the range of skills I needed.
“I’d moved around a lot and always lived in shared houses, with a shared kitchen. It wasn’t until I met Nabil that I had a kitchen to myself for the first time and that’s when I really started baking.”
Having always been creative, Kim-Joy started experimenting with the decorative side of her baking, which was to become her trademark on the show, two years before she appeared on Bake Off.
“I was into art and textiles as a child and looking back I probably felt I should have gone down that route, but at the time I felt under pressure to do something a bit more ‘proper’ as I was naturally quite clever.”
Having submitted her application form, she was successful on her first attempt, but despite having spent time expanding her skills she said she found the first two weeks in particular tricky.
“I got used to the cameras quite quickly, but I was still getting to know people and the judging is really stressful. When it is something you are passionate about and then you are criticised it is very pressured. I never thought I would make it to the final three.
“Then it was week seven and then eight and I was still there. I just had to keep focused on the here and now and not start dreaming about getting into the final or possibly even winning.”
Kim-Joy won star baker twice and got down to the final three but in the end she, and fellow finalist Ruby Bhogal were beaten to the title by Rahul Mandal. “I genuinely wasn’t disappointed not to win,” he says. “I was so happy to make the final and surprisingly it was the most relaxed I had been throughout the series – and the most tired.. I no longer felt the pressure of being the one who was sent home.”
It was support from younger members of the television audience that really surprised Kim-Joy.
“For some reason children really seemed to take to my baking and to me. It was lovely and rather surprising. I have never worked with children before but I would love to do more television and I think I would like to do something on kids’ TV.”
But she hasn’t turned her back on a future in mental health.
“I see a huge link between the creativity of baking and the positive effect it can have on people’s mental health,” she says.
“I am really busy at the moment promoting the book but what I would really like is to have somewhere, may be a community cafe where people can come, bake and chat and get support. There is art therapy so why not baking therapy? Baking makes me happy, which is really why I started doing it and so I think it would help other people, too. ”
Baking with Kim-Joy is published by Quadrille. To see some of her recipes goi to foodanddrink.yorkshirepost.co.uk