- Words Notion Staff
How I Made It is a new series that spotlights industry insiders and finds out how they got to where they are today. Presenter Ayo Akinwolere opens up about the highlights of his career and the obstacles he's overcome.
For those of us who spent weeknights glued to the TV as kids, it feels like we’ve grown up with Ayo Akinwolere. Having started presenting Blue Peter in 2006 after landing his first job as a runner for the BBC, Ayo became the first-ever Black man to host the show. Since then, the three time BAFTA Award Nominee has gone on to work for other major channels including Channel 4 and ITV, with a highlight hosting role at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics this year.
Continuing in the sporting sphere – and fulfilling a goal he set out for himself a few years ago – this summer he’ll be a part of the team presenting the Commonwealth Games. Held from 28th July-8th August, this year in his hometown of Birmingham, the title is one that’s close to home for Ayo.
As well as his work in sports, Ayo says he’s reconnecting with his other passions: music, art, fashion and film. A “creative at heart”, and with an esteemed reputation and ever-growing platform, there’s no question that his horizons will only grow wider as his career evolves.
Ahead of the games kicking off this month, we caught up with Ayo to discuss his journey and biggest achievement so far, as well as his dreams for the future and advice for creatives looking to follow a similar career path.
Starting off as a runner for BBC, you soon become a presenter on Blue Peter. How did you land the opportunity?
I came to London on a 6 week placement as a runner with only enough money in my pocket for a month’s worth of rent. That placement got extended to 2 months and one night I was having a few ‘shandies’ at the world-famous BBC bar back then, I started chewing this woman’s ear off, turns out she was one of the producers on Blue Peter. Told me this guy Matt Baker was about to leave the show and she thought I’d be perfect. The strange thing is I turned down the opportunity because in reality I didn’t really watch much Blue Peter as a kid, non of my mates in Birmingham did. I then realised that I’d be the first-ever Black man to host the show, next to Dianne Lewis-Jordan who was the first-ever black woman to host the show. I realised I had the opportunity to make history to change the way we viewed ethnic minorities on British television, I wanted to be the black James bond and jump out of airplanes and go on crazy adventures. I spent 5 years on the show, landed a BAFTA nomination in my first year and thought you know what “I might be pretty good at this”… 5 years later I left the show with a few more nominations, 118 different cities globally under my belt, a sky diving and racing license and a swimming world record… The rest is history.
You’re a three-time BAFTA nominee and presented the Beijing Olympics. This summer, you’ll be presenting at the Commonwealth Games. Those are some incredible achievements! Do you feel like you’ve ‘made it’?
I don’t think you ever feel like you’ve made it, I’m more comfortable with what I do and I’m more realistic about its outcomes now I’m much older. I also realised I’m incredibly privileged to be doing what I’m doing for this long. But the journey of an ethnic minority on British television isn’t easy especially when you’re a multifaceted broadcaster. When I started there hadn’t been much of a blueprint on how to be famous beyond sport and music for a Black person or ethnic minority, we’re finally seeing real representation on screen of various people from different backgrounds which is great but still so much more needed in those positions of power and decision-making.
Reading those accolades out loud sounds amazing though, and I’m allowing myself to enjoy where I am much more now. So I definitely feel I’ve done well and I’m really enjoying my work now more than ever. But for me my dreams go far beyond broadcasting, we’re only just getting started.
How did you know that presenting was the right career path for you? Was there ever a lightbulb moment?
Honestly, I’m still asking myself how I still get paid to do what I do…. My dream in life has always been to try and see as much of the world as possible and I’ve been lucky to do that in so many different ways. There are two moments that made me really think … “mate, you’re really good at this.” One, I was invited to Buckingham Palace for a special drinks reception with the queen for Broadcasters, I remember being shown around the Gold room and certain rooms in the Palace and then for a brief moment with her Majesty – I look around and there was Michael Pailin, David Attenborough and all the leading adventurous Broadcasters out there – I was part of that group and I had to pinch myself. The second was that I was invited to host a conference in Paris a few years ago and I hosted a panel with the lead Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt and some other academics to look at the future of Europe, my second panel to host was with Gerhard Schröder the former German Chancellor, Matteo Renzi (Former Italian Prime Minister) and Nicolas Sarkozy (Former French President) – My James Bond dream was coming true before my very eyes. The crazy thing is though I have this internal battle all the time wondering whether I should be in these spaces or whether I deserve to be in these spaces because often I still see myself as that working-class kid from Birmingham, I’m still going and still working so I must be doing something right.
What has been the biggest achievement in your career to date?
Being the first-ever Black black man of West African descent to host Blue Peter was pretty incredible and being the first-ever person to swim across the deepest stretch of ocean in the World has to be another one.
This might sound strange but something I still hold close is when I reverted back to my Nigerian name Odunayo or ‘Ayo’ for short, publicly. For years on Blue Peter I was called Andy which is actually my Christian name and its a name that stuck from when we came to the UK in 1990 and my parents chose to use my Christian name instead of my Nigerian name on the register. In all honesty, I didn’t identify with Andy and coming out as my true authentic Nigerian/British self took a lot of bravery, and I don’t regret it one bit. I can now host shows as Ayo Akinwolere which for me is about understanding and normalising the many complexities of what it means to be British.
And what has been one of the biggest obstacles you’ve had to face?
This industry is littered with obstacles and you require a lot of self-belief and persistence to stay within it. It’s also incredibly over subscribed and the main jobs are few and far between, especially on the big channels. Its taken almost 10 years of leaving kids’ TV to start moving into the spaces I want to be in. It’s taken a while for people to take me seriously or see me as someone who would front a show. This led me to a mental breakdown a couple of years after I left the show.
That process took me leaving the industry for about a year or so and I went travelling to find myself because I realised I’d been working flat out since I was 23. I left Blue Peter and became bitter at the lack of opportunities available to me. People of colour weren’t being used on major campaigns nor were they being used as hosts of events, regardless of the accolades they might have amassed. It was a time when I felt I was pitted against the other few minorities in the industry and that seemed to create a scarcity mindset amongst people. You get a feeling that only ‘one’ of you is allowed to stand on the main stage, much different from what we are seeing nowadays.
I’d have meetings and be told they’d already had someone else in that space that looked like me and it was usually the same old face we saw across the board. Those years were tough, but I think those years also made me diversity my portfolio a lot and got me to look beyond TV because I wouldn’t have been able to survive solely on being a TV Presenter back then.
What’s great now is that so many with the benefit of social media are able to curate and gather their own audiences before entering the industry which has changed the game a little.
Has this year panned out the way you thought or hoped it would?
I started to set myself objectives a few years ago, people I wanted to connect with and spaces I wanted to enter. My mission a few years ago was to step into the World of Sport as it’s one of my passions and the Commonwealth Games was a huge priority for me especially because its in the city I grew up in and I’m a child of the commonwealth as I was born in Nigeria. I now find myself hosting my own daily show on BBC throughout the games, so I guess yeah perhaps things are going according to plan.
Do you have any goals for the rest of 2022?
I used to always set work goals and then I realised that I was only living for work and to be seen. Many of the goals I’ve set myself this year are to delve into spaces I’ve always been passionate about like film, art, fashion and music. I realised that I’m actually a creative at heart and want to delve more into those spaces. I picked up DJ’ing many years ago and up until this year (because work got too much) I used to host my own radio show called JUJU music (Celebrating the music of the African Diaspora) on an independent station in London called Soho radio. I also started Dj’ing and putting on parties in my second home of Margate a few years ago and have got a couple of parties I’m hosting before the year is out. More of the same and to live in gratitude… I’m a simple guy really.
What advice would you give to other creatives looking to follow a similar career path to yours?
Get to know yourself and know the landscape of the industry you’re entering. Ask questions, be savvy, be bold, and have confidence in yourself. Be willing to learn and most of all be a damn decent human; it goes a long way.