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Having the last laugh

STATESIDE SUCCESS: Gina Yashere

IDRIS ELBA, Sophie Okonedo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Colin Salmon, Aml Ameen – just a few of the black British talents who have enjoyed greater success in America than they have on their home turf.

Another notable addition to the list is Gina Yashere. After years of hard graft here on UK soil, the renowned UK comedian decided it was time to up sticks to the States, after being tired of what she describes as the British entertainment industry’s “one out, one in” policy when it comes to hiring black talents.

“When [British comedian] Jocelyn Jee Esien got her TV show [Little Miss Jocelyn] a few years back, I was happy for her as a fellow comedian, but I also knew it was time to leave the country as it felt like being passed over for promotion,” Yashere admits.

“That is how it is for black performers in the UK. It's a one out, one in nightclub policy, and it shouldn't be like that. We shouldn't be fighting over one crumb when there is a whole cake to be had.”

It’s perhaps no wonder Yashere got tired of “fighting over one crumb”. Making her foray into the world of comedy at the Edinburgh Festival in 1996, the former lift engineer decided to venture across the pond in 2007, having become well versed with the challenges faced by black comedians in Britain.

“We are constantly fighting against the subtle racism that exists within the UK TV industry when it comes to black performers,” says the comic, who is of Nigerian descent. “Just look at the number of identikit, big-haired, middle class white boys wearing skinny jeans on your TV screens, and yet I was once told by a BBC executive that they couldn't do a show I had proposed because they were working on a show with Stephen K Amos... because obviously we are all the same, and they can't have two black comedians with their own shows on TV in the same decade. Just horrific.”

After heading to America, Yashere took part in the NBC reality TV show Last Comic Standing and reached the final 10. She then went on to appear on various American shows such as The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, Def Comedy Jam, Comics Unleashed and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where she enjoyed a regular appearance as Madame Yashere, The Surly Psychic.

“I have definitely been afforded more opportunities, much quicker in America than in the UK,” she says. “For instance, my first DVD Skinny B*tch was shown as an hour comedy special on the Showtime channel in the US, and yet in all my performing years, and after all the TV shows I've done, I still haven't achieved that in the UK where I am much better known.

“An American TV channel saw a funny DVD and bought it. Simple. My age, race and sex didn't come into it. I'm not saying America is perfect. There is still a long way to go, but that is a good start.”

Yashere has enjoyed her share of mainstream opportunities in the UK, appearing on shows including Mock the Week, Live at the Apollo, Celebrity Fame Academy and Celebrity Come Dine With Me. However, she notes that black British performers often earn greater recognition on their home turf after they make it big Stateside.

“It bothers me greatly that as a black performer, you are not appreciated in the country of your birth – but as soon as you go to America and gain recognition, the UK come following like sheep.”

Thankfully, despite the perils of the industry, Yashere has garnered fans all over the world. With a relentless touring schedule that has seen her perform in countries including Japan, Dubai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Canada and South Africa, her infectious personality, cheeky observations and quick-fire delivery, has earned her worldwide acclaim.

A truly international act, Yashere is equally comfortable performing on the ‘urban’ circuit as she is in front of mainstream audiences. And having garnered recognition from both circuits – she took home the gong for best female at the Black Entertainment Comedy Awards in 2005, 2006 and 2007, and scooped the award for best female stand up act at the Chortle Awards in 2002 – it’s clear that Yashere has a wide appeal.

“I have always strived to do comedy which is amenable to everybody, but without compromising my integrity,” says the comedian, who filmed her second DVD Laughing To America last year, funding it with her own money. “I feel I’ve been successful at this. When you come to my live shows, you will see a huge mix of people – black, white, old, young, gay, straight. And that is how I like it.

“There are not many other comedians who can do that. I can go anywhere in the world and have no fear of what kind of audience will turn up. I believe that is an amazing skill to have.”

Now gearing up to flex her comedy muscles at E4 Udderbelly at London’s Southbank Centre, what else would the successful comedian like to achieve?

“I'd like to get rich,” she says. “Then I can pick and choose when I work, and be the true diva that I know I am!”

Gina Yashere will perform at E4 Udderbelly at the Southbank Centre, London from May 23-25. For more information visit www.udderbelly.co.uk or www.ginayashere.com

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