Rising above Twitter trolls, a televised swiss roll-induced anxiety attack and being the first contestant to leave The Great British Bake Off would equate to one hell of a bad day for anyone, but Claire Goodwin has not only taken it all in her stride, she has set herself apart as someone so inherently unfazed by unnecessary unkindness that she is my new heroine. I have little doubt that once you have read this interview that I did with her, you will feel the same way.
A popular contestant on The Great British Bake Off, a show that so many people are now desperate to participate in, what do you think made you stand out enough to be selected? And what made you apply initially?
I think it is difficult to gauge the exacting requirements for choosing bakers for a show such as the Bake Off. The producers have to maintain the integrity of British baking heritage and also ensure the standard of contestants equals or surpasses the contestants of previous years. Equally they have to spend their money wisely as it is direct from the public purse. This means they have to ensure the bakers are both exceptional at their craft and also engaging and relatable to the viewer. The audience has to care about both the baking and the baker. Additionally, they need 12 people with different backgrounds, influences and personality to ensure that the creative tasks are exactly that; creative. The bakers also need a broad range of skill. Above all else they need nice people, because the show is just so very very nice and they want – no, need – to preserve that. So if you break all of those things down, the criteria really is that you need to be able to bake very well, make your baking your own and be very nice the majority of the time. It’s just not good enough to make scones from a recipe book without a dash of fennel or thyme, all the while being grumpy and mean.
You would think that there wouldn’t be enough people to fill that criteria to choose from wouldn’t you? This year the applications rocketed to more than 17000. I didn’t really think I had a chance after I had submitted my electronic form. I believed I was one of many similar women baking cakes at home for her family and friends. Exactly what made me stand out, I am not sure. I make quite over the top wedding and birthday cakes so these would have caught the attention of a casting producer that may have been searching for the next Brendan or Frances. I know my way around the kitchen and can tell the stick end from the scoop end of a wooden spoon which is always a bonus. I can bake a wide variety of things well which is mostly due to months and months at home battling mental illness and using baking as a means to focus on something other than my demons. Regular baking meant my skills were honed and my knowledge became greater. I bake for my family and friends and have been told that my baking is wonderful and it certainly was in all of my auditions! So maybe these are the reasons I was chosen to go into the tent. There is also the blatantly obvious – I am very very nice (!).
I didn’t consciously think to myself ‘I’m going to apply for Bake Off this year’. In fact, I had never contemplated applying before. I adored the show but had never had a desire to actually be on it. It came about because my friend sent me the application form and said ‘you know your stuff, give it a go’. I filled it in really quickly wondering if I did actually know enough or have enough experience (the form is really long!). I attached a few pictures and pressed send. I honestly and truly thought that would be the end of it. I believed that I would never be good enough for it. I also panicked that if I was good enough I would be a mess under pressure and people would laugh at Nutcase Claire (I twitch when I’m stressed and can’t help it – it’s usually in response to loud noises like banging pans and machine noises. I also jig about and stroke the back of my hand. If I am really worked up I have panic attacks). What happened next was a bit of a blur. There were phone calls and interviews and auditions and screen tests and visits to the telly psychotherapist. And all of a sudden I was walking into the iconic tent. It has been absolutely bonkers. I don’t know why I filled that form in. But I am glad I did.
Why do you think so many viewers took to you instantly? I know I did, because I could see myself, when I am in the kitchen, in you. Do you think this was the most common reason?
I think I maybe had a mixed reaction. I can imagine people sitting and thinking ‘why on earth is she getting that wrong? She knew what she was going to bake!?’ and ‘I can bake a Swiss roll better than that, why is she on there?!’.
I think there will have been a million people looking at me and sympathizing, and laughing along when my cakes exploded and I could do little else but smile and attempt to cobble together some kind of display, even if that did mean it looked like a small child had done it. For all those laughing along, there was probably a fair few muttering that I hadn’t taken it seriously, that I didn’t deserve to be there and that I didn’t have the skills for the tent. I, along with many other auditionees and all GBBO bakers, past and present, know the long and drawn out process of getting to the tent, but this is not made clear on telly. It looks like we all turned up and baked a few cakes because we told the producers in an email we are ok at throwing out a few scones. But many that watch the show recognise the effort to get there (a lot have auditioned themselves) so having a bad day is forgiven! Plus, there wouldn’t be much of a show if a few things didn’t go wrong. Unfortunately on that first weekend, it was me that made the mistakes!
I hope what many people saw was someone who may have had what appeared to be an irrational weep over cake (or maybe it was a rational weep over months of hard work appearing to crash down around her) but then pulled herself together and carried on. Maybe this is what trumped it in the end in terms of the reception I received. I think Mary’s comments about ‘smiling till the end’ did me no end of harm. After all, who argues with the Bezza?
In the end, the critics of the Bake Off are in no way as bountiful as it’s supporters. It is pretty hard to go into a show that is loved by the majority of its viewers and come out of it with strong criticism. It’s just not what the show is about. I wouldn’t have put myself up for it otherwise!
Until the unbelievable online ‘trolling’ incident, had you been receiving supportive messages from fans of the show?
I’ve had a huge amount of support from people on Twitter, my friends and family and from my online friends on Facebook. I think it was more so that people sympathised with me at first. There was a huge media build up to the show – I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone the outcome – and after the revelation that I would be the first one to leave I think all of my friends and family just wanted to reassure me that it didn’t matter. These things happen; they were still proud of me for getting that far; I’d had an experience not many other people could claim to have etc. This then extended into the Twittersphere which was lovely to hear. No-one wants to be the first one out do they? But, similarly, someone had to go first. I personally think the episode was edited to show more jeopardy, and put me on a par with two other bakers meaning I was in the bottom three. Though there were three of us in the bottom (myself, Iain and Jordan, we called ourselves the ‘Corner of Shame’ as we sat on the stools, lined up to hear our tent destiny) I think on the day it was a little more clear cut. I felt that I was the poorest of the three, in terms of achievement, in the three challenges. However, this may be my never ending self-deprecation as the others felt they had performed as it showed in the edit and were just as likely to have left as I was. What I do know about Bake Off is that there is a lot of integrity in the judging.
The support started to become more virulent once I had been on Extra Slice, the BBC2 spin off show. When you’re in the tent, the pressure of cooking to a time limit, being judged (my god I found that hard), realising you’re the worst among your peers, it is so hard to keep your cool and chat like you usually would to the judges and Mel and Sue (though they were great at trying to put you at ease). However, away from the tent, once the stress had melted away and you had had some reflection time (and also, I wasn’t consciously sweating out of every part of my face) it was easier to be yourself and talk rationally about the experience, putting it into perspective for what it was: a great experience. I think people then saw I wasn’t just some useless sod that had turned up and baked a few rubbish cakes, but was someone that had really bought into the brilliant show that is GBBO. It was just that unfortunately, I had a really bad weekend!
I think it says a lot that a Swiss Roll could reduce you to tears, but the thoughtlessness of a few individuals was something you could just brush off. How did you stay so strong in the face of online abuse?
I don’t care if someone thinks I shouldn’t be crying, or if they find my apparent reasons for panicking irrational. I think for anyone to cry over a seemingly petty thing, to me would indicate that actually there is something running a little deeper. Some people have low frustration thresholds. They cry, then they are fine. It’s their way of dealing with their own emotions. Some people might cry as a result of emotions and feelings bubbling for a long time. The soggy bottom is generally not the reason for the upset but the trigger for it. It doesn’t matter if the reason is a bit of PMT or tiredness or worry or stress or disappointment or a diagnosed mental health condition. What matters is how we approach it, how we think about it and how we address it. It’s taken me a long time to accept my own mental health problems, and to deal with them. That is not to say that everyone that has a bit of a bawl has a longstanding issue with their emotional wellbeing, however, we just don’t know people’s mindsets. Writing someone off as hysterical or irrational is not the most understanding or kind way of dealing with it. Helping them to talk about it is. So if someone is bothered because I am crying, I don’t care. My priority if my mental health, not their perception of me.
You talk about the ‘darker side’ of social media, do you think more needs to be done to protect vulnerable people who want to enjoy being online?
We are living in a world now that sees the prevalence of digital mediums as a huge part of our social networks and social lives. I frequently see groups of people in restaurants all sat on their phones for quite long periods of times, not really talking, but intermittently showing each other the photos they have tagged each other in on Facebook. I find it quite bizarre to watch. Similarly, whilst I’m being nosey, I’m ignoring my husband, so there is a certain irony there. But I also find it quite worrying that a motive to go out and socialise is potentially determined by how many photo opportunities you might accumulate to put on Facebook, showing others how wonderful a life you have. Even if that great night out was spent looking on your phone at other people’s nights out and comparing. This to me is a darker side of social media. The illusion that is followed by so many and believed to be true. And this leaves people vulnerable to deciphering a reality that may or may not exist. If one can’t decipher a reality then one cannot securely fit into it. A worrying future for all.
Secondly there are my friends, the trolls. Now I’m not going to get all Gandalf about this and smite them down with my wizarding stick of words, casting them back underneath the bridge from whence they came. But this faceless bullying and spite is not only worrying because of the victims. It worries me because social media has spawned this new age phenomenon and ever growing group of people that breed off spite. What on earth does that mean about our society when we have people (including kids) that enjoy the pain and fear of others? What is even more worrying is that the vast majority do it in secret for personal secret kicks. That to me seems more sinister than the playground bully, intimidating others for a sense of kudos and the odd fiver.
But, I do like social media. It is not only fun and exciting and all of those other things I have said before, but it is great for world communication, national communication and local communication. We share information in such a fast and exciting way. And we need it. But how do we ensure the vulnerable are not so vulnerable to the difficulties associated with it? Well for me the answer is ever simple in words but less so in practice, and that is education. I would worry that censorship and strict rules of what can and can’t be said would turn us into a nanny state at best. So really we need to approach this as a social problem and deal with it as that. Why do these people exist? Why are they doing it? Where have they come from? How do we find them? We cannot demonize social media for the negatives it brings, not when the positives are so great.
Personally, I have been horrified by all coverage of this incident including the term ‘fat shaming’. As someone who has struggled with their weight previously, I find this almost as insulting and unnecessary as the trolling itself, do you?
I don’t know where the term ‘fat shaming’ has originated from. I hadn’t heard of it before all this came about in the aftermath of GBBO. I have little emotional thought process around the idea of it because I don’t really understand it, mostly due to the fact that it is grammatically incorrect and semantically has little meaning or value as a phrase. I assume the phrase has been created to describe the shame some sectors of society are apparently placing on women and men for being fat. And just to clear up, I use the word fat in a purely descriptive manner, I believe it to be an acceptable word, not a swear word. Fat is something you have, not something you are.
When I responded to the hateful comments (emphasis on the hateful, not on the fact they were pointing out I am fat) with my blog post, I never once set out to be a voice for people that are fat, male or female. I still do not believe I am. I will reiterate that I do not believe my weight to be healthy. I gauge this both by NICE standards and the fact that I can’t run up the stairs without having to stop and take a breather before continuing on my journey at the top. I struggle to fasten my shoes sometimes and it upsets me and worries me. What I utterly objected to was being defined by my appearance and the level of vitriol projected. I didn’t break down and cry. I didn’t decide I was an ugly obese woman that should never shadow the path of society again. I didn’t vow to diet. I did however make a decision to respond and object to a strand that is woven through our society that permits us to comment and judge others based purely on their appearance.
Ok, tell me about ‘Swiss Roll-gate’. I was relieved to know other people cry when something does not go as planned in the kitchen, but what in particular made you react so strongly?
It all went wrong. The build-up had been so prolonged. The work we had all put in to prep for the show was immense. I made a Swiss roll and Paul and Mary looked at me like I’d slipped them arsenic. My ganache was bitty. My beautifully imagined fondant orange tree that was supposed to snake around the roll in a rustic manner looked like a comedy Halloween claw with warts from Adsa, grasping at the chocolate like a child reaching into a trick or treat basket. I was so utterly disappointed with myself. As a final nail in the coffin, I have an anxiety disorder. I cried. They televised it.
However. I do have the opening line of the series on the very first trailer. ‘I don’t know why I’m crying over cake…’ Every cloud!
Do you have any plans to take your baking career forward or are you going to remain as a speech therapist?
I think this is all very new at the moment, but I haven’t made any decisions about what I will do. At the moment I have no intention of leaving work: varying reasons, I love my job and my mortgage won’t allow it! But! Never say never!
What is your ‘go-to’ baked treat that can cheer you up, regardless of what has happened? I’m a cherry bakewell girl but have not quite perfected a vegan version!
I like to make bread. A nice simple white loaf. It always makes me happy. And if I’m having a bad day and I can’t focus due to my depression and am struggling to move, then I know that it is small steps for a lot of outcome and I feel like I have achieved something at the end of it.
If you could offer women one piece of advice, what would it be?
Talk about your struggles, however small, however little you think they may be. There won’t ever be a time when talking doesn’t help.