AJ Odudu shared that she was informed of losing her motivation and was fired, but she persevered and made an impressive comeback.
“I had to mentally prepare myself,” says AJ Odudu about the premiere of the revamped Big Brother. She is not referring to her role as presenter or the pressure of performing in front of a lively studio audience and 2.6 million viewers at home. Regardless of recognition, Odudu is experienced on television and unafraid in front of the camera – from learning to dance and injuring herself on season 19 of Strictly, to making a sandwich cake on the Bake Off set, or passing out after carrying a 45kg load up a hill on Celebrity SAS.
Odudu had to prepare for the biggest moment of her second act in her career – her appearance on Big Brother. However, what she still remembers with slight discomfort a month into the show is the outfit she wore on launch night. It was a skin-tight, custom-made latex catsuit that required an entire bottle of talcum powder and the help of four people to put on. It was quite a challenge but she was determined to wear it.
Odudu refrained from drinking prior to the broadcast due to the lack of opportunity for bathroom breaks in her outfit. She was then coated with lubricant in order to give the latex a glossy appearance. Surprisingly, she felt relieved by this experience.
Ten years ago, Odudu was among the trio of hosts for the post-show of Big Brother. She was 25 years old at the time and it appeared to be her big break, after four years of working on BBC Two. However, just six months later, she was suddenly dismissed and found herself crashing on her father’s couch and employed at a call center. During those difficult times, she remembered as she struggled to fit into the tight catsuit. “It’s been a challenging journey for me. It felt like…” She lets out a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness.”
Today, Odudu appears at ease in a sweater, pants, and sneakers. We meet at a private club in London and she sips on a matcha latte – a sight that would be teased by her peers back in Blackburn, she shares. Her loved ones would playfully remark “You’ve changed!” with the implication being that she hasn’t changed much at all.
AJ, aged 35, was the second youngest of eight siblings and was born with the name Onatejiro Odudu. She shares that her parents were immigrants from Nigeria, with her mother working as a cleaner and her father as a joiner. Her mother, Florence, came to the UK in the 1970s for an arranged marriage with her father, James. Growing up in Blackburn, their family was a minority and they were the only Nigerians in the town. This made AJ stand out even among her school friends.
However, Odudu depicts a happy image of growing up. The family of 10 resided in a three-bedroom house, with one designated as the “nice room” for guests. According to Odudu, the rest of the house was always chaotic, with queues forming for the bathroom.
Odudu recalls how her mother had a knack for turning difficult situations into enjoyable moments. When they experienced power outages, her mother would cheerfully suggest activities like using flashlights or building a fort in the dark. Similarly, when they ran out of hot water, the eight siblings would work together to pass pots of boiled water to fill up the bath and take turns bathing. This created a sense of camaraderie and laughter among them.
She cherished the times when her whole family would come together to watch TV. Their go-to shows were Generation Game in the evenings or Live and Kicking and CDUK on Saturday mornings. Odudu saw TV as a symbol of unity. She recalled asking her mother at six years old how she could enter the TV. It brought her joy and she wanted to share that feeling with others.
“I have always been a performer since I was young,” says Odudu, who grew up with seven siblings. “Thankfully, they were always supportive and allowed me to express myself in short bursts.”
Odudu attended Keele University, where she studied English and politics. She began her career as a reporter for BBC Radio Lancashire in 2009. Later on, she landed a presenting job on BBC Two’s The Almost Perfect Guide to Life. In June 2013, Odudu’s various TV appearances culminated in a breakthrough opportunity: co-hosting Big Brother’s Bit on the Side on Channel 5 with Rylan Clark and Emma Willis. However, by November of that year, she was replaced by Carol McGiffin, a former panellist on Loose Women.
Odudu stated that she did not receive any justification for being fired. She expressed how difficult and challenging the experience was, especially after facing years of rejection. Just as she thought she had finally landed her big opportunity, it turned out to be otherwise. The absence of any feedback was the most difficult aspect for her to accept. She strongly believes that everyone should be given the chance to rectify their mistakes or make improvements. In her eyes, it felt like a typical scenario of being adored one minute and despised the next.
Odudu relocated to live with her father in the south of London and found employment at a call centre. She later transitioned into retail, both jobs requiring high levels of patience. Unfortunately, her departure from Channel 5 coincided with a difficult breakup. She admits that most days were a struggle to simply get out of bed, as it takes a toll on one’s mental wellbeing to continually push forward despite feeling lost.
She persistently attempted to return to television. She recalls undergoing a screen test and her agent received feedback saying, “We were excited to meet AJ, but it seems like she has lost her spark.” She tried to remain composed, but they saw through her facade. She felt exposed and defeated.
Odudu ended up spending two years away from the industry. “My heart was aching,” she says. “I was in pain for two years, like a dark cloud pushing me down … I felt like that was the end of the road, the end of my career.”
She received additional training to become a personal trainer, created a fitness blog and a YouTube channel, and worked hard to improve herself.
Gradually, her confidence began to resurface. “If you can recover from a state of deep depression, you become incredibly resilient… I now have a faster recuperation process.”
Channel 4’s 4 Music channel, which is no longer in operation, gave Odudu the opportunity to return to TV presenting. In 2015, she was initially hired for temporary jobs before it became a permanent role. She co-hosted with Maya Jama, Vick Hope, and Will Best (now her co-host on Big Brother). She recalls feeling excited and officially back in the world of TV presenting. This was a major confidence boost for her.
After that, the tasks continued to pour in – spanning a diverse range. In 2018, Odudu produced the documentary “Manhunting with My Mum” for Channel 4. The film documented their journey around Nigeria as they attempted to find a suitable husband for Odudu. Though they were unsuccessful (and Odudu is content with being single), she gained a newfound appreciation for her parents and their experiences, including her cultural upbringing.
The following year, Odudu balanced appearing on Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins with a role as a backstage presenter on The Voice. “I had just come back from a challenging experience in the Andes mountains… and then the first thing I did was go straight into a studio with will.i.am and Tom Jones,” she exclaims.
In 2020, she continued to work and made appearances on shows like Great British Bake Off and Richard Osman’s House of Games. However, it was in 2021 that Odudu’s comeback to television was solidified with shows such as Would I Lie To You?, The Big Breakfast, and the highly-regarded Strictly.
Odudu and her partner, Kai Widdrington, reached the top three but had to withdraw due to a torn ligament in her right ankle. From excelling to breaking down on live television in front of millions, the sudden change was overwhelming.
However, Odudu persevered and made a comeback. Over the previous year, she has hosted Comic Relief and revealed the United Kingdom’s Eurovision choices; she has also made appearances on a variety of shows such as Ru Paul’s Drag Race and The Weakest Link.
The recent revival of Big Brother serves as the largest platform for her career. After gaining the rights to the series last year, ITV2 brought it back to television after a five-year hiatus (previously aired on Channel 5), and it has been over a decade since its peak popularity.
In 2000, Channel 4’s debut of Big Brother was a sensation, generating both excitement and controversy. However, as the popularity of reality TV shows has grown, concerns about the negative effects of these “social experiments” on individuals have also increased.
In its 20th season, the show aims to revamp its structure by introducing a new house and a varied group of participants, encompassing individuals from various races, religions, sexual orientations, and nationalities. The six-week duration will involve constant monitoring of the participants. Similar to the BBC’s popular show The Traitors, this season provides a unique portrayal of contemporary Britain, showcasing its eccentric and unpredictable diversity.
The current noteworthy events of this season include a strange love triangle involving Jordan, a lawyer from a low-income housing development who adopted a posh accent from Downton Abbey; Henry, a food critic who leans toward Conservative political views and joined the house in hopes of learning domestic skills (or finding a “matron”); and Matty, a free-spirited doctor from the Isle of Man.
I inform Odudu that even my most anti-Tory acquaintances were moved by Henry’s emotional diary-room admission that he felt abandoned by Jordan while they were confined together. “We can all relate to Henry,” Odudu says with a sigh.
She says, “The cast will consist of their true selves.” “Where else can you find a diverse group including a DJ who is mixed-race and an amputee, a working-class boxer from Liverpool, a refugee, and a Tory?”
In reality, while Big Brother closely observes modern Britain, it also exposes its divisions. Trish, a 33-year-old stay-at-home mother who was originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and immigrated to the UK as a refugee when she was a child, has faced constant accusations of being “hostile” from her white housemates. Meanwhile, Noky, the only other Black woman in the house and a banker who was crowned Miss Universe Great Britain last year, has been mocked for her pageant title. Odudu remarks, “She is being unfairly criticized for celebrating her accomplishment. They are envious of it.”
According to Odudu, there has been a significant improvement in the care for contestants’ mental well-being since she was last on the show 10 years ago. She mentions that as soon as a housemate leaves, they are immediately greeted by a psychologist, which is a positive development.
According to Odudu, she attempts to maintain an unbiased perspective. However, she also acknowledges that she can relate to the struggles of the Black women in the Big Brother house in a unique way due to her own experiences. She understands the frustration of being labeled as aggressive when simply standing up for oneself. It is a constant battle of defending oneself while being perceived as the aggressor, which is illogical and unjust.
Trish and Noky nominated Dylan, a Black DJ with a light-up prosthetic foot, for eviction. He accused them of perpetuating “Black-on-Black crime”. Odudu expressed her disappointment in hearing this, stating that it is a harmful stereotype that should not be perpetuated by anyone. After being evicted, Dylan stated that he wanted Yinrun, who moved to Britain from Shanghai and has faced challenges, to win. Odudu finds this statement surprising, as Trish is also a refugee.
Yinrun, on the other hand, has mentioned feeling excluded by the group, as some of them have doubted her proficiency in English. “That was quite interesting,” Odudu remarks. “Despite being the most articulate person in the house, she has been sidelined due to the belief that ‘She doesn’t understand us anyway.'”
However, the author notes that these are the conversations that Big Brother instigates, as a representation of society in a smaller scale. These are the topics that should be openly discussed, yet people still feel uneasy doing so. This is the value of having these conversations portrayed as they are: it allows for personal interpretations and judgments to be made.
I informed Odudu that she has become a popular subject in tabloid magazines for her attractive appearance and perfect physique. She does not frequently come across comments about it, aside from the occasional screenshots shared by her friends. She finds it challenging to handle criticism in her personal life, especially when she has to impress her superiors and executives. Therefore, she prefers to concentrate on that aspect instead.
In the future, she hopes to become a well-known figure. However, having faced setbacks in the past, for the time being Odudu is savoring the present moment. She expresses feeling at ease, joyful, and fulfilled, and is appreciating every small detail.
She is creating the type of television that she has always loved to watch. It brings her back to her childhood desires of being a part of the conversations and shared experiences that she saw on TV. Even if it means wearing tight Latex and using talcum powder to stay in character, Odudu is determined to make it happen. She has worked hard for this opportunity and is ready to jump into action on set.