Jimi wraps up the first series of Where's Home Really? with ITV news anchor and ‘Loose Women’ host Charlene White, who provides a fun and thoughtful insight into her Jamaican heritage and family-focused upbringing in Lewisham, via the ‘I’m a Celeb…’ jungle and her headline-making moments with a certain ex-Home Secretary campmate.
Charlene reveals teen tales of trying to avoid the human CCTV version of the all-seeing “Auntie-Net”, the West Indian word that is banned from her house, and why she’s had to develop a thick skin while forging her own successful path on TV.
Jimi Famurewa: Welcome to Where's Home Really? With me, Jimi Famurewa, a podcast where I get to speak to people from the world of music and media, food, arts, and culture about the people and places that have made them who they are today. This podcast is about heritage, culture, sense of place and identity, all those things.
But most of all, it's about people, who they are away from the camera or the kitchen or the stage, and the traditions and family histories they carry with them wherever they go. We'll be exploring that sense of home by asking them about four key elements. Those are a person, a place, a phrase, and a plate.
So for me, and I'm obviously building up a library of these but one would actually be a place and that place would be Greenwich Park. It's a place that really reminds me of my childhood and also reminds me of adulthood. It's a place that has all these overlaid memories of riding kind of roller skates down the big hill, sledding there, going on early dates with my wife there and it's one of those places that's represents both of my homes and both parts of my life, and always is so packed with these really vivid memories. But enough about me, let's hear about my guest.
Charlene White: I could do an all black episode of Loose Women for example and all four of us would just get a torrent of vitriol and hate from people who actually mostly on the whole don't watch the show anyway.
The mere fact that they're switching channels and see four black women on there, this is the most offensive thing in the entire world. I'm quite used to getting the abuse and I have a coat of armour, which I've probably been wearing for quite a number of years now.
Jimi Famurewa: Today's guest is a news anchor and a presenter. After starting her career at the BBC, she joined ITN in 2008 and in 2014 became the first black woman to present ITV's News at Ten. You'll see her most regularly as the main presenter of the London News at Six, or perhaps as a host on Loose Women. And you almost certainly know of her appearance in the I'm a Celebrity jungle, alongside, among others, a certain former health secretary.
But for now, let me start by saying a huge welcome to today's guest, Charlene White. Welcome.
Charlene White: Oh, Jimi, it's such an honour to be sharing a space with you. I am a huge fan of your work.
Jimi Famurewa: Oh my God, thank you so much. The feeling's mutual. So I always start in the same way and I'm really fascinated to hear from you on this point particularly because I always start with the notion of where's home really?
Where are you really from? It's obviously quite a loaded phrase in so many ways, but what does it make you think of?
Charlene White: Oh gosh, it makes me think of the number of times that people have actually asked me that. When you say, Oh no, I'm from London. Oh, that's lovely. But where is it that you're really from?
Lewisham. Yeah. And then you get a really confused face. I would say that I'm a British Caribbean, Jamaican Caribbean. I always like to talk about both sides of me because anybody who is a child of immigrants, wherever you, wherever your parents may have originated from, you are a sum of two parts.
And so the Jamaican side of me is as important as the British side of me and the Southeast London side of me. is as important as the English side of me.
Jimi Famurewa: I think you're absolutely right. And I think that kind of both sides and multiple sides thing is something that we return to on the show. And I find it endlessly fascinating and the notion that home can be multiple things at once and multiple memories, and that it can shift and that you can shape it into what you want it to be.
Let's start with your place. Where are you going to go for? Where is the kind of the place that sparks those memories that you go to and it solidifies this kind of mixed sense of whoever you happen to be.
Charlene White: It's really weird for me because I would say the house that I grew up in, but my dad hasn't had that house for quite some time.
We do still have friends that live on the road, so I do often drive past and it was up for sale recently. And me, my brother and my sister, all three of us went onto the particulars on Rightmove. We're going, Oh, look at the garden. It's the house. I think we moved there when I was seven.
So it's the house that I know for the majority of my childhood, my teenage years and my early twenties. And it was a house that was full of joy, but it was also the house that my mom passed away in because she chose not to go to a hospice. So she died at home, but it was also the place that represents so many Jamaican traditions, not just because of the food and the music. It's things like when my nan passed away and our, the reception was at our house and our house was just jam packed full of people. And in the days when my mum was at home and dying, it was just packed full of people every single day. And it was amazing. You had a constant stream of aunties and uncles bringing food and booze.
My uncle setting up a Calor Gas heater in the garage that they could play dominoes and drink rum. And all of that stuff just epitomizes that combination of Jamaica and Britain. And you had neighbors who didn't know about those traditions and, like the playing dominoes at the nine night, for instance, nine days after she died, when the house was full again, full of people. Our neighbours, our English neighbours learnt so much about our culture from that and they were absolutely fascinated and they loved it. That's the house to me. That house was always full of joy. Yes, it had loss in it, but it was also full of so much joy and I'm a summer baby, so we loved throwing parties for my birthday, where we'd set up giant speakers in the garden and we'd have a DJ and it'd be, my dad and his mates, my mum's friends, my friends, just like everybody.
And the last big one I had there before my dad moved and before I moved out to be by myself, it was like a proper American one where there were people in the front garden, there were people taking over the road. I don't know how we managed to feed everybody, but we somehow did. I think it went on to silly o'clock at night.
And that's the reason why that house, despite the fact I'm not there anymore, it's what I would have wanted in my adult life. And then. Things change, life changes, doesn't quite always work out that way. But for me, it was the heart and it wasn't just the heart for my immediate family, it was the heart for my extended family as well.
I've got a million cousins and they will always talk about our house being, being the heart, which is always really lovely.
Jimi Famurewa: Your parents are looking at your story. They worked so hard and, because of their. really poor experience in the British schooling system as Jamaican immigrants, particularly your mum, they paid for you to go to a private school, to a fee paying school.
And it seems to me that they were these real strivers in that way, that a lot of kind of immigrants are, that they're on a path. Did you did you have a sense of where that came from? Was that just their personalities, or was that a cultural thing?
Charlene White: My grandad was very strict with education.
He was a stickler for the kids having a good education, and a lot of that was, he was a very intelligent man, but then moved to the UK and was treated like the opposite. Wow, yeah. And he wasn't able to use his brain in the way that it should have been used because simply because of the color of his skin when he'd be applying for jobs, they wouldn't even let him through the door for an interview because they assumed he wasn't intelligent because he had darker skin.
And one thing he wanted to arm his children with was a good education so that hopefully they wouldn't have to face the same barriers. And if they did, they could fight them. essentially. And then my mum passed that on to us, my mum and dad passed it on to us, my aunt also passed it on to her son, who, my cousin Marcus he was at Cambridge, he studied law.
And, all of us have... been pushed so hard. And that is because my granddad pushed those children, his children, and there were like, what, seven of them? He pushed all of them. And I think there was also an element of not wanting moving here to be a waste. They moved. across the other side of the world to somewhere that was absolutely freezing to a country that was not very nice to them on the whole.
And they needed to feel like that move was worth it, that they really were achieving something better than they would have done had they stayed in Jamaica. But also, you have to remember the environment that my parents were living in as, kids in their late teens and their early twenties. They couldn't go to clubs in central London, for example, because they were not allowed in because they were black.
They had to create their own clubs. Their parents couldn't go to the churches here because they were not allowed to go to churches here because of the colour of their skin. They were faced with so many barriers that they had to try and get through. They also wanted to arm their children once again, as my granddad did with my mum, arm them with as much knowledge and as much power as possible so they would be able to push through.
And, and then we, and then it goes on and the cycle continues. And I guess that's the same thing that I'm doing with my kids as well.
Jimi Famurewa: So much of that is like beautifully put and absolutely spot on and I can almost, I feel like I can almost hear the people nodding along to that because so much of it is so resonant for so many of us from all sorts of different backgrounds.
You went to this school. And I know that was the time that maybe you first started thinking about performing. There was an acting career. And, you're clearly you're at that point realizing that you have a kind of a way with words and the command and the confidence. And so I want to get onto your phrase right away.
We could get onto advice. You're a person that works with words in all sorts of ways. There's a lot of options. But which phrase have you got gone for as the one that really encapsulates home for you?
Charlene White: Do you know what? Because that's all I'd ever hear. My phrase would be, show me your friends and I'll show you who you are.
And that's simply, that's quite a it's quite a typical Jamaican phrase. And my mum used to throw that at me. if I was hanging around with girls that she didn't particularly like, or just a group of friends that she wasn't very keen on. And she'd always say, show me your friends and I'll show you who you are.
Because she always wanted to be mindful of the people I was hanging out with and how that reflected on me, and massively how it reflected on her. And the wider family. Because a lot of that will come back to church. You could walk through the streets of South East London, Lewisham, and you'd constantly be aware that there would be a church sister or a church brother somewhere on that street that if you did something wrong would have told your mum somehow in the era before mobile phones within probably a couple of hours.
So you'd get home and your mum would know if you'd been up to no good. So I think a lot of it was about her not wanting us to be around people that would also embarrass her and us as a family.
Jimi Famurewa: Yeah that feeling of you're representing. Your home, you're representing what you come from and your family, like every time you step outside the house, and I definitely had moments when, I definitely, I erred and I wasn't representing the family as I should have, but you're absolutely right, that kind of village mentality that often comes from church communities as well, where it's like, there's a kind of CCTV, oh my gosh, auntie net, it's always watching at any moment.
Charlene White: I know we had- do you remember One2One? The phone company, One2One? And that was one of the first mobile phone companies that I can remember. Church was better than that. The church community, they didn't need text messages. They didn't need voicemails. They didn't need any of that stuff.
Gosh, no. They somehow got those Chinese whispers that and then your mum would know. And it's ah! But I was so careful! I was so careful! But they'd always know.
Jimi Famurewa: I think that's a really great phrase and an interesting one and I love hearing it in the context of the community and the culture that you grew up in.
And I'm just wondering, when you're at that private school and, You've got your Caribbean family on that side and there's these considerations over who you're mixing with and whatever. And a lot of people talk about this tussle and this push pull between like different worlds. You're clearly performing and you're stepping outside of what would be normal for a lot of your family.
Were you in the middle a little bit or did it all make sense?
Charlene White: There's two, two parts to that answer, I think. In my primary school, in the primary school, I was the only black girl in the primary school. So that was a pretty lonely place in terms of ethnicity. But then when you move, when I moved on to secondary school, I think going to a private school in South East London is very different from going to private schools anywhere else.
And there were a lot of black families, a lot of Turkish families, a lot of immigrant families. Because essentially, it was families that saw education as being important and did what my parents did, which was work a million different jobs to be able to pay for that. So I was really lucky, I got to, culturally, I got to hang out with so many different girls and learn so much from each one of those cultures. Going to my friend Emine's house and her mum doing us borek and sitting and having borek in our house and stuff, which was incredible. And learning more about Nigerian food, Ghanaian food. I feel very lucky and very blessed to have been schooled in that environment.
But the second part of that meant that outside of that bubble, yes, was very difficult because at that particular moment in time, you didn't see many black people on TV, and you definitely didn't see that many, if any, other than Trevor and Moira, didn't see any other black people on TV who people deemed to be well spoken.
So where I grew up, to be a black kid and be well spoken, you'd get called a bounty quite a lot. You'd get bullied on the street quite a lot. And I have members of my family who would take the mickey out of the way that I spoke. Grown ups who should have known better who would mimic my voice, and I would speak less in their company.
Because to speak more would mean that I'd be subjected to them taking the mickey out of the way that I spoke. Because it's weird because my mum and dad sent me to elocution lessons and drama lessons at a very early age because they wanted me to speak well and that I wasn't standing out for yet another reason other than just the colour of my skin. And them doing that with me and making sure that I could speak clearly, then subjected me to so many other things which they would never have predicted. I think all of those things then ended up making me more confident.
But at the time, I hated it. When they, when I knew that these aunties were coming to my house, I knew what was coming. And it'd be like, oh, they're literally going to sit there and for ages just take the mickey out the way I talk.
Jimi Famurewa: Taking into account what you've been through growing up in terms of your home or your who you are and your identity being picked apart on both sides and feeling like, oh my god, like I won't even talk, who am I meant to be pleasing?
I've been set on this path, like. How have you found that kind of, almost that kind of professionalism, that neutrality? And I'm thinking of the I'm A Celebrity jungle in terms of impartiality with relation to Matt Hancock. What was it like for you to have your personality scrutinised like that?
Charlene White: I think it's something that I'm used to just because, I use social media quite a lot and always have done, but I can- I could do an all black episode of Loose Women, for example, and all four of us will just get a torrent of vitriol and hate from people who actually mostly on the whole don't watch the show anyway. But, the mere fact that they've switching channels and see four black women on there, this is the most offensive thing in the entire world.
I'm quite used to getting the abuse and I have a coat of armour, which I've probably been wearing for quite a number of years now, where I don't let it in. But I think what was quite hard in that experience of doing I'm A Celeb is the armour that I have, my family and friends. don't have the same armour because they've never experienced that before.
So them seeing people taught negatively in such a way, on such a scale, they found very hard. And I don't think any of us took into account the impact that would have on them. They were fine. But in terms of me, it's unfortunately something that I'm very used to. There'll always be a group of people who when I'm doing Loose will go, Oh, I don't like the way that she talks.
But female broadcasters, women broadcasters get it a lot. And there are, there are increasing numbers of black women doing telly, but historically there haven't been. When people hone in on things a lot of the time, it's because they're simply not used to seeing those kinds of people on TV.
But you get the same when it comes to accents. Steph McGovern got that a lot when she was doing BBC Breakfast. And essentially what it boiled down to is people thinking that her accent shouldn't be used alongside serious news. It should only be used for comedy because they don't hear those accents that often.
People still are scared of things they don't understand or are not used to seeing. And that all goes back to responsibility of us as program makers to make sure that people are represented. But it's also a responsibility for people to stop always going for, I'm afraid, when it comes to seeing something different, and just start off with acceptance.
Jimi Famurewa: I'm almost reluctant to do the Jungle and Matt Hancock or whatever, but it did seem like it crystallised a lot of this stuff in that your interactions with him were really scrutinsed and really picked apart, and you did not let him off the hook and you held him to account in that way.
I've seen you point out the fact that It almost just made the show, turned the show into something else. Like it just made it this sideshow and I'm carrying it on a bit now by asking. But yeah.
Charlene White: It's difficult, isn't it? Cause we were together 24 hours a day and what you guys saw is in total probably only 60 minutes of footage when you include trials and adverts and what have you, it's condensing 24 hours and 60 minutes.
So something that would look like our only interaction was about COVID and lockdown. That was like a tiny part.
On the final night, I was busy trying to make his hammock comfortable. I was changing mattresses. I was making his bed. I was doing all of those things. You can't live alongside somebody for that length of time and constantly be at battle with them. You just can't. I know that's what, when everything's condensed, that's how it looks, but it wasn't like that at all.
And we'd sit and have conversations about kids and stuff and raising kids, obviously because he's got kids as well. We'd have long conversations about so many different things, but not everything makes the cut.
Jimi Famurewa: Welcome back to Where's Home Really? With me, Jimi Famurewa, and my guest, the fabulous Charlene White. Charlene White, hi!
Charlene White: Jimi Famurewa, hello.
Jimi Famurewa: You mentioned a lot of people in your life as being perhaps more affected than you were by the focus and the intensified focus of you being in the jungle.
So let's hit on your person. I don't know if it's going to be necessarily a member of your family. We've had, people on the TV in the past. Who are you going to go for as the person that really makes you feel that intense feeling of home?
Charlene White: Oh it would have to be my dad because he is my last remaining parent, but he spends you know, half the year in Jamaica, so I don't even see him, really.
And a lot of the time, he just seems to face me from his veranda in Jamaica, and I'm like, oh, that's nice, as I'm sat in London in the pouring rain. It would be dad, because that's my last link to parenting, really. My mum's sister helped to raise us, which, we are incredibly close.
But my dad, he represents home. because he is that man I will be forever grateful for. He worked so unbelievably hard to send us to school. He would be up, oh gosh, he'd be up at five o'clock in the morning, leaving at 5:45 in the morning, and his workday wouldn't finish until 10 at night. because he was working to give us a better life.
I wouldn't be where I am were it not for the hard work of my mum and dad, and especially my dad. He'd be picking us up from school, taking us home, sorting out, finishing off the dinner that my mum had started in the morning. He'd be finishing off the dinner and then my mum would come back at five. He'd go back out to work and then he'd go and do his second or third job of the day.
My work ethic. a lot of it comes from my dad. He worked incredibly hard and is able to enjoy life now and I'm so unbelievably happy for him that he can enjoy life now. But we wouldn't be where we are did he not put those hours in because he wanted something bigger for us and he gave up a lot in Jamaica when he came here.
My dad's an amazing mathematician and he had a scholarship to go to university in Jamaica to do a degree in maths, but the same year that he was due to start was when his mum sent from here and he then moved to London and what he thought he'd be able to get here, which would be, a degree in maths, it didn't work in the same way as how it works in Jamaica.
So he wasn't able to do what he was more than capable of doing. And I'm just very thankful for him. And I'm thankful of what my mum and dad instilled in us. They could have chosen not to work as hard as they did and, life would have been very different. But they did. And the three of us, me, my brother and sister, are where we are because of them.
He's the one that had to nurse a sick wife for a very long time and nurse her in her final days and then was left with three kids to raise. So he's been thrown a lot. Yeah. And survived. Yeah. And I'm very grateful for him.
Jimi Famurewa: Yeah that's incredible and absolutely beautiful and I think that surviving link and that work ethic and, but also that fortitude that he's clearly instilled in you.
How would you say, I'm always fascinated to know this because I'm still probably unpacking it personally. how your parental approach differs from your parents. You talked about the strictness and what that did to you. Are there ways in which you're reverting to type? You're like them?
Charlene White: Oh, really? My daughter's very much like me.
She's three and a half going on like 17. And I was talking to someone about this the other day that the way... that not the way that she talks because she's very respectful, but the attitude that she has in a very respectful manner, I probably wouldn't have been able to get away with when I was her age.
And I think there's probably a generation of us as, especially girls, especially daughters of immigrants, that there's a lot. of that we weren't allowed to do and things we weren't allowed to say and behavior that just was not allowed, that I think I'm allowing my daughter to do. Speak unless you're spoken to.
We heard that a lot growing up, adults are talking, we weren't allowed to talk when adults were around. We had to sit very quietly in a corner. Whereas it's not like that with my kids. If my kids, they have to wait until I finish speaking, then they can talk. But I will allow them to be themselves a bit more than perhaps I was allowed to at that age.
A little girl's been called feisty and stuff. You can't be so feisty when grown ups are around. I will never use that phrase with my daughter because actually she's just being her and I'm allowing her to be her. But I am very strict with education. There's a lot of, if he hasn't been given homework, I will give him homework to do.
I am very strict because-
Jimi Famurewa: There's the mathematician's daughter jumping out there.
Charlene White: Because that's what I know, and it's worked well, but I'm definitely not as strict as they are at all. Because I just, I want them to be the best that they can be. And as my mum and dad used to say to me, ramping on the streets of Lewisham is not going to make the best of you, but I am also fun.
I can spend all afternoon in the pub with my kids and they can be having lunch and lunch can roll on for hours and hours and I love that. That's something I never would have done with my parents. So it's different, but my kids will always know my telling off voice and they will listen.
Jimi Famurewa: You've mentioned kitchens, you've mentioned food. I know you've said in the past, people always left your house with a full belly, probably some tupperware as well. Yes. But what are you going to go for as your dish, your plate, your drink, your taste, whatever it is that really sparks these memories?
Charlene White: I'm really hoping you've not had this one before, bully beef and rice, which now. You wouldn't really understand it as bully beef, but corned beef and rice. So especially when I was pregnant with Alfie and getting used to the, getting my head around the fact I was going to become a mother, I would go back to corned beef and rice a lot.
I try not to do it quite so much because it's not very healthy, but frying up the corned beef with onions and peppers. and little slithers of scotch bonnet some sweetcorn, some peas, all cooked up, little squidge of tomato ketchup to give a little bit of sweetness, cook it up so it's a bit crispy in parts, almost like a corned beef hash but not.
I would historically have it with white rice, but obviously I've been trying to pretend that corned beef in that quantity is healthy. Why put the brown rice on? It's not really gonna make that much difference. But, with some white rice piled high, that's my dish that reminds me of home.
That's amazing. Because we ate a lot of cheap food growing up, with my parents working their little bums off to pay for school. There wasn't always a lot of other money to go around really. Even with me on a part scholarship and stuff. So Thursdays would always be corned beef and rice.
And I'd really look forward to it, with the cams that haven't changed. Even now.
Jimi Famurewa: It's so emotional. They're such like emotionally powerful triggers. These meals and these tastes are a link to our ancestry, whatever that may be. Everybody has a version of it. We're talking about a lot of quite recognisable Caribbean or Jamaican dishes, but for you, what are some of the impacts that Jamaican culture has had, not just on the UK, but on the wider world, like positive impacts that you see and are especially proud of and are especially admiring of?
Charlene White: Oh, it's the music, obviously. Yeah. We've literally given the world. Yeah, we've not even touched on music. The biggest gift in the world. And that's, that's the beauty of dancehall and reggae and roots. It is by far, musically, one of the biggest gifts that we've given to the world. One could talk about the distortion of the truth behind the roots of several different music genres.
And I think that it isn't, Jamaica isn't always given. the respect it should be given, because sparks from Jamaican music come so many other genres, which then become even bigger. And that's a whole other conversation, but I'd say musically we've given a lot. The music side definitely comes from my dad.
And I've got a whole stack of vinyl of his, which I love, so that's another thing that I'm linked with my dad with. But yeah, oh my goodness me, I grew up going to my mom and dad going to house parties where they are dancing, where their windows are blacked out with black. Bin bag and black tape.
And you'd have the sound system playing loud, and then all the kids would be upstairs, on beds that are piled high with clothes. And you didn't know what time they were going to come upstairs and retrieve you and carry you to the car to be able to go home. House parties, I remember with songs, such joy.
It was, they'd be beautiful. We have given the world a lot. We should get thanked far more often than we are, quite frankly.
Jimi Famurewa: Let me on behalf of everyone as our representative of Jamaica say, thank you, Charlene White. That was a total joy. We started with a party and we ended with one and thank you for all you do.
It's been a real honour. Thank you for coming on the show.
Charlene White: Thank you so much, Jimi. It's been my honour too.
Jimi Famurewa: Oh my goodness, Charlene. What an incredible woman. She's so impressive in so many ways. She's got such determination and it was really great to hear that comes not just from her own parents but her grandparents and their kind of real zeal to do positive things in the world and the importance of education it was it was resonating so much with me and she's just such a laugh isn't she i think what i love about Charlene is that she's so smart. She's got this kind of polish, and she is that kind of voice of the news, and she holds that respect.
But she's clearly just really playful, and joyful, and honest, and unguarded in a really lovely way. We always talk about homes and different sorts of homes and houses on this show, but I just felt like Charlene's descriptions of the house she grew up in and that being her place was so vivid, like the noise, the people in the room, the conversations, the gas heater and the dominoes out in the back, like it was just so so alive in my mind and she painted such beautiful pictures. And I loved that she pointed out that although the home was sad in the sense of It was where her mum died and where they had a memorial for her and her funeral, it was also so full of joy and life and food and music and booming sound systems. Like she brought it all to life for me and it really felt like we were being let in to this world and these memories. That was so vivid and so evocative. So yeah, I really, I felt like I was there. I could feel the bass vibrating almost just through her descriptions.
So that's it for another episode of Where's Home Really? Please join me next time for more stories about family and culture, food and belonging. And we'd love you to follow Where's Home Really? on your favorite podcast platform. It's always great to hear your thoughts. So do leave us a comment or a review. From Podimo and Listen, this has been Where's Home Really? hosted by me, Jimi Famurewa, the producers are Tayo Popoola and Aiden Judd.
The executive producers for Podimo are Jake Chudnow and Matt White. And for Listen it's Kellie Redmond.