Television presenter and YouTube content creator Riyadh Khalaf campaigned for a yes vote in the Irish marriage equality referendum of 2015. He told David Hennessy what that vote meant after years of struggling with is identity, what it was like to grow up gay in Ireland and how he ‘accidentally’ won the recent series Celebrity Masterchef. Riyadh joins London Irish LGBT network for a Q+A this week.
Known as a broadcaster and author, you may have seen Riyadh Khalaf from Bray winning the most recent series of Celebrity Masterchef.
Also a guest presenter on The One Show, Riyadh will join London Irish LGBT network for a Q&A this Thursday when the group has its virtual AGM.
One of the most influential LGBT+ YouTube creators in the UK, Riyadh has been using his content to help those struggling with identity ever since a video of him coming out to his Muslim father went viral.
Riyadh told The Irish World he was very pleased to be asked because he knows how important such networks are: “These groups are wonderful and I think they give people something to look forward to in and amongsts all of the, pardon my French, bullsh*t that is going on in the world at the moment.
“You can never underestimate the power of being around likeminded people that have been through a similar or identical journey to you.
“When you find yourself inadvertently part of a minority of a double minority, being LGBT and an Irish person living in the UK, the best thing is to just see yourself reflected back in someone else and know that it’s a community.
“I remember when I was younger and I was coming out, I would go to places like the George in Dublin, a massive gay bar, not to get drunk, not to kiss a fella but to just be in amongst the community, in amongst people that were just like me and for one or two hours on a Saturday night feel like I was normal in a world that made me feel incredibly abnormal or even sick.”
After starting on local Irish radio, Riyadh branched out into the world of YouTube where he has amassed an army of followers.
Since moving to London in 2016, Riyadh has presented the BBC series Queer Britain and is the author of Yay, You’re Gay! Now What?: A Gay Boy’s Guide to Life.
He has also entertained on Radio 1’s comedy podcast Unexpected Fluids and the BBC Sounds podcast Obsessed with… Normal People that he co-hosted with Evanna Lynch.
Riyadh publicly campaigned for marriage equality in 2015. Although he says he was never sure it would be successful, he felt a great acceptance from his own people and a national pride when Ireland voted in favour of marriage equality.
“Nobody really saw it as a sure shot to success. On the campaign for yes, we believed that there was very much a chance it could be a no. That no would have led to all sorts of devastation. I even said to my family, ‘I have a dream of getting married in Ireland. If it doesn’t happen now, what message does that send out not just to us as grown up queer people that are fighting for freedom but to the next generation of young Irish LGBTQ+ kids? It would mean you are in the eyes of the Irish people, not just the Irish government but the Irish people not worthy of the same rights’.
“That was worrying for me because I didn’t want to live in a country where I felt second best. I didn’t feel like anyone had a right to tell me how I should practice my love.
“It only felt right that it was made equal across the board.
“The absolute euphoric joy as the vote end tally came in, you felt like you were witnessing a kind of a Martin Luther King-esque moment. It was like you knew deep down in your bones that this was going to be something that you would tell your grandchildren and they would tell their grandchildren.
“It was just amazing.
“I remember the day after the vote went through. I was walking around my home town in Bray and there was just this visceral feeling in the air of, ‘You accept me, you love me just as you love anyone else and you want the best for me’.
“And that was what I was feeling just from random people walking past me on the street. I felt an incredible sense of national pride. I knew that the world’s eyes were on our small, little independent nation. That day the world’s media was at Dublin Castle and it was really lovely for us to give a declaration of who we are as a people to the world.
“We have such a strong image around the world of being warm, hospitable, lovely people and it was just a strengthening of that, ‘Look at us making history’. The first country to do it by public vote.
“We did show the world we wanted it in Ireland by being the first country to do it by popular vote rather than just the government deciding. It was a real vote of confidence from the Irish people that they believed that the LGBT+ citizens were in fact equal and not second class.”
Riyadh started to notice that he was attracted to boys when he was around 13 or 14 years old but he knew it was not okay with the church and wider society. He also felt he could talk to nobody about it.
“Growing up in primary school, it was kind of pushed into my mind, ‘Jesus is watching. God is all seeing, don’t you dare go against his word..’
“I just knew that who I was becoming against my will, who I naturally was and developing into was not aligned with what the church and wider society agreed with in my mind so naturally I felt a huge amount of fear and shame and disgust in who I was becoming and the fact that I couldn’t stop it.
“I had these feelings and urges and desires to be romantic with a guy and have a boyfriend. I just felt so isolated and alone and there was literally no one to talk to: No family member, no counsellor, no friends that I felt safe enough to express my feelings to.”
Riyadh’s work has helped many people while they have been struggling and he often received messages from people saying he has helped them find the courage to come out or even stopped them taking their own life.
“You’re truly, truly at that young formative age battling this thing on your own. It was just terrifying and it’s why I dedicate so much of my work now to trying to make these kids feels that they are not sick, flawed or disgusting and that they are worthy of all sorts of love because I know that I didn’t feel that way at all.
“It was really amazing that the minute- I call it the moment I boiled over, the moment I couldn’t take the lying anymore, lying to myself and to others- I came out to my first individual, it was like a rebirth.
“It was like, ‘Oh, I’ve said to you that I am gay and you haven’t tried to kill me, you haven’t gone to the police and claimed that I’m some pervert. You haven’t cast me out of your life’.
“It was like my happiness and my passions and desires in life could co-exist with this identity that actually after all isn’t so bad.
“Then over time I realised it was more than just not bad. It was a gift, a gift that brought me so much in life in terms of just the ability to be super, super empathetic, to understand what it’s like to go through adversity and step in and help someone because you’ve been through it too. You’ve got the war wounds and you have the vernacular to go, ‘Look, I know what is happening to you now is sh*t but I got through it. I’m going to help you get through it too’.
“I see that as a kind of super power that LGBT people inadvertently gain just by having that experience with trauma.”
While Riyadh told his mother Lorraine first and she embraced him, he was still worried about telling his father Sam who comes from Iraq and a Muslim culture where homosexuality is not tolerated.
“When you’re coming out, the fear is of the unknown. You don’t know if someone’s gonna go, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve always known you’re gay’ or they’ll tell you to leave the house or they’ll just say they never want to see you again.
“You adore your parents and the last thing you want to do is disappoint them. In your head you understand that they had a vision for you: Marrying a woman, having a child and getting the house. Doing all of the ‘normal things’ that a young person would do. In reality really I’m achieving them anyway. It just happens to be the gender of my partner is the same as mine. That is literally it.”
Although it took his father Sam some time to accept the fact that his son was gay, both parents are now proud supporters of Riyadh often appearing with him in videos and even on the Late Late Show.
“It was tough and Mam and Dad had their moments but overall as a family we’ve come together at the end stronger than ever, as allies, very public allies I should add and decided we would let go of all our faith.
“Mam is no longer a Catholic, father is no longer a Muslim and we’re atheists/humanists, I guess. We’re very passionate about our distaste of organised religion. We don’t mind other people having their religion and it bringing them joy and solace and feeling that they’re connected to something grander than themselves but it never brought us anything, never brought us any joy. It just brought us shame, worry, fear and disappointment. We just wanted to cut that toxicity out of our lives.
“For us, it’s about science and love and about treating people as you want to be treated and just celebrating life really.”
Riyadh was the constant target of bullies in school. He found his voice through starting his own pirate radio from his home at the age of 15. Riyadh would then go on to start a career in radio for Irish stations such as Spin 103.8 and 98FM.
Riyadh was working in regional radio when a boss pulled him aside and asked if he could work on trying to ‘sound less gay’. He has spoken about how this moment took him right back to the playground.
“It’s hard because when you’re a young person who has a dream and the person who holds the key to the dream in their hands- You believe they do anyway- tells you that whatever you are is not what they want, you are left feeling completely useless. That you’re never going to achieve the thing that you so desperately want.
“That small throwaway comment that was probably said partly in gest stuck with me and festered and became this debilitating scar. I had to do something to get over it and for me it was diversifying my work, leaning more into YouTube, thinking about doing work abroad and getting out of that situation as fast as I could.
“Having had years pass since that incident I’ve now come to a place of complete forgiveness for that person. I have absolutely no ill-feelings of resentment for that person and what they said. If anything I can kind of see where it came from. I don’t think the motivation for them to say that was not because they genuinely felt it. It was because of the layers and layers and layers of management above them and what society was saying.
“At the time there was this insecurity in Irish media I presume about diversity of any kind. It was, ‘We want everyone to be homogenised, we want every on air talent to look and sound the same and strip them of their individuality’.
“That went for everyone. I remember tuning in to all of Dublin’s radio stations and just thinking, ‘It all sounds the same’.
“I think it took Ireland a long time to look at itself and realise that we are the nation of a hundred thousand welcomes. We are the nation of incredible personality and story tellers. We have finally gotten there where we have this allowance to express ourselves freely no matter if we’re brown, gay, trans, culchie, jackeen, whatever. I think we’re getting better. I’ve tried to turn that negative experience into a positive by learning from it, speaking openly about it in a shameless way and saying the good things that I did on the back of it. I don’t have any bad feelings for the person at all.”
When Riyadh said goodbye to regional radio, he welcomed a global audience through the medium of YouTube. He has amassed 378K followers to his original content that includes vlogs, Q&As and celebrity interviews.
Becoming successful has made Riyadh a target for Trolls. Riyadh has even received online death threats. When he was campaigning for a yes vote, his family’s cars were targeted.
“I get hate every day, every waking hour on some platform. I think because I’ve had it for so many years it’s like water off a duck’s back. I’m so desensitised to faceless, nameless, profile picture-less people. I actually, hilariously get more upset when somebody starts slagging my lighting or my sound. That’s a gift, to be able to get upset about that but not about personal remarks.
“It took me two decades to find myself after years of having to hide who I was. I’m still finding myself.
“I’ve been actually trying to find that person for years and I think I’m at a place now where I’m 90% there and that is an amazing feeling. When you love yourself what the trolls say online can’t affect you. It ricochets off in another direction because: ‘You don’t know me and I know you don’t. I know me because it’s taken me 20 years to get here so your little, sh*tty online comment is actually pitiful. It doesn’t hold any weight in my world’.”
It was in 2016 that Riyadh moved to London and joined MailOnline as a video producer. Khalaf went on to host the BBC’s six-part documentary series Queer Britain.
“I love London. I’m endlessly endebted to London for the amazing opportunities it has given me. I don’t think I would have been able to flourish professionally if I hadn’t moved. I don’t think there was a market for Riyadh Khalaf in Ireland four or five years ago. No matter how hard I tried to get work in television, it just wasn’t happening. There was a lot of dead ends, a lot of empty promises and I had just had enough and thought, ‘Okay, I’ve gotta go.
“I will always be grateful that people like the BBC saw something in me and decided to take a chance. That’s just been the most fulfilling thing ever. I’m one of those rare, rare people that can say that, I have managed to experience my greatest dream in life come true. And it keeps happening over and over again with the different experiences like sitting in the studio of the One Show about to go live hosting the flagship programme for the BBC.
“I’m sitting there thinking, ‘There isn’t another place on planet earth that I want to be more than right here, right now’. That’s really, really special. I love the UK just for taking a chance on me.
“But I love my Irishness. I love my homeland and I adore my family and friends back home with every fibre of my being. I think the ultimate goal is to maybe buy a home in Ireland and spend some of the months of the year back home and maybe even do some work if they’ll have me. Times have changed and I don’t close the door on any opportunity of any place. No matter what happens, I’ll always be a Bray boy at heart.”
Although not totally sure if it was the dreaded virus, Riyadh fell sick during lockdown. It was in April that he revealed via social media that he and his partner were experiencing symptoms. Thankfully they both recovered.
“We’re not actually 100% sure. There were no tests available at the time but we both simultaneously lost taste and smell for- He was about two weeks and I was about two months. It was scary because you don’t know if that’s it or it will progress further and become more serious.
“You’re thinking to yourself, ‘Am I short of breath? Am I or am I just imagining this?’ You’re having these phantom symptoms. Thankfully that’s how it plateaued and it went away. We have no idea if we had it or it was something else or if we’re immune now or not. We’re just not taking any chances.”
It was earlier this year that Riyadh joined celebrities like John Barnes and Judy Murray on BBC’s Celebrity Masterchef. He told us he was quite happy just to reach the final in which he ended up beating rower Matthew Pinsent and hockey star Sam Quek to the prize.
“I say now that I kind of accidentally won. I had this thing in my head, ‘If you get to the final, you’ve won. You’ve achieved all you need to achieve. Just get to the final, that will be such an amazing thing to say’.
“So when I walked into that final challenge in my head, I had won. I think it was that ability to just fully relax and have fun and play with the process of cooking those final three dishes that made them so colourful and tasty.
“The other two, gold medal-winning Olympians were so talented with their cooking I thought, ‘One of them has it in the bag. I’m just going to have a laugh’.
“And then we line up and they say, ‘Our champion is Riyadh’. And I’m like, ‘What? That’s not the way it was meant to happen. That was not the plan’. Of course I was delighted.
“I put every bit of myself into that, every free second I had I was cooking and practicing and finessing. I took it so seriously while also having fun.
“I knew that it was such a mainstream, prime time programme that would expose me to an audience that had probably never even heard my name before and also in the process I got to be on a show that I’ve genuinely been a fan of since I was about 14. It was surreal getting to step into that iconic studio.”
Riyadh is looking forward to hosting an Evening with Kathy Burke at the Lyric Theatre on 23 November.
“She’s one of my heroes. It’s going to be great to have a live audience in a theatre, socially distanced, for the first time since March and the privilege that is being able to host an event like this on the West End.”
London Irish LGBT network’s virtual AGM is 8pm Thursday 22 October.
Full agenda for the night will be available here before the meeting.
To get your hands on some tickets, which are FREE, click here.