Gemma Cairney: ‘I fight hard for my sunny disposition’

On holiday in Menorca when I was really young, I was told not to jump into the swimming pool alone. But I was impatient, so I dived in solo, aiming for my rubber ring, but fell through the middle. I was going down and down until my dad – who couldn’t swim – jumped in and scooped me up. He’s my hero, and has been for as long as I can remember.

My childhood was like something from a TV drama: there was love and loss, so much heart; we lived in different places. When I was two we swapped Birmingham – where I was born – for south London to build a better life. There was diversity and colour, music and parties; feral kids, barbecued chicken and the sound of reggae music. And then when I was 10 we moved to West Sussex.

In Horsham everything around us felt so upper-middle-class. I was the only black girl in my school; Mum became sadder and isolated, a single parent. I felt like an outsider, being somewhere quiet and suburban, white and conservative. I sought out the characters, the wild ones who wanted to rave and rebel.

When I got my first radio gig I was like an excitable puppy, giggling and overwhelmed
Day one at the Brit School transformed my life: I’d found somewhere where creativity was encouraged. Girls in the loos sang pitch-perfect Mariah Carey harmonies; thespy theatre kids experimented away; dancers backflipped for fun in their studio. There and then I knew I wanted to try to change the world through art.

I still can’t believe I was only 23 when I got my first radio gig, co-hosting the Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 1Xtra. I was like an excitable puppy, giggling and overwhelmed. I’d found a craft to learn, which wove together drama school, fashion, music, the art I’d been creating.

Being positive is a political act. Experiencing racism and sexism through my life and career has made me resilient and thoughtful. I’m a loud, kooky woman with a story… and I’m black. But I don’t want to be a victim or pitied; I fight hard for my sunny disposition.

My uncle was a domino champion in the 1970s; he made it into the Guinness Book of Records by building these huge towers. Search for Mike Cairney online and prepare to be impressed.

Erykah Badu is my shining light: when I hear her music I feel something in my cells and bones awakening. My lips start to purse; my fingers click. She tells me I can own the moment, when I spring up and my hips start shaking. I keep it funky – funkiness makes sense to me.

As a kid, you’re made to think you’ll be a grown-up one day. Aged 36, I see things differently. I’m so excited to know I never have to stop learning. I’m like a slightly older Dora the Explorer: curious and wide-eyed about the future.