Interview: Some mothers do 'ave 'em... Baz Ashmawy
He was the party boy TV star whose life was changed when he met Tanja. Baz Ashmawy tells Barry Egan about his father who left when he was eight, how fatherhood changed him, his guilt over his drink-driving arrest, and swimming with sharks with his 71-year-old mother
Published 18/08/2014 | 02:30
Baz Ashmawy doesn't spend too much time wondering how his life would have been different had his father not vanished from his life when he was eight. He used to ask his mother when he was coming back. She told him that his father was never coming back. He used to tell his friends at school in Churchtown that his father was dead.
Some people, he says, just aren't great parents. "And he wasn't," the Irish TV star smiles.
"My father and I were good mates," Baz says of Mohammed Ussri Ismaill. "But we had a very peculiar relationship. He talked to me very laddishly."
Baz says he doesn't believe he would speak to his own children like that. He also believes that he inherited that sense of laddishness from his father, which Baz grew out of eight years ago when he met his partner Tanja Evans. "My father didn't grow out of it. I was lucky that I did."
Baz was in a relationship with Sally in London for six years. When that broke up he was 27, and he lived the life of the good looking, over-sexed, commitment-averse young libertine: his relationships, if you could call them that, never seemed to last more than two or three months.
It was goodbye to all that when, at the age of 33, Baz had what bordered on an epiphany when he met Tanja, a beautiful woman from Belgrade, in Dublin. His life changed completely in every way that summer in 2006. "She was very different to any woman I'd ever met before," he says. "She was very strong. She didn't care about television," he says referring to the fact that he was then the slightly bonkers star of RTE's How Low Can You Go, gallivanting around the globe doing bonkers things on camera like getting his nether regions waxed in New York and being tortured by red-hot dominatrixes in Berlin sex-dungeons. "I was attracted to her straight away on a different level. I thought: 'You know what? I am so bored with the way I'm living at the moment.'"
I ask him was it that he didn't want to turn into his father.
"I don't know if it was that. I just wanted something. You either have the hunger to go out and hang around clubs and hang out with pretty girls or you don't. There is always going to be that lifestyle if you want it, but it can be a bit empty as well." How Baz overcame that part of his machismo was by realising that Tanja was everything he wanted.
"I think what it is is - and this is an expression I love - 'the juice has got to be worth the squeeze.' And Tanja was worth it. She is just one of those very, very strong women. I loved her." The beautiful woman from Belgrade also had four kids of her own: Amelia, now 10, Jake, 12, Harry, 16, and Charlotte, 17. He can remember the conversations in the early stages of their courtship in and around the restaurants of Dublin ("because Tanja is a big foodie"). And one in particular when Baz asked his future soul-mate how come she had never been married and Tanja (who was married before) gave him this blank look. "And no kids?" He then asked her, to which he got another blank look. "Do I need to get a drink?" he asked her with a mischievous smile.
"You better get a triple!" she laughed and told him that she had four kids from a previous relationship.
"I remember my friends saying, 'God, that's a lot of kids!' But to be honest, it's not at all. I'm probably more baggage than they are!" Baz laughs.
Naturally, Baz told his beloved mother that he had fallen in love, finally, and that she had four kids. "She said: 'You'd want to be very sure about that! That sounds like a lot!'" Then they met, and Baz's mother seemed suddenly as taken with Tanja as her son was. "The two of them were very similar," Baz says now. "Very firm, very independent, very strong-minded women. They are mirrors of each other."
Subconsciously, is that what attracted Baz to Tanja - she reminded him at a deep level of his mother?
"God no!" he hoots with laughter, practically spilling his pint of Guinness in the George Bernard Shaw pub on Richmond Street with the shock. "She's Serbian and hot! Let me throw that into it! She is very unlike my mum in that way, but, yeah, with personality traits, I know what you mean. I suppose my mum is a single mum and a very strong-minded person, and very determined, and very capable and does not need anyone in her life; in the sense of - to get what she wanted out of life. She is very self-dependent. And Tanja would be very much like that as well. So, yeah, there were obvious similarities."
It wasn't until exactly a year into their relationship that Tanja introduced Baz to her children, he says. "It was a big deal, and for me, it made it very serious. I wouldn't waltz into someone's life and just waltz out. Now that I got from my dad. That is something I was very conscious of."
You didn't want to be your father, I say to him.
"I didn't want to be that type of man. That's not what I wanted, definitely. I loved her kids," he says. "And then we had our own kids as well" - Hannah, 4, and Mahy, 2 in October. "We are one big family," he smiles broadly.
He has now long since settled into a role of doting dad to Tanja's superwoman mother. Pre-Tanja, Baz had, he says, a reputation - well-earned - from How Low Can You Go of being a Jack The Lad "and a bit wild. Maybe I wasn't the ideal person! A 33-year-old man called Baz!" he laughs. "That would set off alarm bells with many people. Even my daughter Hannah calls me Baz!"
There is a boyish quality to him. He never stops smiling for starters and his eyes are permanently lit up. He has just flown in from a holiday in Spain with Tanja and the kids. I am not overly surprised when he tells me the night before he took Hannah for a late night swim in the pool, because he wanted to swim in the moonlight with his daughter.
Tanja wasn't, however, overly impressed, because she had just spent an hour blow-drying Hannah's hair, to be nice for the plane journey home to Dublin the following day, and had her ready for bed, only for Baz to whisk her surreptitiously out to the pool at midnight. "Tanja went mental. But Hannah is a four year old and the pool all lit up at night is a magic place for her." It is typical Baz, of course.
Born Ahmed Bacyl Ashmawy in Tripoli, Libya, on April 9th, 1975, to Egyptian accountant Mohammed Ussri Ismaill and a nurse from Wicklow, Mary Anne Rooney (known as Nancy), they lived in Cairo in Egypt until their only son was six years of age and then moved to Dublin. (He has a younger sister Mahy by another relationship of his father's. "In Arabic culture," Baz explains. "we don't have step-sisters and half-brothers. Your brother is your brother and your sister is your sister.")
When Baz was eight, his dad disappeared from his life. Although the TV star isn't a great one for linking everything to his father, Baz's youth after his father left his life was certainly colourful. An unruly pupil, he was asked to leave De La Salle college in Churchtown for telling one of the teachers "to go f*** themselves."
He then went to CUS before he ended up in boarding school in Offaly, Saint Anthony's College For Boys, at the age of fifteen. Baz recalls with a certain fondness what the headmaster, Brother Charles, told his mother: "Baz is a very witty, likeable, funny lad, and never in all my years at the school met a boy that could take punishment like him."
"If I was caught smoking or talking in the dorms at night or bunking off mass, you'd get put on punishment: usually washing the sinks after meals. I was on punishment the whole time I was in Saint Anthony's. He said I never complained," recalls Baz.
Baz believes he probably would have been like that any way, regardless of what happened with his father. "I think I would have been unruly at school anyway. Who knows?" he muses. "You know," he continues, "this thing in Ireland that your family is your mum, your dad, your brother and your sister, and a cat and a dog is Jack & Jill primary school bullshit," he says.
"That's not what family is. I know one guy who both his parents died young and it was him and his four brothers and sisters. I know another person who was just raised by their grandparents. Me? It was just me and my mum, mainly. Your family is whatever your family is, but we have this preconception that it is a mum and a dad. But in my life, I had a real happy childhood. I grew up very happily."
Two hours later Baz is sitting in my house telling me what he would want to ask his late father if he was still here. "What was wrong with you?" he says straight away; and than after a pause. "I'd like to have known how he felt when he died. I'd say he died with a heavy conscience." In his early twenties Baz spent a year and a half, circa 1991, in Gizza in Cairo living with his father, and "that's when we got to talk and got to iron out a few things. He was a very man's man. He is not going to explain himself to his son. But at the same time, in his own way, he apologised for things," Baz says of his father who died in 2001.
If his father was a man's man, what kind of man is his son Baz Ashmawy?
"I'm soft," he says. "I'm very hands-on with my kids. I sing to my kids. I put them to bed. I kiss them. I tell them stories. I re-enact things. It is a fun house," he says of him, Tanja and six kids all under one magical roof in Rathmines. "I love it. I love them. I adore them. They are all really great kids. I am proud of them all with all my heart."
He reserves another huge part of his heart for his beloved mummy, Nancy. He says there is nothing in the world he wouldn't do for her, not least because growing up there was nothing in the world that she wouldn't have done for him. He remembers how Nancy worked double shifts in hospitals "for years and years" and "slaved" to buy them her own house in Churchtown; and all the Christmas days she "worked because it was triple time" to make ends meet.
Baz states that when the work dried up when he finished his last series for RTE, Baz's Extreme World (typically him wrestling alligators and other death-defying feats of bravery/insanity caught on camera) in 2011, and he struggled to make ends meet for him and his family, it was Nancy who encouraged him the hardest. "My mother was one of the particular people when I was out of work who said: 'Why are you moping? What's productive about all this negativity?' She is such a positive person." He was not in a good place. The hoo-haa in February, 2011, when Baz was arrested for drink driving and later suspended from RTE for a month, possibly hadn't helped - if not caused - the situation. "I look back on that incident quite positively, because everything happens for a reason. I could have thought this is awful and simmer in it or get on with it and I got on with it. I never did anything like that before in my life and then to do that, I thought what is happening in my life that I would do that. I had a lot of guilt, for embarrassing people - family, mainly.
Nancy encouraged him to broadened his horizons and as such he went to London and met Stuart Murphy in Sky Television, who was, he says, "excited and giddy" at Baz's ideas. "He was like Willy Wonka. I had never seen a commissioner like him," Baz smiles. They came up with the somewhat awe-inspiring new series, 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy. The idea partly came about because one day Nancy told her son that she wanted to do a sky-dive. One day she got it into her head that she wanted to do a sky-dive. To which Baz informed her, not unreasonably: "Don't be ridiculous. You're 70! You can't. You're too old!" Nancy soon put him straight: "I'm not too old!" Within a few months, she was doing far worse for the high-tech cameras of Sky around the world with her son in awe-struck tow. The concept for 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy, he told his mammy, was that he would drag her around the world and they'd do crazy things together and get paid for it. "We will go on a mad adventure." That mad, mad, mad - and often death-defying - adventure included swimming with Great White sharks in South Africa, doing a rally together in Morocco, surviving on an island together off Cambodia, flying vintage planes solo in America, picking up poisonous spiders in jungles, going on bounty hunting raids in Las Vegas. "It was f**ing deadly! Out of everything I have ever done in my career it was the most incredible. We drank Cosmos all night in Las Vegas," he says mentioning that his mammy had never had a cocktail before in her life. "We had great crack."
This crack continued too with his mammy's reaction when the sharks popped up in the sea next to Nancy, who can't swim, off the coast of South Africa, and she exclaimed: 'God! They're big and white!'
Baz told her, dryly: 'Yeah, mum, that's why they're called Great Whites!"
"But I never thought my mother would be eaten by shark!" he laughs.
And what was his mother going to do if a shark attacked her?
"She'd tell the shark to feck off!" Baz replies, reasonably enough of his bionic mammy.
Did he ever come close to killing his mammy?
"You mean actual death? We had an incident in the rally in Morocco where we had a crash. She was driving a 2.2 Isuzu Turbo through the dessert. She is fearless. She did a sky dive from 18,000 feet over Santa Barbara. They give you oxygen on the way up. She has courage!" A new world, and life, opened up to the 71-year-old wonderwoman. Baz recalls that after he and Nancy went zip-lining through the jungle in Cambodia, two hundred feet in the air through the tree tops, she turned to him and said when they got onto the ground. "This just isn't how I imagined my retirement. I thought I'd be sitting at home with a brandy playing bridge."
Nancy never thought she'd get to see all these things in the world at her age. And not only that, admits Baz, but do it with such Irish mammy aplomb that she soon became, unquestionably, the star of the new series on Sky.
"She so is the star of the show. I am just her straight man.
"There is no competing with her. She is way cooler than me. She'll be the star of the next series, too. She is just an Irish mammy but she is a budding superstar", Baz smiles, before adding, almost misty eyed, "We are really close anyway. So it didn't bring us any closer. But I have these insane memories while travelling around the world with her which I will treasure for the rest of my life."
'50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy' starts on Sky 1 at 9pm, Monday 25th August.