'It's so strange loving another man's kids' - Baz Ashmawy on ambition, love and being a mummy's boy
With his new series about to air, Baz Ashmawy spoke to Donal Lynch about ambition, love and being a mummy's boy
It was cheesy 1980s military drama Top Gun that popularised the term wingman here. It meant your friend, who would put up with a lot, so you could get the shift. In Baz Ashmawy's new series, a wingman has nothing to do with scoring, however. He is, instead, a kind of brotherly cheerleader to members of the public with something missing from their lives, whether that's a stymied ambition, a love lost, or a dream hampered by self-doubt.
He helps isolated Louth dairy farmer Jimmy Byrne stage a two-man play. He helps cancer survivor Emma Stafford fulfil her ambition of becoming an MMA fighter. Through these episodes, Baz displays the same witty, slightly camp charm that could be called 'Brand Baz'. And like the TV hit that made his name - 50 Ways To Kill your Mammy - it allows the ordinary people to steal scenes from a man who mocks himself as a "Z List celebrity".
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"It's simple in its execution," Baz explains. "It's real people, who are much more interesting. The problem with reality TV is that there are people on it who want to be on it. If you have people like my mother, or Jimmy, it works much better. They've fallen into it - it's not a career move for them."
He connected with the struggles of the people on his show, because, he says, he failed a lot himself. The career trough that preceded the success of Mammy still looms large in his mind. "There's certain stages in life where you evaluate where you're at. You can't avoid your own reflection forever. When I last did my job in RTE, I had one of those moments. I was sitting on a wall, thinking where do I go from this point? I couldn't get a production company to work with me. I'd already lost my job at 2FM. Someone high up in RTE, whom I really respected, told me that."
This was devastating, he explains, because being on the telly was all he ever wanted. "My mum told me I was brilliant, and I believed her. A lot of famous people, it is all ego and self-belief. I have no particular talent but I can connect with people. When I was younger, I wanted to be famous and be recognised going into a club and have Champagne and parties, now I'm a sadly mature version of that person."
Baz was born Ahmed Bacyl Ashmawy in Tripoli in 1975. His parents were a nurse from Avoca and an accountant from Egypt. The three lived in Cairo, before moving to Dublin in 1981. They split up when Baz was nine. "I'd lie sometimes, I'd say (his father) was dead, when people asked," Baz recalls. "Then I reconnected with him when I was older."
When he was still in his teens, his mother sent him to boarding school in Clara. "Those years changed everything. It was run by Franciscan monks in habits. I was on punishment the whole time I was there. I had to do washing up for two years, for smoking up trees and cursing. The headmaster told my mother 'I've never known anyone to take a punishment like your son' and I was beaming with pride and she was punching me, saying 'it's not a compliment!'
At boarding school it was sink or swim: "I was a mixed-race kid called Bacyl. If I didn't get sharp at slagging, I was dead." Growing up, he was called "spic, ni**er, half cast. I feel, like if you're going to be racist, then get the general area right."
He experimented quite a bit when he was younger. "I used to be a big drinker. I drank all day. Drugs-wise, I dabbled at everything. There's a period in your life where you experiment. I don't do anything now, but I can't be around non-drinkers. I find them very dry."
His career has been "like snakes and ladders. Very up and down." For a while, his star was in the ascent at RTE and he presented a show on radio, but soon both avenues of work dried up. It was mainly women - his mother and his fiancee Tanja Evans - who got him through this difficult time. "I call them wing wans - women who can be that support."
During this bleak period, he shopped his concept for 50 Ways To Kill Your Mammy abroad, and it was eventually picked up by SKY. It went on to win an Emmy award - a rare honour for an Irish person. "I'd been very humbled before the Emmy, so it wasn't this big 'yesssss-f**k-you moment. The first thing I wanted to do was win another one."
He jokes that they are like the Kardashians now, but I wonder did it ever cross his mind that he, like Kris Jenner, was putting a family member to work on TV? "The only exploitative thing was, I shared the intimate relationship with her with the world. Watching her jump out of a plane was insane. She wanted to do another series, but I didn't know what else was left to do." They made money from the series, he says, "but not as much as people think we made".
In the midst of all of this, he settled down with his partner, Tanja, and became a father. The couple have two daughters, Hanna (9) and Mahy (6) and also Tanja's four children from a previous relationship - Charlotte (22), Harry (21), Jake (17) and Amelia (15). "It's a strange thing to love another man's children, but he knows I love them and I know he loves them - so we are bonded for life because of it," Baz explains. "He's a great Dad, what can I say? We both have the same goal, even though we are very different men. He's a very manly man and I'm kind of campy and light-hearted."
He admits to being vain, but adds: "I don't go in the mirror and go 'look at you, you're hot stuff'. It's more worry driven. Like: 'oh Jesus, look at the state of me'. In the past, some people have presumed he was gay, he says, adding, "to be honest, I do think it's the greatest lifestyle. If it wasn't for stubble and penises, I would be gay tomorrow. Gay clubs seemed to be a great place to go - all those girls with no competition for me in terms of other straight guys."
His father passed away 20 years ago, but he has a strong bond with his Egyptian family and his sister from Cairo lives here now. He says that there are still big misperceptions about Arab culture here. "My sister wears a turban, but she also wears limited-edition Nike Airs. She prays five times a day. She has no man in her life. My Dad is dead and I'm not telling her what do to. She wears it because that's her belief; she is not oppressed."
His Dad died young, but at 44, Baz envisages a very different future for himself. "I embrace being a bit older now, I still feel great. My Dad wasn't doing yoga when he was 44 but I'm in it for the long haul, for my kids, my own health and my work."
The first episode of 'Wingman' airs tonight at 9.30pm on RTE1