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Briony May Williams: Bake Off semi-finalist and TV presenter who lives with a “little hand”

Briony May Williams is a baker and TV presenter from Bristol. She is best known for reaching the semi-finals of the Great British Bake Off in 2018. Briony was born with a limb difference that she calls her “little hand”, in which her left hand stops at the wrist.

Our writer, Emma Purcell got the opportunity to interview Briony to find out what life is like with her disability, becoming a baker, competing in Bake Off and presenting on Channel 4’s Food Unwrapped.

Briony May Williams lives in Bristol with her husband Steve and four-year-old daughter Nora. She has had her lime difference since birth, and it has never stopped her being independent or achieving her goals.

She began baking in 2013 after being diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and having to stay off work for a while. She watched many baking tutorials on YouTube for inspirations.

In 2018, she competed in the reality TV show the Great British Bake Off, where she made it to the semi-finals. During the show, her disability wasn’t mentioned at all, and viewers didn’t really notice her “little hand” until two or three episodes into the series. The following year, she won the Great British Bake Off Christmas Special.

Since Bake Off, Briony has become a presenter for the Channel 4 programme Food Unwrapped, in which she travels to parts of the UK and around the world researching different foods and drinks. She has also made appearances on Loose Women, The Steph Show, Beautiful Bakes With Juliet Sear, Blue Peter and Cbeebies’ Something Special.

Briony has also had a regular recipe column in Asda’s Good Living and Bristol Life magazines, and has worked with brands such as Amazon Prime Video, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dr Oetker, Organix, Gousto, Vorwerk, Tefal and Hollands Pies.

In addition, she has had appearances at The Cake and Bake Show, Thame Food Festival, Bishop Auckland Food Festival and Chris Evans’ Carfest, amongst others.

Read on to find out more about Briony May Williams in her own words:

Briony May Williams’ “little hand”

What was it like growing up with your “little hand”?

My Mum brought me up to never let my hand stop me from doing anything, so it was never an issue for me growing up, I just got on with it.

I was really lucky as I never encountered bullying. I’ve had the same, very good friends since I was two. I think going from nursery to primary school with them helped a lot because they just saw it as normal. They didn’t notice any difference.

I went to an all-girls secondary school, and again, nobody ever picked on me because of my hand. They also helped me out with certain adaptations. For example, when we were doing physics and I needed to solder something, they got me a gadget that would help me do it.

Does your “little hand” prevent you from being able to do certain tasks?

I can do pretty much anything I want to, I just have to find my own way of doing it. I learnt to tie my shoelaces at the same time as my older brother, which I like to remind him of as he has two fully functioning hands.

My Mum and I just sat down and managed to figure it out. I kind of loop one lace around my thumb, hold it down and then sort of twist it around. Before now, I’ve never really thought about it – it’s just how I’ve always tied my shoelaces. I actually taught some younger people with a similar disability how to tie their shoelaces.

 

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I was also a member of the charity Reach, which is an amazing organisation that supports people with upper limb differences. I remember the team getting me a recorder when I was six. It had some funky wires on it, which meant I could play it with one hand.

For eating, I used to have a sort of sticky plastic mat that would go under my plate, which stopped it sliding when I was cutting food on it. I also sometimes use my thumb as a substitute knife.

When I learned to drive, I learned in an automatic so that I didn’t need to do the gears.

Overall, my little hand is such a minor disability compared to what other people have to deal with. I have to make some small adaptations in my day-to-day life, but it’s fine. I can still do everything that I want and need to do.

Do you consider yourself as disabled because of your “little hand”?

This is something I’ve struggled with over the years because we never used the term disabled when I was growing up as it held very negative connotations.

Since Bake Off, I’ve embraced being disabled and I understand that it doesn’t have to be negative.

Briony May Williams becoming a baker

What inspired you to start baking?

I started baking when I was ill and off work for months and needed something to keep my mind busy. It really helped me stay sane and became a kind of therapy for me. It went from there and five years later I was on Bake Off.

Which YouTube baking tutorials inspired you the most?

I love videos by Cupcake Jemma, who is quite prominent on YouTube. She runs a bakery cafe in London called Crumbs and Doilies and has an amazing bank of YouTube videos.

I’ve watched a lot of her tutorials because she is really good at explaining things really clearly. She’s also very young and cool and has tattoos, so she’s quite a funky kind of modern-day baker – the polar opposite to Mary Berry!

What are your most memorable bakes, good or bad, before you were in the public eye?

I remember baking lots of cupcakes with my mum when I was little, and that was always fun.

 

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But I have had so many disastrous bakes too! The worst was when I made my friend’s wedding cake. I arrived to set it up and realised that the icing had melted off the sides. It was so stressful! I managed to scrape it all off and redo it, so it was fine in the end.

Briony May Williams competing on the Great British Bake Off

How did you feel when you were accepted to take part in the Great British Bake Off?

When I sent off the application, I didn’t think that I would ever hear anything back. One day, I noticed several missed calls from a London number, which I thought was PPI, so I ignored it.

I eventually listened to my answer machine and someone casually left a message saying. “Oh, hi. It’s Bake Off here. Can you give us a call back?” I was astounded. I was at my mum’s house and came running down the stairs calling out, “They’ve called me back!”

There is a whole audition process, with about four or five different stages. This included live auditions, chatting to the producers and all sorts of other things. At every stage, I thought there was no way I was going to get through – but they kept calling me back.

When I found out that I had got onto the show, I was with my mum in the car on the way to pick up my daughter from my in-laws. The producers said they’d call by five o’clock on Friday, but they called at half past four saying, “We’re ringing with some good news.” I just kept screaming and squealing in the car – I was very excited!

What were your favourite and least favourite things to bake during the series?

I love baking cakes and they usually turn out well, but they seemed to go wrong each time I did them in the tent. I think there’s something about that tent, it’s like an alternate universe.

Things that you’re good at, you’re suddenly bad at. I think it’s the pressure and stress of it all. You forget to do things, or you miss something out, or get your timing wrong. Sometimes, there’s no reason for it whatsoever and it’s just rubbish.

If you talk to anyone who’s been on Bake Off they will say; “As soon as you get in that tent, everything you know goes out the window.”

I did love doing pastry though, that unexpectedly worked out well for me.

Did you ask the producers not to talk about your disability in the show or was it naturally not mentioned? 

I asked them not to mention my disability because I wanted to be treated like everyone else. I wanted to show people that even with my “little hand”, I could succeed.

I just wanted it to happen organically, and for people to notice and then have that conversation, rather than making a big deal out of it.

I wanted to be seen as one of the bakers, and not to be slapped with a big label from the beginning. I just wanted to go through on my own merit.

The production team were great about it. We had a chat before I went into the tent and they asked if I needed any extra help and I said no.

There should be more people representing disability on TV without us always having to talk about it. From disabled actors to presenters, we shouldn’t have to focus on it or a disability topic. It should just be natural that we’re there.

That’s partly what I love about presenting Food Unwrapped on Channel 4 – it’s got nothing to do with my disability. Other people will see me on the telly without a big deal being made of my disability. I’m just representing diversity.

How did it feel making it to the semi-finals of Bake Off and just missing the final?

 

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The whole thing was amazing, but making it as far as the semi-finals was the icing on the cake (excuse the pun!). In terms of getting to the final, I’ll be honest, by that point, I was actually knackered. I had no energy left and was quite ill that weekend with a chest infection, so it’s a good job that I didn’t get there.

Before we went in for the judging of the showstopper in the semi-final, I sat with one of the crew. She made a comment about getting to the final, and she said I looked terrified at the thought. I really didn’t have anything left to give, so it was absolutely right that I went home.

It was great that I got to go back for the Christmas special and won. I had a really great time doing it. So, I have absolutely no regrets. Plus, I got to enjoy the final, sitting with my family and drinking Prosecco.

Briony May Williams presenting on Food Unwrapped

How did you become a presenter at Food Unwrapped?

I was approached by the production company because they were adding new presenters and wanted me to do a screen test. I was so shocked when they told me I’d got the role!

A career in TV presenting had never even crossed my mind. However, after Bake Off, all these opportunities started coming up. I never thought I’d get the job, but I just really enjoy it.

I love talking to people and I love the job itself. It’s a really fun programme to be a part of and it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

What has been your favourite place to visit so far on the show, and where would you love to go in the future?

Well, I haven’t been anywhere glamorous yet. I was supposed to go to Austria the week that the lockdown happened. So, annoyingly, I didn’t get to go. But I would say probably the best place was Dublin, where I did a story on Irish whiskey. That was great fun.

I’d also love to go to South America for the show! I speak Spanish and have been lucky enough to travel there a couple of times. It would be great to do a piece on some of their dishes that we find unusual, such as guinea pig!

What is happening with the filming of Food Unwrapped after the lockdown, and do you have any other jobs lined up?

We have lots more we want to film on Food Unwrapped as we’re only halfway through the series, but production was put on hold with the pandemic.

I’m not sure what the plan is at the minute as the production team is still talking through exactly what we’re going to do. But I’m hoping we’ll be able to get going again soon.

There were also talks about me maybe doing something with Channel 4 at the Paralympics in Tokyo, but obviously that’s been moved to next year, so I’m waiting to see if anything comes from that. Otherwise, I’m just really enjoying what I’m doing at the minute.

Briony May Williams’ recipes

 

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Which of your own recipes is your favourite and do you have any tips for making it?

I love my chocolate cake recipe. It works out really well every time and tastes delicious. Although I don’t have a secret ingredient or tip for it, I think that when people just have fun with it and really enjoy what they’re doing it comes out better.

I’d also recommend that people just practice. If you get something wrong, don’t worry about it. Just try it again and do it a little bit better the next time.

You share your recipes on your blog and social media channels. Do you know which recipe is most popular with your followers?

Recently, my Nutella banana bread has been very popular. I think it’s a fun, simple recipe that people can do with kids. I’ve had such a good and unexpected response from it.

I have also noticed that there have definitely been more people baking with their kids as part of home-schooling – it’s the perfect excuse to bake. There has also been an increase in people baking and posting on social media, which has been really nice.

Briony May Williams’ husband and daughter

How did you meet your husband Steve and what does he do for a living?

We met online 10 years ago. He’s the loveliest man I’ve ever met and I’m very lucky that I got to marry my best friend. He’s a software engineer, so has a very different job to mine.

He’s only ever baked once and that was because I made him do a YouTube video. But he gets to eat all the products that I bake, which he’s very happy with.

Does your daughter Nora enjoy baking too and how have you coped during the lockdown?

Nora loves baking. We bake together a lot and I really want her to grow up with that skill. She loves anything rainbow or unicorn based!

 

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With the lockdown, we muddled through like everyone else. We did loads of baking! It was nice to have the time to really do stuff like that with Nora. Before lockdown, I was away a lot with work, so it was lovely to have the opportunity to connect.

When we weren’t baking, it was challenging entertaining Nora at times, but she was amazing. There was a lot more screen-time than usual, but I think we had to allow ourselves that. It was such a strange time.

What advice would you give to disabled people wanting to become professional bakers?

Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it. If it’s your dream, follow it and don’t let people’s misconceptions get in your way.

You can find out more about Briony May Williams and view her recipes by visiting her blog Briony Bakes and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

 By Emma Purcell – follow her blog Rock For Disability

 More on Disability Horizons…

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