Interview

Comedian London Hughes: 'It's about the happy side of sex'

Close-up of London Hughes's face
‘There should be no shame in a woman talking about her sexual exploits’: London Hughes. Photograph: Ryan Pfluger
‘There should be no shame in a woman talking about her sexual exploits’: London Hughes. Photograph: Ryan Pfluger

Having battled to kickstart her career in Britain, London Hughes is now raising pulses and laughs in LA with her joyously filthy monologues. Here, she reveals where it all went right

Last modified on Wed 27 Jan 2021 10.24 EST

For those who have been dozing on the sofa this winter, London Hughes’s Netflix standup special, To Catch a D*ck, will likely bring you out of your snooze. In her one-hour routine, the London-born comedian, actor, writer and TV presenter, 31, who has stormed Hollywood this year, recaps the story of her life so far: basically the quest for a good seeing-to.

To Catch a D*ck was originally a show which Hughes took to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2019, where it got her nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award. Its film version was executive-produced by American super-comic Kevin Hart, and signals Hughes’s acceptance in Hollywood’s upper echelons. In fact, ever since she moved to LA before the pandemic hit, things have rapidly swung the comedian’s way after a decade of playing second fiddle to her often white, often male peers, back in the UK – a situation she has a lot to say about. But we’ll come to that. Suffice it to say that with her own movie planned with the producers behind Girls Trip, a sitcom pilot and a hosting gig on chatshow The Netflix Afterparty, Hughes has had a busy 2020. In fact, she says, from her home in LA, just days into 2021, she doesn’t have any goals for this new year, because the last one went so well.

“Oh my days!” she exclaims, sitting in a well-lit corner of her home. She looks suspiciously demure in a graphic print top, but her raucous, warm tone is there from the off. I doubt she has an off-switch, just a helpful dimmer. “All my goals – even some I’d set 10 years ago – I achieved in 2020,” she explains. “So I didn’t actually have any resolutions for 2021. I’m like, hey – if I can do all this in a global pandemic? Then cool! This year… just more of the same!” Owing to Covid, the extent of her celebrations when To Catch a D*ck came out had to be hiring out the suite at the Beverly Wilshire where Beyoncé filmed her 7/11 video. She invited a different girlfriend over each day to eat steak sandwiches in bed. Beyoncé is someone she has often namechecked as a barometer of success; another pair she mentions today are the rappers Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, who have similar form in being utterly, joyously filthy on-stage. “They’re just owning their sexuality and taking control,” she beams. “That’s what I’m trying to do with comedy.”

Hughes was born – deep breath – London Dionne Micha Stacey Stephanie Estina Knibbs-Hughes in Thornton Heath, south London, in 1989. That exceedingly long name – the result of everyone in her family, including her parents, two elder brothers and grandma each getting to choose a moniker – set her stall out from the start, since it is extravagant, eye-catching, and a bit of a mouthful. The young Hughes seems to have settled on two things early: that she wanted to enjoy her sexuality and she wanted to be a star. At least some of this seems to have been in the family tree, since in one of the opening salvoes of her show, she describes both her grandmother and mother as “hoes”, and this is very much a term of endearment.

“I feel that there should be no shame in a woman being sexually free and talking about her sexual exploits,” she says. “So that’s why it was so important to me that the show is so happy and smiling, and that I get people cheering for the fact that I sucked dick for shoes.” Ah, yes – one of the standup’s key set pieces details how Hughes gamely got it on with a foot-fetish guy mostly on the basis that he would buy her footwear. He did – 12 pairs – but when it ended she had to give them all back. “That might be a dark story… for another woman,” she chuckles. “There shouldn’t be any shame in what I said – apart from the fact that I didn’t get to keep the shoes; that’s the shameful part. And yes, there have been some iconic women talking about sex, and doing sex from a woman’s perspective – you’ve got shows like Fleabag or I May Destroy You. But both of those shows focus on the dark side. I love those shows… But there’s also another side – a happy side to sex and women being free. And that’s what To Catch a D*ck is.”

London Hughes in a short green strappy dress and black heeled boots
‘I’ve kissed a long line of famous men’: London Hughes. Photograph: Ryan Pfluger

When Hughes was little, all she knew is that she wanted to be a star, or, more specifically, “the funny black girl I never saw on TV, growing up”. She listened to classic old Radio 4 comedies with her father, she adored telly sitcoms like One Foot in the Grave and Keeping Up Appearances, “one of my favourite comedy shows of all time”, but one thing was already strikingly obvious – “not a single black person in that, throughout the whole thing! So I was like, clearly you need something different,” she says. “Me! You need me!” So she set to work. Aged seven she told her mother she wouldn’t have kids until she got a star on the Walk of Fame. At 12, she asked her how exactly she was going to help her with her career. “Mum, Britney Spears made it on to the Mickey Mouse Club at 11, and I’m 12. I’m past it,” she says. “So what you gonna do about my career in America?” Depressingly perhaps, she already had an inkling that she might do better over there.

She did, however, give Britain a good go first. For starters she auditioned four times in a row for Big Brother as a teenager. The final time she got selected, but pulled out when it meant she would have to repeat her entire first year of university at Kingston, where she had gone to do some nominal studying. However, a producer on the show advised her that if she wanted to be a TV presenter anyway, she should ignore BB and just go ahead and do it. This led to Hughes’s first and second presenting jobs, which when placed together surely represent the most surprising segue in any career, ever: she went from the soft-porn channel Babestation, then called Flirt UK, to CBeebies. She never did nudity herself on the former; she just larked about and introduced saucy items. So – what do presenting at Babestation and CBBC have in common? “ENERGY!”

We have great fun going over Hughes’s most promiscuous years in her early 20s. “I’ve kissed a long line of famous men,” she laughs – starting with the fact that her first snog, at 16, was with Wiley, the godfather of grime, backstage after a gig, “way before I found out about all his anti-Jewish propaganda”, she grimaces. She’s done better since, anyway. In fact, the only time she is remotely coy in To Catch a D*ck is when she refers to getting it on with a British boxer who won Olympic gold in 2012. I mean, it’s Anthony Joshua, right? She honks. “You know what? I haven’t spoken to the person. So I don’t know if the person has seen the show or how he feels about the joke. But… I think he’s a great athlete.” Mhmm. You think, or you know? “Hahaha!”

And yet the uplift has encountered a fair few downs. She was bullied at primary school in London, then at secondary school (the family moved to Brighton when she was 14), and later even at university, where some girls she lived with froze her out. She has described her childhood self as ungainly, awkward, ugly (“a female Jay-Z”) and admits she has had to work on her confidence. “I used to be really insecure,” she nods. “I had the confidence in me, but I didn’t know how to unlock it.”

All of which leads us to the vexed issue of why Hughes ended up having to leave Britain. She tried standup when she was 19 and found she had a talent for it; in fact, she won the 2009 Funny Award at London’s Comedy Store, at 20. And yet the following decade was marked by the sound of grinding gears. “The problem was, and still is, that no one had the foresight to see that the audience might want something different,” she sighs. “I was seen as something so different, and such a risk. Because I’m a woman, because I’m black. Genuinely, I think if I had the same level of talent, but I just happened to be a white man, I would have been Michael McIntyre!”

To be clear, she worked pretty solidly throughout the 2010s, but couldn’t help but be aware that the rest of her generation of comics that she came up with were getting far more opportunities. “What do you say when your parents are like, ‘How come Jack Whitehall’s on TV and you’re not? How come Katherine Ryan’s on TV all the time and you’re not?’ You have to start thinking, is it me? And the craziest thing is, I was on TV just enough to know that it wasn’t me, if that makes sense.”

She is aware her worst critics “will probably say, ‘Ah, she’s got a chip on her shoulder… But you don’t understand: I’ve had my own TV show in Britain rejected eight times. Eight times I wrote a show, pitched it, it got to a certain level and it got rejected – eight times. The last straw was when I got Whoopi Goldberg to agree to do a TV show with me – and nobody wanted it.” In 2018, the Ghost star agreed to do a travelogue comedy show with Hughes. “She’s the biggest black female comedian in the world, hands down – and nobody wanted it. That let me know I had no business trying to make a career for myself in this country. It was a sad realisation.”

London Hughes on stage holding a mic
‘On dates there are just these bland guys’: London Hughes. Photograph: Greg Gayne/Netflix

Why is it so hard in Britain compared to America? “There are so many reasons. But the one I like best is that, basically, America’s got so many black people in it that even if you were a black person that never catered to a white audience, you could still be a billionaire. Tyler Perry, for instance: his movies are solely culturally black movies. So one, there’s a lot more black people in America.” But second, she says again, “there’s not enough foresight here to think black people can be things outside of the niche.” If there is one bittersweet side-effect of this, it’s that black British talent has to work so hard, “fighting for scraps”, that by the time they get to America, “we’re so good, it’s like: Hey! You can’t ignore us.”

America seems to fit her like a glove, not least in its tendency to encourage big-voiced, happy-go-lucky success – in fact it’s striking how, in her TV special, Hughes points out a fair few times that she is financially independent. And yet – and sadly it’s not unconnected – her show is also under-pinned by her frustration at not being able to bag a proper life-partner. “In terms of getting sex, I always get sex,” she says. “But in terms of dating, I find it very hard to date. No one really excites me any more…” she tails off. “Like, I’m London Hughes! I’m a funny person… and all these bland guys! You can meet a really good-looking guy, and then he just opens his mouth and nothing comes out and it’s like my vagina just shrivels up.”

“You can’t really date an unsuccessful man,” she says. “Being a successful woman, I would always date whoever I wanted, then it turns out that the guys I date, they can’t afford the same lifestyle I can afford and I end up paying for their lifestyle and it just gets a bit… ech! And that happened a lot.” Her confidence and her success have scared a lot of men off, she says. “If I was an insecure, unsuccessful shy girl, I’d be married!” And she isn’t sure that the Netflix special is going to help. “My DMs already suggest there are many guys out there who want to say they’ve slept with the To Catch a D*ck girl,” she laughs. “So I’ve actually cock-blocked my own sex life.”

Hughes may be happy for the break anyway. For one thing, she says she’d like her next Netflix special to be called To Catch a Husband. And her film project with the Girls Trip team is a romcom – but she qualifies that. Yes, she is a huge fan of romantic comedies, but this wouldn’t be another one where the girl is saved by the guy. “I want to do current romcoms that reveal my life as a black British woman, and bring them to the mainstream.” In fact she has several scripts on the go, “and they all have that similar message where women don’t need a man. But hey, we could want one from time to time…”

Another thing though, she announces blithely, is that “My ’nani needs a break anyway, because she was active.” Between 2017, when her last relationship ended, and the beginning of 2020, Hughes had quite the time. “Baby Girl was living her best life! So I feel like she needed to calm down. Just a reset.” Like a vagina spa? “Yeah,” she smiles. “My vagina has gone to rehab! She’s reevaluating her life, and what she’s been through and how she wants to move forward.” Judging by her trajectory so far though, don’t expect any part of Hughes to be resting for too long.

To Catch a D*ck is on Netflix