Mo Gilligan BRITs Host Announcement Photos, Hammersmith Apollo, London, 29th October 2021. Image: JM Enternational
As Mo Gilligan arrived at the Brit School in south London, students cheered and hurried to catch a glimpse of the top comedian who will tonight make history as the first Black British person to host the Brit Awards.
Students and teachers were huddled into a classroom to witness Gilligan’s charm and exuberant spirit first-hand. These are just two of the qualities that make him the perfect host for this year’s music awards ceremony. Gilligan will become the first Black person to host the Brits since RuPaul co-hosted with Elton John in 1994.
The two-time Bafta winner couldn’t contain his excitement when he learned he would be hosting the awards – while in a car park waiting to order KFC.
“It’s weird because my manager normally calls me up when I’m in the same car park and I’m buying KFC,” Gilligan told The Big Issue. “I was like, ‘Of course’—it’s a no brainer. It’s an amazing opportunity. The fact that I get to host it still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Maybe that’s why Gilligan isn’t feeling the heat ahead of the big night. The comedian said he hasn’t felt increased pressure because of what it means for Black British representation. “I think maybe it will be something I look back on in years and years. When I have kids and stuff,” he said.
“I think the biggest honour is that I’m able to be in a space that is not normally occupied by people from my background and represent my culture, community and background,” Gilligan continued. “That’s what I’m also proud about, as opposed to being the first Black guy.”
Gilligan has sold-out comedy tours under his belt and his second comedy special, There’s Mo To Life, is coming to Netflix on February 17.
It was the success of Gilligan’s online comedy videos that catapulted his career to the point where he was offered his own show on Channel 4 in 2019, The Lateish Show with Mo Gilligan. That has been renewed for a third and fourth season, and he also co-hosts The Big Narstie Show on Channel 4 and serves as a judge on ITV’s The Masked Singer.
Gilligan is now one of the busiest men in television, which is something he never dreamed possible as a young Black boy watching TV himself.
“For me the goal is to inspire. There’s probably some young kid who’s watching me, like, ‘Oh my god, I never thought I’d see someone who looks like my uncle, older brother host a show or be on the Brits’,” he said.
“But I’m also introducing who I am and my culture to an audience that doesn’t know my culture. That’s where I see the boundary that I’m breaking down. There is a level of society that doesn’t know about some of the things we talk about, and some of the shows that I do,” he added.
Gilligan’s drive to improve Black representation on British TV led to him being part of Channel’s 4 Black to Front project last year. As part of the efforts to showcase Black creatives, he hosted a one-off edition of classic ‘90s programme The Big Breakfast with AJ Odudu.
“Being able to do The Big Breakfast was amazing,” he said, adding that the entire day of Black-fronted programming felt special. “I can never forget turning over the TV and seeing all the Black faces on all the adverts… I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Gilligan grew up watching a lot of comedy on TV and would deconstruct the diversity of shows he watched and idolised as a child. As a child, he drew inspiration from both British and American television.
“Obviously, I watched Lenny Henry and Angie Le Mar. I used to watch Blouse and Skirt, The Real McCoy,” Gilligan said. “But I definitely took a lot of influence when it comes to stand-up from a lot of American comedy. I felt l I was able to relate to it a little bit more compared to UK comedy.”
Gilligan explained: “Seeing Black people performing to Black people… I was watching all these Def Jams in America, thinking, ‘This is amazing.’ Chris Rock, Bill Bellamy, Dave Chappelle, all these amazing comics that I grew up with — like, that was so important.”
Today, Gilligan feels that representation on television still has a “long way to go”.
Recent research from Ofcom shows that the number of radio broadcasters from ethnic minority backgrounds stands at 12 per cent, while for TV broadcasters it is 16 per cent. “I think that’s what I push for a little bit more now,” said Gilligan.
Gilligan is at the forefront of change with his starring role on ITV’s The Masked Singer, which pulls in over 10 million viewers. He is a judge alongside Davina McCall, Jonathan Ross and Rita Ora.
“I love Masked Singer, because it’s proper Saturday night entertainment TV. Kids love it, adults too. It’s quite fun with adults because sometimes they say, ‘It’s my guilty pleasure.’ Then they say, ‘It’s not, I love it.’
“I never thought I’d be in a space of doing Saturday night TV,” Gilligan said.
He might be enjoying mainstream success now, but Gilligan’s career has been riddled with setbacks, which he uses as motivation. “You always get some setbacks. You’re working on something, and the outcome is not the outcome that you want. You’re like, cool, go back to the drawing board. Now when I have setbacks, I just embrace,” he explained.
As for career highlights, Gilligan said: “My highlight probably when my book came out, it’s something I know I can always look back on. And winning a Bafta.”
Gilligan received his first Bafta nomination in 2019 for The Big Nartsie Show and won his first award in 2020 for best entertainment performer.
“Everything I had done, the grind of going to shows all the way in the middle of nowhere, the hard work that gets put into it — it felt like my reward. It felt like, ‘there you go, you’ve got something that the world knows about.’ As much as I wanted it, it felt like everybody wanted it — my manager, my mum and friends. All those people that helped me get to that place.”