Rubina Pabani and Poppy Jay: “We are not sexperts – we are sex clowns” | Podcast
IIn a photographer’s studio, two successful professional women in brightly colored dresses and gold earrings have their pictures taken. On the right, Rubina Pabani, head of short form at ITN Productions (“I work in podcasting and video, pitching, team building”), currently on maternity leave for her first child. On the left, Poppy Jay, producer-director of investigative documentaries from 24 hours in custody and Bafta nominees queens of rap. But their daily work is not the reason we are here. We’re here – there’s no way to embellish this – because of their sex life. In addition to having impressive media careers, Poppy and Rubina are the revealing hosts of the podcast. Brunette Girls Do It Too, which has just launched its third series on BBC Sounds. Their subject? Sex. Specifically, sex as experienced by British South Asian women.
“Oh, we’re definitely not sexperts, we’re sex clowns,” says Rubina, 34. “We are the dumbest, most open person in the room, the one who encourages everyone to participate, to be dumb and free. …”
“She filtered this for you,” says Poppy, 36. “She usually says we’re the most evil uncles at a party. Or we’re like white vanmen in brown girl skin.
Sex clowns? Pervert uncles? White vanmen? Or just happy to talk about what sex means to them? Unlike many in their community, for these women, no sexual subject is off limits. Listeners know that Rubina has stopped masturbating since she had a baby, that Poppy doesn’t like porn, that Rubina once left a recently purchased sex toy on a train, that Poppy, who recently got out of a 10-year-old relationship, is dating on the internet for the first time and is definitely up for sex on a first date, but only if there’s some kind of connection – “not just a dry talk” . Having followed the series from the start, I could give you a lot more intimate details about them but, you know, that’s not quite the place. You just have to listen.
If you do, you will reach a large audience. Despite its title, Brunette Girls Do It Too was a hit with audiences from all cultural backgrounds. “Well, everyone has sex,” Poppy points out. “Most people jerk off. And many people feel like strangers. In the second series, we discovered that we had a lot of white listeners in their 40s, who always seemed to listen to us in a supermarket, in the pasta section. And they’d say, “You’re both funny, but sometimes I cringe at what you say.” And I’m like, ‘Hey, we cringe at what we say!’ »
“Honestly,” says Rubina, “the reason we were so honest and too divided at first was because we thought no one was going to listen and no one would care!”
Really, brunette girls came very close to ending after just one series. The BBC did not recommission it, but the show went on to win two UK Podcast Awards in 2020, including Podcast of the Year, so a second series was made – minus the third presenter, Roya Eslami, who chose to leave after the first series. Then Poppy and Rubina appeared on Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton’s much-missed show. The high lowwhich helped attract listeners, as did the enthusiasm of Deborah Frances-White, host of The guilty feminist. “The female podcast community is much tighter than people realize,” says Rubina. “There was this stat the other day that said only 11% of podcasts are hosted by women…everyone is very supportive.”
For this third series, they have a new all-female production team and we notice that their presentation has improved with each series. Off the mic, they’re both talking at a million miles an hour, Rubina maybe a million and a half. They have a loud, high-octane energy, like teenagers on the whip.
There will also be a Brunette Girls Do It Too round, Mama didn’t tell me come, in autumn. It won’t be just a live version of the podcast, they say, munching on chicken wings in the studio dressing room. Instead, it’s more like a sketch show – they both love Gracious goodness me – with them telling stories from their childhood and teenage years, then doing silly skits to emphasize their points. Rap is promised. “We even do Indian accents,” says Rubina. “Which everyone is going to hate us for.”
NOTIn a double act of good faith, Rubina and Poppy say their bond, fundamentally, is both to have experienced a belated personal release after a sheltered childhood and a repressed adolescence. Poppy grew up in a Bengali family in Tower Hamlets, east London, the eldest of five girls and one boy. Her parents do not speak English and she had a strict upbringing. “I was an idiot with a moustache, a single eyebrow,” she says. “I was wearing a headscarf. All my friends wore jeans and western clothes, and I was not allowed to do anything. I never snuck out, never changed my clothes before school. I just accepted it. I was really devoted girl.
At home she had a lot of responsibilities, reading official letters, translating for her non-English speaking parents: “To be a third parent, treated like a boy.” But when she was with her cousins, she says: “I was suddenly treated like a girl, a second-class citizen, and I couldn’t understand that.
At 17, a husband was chosen for her. After they married at 20, Poppy moved into her parents’ house. It didn’t work: at 23, she moved back in with her parents – “And he didn’t come looking for me” – before divorcing at 25. She didn’t talk about it for several years, but now, as there are “so many Asian women forced to marry someone they don’t want, a cousin or someone from back home. It’s such a normal experience for us. I don’t even see that as a trauma. I talked about it the other day with a friend. I said, “I had a forced marriage. And they emptied their pint and said, “Who hasn’t?” Still, she says she was recently working with someone who mentioned his girlfriend was about to meet the husband her parents had chosen for her, and she could feel the rage rising. started crying; I was like, ‘Give her my number, she can come live with me.'”
RUbina’s upbringing, in Enfield, North London, was more liberal than Poppy’s, although there was still a hierarchy based on gender: at mealtimes, her father and brother always ate before her and her mother. There is a very moving episode in brunette girls about daddy issues, which begins as a joke about whether they would call a lover ‘daddy’ in the bedroom (none would), then escalates into an upsetting discussion about not feeling close to their own father. “My dad didn’t talk to me for two years when I started seeing my partner,” Rubina says. “He only started again because we had a little boy. He has made tremendous progress. But he’s 75 – we lost all that time.
There’s a lot to unravel from their past, and they’re still unraveling. Poppy isn’t just dealing with the breakdown of a 10-year relationship, but the fact that her parents didn’t know she was in that relationship. “It breaks my heart,” she said evenly. “All those memories they lost. He was such a lovely guy and he loved Asian food, and Asian family is all about cooking and having the family around. But I didn’t introduce him to them because he wasn’t a Muslim. I’m a part-time Muslim at best, but I’m a Muslim when I see my mom and dad. And I started to think that I could have allowed this double life. I fed him. I lied for so long, I should have been brave enough to say it.
She, too, she says, finds it hard to think about how she treated her sisters when she was young. “My parents literally pushed me to raise my sisters the way they raised me,” she says. “I was their main sidekick. It was horrible. I was so strict. If they wore eyeliner, lipstick, or quit school… I actually think I need therapy to come to terms with how I treated them. Two of her sisters cut her off when they discovered the podcast, although they have now reconciled. His parents still don’t know.
Rubina, who met her partner on Tinder, finds it interesting to raise a child of mixed background (her partner’s family is South American). She plays her son’s Bollywood music, even though she’s never really listened to it before: “I’m culturally appropriating my own culture.” She is an Ismaili Muslim and her son will have a bay’ah (a pledge of spiritual allegiance), but will not be circumcised: “Don’t tell my mother! She and her mother have a good relationship, but she is determined not to recreate her family dynamic. “I am 100% equal to my partner, we are PACS. And I don’t think you have to be a martyr to be a mom. To be a good mom, you have to be: ‘I love my life!’ »
Chiming at each other, laughing, joking, Rubina and Poppy are great company. They split into why Asian guys don’t like them, what podcasts they like (Hard reality, fucking decisions) and what they got out of the podcast’s huge success Sweet Bobby, about a British woman of South Asian descent who was romantically fished out by someone in her community. They note that when she told her family about it, the podcast host (who is not Asian) was shocked by the father’s reaction. “Father didn’t want us to make a fuss about the community,” says Poppy. “Not a surprise.”
“Being disowned is such a popular trope in Bollywood movies,” agrees Rubina. “And you watch it grow – all the time you know you are on this edge with your parents. You do something wrong and they might disown you.
“That’s sort of what our show is about,” Poppy says. “Like how much of yourself can you be when you have all these people trying to please? You can never be yourself… The level of poor mental health among South Asian women is so high, compared to other ethnic communities. And I know things are changing now, people are talking about it. But it’s so slow. It’s like dinosaurs, fossils, oil formation. It’s happening, but you’re like, ‘Can we hurry up and get going?’ »