Children often see kids’ TV presenters as their best friends and, within moments of meeting Gemma Hunt, I can see why. Her warm and fun-loving personality immediately puts me at ease, and soon it feels as if I’ve known her for years.
I spent the first part of my own career at the BBC, so many of my TV friends have worked with Hunt and they’ve all told me I must meet her. We’d tried to connect on many occasions, but lockdown finally awarded us both with the time we needed.
A prophetic word received at the Christian youth festival Soul Survivor about being a light in the media inspired Hunt to pursue a career in presenting. It also helped her brush off her school’s careers advisor who had suggested she get a “proper job” rather than work in children’s TV. Today, she fronts CBeebies’ Swashbuckle, a pirate-themed gameshow aimed at two to seven- year-olds. She has also appeared on a host of other BBC shows including Blue Peter Proms and Xchange.
During our interview, the 38-year-old candidly admits she made a poor relationship choice that had an adverse effect on everything – from her faith to her career and even her own health. She has since come through the other side, and it seems life’s challenges have matured her belief in God, and given her a fresh confidence in her own identity.
Ultimately, Hunt is a shining example of how to live out faith in the spotlight. Since her first audition at the BBC she has been upfront about her Christian convictions and is passionate about sharing her hope with those around her – whether on a national scale through the Alpha video series, Songs of Praise and at events like the Big Church Day Out, or one-to-one with children in her Sunday school group.
What was your experience of God as a child?
My parents separated when I was four and my mum brought me up to go to church. Church was very dull as a kid. They were lovely people, but I wasn’t really engaged with it. I was a bit of a rebel! I was that kid in Sunday school who was always being told to sit down.
One of our leaders took us to a Christian summer camp called Hill House and I met loads of other Christian children my age. It became very real to me. Seeing other people worshiping, praying and reading the Bible made me think: It’s not just about sitting in a pew and hearing prayers I don’t understand. This is real.
I watched a video of the death and resurrection of Jesus and was so taken aback that Jesus would do that for me. Even with my slightly rebellious side, he died for me. It was like a light bulb moment.
I came back from that camp (aged about eleven), and told my mum I’d become a Christian. And she said: “Oh, I wonder how long that will last.” But I was serious about this new step of faith and it hasn’t failed me yet!
How did you get into presenting?
When I was 16, I went to Soul Survivor and had a prophetic word that I would be salt and light in the dark place of the media. So, I applied to the University of Luton to do a media performance degree. In my third year an agent spoke to me about how to put together a show reel. I showed her some VHS footage of myself and she said: “It’s not great, but it’s something.” She helped me get a meeting at the BBC and they invited me to audition for CBBC. I had to talk for one minute to camera and I chose to talk about my experience at the kids’ church summer camp. That was me putting Jesus right there, saying: “This is who I am.” A couple of hours later I got a phone call offering me a contract.
What have been some of the highs and lows of your career so far?
Interviewing Sir David Attenborough at the Royal Albert Hall for the Blue Peter Proms was awesome. Getting to go to Buckingham Palace to celebrate the Queen’s 80th birthday and present live from her back garden was a real high.
Some of the lows were that I made some bad relationship choices while I was working in TV. I dated someone who didn’t love the Lord and it definitely took me off the path that the Lord had for me, in terms of my faith, and it affected me physically. I lost loads of weight and got horrendous acne, but I was still working in TV, so had to really battle through that. I had to deal with my self-worth and body image, and I came out of TV, actually, after that relationship, because it really did just beat me down for some time and that was a tough journey.
I went back to my mum’s lovely little Baptist church and they loved me for a good couple of years. Then I got the courage to go back to London and worked in this beautiful children’s toy and bookshop, where I ran storytelling workshops. It was in that time that I was asked if I wanted to do panto again. Through panto I met this guy who played the piano and who I found out was a Christian. He was single, in his 30s, so I got my claws into him and then we got married! So, it has been a rollercoaster ride. It’s still a journey. I feel very blessed that I get lots of opportunities to do fun things and very different things. My life is so varied.
When I was working in children’s television at the BBC, Christians often asked me why I wasn’t making explicitly Christian content for children. How would you answer that?
For me, faith is very personal. And to try to explain it to children, you need to go into quite a lot of backstory detail…you want to get it theologically correct, as well, so that you’re giving them the bigger picture so they can make their own choices. But there are programmes that have, I think, nailed it. There’s a faith-based show on CBeebies called Treasure Champs. I’m one of the storytellers, which is so lovely, as I get to tell Jesus stories and biblical stories.
How can we get better at telling stories to our children?
Through practise and by not being afraid to be silly in front of them. I think sometimes as adults we feel we have to let go of childlikeness because we’ve got to do adulting well, but Jesus says to be childlike in our faith. So, to put on silly voices and pull silly faces when you’re telling stories and bring something to life like that is really fun and it brings the child into the story. Or tell them a story about what happened to you because that’s your testimony. Eye contact is so important, too, which is hard when you’re reading, but it could be that you put the book down for a minute and just say a few lines into their eyes. Then the child will feel that you are speaking to them, not just at them.
You’re involved in children’s work at various Christian festivals where there are children who don’t have the reference points for God that some Christian children would have. How do we reach those children with the gospel?
By loving them. God is love and therefore if you are loving your child in whatever way, you’re sharing God’s love. It’s just by being real with them as well. Kids see past the mask that we, as adults, put on. They notice things and say things that adults probably wouldn’t be brave enough to say to you!
When I was going through my acne time, I was helping out with the Sunday school at my church and one of the kids said to me: “You’re really spotty.” And I replied: “Yeah, I am. But sometimes my skin does get a bit like this when I don’t eat very well and don’t look after myself.”
I think often we are tempted to patronise children, to talk down to them because they’re younger and smaller than us, but I just view children as being adults in smaller bodies that deserve the same respect as one of my peers. So, I try to talk to them in the same way. Let’s respect them by being honest with them.
Are you and your husband intentional about doing faith at home with your three-year-old?
We’re definitely intentional with talking about our faith, listening to worship music and saying prayers in the morning, bedtime and at mealtimes, and encouraging everybody to participate in that.
You think it might be quite difficult to keep those traditions going when you have guests around, but actually, when it becomes such a routine, it’s not often us that says: “We haven’t said grace”, it’s our daughter! So I say: “Oh, OK then, over to you!”
I used to nanny for two families from church and I see those as my most invaluable parenting training years. I learned so much through these two amazing families, about love, forgiveness, patience and discipline.
One thing I absolutely loved was something one of the dads did. He had three boys and, when one of their friends came over to play he would come in from work and kiss his boys on the head to greet them, but he also kissed the head of the child who had come to play. And I just thought: Wow, yes, you’re loving all the kids, not showing any preference.
What is it like being a Christian in the media?
It’s probably the same as any sphere – working in a supermarket or education or healthcare. There are always struggles. I think that we are very fortunate in CBeebies in that there is such a beautiful community, we feel so blessed that we’ve got a real family vibe going on. And we all genuinely love each other. I have a WhatsApp group with all the presenters and there are times when we have conversations and somebody will say: “Can you maybe have a word for me, Gemma?” And I’m like: “I will totally pray for you about the situation.” It isn’t always easy to share your faith openly, is it? But I’ve just got to a point now where I’m like: “Well, this is who I am, this is what I believe, you know this about me now.”
There have been some times when it has been hard; like when I was working on CBBC and had to dress up for Halloween. I thought: “This isn’t what I celebrate, I’m not about darkness,” but I checked my spirit and was like: “Lord, you know who I am.” So, I felt that I was OK with it. Other people might not have been OK with putting a witch’s hat on, but in the moment it felt like the right decision for me. So yes, there are sometimes compromises you have to make, but God is the only one who judges me. If other people misread it, they need to take it up with him, not me!
How did you get involved with the Alpha film series, and did it feel really different from children’s TV?
Completely different! I ignored the call from them quite a few times. I think because I’d had that prophetic word about being salt and light in a dark place in the media, I was a bit unclear why God wanted me to do the Alpha videos. Surely, this was being a light in an already light place?
In the end they called a colleague of mine at the BBC and asked him to put in a word. So he came to me during my lunch break and said: “These guys at Alpha are really trying to contact you, I think you should return the call.” So I sighed and said: “OK.”
So then I went for an audition where I had to talk to camera alongside Toby Flint, who is a curate at HTB. They kept saying to me: “That’s great, Gemma.” And then: “Toby, can you just be more like Gemma in how she’s talking to camera?” And I thought: This is so weird, I thought this was my audition, but it feels like you’re training him up!
But I think we were a good team, because I had the experience in television presenting and he had the experience in sharing the gospel. They wanted to reimagine the whole Alpha series to target a very different audience. We filmed for the best part of the year on and off, travelling around the world.
It has been incredible, and the stories I hear of people experiencing Jesus for the first time, or again, are stunning. I’m very honoured to have been a part of that.
Is there anything that you as a family have learned about God in lockdown?
It’s good to rest. Scripture says: “Be still, and know that I am God”. Even at the beginning of lockdown, we were bombarded with things to do online and Zoom meetings and FaceTime calls. It was lovely, but we were on devices all the time. So, we tried to take time out and walk around our village and appreciate where we live, which I think a lot of us have done, and sit in the garden, which we’re fortunate to have, and listen to the birds singing and watch the clouds go by and just have some rest time.
What would you say to ten-year-old Gemma Hunt?
I would probably want to pre-empt the concerns and issues I’ve had with my self-worth over the years. So, I would tell her: “You’re enough, just as you are. You don’t have to keep trying and striving and worrying about what other people think of you. You’re enough.”
To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 8pm on Saturday 21 November or download The Profile podcast