Steph Blackwell - the GBBO finalist on her next step
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 January 2020
Meet our new columnist and Bake Off finalist Steph Blackwell, who wants to change the world, one bake at a time.
'There was nothing like that moment walking into the garden at the Bake Off final. I felt like a princess, it felt like my wedding day, it felt like I'd already won - even though I knew I hadn't after my nightmare final bake. Coming out of the marquee, seeing my mum and those people I care for - I wanted to capture that moment and bottle it.'
Steph Blackwell is one of the most successful contestants in the National Treasure status Great British Bake Off competition. She got the coveted golden handshake from Wirral-born master baker, Paul Hollywood, and was crowned star baker a record four times. Her bouquet of flowers breads, pina colada cakes and abundance of other showstoppers were bakes that won over the nation - bookies had her as a dead cert to win. But it was never about first prize for the soon-to-be 29 year old.
'It was just about turning something out, that was all that mattered,' says Steph. 'It was the opportunity of a lifetime. On my first day I was so scared and nervous, overwhelmed with the enormity of what I was in.
'You're in this situation where really only a handful of people have been before. There's pride and this feeling of total gratitude. For more it was never about competition with anyone else, it was competition with myself.'
Steph, who grew up in Chester, admits she never felt she'd found that thing that defined her. As a teenager art lessons lifted her up and gave her joy. It shows - one glance around her lounge in Chester proves she is a seriously skilled artist. She moved into athletics, excelling at hurdles and becoming one of the best in the county and country - something mum Jane is quick to share as Steph is too good at hiding her talents. But when she got injured, things changed.
'I had this ambition I was going to be an athlete and nothing else,' she says. 'I worked really hard in school but athletics was the thing for me. I met great people, particularly in the Wirral club I trained with. It's like you've found your people, you are part of a tribe.
'The injury meant I couldn't carry on. I didn't know what I wanted anymore. Professional athletes deal with this problem all the time but you can't feel the same way because you're not Kelly Holmes. It hit me hard.'
It was at Loughborough University, where she studied psychology, things compounded. The big sporting community around there brought comfort but a second attempt at getting back into athletics resulted in disappointment for Steph. She knew university wasn't for her either. When it was all a bit too stressful, watching a certain baking programme helped.
'It was my lullaby,' she explains. 'I used to play it on my iPad while I fell asleep. It helped. University was hard. I tried really hard to get back to where I was.'
But she couldn't - and in the end her ambitions faded to simply getting through her degree so she could then leave and get on with the rest of her life.
There were other demons she was battling too. Separately Steph has talked about suffering from an eating disorder and osteoporosis - and how baking formed part of her recovery. Although she's still not sure why she applied to Bake Off, it would prove to be a lifeline for her.
'It was my birthday month, January, which I always find a bit blue so doing the application was a distraction,' says Steph. 'But my confidence was so low. I'd never had the confidence to show or tell people I baked. I was so shy about it my mum told my Gran Sheila I'd applied and her response was "But Steffi doesn't bake". I was just too scared.'
She wanted to prove to herself she could do it - that trying and failing was the better option - 'trying to suppress those thoughts as much as possible, that failure of putting yourself out there for the world to see'.
She channelled the support of her granddad, Derek Arden. Her first experience of baking was with him - he loved bread. He would pick her up from school and dinner would be a meal with a 'whole lot of bread'. He passed away a few years ago but Steph is convinced he is always on her shoulder, rooting for her.
'I really felt my granddad was watching over me during Bake Off,' she smiles. 'This little robin followed me around and kept appearing - in my garden, regularly outside the Bake Off tent; it was him.
'I wanted to do it for my family. I wanted to make sure I could make them proud. Just to have put something out there, not to win. He would have been so proud.'
Steph is now pondering her next step, determined to make the next move count. Yes, she would love a cookery book, but it has to be more than that. She wants it to have resonance, longevity, to be that treasured bible you return to time and again. But, most importantly, she wants it to be a conduit for her message that you can go out of your comfort zone, you can achieve what you want. She is determined to show a lack of confidence doesn't have to hold you back.
'I want to make sure what comes next is right,' she says. 'It's been crazy and I feel there's some expectation for me to take over the world. That's quite daunting. I'm not the most confident person, I've lived a quiet life and not had the most fulfilling jobs since university.
'But I want to show change can happen. I think there are more people out there, particularly young people, feeling the way I have, that lack of confidence, lack of a voice, insecure. There's a pressure for you to be bigger, better and get everything.
'I definitely don't have all of the answers but I would say never give up. Don't try to live up to others' expectations, work on your interests and keep going.
'What I got from Bake Off was driving and thriving. I'm proud I went out of my comfort zone... It has taught me you don't have to be defined by anything. I made amazing friends and I've found my tribe again. I've found another calling and that has lit a fire in me.'