One of the greatest pleasures in life is seeing your friends succeed. I was first introduced to Ranj at an awards ceremony in 2016, when he was already a well-known TV presenter. He subsequently went on to land major prime-time TV slots and, by the time he hung up his dancing shoes after Strictly, was a household name.
Ranj is always working on a new project and his latest book, A Superhero Like You – children’s fiction but with a broad appeal, is out in November. One of the most famous gay men of Asian heritage in the country, Ranj has become an icon within the LGBTQ+ community.
Ranj, what’s your coming out story?
I came out relatively late, when I was 30. Prior to this I’d only been in straight relationships (I was actually married at the time) so realising that I was queer was pretty major. I don’t have any regrets about my coming out experience. It was a process that I now know I had to go through. However, I do wish it had been easier, or perhaps, less painful. Like many people who come out later in life, I had my belief of what happiness was and was living the life I always wanted. It was during the break up of my long term relationship that I faced my truth and started to accept my whole self. It took a lot of heartache, counselling, deep discussions with friends and family, and quite a few tears to come through that. Fortunately, things are so much better now and I’m the happiest I have ever been. I just hope others don’t have to go through what I did.
In terms of coming out – what was the greatest challenge you faced?
There were so many challenges that I guess it’s hard to pinpoint the most significant. Coming from an Asian background, I feared that coming out was going to be extra difficult because of cultural and family expectations. My family aren’t homophobic – they’d just never really understood what it was to be LGBT+. Turns out they have been pretty amazing about it. People can be very judgemental about certain communities and LGBT+ issues, and I’m not saying that everything is perfect, but we shouldn’t assume either. Things are changing and progressing, and I’m proud of how my family have handled it all. Now it’s time for everyone else to catch up! The fact that I was also going through a marriage breakdown at the same time as coming out was intensely painful. Not just for me, but for everyone involved, and I still feel so sad about that. The guilt, self-loathing and remorse I had at the time is still tangible. I wish that could have been different. One of the strangest things initially was the feeling that every time I told someone about my queerness, it felt like I was coming out over and over again. Friends, work, other family, the list goes on. It was draining. It got to the point where I just stopped and thought: oh well, they’ll work it out sooner or later!
Were there any role models who inspired you when you were coming out?
One of the greatest shames of my childhood was that I never saw anyone in the public eye that either looked (or later felt) like me. I didn’t know any LGBT+ people until my 20s – and then I met some fabulous friends! I do sometimes wonder if things would have been different had I had exposure to a more open world. No one necessarily inspired me to come out. But there were people who gave me the courage and support that I needed. My friends, and my newly forming LGBT+ chosen family, were literally lifesavers. They were my superheroes. I owe so much to the community for lifting me up and loving me during what was such a dark time. Now I want to do that for others. I want to be as visible as possible so that young people who might be struggling can see that it’s OK and it gets better. I want to be the support and champion that I so desperately needed. That’s my way to say thanks.
What advice would you give to young people who are considering coming out?
There is no right way, no right time, nor right place to come out. You do it when and how you feel most comfortable, but be as safe as you possibly can. You deserve to be you and deserve to be loved just the same as everyone else. Don’t change who you are. You are already amazing. You are the perfect version of you right now! Even though you might feel like it sometimes, you have nothing to be ashamed of and have done nothing wrong. But there are still people in this world who may want to attack or hurt you for being you and for that you must be careful. Fortunately, there are also people who are ready and waiting to welcome and love you. And trust me. You may not feel like it now, but it really does get so much better.
You’re a familiar face on our TV screens. What has been your favourite TV moment?
I’ve been so lucky that I’ve got to work on some amazing TV shows – something that I never dreamed was ever going to happen! The pinnacle has to be BBC Strictly Come Dancing. I mean, the music, glamour, sequins and sparkle – it’s basically the gayest show on TV! Getting the opportunity to dance on that show to anthems like Whitney Houston’s How Will I Know, and George Michael’s Freedom! ’90, felt like a real validation for me. Plus I made some awesome friends – my dance partner Janette [Manrara] is a wonderful ally of the community! I can’t wait to see what this year has in store, especially with Nicola Adams’ same-sex pairing… It just goes from strength to strength.
I’m really excited about your new book A Superhero Like You, due to be released in November. Can you tell us about it?
The pandemic has been one of the hardest things we have all had to go through. At the same time, it has shown us some of the best in humanity too. So this book is a way to celebrate all those people, the real-life superheroes among us, who have stepped up during this difficult time to help others and to keep us all going. It’s a way to say thank you to every front line and key worker who has helped us through. But at the same time, I wanted children to be inspired to be like these people. I want them to feel empowered to be superheroes themselves one day. It’s a beautiful book (full of rainbows obviously!) that is deliberately heavy on representation –something I feel passionate about. The main character is a little girl of colour, and there are various others in different roles peppered throughout. Even if it’s not for you, it makes a great gift for any little ones in your life! Plus a proportion of every sale goes to NHS Charities Together, a cause very close to my heart.
Keep up with Ranj on Twitter: @DrRanj