Ben Ofoedu chats with Susan Elkin about his life and career, from global singing star to scene-stealing genie and beyond

He bounds beaming up the stairs to meet me in a Mexican café in Soho. He has chosen this establishment because they’ve given him a Gold Card in acknowledgement of his celebrity status. His rather magnificent faux fur coat is flapping and he’s all smiles and warmth. He then tucks into a plate of six scrambled eggs (with spicy sauce on the side) without toast, presumably, because – he runs and gyms of course – he fuels his considerable energy and 6 foot 4 inch frame on a high protein diet. Ben Ofoedu, singer, actor, DJ, TV personality and partner to Vanessa Feltz is, in short, good company and fun to interview.

He is often described as “Anglo Nigerian” – a term he’s quite happy with although it was coined by a former interviewee and not a descriptor he ever chose. “My parents were Nigerian (Igbo tribe) but I was born in Hong Kong – the middle child of six – because my dad was a merchant seaman. But he had a house in the UK and when I was about two we settled in Essex where I grew up.” Ben’s natural speaking voice is richly Essex but he has a gift for accents (“easy – they’re like singing”) and I’m treated to everything from Jamaican to Scots during the course of our conversation.

He has clearly thought long and hard about his late father – his mother, eighteen years younger is still alive. “My dad was pretty strict. He’d been poor – very poor – as a child in Nigeria and was desperate for us to seize the opportunities we had because he hadn’t had them. Of course he would have liked me to be a lawyer or a doctor and be good at maths like he was.”

Ben reflects on his father’s view of maths. “You see, he’d encountered many problems and a lot of racism. He saw maths, unlike anything remotely discursive, as an equaliser. It’s definitive There’s only one answer. Nothing else is trustworthy. Whatever your cultural background if you’re right, you’re right and no one can put you down.”

But the charismatic young Ben was creative, good at talking and naturally pretty accomplished at entertaining people. Born in 1972, he was in the first school year to take GCSE in 1988 and recalls, with amusement, doing well in his English oral at Seven Kings High School in Ilford. “The school was in state of flux – lots of strikes and supply teachers – so standards weren’t great before Alan Steer, later Sir Alan, was appointed in 1985 and turned it round.”

He’s thoughtful about the dynamics of education too. “Our year was full of characters and with a small group of others I had status for cool toughness. Actually I was a practical joker who got on well with the teachers so the hard nut image really was a mis-perception. We were never violent and there was no bullying.” Ben stayed on into the sixth form, did some drama and excelled. “But at that time it didn’t seem cool enough” says Ben who, 30 years on in his forties, would dearly love to do more drama and has just completed a run as the genie in the Aladdin at Capitol, Horsham where he was – frankly – a show stealer.

So where did the singing come from? “I’d done some in choirs at school and at church but that didn’t seem cool enough either.” Then he discovered rapping. You start, he tells me, by copying others word for word “Hip-hop was such a discovery, back in the 80s, when I found that singers who looked like me were creating new and exciting songs out of everyday concerns. Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash, for example, were thousands of miles away in America, but I knew what was going on in their world. It was like a news network.” Gradually Ben started inventing his own words and rhythms (“It’s just rhythmic poetry”) and getting local opportunities to perform and won a rap competition in Hyde Park – although he worked in a clothes shop during the day.

“I’ve always been driven by the worth ethic” he says, “Back then we all wanted to work and earn money. My dad was pretty frugal so we kids had to work for anything we wanted. I had a Saturday job in B&Q at 14. We all lied about our age.”

Eventually music industry opportunities came his way, including working as a warm up act for New Kids on the Block and observing what those lads had and did at close quarters. “I wanted to achieve that!” he says. He did night club gigs too and was enthusiastically received. “But I longed to hear girls screaming as well as men clapping” he grins.” Then came a recording contract with RCA, a tour with Take That and plenty of what was effectively on-the-job performance training in his early 20s. “Yes, I learned the craft as I went along so it all took years. You get there more quickly if you do vocational training – at drama school for example – when you leave school.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing though. At one point, Ben had Bell’s Palsy which prevented him working for seven months and he was too ill to take the role in Hollyoaks he’d been offered. “I was very depressed and thought it was all over. I work in an industry in which appearance is everything and Bells Palsy leaves many sufferers with facial disfigurement. I was very lucky. A tiny droop of my mouth shows only when I’m very tired.”

His biggest hit was with his group Phats and Small which consisted of two DJs and a singer. “‘Turn Around (Hey, What’s Wrong With You?)’ went viral. We sold 1.5 million copies in the UK and 3.2 million worldwide. It was so big and successful I felt divorced from its runaway success although the sensation of going from dole to riches was very real.”

Ben is a self deprecating, attractively humble man. “I had offers of children’s TV and presentation work and I did some but I messed Channel 4 about and it’s taken me a long time to realise that some of the things which haven’t worked out have been my own fault.” In 2011 there was a Channel 5 TV sofa show with Vanessa Feltz, who has been his partner since 2006. “I don’t think they allowed us long enough to build that before they axed it,” he says.

Today he regards DJ-ing as his day job and travels worldwide to do it. Ben has engagements in Dubai and Thailand coming up later this year. “But I’m also serious about acting” he says, pointing out that actors with African names and a Nigerian background (Chiwetel Ejiofor, David Oyelowo and Sope Dirisu for instance) are doing pretty well at present and there seems to be a demand for people like him. “Aladdin at Horsham produced by MoGo was fun and I apply myself totally to doing the most professional job I can”, he says telling me that this was his third pantomime. “I look like a genie” he chuckles ruefully. “But I know I could do a lot of other things as well.” I’m sure he could and tell him he should talk to his agent about Shakespeare roles – the iambic pentameter isn’t so different from a rap rhythm after all.

Meanwhile this youthful looking 44-year old is, in effect, a grandfather. “Yes I get on really well with Vanessa’s daughters and one of them has two children of her own so we’re grandparents.” He carefully tells me the names and ages of both to show, perhaps, that he is a “proper” and proud grandpa.

“I have achieved a lot, I don’t get nervous and I know how to manage and work an audience”

And so, finally back to education and career building. “I have achieved a lot, I don’t get nervous and I know how to manage and work an audience” he says. “But because of my lack of formal training it’s taken me many years to learn what many youngsters would learn much of in that early three-year training.” So I point out that that formal drama school training is now very expensive and most graduates have a large, arguably disadvantageous debt to clear. He agrees but observes seriously “Training has cost me time – years – rather than money”. He seems pretty ambivalent about which route is the better one.

Well I’ve finished my fruit salad (I can’t quite manage hard-core protein at 10am) and we both have other appointments to move on to. So we part with the friendliest of hugs and a promise that the next time I see him and Vanessa out together supporting their friends at a theatre press night, we shall say a proper hello.