Fitness and lifestyle coach Melissa Neill is a proud, biracial British woman who is “very comfortable” in her own skin. In an interview with Culturs Magazine, she talks about her upbringing in Ghana and the U.K., the challenges her single mother faced while raising her and how being raised in more than one culture affected her worldview.
CULTURS: Where did you grow up? How old were you when you moved to the U.K. after living in Ghana?
MELISSA NEILL: I was born in the U.K. in March 1967 and my mother moved over to Accra, Ghana shortly after. She couldn’t return to my father’s country Malawi because of the political regime there. My father was a newspaper editor for the national newspaper in Malawi but he was imprisoned because he spoke out against [former] President [Hastings] Banda. My mother didn’t want to stay in the U.K. as things would have been difficult bringing up a black child on her own so she got a teaching job in Ghana. We had a very good life in Ghana, a large, detached house and I recall my mum had two people working for her, looking after me and doing the household chores. This was (and still is) normal for both black and white people to have domestic help in many countries in Africa. I spoke one of the local languages, Twi, because one of the women that looked after me spoke Twi and my mother was keen for me to learn the language. So I was bilingual. We relocated to the U.K. when I was six. I am not entirely sure why we moved — perhaps for a better education — but Mum told me it was culture shock [for her] coming back to the U.K.
CULTURS: What was it like being a biracial child in Ghana as well as the U.K.?
NEILL: I found it pretty easy being a biracial child in Ghana. There weren’t any issues. But as soon as I moved to the U.K. I got a lot of questions from white kids like, “Why are you black and your mum is white?” They said hurtful things like she must be a prostitute or I wasn’t really her child. I found better expectance and understanding from black children in the 1970s. I did struggle sometimes with my identity as I was raised in a white family but I always had that feeling of being treated slightly differently by my extended family. As an example, my grandparents introduced me to their friends as an adopted daughter which obviously wasn’t the case but showed they were ashamed of my true identity.
I did struggle sometimes with my identity as I was raised in a white family but I always had that feeling of being treated slightly differently by my extended family.Melissa Neill
But conversely, I didn’t always fit in with the black kids either, as my culture was different because I was raised with white people. Although I did find that once I reached my teens I gravitated more to black culture through music and socializing.
CULTURS: What challenges did your parents face while raising you in Ghana and the U.K.? Are they still together?
NEILL: I never knew my father — they separated before I was born. I do believe my mother did have difficulties. Simple things like she didn’t really know what to do with my hair and looking back now I know that people must have judged her.
I don’t think my mother had too many problems in Ghana but when she came back [to the U.K.] even renting a property in the 1970s was difficult. You had signs up saying “No blacks, no Irish.” But luckily she found a great landlady who eventually went on to sell her a house and provide her with a mortgage.
I would say my mother had problems not only having a mixed-race child but also as a single woman with a child. For example, she wasn’t able to get a mortgage from the bank because single women couldn’t in those days. I remember her taking to her bed with stress. She probably had depression. I’m sure that was because she had so much to deal with but she never talked about it.
She went on to be a head school teacher later on, which shows you she was a very capable strong woman but perhaps if the odds weren’t stacked so heavily against her, she could have achieved more.
CULTURS: What do you consider yourself as: Ghanaian, Malawian or British, or a combination of those?
NEILL: First and foremost I am British. Black British. Sometimes when you travel around or even on my social media channels people find this hard to take in. “Oh, I didn’t know you were British” is a common comment I get. I think there is still a stereotype of where you should “come from” if you’re black. For example when I am traveling to other parts of Europe and I say I am British, sometimes people will say, “But where are you really from?” In my opinion, I am really from the U.K.
But I do have a little of Malawi and Ghana in me. I have African heritage and I am proud of that.
I think there is still a stereotype of where you should “come from” if you’re black.Melissa Neill
When I visited Ghana in the 1990s, they called my “Obroni” which means “white person.” When I pointed out I am actually black, they laughed, for they only saw the white side in me. Where as in the U.K. people see the black side.
CULTURS — How has being raised in more than one culture affected your worldview?
NEILL: Nowadays, I am very comfortable in my own skin. I feel because of my background I find it easy to communicate with and fit in anywhere. I believe I am inclusive because I have dual heritage. I don’t judge people based on the color of skin or heritage. Likewise I don’t let my background hold me back in reaching my full potential. It’s easy to think that you can’t follow a certain career path just because there are no people of that color in that profession. I was often the only person of color in the office throughout my working life but I didn’t let that hold me back. I also chose to live in a provincial town in the U.K. which is not very diverse. I didn’t let that put me off and I fit in extremely well in my community, despite being one of a handful of black people living in the area. I am not saying that racism doesn’t exist, but you shouldn’t let that dictate where you want to live, what job you want to do and how you live your life.
CULTURS: What or who influenced you to want to become a trainer?
NEILL: In my late 40s, I suffered from depression due to my marriage breakdown. I started on my fitness journey just to feel better. I was literally crying most days and fitness helped me turn my life around. Then I progressed on to wanting to change my body shape, but found it really difficult because there was a lack of understanding and information to help women over 40 and menopausal get in shape.
In fact, information was nonexistent at best and at worst there was (and still is) a lot of misleading information like doing tons of cardio and cutting out carbs. I spent two and a half years trying to transform my body and failed. Then I actually found what worked for women at my stage in life, which is strength training and good nutrition with plenty of protein. I started sharing what I learned on my YouTube channel and it grew quite quickly.
That’s when I brought out my unique programs to help women over 40 reach their goals and I now have my own app BodyByBikini. As far as I know, no one else is doing this. The big fitness and weight loss brands tend to ignore women over 40. I think we are sort of forgotten about in the mainstream media too. So my social media channels — YouTube, Instagram, TikTok — address this. My goal is that every woman over 40 should understand how she can get the body shape she wants.
CULTURS: Where can people find out more about how to lose weight over 40?