‘I use death threats against me in my comedy’

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Big Brother contestant turned stand-up comic Priya Malik tells Alys Francis laughter truly is the best medicine, especially in the face of a racist onslaught

Since stepping out of the Big Brother house when the reality TV show ended in September, runner-up Priya Malik has faced a stream of online abuse – often racist and even extending to death threats.

Many would have retreated in the face of such a despicable onslaught but not the outspoken 28-year-old, who was born into a Hindu family in Dehradun and came to Australia to study in 2008.

Instead, she’s turning death threats into laughter.

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“I use death threats in my comedy now,” said Malik, a high school teacher who first started performing stand-up at open mic nights in her hometown of Adelaide a year ago. “I look at laughter as the best medicine in all situations,” she said.

Social media users singled out the kohl-eyed joker as soon as she appeared on Big Brother decked out in traditional Indian dress, making racist and xenophobic comments. Malik’s been told to, “go back to where you come from,” been called a “dirty Muslim,” who “would look stunning in a full burqah where only her eyes showed,” and that she should, “drive your car off a bridge with all your family members in it”.

Big Brother producers warned Malik when she left the house that there had been a certain amount of “racial backlash” against her. But she was still surprised by the level of vitriol. “I expected some of that kind of thing to be there but I didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was,” she said.

And the nasty online comments are still coming now, months after the show ended. Malik said she now deletes them on occasion, simply because she “doesn’t like to keep seeing the negativity”.

But she’s also using her wit to turn the tables on the bullies.

“The other day someone wrote something that was so rude… so I tried to make a joke,” she said. The offending person posted a message to Malik on Facebook saying, “God, you are so rude and distasteful, I used to like you but not anymore”. To which Malik shot back, “That’s blasphemous! God is neither rude nor distasteful. Xoxo”.

And she’s even won over at least one online bully, who started off calling her an “idiot”, only to end up apologising and admitting he was often a victim of bullying himself.

Thankfully Malik said she gets “more love than hate,” from the public nowadays. Her opinionated and “ruthlessly honest” personality may have earned her haters but it also attracted a large number of passionate fans — whose votes saw her become the third runner-up on what was the 11th series of the show.

Malik said she still gets fan mail from people who tell her they were “inspired” by her “unapologetically” being herself. This comes from young girls, people who’ve suffered abuse, and Muslims – who thank her for standing up for them. Priya herself is not Muslim, telling the Guardian she identifies as agnostic but a lot of people think she is Muslim because of her surname and the way she looks.

The budding comedian is a big fan of Canadian-Indian stand-up Russel Peters, who’s won fans worldwide by poking fun at racial stereotypes.

And Malik pulls apart racism in her routine too. “My humour is more about the migrant experience and contemporary political affairs,” she says, and adds that she tries to break down stereotypes and explore what it means to be an Indian in Australia.

Malik’s journey onto the stage started early. She was still at school in India when she began learning how to get an audience’s attention, taking part in school debating, public speaking, and plays.

But it was only after moving to Australia and deciding offhandedly to enter a slam poetry competition – where contestants perform poetry with dramatic flair to an audience – that Malik considered getting into comedy.

“I could see people laughing at the irony and sarcasm [in my poetry],” Malik says. She wound up placing as the first runner-up and with the laughter fresh in her mind, went home and, “started Youtube-ing stand-up comedy videos”.

“I told my husband, and he said ‘What you? A comedian?’,” Malik recalls. Malik’s husband Bhushan clearly overcame his initial surprise as he is now one of her biggest supporters, even running a Twitter account for fans backing her on Big Brother.

Malik returned to the comedy stage for the first time since leaving the Big Brother house in January, entering an open mic night in a spur of the moment decision. “I only decided to do it two hours before the show started,” she says.

And she’s planning a lot more performances in the year ahead. “Comedy’s definitely going to be my priority,” she says. There is even the possibility of performing in India – with a comedy club there contacting Malik after hearing of a quick-witted Indian making waves on Australian Big Brother. “It would require some planning, but I’m definitely keen on doing it,” Malik says. “Especially as there’s a real lack of female comedians there, as there is everywhere!”

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