Bolu Babalola: 'It was mortifying meeting Michael B Jordan after my tweet about him went viral'

Nosheen Iqbal

Born and based in London, Bolu Babalola, 29, is a self-proclaimed “romcomoisseur” and writer. She worked as an assistant producer at BBC Comedy and was shortlisted by the 4th Estate B4ME prize for her debut story, Netflix and Chill. Her first short story collection, Love in Colour, retellings of mythical tales from around the world, is out this month and comes heaped with praise from authors including Meg Cabot and Candice Carty-Williams.

Romcoms are a big part of your life and the inspiration for your book. Why?
I feel like love and romance are seen as innately feminine and therefore inherently inferior, which is a terrible misogynistic take. We need art to have hope, especially when the world is so full of bleakness, and romcoms do that. My stories will have happy endings, but that’s also a perspective that can help shift the way you see things in real life. People think of love as a fluffy emotion, but it’s not – it’s steely and powerful and it can bring out courage in us. It’s only dismissed, I think, by people who don’t understand love and why it should be celebrated.

What makes a good romcom click for you?
Chemistry, number one. Take Hitch [from 2005, starring Will Smith and Eva Mendes], a problematic comedy that should work on paper, but they have no spark. I need to be smiling when the leads are talking, I want to see that connection and often the easiest way is to have humour, so that’s the next important thing. The third is that we need to see that the woman has something else in her life that isn’t the romance; she needs to be fully formed. I’m a sucker for seeing a man in awe of a woman and [seeing her] in her element. Like Leslie and Ben in the TV series Parks and Recreation – Mike Schur is so good at writing romance. Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist also stands out for me. And When Harry Met Sally.

How did your book come about? You’ve talked before about manifesting your dreams into existence…
I’ve always wanted to be a writer and be around writers. I’ve been writing short stories since I was in school - they got passed round by my classmates on a weekly basis. I was working on my first novel when the idea for this collection came about. It happened almost accidentally.

How did you get your break in the industry?
Well, with the BBC, I applied for an internship in production and didn’t get it, but they said: “Keep in touch.” So I did. I was temping at production companies and emailed the BBC every month until eventually they got back to me. That’s how I got in. My department was lovely, but there isn’t much room to move up in the TV industry. That isn’t specific to the BBC – diversity is a problem across the landscape – but I felt I needed to leave to write my own opportunities. Plus, I was doing a part-time master’s at UCL and wanted to focus on my thesis, which was about Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

Which tale in the book speaks the most to modern romance?
Orin, a new tale I wrote, based loosely on bad dates I’ve had.

Are you in love right now or dating?
I’m Nigerian, no comment.

Your parents’ love story makes it into the book and seems to be a cornerstone for you, but what do you find the most challenging aspects of modern love and dating?
Social media. People can be driven crazy by somebody who hasn’t replied to a text but watches their Insta story. It amplifies insecurity… I don’t think that level of exposure is conducive to getting to know someone. I don’t do dating apps, because I don’t like the performance of them, though I have friends who got married through them.

You have developed a cult following on social media and realised your own romcom dreams via Twitter...
Hah, well… I went unbelievably viral tweeting a joke about [the actor] Michael B Jordan. A girl had posted a picture of her long-lost summer romance and tweeted “Twitter: do your thing” to try to find him. So as a joke, I used the same tweet over a picture of me and Michael B Jordan that a friend had Photoshopped and posted in the group chat. It went wild. It was on TV shows across the US – Entertainment Tonight, The Steve Harvey Show. And then, yes, I met him. He was in London promoting Creed II and I was invited to the premiere. At the Q&A at the end, I stood up and said: “Hi, it’s me, the love of your life.” It was mortifying, but he was so lovely. I can’t remember what he said, except that he hugged me and smelt really good.

What’s next for you?
Last month, out of nowhere, I was asked to interview Michaela Coel for the cover of Paper magazine. I’ve also been in the writers’ room back at the BBC, for shows coming out next year. And then there will be my debut novel.

Finally, you’ve said you’re not a fan of being “nice”. Why is that?
Because nice and good are not the same thing. Nice says nothing about morals or integrity or beliefs, it’s just a knowledge of how to appear affable. It’s dependent on whoever is calling you nice, it doesn’t stand on its own. I’m a dark-skinned black woman living in the western world. There’s a lot of stuff that could really affect me, but nice isn’t something I should work for. Being good and kind, that means something.

Love in Colour is published by Headline on 20 August (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15