By Evening Standard (UK)
The British-Zimbabwean comedian found social media superstardom on Instagram with his politically-sharp satirical skits. A million followers later, he’s breaking through into the mainstream. Serena Kutchinsky meets him
Munya Chawawa is an unlikely heartthrob. Best-known for his satirical skewering of everyone from politicians to celebrity chefs, the social media star is hot property. Having racked up millions of followers with his ability to turnaround hot takes in record time, he is on the brink of transitioning from viral sensation to household name.
Propelling him along is a winning combination of ambition, creativity and Big Eyebrow Energy. “They’re my furry calling card,” he explains, after I ask why he famously describes his eyebrows as “erotic” on his Instagram profile. “I get lots of DMs from people begging me to let them handle my ‘brows. I still haven’t figured out if they mean sexually or they just want to thread them.”
In person, Munya, 29, is magnetic. He talks fast and fizzes with energy. His clothes are bold and bright – a colourful shirt with psychedelic flowers and loose, patterned trousers. “I have so many ideas fireworking inside my brain – I have to let them out otherwise I get aggy,” he says.
This British Zimbabwean’s breakthrough moment came during the pandemic, when his parody of Matt Hancock’s rule-breaking, extramarital affair went massively viral. For the uninitiated, it’s a razor-sharp rework of Shaggy’s reggae hit, It Wasn’t Me, with lines like: ”How could I forget I wasn’t wearing any PPE, Though she hadn’t had her vaccination, She got a little prick from me.”
“That video was the perfect storm,” he says. “I woke up, planning a relaxing day and saw a blurry image of Hancock writhing against a wall. I opened Twitter and everyone was screaming at me in capital letters, ‘MUNYA WAKE UP’. The song and lyrics came perfectly and my editor worked on demon time, which means super speedy.”
The video was posted within hours of the story breaking, earning Munya the title of “fastest man on the internet”. He passed the million follower mark on Instagram in April and has a tight-knit circle of mates who test out his new material. He sends sneak previews of sketches in the group chat and expects instant feedback. “I’m the most demanding man on WhatsApp,” he laughs. “If you don’t answer me in three seconds, you will receive a bombardment of messages.”
After Hancock, the Partygate saga inspired several other viral hits. When Boris Johnson finally resigned, he turned an Outkast classic into the spicily titled Getta Outta Hey Ya by Kast-Out, which became one of his most-watched videos ever. The pace at which he puts out content is relentless, it looks exhausting from the outside. He’s been with his girlfriend, who reportedly works in music management, for six years. How does she feel about the increasing demands on his time and his new pin-up status? She, along with his family, has been “very patient”, he says.
“I think that’s what’s allowed me to put in the graft now,” he says. “I saw a clip of Lee Evans recently saying he’s going to step back to spend more time with his family. I think that’s nice… there’s definitely value in making time for the people who’ve invested in you.”
When I point out that Lee Evans is 58, which means his girlfriend is going to have to wait till he is a pensioner for him to slow down, he laughs. “Yeah, god knows, to be honest the eyebrows might take me to places and remits I never thought of,” he jokes, before correcting himself. “But no, I see the value in the people who were there from the start, and in having these long-term relationships where you can really build something.”
Nobody is safe from Munya, it seems, except the late Queen. Never one to hold back from sending-up the royal family in the past, he shied away from covering anything related to her death despite his followers sharing their frustrations with him about the closure of food banks and cancellation of hospital appointments. When we met, he said his “satirical cogs” were ticking but was still reluctant to go there. Is this a sign that in a bid for more mainstream success, Munya is losing his edge?
“I never knew what to expect from that situation,” he concedes. “But some of the twists and turns will definitely end up in a Netflix series. Charlie Booker is probably scrambling to his desk at this minute.” Doesn’t he want to beat the Black Mirror creator to it? After all, Munya is the master of the fast turnaround.
The Queen’s death left his online audience feeling conflicted, he explains, and there was no unifying mood in his “echo chamber”. “My job is to sit down and listen, and when I feel I’m able to convey how people are feeling and make them feel represented – that’s when I act,” he explains. As for the media’s treatment of Meghan and Harry, he’s covered that in the past and isn’t ready to revisit it but admits to feeling wound-up by the ongoing criticism of the couple. “On a scale of Meghan Markel holding hands with Prince Harry to people getting mad that the Little Mermaid isn’t white – the world is a bit confused right now.”
It’s Munya’s ability to translate that confusion into sketches that are clever, funny and painfully perceptive that has won him a legion of fans. Growing up, he was the head boy of every school he attended. Aged 11, he moved with his family from Zimbabwe to a posh Norfolk village. Dealing with the reactions of his classmates to, what he calls, “cultural differences,” honed his nascent comedic talent. “I was asked if I rode a lion to school,” he says, with a faint laugh. “I would just say, ‘yeah – the lion’s parked outside’ and ask them if they wanted to see it.” But shrugging off those comments at such a young age must have taken a toll?
“I don’t take offence easily,” he explains. ”I didn’t think people were trying to be malicious or that I was at school with a budding EDL mob. I just thought it was curiosity.” But there is the occasional flash of anger at those who underestimated him in his early career. There is a rumour that he has an actual hit list of those who have wronged him, like Arya Stark’s Kill List in Game of Thrones. He laughs off that idea but admits those early injustices are part of what drives him: “When I am taking on a new goal or challenge, I think about the people who would say – ‘bud this ain’t your thing’.”
He gives the example of an employer who fired him from a presenting job because he was too smart. Munya says he was let go because despite being “streetwise” he sounded like he was smart. The boss explained that the show’s audience couldn’t relate to a presenter who embodied both those qualities. “I thought, I will show you that you can be a personality who taps into trends and is street smart, but is also intelligent and articulate. Those are things that can coexist. I see those traits in all of my black peers.”
He references the YouTube series he made last year, Race Around Britain, as an example of how his work dissects the Black British experience. There are some eye-popping moments in the BAFTA-nominated show, like when he hosts a game of “microaggression bingo” in a Welsh village hall which ends with the winner shouting “I’m not a racist”. The aim was to use comedy to open people’s eyes without making them feel attacked. “Warmth and understanding are my weird superpowers,” he says.
That warmth seeps through into even his most unlikely parodies. His ability to transform into TV chef Nigella Lawson saved him from his first on-stage death at this year’s Latitude Festival. “I’d heard stories about what it takes to be a stand up and thought I needed that baptism of fire,” he says.
“So, I’m in front of this predominantly white middle-class crowd making jokes about durags and being from Zimbabwe, which for some reason aren’t resonating. My mouth is dry and in my mind if the whole crowd isn’t roaring it’s not going well. Towards the end of my set, I pull out my Nigella-shaped weapon – which happens to be a black t-shirt – put it on my head and suddenly everyone is in hysterics because I’m talking about making beans on toast in a sexual manner.”
In terms of the future, it’s hard to predict where Munya will go next. He is the epitome of the side-hustling millennial with presenting gigs (BAFTAs), comedy slots (Latitude, Reading) and serious acting roles (Netflix’s Sandman) already on his CV. This week he adds TV to the mix with his appearance in the new series of cult comedy show, Taskmaster. Does he feel the need to focus?
“My goal is to be known as a comedian and sell out arenas in five years time, although maybe entertainer is more fitting. I want to be uncontainble” he says. And his ambitions don’t stop there – his ten-year plan includes a world tour, conquering the US and hosting his own chat show. He could even be tempted into politics if Donald Trump threatens a bid for the 2024 US election. “I’m going to team up with The Rock in a joint presidential bid to take Trump down,” he jokes. “Which makes sense because we’re basically body doubles.”
When I point out that although his biceps aren’t as big as The Rock’s he is now officially a heartthrob, who my friends – specifically my mum’s WhatsApp group – were envious I was getting to share a sofa with, he falls silent. “Wow. Pin-up Munya Chawawa. When I was younger, I got so few matches on Tinder that I wrote to its developers to ask if there was a problem with my app. Going from that to hearing some mums find me remotely attractive, is a personal milestone.”