How do contestants cope with the stress of the Bake Off tent?
Former GBBO contestant Kimberley Wilson reveals the real atmosphere inside the tent - and why Mel and Sue used expletives to comfort bakers
As the The Great British Bake Off returns to our screens, it’s easy to imagine how nervous the new batch of contestants must have been when entering the tent for the first time.
Psychologist Kimberley Wilson, who appeared on series four and reached the final with Ruby Tandoh and Frances Quinn, recalls how she felt on joining the iconic show.
"Filming happened from April to June (for our year) and we didn’t air until late August, so there was a bit of a hiatus between finishing and realising you’re going to be on television.”
“The wait wasn’t nerve-wracking because it just felt kind of surreal. You have this experience in the tent – and it was incredibly intense and stressful and very unusual – and then everything just goes quiet. Certainly for me, there was a lot of recovery. Getting back into my life, because from the moment you know you’re going in you bake a lot more and pay a lot more attention to food programmes.
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“It’s a solid six to eight months of being pre-occupied with this programme and not seeing your friends as much, spending a lot of time in your kitchen and then after the final you have to get back to reality.” When Kimberley appeared on the show, she was also working full-time.
She found recording Bake Off a strange experience: “We all spoke about it because we caught up after the first episode for dinner at Christine’s [Wallace, who also baked in series four] house. It just felt bizarre that we were going to be on television and it sounds odd, but we’d kind of disassociated our experience in the tent. It felt – as it quite often does when you have an intense experience with a group of people – quite insular and like a bonding experience. It felt quite private actually!
“It was only I think once the preview trailers and the teasers started to go out that you realise this is actually going to be a public spectacle and people are going to see this experience that you had. You were brought back into reality.”
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Kimberley says there was an “enormous amount of excitement” when the contestants gathered in the green room on the first day.
“We were really giddy,” she says. “We had just met each other the night before and suddenly realising we were the new cohort. Not knowing what the challenges were going to be, not knowing who our competition was going to be, so it was enormously exciting. We were slightly manic, laughing very loudly. I think I said to everyone: ‘Guys, we’re a little bit manic here.’ Then going into the first challenge, basically everyone cut themselves.”
“They were excellent knives, incredibly sharp. But also we were very nervous, our hands were shaking and it took a little while to settle down. Everyone says they don’t want to be the first one out. That might have added to it as well.”
“I think it shifts as it goes through and around week five or six Mel pulled us aside and said: ‘Look guys, from here on it’s all about endurance.’ It’s really tiring and our days in the first few weeks were around 13-14 hours long. We’d have a 5.30am call to get into the bus to go down to the location, then we wouldn’t finish until 7 or 8 at night. “
The bakers all stay in a hotel together when not recording, so unsurprisingly they become very close. Kimberley credits the camaraderie with helping her get through the show and she still receives emails from viewers commenting on how kind the contestants were to each other. “It was genuine and it really does help,” Kimberley says.
“We were absolutely rubbish at being competitive. We were reminding each other what temperatures the oven should be at! We bonded very quickly, so you didn’t want the other bakers to be having a bad day.” The sadness shown when contestants are asked to leave the show is very real. Kimberley says: “You can see it really clearly in our quarter-final when Christine goes – we were all broken! We just want everyone to keep going into the final.”
“The friendships helped – and they’ve been maintained, which is really lovely.”
“It added an extra dimension to getting through – those mixed feelings. Well, I’ve got through and I’m excited, but I’ve also got to say goodbye to someone and see that they’re upset.”
Mel and Sue played a key role in supporting the contestants. “They’re legendary now for making sure when someone was genuinely upset that it wasn’t turned into a spectacle by making the VT unairable! They would go around the person and use a lot of expletives that would mean that it couldn’t be aired on the BBC, to give them a little bit of breathing space. It helped us feel as if we were being looked after.”
Thinking of going on a reality show? Kimberley says that you should consider the themes of the show and what angle the audience is looking for: “On Bake Off we were all just in a tent baking and whilst I think certain personalities or things stood out, it was mostly about the cake.
"Whereas Love Island is a show about finding love, relationships and attractiveness and those are going to be the focus points for people’s attention. If this show is about attractive people, I’m going to sit here and judge how attractive they are. Making those sort of personal assessments or judgements is a lot more psychologically demanding than saying someone’s cake was a bit rubbish.”
Kimberley was on social media at the time the show was being aired and responded to people who contacted her directly, but didn’t go out of her way to see what was being said about her. “I didn’t search my name or anything like that, which was a sensible thing.”
Ruby Tandoh, in particular, had a difficult time online as some accused her of flirting with Paul Hollywood, but Kimberley says that she had a lot of support. “The negatives always get more airtime, but it’s clear that she had a huge amount of support afterwards.”
But she adds: “People should be very mindful of their interactions on social media – you don’t have to be on there. People will project onto you whatever they think or feel. Whatever you do, a bunch of people are going to judge that or assess that positively and another bunch people would assess the exact same behaviour negatively, so there’s no way you’re going to get a general consensus where everyone thinks you’re great.
“You have to be mindful that people will be critical and not allow that to shift how you feel about yourself. Just try to be yourself.”
Shows like Bake Off are more about skill than personality. “It’s the same with the Pottery Throw Down,” says Kimberley. “Can you make a good pot? How does your pot compare to this person’s pot? Have you learned to improve your pottery skills across the weeks rather than are you a nice person? Do you have decent values? Do you have good morals? Are you someone I would like to talk to? It’s a different emphasis.
“Capabilities are something we can change: we can learn, we can grow, we can improve. Whereas if you’re being judged on your personality that feels much more profoundly permanent and feels like you’re being judged on who you are rather than what you can do.”
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Sarah Orme is digital editor of In The Moment – a beautiful, practical magazine for the modern-thinking woman. Visit CalmMoment.com for the latest trends in mindfulness, wellbeing, food, travel and more. Follow In The Moment Magazine on Instagram and Twitter .
The Great British Bake Off airs Tuesdays on Channel 4 at 8pm, presented by Sandi Toksvig and Noel Fielding