How Prue Leith found her confidence after joining 'Great British Baking Show': 'I got a bit braver'

The veteran TV cook's sweet journey from British to American TV wasn’t easy, she tells Yahoo Entertainment.

Prue Leith, the British-South African star of Great British Baking Show.
Prue Leith, the British-South African star of The Great British Baking Show, is returning to judge the American version of the acclaimed reality competition show. (Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images)

When Prue Leith stepped into the world of the The Great British Baking Show, she was nervous — even a bit intimidated.

“I’m not really a baker at all. I’m a cook,” she admitted to Yahoo Entertainment in a new interview. “They hired me for my judging and tasting abilities; not because I’m a fantastic baker.”

The veteran TV cook, 84, joined celebrity chef Paul Hollywood in 2017 as a judge on Season 8 of the popular baking competition series, which premiered in 2010 on the BBC. Now streaming Season 14 on Netflix, the show follows Leith and Hollywood as they judge amateur bakers on their baking skills, eliminating one after another until a final winner remains.

The show has become a fan favorite, inspiring numerous imitators on streaming platforms. It was already a cultural touchstone when Leith replaced Mary Berry as judge for Season 8. At the start, Leith said she felt timid about sharing her true opinions on the show, especially if they contradicted those shared by Hollywood.

Eventually, Leith explained, she found her groove.

“I got a bit braver,” she said of her evolution on the show. “One of the things that I gradually learned is that it doesn’t matter if I don’t agree with him, actually. I should just say so. We nearly always feel the exact same way about a bake, but occasionally I’ll say he’s mad, whereas before I would have not said so.”

The Great American Baking Show hosts Zach Cherry and Casey Wilson along with returning judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith.
The Great American Baking Show is back on Roku with its new hosts, Zach Cherry and Casey Wilson (top), and returning judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith. (The Roku Channel)

Leith and Hollywood are bringing their chemistry to the franchise’s signature tent in the latest season of the Great American Baking Show, the U.S. adaptation of the original British version available May 24 on the Roku Channel.

It’s the second time the duo have hosted the American version together since the series was acquired by Roku last year. For Leith, teaming up with Hollywood again was a no-brainer.

“I was delighted to be asked,” she said. “I get to come to America!”

While it technically premiered in 2015, The Great American Baking Show has had several transformations. It aired for five seasons on ABC from 2015-19, with Hollywood becoming a judge beginning on Season 3.

Coming to the U.S. was daunting at first for Leith, who assumed the American version would deliver high levels of reality drama compared to its British predecessor, which is less focused on drama and more about baking and creating a supportive environment.

“I’ve seen a few American competition shows that were all about the competitors scheming to deceive each other, to sabotage each other and to try and hog the camera,” she said. “I thought, 'Oh my God, obviously it'll be the same on Baking Show.’”

Much to her surprise, she found that the American bakers were “incredibly supportive” of one another on set, which she credits for the wider appeal of the show.

“The whole charm of [the Baking Show] is not to sabotage your rivals,” she explained. “The atmosphere is friendly, warm and cooperative, and the American competitors got that immediately.”

Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood (far right) stand with the cast of Season 2 alongside its co-hosts Zach Cherry and Casey Wilson (far left). (The Roku Channel)
Prue Leith and Paul Hollywood (far right) stand with the cast of Season 2 alongside its co-hosts Zach Cherry and Casey Wilson (far left). (The Roku Channel)

Roku’s version feels much more like the British one — and not just in its tone. Unlike ABC’s version, it’s filmed in the same location as the British series with the same director, crew and even camera crew. The biggest difference is its American bakers and co-hosts, Casey Wilson and Zach Cherry, who will join the judges in the tent.

American-based challenges have been incorporated into the newest season, including pizza, bagels and even apple pie, which Leith describes as “a work of art.”

“I could eat an American apple pie every day of my life,” she said. “It's deep and has big wads of sliced apple in the middle with a nice crisp pastry underneath. Every country in the world has an apple pie, but the American one is the best.”

What Leith loves most about the show is its unique brand of what she calls “good stress” television vs. “bad stress” television.

As she explained, bad stress happens on shows that thrive on conflict and violence, or if producers set players up to fail because they believe that “failure is more watchable.”

“Neither my husband nor I watch most television because there's too much blood and too much violence,” Leith said. “It's not that people are horrible, only that they're horrible to each other. That’s bad stress, and you actually can feel quite sick after watching.”

With the Baking Show, however, producers want viewers to feel “warm and friendly” without sacrificing their engagement.

“It’s good stress if somebody’s chocolate cake is melting to the ground in the heat and all the bakers are rushing to finish,” she explained. “It’s a bit of excitement, but it’s not unpleasant to watch. The most that happens is somebody bursts into tears, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

The show doesn’t care about manufacturing fake stories for the sake of good television, either.

“If one of the bakers makes a tremendous booboo, and the cameraman doesn't get it, we never go back and say to the baker, ‘Could you drop that dish again because the cameraman missed it,” she explained. “There's a time limit to the challenges, and we film for exactly that time. If we miss something, we miss it.”

That level of honesty, Leith explained, is a huge part of the show’s success.

“It's genuine, real live television,” she said with a smile.