Josh Smith: “I know what it’s like not to be able to use your voice.”

The journalist and podcast host sits down with Hadley Stewart ahead of the publication of his book Great Chat where he shares his journey of finding his voice and how he now wants to empower others to find theirs.

If you ask somebody to name a talented interviewer, names like Oprah Winfrey, Graham Norton and Emily Maitlis might spring to mind. Josh Smith is another master of this art. When we sit down for a video call ahead of the publication of his book Great Chat, the journalist and podcast host has been making headlines. Having interviewed Jessica Gunning, the star of the Netflix series Baby Reindeer, on his podcast ‘Reign with Josh Smith’, the actress came out during the course of their conversation. It sparked global headlines and an outpouring of support for Gunning. Perhaps it’s testament to Smith as a journalist and interviewer, or is it in fact a reflection of his abilities as a communicator to create the safe space needed for a great chat?

Whilst I know that Smith’s interviewing skills are razor-sharp, his ability to hit mute on his computer still needs some work. We are just seconds into our call, when Smith stops and says, “Hang on just a sec,” turning around to shout at Reine, his dog, to keep the noise down. Moments later he looks back to the screen and his face drops. “That wasn’t on mute was it?” he realises, before breaking into laughter. “Thank God I didn’t say anything worse!”

It’s arguably this warmth and candid approach that has secured him interviews with some of the biggest names, as well as emerging voices with relatable stories to tell. Yet Smith’s story to where he is today makes his success taste even more sweet and his journey even more inspirational. Having grown up with a speech impairment, Smith faced a physical barrier when it came to speaking. This, coupled with the societal homophobia he faced, meant he felt he needed to keep his voice silent. It makes perfect sense, therefore, that Smith now uses his voice for good and seeks to empower others to do the same.

Smith takes me back to one day in the queue for the school canteen. A dinner lady began laughing at him when he tried and failed to order fish fingers. “I just couldn’t get the words out and she started laughing at me,” recalls Smith. “I really regressed into myself at that point.” He went to see a speech therapist for a few years, which saw him undertaking various exercises to train his speech. Although his speech impairment hasn’t gone altogether, “You can still hear it sometimes,” he tells me it no longer bothers him.

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The experience of finding his voice was so profound, that Smith believes it’s one of the things that drives him today. “It’s empowered me to be the communicator that I am today,” he says. “Because I know what it’s like not to be able to use your voice.”

It’s also something that ties into Smith’s experiences of being gay. When he was a teenager, he tells me how he would feel scared to use his voice, due to how it sounded. “My voice sounds gay,” he says. “I struggled to be able to speak, because of the society that I was living in, and the way that people judged me based on how my voice sounds.” Smith explains that people called him gay before he even knew what gay meant, at a time when he was still figuring out who he was, furthering his regression into himself.

Having found his voice, Smith’s next decision was what to do with it. As a teenager with aspirations of becoming the next Alexander McQueen, Smith applied to study fashion at Nottingham Trent University, but left after a term. After getting a place to study history at the University of Warwick, he joined the student newspaper and became the publication’s fashion editor.

After graduation, he worked on the styling team on The X-Factor and interned at Marie Claire. Smith landed a job as a fashion assistant, working his way up to becoming a junior fashion editor at Grazia. It’s here that he hosted a YouTube series called ‘Joshington Post’, pivoting from styling to celebrity interviews. His first celebrity sit-down was with Julianne Moore, who was in London to promote The Hunger Games at the time. Smith took the series with him when he moved to InStyle UK, under the new name ‘Joshington Hosts’, interviewing the likes of Victoria Beckham, Saoirse Ronan and Channing Tatum.

Condé Nast, the publisher of Vogue and GQ, would soon come calling, with Smith joining Glamour UK as their Celebrity and Entertainment Director. When I ask him about his time at Glamour now, it’s a place that he looks back on with great joy. The women’s magazine was “the hen do of Condé Nast,” as he puts it. While he still writes for the title as a contributing editor, he tells me that he misses the people in that office. “I’m such an office girlie,” says Smith, who pauses momentarily as if flicking through his memories of Vogue House in his mind. “Honestly, we shared everything about our lives with each other. It was such a bonding experience.”

Not only does Smith work hard in his professional life, he also puts in the work to keep his social battery charged, as he describes in Great Chat. According to Smith, the way to be on top of your social calendar is to have a tier system when it comes to friends and acquaintances. In other words, rank groups of friends depending on how close you are to them. This, in turn, allows you to work out how much time and effort to carve out for them. It might sound a bit brutal, I tell him, but it’s something that I see working for people who might be struggling to strike a balance between various social commitments.

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Smith argues it’s also about surrounding yourself with the right people. “I think of who I socialise with like my diet,” he explains. “If I’m surrounding myself with negative people, bad people, people who don’t build me up and fuel me in certain ways, then that’s the equivalent of eating junk food every single day.” He believes that surrounding yourself with the right people is like having a healthy diet. “You’ll feel better and fuelled in many ways,” he says.

What about the people who say they have enough friends or who don’t want to meet new people, I venture. “You need friends for different chapters, reasons and seasons,” he replies. Smith believes that it’s important to continue putting yourself out there, even if you have found yourself an established support network. Great Chat encourages you to challenge your communication skills beyond those who you are closest with. “It’s not just about finding the right people,” he says. “It’s about pushing yourself to also communicate with some of the people who aren’t the right people for you, like people who disagree with you, have different views to you. Because I think the marker of being a great communicator is how you deal with people you don’t agree with.”

As well as finding a balanced diet of friends and people we communicate with, it’s also important to actually listen to those around us. In Great Chat, Smith argues that far too often we don’t listen to what the other person is saying when we ask them a question, nor do we always ask the right questions. When it comes to asking, “How are you?” he believes that the question alone isn’t enough to open up a conversation. “You need to ask, How are you really?” he says. “I think it’s the most important question you can ask someone, full stop.”

People, says Smith, want to know that the other person cares about them enough to ask a meaningful question. He invites readers of Great Chat to ask that question, as a means of unlocking new conversations, coming up with solutions to potential problems or just being a sounding board for someone else. “You never know what someone’s got going on in their lives or their internal struggles,” says Smith. “People go through things that you will never understand or never know about, and they might not feel they have any way of talking about it, unless they’re asked a very simple question, like, How are you really?”

Smith’s focus on emotional wellbeing extends further than the pages of his book or podcast interviews; he’s no stranger to exploring mental health topics with podcast guests, as a means of destigmatising mental health and supporting others who may be going through something similar. Smith is an ambassador for children’s mental health charity, Place2Be. When I ask him about how he got involved with the organisation, he tells me that it’s a cause that is close to his heart, having lived with overwhelming anxiety and OCD growing up.

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“I had really bad OCD,” he shares. “To the extent that I still find it quite difficult to talk about, because it really was very traumatic.” Not only did Smith have a phobia of germs and would wash his hands until they were red raw, he feared dying in his sleep and would recite a chant before going to bed. This was the early noughties, a time that in Smith’s view didn’t equip people to have conversations about mental health. “I remember my mum didn’t really know what to do about it,” recalls Smith. “There was no language to be able to talk about anxiety, mental health or OCD, especially in children.”

Describing OCD as something that was controlling his life, Smith tells me that he fought to regain control out of necessity. He still lives with the condition today, yet Smith feels he has a better understanding of it. “It creeps back in when I’m very stressed, but I’m very aware of it, and I know how to manage it,” he says. “So it goes to show how strong your mind can be, and how powerful the conversation you have with yourself can be.”

As an ambassador of Place2Be, Smith is able to bring his own experiences to schools across the country. Founded by Dame Benny Refson, Smith explains that the organisation’s creation came about from Refson’s work with mental health in prisons. “She was finding many mental health problems started because of their childhood or things that happened in their childhood, so that’s why she set that up,” he explains.

As well as going into schools to talk about mental health with students, Smith has also been involved in a video series that went out for Children’s Mental Health Week and was played in schools across the country. The videos were also shared by the Prince and Princes of Wales. “It’s such an important organisation, because it gives children the vocabulary to talk about their mental health, which is something I didn’t have as a child,” he says. “Place2be is a living breathing example of how powerful sharing is for our wellbeing.”

Now it’s time for Smith to stand up from the interviewer’s chair and stand in the spotlight himself. He’s faced many chapters in his life to date, yet the publication of Great Chat, he shares, is making him nervous. Imposter syndrome, I offer. “Oh yeah, definitely,” he says, before telling me about some advice that’s stuck with him, from athlete and former interviewee Katarina Johnson-Thompson. “Regret will haunt you more than failure,” he says. “I’ve never forgotten that.”

Great Chat: Seven Lessons for Better Conversations, Deeper Connections and Improved Wellbeing by Josh Smith is on sale now.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.