Gina Yashere is one of Britain's best-known female comedians. Ahead of her appearance in North Finchley, MARCUS DYSCH spoke to her about Lenny Henry, performing in Iraq, and being a lift engineer

It has been a busy year for Gina Yashere. She has performed her stand-up routine not only in Britain, but as far afield as Singapore, Australia and even Iraq. Considering she started her working life as a lift engineer, Yashere has come a long way in her favoured profession.

Yashere grew up in London, but her family's Nigerian background provided a wealth of material for her earlier stand-up routines as she attempted to get her big break on the comedy circuit.

"At the beginning there was a lot of stuff about my mum and my Nigerian background, and some of that is still in there, but it has evolved," she says.

"It was kind of difficult at first breaking into comedy. A lot of comedians were white, middle-class men, but I did stuff about my upbringing, and the characters were recognisable to people.

"That is what comedy is about, being recognisable."

One of Yashere's best-known characters, Tanya, was also one of her first, and regularly featured in The Lenny Henry Show.

"Tanya just came from me sitting at the back of a bus and watching young school kids talking," she says. "I recreated it in my stand-up and when Lenny asked me to create a character like that for his show I already had one. People still come up to me in the street and shout the lines and catchphrases at me."

Although she recognises there are similarities between Tanya and the Little Britain character Vicky Pollard, Yashere is keen to point out that the characters also have many differences.

"The difference is that, with Tanya, you know she is doing a monologue, rather than just waiting for the same yeah, but no, but' punchline every time," she says.

Although Yashere has worked her way up the comedy ladder, writing sketches, making guest appearances on established television and radio shows, and appearing at the Edinburgh Festival, her initial career choice was quite different.

"I became a lift engineer because I fancied doing something different," she says. "The girls at school all wanted to be nurses but I wanted to be different. I loved it, doing my apprenticeship at Canary Wharf and so on. There were 2,000 men working there and I did not use my comedy to get along, I just buckled down, did the hard work, lifting the weights and doing the same as the men.

"At school I was always the class clown, but I did not think I could make a career out of comedy. The only comedian I ever watched was Kenny Everett, but that was it for me. I do not want my comedy to be influenced by other comedians. I have never even watched a Richard Pryor video all the way through."

Earlier this year she travelled to the Middle East to perform a series of shows for British troops serving in Iraq.

"It was very interesting, strangely good fun and the soldiers were very appreciative," she says. "Political views aside, those people are over there doing their jobs. We were travelling around by helicopter and it is not the safest mode of transport. I am glad I went and did it and I would do it again."

Yashere said she was looking forward to her artsdepot performance as the venue is not too far from her home in Essex, and told fans to expect more of her usual bombastic manner.

"The show will be a night of laughter," she says. "I will come out and talk rubbish for two hours. I like audience participation, but won't humiliate people. I am just going to entertain. I try not to be away too much when touring. I do my gig and then try to get back home. I would not like to be on the road for the whole tour. I am maybe away for four days, but I hate being away from my family."

u Gina Yashere appears at artsdepot, Nether Street, North Finchley, on June 10 at 8pm. Tickets cost £12.50 and are available from the box office on 020 8449 0048.