Just hours before I speak to Maya Jama she takes down a troll on Twitter. The man in question calls her “obese” and says she should “Go on a bloody diet”. Jama retorted, “You look like you piss ash.” (Let’s just say he didn’t have a healthy pallor.) “Please focus on your own vitamin intake.” And that was the end of that.
Chatting to me on the phone from the balcony of her London flat later that day, on a rare break from filming BBC One’s Peter Crouch: Save Our Summer, the TV and radio presenter says, “I did take the piss back. I know that’s not the best way to respond but sometimes if I can say something funny back, I will. Most of the time it’s not a reflection on you, it’s just their own insecurities being projected.”
After six years of being on TV, Jama, who’s 26 this month, doesn’t let nasty comments on social media bother her. “It’s a bit sad but I’m desensitised to it now. It’s been happening for so long.”
Growing up, she lived in a council house in Bristol with her Swedish mum Sadie and brother Omar. Her father was in and out of prison, and she reportedly cut off contact with him when she was 12. But Jama was determined that she would one day work on TV, and describes herself as a “proper little show-off”.
“I always had this inner belief that I would do something in that field and my family were super-supportive,” she says. “They’d be like, ‘Maya’s going to be on telly so…’ It was a known thing that wasn’t known! I’m like, ‘F*cking hell, Mum, if that hadn’t worked out…’”
Acting was what Jama wanted to pursue (and still does), and she auditioned for Skins when casting agents visited her school.She didn’t get the part. “I thought that was going to be my big break,” she sighs. After that, she visited London regularly for auditions and got a place on a performing arts BTEC there.
But just months before moving to the capital, Jama suffered a huge trauma. Her first love, RicoGordon, was shot dead outside a pub in Bristol, caught in the crossfire of two rival gangs. “When I was 16 I went through a lot. With my boyfriend passing, it gave me a fearless approach to things. I felt like life was really short. Out of everything that [has] happened in my life, that was a reality check on a massive scale. At 16 you think the world is a fairytale and it took me out of that. It made me even more determined.”
She adds, “If it hadn’t been for going through those difficulties, my whole perception of life would be different. I don’t let myself get wound up over smaller things becauseI know what it’s like to feel actual pain. I don’t dwell on a lot.”
The death of her boyfriend spurred her on to make it on TV and she moved to London, at first living with a family member in Queen’s Park. She quit her BTEC after three months when she landed an unpaid job as a runner on Jump Off TV.“I wasn’t getting paid, but I needed to be there to get to where I wanted to be,” she explains. She worked at Lipsy and Urban Outfitters to pay the bills.
It wasn’t long before Jama was doing presenting stints for Jump Off TV. Then, in 2014, she landed a job with football network Copa90, which involved her going to Brazil to cover the World Cup. That year, she also landed a presenting role at MTV.
Around this time, she moved out of the home she shared with her relative. She has revealed previously that the family member had started dating a drug dealer, and Jama has claimed that the relative became addicted to crack and heroin.
“Statistically I should have gone off the rails then, and it feels like my career was the thing that saved that from happening because I had hope and there was something to look forward to,” says Jama. “When you go through trauma, if you don’t have something to look forward to, that’s when you can get stuck in a rut.”
The Brazil job gave her the platform she needed. From there, she worked at youth radio station Rinse FM; then, in 2018, a job at Radio 1, which she recently left to focus on TV and other new projects, like the face mask range, MIJ Masks, she is launching.
Later this year, her first acting role, in a Netflix drama, is due to be aired. “I think it would have been easier if I’d not had any presenting experience. As a presenter you’re being yourself and as an actor you’re being someone completely different. So it’s hard to snap out of Maya sometimes.”
Something that has often overshadowed Jama’s career is her four-year relationship with Stormzy. The pair met before either was a household name, but split last August and she moved out of the home they shared.
“We met before it was in the public eye,” she explains. “It felt like a normal relationship, and then, ‘Oh sh*t, everybody’s talking about us!’ We did everything that normal couples do, it was [just] on a bigger scale. When we were together, we did make a point of not making it just about the relationship.
“We both had separate careers and tried to keep our work as separate as possible. I’ll always try and keep it that way. You do want to keep some stuff private because it’s your life. [People] will still make up their own assumptions and opinions but at least I know it’s not come from me, so hopefully the smart people can realise.”
For now, she’s enjoying being single, but the COVID-19 lockdown has made dating impossible.
“It’s a bit like, er, we can’t do anything, we’re inside! When I was first single I was spending loads of time with my friends. I had all these plans to go on a big girls’ trip and be my own person. When you’re in a relationship you’ve got to think about someone else all the time, whereas now it’s just me, I can do what I like. It’s a whole different life.”
That very public break-up has made Jama think seriously about what a relationship with someone might look like in the future.
“It makes me nervous[about] who I’m going to be with next, because if they aren’t in the public eye already, maybe they’re going to be brought into [it]. It’s made me extra careful.
I was 20 when I got into that [with Stormzy]. Now life is different. Even social media is bigger.It’s going to be harder to keep things private but I’ll do my best.”
As I’m starting to realise, Jama takes most things in her stride. But one thing that did bother her was constantly being referred to as “Stormzy’s girlfriend” by the media when they were together.
“I did get frustrated. It’s another thing I notice all the time online. There will be a woman who is equally as successful as their partner and she’ll just be referred to as ‘somebody’s girlfriend.’ There are going to be people who do it to be ignorant, and some who genuinely don’t know who I am. So I was just like, ‘If they don’t know who I am, they will soon.’”
There’s that determination again. “People used to ask me, ‘Have you experienced much sexism?’ Three years ago, I’d have been like, ‘I don’t really notice it.’ But, now, I’m like, ‘It’s everywhere.’ A lot of people don’t even realise they’re being sexist.”
Which brings us back to the topic of trolls. Because today, Jama has also had people commenting on a dress she wore on Save Our Summer. “Maya Jama sends temperatures soaring as she showcases her curves in a VERY plunging purple dress”, read one headline. And when someone onTwitter labelled it “inappropriate”, they felt Jama’s wrath.
“Appreciate your concern… I am able and allowed to dress how I please,” she replied. “If you feel uncomfortable by my boobs sitting in my dress that’s on you sis. We’re all fighting for equality and similar treatment to our male counterparts. Don’t let the side down by hyper sexualising my bod.”
“It’s so ridiculous that people use the angle of ‘you’re a woman, you should cover up,’” says Jama. “We’re women, we have boobs. Some people are stuck in the past. You can’t police somebody’s outfit. I’ve put on weight. When I was smaller, nobody would comment about the dresses [I wore] but because my boobs are bigger now, it’s offensive. You can be the best presenter in the world, but if you’re wearing a low-cut top, that’s going to be the only focus. It is stupid.”
Do remarks about her appearance get to her? “After hearing the same comments, it does make you look [at things] a bit differently and that’s when you have to remind yourself it’s a them problem, not a me problem.”
But with a huge profile and 1.6m Instagram followers, Jama does feel the pressure to be a positive role model.
“There are people looking up to you. You want to set the best example, but you do want to stay true to yourself and I’m not perfect. I’m still a young woman and I’ll make mistakes. It’s about learning from them and not doing the same thing again.”
Perhaps one of the hardest lessons of Jama’s career was in 2018, when a tweet from 2012resurfaced. She had retweeted a joke from a Kevin Hart parody account: “‘Dark skin [women] shaving their head expecting to look like Amber Rose, when really they end up looking like Michael Jordan.’ looooooooool.”
Jama, who is half-Somali, apologised. But many accused her of colourism (prejudice against those with a dark skin tone, typically among people of the same ethnic group).
“It was a lesson,”she says. “When the tweets came out, I couldn’t believe I’d posted those things because it didn’t correlate to the person I am now. When I was younger I was obviously a bloody idiot and reposting ignorant and hurtful things that I didn’t know the damage of.
“I apologised and wanted to make the point of ‘don’t look at people’s past mistakes and think that’s excusable.’ Grow from that, learn from that, change from that. You say something stupid when you’re not educated enough. You have to apologise, take accountability, move forward and make sure your actions do not reflect that in any way, shape or form and are the opposite. I feel like I’ve done that.”
What would she say to someone else going through a similar experience?
“Whether it’s now or it was years ago, they are going to hurt people’s feelings and you are going to have to take responsibility for that. I’d beg younger people to be kind and make sure they’re very careful with what they post online, because it doesn’t go away and it’s there forever.”
Recently, Jama has been using her platform to talk about the importance of Black Lives Matter. She has donated 70% of the profits of her “Cling Cling” clothing range to the cause.
“It’s heartbreaking.Everyone really does need to speak up now and use their voices and their platforms. I feel like I’m fortunate to have people who look up to me or follow me, and if I can, I should promote the right things.”
While fully awareBlack women experience racism on another level, Jama has felt it herself. As a child she was bullied for her Somali heritage, so much so she has previously admitted that when she went to secondary school, she pretended she was Spanish and Jamaican.
“There was quite a lot of prejudice and people would say stuff about Somalis. It was school kids being mean and not being educated. As a child, you do take it personally and I was like, ‘I don’t want them to know where I’m from because they’re going to say things about me.’”
She adds, “I haven’t had it anywhere near as bad as my Black family members and friends with darker skin. I learned as I got older that there is a whole other level of anti-Blackness and colourism where the darker your skin is, the harder it is.Having more European features and lighter skin, I didn’t face the struggles they did.” With that, it’s time for Jama to go. She’s filming Save Our Summer later.
That’s between working on plans for a new podcast and the launch of her face masks: “I’m hoping [the masks] kick off, so if I get tired of having my face out there I can carry on and have something else I’m passionate about.” In the meantime, she hopes to do a film and ‘become a household name.’”
Later, she uploads an Instagram Story from her dressing room. “I know after last week’s episode there’s probably a lot of Karens thinking I’m going to turn up in a turtle neck this week, but noooo…” she jokes.
That’s Maya Jama for you: funny, frank and open. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Maya Jama’s MIJ Masks will be on sale later this year. She is part of the Adidas SH3.RO swimwear campaign
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