Stylist meets Maya Jama, the TV and radio presenter doing things her way…
Picture some of the most successful female TV presenters of recent times. Maybe the glamorous duo of Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman on Strictly springs to mind, or Holly Willoughby waking up students on This Morning. As opinionated and spirited as these women may be privately, publicly there’s been an expectation that British female presenters should be neat, girl-next-door types: glamorous but approachable, sweet-natured and perfectly polished.
Enter Maya Jama, leading the charge for a new generation of presenting talent. Exhibit A: While presenting live on the red carpet at this year’s Brit awards, she kicked off her high heels midway, while announcing to co-host Professor Green, “I’ve even got the jelly things on them, but I’m going for it. I’d rather do a better job than have better feet”. The Bristol-born career multi-hyphenate is rewriting the rulebook with an assertive say-it-how- it-is confidence that’s propelling her into mainstream recognition.
On paper, it’s easy to see Jama’s life as a millennial fairytale. At 23, she’s made her dream career a reality. After moving to London at 16 and landing a presenting job with hip-hop network Jump Off, Jama got her first TV gig on MTV. She’s since fronted a programme on Rinse FM and co-hosted ITV game show Cannonball, making the half-Swede, half-Somali one of the few women of colour to front a primetime TV show. Currently, she’s hosting Sky One’s extreme sports show Revolution and, after joining Radio 1 in January, has her own 10am Friday show. And her boyfriend is Brit award-winning grime artist Stormzy.
But it’s a fairytale that Jama is keen to dismiss. She mostly grew up without her father, who spent many years in prison, and in her late teens, her then boyfriend was shot and killed. Jama’s experiences fuel her socially conscious side, as she showed in last year’s Channel 5 documentary When Dad Kills: Murderer In The Family, about women with fathers in prison. In between promo shots for the likes of eBay and Maybelline, she also uses her social platform to raise mental-health awareness. Stylist meets the woman changing the face of British TV.
On screen, you’re known for your humorous presenting style. Was there ever any expectation you’d tone it down?
I’ve always been the class clown, so that was bound to happen. The first things I did in front of the camera were pranks and p*ss-take make-up tutorials. Keith Lemon was one of my idols, I liked the idea of playing a character. There were points where I might have thought, ‘Maybe I need to sound a bit posher here or maybe I shouldn’t say anything too leftfield in case they just want a straight-down-the-line presenter’, but the more my online presence started to grow, people booking me for jobs started to see my personality. I realised the best version of me was my own.
Your career is at its busiest ever, how do you balance that outside of work?
I love swimming. I find it so therapeutic. You can’t be near a phone and you can zone out. I went away on my own to Sri Lanka for seven days last year – I’d really recommend [travelling solo]. You’ve got no responsibilities, you can wake up when you want, eat what you like. I allowed myself two hours of phone time a day. I’d swim and go on fantastic rainforest walks. I came back feeling refreshed.
I know you pray every day: are you religious or is it a spiritual act relating to self-care?
It’s definitely a religious thing, but at the same time, I think you are manifesting something when you speak it out loud. Even when I’m not praying, I’ll talk about what I’d love to do and speak it into existence. I also do this thing where if I wake up in the morning and I’m not feeling the best, I list everything that I’m thankful for. That definitely puts me in a better mood.
Music’s been a big part of your career, what did you listen to growing up?
Everything. When I was super young, Mum would blare out old-school R&B and garage when she’d pick me up from school. At the time I used to find it embarrassing, but now I think how cool that was. Being from Bristol, there was a big drum ’n’ bass scene, which were the first parties I went to. My love for dancehall came later – I’ve gone through pretty much every genre. Right now, I’m into IAMDDB; she has such sick stage presence. And [rapper] Dave is great; he’s so intelligent.
On social media, you’re not afraid to show the less glamorous side of your life. What makes you so honest?
I think it’s being part of a social media generation. The best way to be is completely you, and then it comes easily. Once you try to be something that isn’t natural, it gets exhausting. I’ve always posted silly videos and [talked about] the same stuff, it’s just that more people are watching now.
What was it like making a documentary that covered such personal ground?
I went into it a bit naively, thinking I could do it and then be this happy chappy at 3pm after I’d spent the morning crying. It’s challenging to do something so raw and know there are going to be strangers watching. It was a really positive experience, but I’ll wait a while before doing another deep documentary.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learnt from going through those tough times?
What I take away is that no pain will last forever. It’s a Rihanna lyric: [Jama sings] “No pain is forever” – you’re not going to feel as bad as you did that day the next month. Having patience with yourself and talking to people when you’re going through something is so important.
What other challenges do young women face today?
If you look at gender representation [on screen], the pay gap, all the stories that came from the #MeToo movement – I’ve never experienced anything like that myself, and I hope in the future that kind of behaviour is completely unheard of – but there’s still a long way to go. On the flipside, I feel like everybody is speaking out now, we have a voice and we have power. It’s easier than ever to find a group or attend a protest. We can use our platforms to discuss the issues affecting us. There are so many brands and groups that cater for women, even down to the group chats on my phone – we’re always having girls’ nights and they’re just sick! Having people that you’re close to and look up to – as well as having them as your friends – is amazing and so inspiring. We’re pushing through, it’s the year of the woman.
Maya Jama has joined with eBay to inspire people to embrace positive change this spring
Words: Shannan Mahanty
Main image: eBay