Maya Jama hasn't let a tough background stop her from becoming one of the buzziest new names on the presenting scene - Marie Claire meets a one-woman powerhouse
As a teenager, Maya Jama set herself a pretty ambitious trio of career goals: to work as an MTV presenter, to front a primetime television show and to have her own national radio gig. At 23, she’s ticked off every one. So does she need a fresh list?
‘Well, the end goal,’ she tells me in her deep, smoky voice that cuts through the clatter of the photo studio we’re sitting in, ‘is a chat show, like Graham Norton or Alan Carr, with a mix between celebrity guests with silly games and then a full sit-down interview with an audience.’ She pauses, ‘there’s also acting. I would love to be a Bond girl.’
Post-shoot, Maya is back in her red and black P.E Nation tracksuit (‘my uniform’), she sits cross-legged and bolt upright opposite me with a cup of tea. Even in baggy sportswear she’s a knockout, with a fine-featured oval face, Snapchat-filter smooth skin and Jessica Rabbit curves. The buzz surrounding Jama at the moment has given her a work schedule to match, including two new spots on Radio 1 (hosting the Saturday Greatest Hits show and co-presenting with Scott Mills and Chris Stark on a Friday) as well as ITV’s Cannonball and 4Music’s Trending Live.
This buzz can partly be attributed to Jama being one half of the nation’s new favourite power couple. She began dating grime artist Stormzy in 2014, but only went public with their relationship two years later. The two tweet each other McDonald’s orders at 2am, and she’s the inspiration for his song Birthday Girl. However queasy you feel about the term #couplegoals, the Jama-Stormzy pair-up is very much it. But to call Jama ‘Stormzy’s girlfriend’ is to sell her short – as is the (pretty sexist) assumption that she’s hitched a ride on his success.
To get a true sense of what Maya Jama is made of, you have to look at her backstory. Of Somali-Swedish descent, Jama was raised in Bristol and, for the first decade of her life, her father was in and out of prison (when she was three, she unwittingly showed the police to her dad’s hiding spot). In those early years, her mother brought her and her brother, Omar, up solo, working multiple jobs to make ends meet. ‘She’s amazing. She worked some jobs…’ Jama trails off. ‘She would hate me to say what they were because she hated them so much.’
It helped that there was a close-knit network of extended family around them, including her paternal grandparents. Jama and her brother would be bundled into the car with sweets and a duvet to visit their father in prison.
In her documentary When Dad Kills: Murderer In The Family, which aired last year, she met other people￼ who grew up with a violent father. ‘I was filming 4Music at the same time, so I might spend the morning in a graveyard talking to someone [a young woman whose mother had been murdered in front of her], and then go and talk about One Direction for the rest of the afternoon. It was such a roller coaster of emotions.
I kind of underestimated how heavy something like that could actually be. If I was ever to do something as personal as that again, I’d probably make sure I’ve got a clear diary.’
As a schoolgirl, Jama was noisy and sociable, the linchpin between multiple groups of friends. ‘I think my main priority was just to make friends and talk to everyone, more than getting an education,’ she laughs.
When casting directors from the Bristol-based TV drama Skins came to audition kids in her year, Jama got very close to winning a part. ‘It got to the final two, me and another girl. She got it and I was like… “I don’t want to do [acting] any more.” Really, I should have stuck at it.’
After her GCSEs, Jama moved to London to attend college and started making in-roads in the entertainment industry. It was there that she met her first serious boyfriend, Rico Gordon. Tragically, Rico was murdered in 2011. At just 16, the grief and shock of losing him nearly drove her to pack it all in and return to Bristol. ‘Naturally, when you go through shit stuff,’ she says, ‘you either wallow and it takes you ages to get out of it, or you decide that you don’t want to feel like this any more and you focus on things that make you feel happy.’
A year after Rico’s death, life wasn’t much easier – Jama was still living in London, but with a family member heavily involved in drugs. She would come home to find her food had been stolen from the fridge and the house felt increasingly unsafe.
That’s when Penny, the older sister of a friend, and her ‘guardian angel’, asked Jama if she wanted to move in with her. ‘She’s really godly. She taught me to be positive and got me to embrace the important things; to concentrate on what I needed to focus on,’ she says. ‘She was my cheerleader. I’m eternally grateful to her. She sort of scooped me up.’
Although her family on her father’s side is Muslim, the experience of meeting Penny nudged her towards Christianity. She says she’s ‘not a strict’ Christian, but now tries to pray every day. Living with Penny meant that Jama was given encouragement and support, but with no money or contacts, breaking into presenting was an uphill struggle. ‘I’d meet people who’d say, “Oh, yeah, she’s got a nice personality, but we need someone with experience.” But how do you get that if no one’s giving you a proper chance?’ she says.
‘It seemed like everyone [had been] to drama school, or they had a friend who’s a producer. I had to be everywhere and be in everyone’s face. I was the kind of person who’d film YouTube videos and be like, “Hey, can you repost this please” – harassing anyone with a few followers. That kind of worked at the beginning.’
Eventually, after a crash course in presenting and editing on sports and entertainment channel Jump Off TV, Jama fronted The Football Virgin on football channel Copa90. In 2014, she joined MTV as a presenter on The Wrap Up.
That was also the year she met Stormzy – then a hot underground grime artist on the verge of mainstream recognition – at a concert. They were friends for a few months, but started secretly dating in January 2015. In a post-Glastonbury Twitter thread last year, Stormzy wrote, ‘Maya Jama is still the most beautiful girl on planet earth.’
But Jama is mindful that her 500k and counting Instagram followers don’t see her life as a fairy tale. Aware of people like her godmother’s daughter, who she tells me is talking about getting lip fillers at just 17 based on the people she follows, Jama mixes in plenty of make-up free comedy shots with glossed-up pictures of her off to an awards event.
‘I think, to make it easier on everyone, you have to be more honest. We can all get glammed up and get good lighting and take an amazing selfie, but we can all look like shit in the morning when we’ve had a rough night,’ she says. ‘I think it would be better if we showed both the natural and the sparkly things.’ Although Jama insists her only extravagances are food and taxis, she loved being able to buy her mum a Givenchy bag for Christmas. ‘She’s so funny, she made sure she had “the pose”, with it hanging off her arm facing forwards in every picture,’ she laughs.
Occasionally, she thinks back to her 16-year-old self, when she first came to London, and is glad that she was so naive. ‘I was like, “Well, if I want something this bad then it’s going to happen,” which is definitely the view you should have. I had tunnel vision on success and happiness. Despite all the things that could have happened, I was always just like, “It’s going to work out; it’s going to be fine.”’
The May issue of Marie Claire is out now
Maya Jama is appearing in a short film called The Gig That Changed My Life with O2. Use #UnforgettableGig and share your own gig stories