‘I don’t believe in impossible’ Maya Jama on social media, Stormzy and the secrets to her success

In the space of just a few years, Maya Jama, aged 23, has become one of Britain’s most sought-after cool young media stars. She has risen from a small radio station, Rinse FM, to hosting two shows on Radio 1. She has fronted campaigns for Maybelline and Adidas, and she’s one of the country’s top social media influencers (which means she is someone whose opinion really matters to young people). Maya is also the youngest person to have hosted the Mobo Awards and last month she co-presented the Brit Awards Red Carpet. Now, after a hugely successful run on ITV’s game show Cannonball, she is to host Sky One’s multimillion-pound Revolution, in which extreme sports champions battle it out in nerve-racking challenges.

Carla Guler

On top of all this, as the girlfriend of the multi-award-winning grime superstar Stormzy (who won two Brits last month for Best British Male Solo Artist and Best Album), Maya is one half of a bona fide celebrity power couple – Britain’s answer to Jay-Z and Beyoncé. She puts down her cup of tea mid-sip and dissolves into laughter. ‘We are so not like Bey and Jay,’ she says, wiping her eyes. ‘We get pizza deliveries, eat at McDonald’s and if we ever have time off together we lie in front of the TV [Alan Carr: Chatty Man is a favourite]. Both of us are way
too normal.’

This is not true. There is nothing run-of-the-mill about either Maya or Stormzy. Statistically, their lives of critical acclaim and millions of fans could have played out entirely differently. Stormzy (real name Michael Ebenazer Kwadjo Omari Owuo Junior) grew up amid schoolboy drug dealers on a rough South London council estate, and Maya, born in Bristol to a Swedish mother and a Somalian father, was just three when her dad went to prison for the first time. He became involved in a series of violent crimes (one of her earliest memories is of telling a police officer who came looking for him that he was hiding under the bed) and prison visits became the pattern of childhood for Maya and her younger brother Omar. ‘On a Sunday, we’d pile into the car with sweets and blankets, and make jokes about smuggling sweets through the prison security.’

When Maya was a little older, the family was rehoused by the council in a much nicer area. ‘I started going round to friends’ houses and I saw that they had a mum and a dad sitting round the dinner table. That they didn’t have police knocking on the door, and that it wasn’t normal to have a mum who had to work as many jobs as she could just to keep everything going. I could see how my life was nothing like the lives of my friends, and that was down to my dad.’

Carla Guler

At the age of 12, Maya refused to have anything more to do with her father. ‘It was my decision,’ she says. ‘We had a lot of other family in our lives. His parents, his brother, my mother’s sisters were always around. But I didn’t want him in my life because I knew he wouldn’t change. My mum had to deal with working and bringing us up; the whole family had to deal with him being in prison, but he’d come out, then do something bad again and go back inside. One time he was out for just three weeks before he was back in jail. I had no proper memories of him; I didn’t want a four-hour trip to another prison. I was done.’

It becomes clear as she talks that Maya – named after the writer Maya Angelou – is a force of nature, driven by her own principles and ambitions. Even at a young age, she knew what she wanted to do. ‘I wanted to be on television,’ she says with a smile. ‘I didn’t quite know how, but I’d tell everyone at school. I would film myself doing pranks and put them on YouTube. I had this absolute belief that acting or presenting would be my future. I convinced myself and everyone around me because I was such a loud, chatty kid.’

Overcoming every setback she has faced in life, Maya has held fast to her childhood dream of having her own voice in the media. Like her boyfriend, she has been a regular churchgoer since childhood, and also believes firmly in the power of ‘speaking your thoughts into existence. I don’t think there is anything wrong with dreaming big,’ she says. ‘I don’t believe in “impossible”. I believe, if you are prepared to work your backside off, anything is possible. I never thought about the negatives – that there are very few mixed-race presenters on television. I loved Mel B and when I saw Jameela Jamil on T4, I chopped my hair into a fringe just like hers. When I was 15 I got through to the final audition for a part on Skins [Channel 4’s teen drama series, set in Bristol]. I’d seen it advertised online and applied because drama was my big thing at school. But when I didn’t get it I just thought, “OK, so maybe I’m not cut out for acting – so I’ll focus fully on presenting.”’

She was 16 when her 21-year-old boyfriend, Rico Gordon, was shot dead in the street in Bristol almost a year into their relationship. ‘It is the worst thing that has happened in my life,’ she says now. She moved in with her boyfriend’s parents after his death. ‘I had to be there,’ she says. ‘It taught me to be weak and to be strong. There was a lot of crying but I couldn’t add to their suffering. I had to help. I’m still processing so much of that but I saw how everything can go in a second. After a few months, I wanted to throw myself into work, make something happen and get away from Bristol.’

Her plan was to move to London, something her mother, Sadie, was opposed to as it involved her moving in with a family member who was addicted to heroin. Maya shakes her head. ‘It wasn’t the best choice, but for me it was the only choice because I could live rent free and focus on working. I was absolutely determined and no one could stop me.’

Maya Jama
Maya on the set of Cannonball. Image: ITV/ Rex

Maya enrolled at a sixth-form college in North London to study performing arts, got a job in
a clothes shop and worked as a runner at the hip-hop YouTube station Jump Off – she just walked into the studio and asked if she could help out. ‘I made sure I was always out of the flat,’ she says, ‘because it is hard living with an addict.’ She had her phone and camera stolen from her room and had to keep food at a friend’s house but still says: ‘I don’t regret it. I had an idea of what I was going into but I just kept my mind on work.

‘I went to college, worked at Urban Outfitters and then every evening I’d be at Jump Off, which was incredible. I didn’t get paid but I got experience; I got to see how things were edited and to do little interviews with rappers. I fetched teas and coffees and bugged every performer who came on to tweet my own little YouTube videos. I would leave the house almost every day with just £2 in my pocket, bunk [not pay for a ticket] the tube, get food at work and somehow manage to stay out till 2am. I made friends with everyone, and got a job fronting a show on a football sports channel – the idea was that I was a girl who knew nothing about football so I had to interview people in the sport to find out about it. I actually got paid for this, which meant I could look for my own room to rent. I then met someone who worked in a studio where MTV was filmed so I wangled a screen test. This business is all about working, pushing and never complaining. My ambition at 18 was to be on a primetime TV show before I reached 25.’ She was just 22 when she hosted ITV’s Cannonball.

Maya is not, however, a woman who has conquered everything because of her ambitions. She has hustled and worked as hard as she could, but she has never believed in keeping secrets nor in pretending her life was anything other than it is. On Instagram she happily snaps pictures of herself without make-up or from an unflattering angle. ‘You can’t hide who you are,’ she says. ‘People should always see the truth – good and bad.’ It is a policy that has made her fans think more rather than less of her. It has connected her with a voiceless society and it is part of the reason she and Stormzy have become role models for a new generation.

Maya Jama
Carla Guler

Last year she decided to unravel her issues with her dad by fronting a Channel 5 documentary on children who have grown up with violent fathers: When Dads Kills: Murderer in the Family. ‘Statistically, I am someone who should have ended up either in jail or with a lot of problems,’ she says, ‘because society makes you believe that if you come from a bad background, you will end up just the same. I wanted to talk to sons and daughters of people like my dad and worse to find out how they dealt with it and what they were doing in their lives. But somewhere during the making of the documentary it became about my relationship with my dad.’

The truth she wanted to discover, from the father she hadn’t seen in a decade, was what made him constantly reoffend. He was never violent to her or her mother or brother, she says, but he could not stop reoffending. ‘He came from Somalia and met my mum at school. She got pregnant at 18 and had me when she was 19. Everyone else in his family is hard-working and responsible and I wanted to find out why he would choose to put a young family through what he did, time and time again. It was surreal to think that I was contacting him for the first time as part of my work. I didn’t even know he knew what I did, but he’d seen me on television in prison.’

Her meeting with her father was filmed but their conversation was off camera. I ask if it was because it was just too emotional for her. She looks momentarily sad. ‘It actually wasn’t particularly emotional. I expected my dad to have a reason for what he’d done. Maybe he was horribly treated at school because of his race, maybe he was abused. But there was nothing, no reasons. It made me very sad.’

She has not seen her father since. ‘I thought I would but it hasn’t happened,’ she says. ‘Not everything happens like it would in a film.’ She is extremely close to her mum and younger brother, though. ‘They are a huge part of my life. My mum is my hero,’ she says simply.

Maya’s life right now, however, does seem to have a fairy-tale quality about it and she certainly has leading-lady looks. Her style is a fluid mix of sportswear and casual glamour. She owns more trainers than heels. I ask if she has ever suffered from body issues and she smiles and gives an unexpected answer. ‘I’d like to have more weight on me,’ she says. ‘At school I wasn’t the girl guys fancied, which is why I was always joking around, trying to be funny – I wanted them to notice me. I didn’t start to get boobs and a bum until I was 16, and now I look in the mirror and think, “Maya, you are too skinny.” I’m a size eight but I feel a lot better when my figure is fuller. I’d like to be a 12. I don’t think being thin is good. I know it’s because I rush around all the time. I never stop. Stormzy and I don’t really cook, we just order takeaways.’ She once tweeted him at 3am: ‘2 double cheeseburgers and 9 nuggets with dips thanks love you.’ Such is their life.

Maya Jama and Stormzy
Maya and Stormzy pictured in October 2017. Image: Dave J Hogan/Getty

Maya and her rap-star boyfriend met nearly four years ago when they were both in the early stages of their careers. She played his song on her radio show and he tweeted his thanks. ‘We were friends for a while and then we got together. We are both Leos: we both work really hard.’ Her voice trails off. She doesn’t like to talk much about Stormzy, and their relationship stayed under the radar until he wrote the song ‘Birthday Girl’ about her in 2016. ‘It’s easy to view a woman differently if they date someone else in the public eye,’ she says. ‘You can become just someone’s girlfriend. And we are both our own people.’

As a couple they are unmistakable. She is 5ft 8in and he is 6ft 5in. Her next aim is to have her own show – ‘a cross between Alan Carr: Chatty Man and Celebrity Juice’ – which would involve her interviewing guests and having fun with them. His plan is to continue conquering America and Maya has just received a visa so she can work there. Trouble still follows them, though. Last year they were awoken at 2am on Valentine’s Day by police bashing down the door of their apartment in Chelsea. Someone had called the police after seeing Stormzy going into the flat and assumed he was a burglar. ‘It was scary,’ she shrugs. ‘On very many levels.’

On another level it has been reported that Stormzy will be performing at Prince Harry’s wedding to Meghan Markle. So will she be a guest? Are they friends? She laughs. ‘He was asked if he would sing and he said yes, but we don’t know them. We haven’t had a wedding invite. We’re not that important.’ Give it time, Miss Jama.

Maya hosts Radio 1’s Greatest Hits on Saturdays, 10am-1pm, and the Friday afternoon show, 1pm-4pm. She will present Revolution on Sky One and NOW TV at 7pm from 18 March, plus you can listen to her podcast series When Life Gives you Melons at freyalingerie.com/melons