Star of The Apprentice and Loose Women, presenter SAIRA KHAN is known for being brutally honest. True to form, she talks about receiving death threats after that bikini post and why it’s her duty to overstep the mark.
Saira, 47, first elbowed her way into public view in 2005 as the outspoken runner-up on the first series ofBBC show The Apprentice. Raised in Long Eaton, Derbyshire, she’s the eldest of four children born to parents who emigrated from Kashmir in 1965. Now she’s a panellist on Loose Women, campaigns for the rights of British Asian women and last year launched her own organic skincare company Saira Skin. She’s married to Steve Hyde, 51, who runs an internet marketing business, and the couple live in Oxford with their two children, Zacariah, nine, and Amara, six. Here, she talks about therapy, motherhood and being the first woman in her family to marry a white man.
If anyone thinks they can shut me up with a death threat, they are gravely mistaken. I got one after I posted a photo of myself in a bikini on Instagram. It was my response to a preacher saying plucking eyebrows is haram [forbidden] in Islam. These people have to understand that their rhetoric has an impact and it has to be challenged. A Muslim friend was upset that she would have to give up her job in a brow salon because her husband thought she shouldn’t work there any more. There are elements of Islam that set out to control women and that infuriates me. It’s fine if you want to wear a burka or not pluck your brows, but let me live my life how I want without judging me or sending me a death threat.
My parents experienced racism but they didn’t make a big deal about it like people do nowadays. I look at my parents’ generation and think they were so brave, coming to a new country, starting again, working in factories. They didn’t know about the Equalities and Human Rights Commission; they just kept their heads down and ploughed on. When I was 12, some racist thug set fire to my dad’s car on our driveway and the fire brigade had to put it out. My parents didn’t dwell on it and it certainly didn’t scar me for life. It didn’t stop us from going to school, integrating, having white friends. We didn’t think all white people were racist, we just saw it as a case of there being a few bad ’uns around.
With these young British jihadis, I think, what is their problem? If anyone should have played the victim it was the people like my parents who came over in the 1960s, not these kids now who have absolutely everything. They were born in this country, their parents were born in this country, they go to school here, but they’re angry. They’ve probably never even been to their homeland, they’re just fighting for a cause they’ve seen on the internet.
When I talk about extremism, I get grief from all sides. I have the English Defence League on my back because of who I am. The Asian Muslims say I shouldn’t be talking about things like this. Then the liberal lefties say, ‘She’s Islamophobic – she’s just a brown version of Katie Hopkins.’ I’m, like, you’ve got to be kidding me! But when you try to make progress, it’s never going to be a smooth path. The weak give up, the strong say, ‘Bring it on.’ I will not stop talking about extremism or the other taboo subjects – child abuse, forced marriage, domestic abuse. All these things are happening in our community and you can’t ignore them. Along the way I’ve built up a great group of strong-minded British Muslim women who are proud of their religion but believe in progressing women’s rights. They keep me going.
I’ve been in therapy for six months and it has turned my life around. It was filmed for an upcoming episode of the Channel 5 series In Therapy. I thought I could go in and not give too much away in front of the cameras, but I totally broke down. The reason I agreed to do it was that I couldn’t work out why I was unhappy. I had everything I ever wanted – a husband, children, a house, a great job – but I was low. It helped me to address my childhood issues; I realised I was treating my children the way my dad treated me and that I had to break that cycle.
Steve told me, ‘You have to let up on our children, you’re making them unhappy.’ I didn’t realise how much my upbringing was influencing my parenting. My dad imposed relentless standards on me – nothing was ever good enough for him. If I came second in class, he’d say, ‘Who came first?’ It was more than tough love; it was traumatic. And I started parenting like that, shouting at my kids, making them scared of me. I’d say, ‘You’ve got to be the best, roll up your sleeves and get on with it!’
I’ve had to fight for everything in my life – I couldn’t even get pregnant without a battle. I have endometriosis so I had IVF to have Zac. Our second attempt at IVF failed so we decided to adopt Amara from Pakistan. I didn’t want to keep on and on with IVF and my faith informed my decision to adopt. Giving a home to an orphan is a Muslim value and I remember my dad lecturing us about it. I woke up this morning thinking maybe we should adopt another child. Never say never!
If my dad was alive, I’d still be single. From the age of 11, I knew I was expected to have an arranged marriage. I feared my dad and did everything to please him. He died suddenly of a heart attack when I was 28 and, even though I was devastated, it was a relief. He was a complex character. He was a feminist in the sense that he wanted me to be independent and better myself. But he felt pressure from the community and didn’t want me to bring shame on the family, so he had to deal with that contradiction.
I’m not raising my children as Muslims, I’m raising them as good human beings. It’s not my right to choose a religion for them. The emphasis is on being kind, caring and tolerant and to have friends from all walks of life. My son has started questioning how the world was created. He says, ‘I believe in dinosaurs, Mummy.’ I say, ‘You can believe whatever you want to believe.’ My childhood was very different – I was always told what to think.
I love telling people I’m 47 and them saying, ‘You don’t look it!’ I look after myself – I eat lots of good fats, I lift weights every day. But I don’t have Botox or fillers – I’m scared of the message they send out to our daughters. And I’m all for looking the best you can but there’s not enough research into the long-term effects of these treatments.
My mum still rings up to tell me off. She’s been the best mum I could have hoped for and I regret that a lot of my actions have impacted her. But she doesn’t understand my life. We weren’t brought up in the same country, we don’t wear the same clothes, we don’t have the same first language. She’ll say, ‘I saw you on Loose Women – what were you thinking, wearing a top with that neckline?’ With things like the bikini shot, she’ll say, ‘Why do you do it?’ I say, ‘To help other women have a better life.’
Being on Loose Women is like meeting up with your best mates every week. You forget the cameras are there. I’m closest to Linda Robson. She’s so selfless and generous; she has made me a better person. And I adore Janet Street-Porter – she has amazing stories. We have a WhatsApp group with lots of chat about meditation – our current obsession – the menopause and recipe sharing. People like to dismiss Loose Women but I think it’s one of the most important shows on telly. It’s made by women for women, focusing on issues affecting women.
My life would be easier if I stayed quiet. But I can’t pretend to be something I’m not – I’ve always been honest. On the show I admitted that Steve and I had stopped having sex because of my low libido and joked that I had told him he could have sex elsewhere. Steve doesn’t like being in the spotlight but immediately his LinkedIn notifications started madly flashing and his friends starting ringing.
‘My sexless marriage’ became headline news. I knew I was in trouble when he walked through the door and didn’t say a word. He ended up coming on the show to talk about it: I persuaded him it was the only way to put a stop to people thinking we had an open marriage and draw a line under it. When my colleagues asked him how he felt, he said he was really disappointed in me. I thought, I need to be more careful about what I say.
Our sex life has dramatically improved since I had therapy. We’ve gone from not doing it for 18 months to having sex once or twice a month. It had got to the point where it was seriously affecting our marriage and we were on the brink of no return. It’s hard to give your partner love if you don’t feel love for yourself. But now I’ve addressed my childhood traumas and I’m happier; things are much better.
Talking about my experience of child abuse sent shockwaves through my community. My dad’s brother, who has since died, came into my bedroom and fondled me when I was 13. I blurted it out live on air [in 2016]. There were repercussions from my wider family – they said I was doing it for publicity. I had told my mum some years before so it wasn’t a shock to her but she did say, ‘Why did you have to do that on TV?’ The charity NAPAC, which supports victims, told me they had a massive spike in Asian women calling in afterwards so I don’t regret it.
I enjoyed every moment of The Apprentice. When I came second [to Tim Campbell] I could have looked at it in two ways: a loss or an opportunity. When you don’t have a lot in your life from the beginning, everything is an opportunity. Lord Sugar hired me alongside Tim, which was a massive compliment, but I ended up stuck in the wrong job. I worked for him for six months as a sales director but I wanted more than that. Then media opportunities started to come my way and I thought, let’s give it a go.
What I really want to be known for is my business. I launched my children’s organic skincare range Miamoo after The Apprentice and it ticked along but didn’t make headlines. So I decided to create a beauty brand for women and had my lightbulb moment when I visited Kashmir, where my family is from. The women there use local plants and seeds to make beauty products, which inspired me to create an organic facial oil. It’s really simple and authentic. I’m passionate about providing honest products to women – and I think people know I’m always honest.
- Saira Skin face oil is available from QVC and sairaskin.co.uk
- Styling: Rachel Gold. Hair: Carl Stanley. Make-up: Donna Clitheroe