Wonderland.

MAYA JAMA

The Rollacoaster cover star talks talks mental health, press ethics, and the burn of the spotlight in the new issue.

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 lilac outfit

Top by KENZO, London Special Triangle Bra in Lace by TEZENIS and necklace by BVLGARI

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 lilac outfit
Top by KENZO, London Special Triangle Bra in Lace by TEZENIS and necklace by BVLGARI

Taken from the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of Rollacoaster. Pre-order your copy now. Maya Jama wears Tezenis

“This is a really personal story…” Maya Jama exhales somewhat nervously, a wry smile creeping across her face as she replays whatever she is or isn’t about to tell me back in her head, deliberating whether or not to let it slip. We are sitting at a tucked-away corner table of one of Soho’s boujier coffee establishments. The weather outside is like a starter-pack for a shitty Monday in London; the city’s insistent drizzle and smothering blanket of grey engulfs its begrudging inhabitants, but is no match for Jama’s exuberant energy, her hearty, infectious voice cutting through the amalgam of surrounding chatter and rain to bring a much needed brightness to the room. After a brief pause, she decides. “Fuck it I’ll tell you.”

Ironically, the setting of the story in question is the MOBO Awards, one of the awards shows which afforded Jama many opportunities throughout her early career as a presenter. “I went in a white outfit, and you’re not meant to wear underwear because it was very thin, and you’d see it,” she explains matter-of-factly, now fully in storytelling mode. “Now, I think it’s most girls’ nightmare to have your time of the month arrive early, when you’re wearing a white dress with no underwear. I was in the show, everything was fine, I wasn’t due on, and I remember the whole night just thinking: ‘Imagine if! That would be the worst thing that could ever happen!” She takes what seems like her first pause for breath in about ten minutes, before continuing. “So I’m in my white dress, it’s tight, there’s no pants on. And literally, as we were getting out of the car, leaving the award show to the after party… it arrived.” She looks up at me, letting the gravitas and hilarity sink in. “I had to quickly run to the toilets and make a tissue pad. And I remember thinking, ‘Only I would have this situation.’ And from that moment, I’ve learnt not to be so risky with white outfits.”

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 veil
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 lingerie

(LEFT) Long-Sleeved Long Body with Tulle and Microfibre by TEZENIS and earrings by BVLGARI
(RIGHT) Paris Lace Balconette Bra and Lace Brazilian Brief by TEZENIS and shoes by MANOLO BLAHNIK

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 veil
Long-Sleeved Long Body with Tulle and Microfibre by TEZENIS and earrings by BVLGARI
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 lingerie
Paris Lace Balconette Bra and Lace Brazilian Brief by TEZENIS and shoes by MANOLO BLAHNIK

Such candidness, humour and storytelling prowess are all very much constituent elements of the Maya Jama the nation knows and loves, and she explains that these things have always been a part of who she is. “Whenever I meet new people and they’re ask what I’m like, I just tell them to google Leo traits, and that is me, literally to a tea,” she explains. “Super loud and proud. I always wanted to perform and show off […] dancing, singing, being loud and putting on a show.” Growing up, Jama channelled her performative itch through various creative avenues before eventually falling into presenting. At around 12, she and her dance group (“we were called Fresh Dance, which was hilarious”) auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent, getting through two preliminary rounds before falling short just shy of the televised auditions. A few years later, she reached the final two for the role of Minnie in Skins, just beaten to the part by Freya Mavor. The proximity to the world of showbiz was tangible for Jama, these rejections only serving to strengthen her determination to make it in the industry, and for the next few years she set about speaking her success into existence. “My dream job was to be working with MTV, and I fully put it out into the universe by telling everybody I met that I wanted to be on MTV one day, in everyone’s ears,” she laughs. Eventually, it happened. The production company she was working with at the time had been on the receiving end of Jama’s desires, and — when an opening came at MTV — there was nobody else better suited to fill the role. “I remember being like ‘shit! It works!’” she laughs fondly, clearly still proud of the tenacity that got her where she is today.

While Jama was living out her halcyon days at MTV however, things were not always so simple at home. “I was super over the moon and overwhelmed,” she recalls, “but, at the same time, [I was] living with one of my family members that was on crack and heroine.” Born and raised in Bristol, Jama has spoken openly about her childhood and her father’s various run-ins with the law, eventually going on to present the Channel 5 documentary When Dad Kills on the subject, and she talks with an admirable honesty when recounting the surreal duality of those early days of success and recognition at MTV. “It was…very weird,” she sighs. “When you’re in situations like that, it doesn’t feel that strange; it only feels strange when you’re out of them, and you look back and you’re like: ‘That was nuts. How the hell was that going on?’ But at the time, when I was in it, I was like ‘Sick. Okay.

This is going on. Amazing. I’m going to do this. And then that will get me here, and I’ll be able to rent my own flat one day.’ And you just kind of go.” Such pragmatic determination typifies Jama’s overbearingly positive, day-seizing attitude to life — “My mum and I always have this joke that we were ‘YOLO’ before it was a thing, and now they’ve made it cringey!” she exclaims — but it is clear that having to flit between the glamour of television and the tricky reality of her living situation did take some toll. “I used to lie to my friends and say they couldn’t come to my house because I was really tired, whereas actually I just didn’t want them to see where I was staying,” she says, her voice momentarily sombre before returning to its usual dynamism. “I don’t know. I think most of the time it gave me extra motivation if anything. It just humbles you instantly, as soon as you come home.”

Jama has come a long way from her days at MTV. Having worked on a string of successful shows like Trending Live!, Cannonball and The Circle, and joined BBC Radio1’s roster of presenters in 2018, Jama’s CV is brimming, remarkably so for someone who is still only 25 . These days, amid other things, she is a team captain on Don’t Hate The Playaz, ITV’s new effusive, hip-hop based comedy panel show presented by Jordan Stephens. It is true that the game-show format is a tried and tested one in the UK, with beloved shows like QI, Mock The Week and Have I Got News For You garnering incredible success over the years. To ITV’s credit, however, Don’t Hate The Playaz is possibly the first instance of such a show existing on primetime TV with a cast that is constantly predominantly non-white, and often majority-female. “I think it’s incredible,” she gushes, “It’s been needed for so long. When I was younger, I would watch Wild ‘n Out or MTV to see the kind of shows where they would have more inclusivity, and everyone from different backgrounds – on primetime TV there just wasn’t really any of that. You would get, like, one black person. The one off.” Jama speaks passionately about the importance of diversifying the industry behind the camera as well as in front of it, however the vitality of representation, though not the be-all-and-end-all, is not lost on her. “It is visibility,” she asserts. “Because, when I was younger, I’d see June Sarpong, and even Jameela Jamil, and I’d be like, ‘They look like me a bit! I can do that!’ That’s where it all starts, with kids and dreams. So, yeah. More of it.”

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 bath tub
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 laid down

(LEFT) Cardigan by ALESSANDRA RICH and Paris Lace Balconette Bra by TEZENIS
(MIDDLE) Top and trousers by KENZO, London Special Triangle Bra in Lace and Lace Brazilian Brief by TEZENIS and necklace by BVLGARI
(RIGHT) Jacket by HOUSE OF HOLLAND, shorts by SUPRIYA LELE, havana Lace Triangle Bra by TEZENIS

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 bath tub
Cardigan by ALESSANDRA RICH and Paris Lace Balconette Bra by TEZENIS
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 laid down
(MIDDLE) Top and trousers by KENZO, London Special Triangle Bra in Lace and Lace Brazilian Brief by TEZENIS and necklace by BVLGARI
Jacket by HOUSE OF HOLLAND, shorts by SUPRIYA LELE, havana Lace Triangle Bra by TEZENIS

It is humbling to see someone navigate an early life and career with the assuredness and compassion as Jama has; hers is a success story to relish, and — as she says — one that many will inevitably look up to in years to come. However, this is not to say that, having achieved such a level of success, things are always easy for Jama. The British media has always been the subject of disdain from much of the population, from the Hillsborough disaster to the Leveson enquiry, and the unfortunate passing of former Love Island presenter Caroline Flack in February saw a reignition of the conversation around press ethics and how far a person’s personal life can be targeted in the national media. For Jama, talking about it is no longer enough. “The conversation is around more” she concedes, “but I just think it’s hard, because you see it being discussed for a week or so, and everyone’s like, ‘Stop that! Be nice! Be kind!’ And then the next week, they’re dissing somebody else. I don’t know what it’s really going to take to stop it.”

Jama herself is almost constantly the subject of intrusion from the tabloids, though she extolls the newfound power the internet has given public figures in the fight against press gossip. “I feel grateful that we’re in a time when there is the internet,” she explains. “And you can go against what’s being written in the papers. Back in the day, when it was in print, there was nothing you could do; you just had to keep your mouth shut. So I do try and call them out as much as possible.” Even this, though, can quickly lead to an incessant spiral: “it’s a constant battle: you want to ignore it because it’s ridiculous, but you also want to take the piss out of it because it’s ridiculous, and call it out so that you’re raising awareness of how stupid it is. But then you’re giving them more views, clicks, and everything. So it’s a lose-lose. You either ignore it, and people believe what they read. Or you reply to it, and then they’re getting more attention on their articles anyway.” For Jama, a strong support network is key — “good people around you in this little, mini, crazy world are very necessary” — and she lauds her friends and family for their much needed support and confidence boosts on the lower days.

As well as press ethics, Flack’s passing also re-intensified the conversation around celebrities and mental health, something which Jama again sees as a vital topic. Having ended her relationship with rapper Stormzy earlier this year, Jama’s own personal life has been besieged by media speculation in recent weeks, and she is keen to communicate the discrepancy between public perception of celebrity, and the realities of being someone in the public eye. “There’s always this idea that everybody in these jobs has a perfect life, doesn’t experience down times, and never has low points,” she tells me. “I didn’t even have anxiety until I started doing this job! It’s not a normal experience to have people discussing your life and talking about you when you’ve never met them.” Jama will soon participate in the ANP Panel on mental health, acting on her assertion that “the more people that speak out about it in the public eye, the better.”

For every Daily Mail detractor bemoaning one of Jama’s bikinis or skirts, there are 20 ardent fans to whom Jama’s confidence is highly inspirational, and this is something she pauses to reflect on when I ask her if she’s ever thought about posterity, or the lasting affect her work may have on culture and society more widely. After a while, she seems to find her words. “It’s so hard in society nowadays to just be okay, and to love yourself when everything around is telling you not to,” she says. “When someone loves themselves, and seems fully open and accepting with themselves, people don’t like to see it. Constantly, society is pushing the message of: ‘Love yourself! But, actually, not like that. Do it differently.’ I think, now, I’m pretty sure I love myself, and I’m happy with where I am. But it’s an ongoing battle, isn’t it? You’ve got to push through. Obviously nobody’s perfect, and there’s all these things we wish we could change about ourselves, but I think it’s about encouraging people, no matter what’s going, to love what you’ve got there, and focus on those things. Life becomes a bit brighter that way. So, yeah. I’m just trying to push that message, I suppose.”

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 pink underwear
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 black suit
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 chaise longue

(LEFT) Moscow-Lace-Push-Up-Bra and Lace French Knickers by TEZENIS and necklace by BVLGARI
(MIDDLE) Long-Sleeved Long Body with Tulle and Microfibre by TEZENIS and shoes by JIMMY CHOO
(RIGHT) Body with V-Neck flower pattern by TEZENIS and shoes by MANOLO BLAHNIK

Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 pink underwear
Moscow-Lace-Push-Up-Bra and Lace French Knickers by TEZENIS and necklace by BVLGARI
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 black suit
(MIDDLE) Long-Sleeved Long Body with Tulle and Microfibre by TEZENIS and shoes by JIMMY CHOO
Maya Jama in Rollacoaster SS20 chaise longue
Body with V-Neck flower pattern by TEZENIS and shoes by MANOLO BLAHNIK
Photography
Mark Arrigo
Fashion
Doug Broad
Words
Francesco Loy Bell
Hair
Patrick Wilson at The Wall Group using Bumble & Bumble and GHD Hair
Makeup
Grace Macartney using MAC
Manicurist
Edyta Betka at Carol Hayes Management using The Gel Bottle
Production
Federica Barletta
Production assistant
Penny Nakan
Special thanks
The Mandrake Hotel
MAYA JAMA