TV presenter and British goddess Maya Jama talks squatting deep, overcoming grief, oh, and life with Stormzy
I’m not too shy to walk around in a bikini,’ says Maya Jama. Which is a stroke of luck, considering doing so is all part and parcel of being celebrated as a Women’s Health cover star – something body-positive Maya was made for: ‘I know my body’s decent.’ Millennial poster girl, burgeoning superstar presenter and one of the UK’S coolest exports, when the 23-year-old finally sits down to chat, she has eschewed body-skimming sportswear in favour of a comfy camouflage onesie and is glugging a can of Coca Cola. She admits she had ‘quite a few’ at a television event the night before (a woman after my own heart), but there’s been little evidence of a hangover over the course of this eight-hour shoot in a cavernous North London studio that’s somehow several degrees colder than the glacial day outside – a sign that Maya is nailing that delicate balance between enjoying herself and still being a consummate professional the morning after the night before. In fact, she seems more buoyant than our 12-person-strong photography and magazine team, who all prepped for the day with pre-9pm bedtimes. We get stuck into the WH fundamentals straight away; is it the tangible evidence of regular workouts that fuels Maya’s selfconfidence? Perhaps, but, interestingly, fitness is also the area in which her natural dynamism wavers slightly. ‘I won’t lie, I find it hard to motivate myself [to work out] without a personal trainer.’ At this point, you could write Maya off as an overindulged diva, but just give her a second. ‘It’s difficult with the job I have – I can’t schedule workouts in advance, I have to grab them when I can, so I want to use that training time wisely.’ Over to Alice Liveing – Maya’s pal, personal trainer and WH favourite – who coerces Maya towards the weights rack and resistance machines at top gym Third Space whenever she’s in London with a few hours to spare. ‘Alice has taught me that it’s the quality of your session that counts, not how long you’re in the gym for. I love my bum, so we tend to concentrate on that – lots of nice deep squats.’ This focus on building her glutes is fuelled by Maya’s appreciation for the physique of a certain scarlet-clad cartoon character. ‘I actually prefer a fuller body. If I could paint my ideal, it would be flat belly, big bum, big boobs. Like Jessica Rabbit. But it’s not my natural body shape. I definitely dress for the body I want.’ So the images – Maya’s own social media posts and otherwise – that have garnered the attention of the international press are all smoke and mirrors? Well, less smoke, more a proficiency in posing. ‘I have a thinner version of the body I want, if that makes sense. If you’re wearing a bodycon dress and pose in it and push your hips out, you’re going to have an hourglass figure. I know what I’m doing!’ she giggles. That Maya is switched on to what works for her is clear. An ‘ordinary’ girl from Bristol who’s now a budding international brand in her own right, her tale is that of an on-point Cinderella. Bold and British, she drips with positive, infectious, dazzling energy, which is probably one of the reasons behind her rapid career trajectory. Starting out as a teenager presenting music video countdowns, she then bagged slots at Sky and MTV and last year co-hosted the MOBO Awards, more recently appearing as one of the celebrity faces hosting ITV’S Saturday-night game show Cannonball. Coveted fashion campaigns for brands including Gap and Freya followed and – the big one – a soon-to-kick-off BBC Radio 1 tenancy. The professional covered, now to the personal – Maya briefly refers to her boyfriend, who you might have heard of, Stormzy. ‘We’re clickbait, I get that, and I find it “whatever” these days. It used to wind me up, but I’m super-aware that as soon as you go out with somebody who’s doing something incredible, then that’s all they want to attach to your name.’ Wary of shifting the focus off her and on to him, I ask about Maya’s life pre-stormzy (‘Michael. Calling him Stormzy would be weird’), which she’s spoken about publicly and has been a mixed bag, to put it mildly. Her violent, absentee father was in and out of prison for much of her childhood, and remains absent. At 16, her then-boyfriend was shot dead during an incident in a pub. It was ‘the worst thing that ever happened’ to her. So Maya is real-life proof that there’s a way out of trauma. ‘You have to talk to people, otherwise you go through all these thoughts and you don’t get any kind of escape… It’s clichéd, but time is the best healer. No pain is forever – nothing is forever. And you always end up stronger.’ I struggle to believe that she doesn’t sometimes feel a sense of ‘why me?’ that inevitably leads to dark times. ‘You know, I’ve got this thing where, if I don’t feel 100%, I count my blessings. I’m like, “OK, what are you thankful for? You’ve got your health, a nice job, you’re not starving, your family’s healthy, blah, blah, blah…”’ I stop Maya before she adds another ‘blah’. When it comes to ‘blessings’, how literally are we talking? ‘Oh yeah, I pray. I pray quite often. A little prayer in the morning, one at night. I mean, not every day, but when I can… People go through different things that can affect their whole life and make them never want to do anything ever again, or stay at home and not want to venture out. Or turn to drugs, turn to alcohol. I never felt like that. I’ve always just felt, you know what, life’s really short and shit stuff happens, so I just have to make the most out of whatever situation [presents itself ]. So I thank God that
‘If I could paint my ideal body, it would be a flat belly, big bum, big boobs. Like Jessica Rabbit’
everything’s come into place. Everything I’ve prayed for, pretty much, has happened, so somebody somewhere is working their magic.’ As she slurps the last dregs of the Coca Cola can, I ask if Maya’s attitude towards food is as pragmatic as the rest of her thinking. Unsurprisingly, the answer is yes. She ‘eats loads of bread and stuff’ and ‘a Mcdonald’s when I want to’, but isn’t averse to ‘a smoothie with loads of greens shoved in and a banana to hide the taste’, and ‘fish and veg and new potatoes’ is a go-to dinner. As unwilling as I am to suggest that she’s a living version of the hackneyed #balance hashtag, it’s the truth. ‘I’ll eat naughty stuff, then I’ll eat nice stuff.’ Maya has two tattoos. One is the initials of her late boyfriend, the other is in Arabic and reads, ‘Love like you’ve never been hurt, dance like nobody’s watching.’ The latter could be naff if it weren’t so true to Maya’s life thus far, fast-tracked compared with most people’s. It’s there, on her side, hidden so that you can only see it if she’s ‘in bra and panties’, but a go-to maxim should she feel the need. I tell her she reminds me of someone. The positivity-over-diversity, the boundless energy, the unabashed friendliness, the sheer likeability, the abs… ‘Oh my God, I love Davina! She’s been through some hard things, hasn’t she? And she’s come out the other side. She’s an incredible woman and I really look up to her. She’s silly as well, and not afraid to have a laugh. And I always feel like she cares about people when she’s speaking to them. That’s really something I hope I emulate.’ I wonder if, as Maya’s star grows brighter and she begins to build a name for herself across the pond, she’ll set her sights on a vision more in line with the American dream. But then I reference the fact that she’s the face of the inaugural UK issue of Women’s Health.
‘I think being British is the best thing ever... I feel proud to say I’m from England’
‘I think we’re the best!’ she beams. ‘I think being British is the best thing ever. When I travel, I feel proud to tell people I’m from England. You get this reaction wherever you go, like, “Oh my God, you’re British!” I think we’re a real and honest nation. Like, this is me, take it or leave it.’ Maya’s attitude is forthright, forward-thinking and relentlessly upbeat. Empathy comes easily to her, and she’s smarter than your average cookie. That unimaginable incident at 16, which could have floored her for good, she took as a tragic incentive to embark on a journey that’s seen amazing things happen and built the foundations for more excitement to follow. ‘I’m part of the generation that believes you can do anything,’ she adds, like a call to action. ‘No one’s ever going to be you. If you’re the best version of you, you’re unstoppable.’ That’s your next tattoo, I suggest. ‘Can you imagine!’ she laughs. ‘That would be…’ … so Maya Jama.
‘Everything I’ve prayed for, pretty much, has happened’