Maya Jama has wanted to be famous before she even knew what she might be famous for. The 23-year-old TV and radio presenter admits that she couldn’t sing – “as much as I wish I could, being a popstar was completely out of it” – and after a string of auditions as a teenager, realised that acting wasn’t her bag because despite “almost making it on to Skins”, she was only ever playing “Extreme Maya or Angry Maya or whatever”.
But Jama had energy and “life goals” – and one by one, she has been ticking them off at such rapid speed that it makes her physically squeal, the human equivalent of the “omg skjhskjhlslhjk” text from a best friend with good news.
“It’s amazing!” she says as she whirls into the offices of MTV in a bright orange dress, bright green jacket and new, bright blond hair, carrying a double delivery of fish and chips. She has stopped to take a picture of the promotional cardboard cutouts for her new MTV show True Love or True Lies?, excited to be presenting her “first proper reality show” solo. Despite claims that it’s a completely different concept, the station has Jama hosting a reconfiguration of the format set by Love Island: hot couples, some real and some fake, living in a luxury Tuscan villa, competing to win a prize for the most “real” relationship. Danny Dyer is providing the voiceover, the gritty geezer offset to Jama’s boundless enthusiasm.
“The whole point is to come after Love Island – which is incredible,” she explains, “but we’re aiming to fill that gap, fill that void after it ends.” Unlike ITV2’s summer hit, there are “gay people in there, lesbians, trans, an everyday crowd mix of people. And it’s a complete headfuck,” she says through delicate mouthfuls of fish and chips. “It’s like, everyone’s relationship is so different and not everyone’s lovey-dovey and kissing every five minutes. Sometimes, when you’re really in love, you’re not that touchy-feely because you’ve lived together for a few years and you don’t need to kiss every two seconds.”
Technically, Jama is talking about the show, but equally, it’s a pointed two fingers to the tabloids that have been snidely speculating about the demise of her own relationship for months now. Jama is also girlfriend to Stormzy, Britain’s biggest-selling grime artist, major league popstar and Croydon’s most famous Corbyn supporter. “I was presenting before I met him,” she says with emphasis. “We have a relationship that people care about, but we both have our jobs and it is what it is. I try to ignore what everyone has to say or write about it and move on.”
The couple have been together for three-and-a-half years and live in a townhouse in Chelsea. They met at a Red Bull Culture Clash gig “but we were already following each other online before then”. Jama laughs at the notion that the industry likes to bill them together as Britain’s baby Beyoncé and Jay-Z. “We’re the same as a normal couple, it’s literally a normal relationship. We did one Vogue shoot [together] and that’s the only one we’ll do and we left it there. There’s no… what’s that thing they call it when they mix the names together?”
“Yeah, none of that for now, I just want to focus on my career and I know he wants to focus on his and not let [us] be the thing.”
Jama’s career has been up and coming for several years now, but her arrival has been swift. She left home in Bristol at 16 to make it in London and after years of doing bits and pieces – a show on Rinse FM, a presenting gig on an unknown sports channel – “one of the ones that pop up when you go really far down the list” – work on MTV – the last year has been about mass exposure.
She has ticked off presenting an ITV gameshow (Cannonball), serious Channel 5 documentaries, stints on daytime TV (Good Morning Britain; Loose Women), hosting the Mobos and landing her very own Radio 1 gig (in February, she started hosting the Saturday morning Greatest Hits show, and co-hosting Friday afternoons with Scott Mills). She has been plastered on billboards, first with modelling campaigns for Maybelline and Adidas, then with her own fast-fashion line with Pretty Little Thing. She has a podcast – “in the iTunes top 10!” – hosted by lingerie company Freya, neatly titled When Life Gives You Melons, and has an eye on developing her own chat show by “speaking it into existence”. She’s not un-busy.
In the tradition of the most successful mainstream presenters, Jama is prone to chatting in an exaggerated hyperbolic stream about things that are “amazing!”, “incredible!” and “so cute!” but she has a brilliant voice: husky, distinctive and naturally warm. You can understand why she holds such appeal for her audience – which she identifies for me as “16-24, young women, they’re 70% of my followers on Instagram”; Jama thinks, talks and dresses in a relatable way, resolutely high-street and chirpy about her good fortune.
Jama is also unquestionably stunning. The kind that compels the camera and had Stormzy interrupt his usually music-heavy Instagram feed to post a photo of her on a knickers shoot with a caption that simply read: “Sorry, but”.
Does she worry about saying no to work, in case her moment passes?
“No, not at all”. She pauses. “Well, last year felt a bit like that, maybe more the year before. I know a lot of people didn’t take me that seriously and I really wanted to prove myself and show that I have worked really hard to be here – I’m not some girl they just found on Instagram.”
She began her career uploading videos of herself on YouTube and has always been big across “the socials” – Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter. She ran into trouble with the latter a few months ago, when tweets she posted at 18 about “dark skin bitches” resurfaced. She does not want to talk about it – she was mortified and apologised twice over – and would rather talk about anything else, including her violent father, who she decided to break contact with when she was 12.
“With him, I feel like it’s too little, too late in the saddest way,” she says. “I would have loved a relationship with him but it doesn’t come naturally right now. I don’t feel like reaching out to him really, and I suppose it would be different if I saw him get a proper job and sort himself out.”
Jama, who is of Swedish-Somali heritage, has been watching her dad go in and out of prison her whole life. Her father has a record for violent crime, which partly prompted her to make When Dads Kill, a bleak documentary for Channel 5 in which she interviewed survivors of terrible trauma. Even her publicist admits to me earlier that the programme “wasn’t as profound” as they might have hoped – Jama’s journey didn’t end with her meeting her own father, nor was there any neat resolution. “I don’t want to get close to someone who will just fall back in the same pattern,” she says warily. “It’s such an effort – it’s like, ‘you’re an adult, come on, sort yourself out’.”
She’s not sure how much the situation has affected her. “If you’d asked me at school, I would have been, like, ‘Eurgh! I don’t notice it at all, I’m fine, I don’t feel any absence.’ But as an adult you think: ‘Mmm, maybe there are little signs of my behaviour that came from his actions?’ Like, the kind of man I look for is something so different to what my dad is. And maybe my independence and do-it-yourself vibe could come from him not being around.”
Still, Jama says she gets anxious, and Stormzy has spoken publicly about dealing with depression. “My anxiety comes from people watching me more and knowing more about me,” she laughs. “But the feeling of entering a room where you don’t know anyone but you feel like everyone’s talking about you, that alone is…” Jama mugs a pained ‘aargh’. “It’s like getting on a train and not knowing if someone’s trying to take a sneaky picture.”
Stormzy, she says, is “really good with it, because you can just do your music and disappear, you don’t have to go to events and do lots of public speaking, you let the music speak for itself”. And although, she says, “he’s on a way bigger scale on a fame level, I’m more exposed to everyday interactions and just putting myself out there. I’m always talking – my voice is constantly out there.” She exhales a cartoon sigh.
So what makes her angry? “Yeah, I’m not really political, I’m not gonna lie,” she says, holding up a hand. “I don’t get too involved in it, I don’t really watch the news.” Being downbeat isn’t part of Jama’s brand, I suggest. “Well, I think the world’s a bit fucked up and there is so much going on, but I try not to go too much into it because it’s just going to get me in a bad mood.”
True Love or True Lies premieres at 9pm, Monday 6 August, on MTV