Jameela Jamil: The surprising rise of Radio 1's next big thing

She’s about to become the first woman to present the Radio 1 chart show. But Jameela Jamil tells Ian Burrell that she’s still a geek at heart

Ian Burrell
Friday 04 January 2013 21:20 GMT
Jameela Jamil came to prominence presenting on Channel 4’s youth strand, T4
Jameela Jamil came to prominence presenting on Channel 4’s youth strand, T4 (Charlie Forgham-Bailey)

Extraordinary as it sounds from the lips of an attractive young woman in a bright red fedora with a twinkling star stuck on her cheekbone, Jameela Jamil says she's not one for craving attention. "I'm not trying to prove myself and I'm not trying to shock anyone," says the 26-year-old hired as the first woman to present The Official Chart show on BBC Radio 1, a programme running in various forms for 45 years.

The job comes just seven months into her radio career and is part of the attempt by Radio 1 controller Ben Cooper to make the station more youthful and less macho, following his recent replacement of the bolshie Chris Moyles with the softer Nick Grimshaw on the breakfast show. "Jam Jam" Jamil, like "Grimmy" Grimshaw, came to prominence presenting on Channel 4's now defunct youth strand T4.

She takes on her prestigious new role at a difficult time for the BBC in general and Radio 1 in particular. Jimmy Savile will always be associated with the BBC charts after presenting the first edition of the television show Top of the Pops in 1964 and co-hosting the final show in 2006. Savile joined Radio 1 in 1968, shortly after it first went on air, and remained with the station for 19 years.

His activities at the BBC cast a shadow over the organisation but Jamil says she is comfortable in her working environment on the eighth floor of the recently opened New Broadcasting House. "I feel incredibly safe here, and I'm a young woman who came in here without knowing anyone," she says.

The behaviour of a predator like Savile couldn't be kept secret, she believes, in a time of modern communications. "It was another era of people being scared to report stuff back then. Generally it was harder to get access to the press, whereas nowadays, with the speed of social media, it's much easier to make a public drama out of something."

Neither is she worried that the BBC's reputation with the audience has been lastingly damaged. "Anyone would probably suffer somewhat from that kind of negative association, but I don't think it's beyond reparation."

Jamil, who began presenting the Radio 1 Request Show last April, is still best known for her T4 television work and a flamboyant dress style, which won her celebrity status amid the air-kissing and stilettos at London Fashion Week. But for all this, she is actively trying to quash this idea that she is part of the cool set. "When I stepped into the industry I was dealt this bizarre persona of being this sarcastic fashionista 'it girl' who is friends with loads of celebrities. That couldn't be further from the truth."

She was saddled with this reputation, she says, after being plucked from the obscurity of a teaching job in an English Language School to work at T4 in place of Alexa Chung, whose "it girl" credentials could not be challenged. "They were trying to make me replace that void that she had left," says Jamil. "There was pressure [on me] to live up to what I was being told to do."

During three-and-a-half years in broadcasting, Jamil has been mixing with pop stars and actors while trying to correct this false public image by convincing audiences that she lives "a very normal existence". That can't have been easy when interviewing P Diddy, but she whispers that many of the lesser pop stars are impoverished. "You see the music videos and the bling and the cars, but all of that goes home at the end of the shoot. They make nothing because there's less and less money in the music industry."

Jamil tries to be unobtrusive when talking to stars, seeking to avoid showboating. She is just "the middleman", she claims. "I've never looked at this as an opportunity to try to prove how smart I am."

She admits to being "partial to a short skirt" and her long legs, clad in polka-dot tights, have helped support the idea she is a former model. It was more false PR. "I was a model scout," she says. "I was never a model, but they just dropped the scout."

That job with London model agency Premier was one of many she took after her education was curtailed by injuries she sustained in a traffic accident at the age of 17. Previously a student at Queen's College, an independent school for girls in London's Harley Street, Jamil was unable to complete her A-levels.

She had been bookish, with a love for biology. But she didn't run with the school in-crowd. "I wasn't pretty and skinny and rich, and didn't shop at all the right places and hang out with the right people," she says. "I was this little weirdo at school with no friends."

For four years she worked in a video shop, because that was a job which the film director Quentin Tarantino had done. She has since had the opportunity to interview Ricky Gervais and Rachel Weisz, two of her former customers. Teaching foreign students English in a classroom on Oxford Street gave her some of the skills which she now employs in broadcasting. "You are with people from 16 nationalities and have to keep them awake because they have been at work since 6am and make them laugh when every country has a different sense of humour."

When she applied for an audition at Channel 4 it probably helped that the once "chubby little 13-year-old" was now a beautiful young woman. Despite having no broadcasting experience she landed the job and dropped her plan to teach at a language school in Brazil.

Jamil doesn't do drink or drugs and writes a column in Company magazine where she urges girls to beware of having sex too early in a relationship. She has steadfastly resisted offers to do glamour photo shoots for lads' magazines. "I feel quite alienated by the women that I see being overtly sexual on the cover of those magazines and I never wanted anyone to get the wrong impression." Even a feature for Esquire made her "uncomfortable", though she was pleased with the article.

Radio 1's "official chart" is not anachronistic in a digital era, she says, arguing that young music fans are rejecting the culture of illegal downloading. Jamil's music tastes start with The Beatles and run the gamut of genres, but she says that pop music, the staple of her new programme, is "cool again". Styles change. "All of a sudden the leather jacket and the fag in your hand is such a boring cliché," says the presenter.

So it's really no surprise she would rather not be branded an "it girl".

"I find the whole idea of cool has been completely obliterated. It's always the quirkiest ones who have been ignored at school who are now being championed as the heroes of our generation," she says of the latest pop stars and designers. "I was a geek as a kid, an academic and an outsider – and that's something to no longer be ashamed of."

Jameela Jamil presents The Official Chart on BBC Radio 1, Sundays, 4-7pm from Sunday 13 January 2013. Watch at bbc.co.uk/radio1 between 6-7pm

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