THE SATURDAY TIMES
30 MARCH 2019
JEMIMA KHAN ON IMRAN, FAME AND THE CASE AGAINST ADNAN SYED
The daughter of a billionaire financier. The ex-wife of the prime minister of Pakistan. Confidante of Monica Lewinsky. Posted bail for Julian Assange. Tabloid favourite. Her latest project? A must-see TV documentary. No one said it wasn’t complicated being Jemima Khan. By Christa D’Souza
Photo: DAN KENNEDY
If Jemima Khan, née Goldsmith, has one goal in giving this interview, it is this: that the word “socialite” never appears next to her name again. “It’s just so lazy,” she says, her voice crystallising in annoyance at the very mention of it. “I mean, when there are so many other labels that are so readily available. For a start, apart from the two years when my children were very young and I was living in Lahore with my husband’s extended family, I’ve worked my entire life. And let me tell you, those years I was bringing up my children in Pakistan, there were not many parties. In fact, I’d go so far as to say there were none.”
It’s a grey, windy day and we are sitting in Khan’s double-ceilinged, skylit living room at her home on a quiet residential street in west(ish) London. (She has asked me not to be too specific about this, having had two stalkers in the past two years, one of whom finishes a suspended sentence in April.) Sulaiman, 22, and Kasim, 19, her sons by her ex-husband, Imran Khan, the former cricketer and current prime minister of Pakistan (they married in 1995 and divorced in 2004), are in London but not around. Nor is Brian, the beloved white alsatian named after the dog in Family Guy, who is out on his walk. Just us and a discreet housekeeper/member of staff. Decorated with a mixture of contemporary art and Islamic artefacts, the studio-like space is dominated by two massive white sofas and a giant ottoman, upon which has been laid out an elaborate feast of takeaway sushi.
“Aside from that, I think the term is quite sexist,” Khan, 45, goes on. “It’s used pejoratively to label women even if they have jobs. It’s hardly ever used to describe men – even jobless, party-loving men. In the past three months I’ve produced ten hours of TV both in the UK and the US. I don’t know … I wonder, at what point does the label unstick?”
Khan, all eyes and cheekbones, is nestled at the far end of a sofa with her legs tucked beneath her. Under that trademark heavy fringe and mane of chestnut hair, she looks like some sort of exotic cat. At one point she leaps up from the sofa to show me some old photos she recently dug up from her early twenties. In one she is on a family holiday at her mother’s estate in Marbella, holding baby Sulaiman. “I mean, look at me,” she exclaims. “I’m so young … It’s mad, isn’t it?”
In fact, aside from being a lot blonder, she doesn’t really look that much different. The daughter of the late financier Sir James Goldsmith and his mistress turned wife, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, with an inherited fortune reputed to be around £100 million, Khan was never really going to sail under the radar. But it was when she went out with Hugh Grant between 2004 and 2007 that she turned into an out-and-out tabloid celebrity. And then, of course, there was her turbulent year-long romance with Russell Brand, which ended acrimoniously in 2014. But here we go again, hinging on the personal rather than the professional.
“Yeah,” she says, with a polite but weary smile, “this thing of being aligned with high-profile men, it’s always been a kind of struggle. Whether it’s because I’m the daughter of, the sister of, the wife of, the girlfriend of … I’d really like to be able to do something that defines me separately from those men.
“On the other hand, I can’t moan about articles about all that stuff when I haven’t actually put anything out there as an alternative narrative. Put it this way: I wouldn’t be doing an interview but for the fact that talking about my work takes me out of the shadow of being known for the men I happen to have been connected to in my life.”
She adds, “I keep meaning to change back my name. But neither name really is about who I am any more. Maybe I should change it by deed poll to Jemima Neither?”
Khan is wearing a sweater custom designed for her by New York designer Rachel Hruska. (Between 1996 and 2001 she ran a fashion label, based on traditional Pakistani dress; in 2008, she guest designed a collection for the French fashion house Azzaro.) The front is embroidered with the words “Trust your instinct”, a reference to Instinct Productions, the TV and film company she set up three years ago with her friend Henrietta Conrad, a TV executive.
“It’s good, isn’t it?” she says, looking down at the sweater proudly. “I had one made for Hen and one for me, because it’s the motto our company was named after. Every time I’ve gone wrong in my life, either professionally or personally, is when I haven’t trusted my instincts. I think I have pretty good instincts, but I have a tendency to overrule them, to listen to too many other people’s opinions, to believe the hype. The company name was a daily reminder to both of us to nurture them or else.”
It feels odd to be in this space in the daytime because I’ve been to some extraordinary parties here over the years, with guests including movie stars such as Woody Harrelson, Gillian Anderson and Tom Holland, but also a man recently freed from death row. For one party at Kiddington Hall, the 18th-century Oxfordshire stately home she bought in 2010, she hired a coach for all the invitees who wanted to drink or hadn’t got a car. Does the ability to mix together the most unlikely people, combined with an unlimited budget, doom you to everlasting “socialite-dom”? Does, for that matter, posting Instagram pictures of yourself in a Hallowe’en costume for a ball to raise money for Syrian refugees mean you can never be taken seriously? (The costume, by the way – Khan as Melania Trump, with Donald groping her from behind – was later sold on eBay for Unicef.) But we are not here to talk charity events or parties. We are here to talk about the latest TV documentary she has executive produced. It’s called The Case Against Adnan Syed, the first episode of which will be aired on Monday night on Sky Atlantic and HBO.
It follows on the heels of Instinct’s first TV project, The Clinton Affair, the series produced by Alex Gibney in which Monica Lewinsky opened up on camera for the first time about her relationship with Bill Clinton. (Khan also collaborated with Gibney in 2013 on the Bafta-nominated documentary We Steal Secrets: the Story of WikiLeaks.)
If you were one of the people who obsessively tuned into the first season of Serial, the explosive podcast from the people behind This American Life (it was downloaded 175 million times), you will know exactly who Adnan Syed is. Khan’s four-part documentary, with new interviews with key witnesses and fresh evidence, picks up where Serial left off in investigating the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, a Korean-American high-school student from Baltimore, and the dubious conviction the following year of her second-generation Pakistani former boyfriend, Adnan Syed.
“It was definitely tricky knowing how to do it differently from Serial,” says Khan, who has barely touched the sushi and is now sipping green tea. “Tricky to get it at all, actually. We were this tiny production company. We hadn’t even incorporated ourselves at that point. Every single giant production company had gone after the rights and been rebuffed by This American Life, who were quite clear they wanted to keep it as a podcast.
“Our slightly circuitous way in was for me to connect with Rabia Chaudry [the attorney and loyal advocate of the Syed family] on Twitter.” Khan has 2.8 million followers on the social media platform. “I knew that she would probably know my name because of Pakistan. Anyway, it turned out not only that the Syed family were Pakistani, they were also from the exact ethnic group as Imran’s family – Pashtun. The mother even looks like Imran’s mother. But then every single work project I’ve ever taken on has been on some level deeply personal to me.
“It got me thinking about my own children. I have Pakistani-British sons who identify as Muslims, and one of them is around the same age as Adnan was when he was convicted. The prosecution argued that Adnan was a confused Muslim-American kid, struggling with his cultural and religious identity, and when he broke up with his girlfriend he committed an honour killing. According to the cultural consultant in the trial, ‘That’s what Muslims do when they get dumped.’
“Those kinds of Islamophobic generalisations about Muslims living in the West affect all Muslims, my children included.”
Jemima Marcelle Goldsmith, born in January 1974, was brought up in a sprawling Georgian home on the edge of Richmond Park with her younger brothers, Ben and Zak (the latter an MP for Richmond Park and the Conservative candidate at the 2016 London mayoral election). It was an upbringing of immense privilege, sophistication and wealth, as she would be the first to tell you, and one of which she is proud.
“I’m worrying now about what I said earlier about my surname … because I am related to some clearly exceptional men.
“That said, I did grow up in a world where the expectations for girls and boys were very different, regardless of ability.”
When the word got out that Jemima and Imran planned to marry, the press had a field day. Especially Private Eye. The cover cartoon had Sir James saying, to someone who told him that Imran had asked for his daughter’s hand in marriage, “Why? Has she stolen something?”
A bride at the age of 21, she upped sticks for Pakistan in 1995, having converted to Islam and quit her English degree at Bristol University. (She completed it from Pakistan via correspondence and later studied for an MA at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.)
She lived in her three-roomed in-laws’ house in Lahore, where they would often go without power and water and both she and the children would constantly get sick with stomach bugs. Although she threw herself into the role, learning to speak Urdu, raising funds for Imran’s cancer hospital and campaigning for Tehrik-e-Insaf, his Movement for Justice party, she was not roundly welcomed in her new home country. She was attacked for being associated with Imran’s playboy past and, of course, for her Jewish heritage – “You think antisemitism is bad in the Labour party? Try Lahore.” She became a useful political tool for her husband’s opponents. In 1999, while launching her fashion label and finishing her degree, she was falsely charged with smuggling antique tiles out of the country by the government of prime minister Nawaz Sharif. (In the past she has been on the receiving end of a fatwa and death threats, and even endured protests outside her house.)
“I was 24, pregnant with my second child and the offence they’d charged me with was non-bailable, meaning if they threw me in jail, I wouldn’t get out until there was a trial, and nothing ever goes to trial in Pakistan. Everyone told me, they will leave you in jail for as long as it takes to get Imran to pipe the hell down, so I just got on a plane and left.
“I was the Achilles’ heel,” she says with a shrug. “I was British, I had a Jewish name, I was the younger woman and I was a very effective way to get at Imran. Looking back, I think it’s probably the reason why I bonded with Monica Lewinsky, and why I wanted to make a documentary about her experience as a political pawn. She spent 20 years being denigrated and traduced in the media, and to a certain extent the same thing happened to me for 10 years with the Pakistani press. I just didn’t understand how relentless the attacks would be on me personally. It was a weird experience. I’d be watching the footage of Monica, especially where the FBI is interrogating her in that hotel room, thinking, ‘Shit, it’s almost the same time frame, too.’ ”
Lewinsky and Khan met in 2015 at a Vanity Fair dinner in Los Angeles in honour of Graydon Carter (Khan had been appointed European editor at large of the magazine by Carter four years earlier). “It was actually a very revealing moment,” she recalls. “I didn’t know very many people. Monica Lewinsky was standing there on her own and we ended up talking to each other. She looked rattled – and it immediately came out. This very famous, high-profile actress [irritatingly, she refuses to say who] had strode up to her within minutes of Monica arriving and asked her why they’d let her in.
“Being somewhat removed from the whole political situation, I hadn’t realised how she had to factor in to every single social decision she made, how people would receive or judge her.
“After that we became good friends, and I’d often invite her to things as my plus-one. Anyway, I was invited to this party in New York by a top French fashion house. She’d warned me to ask the host first and I’d said, ‘Don’t be so ridiculous.’ She’d said, ‘No, no, you need to ask. They may have a problem.’ And that is what happened. When I replied saying she was my plus-one, they asked me to uninvite her. First they said yes, and then the host rang me and said, ‘I’m so sorry, the brand does not want to be associated with Monica.’ Well, I flipped, and sent them an email with Monica’s TED talk on the price of shame and said, ‘You need to watch this. If you do not let her come, you’ll be complicit in always blaming the woman.’ I said, ‘You’d allow Bill Clinton to go to the party – why not her?’ ”
“When we met, we were both swimming upstream against old, false narratives constructed about us, looking to define ourselves as women in our forties who had something to contribute,” says Lewinsky via email. “We live in different countries but, as we got to know each other, we realised we had so many similar markers in our lives that happened almost simultaneously. We’d both lost a decade of our lives for obviously different reasons, but these similarities provided a shorthand for understanding the challenges of navigating our lives.”
Khan made the news again when she helped post bail for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange when he was arrested in 2010. She later retracted her support for Assange, writing on a blog for the New Statesman (of which she was then associate editor) about how her “journey with Assange had taken [her] from admiration to demoralisation”. It was the same year that her WikiLeaks film came out. “When I told Assange I was part of the We Steal Secrets team, I suggested that he view it not in terms of being pro or anti-him,” she wrote, “but rather as a film that would be fair and would represent the truth. He replied: ‘If it’s a fair film, it will be pro-Julian Assange.’ Beware the celebrity who refers to himself in the third person …”
“Truth is really important to me,” she says. “I know there are shades and nuances, but that is why I keep coming back to documentaries. Integrity, too, is incredibly important, not just on a professional but a personal level. I find it hard not to confront someone if I think it is in question. Sometimes friends will say to me, ‘At what cost?’ ”
Khan has a tight-knit circle of women friends: Henrietta Conrad; Nicola Formby, the widow of AA Gill; Alice Brudenell-Bruce, a writer, and Martha Ward, a fashion stylist, both of whom she met at Bristol University; her former sister-in-law Kate Rothschild, who was married to her younger brother, Ben. Her friends are frequent guests at Kiddington Hall, which you would recognise if you were one of her 125,000 followers on Instagram.
“Oh, don’t,” she groans. “I post far less than anyone else I know. Not that I consciously limit myself, but even though it’s incredibly addictive and not a safe place to be, especially if you are feeling fragile.”
Really? Even her?
“Yes, especially me,” she says. “It’s the disingenuousness of it that bothers me. Like people with eating disorders eating chocolate cake or pouting when talking about, I don’t know, Bovril.
“I am guilty, too. I fantasise about a more honest Instagram, where we might caption our photos more accurately to reflect our real insecurities. For example, ‘I deleted 20 other photos before this one, because I don’t have the body confidence or self-esteem of Jameela Jamil.’ It’s not even the projection of perfection; it’s more a matter of, just say it.”
Though she often posts pictures of herself or her friends (it is not a private account), she is much more reticent about uploading pictures of her sons. “Well, it’s not fair, is it? Having chosen not to be on social media, unlike their mother, they’ve always remained under the radar, so what am I doing putting up pictures of them? There is one there, but only because it’s got Tyrian in it [Imran’s daughter by his former relationship with the late Sita White], and there is another one of them with their father, but that’s only because Imran posted it. As long as he posts it, that’s fine.”
As we are talking, her phone lights up. It’s Eric Fellner, co-chairman of Working Title (the film company behind box office hits including the Bridget Jonesmovies, Fargo, Billy Elliot and Love Actually), out of which Instinct Productions has operated since its inception in 2015. Fellner came on board as a co-producer of The Case Against Adnan Syed. “When Jem said let’s do it together, I said yes because, through her relationship with Rabia Chaudry and all the other people she accessed, she had a different take on the story,” he later tells me on the telephone. “But then I’ve always thought her talents had been hugely underused.”
At the moment Instinct has two projects in development. One is with Working Title, a feature film based on a script Khan rewrote herself “a million times before I dared show it to anyone”, but until the leads have been announced, she’s been advised not to say a thing about it. The other is a TV drama co-written by Julian Fellowes entitled Five Arrows, a period piece based on the House of Rothschild and their extraordinary influence across Europe in the 19th century.
“It’s something I emailed Julian about, thinking he’d never do it,” she says, “and yet I couldn’t believe there hadn’t been a TV drama about this family who, despite their wealth and power, still couldn’t quite integrate into British society because of their Jewishness, which is quite relevant and interesting today.”
There is also the fact that not only are there two Rothschild marriages in her family (Khan’s brother Zac is married to Alice, daughter of brewery heiress Anita Guinness and the late Amschel Rothschild; her other brother, Ben, was married to Alice’s older sister, Kate), but the Goldsmiths and Rothschilds were neighbours in the Frankfurt ghetto, actually living on the same street.
“It’s funny, there was a film made in 1934 with Boris Karloff called The House of Rothschild,” she continues. “In it the old matriarch castigates her son for wanting to marry outside the family, saying, ‘Why don’t you marry one of the Goldsmiths next door?’ I guess the edict has travelled through the generations, because we’re still marrying each other …”
Meanwhile, she plans to visit the ghetto with her brothers and her children – “Not that there is much left of it to see, but just to know where our father’s side of the family comes from.”
She is, she says, single at the moment and enjoying being rushed off her feet doing what she loves most. In a conversation we have after this interview she has just come off the phone with Jay Wilds, the key witness for the prosecution against Adnan Syed, whom she is trying to persuade to go on camera for a possible new episode. If she pulls it off it will shed new light on the case.
If she could name her biggest worry at the moment, it is the terrifying spectre of not having enough to do. “That’s why the whole argument, ‘Why do you have to work when you don’t have to?’ always baffles me slightly. Let me caveat everything by saying I am very, very grateful to have the option, but for me, not doing something creative, not being engaged, not contributing in some way, is a fast track to low self-esteem and depression. The reason I work is for purpose and self-worth, and feeling I have some kind of meaning on this brutal planet.”
She adds, “But money can demotivate, especially with children. Put it this way: although it may sound hypocritical, I am already, and plan to continue to be, quite stingy with my kids.”