Shamah Khan lives in East London and works as a swimming teacher. This interview took place in December 2013, the photos were taken in spring of 2014, and I owe Shamah endless thanks for her patience in waiting on publication!
Sham: I’m going to be forty in April.
iBeheld (double taking): I’m sorry, could you repeat that for the tape recorder? (laughter)
Sham: Forty in April!
iBeheld: Four Zero. Not One Four?
Sham (laughing): No! It’s my Dad’s side – the Asian side. They look after themselves, their skin, they eat well … I’ve taken after my Dad.
iBeheld: I’ve been thinking about you as being more of a peer with my twenty-three year old daughter – and you’re not! Hmm. I’m going to ask you straight away about your favourite products.
Sham: Simple. I like Simple. One: it’s good for my skin, and two: I can afford it! There’s a treat here and there … an Elizabeth Arden 24 hour thing that you just smother on, but as long as I wash my face … (shrugs). My Dad got me these pots of cucumber eye gel. I don’t know if they were three quid or seven quid; they work for me and that’s all that matters. If people pay £25 for eye gel then good luck to them, but over the years, whatever’s worked for me, I’m happy to go with that. So I kind of fall across stuff. Right at this moment, my cucumber eye gel and my Simple creams and face wash – that’s working for me.
iBeheld: I don’t know how much time you spend in a pool as opposed to at the side of one, but do you have to take particular care because of the water and exposure to chlorine?
Sham: I’m amazed at how my hair and my skin have coped, because I’ve been teaching for ten years now. I started off with babies, so I was in the pool like three, four hours a day, every day. Now, I’m not in the pool as much, maybe three times a week – and three hours on one day, with the babies. I have my little thingy mittens –
iBeheld: What are thingy mittens?!
Sham: You know! Exfoliating – you literally put them on and you just – (mimes vigorous rubbing). I’m just so thankful that over the years my wrinkliness has gone, and I think my skin has just got used to [the water].
iBeheld: So you’re kind of turning into a mermaid?
Sham: If only, hey? (laughs) Sometimes I have showers two, or possibly three times a day – being in the pool, you have to. I like The Body Shop creams but not things with loads and loads of perfume in, just ’cause my skin is quite sensitive to that. So nice, natural products. But Body Shop body butters, over the years, I’ve really gone for. Then again, my Dad, bless him, will sometimes go somewhere and I’ll come home and he’ll be “Oh, I bought you this …” Very random – very, very random! I’m not massively fussy as long as it’s not perfumed because that’s what irritates my skin.
iBeheld: Does that mean that you can’t wear perfume or scent?
Sham: No, my favourite perfumes are the Thierry Mugler ones: Alien and Angel. I have the creams. If I use them very carefully, once in a blue moon, it’s OK. Perfume’s fine but perfumed creams – they just doesn’t make me feel nice either. Nice and natural to a certain extent is what I like. Apart from if it’s a night out – then I’ll go full shebang!
iBeheld: What about make-up? You’ve got lovely strong features …
Sham: At work, as you can see, I just scrape my hair back and I don’t wear any make-up. It’s pointless to wear it because I’m in the pool but I thought I’m really going to take advantage of this interview so I brought my mascara! (laughs) So then, if I do go out, like to a pub on a Thursday, or wherever, it’s really nice to put make-up on, a bit of blusher on, mascara. When I was younger I used to trowel it on – I think a lot of young girls did – but over the years, I’ve kind of grown into my skin a bit more and you don’t need as much, do you? I’m lucky enough to have the skin that I’ve eventually got ’cause when I was younger I used to have really bad spots and I think that was down to not eating as well as I do now, and not drinking as much water and a bit of a lifestyle thing I suppose.
iBeheld: Were you a swimmer when you were younger?
Sham: Not professionally. I used to go swimming a lot, my dad used to take my sister and me and my best friend every Sunday: either ice skating or swimming, one of the two. We went when we went to school, but they just kind of left us to it. So I’ve always been a swimmer as in: I’ve enjoyed it, but nothing professional, no clubs or anything like that. My first job from school was a trainee water sports instructor, so I’ve kind of always been in leisure. Then I came to London, and couldn’t find anything, and I worked in reception for a year and it just drove me crazy – absolutely crazy. One, I didn’t really know what I was doing, cause it’s not something that I’d trained for, and two: I just can’t sit still! Then I became a lifeguard, started to see these babies in the pool with a teacher, and it just completely just took me – so I’ve been teaching for ten years now. When I saw the babies I just said to myself ‘I want to do that’. I’ve been doing the babies for years now, so I’m completely at home with them.
iBeheld: Do you work with children of all age groups – senior schools as well?
Sham: At senior schools it’s not part of the National Curriculum, so I do the school kids, and then a couple of adults, but I’ve chosen to do beginners only. Because I love having somebody who’s like a bag of nerves (laughs) – it’s just where I feel I work best! And I get very bored of Intermediate, all up and down and the tumble turn!
iBeheld: Learning to swim is very transforming, isn’t it?
Sham: Absolutely. I get a lot more satisfaction in that. I’m not just a swimming teacher because it pays my bills; I love my job. And I think I’m one of the lucky people. I may not earn the best money in the world, but I bounce into work and I bounce out of work. And I feel very lucky to be able to say that about my job. Sometimes I have days where I have fifteen or eighteen kids not listening and I can feel my hair standing on end but it’s part and parcel of it!
iBeheld: It’s interesting to see when people feel that they’re in the right place for those hours a day that we spend earning a living – you can pick up on that sense of fulfilment from the outside.
Sham: I think so. I don’t want to sound prim and proper but it does definitely come out when you do love your job. I also think age has got a lot to do with it. I probably wasn’t as passionate about it when I was younger. When you get older different things become more important to you. I think I’m at my most confident when I’m at work. That is when it’s 100%, day in, day out. Coming here to do this interview I’m like … (makes a noise and pulls a face of terror!)
iBeheld: When I was talking to Micha the photographer about you, I said ‘she’s my son’s swimming teacher, and I’ve only ever seen her in her uniform. I don’t know what she wears outside the pool, but she’s amazing and she kind of paces up and down the poolside like a tigress from a Rousseau painting.’ Because there’s this sense of attention and awareness around you when you teach, and it’s very compelling to watch.
I wanted to ask you about swimming in relation to girls, because as a child I loved swimming but then adolescence hit and I was ‘Now I hate swimming. I hate every moment of it’.
Sham: I was a lifeguard from nineteen to twenty-three, and I was just a bit more conscious of myself then. My hair had to be a particular way, and I’d wear a bit of make-up to work and I’d hate putting a swimming costume on because I’ve got absolutely no boobs whatsoever. Such is life really, but I was very conscious of that! I was very, very, aware of having a swimming costume on.
iBeheld: Would you have been lifeguarding at the point when Pamela Anderson was the popular face of the industry?
Sham: Probably! But you know, I was just not comfortable in my own skin at a younger age.
iBeheld: And that all just dropped away as you got older?
Sham: Yeah, every now and again on holiday, when you’ve got a bikini on, you might think ‘Oh God (giggles) – whatever!’
iBeheld: I’m fairly flat chested but I’ve always been glad about that because I’m into the fashions, and so I don’t want anything that will interfere with the cut of a jacket or the drape of a dress. But I think I’m quite lucky to have that mindset because most women seem to have a ‘bigger is better’ point of view.
Sham: It’s not a massive deal to me, If I see nice cleavage I’m not afraid to go ‘wow! nice tits!’ (laughs), but no, I would never in a million years get my boobs done. I just think everybody can have Botox if they want to have Botox, if you want to have this or want to have that – never say never! But I just wouldn’t mess around with surgery, which I think is quite a big thing.
iBeheld: I kind of feel the same. I don’t judge people for choosing to make changes, and I’m always quite fascinated to know what they’re going to have and why, but I kind of feel that I’d like to save having a general anaesthetic for the moment I might really need one, because I’ve been run over or something. I do see a generational shift, actually, between younger women who seem so much more open to having everything ‘done’.
Sham: Compared to when we were young? Oh, massively! It’s actually quite scary … people are just so superficial now.
iBeheld: I do believe that all young girls probably do – and probably should – go through a phase of being terribly insecure and self-obsessed in adolescence, but then you come out of it and you’re fine. But now it seems like people aren’t getting to that point of self-acceptance.
Sham: There’s so many quick fixes. And they are available to the world: the young people right through to the older generations. Kids don’t know any better than what they’ve been brought up with: they see things on telly, they see things at school. I’m so pleased that I was brought up when I was and grew up the way that I did because I feel sorry for kids nowadays. There’s so many overweight kids. Gone are the days of playing out the back for three or four hours every day, climbing trees and things. Which is what I used to do.
iBeheld: And the food is so different. The snacks and junk food that we had access to when we were younger was not filled with as much crap as the stuff you see now.
Sham: Chicken and chips. that’s what you see school kids with at lunchtime, a box of chicken and chips in their hands. Every where. But it’s been put upon them really.
iBeheld: Something else which I ask everybody who does this interview is who or what you think is beautiful?
Sham: What I thought was really pretty and beautiful and I still think it now … rainbows. Rainbows and balloons. That’s the first thing that comes into my head. Rainbows and balloons and sunsets … I remember as a child being fascinated with them. My sister is somebody I can share that with because not everybody gets it. Sunsets, the moon, rainbows, and balloons; I love them. I just absolutely adore them, I don’t know why, I just do! (laughs)
iBeheld: And the other thing I always like to ask is if you can think back to when you were little and what your formative influences were?
Sham: Influences … my Dad brought my sister and me up from the age of six and seven. He was a massive influence and he still is now. We walk down the street and although I’m nearly 40 he still puts me on the inside, and things like that, they mean the world to me. Little things like that.
iBeheld: For women I think it gives a great boost of confidence if you have a loving, proud dad.
Sham: Absolutely. I think possibly a lot of teenage boys and girls are pain in the butts, and my sister and I were, growing up. And I think my Dad’s done an amazing job. I’m lucky enough to have a big family as well, and they’ve all helped – we all look after each other – but my Dad? He is just my absolute world. He’ll come up and cook for me and my friends are like, ‘Sham, you should be cooking for him!’ But he likes to! I take after him very, very much in mannerisms, humour – my nose! (laughs) – all different things. I’m very proud of my Daddy. Very, very proud.
iBeheld: When you were growing up, were there any pop stars or film stars you liked the look of?
Sham: Wham! I think I was one of the millions of girls in the world who loved Wham! My first one was Shakin’ Stevens – My God! (groans) I LOVED him. I did the dances for my Dad and made up stories about him … Shakin’ Stevens was my first love. (laughs) And then Wham! for many, many years.
iBeheld: Both of Wham! or one or the other of Wham!?
Sham: Wham! – the four of them. My best friend has got blonde hair – we’ve been best friends for thirty-three years now, and we both liked Wham! And when we were at school, we used to wear exactly the same clothes but different colours so we were known as Pepsi and Shirlie, and that kind of stuck with us for years. So that was an influence in the sense that I had the bed cover and the cushion. And then Bros. came into action … I wasn’t really a Brosette. But Prince. Prince is just my … he’s my dream. His writing, his singing … I went to see him live. He was an influence because I think I liked him from probably about the age of eleven, and I think I liked music like that from a young age. His words were very – I don’t know what words to use, but his lyrics aren’t all bubblegum.
iBeheld: Sophisticated for an eleven year old – especially Darling Nikki! (laughter)
Sham: That’s one of my faves! Yeah. Prince. Even now I just go ‘ooh’… I love him, I love him to death.
iBeheld: I’m looking at you now thinking you could pull off the Jill Jones look –
Sham: Well, do you know what, I had like a ‘meant to be’ moment … Remember when Stars In Your Eyes was on? I was nineteen and living in Catford, and really massively into Prince then, and there was a guy who came on Stars In Your Eyes as Prince and I was like, ‘God, there’s a guy that actually looks like Prince!’ Three days later, I’m shopping in Catford and this guy winds the window of his car down and says “Excuse me’ and it was him. And he asked me if I’d come and do an audition and I ended up dancing for him for a year. I went to Switzerland, I did Cambridge and Oxford Universities with him, and the Hippodrome in London.
iBeheld: So were you being Cat?
Sham: Yeah, I was one of the dancers! We did Diamonds and Pearls, and Get Off – it was kind of around that time. I hardly ever talk about it now, because you can’t go ‘Oh by the way …’ (laughs) It brings a smile to my face, remembering it. It was just so weird how it happened! His name was Mark, he was a plumber from Catford and that made me laugh even more! So that’s my little claim to fame! (laughs)
iBeheld: So tucked away at home, have you got a lot of purple and lace tights?
Sham: I haven’t any more! At the time – things were a lot shorter, let’s say.
iBeheld: Oh yeah!
Sham: I still wear tight things – but not so short any more. (laughs)
IBeheld: I miss the shortness. I was the queen of the mini-skirt, when it was very important what colour knickers you were wearing because they WERE going to be seen. I think, for girls like us with fairly flat chests, if you have great legs …
Sham: (nodding) It’s the legs, isn’t it? Got to get the legs out. Yeah – (laughs) – legs and make-up, at the time.
iBeheld: It’s a nice tomboyish way to do sexy, too. So much easier to be a bit ambiguous with your legs, I think, rather than your chest.
Sham: And I think it’s a little bit …
iBeheld: Rarer? There are fewer of us with great legs!
Sham: (laughs) Yeah – and I think it’s just a little bit more – not taking anything away from anybody, but seeing a pair of legs is a little bit more classy than seeing a cleavage.
iBeheld: I haven’t even asked you specifically about your legs, which I gaze upon with admiration each week! They are lovely, so long and toned, and such a fantastic colour – do you do anything to enhance that, any fake tan or oil?
Sham: When people say to me about my colour I say ‘Well, I’ve got a brown dad, you know? My mum is as white as anything, very, very blue eyes … But very occasionally, if I know I’m wearing a dress, I might do a little sun-bed.
iBeheld: You mustn’t do that! I have very few beauty rules, but that is one.
Sham: It’s very occasional. I know that it’s a bit of a no-no. (shrugs) It is naughty, but … I always have an exfoliator, and I always, always cream – and not everybody does, which I’m really surprised about. I do really look after my skin, so I don’t know if that has something to do with it as well. I’m not on a sun-bed every week or anything like that. But over the years I’ve been more aware of being in the water four or five times a week for two, three hours a go, so I was very aware of the chlorine, and I think I’m very lucky that that’s kind of worked with me rather than against me.
iBeheld: Your ethnicity as well, I couldn’t guess that. It’s like age: I’m really useless at guessing and I’m lazy as well. I’ve lived in London since I was nineteen, so I will look at someone with your kind of colouring and lazily think ‘she’s a London girl … could be mixed race, could be Italian, could be this, could be that – she’s London…’
Sham: (laughs) ‘She’s London – she’s alright!’
iBeheld: It’s all your own hair isn’t it, you lucky cow?
Sham: Well, when people say to me ‘Your hair’s amazing I say, well, you should see my armpits’. Most people laugh, but I’ve had a few that look shocked, and I’m like ‘come on, that’s a joke!’
iBeheld: That’s another thing that’s changed since I was nineteen and you would have been fourteen, is that at nineteen, I didn’t shave my legs or under my arms and it didn’t put men off – well, some of them it did, but they were the kind of men I didn’t want anyway: the kind that had really old-fashioned views about women.
Sham: I think that it is a great way to think at a young age.
iBeheld: I can’t take all the credit – I was inspired by Beatrice Dalle in Betty Blue!
Sham: I think you have to have a lot of confidence to think ‘for me that’s beauty, that’s the way forward’. I think that’s great.
iBeheld: It was a bit unusual, but certainly now, it seems unthinkable because there’s so much pressure to depilate and wax. Men as well!
Sham: It is ridiculous. It really is ridiculous. My legs – I’ve got shorts on every day, I can’t leave them – well, I won’t leave them to grow because – well you just can’t! People get so freaked out by it now, don’t they? I remember being at school and we did a fashion show and I think I was in the second or third year seniors so I would have been what, thirteen, fourteen? I remember the fifth year girls laughing at me because of how hairy my legs were! And then I went home and shaved them.
IBeheld: So mean!
Sham: Yeah … but that’s just how it is. You get to that age where you start to think I have to do this, or girls can’t do that or whatever. I think it’s nice for people to look after themselves but not over the top, not when it’s too phony.
iBeheld: I like the phrase ‘looking after yourself’ because it’s nurturing and it’s affectionate and not the other thing of just picking holes in yourself and finding things to ‘correct’. I think our age group can see the difference and see where the boundary is, but younger ones are veering more towards constant high maintenance red alert against their own body.
Sham: Really?! I’ve got a little … can you see this thing here? (points to a sharp angle on one otherwise perfectly shaped ear)
iBeheld: Yes, but I kind of like that!
Sham: I have six or seven piercings in this ear and I had this one done when I was at school and I was fiddling and fiddling with it and the whole thing – including the butterfly at the back – closed in, so I had to have it picked out by the hospital, and I ended up with my little elfin ear! Have you seen The Dark Crystal? One of my favourite films, and I’m paying tribute to it with my ear!
iBeheld: I don’t think there is any real beauty without a little bit of imperfection in it somewhere – it’s so often people’s flaws that make them really beautiful, which I guess is why I have such a downer on surgery.
Sham: If you open your mouth and you’re not a nice person, you may be very beautiful on the outside but … that’s a massive deal to me. It really, really is. And similarly, I find it really sad sometimes when people don’t see their own beauty.
iBeheld: Do you look forward to being an older you?
Sham: I can’t wait – I’ve already planned my fortieth birthday – it’s not until April, and it’s planned, it’s done. I love getting older! My little grey bits here, and here, and here (points), get done every four weeks now as opposed to every four months, but so be it! I look after myself and I love cake, I love crisps, but now I also love vegetables and fruit. I love getting older, I really do, because I’m just figuring out more stuff. And finding out more stuff. And feeling more confident and feeling more comfortable and for me, it’s, it’s … I don’t know – how can you go wrong with something like that? (laughs) I’m in a really nice place. In here (gestures to heart) and in here (gestures to head) – a very, very nice place. And it has taken a little while, you know, growing up, but I think I’m at my most confident I’ve ever, ever been. I’m in a very, very happy place in life, I’ve got an amazing family, I’ve got amazing friends, and I like me.
I don’t know exactly which ‘thingy mittens’ Sham uses to exfoliate, but click here for my favourite exfoliating towel. It’s life-changingly good!