There’s more to Jemima Khan than just the headlines


On 3 November last year, Jemima Khan was at home in Fulham when she picked up a call from a friend. There was news, the friend said, of an assassination attempt on Jemima’s ex-husband, Imran Khan – until April, the prime minister of Pakistan. Jemima’s first thought was for their two sons, Suleiman, 26, and Kasim, 23, and for Imran’s daughter, Tyrian, 30 – by his late girlfriend, Sita White – who lives with her when she is not in Los Angeles. 

Khan, 49, is not keen on the telephone. She associates it with receiving bad news and always experiences split-second panic. It was how she learned that her best friend Phoebe Kent had died aged 23, and that Imran’s cancer hospital had been bombed in 1996 (‘the only time I heard Imran cry’). In 2019, it was how she received news that her 15-year-old niece Iris, daughter of brother Ben Goldsmith, had died in an accident. 

She raced to Kasim’s room, but before she had got up the stairs he called: ‘I’ve heard, I’ve heard.’ She rang Suleiman and told him to come home. The immediate instinct of both boys was to be with their father. A week later they travelled to Pakistan. 

Dress, The Vampire’s Wife, fenwick.co.uk. Jemima Khan explains how she associates the telephone with bad news

Dress, The Vampire’s Wife, fenwick.co.uk. Jemima Khan explains how she associates the telephone with bad news 

The would-be assassin gave as his motive for shooting Imran his ‘proximity to the Jews’. ‘Which means me and my family,’ says Khan. Her late father, the financier Sir James Goldsmith, was half-Jewish. Back in focus were the darker times of her years in Pakistan (1995-2004), when her Jewishness was constantly referenced to undermine Imran’s political career. ‘I was 25 per cent Jewish here, 250 per cent Jewish there,’ she says. 

In another terrible call in 2000, she was misinformed by the American Embassy that Imran had been assassinated. In 2004, her sons were held at gunpoint. Before that, his opponents trumped up charges of antiques smuggling, and tried to throw her in jail. To this day, politically motivated mobs stand outside the London house of her 88-year-old mother, Lady Annabel, holding placards and shouting rape threats in Urdu. 

Part of me thinks maybe it would have done me some favours to have an arranged marriage 

Of course, this is a small part of her relationship with Pakistan. When she left Imran in 2004 aged 30 and returned to London with the boys, she wanted to record the warmth and joy she experienced there too. Over the next decade – fitting around work as a journalist for the New Statesman, later as a documentary producer – she wrote a screenplay. The first version was ‘amateur’. At her desk – she lives in a converted former taxi cab factory – she wrote and rewrote. Her friend and ‘brilliant teacher’, director and writer Ol Parker (Ticket to Paradise, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) returned her efforts with notes. She felt grateful, nervous, ‘not complacent’. It was eventually accepted by Working Title Films, which co-produced it with her company, Instinct Productions. The result – What’s Love Got To Do With It? starring Shazad Latif, Lily James and Emma Thompson – hits cinemas later this month. 

Khan is a disciplined timekeeper, so I arrive at Fischer’s restaurant in Marylebone 15 minutes early. She is already there, dressed in jeans and a Bella Freud jumper. Her voice has a silvery old-school poshness, repeating ‘wow’, ‘brilliant’ and ‘insane’ to denote surprise. What’s Love. .? has already won Best Comedy at the Rome Film Festival, but she wishes she could write it again. How? ‘Better.’ Later, she adds, ‘I’m very self-critical. I guess that’s the nature of all creative endeavours.’ 

Blazer, waistcoat and trousers, temperleylondon.com. Shoes, adidas.co.uk. Rings, Jemima’s own

Blazer, waistcoat and trousers, temperleylondon.com. Shoes, adidas.co.uk. Rings, Jemima’s own

Blazer, waistcoat and trousers, temperleylondon.com. Shoes, adidas.co.uk. Rings, Jemima’s own

The film is a ‘cross-cultural’ boy-next-door romcom set in London and Lahore with an arranged marriage twist. It does what you’d expect of the company that made Love Actually and Notting Hill, skidding through the idiosyncrasies of British culture with a hefty dose of feelgood schmaltz. The idea was conceived while Khan was researching a New Statesman article on arranged marriage. Among Imran’s family and friends, theirs was the only ‘love marriage’, and the only one to fail. ‘Part of me thinks that if my parents had been sane and functional and able to agree, maybe it would have done me some favours to have had an arranged marriage.’ There’s a lot packed in that sentence. She laughs. ‘I know.’ 

A family recap: her mother, Lady Annabel Vane-Tempest-Stewart, was married to Mark Birley and had three children (Rupert, Robin and India Jane) when she embarked on an affair with Sir James, who also had three offspring (Isabel, Manes and Alix). While still married to Birley, Lady Annabel had Jemima and Zac – a former Tory MP, now Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park – before marrying Sir James in 1978. Ben was born just before Sir James moved to New York to live with his next mistress, with whom he had two more children (Charlotte and Jethro). 

All this should tell you something about Khan’s extraordinary upbringing. In 1995 she was 21, a second-year English student at Bristol, when she was introduced to Imran, then 43, at San Lorenzo, the Italian restaurant in Knightsbridge beloved of celebrities. Within months they were married. She converted to Islam and they moved to Lahore. Clearly she was escaping, but it was stepsister India Jane who summarised it best, says Khan. ‘She said I was looking for moral certainty.’ 

At night, Khan locked her bedroom and kept a loaded gun on a shelf

Unlike Sir James – known for philandering as much as for his politics and money – Imran was a born-again religious conservative so wouldn’t cheat. Jemima settled quickly, learning Urdu and founding an eponymous not-for-profit fashion company. ‘Women – the breadwinners in this particular village, where heroin addiction was a big problem – would hand embroider Western clothes [sold in London and New York] from their homes, which meant they could look after their children.’ The company was forced to close following the 9/11 attacks, with Pakistan having become a pariah state. 

At home in Lahore, there was no mobile phone network, no internet – only a landline. When writer Annabel Rivkin visited in 1996 – the day after the suicide bomber destroyed Imran’s hospital, killing six – she found herself touring the scene, witnessing charred bodies, alongside Khan, who was pregnant. ‘There was a lack of awareness among friends about the gravity of the situation,’ Khan says. Equally, she felt ‘a misfit’ in London. ‘I was all covered up and living this grown-up life as a mother, running a business and charity, while my friends were going to nightclubs.’ It might even have been dangerous to join them – Osama bin Laden’s spokesman issued a statement saying that if Khan divorced Imran and renounced Islam, she would become an apostate. ‘The penalty is death.’ She shakes her head at the thought. ‘Insane.’ 

When she was married to Imran Khan, Jemima's most famous guest was Diana, Princess of Wales , who came twice, ostensibly to visit Imran’s hospital

When she was married to Imran Khan, Jemima's most famous guest was Diana, Princess of Wales , who came twice, ostensibly to visit Imran’s hospital

When she was married to Imran Khan, Jemima’s most famous guest was Diana, Princess of Wales , who came twice, ostensibly to visit Imran’s hospital

Her most famous guest was Diana, Princess of Wales, who came twice, ostensibly to visit Imran’s hospital. In fact, they were secret meetings with the family of Dr Hasnat Khan, the heart surgeon Diana met while he was working at the Royal Brompton in 1995. ‘At one point she considered living there with Hasnat,’ Khan says. ‘He was her boyfriend for the last two years of her life. She broke up with him two weeks before she died.’ Would he have married her? ‘Hasnat is an amazingly dignified, honourable man and one of the few people never to let her down.’ 

By 2001, Khan and Imran had set up home in the middle-class city of Islamabad. She worked with Afghan refugees, mostly children, fleeing drought and civil war. Evenings were spent with her children, with Imran’s political colleagues or alone watching documentaries. Imran’s campaigning kept him increasingly in the northwest frontier, where he was out of contact. On his 50th birthday he failed to show for the party she had organised. ‘When he did finally make it back, there was just a sliver of cake left, which I had cut into a crescent moon and star.’ Roused by antisemitic reports in the press, Imran’s opponents began protesting outside their house. At night, Khan gathered her boys in her bedroom, locked the door and kept a loaded Smith & Wesson on a high shelf. Each day she found she was packing a little more into a suitcase. 

When the marriage ended, in some ways it was harder to adapt to life in London at 30 than Pakistan aged 21. ‘I was trying to reconfigure my life as a single mother and find a new career and identity outside of Pakistan.’ Then she was papped on holiday with Hugh Grant and suddenly it was a free-for-all. She was ‘upskirted’ (the paparazzi practice of photographing underwear), her phone was hacked and she was constantly tailed, picking up stalkers along the way. 

Jemima with sons Kasim, left, and Suleiman (then 16 and 18), and Aleema Khanum, a sister of Imran Khan, 2015

Jemima with sons Kasim, left, and Suleiman (then 16 and 18), and Aleema Khanum, a sister of Imran Khan, 2015

Jemima with sons Kasim, left, and Suleiman (then 16 and 18), and Aleema Khanum, a sister of Imran Khan, 2015

After she split with Grant (‘still the funniest, cleverest person I know’), she was papped with literary agent Luke Janklow and later Russell Brand, her identity now reduced to arm candy. ‘I have always been “the daughter of”, “the sister of”, “the wife of”, “the ex-wife of”, and that can be annoying, especially if your views are different from the high-profile men with whom you’re associated.’ One columnist would append her name, when between boyfriends, with ‘still single’, as if to shame her. 

Yes, she is still single today, she says with a smile. Marriage is no longer ‘a particular aspiration. But I am not against it.’ That said, she tends to agree with the close girlfriend (one of a tight group) who described some of her past relationships as ‘high investment, low yield’: ‘Which I think is self-explanatory.’

In What’s Love…? Zoe, a documentary maker (played by Lily James), has a string of bad dates and, fearing for her fertility, considers freezing her eggs. Those ideas ‘didn’t come from nowhere’, says Khan – almost everything in the film touches on something or someone she knows. Emma Thompson plays Cath, Zoe’s mother, a Mrs Bennet-style interferer in her love life. Any similarities with Lady Annabel? ‘When Cath says of Zoe’s documentary, “Marvellous, darling. Am I in it?”, that is very her.’ 

Shazad Latif and Lily James star in Jemima’s upcoming film What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Shazad Latif and Lily James star in Jemima’s upcoming film What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Shazad Latif and Lily James star in Jemima’s upcoming film What’s Love Got to Do With It?

Khan took walks with Emma Thompson on Hampstead Heath during production and found her ‘wise and humane and insightful. Above all else she is an uncompromising champion of women.’ She believes ‘[Jemima was] processing some dark experiences within [the film], and that’s what gives it its edge.’ Khan agrees. ‘It’s possible to say something meaningful even in a romcom.’ 

It was Imran who ‘kept on that it was important it was made’. But she didn’t want to make a film about religious fanaticism. ‘It was more interesting to me to show a joyful and colourful place.’ Might ‘dark stuff’ allude to her marriage? Imran’s second wife, Reham, alleged in a book that he broke Khan’s wrist when she was nursing Kasim. Khan won’t comment, saying only, ‘The next thing I write most likely won’t be a romcom.’ 

Past projects have been serious, among them the Emmy-nominated HBO series The Case Against Adnan Syed, which helped quash the conviction of an American Muslim of Pakistani heritage 23 years after his wrongful imprisonment for murder; and We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks, about Julian Assange. This is ‘a bumper year’ for Pakistani film. Alongside What’s Love..? Khan is a co-producer on As Far As They Can Run, a documentary about a sports programme for disabled youngsters, and Sandstorm, a short by filmmaker Seemab Gul. She is also producing a documentary about a political assassination. 

Marriage is no longer a big aspiration. But I am not against it

In 2015, at a Vanity Fair dinner in LA, she spied Monica Lewinsky alone, looking shell-shocked. When Khan asked if she was OK, Lewinsky told her a high-profile actress had minutes earlier asked why they’d let her in. Khan found this hard to fathom. People blaming Lewinsky, who’d been a young intern, for the affair with Bill Clinton. When she invited Lewinsky to a dinner organised by a French fashion house, the host intervened. ‘The brand does not want to be associated with Monica,’ they told her. ‘You’d be happy to have Bill Clinton, why not Monica?’ she asked. ‘This was a party Harvey Weinstein was invited to,’ she adds. ‘Monica was being slut-shamed and Harvey was being fêted.’ 

A friendship followed, and Lewinsky trusted Khan to help her tell her story – ‘which she’d waited a long time to tell’ – for a documentary series, The Clinton Affair. ‘I realised there were parallels. We both had a relationship with a much older, high-profile man who was in politics when we were in our early 20s, and we both became the weapon used by the political opposition to unsuccessfully bring those men down. We were even both threatened with jail for political reasons, in the same year, at the same age.’ The documentary was followed by a drama serialisation, Impeachment. 

Waistcoat and trousers, bellafreud.com. When her marriage ended, in some ways it was harder to adapt to life in London at 30 than Pakistan aged 21

Waistcoat and trousers, bellafreud.com. When her marriage ended, in some ways it was harder to adapt to life in London at 30 than Pakistan aged 21

Waistcoat and trousers, bellafreud.com. When her marriage ended, in some ways it was harder to adapt to life in London at 30 than Pakistan aged 21

We walk through Marylebone, Khan wheeling the old bicycle she travels around London on (‘I barely have to lock it up’). This keeps her fit, as does horse-riding at weekends, which she spends in Oxfordshire, often with friends (‘what I value most in life after children’). She is reading The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, on the complex fallout from trauma. 

What’s been her craziest experience? ‘Either being hijacked [in 2000] by a madman who tried to suicide-crash our British Airways plane into the Sudanese desert, or getting my 23andme DNA test results, which revealed that I am an identical twin,’ she says. ‘I called my mother: “Mum, am I an identical twin?” She considered my question for way too long. “I don’t think so, darling.” “Mum: it’s not an option I’m looking for… Did you give birth to one or two babies?” 

‘I realised the most likely explanation was that I’d done the test before, anonymously, and forgotten about it. But it’s testament to how mad my family is that I actually thought it could be true.’ 

She jokes she’s about to turn 49 – ‘I’ve just realised I’m older than both Shirley Valentine, 42, and Miss Havisham, who was scarcely 40 and basically a cobweb in human form.’ 

Does she have a philosophy on life? ‘A friend made me a T-shirt that says, “Both things are true”, which I think applies to most arguments. We live in an annoyingly polarised world.’

  • What’s Love Got To Do With It? will be in cinemas from 24 February 

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