Jemima Khan: ‘Like Monica Lewinsky, I was in a relationship with a powerful older man and was used as a pawn’

·8-min read
 (Paul Baichoo/Instinct Productions)
(Paul Baichoo/Instinct Productions)

“I remember my father laughing at my mother when she suggested something might look good on my CV, as if it was a ridiculous notion,” says Jemima Khan, over a vast schnitzel topped with anchovies and a fried egg at Fischer’s in Marylebone, close to the offices of her production company, Instinct. “But I longed to have a great CV. I was more academic than my brothers [Zac and Ben], and yet there were definitely different expectations.”

Khan’s father, the billionaire businessman Sir James Goldsmith, died in 1997, so is not here to witness Khan’s latest professional triumphs. Impeachment is a ten-part drama about Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, staring Beanie Feldstein and Clive Owen, that Khan has produced with Ryan Murphy and premieres next week. Meanwhile, What’s Love Got To Do With It, the rom-com she wrote and produced with Working Title, starring Lily James and Emma Thompson, has just wrapped. 

Watch: The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal

Khan is now 47 and the possessor of a glowing CV, which her mother, Annabel, 88, is incredibly proud of. Although there are some interesting lacunae, most notably the decade she spent in Lahore as the wife of Imran Khan, with whom she has two sons, Suleiman, 24, and Kasim, 22. She returned to the UK when she was 30, taking a masters degree at SOAS University of London, after which she was made European Editor at Large at Vanity Fair and was given a permanent position at the New Statesman. Her journalism segued into documentary-making about five years ago. 

“The stories that I choose to explore are always ones that resonate with me on a personal level,” she says. Such as The Clinton Affair, the three-part documentary series Khan made in 2017 after befriending Lewinsky at a Vanity Fair party in New York. “Monica was really vulnerable because a famous actress had just said, ‘why did they let you in?’ I don’t think in England we have any real sense of the extent to which she was demonised. That was one of my big motivations for getting the documentary made and also this Ryan Murphy project.”

The Clinton Affair was the first time Lewinsky had spoken in detail about what happened to her. “During the interviews she was describing the FBI sting, and I suddenly realised that the same year, in Pakistan, I’d had to leave the country because I’d also been threatened with jail on politically trumped up charges. I’d been accused of smuggling antiques, one of the few non-bailable offences in Pakistan. I realised there were parallels, marrying an older, politically powerful man and being used to undermine him.”

Beanie Feldstein plays Monica Lewinsky in new show Impeachment (BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)
Beanie Feldstein plays Monica Lewinsky in new show Impeachment (BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)

But Lewinsky’s story also resonated with more recent socio-political issues. “While we were making the documentary, Me Too thing was happening. We did the first interviews with Monica in October and the second interviews in January. In the first interviews she talked about how consensual it was, how she didn’t feel exploited by the affair. But by the time she did the second set of interviews the world had changed; how you looked at power in the workplace, power disparities. So she basically started from scratch and this time around she said she was definitely the powerless one in that dynamic.”

It is this mindset that informs Impeachment, which examines the Clinton/Lewinsky story from the position of the women involved, and not just Lewinsky, but also civil servants Linda Tripp (played by Sarah Paulson) and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), as well as Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco). As the show presents it, they were all trapped in patriarchal power structures and coercive narratives. It is a compelling piece of film-making, with a meticulous approach to detail that will have anyone over the age of 35 pinning for the Nineties, but it also has real emotional impact. “Episode six was the moment I exhaled, when I thought, this is why Monica put herself through this,” says Khan. “It was very triggering and traumatic for her to have to relive it all. But in episode six you really can understand how it must have felt to be her in that moment.”

I became friends with Lewinsky at a party. She was really vulnerable because a famous actress had just said, ‘why did they let you in?’

Khan was deeply involved in the execution of the series, although, due to Covid restrictions, she could not get to America for the final months of production (her then-partner at Instinct, Henrietta Conrad, was on set). Anyway, she had another project on the go, the filming of What’s Love Got To Do With It. The film is about a commitment-phobic English film-maker in her thirties (Lily James) who travels to Lahore to document the arranged marriage of a British Pakistani man and finds her own views on love challenged. 

 “I spent ten years writing that script. I just rewrote it and rewrote it,” says Khan. The film is informed by her years in Pakistan, if not a direct representation of them. 

“When I went to Pakistan I probably had the same views as the rest of my friends about the concept of arranged marriage, which is that it is a mad, outdated idea. But I came back after ten years with a slightly different view, whereby I could see some merits to it. In a world where we are led entirely by the idea of romantic love, if we could inject some pragmatism into that, a little more objectivity, then we might find a middle ground somewhere between passion and pragmatism, and we might make better decisions. 

Jemima Khan (ALEX LENTATI)
Jemima Khan (ALEX LENTATI)

“When I was in Pakistan I genuinely ended up arranging marriages. Quite often these children of friends of my ex-husband would say, ‘ok, we’ll have an arranged marriage, but can Jemima be involved’. That didn’t mean that the parents didn’t have ultimate sign-off, but I was part of the process, and I saw them play out. I don’t want to be Pollyannaish, because I know that forced marriage is a whole different thing. But when it’s what has come to be known as assisted marriage, I’ve seen it work very successfully.”

Love wasn’t the only motivating factor behind Khan’s own marriage. She had been raised in world of privilege, her father’s wealth burnished by her mother’s aristocratic connections. But it was also a chaotic, Succession-esque world in which morality could be muddy, with mistresses and surprise siblings, as well as the kind of public attention that inevitably attends upon the very beautiful children of the very wealthy. “It is not a normal decision, aged 21, with all the freedoms and privileges that we grew up with, to essentially give those up, to go and live in an extremely black and white culture and adopt a black and white way of life and doctrine, with a man who was twice my age and a born again Muslim,” admits Khan. 

“At that point in my life I found some reassurance in the prescriptiveness of that culture, that religion, that man. When my sister [India Jane Birley] was asked in an interview why I went there she said, very intelligently, ‘moral certitude.’ It was seen as this great amorous adventure and I am not sure that was the whole story. I would say, in retrospect, that moral certainty might have been more of a driving factor…

Watch: Lewinsky describes honest portrayal of herself in Clinton impeachment show

“But after ten years, what had felt reassuring — deferring to other people and not having to come up with solutions myself — began to feel like a loss of autonomy. As you get older you realise that you have the capacity to find some of the answers in yourself.”

When my sister was asked why I married Imran Khan, she said: ‘moral certitude’ 

Khan’s years in Pakistan changed her in other ways too. ‘I do feel like I have an ability to see things from both points of view in a way that possibly some of my contemporaries, both in Pakistan or here, don’t. I even feel like I am right in the middle of the Islamophobia and anti-Semitism debate, because I’ve seen both at first hand. I’ve got half-Pakistani Muslim children and I was a young girl who was politically targeted because of my Jewish ethnicity. It’s an interesting perspective.”

Post-Imran, Khan famously had relationships with Hugh Grant and Russell Brand. She is currently single, living between her homes in West London and Oxfordshire. Both her sons went to Bristol University; one is still there and the other is now working. Day to day, Khan lives with Tyrian White, 29, the (unacknowledged) daughter of Imran Khan and Sita White, who died when Tyrian was 11. 

Khan likes to ride, to entertain, but has not had much spare time of late, with work taking up most of her mental energy, which is the way she prefers it. “I am happier when I’m really busy. I don’t like having too much time to think. I am very self-critical.”

Impeachment will be on BBC2 from October 19 (BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)
Impeachment will be on BBC2 from October 19 (BBC/Tina Thorpe/FX)

There are more exciting projects in the pipeline, a political documentary series and a comedy. But Khan also nurtures a long-standing ambition to write a book. “If I don’t write a book before I die, whether that is a memoir or a novel, then I will feel that I have failed,” she says. “I always wanted to write. I used to spend all my holidays, from as young as I can remember, sitting by the pool writing in those little orange exercise books, writing endless fiction. But somewhere along the line I lost my confidence…” 

That confidence is being built back up, as Khan carves out a place for herself beyond the narratives that have been imposed upon her. And one day, with any luck, we will get to read the real story of her life, written by her.

Impeachment will be on BBC2 from October 19.

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