Kristiane Backer was a famous MTV presenter before she found religion. Nick Ahad met the TV star turned author.
In an increasingly saturated world, authors need to find a way for their book to stand out from those of their contemporaries.
One way is to secure an endorsement from a high-profile figure and Kristiane Backer has certainly managed to get some impressive backing for her debut book, From MTV to Mecca.
Bob Geldof, in typically irreverent fashion, provided a quote for the cover: “From MTV to Mecca? From babe to burka is more like it.”
Backer’s book tells the story of her journey from one of Europe’s most high-profile television presenters, with fans across the continent, to a follower of Islam who turned away from her fame and fortune. She still appears on television occasionally – only now it is to discuss, represent – and more often then not defend, her religion. It was quite the conversion and makes for a fascinating story.
Imran Khan and Jim Kerr are among the other celebrity friends who were queuing up to heap praise on Backer for telling her story in a book released this month.
From MTV to Mecca: How Islam Inspired my Life, charts how the presenter went from a high-flying lifestyle in her 20s to pursuing her religious calling night and day. Since her conversion to Islam, she has devoted her time to travelling the world to meet religious teachers, has made a holy pilgrimage to Mecca and delved into the teaching of her religion.
It’s all a far cry from the mid-90s when Backer, then one of the most high-profile presenters on MTV Europe, found herself partying with the major popstars of the day. Her life was full of tales of clubbing with Prince, dinner with Take That and Christmas shopping with Bryan Adams.
“It is fair to say I was a pop icon in Germany, I won the equivalent of a BAFTA award, had my own show which was one of the most popular music programmes in the country and within a year of joining MTV I was given one of the flagship shows of the channel,” says Backer.
It couldn’t last forever, but the demise of Backer’s television career didn’t come at her own hands. Discovering religion – and a fateful moment when others discovered that she had found religion – put paid almost overnight to her flourishing career as a television presenter.
So what went wrong?
Backer made a life-changing decision in the early 90s – and paid the price.
Rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, she met and fell for cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
Typically, given the lifestyle she was living at the time, Backer met Khan in the famous London celebrity hangout the Groucho Club. They argued about the movie Basic Instinct, but both were relieved to not be quizzed about their respective careers – Backer knew nothing about cricket, and Khan little about the life of a music TV presenter.
Despite this, the two had a chemistry, hit it off and soon were in a relationship. Although they came from very different worlds, there were points where their lives connected.
Backer writes: “Sometimes our worlds overlapped. Imran knew Sting, for example, and was also great friends with Mick Jagger and his then wife Jerry Hall.”
As a globally high-profile couple, their relationship was never going to be conducted in secret and when Backer accompanied Khan to Pakistan, they faced constant questions about the nature of their relationship.
The truth was, Backer was slowly learning about Islam and was wondering about converting. She was confronted about her religion during a TV interview in her native Germany.
“In an interview I was asked if I was a Muslim, and at heart my faith had taken root, which is what I answered.
“This little comment nearly destroyed my career. I thought the interview was my opportunity to speak the truth, but because of what I said it nearly destroyed my career almost overnight.
“I had signed a new contract, but it made no difference once I spoke about my faith. Professionally I had done nothing wrong, but I was replaced on my show and never really got back on TV after that,” she says.
It was a steep fall from grace for the woman who counted among her friends Elton John, Lenny Kravitz, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones. Backer insists it was Islamophobia that caused her career’s rapid decline – and this was in a pre-September 11 world.
“People said I was a terrorist, they said that I was trying to convert people to Islam on my show, it was a really difficult time,” she says.
“My agent at the time said that I should really keep quiet about my faith, but the more I discovered, the more I wanted to learn. I met one particular spiritual teacher who encouraged me to learn as much as I could. I have essentially spent the last 10 to 15 years doing that, learning more about my faith.”
In the Tiled Hall cafe of Leeds Art Gallery, Backer says she has found much more peace in her life since converting and leaving her old lifestyle behind.
Back then it was private jets and champagne, but when we meet the change from that, to today, is significant.
On a speaking tour to coincide with the launch of her book, she was due to travel from Manchester to Leeds, where she was speaking in a mosque about her book. There was a problem with the publisher’s arrangements, however, and in Manchester found herself without transport or accommodation.
“There was an announcement in the mosque in Manchester and two young people offered to drive me around all over the North to my different engagements,” she says.
Although she is smiling when she says this, surely there is some sadness that her previous life was one of limousines and private members’ clubs and now it is reliance on the kindness of strangers that is taking her round the north to launch her book?
“When I was a presenter I was young and it was a lot of fun, meeting famous people and travelling the world.
“But year on year it all became too much and, although it looks glamorous and when you go on stage or on camera, people don’t realise what’s happening backstage.
“The entertainment business can be very harsh and behind the scenes you often have to hide the difficult things that are happening,” says Backer.
“These days I can work all the time, and it doesn’t matter if I have to start early and finish late, because if I do an interview, or something to promote the book or anything like that, everything is done as a service to God.”
These days her days of presenting music videos on television are long behind her, but Backer hopes to continue working in the medium only this time, promoting her religion. Following her conversion she took a trip to Mecca, a holy pilgrimage which Muslims call Hajj.
“I think it was when I went on Hajj that my friends from my previous life were surprised. I think they realised just how serious I was about my faith then,” she says.
“People I am still in touch with from that time think it is curious, but many of them are really respectful. Bono from U2 is a really spiritual man and he finds it all very interesting.”
As a Muslim with a media profile, Backer sees it as her duty to combat some of the more extreme portrayals of her faith. She was awarded a medal by the Egyptian government for her work in promoting Islam and says her book is an addition to that work.
“The great problem we have is that the media portrayal of Islam is so dangerous and one-sided,” she says.
“The message I take when I am asked to speak to the media is that Islam is not about blowing things up on the subway, or terrorism. For me, it is my way of seeking spiritual understanding. I hope my book will show people that there is a lot more to the religion than they see portrayed.
“My former life as a TV presenter was fun, but now I feel more spiritually fulfilled than ever.”
Kristiane Backer profile
At the age of 24, Kristiane Backer became one of the leading presenters on MTV Europe, where she interviewed most of the major artists and musicians of her time.
She created her own youth show in Germany, Bravo TV, and presented a daily guide to culture and entertainment, The Ticket NBC, on NBC Europe.
She was soon asked to work for MTV Europe and within a year of joining the channel was fronting The European Top 20 shows. She later presented a health programme on RTL. She was awarded Germany’s most prestigious TV award, the Golden Camera, for her work.
Kristiane Backer will be talking about her book at Sheffield Waterstones, Orchard Square, October 3. Tickets: 0114 272 8971.