Try Me

High on her own hype

In 2002 Indobrit, a quarterly magazine for British Asians, was launched at the Cinnamon Club in Westminster. London's media world turned out to celebrate with 35-year-old Farah Damji, the editor. But what should have cemented Damji's return to London after almost a decade in New York was short-lived. Three years later, and ten pages on in her woefully titled autobiography, Try Me, Damji was in detention at Holloway Prison. She had been sentenced to three years in jail for fraud and perverting the course of justice. ''The truth is nothing more than a previously agreed upon set of lies,'' she writes, quoting from the Desperate Housewives voice-over to explain her predicament.

Born in 1960s Kampala, Damji was brought up by her ayah. Her parents were "blurs", and she formed an early attachment to her grand­father, a former adviser to the first Obote government. Following an abortive kidnapping in 1970, her family fled to England and, stripped of its wealth ("We had lived like make-believe maharajas in a land we couldn't call our own"), started again in a semi on Ealing Common. When her grandfather went into hospital for a check-up and died, her childhood ended. "The monochrome seeped from the sky into my lungs. England became home."

Try Me is an occasionally harrowing but, above all, angry account of a charmed and troubled life. Wanting for nothing (her father became a property tycoon), Damji was a King's Road schoolgirl, attending the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle in South Kensington against the backdrop of 1985's Live Aid and hanging out at Annabel's. At her father's insistence, she applied to study law at University College London and was offered a place. One can only speculate on her success as a barrister had she turned her intelligence and talent for condescension to better use. Instead, desperate to flee her family and its expectations, she headed for New York on the pretext of studying French and art history at NYU.

New York provided the perfect home for Damji's reckless and addictive personality. She made an easy transition from going to clubs and gallery openings to working for a drug dealer, Michael Rubin, "a nice Jewish boy". Impressed by her cut-glass vowels, he gave her a job running his escort agency. "I was given a percentage of every call I booked and a cut of the takings." Adopting an uptown uniform of Chanel suits and long, glossy hair maintained by the stylist-to-the-stars Oribe, Damji "looked more like a banker than a whoremonger".

Here lies the paradox of Damji's life - and book. Her sense of self is entirely out of kilter with her actions. Intent on trying to outsmart the men, she launched herself into the worlds of the mafiosi, ruthless art dealers and "handsome and dangerous" City boys. She proved adept at making professional gain from personal risk.

She landed a job with Parish-Hadley, the interior decorators responsible for redoing the White House for Jackie Kennedy, mastered it, then moved on to the art world, opening her own gallery. What eluded her was a much-sought-after sense of achievement or belonging. "Part of being an exile is living on empty dreams," she writes, and curses the fantasy of flight.

If there is a general theme running through this book it is the rejection of the female British Asian archetype, and Damji's desire to make her father suffer for his domination and infidelities. Her chronicles of New York when, as a federal prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani was chasing the Mob boss John Gotti, and the art world was bloated with Wall Street cash - a world familiar from Jay McInerney's novels - are thrilling in their detail: "Princess Caroline wore the same outfit to meet the Pope that day as she did that night at Xenon, a black leather blazer, white blouse with a black velvet tie."
It is a shame that the rest of the book is used to avenge the men who betrayed her and to collude in her own hype. "My truth [has] been mythologised," she writes. I would challenge this; certainly no one I know has heard of Damji. I would also question the merit of a book that seeks to apportion blame. Men exposed for similar crimes are exalted for their daring and reinvent themselves accordingly, while gender stereotypes condemn women. Perhaps this is wrong. Yet I left Try Me feeling disturbed, and not necessarily for the right reasons.