Love Island alumni, podcast host, campaigner, pageant queen, former civil servant, influencer. Could Sharon Gaffka be adding Labour MP to this list? Sophie Elkan was eager to find out more
You’re very keen on demystifying the glamour of influencer life on social media – what made you take that approach?
I think this industry is very over-saturated and I think people who are the most successful are those that are true to themselves. Everyone’s measure of success is different; for some it’s getting brand deals, for some it’s followers. For me it’s how happy I am in myself. I’m also very active on LinkedIn, which not a lot of influencers are.
I think you are one of the only LinkedIn-fluencers.
I’m quite active there and I see a lot of anti-influencer culture. I've seen derogatory comments made towards people like myself because I've been on Love Island. Actually, I clapped back to one of them, a middle-aged man. I said ‘if you look at my profile and experience compared to yours I would say I’m far more qualified than you are and I’m only half your age’. So, you can judge me for what I have done, but look at the whole picture, not three weeks of my life.
You are from Didcot and are now based in Oxford. Did you consider moving to London?
Family is Oxfordshire for me and it always will be. Whether I like it or not this is part of who I am: I grew up here, I went to school here, I was born in the county, my brother is a nurse in the John Radcliffe, my dad works in the science centre. I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Oxfordshire in general, but I think that’s more down to experiences with people from school. I think everyone who has ever grown up in a small town can relate to that. It’s a bit of a sanctuary for me here. There’s no such thing as paps in Oxfordshire, so I feel safer.
As it is our glamour issue, I have to ask; where do you think is the most glamorous place in Oxford for the Instagram feed?
I do like The Varsity Club, the rooftop bar. Lots of my friends live up north and they came down for a weekend in Oxford. I took them to The Varsity Club, The Ivy and I do love the food terrace in the Westgate because I love sushi, so Sticks’n’Sushi. I’m always in there and I just love food so I’m also in Pho as well. But, I feel like in Oxford I don’t have to be glamorous, I can just be me. I do go to The Ivy for desserts quite often so if I go to Wagamama for dinner I’ll go to The Ivy for dessert.
That’s a good tip. On a more serious note, you use your platforms very consciously. A theme that I pick up is about speaking out against victim shaming. Whether that’s trolling or spiking, your take is about taking the heat out of the shame.
So, my most recent experience of spiking was two years ago when the first lockdown restrictions lifted and afterwards, I went through a phase of questioning whether I had just forgotten how to watch myself on a night out, and that was why it happened to me. It took me a whole year to get over that. I had messages from men being like, you were probably asking for it; what were you wearing? I was wearing jeans, trainers and a t-shirt. It has nothing to do with what a girl wears, or where she is or whether she's alone. It is all down to the perpetrator. There are a lot of charities and organisations out there trying to work on anti-spiking but they all give a similar message and it is putting the onus on victims to do more to protect themselves – you know anti-spiking lids – but they will find another way, like starting to inject people. I went to Oxford Brookes Freshers Fair with Thames Valley Police recently and lots of young women came up to me and said they now wear thick coats when they go out; jackets with long sleeves because they’re terrified about being injected. I had to educate a grown man on what consent meant and I found it really challenging to not get upset or angry.
One thing I’m really passionate about is how we educate people; it shouldn't get to university age before we start talking about consent, I’m getting messages from girls on Instagram daily talking about sex education.
How does your pageant career fit in with this? Pageants have been notorious for objectifying women and having spoken with you I can’t imagine you condoning that.
People are very much stuck in the era of what Miss World used to be like. There still are some pageants out there which I do not support them at all, but as a grown women and a feminist I should be free to make the decisions I want to make. I find that the pageant community is the place where I’m most accepted. If you ever watch the women that win, they can talk! Some of the Miss Universe Great Britain delegates have just come back from Sheroes Hangout in Agra, which is an acid attack sanctuary for women in India. You know, that’s the part that is never publicised and unfortunately that’s because the media consider sex as the selling point: girls in bikinis vs girls in acid attack sanctuaries… what’s going to sell more papers?
You have stated you ambition to become an MP. How do you plan to achieve this?
Ideally, I would like to be a Labour candidate.
Are you a member of the Labour Party?
I am yes. Which is really funny because when I was on Love Island I had a lot of Twitter trolling calling me a Tory but I think that was just my accent.
I really want to focus on how we educate young people. It is a very hard struggle for young people to get jobs or to get on to the housing ladder. I want to use my campaigning work to move into serious politics going down the line. I thought it would be something I would do in my 40s, but depending on when the next General Election comes– I think it’s set to be 2025 – I could see myself standing in the next General Election
Sharon, you look absolutely stunning; incredibly sexy and you are very much in control of your own image. I sincerely applaud that, but it occurs to me that I cannot think of a man who chooses to present himself in such a way, especially if he has political ambitions
I’ve had this question come to me a few times and it is a tough one. I think I’m proving a point: you can be what you want to be and do what you want and own your own body and empower yourself and actually a lot of males in senior office do worse. They’re just not open about it. I think what I’m doing is owning myself and putting myself out there in that way is fully in my control. I’m not hurting anyone whereas actually what a lot of men have done is much worse and they don’t get judged as women do – I’m not saying all men, but some come to mind.
In fact, people talk about misogyny on Love Island but one of the things I love about it is that the women always come off more successful.
When you were on the show there was a controversial discussion around natural beauty which a lot of the women (many of whom had had work) were very roused by. A lot of the reasons why a lot of the girls had had tweakments on that show were down to comments made by boys throughout their entire life. I had a boyfriend on and off when I was in sixth form who constantly made comments about the fact I had small boobs and that got into my head. I actually got my boobs done when I was 24 but I hadn't seen this person for six or seven years and I was like ‘no, its actually for me. I want to do this’. I have had a lot of my tweakments removed. At the moment I have my breast enhancement and I have botox but I get that done for migraines as opposed to for aesthetic reasons.
Did you achieve what you wanted to achieve on entering Love Island?
I’d say half. It’s very rare that people enter the villa for the purposes of the show [finding love]. I went in with the purpose of potentially meeting someone. Didn’t happen and I didn’t expect to get a career out of it. I anticipated that I would go in and after I would go back to my old job. I know one of the criticisms I got on the show was that I was boring, but in reality, I didn’t want to put all my eggs in one basket and leave potentially not being able to go back to my job.
This year the misogyny of the male contestants was very blatantly exposed. What your take on that especially given your own experiences?
It’s hard because I’m aware how things can be edited but I would ideally have liked to see the production team stepping in more. They step in with a lot of other situations so why do they not step in with this?
So, for example, with racist comments would they step in?
Yeah, it’s in the contract that if they deem your behaviour to inappropriate you can be removed from the villa at any point. But I think the misogyny in the show highlights a societal problem – I don’t think it’s [this year’s contestants] in particular, these are just the thoughts and feelings felt throughout society. Also, every single woman I have met from Love Island has a degree, had an established job beforehand, they are obviously very attractive, lots of them own their own properties and/or businesses; they have a lot going for them. I think sometimes that the men who have been put in the Villa might not have as much and maybe they feel intimidated. That’s a societal problem again, because even in dating I have come across the fact that I’m ‘on paper more successful’ than the man I’m on a date with and they don't always like that.
Tell me about your podcast, why did you call it Girls Know Nothing?
My mother is Asian, and in Asia women have children and are housewives and that’s kind of the norm. Realistically I should be married with kids by now it's not in my life plan and I don’t know if it will be; I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I’ve experienced people – not in my immediate family – but people in my family saying things like ‘oh because you’re a woman you don’t really know what you’re doing’. I used to play a lot of sport, ‘oh football’s not for women’, ‘women aren't funny’, ‘they’re not smart’; all of those things, that’s where the title came from
A lot of your followers are girls and young women. That must feel like a huge responsibility.
I set out to have guests that have overcome or have a story to tell. We had Faye Winter (Love Island) on the show and before the show she had a really successful career in property. Paige Thorne (Love Island) was a paramedic and chose to go back to her job after the show. People come on to talk about infertility or how they start their own businesses; my manager was on an episode recently and she was kicked out of university but now runs a seven-figure business. It’s about turning things against you into something amazing. I want young people to see that side of us, and not just the hyper glamourised version.
Your podcast ends with the same question that I’m going to ask you: What would you say to someone who doubts you and your future success because you are a woman?
Being uncompromising has made me successful and the times I have compromised who I am to fit someone else were not only the times I lost myself, I also lost any success I worked hard to gain. So, I’d say a thank you to the people in my past, because although I found it very difficult at the time it’s very character building. If they had been more supportive, I would have never done the things I have because I would have been in a comfort zone.