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Mam Sham: the best friends ripping up the influencer rulebook

Hosts, presenters, events organisers, comedians: Maria K Georgiou and Rhiannon Butler of Mam Sham talk food, friendship and the serious business of being funny

Mam Sham's Maria K Georgiou and Rhiannon Butler eating ramen
Mam Sham's Maria K Georgiou and Rhiannon Butler in sparkly suits

Maria K Georgiou takes a second to contemplate the question I've just asked her. On the surface it's a simple one – how would she describe what she does for a living? – and for many of us, the answer would be one we've trotted out many times before in polite company.

For Georgiou, though, it's a touch more complicated. "Even we don't know how to describe it," she finally replies. "Sometimes it feels like we chucked ten balls up in the air and we're just trying to catch them."

The simple answer is that together with her childhood friend and business partner Rhiannon Butler, Georgiou makes up one half of Mam Sham. But what they actually do is trickier to summarise.

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A quick Google brings up phrases like "feminist foodie duo" and "immersive dining duo", while their Instagram describes them as "event throwers and presenters," also features their tagline, "good grub and lols," and is indeed stuffed with – yep, you guessed it – images of good grub and lols.

Scroll further down their Instagram and there are photos of food; there are photos from their stall at the recent Meatopia; there are memes, funny home videos and behind-the-scenes shots from the booth where Mam Sham record their radio shows for FoundationFM.

So I'll tell you what Georgiou and Butler do: a lot. And they're about to do a whole lot more.

The three of us are sitting together in North London bakery Jolene over coffee and peppermint tea (good), peach danishes (very good) and sausage rolls (simply fantastic), as Georgiou and Butler are in the midst of planning their next Mam Sham event in October.

Because this is where it all began: with a series of sit-down dinner experiences for more than 200 people (pre-Covid, of course). Having attended one of these dinners – I'm going to call them parties – back in 2019, I can tell you these things aren't kitsch supper clubs. They're incredibly detailed productions.

The premise is simple: a three-course meal, each course inspired by a comedy act, followed by a DJ and dancing (remember that?). Each party is themed; I went to one called "Came for the Food, Stayed for the Mood".

It featured food from Marcello Rodriguez (also known for his time at Brawn and its Margate outpost Sargasso); Megan Moore and Patxi Andres of Black Axe Mangal; and The Gravy Social; comedy from Eshaan Akbar, Funmbi Omotayo, double act Britney, and Butler and Georgiou themselves; plus grinding, dancing, clapping, cheering and – of course – lols.

At around £40 for a ticket, Mam Sham events tend to be incredibly good value, both as a meal and as an experience – which, in part, is what sets them apart in the market.

Mam Sham supper club: a redesigned can of beans

"That's the thing," says Georgiou. "Usually these events are all super high-end, where you pay over £100 for a ticket. Either that or you're paying £75 for a cheap cabaret night and eating chicken wrapped in Parma ham."

Mam Sham is now four and a half years old, having gone from small supper clubs produced on a shoestring to much wider flagship events, with all profits donated to charity.

In March 2020, just before the pandemic really hit, the last Mam Sham event went ahead, raising some £4,000 for homelessness in the process.

But the real money maker is the other side of Butler and Georgiou's business: running events and takeovers with private clients, ranging from ASOS to Ministry of Sound to an editor at Elle magazine for her wedding.

"When we worked with Ministry of Sound," says Georgiou, "we created a menu around a new album, and the album was about heartbreak."

"We designed it around the Miss Havisham story," continues Butler. "So we created a room that had dust sheets everywhere, and the first course was essentially a bleeding heart – a box containing a heart-shaped beef tartare. And then the main course was based on Miss Havisham's wedding feast.

"We've done stuff for DJ Jamz Supernova – she did this amazing International Women's Day event for women in music. And the whole spiel of the event was 'Because you're fucking worth it,' like the haircare brand. So the food was a noodle dish, and we made shampoos and conditioners we'd rebranded and redesigned and filled with coconut broth and ginger broth, we also had hair dye boxes, and we re-wrote the instructions with joke side effects."

A stupid amount of detail goes into everything we do. We're perfectionists

"A stupid amount of details goes into everything we do," says Georgiou. "Because we're fucking perfectionists. We know no one else is going to do it the way that we want it to be done. We know that it can be done really, really well. We're never going to cut a corner if we do it ourselves. As much as we're Mam Sham, this sexy, cool ensemble, we're actually fucking anal."

This is the thing: for all the fun and games, the pair do everything themselves. Butler is first port of call for the food, working in the kitchen with the chefs to develop the concepts; Georgiou designs all the props from scratch.

"People always think we're going to sit down at our events," says Butler. "But we're running it! We're frantically managing a team of 20 people."

Butler and Georgiou, both newly turned 30, have been friends since the first day of secondary school. "Our eyes met across the room… I was 5ft9. And Rhiannon was a toddler," laughs Georgiou.

"I was the most introverted teenager. I had a twitch, I had a mullet, braces; life was not good for me."

"And I was incredibly confident," says Butler. "I was so short that I had to make my presence known. But Maria was so tall she was trying to hide herself. We just clicked and have been inseparable ever since."

Whether you're at an event, perusing their Instagram or just chatting with them in a café, Georgiou (tall, dark curly hair) and Butler (considerably less tall, blonde straight hair) have an undeniable natural chemistry.

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There's a rhythm to their dynamic: Georgiou is often, but not always, first to respond to questions; Butler is slightly less brazen; but they're very much on the same page, laughing and joking no matter where the conversation goes.

Mam Sham is gathering pace and becoming a successful events business, but the feeling that underpins it is fun and camaraderie.

"Even at school we always were doing weird shit," says Georgiou. "I had an old camcorder that my dad had from his office. And we used to make films on it, and I used to edit them on the camcorder."

"We did something we called 'Pap Idol', which was our version of Pop Idol and totally hilarious.Both our mums taught us the enjoyment of hosting, as well. Rhiannon used to come over for dinner on a Friday and we'd cook together and make the films. We've always been making stupid shit and having fun together," she continues. "We basically just lived with our heads in the clouds."

At school we were always doing weird shit. We had our heads in the clouds

Butler went to study history of art at uni, and then went to work at a gallery. "I ended up hating the art world – it was the most elitist kind of bullshit. Everyone looked and sounded like me, a middle-class white girl from London," says Butler.

"I ended up going to the chef's briefing in the restaurant above the gallery I was working in and found it way more interesting, so I started volunteering for shifts."

Meanwhile, Georgiou did a foundation course in art and design, but "hated it" and dropped out very soon after. "And then I got an internship in social media. I worked for The Laughing Cow [yep, the triangle cheese brand]."

"The Laughing Cow never left me – I used to have to do things like 'The Leaning Tower of Cheesa'. And then one day, after just getting beyond bored with what was going on around us, we realised we really wanted to go to something like Mam Sham."

Both Butler and Georgiou credit hospitality for helping them get to where they are today – not only in terms of connections, but in how useful it is for personal development – learning how to prioritise, how to manage a team.

They've both spent time in and out of kitchens and front of house and Georgiou used to live with Luke Finlay of cultish Supa Ya Ramen, which has just opened a new site on Kingsland Road. "We definitely owe a lot of the beginning of Mam Sham to Luke.

Mam Sham in the kitchen

"He worked for us for free for three of our events in a row when he was a head chef somewhere else working full time, and he prepped in the middle of the night," says Butler. She and Georgiou would work front-of-house at Finlay's own events in return.

"So many of our chef friends were curious and wanted to be a part of it." Other names who have participated include Shaun Whitmore and Daniel Watkins.

But the food is only one aspect of the event – the other part, of course, is the comedy. Butler and Georgiou actively go and watch a lot of comedy to find the right acts that fit with their vibe, and the result is a collection of comedians that represent London's cosmopolitan community.

Whether it's food or comedy, the Mam Sham duo work in a way that builds lasting relationships – and I suspect the secret to their growing success is that they're incredibly likeable. Hell, I really like them just from our hour-long breakfast.

Our industry was made to feel fucking disposable. It’s heart-breaking

This likely comes from a love of getting to know the people they work with on their events, and a genuine interest in what they do. As Georgiou points out, "we need to create a dish around their act. That's why we connect, because we go for a drink. We have to have a conversation with them. And I think that's why we have the base, a lot of the time, for a friendship or solid ongoing working relationship."

The past 18 months has, of course, been incredibly difficult for two people working in events and hospitality. "It's been fucking heartbreaking," says Georgiou.

"Getting to the point in your career where you're finally full time on something and getting acknowledged for it, working with these brands, making really good money, to that... Our industry was made to feel fucking disposable. And it's heartbreaking because you do all these events for charity. You do all of these things, like promoting the best female talent."

But when the Mam Sham events ground to a temporary halt, it gave them time to refocus on their other ambitions as presenters and creators. "We started doing an Instagram series during lockdown, because we couldn't be together, of course. So we were in two different places in London, filming content, and then Maria would edit it. It was mental, but off the back of that, we started doing adverts for different food companies Doms Subs, Taco Queen and Wavey Ice, called Gourmet Ads."

The latest string in their bow is as radio presenters, with their own show on Thursday mornings on female-fronted radio station FoundationFM, which has gone so well they're about to start hosting the daily breakfast show.

This is revealed with a particular note of excitement and pride. Last year, the pair were working with an agent who told them they'd never have a radio show as their audience wasn't big enough and they weren't doing the right things. The same month they left said agent, they were approached by FoundationFM.

Our conversation moves on to the more serious side of being a new-wave content creator: the fact that some people simply don't know what to make of Mam Sham. Their agent didn't know what to do with them; brands want to work with them, but frequently renege on their creative freedom.

Because this is the thing: in an industry full of 'influencers' with questionable actual influence, Butler and Georgiou are breaking new ground.

They make content for Instagram but they're not your run-of-the-mill Instagrammers. They work in hospitality and events without fulfilling a typical role in either. They're respected for their taste in food but they're also comedians. They're businesswomen, they've got their eye on TV, and it's all coming in a fresh, approachable package that's identifiably millennial in feel.

As the food industry continues to be democratised, it's perhaps unsurprising two young, female entrepreneurs,and they're more interested in forging a new path than retreading an old.

And that's the crux of it: in Mam Sham's world, preconceived notions of what a typical career trajectory should look like in any of the industries they're in fall by the wayside. Instead, they focus on simply creating things that people enjoy.

"What feels really nice about Mam Sham is that it has allowed us to go in the direction that we need to go," admits Georgiou. "We haven't had a five year plan; a two year plan; a ten year plan. We've asked ourselves, 'What feels good?'"

Together they're ripping up the rulebook for influencers – their content isn't designed for your average 18 year old TikTok-er. It feels like they reflect where some of the London food and scene is at the moment: grassroots creatives working their arses off and having fun with it. They're doing what they want to do rather than bowing to creative pressure.

I don’t want to have to ask people to take us seriously. That should be a given

But while most people would see that as exciting and refreshing, it's not without its drawbacks. "I don't want to have to ask people to take us seriously. Do you know what I mean? That should be a given," says Georgiou.

"Even one of my male friends came to one of our events and said he didn't realise we actually ran the whole thing – although I know he meant well." Across the table, Butler nods in agreement: "We have a façade of being these kind of 'silly, fun-time' girls."

"It's the way in we're described and talked about, as a 'feminist foodie duo'," says Georgiou forcefully. "When do you ever call guys 'foodies'? You'd just call them a food duo, when we're described as a foodie duo. It just belittles what we do."

Their relationship is very sympatico – it's friendship first, business second. This is what kept them going through Covid, and times when they feel disillusioned, they're each other's lifeline. "If Rhiannon falls down, I'm the caretaker; if I fall down, Rhiannon is. It's really hard to navigate that space, and we've definitely been up and down at completely different times."

The differences in their personalities are highlighted in their respective approaches to the business of what they do. Butler, who handles most of the accounts, is the pragmatist: "We've experienced the throwaway culture of so many industries. Anything can change," she says. "It would be foolish not to worry about the future, especially when the world doesn't feel very stable."

Georgiou, in contrast, describes herself as "blindly confident". "We're a bit older, and we have a bit more of a focus on being financially stable, but you need to keep that energy," she says. "If you don't think it, no one fucking will."

Mam Sham: Maria K Georgiou and Rhiannon Butler

​​The next Mam Sham night will take place on 14 October at Oval Space: three courses inspired by three brilliant comedy acts in collaboration with Andrew Clarke of St Leonard's and ACME Fire Cult's Daniel Watkins. Tickets will be announced via Instagram at @mam_sham_ and their mailing list. 

Find out more at mamsham.com

As their reputation grows, the pair have also had to make sure they make time for their friendship. "Nearly every Wednesday after filming our radio show, we go for dinner," says Butler.

"It's our ritual, and it's something that we've spoken about continuously throughout running a business together – that we need to make time for us to not talk about work and to have a laugh."

Have they ever argued? "We're not allowed to because I'm so fragile," laughs Georgiou. "We once had an argument that gave me a migraine and I went blind and ended up in A&E."

Thankfully, such disagreements are rare. There's a natural warmth to their friendship, and to spend time with them is to be invited into that connection – so I'm not surprised they have such appeal.

As we settle up for breakfast, Butler and Georgiou go their separate ways for the day, even bouncing ideas for the next Mam Sham night off each other as they plan for their October event. Given their excitement, it's sure to go off with a bang – and after a long stint of isolation, we could all do with a bit of the Mam Sham magic.

mamsham.com

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