As celebrated child prodigy Sufiah Yusof is revealed to have become a prostitute, her ex-husband talks exclusively to Neil Tweedie of his shock and sadness
The story of the ‘prodigy gone wrong’ is always a subject for grim and envious fascination – the obsessed parents, the hothousing, the weird childhood undergraduate career, the dysfunctional later life – but the tale of Sufiah Yusof is bizarre even by the standards of the genre.
|A far cry: young Sufiah celebrating taking up her place at Oxford with her sister and father|
“Genius on the game,” announced a Sunday newspaper. “For sad Sufiah the daily equation she has to solve is simply sex equals £130.”
Sunday’s News of the World went on to relate how Miss Yusof, admitted to Oxford University at the age of 13, had taken to hiring herself out over the internet as a prostitute – or “Asian escort” as she termed it – at the rate of £130 per hour.
Estranged from her family, she had adopted the working name of Shilpa Lee and set up shop in a backstreet flat in Salford, Manchester.
The article illustrated Sufiah’s precipitate fall from grace by juxtaposing covertly-taken photographs of her in the nude with one of her as a young, smiling girl – all innocence and optimism in mortar board and gown.
The epose was the final straw for Sufiah’s mother, Halimahton, a devout Muslim.
Yesterday, she left the family home in Coventry to arrange her divorce from her husband Farooq. The couple’s marriage was already under intolerable strain following his guilty plea last week on charges of indecently assulting two 15-year-old girls while working as a personal tutor.
The Yusof family’s humiliation was complete.
“We want nothing to do with my dad,” said Sufiah’s brother Isaac Abraham, 26, speaking on the doorstep. “He was so abusive to us. That’s why Sufiah had to get away.”
Ten years before, Farooq Yusof had been lauded as a pioneer in hothousing – the intensive personal tutoring of young children.
The subject of his experiments in education were his five children. Early life for them was a regime of spartan intensity.
The temperature in the family home was always low to ensure their attention, morning prayers were followed by stretching and breathing exercises.
Television, pop music and anything else that might lead to “shallow thinking” was banned. Fresh air, said Yusof, was essential for a fresh mind.
Punching helped as well.
“It depended on whatever mood he was in,” said Abraham. “He used to wake us up in the middle of the night by punching our faces. It was awful what he put us through.”
Born in Pakistan, and considered a prodigy himself, Farooq basked in the publicity that followed Sufiah’s admission to St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
There were inevitable comparisons with Ruth Lawrence and other precocious achievers, but Yusof stressed that his children’s achievements were the result of his teaching rather than their brains.
Still, Sufiah was the star, the only one to reach Oxbridge. The problem for Farooq was that she had not only a fine mind but one of her own.
Although younger than her contemporaries, Sufiah took part in the campaign against tuition fees and joined a number of university societies, even attending the odd meeting of the Socialist Workers Party.
While her father was promising “more Sufiahs”, as if his daughter was some kind of production-line model, she was growing up.
Eventually, in 2000 she rebelled, running away from Oxford. Two weeks later, she was found in Bournemouth but refused to be reunited with her parents. A bitter email to them followed, describing her childhood as a “living hell”.
“I’ve finally had enough of 15 years of physical and emotional abuse,” she wrote, claiming that she had twice tried to kill herself at the age of 11.
Her anguish had been met with the nickname Crybaby Soo-Fi. “Maybe the public will have a different view of you as devoted parents. I’m not Crybaby Soo-Fi any more.”
The publicity turned ugly. Farooq, it emerged, had a history of dishonesty. Jailed for three years for mortgage fraud in 1992, he had also served time in borstal.
Sufiah returned to Oxford but her early promise was beginning to dissipate. It was then that she met Jonathan Marshall, a law student.
The two fell in love and married in 2004. Jonathan had already converted to Islam. He was 24 and she was 19. The marriage lasted less than two years.
Speaking yesterday from Saudi Arabia, where he works for a leading firm of City solicitors, Mr Marshall explained: “The reason we split was that I became more observant and Sufiah became less so.
“That took her in the wrong direction, away from the direction in which I wanted to go. The teachings of Islam are fundamental to your everyday life, so when paths diverge in that respect it is a major issue.
“She was confused, really. She didn’t know quite what she wanted. She wasn’t ready to settle down. Basically, she wanted to be a student.
“She wasn’t particularly extrovert. She wasn’t a difficult person to live with. We simply had different goals, different ideas of where we wanted to be. There were, to my knowledge, no affairs or anything. I never considered such a thing, simply because of the religious basis of our marriage.”
Mr Marshall said there was little contact between Sufiah and her family in her final year at Oxford but some bridges were mended when they attended the couple’s Islamic wedding ceremony.
He did not gain the impression during the marriage that Sufiah had been subjected to physical abuse by her father as a child. Psychological abuse was another matter.
Sufiah completed her course but failed to take her final exams, ostensibly because of her health. When Mr Marshall secured a job with one of the ‘magic circle’ law firms the couple moved to London and then, briefly to Singapore.
It was there that they decided to split. On returning to London, Sufiah was admitted to London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) to read economics.
Despite their split in August 2005, Mr Marshall supported her for eight months before taking up a job with his firm in Saudi Arabia. He has remarried and has two children.
“We agreed that I would assist her for a specific time. I felt a moral obligation to help her out while she was still at university. She wanted to concentrate on university and I agreed she should.”
Speaking of the weekend’s disclosures, he said: “I am completely shocked. It’s very sad, actually. It’s very shocking that someone can use themself in such a way. I can’t fathom why she would do it – especially someone in her situation. Despite the problems with her family she had many advantages which other people don’t have.
“It’s a particular shock – her coming from a Muslim background. To see pictures of somebody doing that – somebody I knew very closely – it makes me think how did she get to that stage. Quite frankly she knows well enough what she should and should not do.
“My view is that people can blame childhood to a certain extent, but there also comes a point where you have to take responsibility for your own actions.
“She had her advantages: she had someone willing to support her while she was at university. One newspaper told me that it had offered a substantial amount for her story. Personally, I’d rather sell my story than sell myself.”
Mr Marshall has no way of contacting his former wife now – except through the mobile number posted on the website on which she advertised her services.
“I really do hope she manages to get her life back together,” he said. “She was obviously very able and it’s sad that she is not able to use that talent.”
Yet, if Sufiah Yusof is to be believed, she has not yet abandoned her academic career – she told the News of the World’s undercover reporter that she was studying for a master’s degree in economics and had her exams coming up. Even now, she still has something to prove.
OTHER CHILD PRODIGIES – WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Graduated aged 13 from St Hugh’s College, Oxford, with a first-class degree in 1985. Now lives with husband and two children – whom she is determined to allow to “develop in a natural way” – in Jerusalem and teaches maths full-time at the Hebrew University.
Went to Oriel College, Oxford, in 1970 aged 15. Got a first in maths at 18, a doctorate at 20 and became a chess Grandmaster three years later. Lives with his wife in Surrey and makes a living writing books about chess.
Started reading chemistry at St Hugh’s College, Oxford in 1994 aged 14. Left the following year, having been accused and then acquitted of sexual assault on an older pupil. Did an Open University degree and got a job stacking shelves at Iceland. Later went back to Oxford (this time to St Catherine’s) and graduated with a first in chemistry in 2002. Is now an IT consultant.
Presented himself on television – most memorably on Terry Wogan’s chat show in 1990 when he was 12 – as an entrepreneur and child prodigy with an encyclopaedic knowledge of antiques. Had a sex change operation in 2001. Now called Lauren, she is a counsellor and also teaches drama in Cardiff.
Made his first appearance as a classical pianist with the London Philharmonic Orchestra aged 12. Won the British Liszt Piano Competition at 18. He committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 22 by throwing himself off Beachy Head.
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