Saira Khan shot to fame as the bolshie runner-up on TV's The Apprentice - now she's written a book inspiring others with her bulldog spirit. She talks to Sarah Foster about finding success as a British Muslim.

FOR such a formidable figure, Saira Khan is surprisingly friendly. As a contestant in The Apprentice, in which she competed for a £100,000-a-year job with business guru Sir Alan Sugar, she was known for her acerbic tongue. On the telephone, however, she's the absolute model of charm.

I'm speaking to the 35-year-old, who came second in the TV show, because she's launched her own book. The snappily titled PUSH for Success - in which PUSH stands for be Proactive, Understand yourself, Sell yourself and Have high standards - is aimed at filling reticent Brits with a bit of fire. As Saira is quick to explain, she's living proof that being bolshie works.

"I've had to push for a lot of things in my life," she says. "Throughout the book, I demonstrate how I've used the principles to get ahead. The book is saying, 'look at me. I've come from a very humble background. All I've got is my skills. I'm now in the media brushing shoulders with politicians and writing a book'."

Saira, who lives in West London, has indeed come a long way. Born in 1970s Nottingham to Asian parents, she remembers her childhood as being hard. "My parents are from Kashmir. They came over in the 1960s with a lot of other Asian people," she says. "For me it was difficult and painful at times because growing up in the 70s and 80s, there weren't a lot of people who were different. In those days, it wasn't good to be different whereas now, we try to be individuals."

As the oldest of three children, and the only girl, Saira was the pathfinder, always striving for greater freedoms. But with a strict Muslim father, there were precious few. "When discos came up it was me who wanted to go and couldn't but by the time it came round to my brothers, they were allowed to go," she says. "The only thing my parents let me do was play sports after school. I wasn't allowed to wear fashionable clothes or go into town on weekends with my friends. Up to the age of 16, I was focused on getting good school results and that was that."

While this sounds pretty awful, Saira speaks without a trace of bitterness. She says as time has gone on, she's come to see her parents' side. "They didn't have the support structure that we have now," she says. "They suffered abuse at work and my father used to take it out on the family. Now I understand that it was difficult for one man bringing up his family and having high standards and being responsible for everything."

The comparison with East is East, the play and film about a family of British Asians who feel displaced, is an obvious one - and one that Saira doesn't resist. "That's exactly what it was like!" she chimes. Yet while there are clear similarities at least in some ways, Saira's was more progressive.

"My parents really wanted me to mix and be part of the community," she says. "At the age of 12, I was selected to play Mary in the nativity play and my parents were overjoyed. Although they were Muslims and very strict, they respected other religions. I was actually brought up in quite an open house in that respect."

With her Muslim roots, Saira has strong views on the faith's perception by Western society. Like many moderates, she's frustrated by what she sees as the rogue element of extremists. "What we see on TV is not the situation in reality," she says. "If I look at Muslims who I meet they are working very hard. Most Indian restaurants are run by Muslim people. They're doctors, they're lawyers and they're actually integrating. The thing that's not happening is that they're not coming together and speaking out like the extremists are."

So what does she think of these extremists? Her response is unequivocal. "I think they're barbaric," she says. "There's absolutely no need to be extreme. If you diet like Victoria Beckham it's not good. It (Islam) turns into a religion that people can't relate to or understand. Everybody is now looking at these extremists and thinking they're absolute nutcases. If they were doing things in a democratic way, people might be sympathetic to what they were saying."

But what about ordinary Muslims? Should we have more sympathy with them, try to build more bridges within our communities? Never one to shrink from controversy, Saira puts the onus on Muslims themselves. "I think there are certain places in Britain where we've got a lot of people of the same culture or religion living together in one place, and I think that's a really bad way to live," she says. "I'm a product of integration and it's because I've integrated that I've been able to use all the opportunities this country has given me. It's because of that I've been able to make a success of my life."

From someone else, this might sound like selling out, abandoning your culture just to be accepted, yet Saira's personality suggests otherwise. As if to banish the notion completely, she says: "I think people should live by their values. I think in Britain you can be a Muslim and still be a British citizen."

But what about those who refuse to integrate? "If they don't like what Britain's got to offer, why don't they just leave and go and live somewhere else?" she asks pointedly.

Despite her strict upbringing, one thing Saira didn't have to face was an arranged marriage. Again, this is a subject she has a view on. "I personally don't agree with it but I think in most cases it's not what people imagine," she says. "I do think that you should marry people from this country. I don't think it's right to marry someone who is totally culturally different."

Thankfully for Saira, she's found true love with Steven Hyde, a "white Essex boy" whom she married in 2004. The pair run their own company, WSI Business Internet Solutions - although Saira admits that, since The Apprentice, she's had little time to spend in the office. "I've got my own TV programme, called Temper Your Temper, coming out in the autumn, then I've got a few other TV projects in the pipeline, then hopefully there'll be more books," she says. "I think it's going to be a bit of everything."

This "everything", it turns out, might one day even include politics. "I think being British and being Asian and having a profile I can make a difference to people's lives," she says. "It's about reaching out to young people and getting them involved in politics."

While still a businesswoman at heart - "that's where I get my kicks", Saira says - at the moment, she's ruling nothing out. It seems that despite coming second, she's emerged a clear winner. "I think my message to people is it doesn't matter where you come - if you've got the right attitude, you can achieve anything."

* PUSH for Success by Saira Khan (Vermillion, £9.99).

* The current series of The Apprentice is being screened on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC2.