Hello and welcome. My name is Shahina and I am known as the Chilli Queen – a title coined by the Daily Mirror when they featured an article on me after my 3rd chilli-eating competition win at Foodies Festival in Syon Park in 2015. I’ve since added UK to my title to differentiate myself from any other Chilli Queens out there.
I guess the most frequent questions I get asked are: how it all started; how I feel when I compete; why I put myself through it; and what my plans are for the future?
It all started by accident a few years ago! Every time I went out to eat with my friends, I would carry fresh chillies and a hot sauce such as the mighty Da’Bomb in my handbag (#hotsauceinmybag) to accompany my meal. It became somewhat of an in-joke within my circle of friends. So when my friend Steph heard of a chilli-eating competition being held in Kingston-Upon-Thames in August 2012, she entered me as a contestant. At that time I had no idea what to expect as I had never even seen a chilli-eating competition online or in real life, let alone take part in one.
I was very nervous as lots of my friends came to support me and I felt a lot of pressure thinking how embarrassing it would be if I were to lose after all my bragging over the years of how I can handle my hot food. So I felt like I just had to go on until the bitter end and not give up and let them and myself down.
That was my 1st win but I simply didn’t even think about doing another one until two years later at FEAST, Battersea Park, in August 2014, which ended up being my 2nd win. At this point, I still was not thinking that I should aim to be a chilli-eating champion. That feeling of competitiveness and getting more wins under my belt came only after my 3rd win at Foodies Festival, Syon Park, in May 2015 and the subsequent article in the Daily Mirror featuring me and my achievements. I went on to do 4 more competitions that year followed by 3 in 2016 and then I went a little crazy in 2017 with a staggering 13 competitions and truly crazy with 24 competitions in 2018 and that is after dislocating my jaw during my very 1st comp of 2018 (and still winning). An experience I wish to never go through again!
I feel that my first great achievement in the world of chilli-eating came in August/September 2017 when I took part in and won 7 competitions over 3 consecutive weekends. Starting with a win at Abingdon Chilli Festival on 19th August 2017 followed by 3 consecutive competition wins the following weekend at Foodies Festival at Alexandra Palace on 26th, 27th and 28th August 2017, and ending with Foodies Festival at Oxford and a repeat 3-day consecutive win on the very next weekend of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd September 2017. I am pretty sure my taste buds went to die after that. Nothing tasted like it should for a few days, not even Cola! Hard-core chilli-heads may do 1 or 2 or maybe 3 comps a year but to do 7 comps over 3 consecutive weekends and win them all was truly something.
In 2019, I achieved a world first record of winning 2 official chilli-eating comps in one day just a few hours apart, each in a different country.
1 at Merthyr Street Chilli Fest 2019 in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales – hosted by Capital FM and the other at Foodies Festival in Birmingham, West Midlands – hosted by The Wiltshire Chilli Farm.
Trying to decide between the 2 was hard. I had never done a comp in Wales before and Foodies Festival is love.
I then suddenly had a brainwave and thought WHAT IF I did both? I knew it was ambitious beyond belief to attempt 2 competitions on the same day just a few hours apart. I honestly didn’t think my body or my mind would be strong enough but then I just couldn’t stop thinking about it and just had to try.
I went to Merthyr and took part in and won comp #56 at 3pm. At 4pm, we drove for 2 hours to Birmingham to get there for 6pm for comp #57. The time was very tight – basically 2 hours’ drive to get to a comp that was to start in 2 hours – sure we broke a few speed limits… 😂 (jokes!)
All the way in the car I was questioning myself whether I should attempt the 2nd one or not. I was thinking I should know my limits. I was in a fair bit of pain because the comp at Merthyr was truly brutal with 2 previous winners on the table. I thought what if I was being silly and in trying to achieve this feat of 2 comps in one day, I lost comp #57 and my unbeaten record?
We literally got there at 6pm and I jumped out of the car and ran to the tent where the comp was being held. I got there just as they were calling out the contestants! Standing there, I was still debating yea or nay but when they called out my name, I just thought to myself… what the heck… let’s do this! Hardly likely I will ever get this kind of opportunity where timings and distances fall into place for me to attempt 2 comps in one day again!
And guess what? I achieved what I set out to do!
Another thing I am quite proud of is trying the infamous World’s Hottest Burger Challenge at Burger Off, Hove, straight after my 23rd win at Fiery Foods UK Festival in Brighton on 16th September 2017. A burger twice as hot as pepper spray and so lethal that it put umpteen people in hospital – once there were 5 ambulances called for 5 people within 1.5 hours! The owner had doctors call him asking what was in the burger so they could devise a treatment plan for people being brought into the hospital in severe agony. Not only did I attempt and finish this demonic burger right after my 23rd competition but I also made it a DOUBLE XXX Hot Chilli Burger (not a single) which no-one had managed to do in the 11 years since this challenge was created!
I have to say it is the HOTTEST food I have ever eaten and I found the challenge undeniably hard as I felt I was being burnt alive from the inside and I desperately wanted to give up after just a few bites, but pride got the better of me. I was in excruciating agony that night from the most vicious heartburn that felt so much like chest pain and suffered from crippling capsaicin cramps. I could finally understand why people sometimes think they are having a heart attack after eating a Carolina Reaper. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought the same thing. Needless to say, the XXX Hot Chilli Burger will definitely not be a regular feature in my food consumption!
I have loved spicy food since I was very young; I grew up watching my dad eat his food with a chilli in one hand and a handkerchief in the other to wipe the chilli sweat off his forehead, but nothing could have prepared me for the pain I have endured throughout the rounds in each of the competitions I have participated in so far. I enjoy the delectable piquancy that a chilli adds to a portion of food, but not in any way do I possess any special superhuman powers or high tolerance to pain! No amount of love of hot food can prepare you for these crazy competitions. These chillies wound me just like they do most people. I don’t even like the superhots, which is ironic and I don’t consume them outside of a contest or challenge. My favourites are bullet chillies and bird’s eye chillies and I do use a lot of these in my cooking which is my passion second only to my love of eating good food out! People eat to live; I live to eat.
I’ve tried some other popular hot food challenges previously in a few restaurants such as the Hot Wings Challenge at Red Dog Saloon in Hoxton, but I wasn’t very good as it was all about the speed at which you could eat the wings which I don’t think is a true indicator of one’s mental strength and will power. The heat in these I could handle but the speed let me down; so though I managed to finish the challenge, I wasn’t quite quick enough to feature on their wall of fame but I did leave with the T-shirt. The World’s Hottest Burger Challenge at Burger Off does not come with a time constraint but there was no way I was prolonging the pain unnecessarily and so I did eat that pretty quickly although I did not know at this point the pain that was in store for me that night.
That is why I like these pure chilli-eating contests as it is solely about the ascending and accumulative heat levels and being able to conquer the overwhelming urge to quit as soon as the pain and panic kicks in. It is then an absolute measure of one’s endurance to battle through.
These competitions can be really savage for the contestants but a highly entertaining if somewhat brutal watch for the crowds. People get really into it. I can only describe it as a scaled down version of a boxing match.
The way these competitions work is you have around 10 to 15 contestants. You go through a dozen or so rounds starting from the milder chillies and building up to the hottest in the world. You have to chew each one fully all the way to the stalk before being allowed through to the next round. No fluid or food is allowed during the competition. If you have a sip of the milk they place in front of you, you are out. If you throw up, you are out. If you don’t finish your chilli at the end of the countdown for that round, you are out. I take part in only the professional and official chilli-eating challenges where the hosts take these rules very seriously and there is always someone checking up on each contestant making sure that there is no rule-breaking going on. The rounds slowly and surely whittle down the number of contestants as we near the end. The last person standing wins. If you get to the final rounds and they have exhausted all the possible chillies they can test you with, they sometimes give you spoonfuls of pure capsaicin extract or some other crazy hot sauce but they are so clever, they might put dried Carolina Reapers on top so you can’t just swallow the liquid quickly, you actually have to chew the chilli and hence get the extract swirling all inside your mouth – ouch! If there is a tie after this, then the finalists go through what is called a ‘death race’ – basically identical bowls of around 10 chillies of varying sizes and heat levels or some such; first to finish is declared the winner!
The contests are debilitating. They cause more pain than you can imagine. I start to dread each one days in advance and begin to suffer quite early on (usually from round 3) in each competition. The pain and panic builds up especially in between rounds when the hosts are introducing the chillies and cracking jokes with the audience. It is pure torture waiting in between rounds as the burn is viciously building up. Your lips, mouth, and throat feel like they are on fire; face muscles start to twitch involuntarily; and hands shake uncontrollably. You suffer from shivers, chills, shakes, and violent body tremors followed by muscle spasms, cramps, and heartburn. At times, your hands seize up and you experience what is called ‘naga claw’ – when that happens to me, I have to get a friend from my support crowd to hold the chilli for me and feed it to me. The worst thing I find is the way my eardrums feel like they are about to explode. The chillies do affect all individuals differently. Sometimes the pain is so extreme that I can’t even stand up straight afterwards. Some contestants, who have never experienced this kind of chilli-induced pain before, feel like they are having a heart attack and that can be quite scary.
People in the audience are really friendly and encouraging and make you want to get to that final round and win. It’s funny, I usually get the women cheering for me the loudest as it often tends to be a gender battle at the end. I get little kids running up to me to take pictures with me and give me a hug and a kiss which is just so lovely. I get men and women come up to me to shake my hand and tell me how impressed they are. Because I am so visibly in distress from pretty much the start, I don’t think anyone (including myself..full of self-doubt) realises that I might go all the way. For the first half or three quarters of the way, everyone thinks I would be the next contestant to leave and they sometimes bet among their groups on my being the next one to throw in the towel which is quite funny. It is only towards the end that they start to realise that I may be the underdog.
A lot of the contestants who make it to the final rounds end up throwing up. Some runners-up end up with the paramedics. The pain is that excruciating; it however doesn’t last longer than a few hours or one night in the worst cases.
Funniest thing is you have a glass of milk placed in front of you for when you end the competition but I hate plain milk (it triggers my gag reflex) so I wouldn’t even get momentary relief at the end like the other contestants until my latter competitions when I started to take a carton of chocolate milk (plain milk – hate, chocolate milk – love) to gulp down afterwards.
I heard an interesting story from a judge from one of these chilli-eating competitions about a really slight girl who won one time much to the shock of everyone present. She didn’t even break a sweat. A year later she bumped into him at a festival and spilled the beans that the only reason she won was because she doesn’t have any sense of taste!
People try all sorts of tricks from swallowing the chillies whole or tearing them into tiny pieces and then swallowing but nothing really works as the whole chillies just get stuck down your throat or the chilli burn from tearing the chillies gets all over your hands and your face. You really just have to sit there and chew, chew, chew; there is no other way but to suffer the pain.
I have never been competitive about anything in my life except for this which I find quite funny; why couldn’t it be something less painful?! Even after 50+ comps, I have not been able to master the chilli pain. The nerves set in days in advance and I dread each and every competition but I just can’t give up when it comes to a chilli challenge! The winning definitely gives me a buzz and makes me feel euphoric after all the fearful apprehension that precedes each competition.
It was also a fun and nerve-racking experience being on Sky News. My clip ended up being the 10th most watched video of 2018 with the Highlights of The Royal Wedding of Harry and Meghan coming in at 9th and the arrival of William and Kate’s new baby at 7th! What was crazy was that several of my school friends whom I haven’t seen in two decades who just happened to get together for a party in Brunei at the same time Sky was airing my interview over there, just couldn’t believe it when I popped up on the TV screen in front of them. It is such a small world!
One of my most memorable experiences was appearing on Good Morning Britain in 2019 and eating Armageddon chilli live on air with Ben Shephard whom I kind of fancied growing up and Kate Garraway whose reactions were so hilarious and entertaining after trying just a sliver of the pepper.
It was also a very surreal experience to be invited on Good Day Sacramento and discuss my chilli-eating in the run-up to The Pepper Festival & Hot sauce Expo for which I had flown to America. The funniest thing happened while I was getting ready for Good Day Sacramento in my hotel room in the early hours of the morning. I turned on the TV and randomly put a news channel on and next thing I know, I hear my name and look up to see my pictures and a little feature on ABC 10 News – all about my travelling to the US to take part in some crucial contests; probably the one and only time I would be on two channels in the US on the same morning. What a coincidence!
Ending up on Germany’s Taff TV Series and BBC’s Food: Truth or Scare and in newspapers such as The Guardian, New York Post, The Sun, Daily Star, Oxford Mail, Cotswold Journal, Metro, etc., and being asked to appear in Germany’s Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, etc., have made it all a very fun albeit painful ride.
I applied to Guinness World Records with a new record proposal for ‘Most Consecutive Wins in Chilli Eating Contests’ after my 32nd win and heard back at my 42nd win; for my proposed record attempt to be accepted as a Guinness World Records Title, there would have to be the same no. of contestants, same no. of rounds and the exact same chillies eaten at each competition. This is impossible to achieve; even if I attended only the competitions run by the same hosts, the chillies would vary. At my very first comp, the Carolina Reaper was not even recognised. I knew it was going to be a long shot but I thought it was worth a try. Guinness World Records was going to be just a side story on my journey. I still wanted to continue to my goal of reaching 50 undefeated purely for myself and to be remembered as a legend one day, hopefully. There is no record of anyone in the world at present who has taken part in and won 50 consecutive chilli-eating competitions (which are fully refereed, bona fide, and documented) without ever being defeated but I want to be known as the indisputable chilli-eating champion and hence the self-imposed objective of 50 wins which I have now achieved.
A very exciting and transformative thing to happen in the world of chilli-eating and challenges is the League of Fire – which is the only world-ranking website for chilli-eaters around the globe. When League of Fire first approached me in 2019 with a proposition for an inaugural World Title Chilli-Eating Belt Match against the mighty Johnny Scoville, I had no idea how this new and first-of its-kind concept was going to take off and capture the fascination and hearts of the worldwide chilli community and help bring people from all parts of the chilli world together talking, forging bonds and friendships, as well as non-chilli-heads who have really gotten into this.
I have since become the League of Fire World Title Belt Holder making me the official top chilli-head in the world. I have taken part in and won 5 League of Fire World Title Belt Matches which include a trilogy in Guildford, UK; Sacramento, USA, and; Ham, Belgium – against the most incredible and loved chilli-head called Johnny Scoville from America and a match against the NZ Chilli-Eating Champs’ winner called Justin Rummel from Australia who flew over to the UK to take me on in Newcastle. Most recently, I took on another UK Chilli-Eating Champion Cameron ‘The Cannon’ Grennan in Cheam, UK. There is a League of Fire Non-Title Belt Match that took place in Auburn, USA, against the machine Dustin Johnson aka Atomik Menace from America which I won as well. I would describe these World Title Belt Matches much the same as boxing matches. You have to go one-on-one through multiple rounds and then finish with a knockout round which is a race finale. They are extremely brutal and different from regular chilli-eating contests in that you are allowed to have a go at the World Belt only if you have won at least one regular chilli-eating contest previously and you will usually start where the regular contests end so for example, you may be given a plate of Scorpions or Reapers to start at round 1. All rounds will contain multiples upwards of 4 of each superhot as opposed to the usual contests where you are normally given one per round and maybe two or three in some rounds. You end up in the region of 50 plus superhots consumed in each World Title Belt Match. The League of Fire World Title Belt is the pinnacle of being a chilli-head and I am so very proud to hold it currently.
On November 24th, 2019, I ate 105 Carolina Reapers (officially world’s hottest pepper) in one sitting. In doing so, I set the world record for most Carolina Reapers ever eaten by a woman. I wish I could have done more but I could feel the Reapers all the way to the back of my throat and it was impossible at that time for me to do more even though I could have suffered the heat a bit longer, but my body physically just could not fit any more in. I am not a volume eater and I do not have a big stomach so this felt like a huge accomplishment for me. Sadly, one of the few occasions where size matters, and my slight size puts me at a disadvantage when it comes to bulk challenges such as these. I currently hold the world record for being the only female to do so.
It started with my effort to become the first person in the world to eat the most Carolina Reapers in one sitting. I set my goal at 50. I had no idea if I would be able to come even close. There is a reason these types of feats are not attempted very often as there are only a handful of people in the world who can successfully do such things. On September 1st, 2019, I managed to get to 51 Reapers. It was a mighty painful experience and I can’t explain to you the pain and burn you feel eating reaper after reaper with no liquid relief. I was ecstatic though to achieve what I set out to do. Being the no. 1 at this was short-lived though as Atomik Menace managed to do 122 Reapers in one sitting soon after. I then set myself a new goal of doubling my previous record and going for 102 and that is how I managed to achieve my above record of 105 Reapers.
In 2020, I was invited to New Zealand, Australia, The Philippines, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Hungary, Poland, Canada, and America, but Covid -19 happened. I was really heartbroken for it all to be postponed but I am immensely looking forward to the time where we can travel freely again.
2021 started brilliantly when I got a call in January from the team at Game Of Talents – a new Primetime TV show on ITV hosted by the dashing Vernon Kay. It is a cross between a talent show and game show. I had the most fabulous couple of days of filming at Maidstone Studios in Kent. In my slot, I got to go head-to-head with Jordan North, runner-up of I’m a Celebrity Jungle 2020, in a mini chilli-eating contest. It was such a lot of fun; the studio was erupting in laughter from the host to the contestants to the production team. I have also taken part in and won 14 competitions this year taking my total no. of wins to 90!
It has been such an epic journey through the world of chilli-eating; I have met some really lovely people along the way, have seen some beautiful places, gained a few life experiences, and learnt a lot. It was such an accident how all this started and now it has become such a big part of my life. I never saw myself as a strong and determined person but this has really made me see that I can push myself to achieve the near impossible through sheer determination and will power.
People ask me what is next. I am currently at 90 wins. My aim now is to get to 100 wins but if I lose one or two here or there, I won’t worry about it too much. I am just very happy to have the 50 consecutive wins #undefeated under my belt.
This attempt has been 9 years in the making – 9 long years of dedication and devotion (and suffering)! The time and money that have gone into this has been astounding. I have had to commit pretty much every single weekend of the summer for the last few years to attend these competitions all over the UK – no enjoying nights out or summer parties and get-togethers with friends anywhere and instead swapping for chilli-pain! It has also been a very expensive hobby much like golf perhaps as I’ve spent thousands on travel costs, festival entry tickets, food and drink for me and my friends at festivals and buying from hot sauce producers to support them, but it has all been worth it! And, I couldn’t have done this without all my friends who have come along to my competitions to support me and friends who have encouraged and motivated me in person and on social media.
My dream is for chilli-eating to be taken seriously and for it to become a mainstream sport. It is one of only a few extreme sports where men and women, young and old, can go in as equals – which I think is brilliant. I feel we are getting there – so much has changed since I first started and chilli-eating is now very much in the zeitgeist because of the tremendous interest, intrigue, and inspiration it generates! I love that my journey has motivated so many other people to take part in contests and encouraged them to be involved in the chilli-community.