Now a Netflix musical lead and working on a personal new series, the actor and writer talks letting go of fame’s challenges and servicing the world with art
Michaela Coel has experienced several reinventions. The writer, actor, poet, and performer has picked up and put down Christianity, worked as a cleaner, and dropped out of university twice. Now, as a trailblazing black woman in the ruthless entertainment industry, she’s emerged from racism and sexual assault with a desire to be transparent, and tell her story. She’s full of honest words and undeniable presence when Dazed meets her in her London flat in late 2018.
While most people’s stories only exist in the comfort of their own mind (and WhatsApp chats), Coel has made it her mission to chronicle her sometimes-glorious, sometimes-painful narrative on the stage and screen. Her Channel 4 show Chewing Gum, which she wrote, starred in, and adapted (in 41 drafts) from a one-woman show in her final year of college, became an instant hit when it debuted in 2015. Her protagonist Tracy, a Christian teenager from a working class London estate, juggles her devotion to God with a strong, increasing urge to get laid. Tracy struggles with boyfriends, being kicked out of home, and all the peculiar, diverse characters in her life. The show won Coel a BAFTA, and was widely praised for providing representation that was seriously lacking on mainstream British TV.
Since the first season of Chewing Gum aired, Coel’s performances have hit across the spectrum. She’s played a smarmy airport worker and an alien spaceship officer on Black Mirror, the adopted Rwandan genocide survivor Kate Ashby in Black Earth Rising, and the single mother Simone in Netflix’s rom-com musical Been So Long.
Chewing Gum began life as a Word document tapped out in her bedroom, where we’re currently snooping around. It’s a little writer’s cave, in a building that still smells of fresh paint. Buddhist and Hindu statues, crystal lamps, old medicine jars filled with curios, piles of books, and two old weather clocks take up most of the space. The up-and-coming Norwegian artist Margrete’s song “Teen” – Coel’s current “absolute favourite” – plays on a little speaker. Downstairs, a softly spoken guy, Coel’s flatmate of many years, tries to cope with a deadly hangover in the minimalist living room. A pair of itsy-bitsy kittens are tumbling around on the floor.
Today, autograph signing and selfies with fans have become an everyday part of Coel’s morning walk to get a turmeric latte. “You know in Oliver Twist, where people walk through town going like ‘Oh hello! Cheerio!’ and everyone seems to know each other? That’s me at the moment,” Coel says, bursting into laughter. “When people ask to have their photo taken with me my reaction is, ‘Why not?’ When you feel like your time is the most valuable in the world and the people who come up to you are wasting it, you need to stop yourself and think, ‘Hang on… if somebody is taking up my time, I’m taking up their time as well!”
“But is fame something I seek? No – being a storyteller is, and fame is a by-product of a career that I am incredibly grateful for,” she points out. “So when I say ‘look around, it’s all like in Oliver Twist’ I say it because it has to be, it’s here and I cannot change it. If I want to be happy, I have to see it as great, and not anxiety-inducing.”
In the early days of her fame, just after Chewing Gum in 2015, when going to parties with celebrities on the guestlist still had an almost-dangerous novelty factor for her, Coel was less equipped to deal with the attention. "My ex-boyfriend came up to me during one of these parties and said, ‘I hear that you’re struggling with fame,’” she says quietly, looking serious for the first time since we arrived. “He was telling me something that I felt was true, but I hadn’t explored it yet. It made me realise that people see you, which forced me to take a really close look at myself.”
“I think a lot of us look in the mirror, unable to see anything but how hurt we are, and all the wrongs that have been done to us” – Michaela Coel
The outward concern from a loved one led to Coel taking a much-needed step back from enjoying the perks of her newfound celebrity status and socialising, to instead reflect and consider how she would deal with it all going forward.
“Fame can really fuck you up”, she says, “and no one really tells you how to deal with fame once you’ve acquired it. They don’t explain, for example, that the people who follow you are actually valuable. And that they can teach you things.”
“For a very long time I was feeling anxious and unhappy. I kept looking outside myself for the reason, wondering why people weren’t being clear about things and then I realised; I wasn’t being clear with myself. I didn’t see myself for who I was,” she affirms.
The seeds planted by her ex’s incisive comment have now grown into a full period of self-reflection. Coel says that today, she’s dedicated to “total transparency”. Recently, as part of her new commitment to truth-telling, she made the choice to reconnect with her dad, who wasn’t in the picture when she was growing up on an estate in London in the early 90s.
“I decided to call him to say ‘thank you for your absence’, because part of what makes me who I am is just that,” she says, detailing how happy it made him to hear that. “I think a lot of us look in the mirror, unable to see anything but how hurt we are, and all the wrongs that have been done to us.” Instead, Coel decided to make peace with her past. “We often don’t like to look at certain things because we’re not feeling grateful, but we should dare to look in the mirror and make an active choice to move on, forgive, and forget, and be grateful for the things we have.”
As the make-up artist adds pigment to Coel’s poreless complexion, she tells us emphatic stories about her moth phobia – now thankfully a thing of the past – and about being a hardcore, proselytising Christian from age 18-23. A keen poet before she turned to scriptwriting, she was fascinated linguistically by biblical psalms. This was also the period in her life that later served as the inspiration for Chewing Gum.
Her faith began to crumble when she started studying at the prestigious drama school Guildhall, where she was the first black woman to be accepted in five years. “As a Christian you’re supposed to spread the gospel, but I increasingly started realising that my fellow students didn’t appear to need the gospel. In fact, I felt like I could take some advice from them,” Coel carefully explains.
“If I write 55 different characters, 55 different people get to join the party – which is great, because then you get to see variation on screen, a representation of real life” – Michaela Coel
“I decided to write to my pastor to tell him I was having some doubts, and to ask whether we could meet and talk. He responded, ‘Sure. Let's meet at church whatever day, whatever time’. I went, but he wasn’t there, so I left. Physically, and spiritually.”
We head over to Coel's neighbour’s art studio in Clapton to shoot, where she stands on paint-splattered floors in front of towering concrete walls and canvases. Leaving the subject of Christianity behind, we talk about the characters she chooses to focus on in her work, or the “misfits” as she prefers calling them: “the young, confused, broken, or different”.
“I think that everyone is a misfit deep down. It might be seen as a negative word, but to me it’s positive. Because if you’re an outsider, that means you are outside! And the trees are beautiful, the grass is beautiful and everything is fine,” she says, laughing, “I think it’s a really cool word!”
Last August, Coel gave a much-talked about MacTaggart Lecture. During the last 40 years, leading media figures – most of them white, middle-class, middle-aged, and male – have taken the stage during the Edinburgh International Television Festival to discuss their careers. Coel is only the fifth woman, and the first black person, to give the lecture.
In her talk, she used her platform in a totally different way to her predecessors by sharing two harrowing experiences she’s had. First, Coel detailed a troubling encounter with an anonymous London TV producer at an afterparty, right after she’d won a prestigious award.
“I said, ‘Oh yes, nice to meet you’. ‘Do you know how much I want to fuck you right now?’ was his immediate choice of response.”
She then went on to explain that she was drugged and sexually assaulted by strangers while working overnight at Freemantle’s offices, writing the second season of Chewing Gum in mid-2017. Coel disclosed that she had to push for empathy from executives while she was going through this trauma; they eventually agreed to give her three weeks off from work. In the lecture, she outlined the darker side of the TV industry – perhaps one that’s rarely spoken about – which is how silenced young talent can feel when they try to claim their rights, or speak out about exploitation of any kind.
“I feel really great about having done it,” Coel says to Dazed now, swiftly, with a smile. This is exactly why her presence in the TV industry is so vital: she uses her authoritative voice to speak up for the “misfits”, the ones who don’t usually get their side of the story told.
Coel has now finished perhaps her most personal writing gig to date; an as-yet-unnamed TV show about dating and sexual consent, for BBC Two. She’s been known to spend up to 36 hours typing, more or less non-stop, to the point where she’s not fully aware of her location or what day it is.
"Recently I’ve understood that storytelling is really a service, like a beauty therapist, masseuse, or a servant,” Coel says passionately, now sitting on a well-loved leather couch in the studio, eating her lunch while film is being puzzle-pieced into the camera. “One of the many reasons I love it so much is because I can include various types of people in the stories. If I write 55 different characters, 55 different people get to join the party – which is great, because then you get to see variation on screen, a representation of real life.
“It’s a way of helping people, of making them feel good about themselves. That’s what I do.”