She exploded onto the scene with her award-winning show Chewing Gum two years ago and now Michaela Coel is only set to get bigger (and louder) in 2017. She talks to Stylist about speaking her mind, sex clubs and upsetting the status quo
Words: Helen Bownass
Photography: Tom Van Schelven
There aren’t many people like Michaela Coel on TV in the UK. Scratch that, I don’t think there’s anyone like Michaela Coel on TV in the UK. Female, working-class, black, frank. The amalgamation of her is a voice not often given a platform. But as 2017 settles on its axis, and a new wind blows in, hers is one we need now more than ever. It’s a voice that will be making itself heard above all the other noise this year, proving herself as one of our most valuable talents.
Coel is the creator and star of Chewing Gum, the E4 series that won her two Baftas – for Best Female Performance in a Comedy and Breakthrough Talent – which returns this week. It centres on 24-year-old Tracey Gordon living on a housing estate in east London, whose sexual interest is at odds with her highly religious upbringing. It is rare in that it shows inner city life without vilifying it. It’s also unique in that nothing is taboo, from quotes like, “Candice is the buffest girl I’ve ever seen on the whole of my estate, but she’s got learning difficulties so it sort of balances it out”, to a scene where her cousin tries to have sex with her (and they’re just the tip of a very crude iceberg). Talking to Coel is the same – periods, sex and bathroom habits all tumble into conversation alongside shrewd observations on gender, race and class. The 29-year-old isn’t doing it to shock, at least not as we sit down to chat over veggie crisps and herbal tea after a long day shooting the cover of Stylist. This is how she talks, who she is and she will not censor herself.
Growing up on an estate in east London’s Brick Lane with her Ghanaian mother – now a mental health liaison officer who worked for years as a cleaner – and older sister, her own experiences have been the fodder for much of her work. At 18 she found Christianity – an extreme form that believed in the exorcising of demons – and, wanting to express herself, started performance poetry. This led to her being spotted by playwright Ché Walker and set her on a course for the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – where her religious fervour disappeared. Her graduation piece in 2012 was an electrifying one-woman monologue Chewing Gum Dreams about 14-year-old Tracey Gordon, which she went on to perform at the Shed at the National Theatre, before being approached about writing the TV series. However, the series is some of the rare comedy she’s done, alongside appearances in Channel 4’s Top Boy, Black Mirror and Medea at the National Theatre. Currently she is preparing to film a “huge political thriller” (which is all she can tell me) in May. “I don’t actually believe in the genre of comedy,” she muses. “Sometimes when I watch comedies I can’t see the soul of the show. I want to be able to laugh and cry. That is where the magic is. I’m trying to get to that place.” Series two of Chewing Gum picks up with Tracey returning to the estate, but it’s far from smooth, especially when she discovers her ex Connor has moved on.
She still lives in east London, but now “with three complete strangers that have become like family to me; I found them on Spare Room. The day after I moved in, I was like, ‘Do you guys want to come to The Jonathan Ross Show?’ They’re living with someone who is on TV, which is not usual.”
It’s not usual, but nothing about Coel is – I’m particularly taken by one particular idiosyncrasy of hers when describing winning an award or being given a gift, often asking me, “Can you believe it?” I can believe it. She is revitalizing, relevant and fearless. And nothing is off limits…
You often write things that are typically ‘unsayable’ – the bits of life that people usually bury in a deep place. Is that just who you are or do you like to make people feel uncomfortable?
I do like making people feel uncomfortable – it’s separating the wheat from the chaff. There is a bunch of people that are like, ‘Oh no, that’s too much for me, I’m changing channels.’ I think, ‘Good, it wasn’t for you. This is for my people – people who can actually stomach that sh*t and laugh.’ I’ve had times where I’m typing and I’m like, ‘No way I can’t do that!’ But my fingers keep typing and I’m cringing just writing the words.
I interviewed Amy Schumer last year and she said she loves those moments when all the air rushes out of the room because she’s made people feel so uncomfortable with a joke. Do you like to push things similarly?
I think there’s a line! Even for me, watching [Schumer], occasionally I’m like, ‘I think that’s wrong’. She’s got a couple of jokes about race and rape and I’m like, ‘Oh OK’ [makes a non-laughing face].
Is it ever OK to make race jokes if you’re white?
It’s fine if you make the right jokes. Take Louis CK, I could listen to his race jokes all day. They’re well-observed but also it’s a question of, would you tell that joke in front of an all-black audience? If you can’t, then you need to shut up. Sometimes I think, ‘You didn’t think I would be watching your YouTube set, did you? No, because I’m slightly offended. Wasn’t for me, was it?’
So there is a line in comedy?
There’s a line and sometimes I cross it and it’s a mistake. There’s one [line, coming up] in episode three, and I didn’t think enough about what that would look like. It’s basically in a sex club – because I’ve been to a sex club – but for some reason, I didn’t think about the people being naked. I didn’t think that they would probably be having sex. We’ve toned down the scene in post-production, but even for me it’s graphic!
Why did you go to a sex club?
My ex wanted to bring out the kink in me. It never came out, I think it crawled further inside my soul. It’s in a coma now. Kudos to you if you like [sex clubs]. I wish that I did go there and figure out that I was this amazing woman with this big sexual appetite, I wanted it so badly, but it wasn’t there.
As women, we are so often expected to make ourselves less but you make yourself more both in your comedy and in life. Have you ever been told to be less yourself?
I’ve always been too much, according to the rest of the world. If you ask my mum and my sister, they would tell you I haven’t changed since I was three. I don’t really go with the crowd. I’m the kind of person that if I heard some girls were bullying my friend in another school, I would go to that school by myself and try to have a fight with a hundred girls. Which is really stupid, but someone has got to defend our friend and if you guys don’t want to come and get beaten up then I’m going to go by myself. I speak my mind a lot. I’m trying at the moment to learn how to say things without shocking or offending people. The environment on the Chewing Gum set is where everyone can work to the best of their abilities and everyone is happy. So, if I’m not happy with something, I’ve learnt that you don’t start flailing about, you go in quietly and there’s a conversation. Because sometimes I want to scream and go, ‘What the f**k is this?!’ But you can’t do that.
What were you like at school?
With GCSEs, I didn’t really go to any classes, but I knew I had to get at least four As. So I’d spend all night before an exam memorising the books. I didn’t know what I was reading but I got to the exam and I knew those key words. I had no interest, other than in sociology, which probably feeds into the way I write. Some of the stuff that’s a bit too out-there is because I’m trying to expose a social issue in a different way. Vanity is one of the issues. We live in a world – and I’m one of these people – where we obsess over hair. I’m wearing a different wig every day. Inter-racial relationships and people that have a fetish for women of a chocolate persuasion are another. Or men of a chocolate persuasion, or women of a white persuasion.
I’ve seen on social media you have a rather intense work ethic when you’re writing…
I do all-nighters. I do two nights in a row. I’ve written so much, my legs have become swollen because I’ve been sat down for so long. I’ve got a therapist and I was talking to them about whether this was good for me but I think it’s just the way I am. I feel quite rewarded. It’s like labour. Is labour good for you? Probably not. But you get a kid!
So writing isn’t easy for you?
No, it’s really f**king hard. It’s lonely. The fun bit is when you gear it up for people: that’s awesome. Maybe it’s because I don’t have much of a life outside of my work, but it swallows up my entire [life].
Have other areas of your life suffered because of it?
I could blame writing. I could say, ‘Yeah, I’m a writer, that’s why I’m single’, but it’s because I’m gross. If I wasn’t writing, I still wouldn’t get d*ck and that’s the truth [laughs].Not gross as in a horrible person, but I’m not very kept together.
Do you feel a pressure that you should be more kept together?
I don’t feel a pressure from society. I feel like now more than ever, the men that I know are brought up from very young with an idea of what a woman is. I don’t feel the pressure to become that woman but I understand that for men that is their ideal. I could fit it, but I’m not willing to. My friend once told me her mum and dad have been married for over 30 years and he has never seen his wife piss. How? You’ve never seen your wife p**s? Ever? Has he heard her fart? No.
When you started writing comedy, how quickly did you realise what you wanted to talk about?
I started off doing poetry and the first ever poem I wrote was about self-worth. That has always been an issue: self-worth and confidence. I’ve always wanted to penetrate people’s real lives through some form of speaking. At drama school, the kind of plays we were doing had absolutely no relation to the real world for me. So, I wrote a play [Chewing Gum Dreams] which was based on my school days. Seeing the reaction I realised that was the kind of thing I wanted to do.
Do you think much about your gender and how that has affected your career?
I wasn’t aware of my gender until 2013 when I did a play called Blurred Lines [at the National Theatre]. Since then I have really come to know that I am a woman and that means something. That means life can be a tiny bit more difficult. [Before], I wasn’t aware because I’m black and I’m poor. So, I was focused on those things: I was really busy being black and poor [laughs]! I can’t believe the things that have happened. At one awards show there was a production company who I’d been considering working with and I was talking to this guy [from the production company] when he said, “Do you know how much I want to f**k you right now?” Then said to my friend, “No-one is on my vibe, my n*****.” If I was a man, I can safely say that wouldn’t have happened. It’s those tiny reminders, of being female, of being black and being dark-skinned – which is very important – and coming from a working-class background. It’s a constant awareness.
Does that weigh on you?
No, not at all. I don’t have any sense of ‘I f**king hate being this person!’ It’s material for my writing. I think it’s an amazing position I’m in, that I view the world from.
On Twitter, one of your followers wrote about a piece in The New York Times where they recommended your show, but illustrated it with a picture of your lighter-skinned co-star Danielle Walters, and the follower was criticising it as “another form of erasure” Was that upsetting?
You know what? It’s not upsetting at all.
Isn’t it? That makes it almost worse that these things no longer upset you.
Yeah, I think it is worse. The thing is no-one is setting out to hurt me, it happens a lot. For example, at awards shows, you get gift bags and I always get white people’s make-up, because they don’t think about it. Then the minute you highlight it they’re like, “Oh my god, I’m mortified, I’m so sorry!”
So it’s insidious…
Yes, and actually it is unacceptable now and I think this has got to stop.
In the same piece, the writer talked about how her support of you was based on “[your] singularity in representing dark skinned black women in British TV”. Is being a role model something you want?
You know what, not really. I don’t think anyone [does]. Viola Davis is one of my role models. I don’t think she wants to be a role model. For me that’s what probably makes her all the more of a role model. As long as people get that I’m not going to hurt anyone, but I’m going to do what I want – if that is what you see as something to aspire to, then great. But it’s not really my job, I’m not paid to be a role model, I’m paid to make TV shows.
There’s a lot of responsibility that comes with it…
I understand that by creating this show, I have filled a gap. I didn’t see myself reflected on TV, in the media at all. And now there’s going to be a bunch of young girls that have that and it’s going to make their lives a bit easier. That makes my heart swell, but I’m not going to let that affect me. I like living a very normal small life, I like pretending that I’m not on TV. I love to just sit here, watch everyone and no-one has a clue.
When it comes to role models, we’re about to lose some pretty big ones as the Obamas leave the White House next week. How does that make you feel?
When someone proposed Michelle Obama being president, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that’s amazing!’ There were so many negatives [when Trump was elected], I couldn’t stop crying. My mum told me to get over it but I couldn’t because people were being personally attacked. You could have easily had that life, it could have been you. A woman walking around America, someone grabbing her f**king genitals. But it’s a global thing, we’re here with Brexit. It’s a very sad time but the positive is that in times like this artists rise, protesters rise.
Do you push yourself to stay politically aware?
I’m somewhere in the middle. You won’t catch me having a debate on Sky News, or on comedy panels – that’s a trap a lot of people fall into, where they have to constantly appear happy. I’m not always happy. I’m not always funny. The more you have to force that happiness, you go home and you’re not happy. I would rather keep it here in the middle and make some funny sh*t sometimes, but I am not going to make that my whole life. I read the news but I’m more into reading literature.
What have you read recently and loved?
Zadie Smith’s new book, Swing Time. I was lucky, I got an advance copy. It’s beautiful. I’m quite scared of big books! If someone doesn’t put it in my face, I’m not going to look for it. But thank god that happened because I had the time of my life reading this book.
What did you find so interesting about it?
She’s very London and so am I. She has a way of describing her past and her friends that is so accurate. She goes to Africa and I’ve never really been to the village part of Africa but it’s something I want to do next year. I’m very interested in people going from a naive state to a conscious state. Zadie Smith does that so well, it blows my mind. My favourite book is The Alchemist. That book is my bible. If you asked me what religion I am, I’ll say I’m an alchemist. I only read it last year and it changed my life.
Why do you feel the pull to visit Africa now?
I’ve always wanted to go but my family couldn’t afford it and when I finally could afford it I was working and didn’t have time. Luckily, work is taking me [to Ghana], for part of my shooting. Can you believe that? To look at my family in real life, to look at people that look like me, that’s what pulls me. And I would like to walk on the earth that my mum grew up on. I would love that.
Chewing Gum returns to E4 at 10pm on Thursday 12 January
Styling: Lucy Reber
Hair: Kevin Fortune at kevinfortuneuk.com using afroditewigs.co.uk
Make-up: Caroline Barnes at Frank Agency using Max Factor
Nails: OPI expert Sophie Harris-Greenslade using OPI Nail Lacquer