Stacey Dooley gets real about self-care, sustainable shopping and Strictly Come Dancing

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Helen Bownass
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Stacey Dooley

Stylist cosies up with Stacey Dooley to uncover the documentary maker’s softer side.

The Venn diagram
of Stacey Dooley’s life is a unique one. On one side, you’ve got Stacey Dooley the hard-hitting documentary maker, who confronts paedophiles in Tokyo, comes face to face with members of Isis in Iraq and talks to underage sex slaves in Cambodia. On the other, there is Dooley, smothered in sequins, doing the American smooth round the dancefloor to I Dreamed A Dream in Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night. Strictly is the ultimate telly comfort blanket: you know what you’re getting, and how it will make you feel. There’s razzle, there’s dazzle, and there are journeys.

Which is why when we were deciding who to put on the cover of our cosy issue, Dooley came to mind. If nine years of making Stylist/a lifetime of being female living on this Earth have taught us anything, it’s that women can be many things. They can be ambitious and maternal. Silly and serious. Cosy and hard-hitting. The intersection of the Venn diagram is frequently the most interesting part.

We see Dooley’s duality on screen often
in both Strictly and her documentaries, where she is curious, disarming and often tactile, before she throws in a zinger of a tough question. In person, too, Dooley is warm, chatty and fun. She obliviously sings, “The river is going to get you”, to Gloria Estefan’s Rhythm Is Gonna Get You and gamely lets us wrap her up like 
a woolly sausage roll on our cover shoot.
But there is also a steel to her, a bravery.

Thirty-one-year-old Dooley’s route to screen is utterly atypical – especially in the male-dominated world of documentaries where she has made her name. She grew up in Luton, and was working at Luton Airport on a beauty counter when in 2008 her mum saw an advert looking for people to take part in the BBC Three documentary Blood, Sweat And T-Shirts. Filming it in India, she witnessed first-hand the sweatshops and child labour that make so many of the clothes for the high street. It lit a fuse in her that’s seen her travel the world investigating everything from the worst places to be a woman, to fascism, homelessness and the sex trade. “I think all the time about where I’d be if I hadn’t done it,” she laughs. “I’d probably still be at Luton Airport! Which is no bad thing.”

This year has been a particularly momentous one. Alongside the documentaries and Strictly – at the time of going to press Dooley was getting ready for the semi-finals – she released a book, On The Front Line With The Women Who Fight Back, based on her documentary experiences, and was awarded an MBE for services to broadcasting, which she says she owes to many of the women she has met along the way. “I know it sounds cheesy but these women have taught me that if you don’t fight for what you believe in, if you don’t try and be the change that you want to see, what’s the point?”

Cosy and a force for change: that’s 
a combination we’re very comfortable with.

There’s such a juxtaposition between making documentaries and Strictly…

You’re right! Strictly and my day-to-day job couldn’t be further apart. They’re total opposite ends of the spectrum. But I think that’s the reason I wanted to do Strictly; it’s total escapism, it’s celebratory. Work had been so intense, rightly so, the subjects are harrowing, but I wanted to show the other side of me. It’s old-school to assume that just because you have an interest in [serious subjects] that you’re not also interested in fashion and make-up. That’s utter nonsense. I did an interview a while back and they asked, “What do you like watching?” and I said, “Question Time, Thursday night, BBC One. Love Island, ITV2,” and they were like, “What are you talking about, you can’t like the two.” Why not?

What has been the most surprising thing about your time on Strictly?

How much I love Strictly! I thought it would be fun and I’d be in the UK for a bit so I’d be at home more, I was being practical. But as soon as you get there, I know it sounds really cheesy and painfully predictable, but it is the most incredible experience. It’s hard work – 10, 12 hours a day dancing – but it’s so worthwhile. And I’ve made Di’s [Dooley’s mum] life. Anything I’ve done prior to Strictly really doesn’t matter. 

Stacey Dooley
Stacey Dooley

Does your mum come to watch? 

Yes, but I’ve had to put a limit on it because it was getting a bit ridiculous [laughs]. She’s allowed to come every other week now. She often brings a pal, this week she’s there with my boyfriend.

When it comes to your documentaries, you put yourself into incredibly difficult situations. How do you ensure the weight of that doesn’t impact you mentally?

Work can be painfully sad
at times. We filmed in Mosul
 [Iraq] this year and I got out
 of the car and smelt rot;
 it was two dead bodies.
I thought, this is so surreal 
but so important. You
 have to make sure 
you don’t drive 
yourself loopy, you 
have to look after 
yourself, and when 
you get home you 
try to decompress. 
I believe ultimately 
there are more 
goodies than baddies
 in the world and 
you have to remind
yourself of that. Even 
in the most hostile
environments, when 
I’ve seen the darkest
 side of humanity, there
 are always people
trying to counterbalance that. When I was in Honduras I met a girl whose husband had macheted off her legs because she tried to leave him, but she survived. I met her a month after and she had two stumps, but there were three other women she didn’t know who had set up an NGO and were going through the legal system to support her. You have to hold on to those beautiful people and remind yourself that there are more people like 
that in the world.

Have you always wanted to tell other people’s stories?

Not really, if I’m honest. I know people who end up doing something for a living say it was always there but it wasn’t. The world I live in now isn’t the world I’m from – it was just my mum and
I for a while, it was a humble start. I worked in Luton Airport selling perfume and make-up but
I loved it. I had a great set of girls, we’d take cheap EasyJet flights on the Friday, fly to Spain, back on the Monday, hadn’t slept, boss would be shouting at us. Then Blood, Sweat… offered itself. I fell into this, it was very unconventional.
I feel very lucky every day because it could have gone so differently. I left school at 15, didn’t pick up my GCSEs, didn’t do A-levels, didn’t go to uni.

Have you ever been made
to feel less
 than capable because of that?

Of course – especially at the start, and particularly in current affairs. It’s very white, it’s very west London, it’s very beige chino. People would say, “Once you’ve got past her accent”, “She’s almost a caricature”, “What the hell are the BBC thinking?” But it was a split camp
– some people just didn’t get it, other people said, “It’s a breath of fresh air”. I would much prefer that than be vanilla. 

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So being divisive doesn’t trouble you?

At the start it was tough. But by my mid-20s the [shows] were always rating well. It was nice, too, hitting a demographic that didn’t necessarily listen to Radio 4. There’s nothing nicer than walking down the street and a group of school kids come up to you and say they watched your doc in geography. Rather than 46-year-old Mrs Smith who reads The Guardian and already knows about these topics.

Do you feel comfortable in this world now?

I feel like I have the authority to be here, I know what makes a good doc now. I’m learning all the time, I’m far from perfect, but I certainly feel capable and confident. I am hungry but not totally obsessed with achieving, achieving, achieving. The most important thing for me is work ethic; I don’t know anyone who works harder than me and that’s why I’ve done quite well. I’ve done OK not because I’m particularly brilliant but because I put the hours in and work really bloody hard. You have to be able to sacrifice things. I think that’s from my mother – when it was just my mum and I, she would clean houses, work in a bar, she’d do whatever she had to. I always knew my mother worked and that’s a beautiful thing.

On screen you seem unafraid to ask difficult questions, do you have to psych yourself up for those moments?

It depends what we’re talking about. If it’s incest or paedophilia or child abuse, these really horrific things,
I wouldn’t be doing my job 
if I wasn’t asking these questions. Of course before you ask your heart is beating, you know they’re going to be really angry, but
 people feel happy. We did a documentary about sexual predators and whether once someone’s served their time should they be integrated back into society. There was a guy called Pat, who was a compulsive liar from the get-go, and it turned out he’d been abusing prepubescent children, so at the end I had to put that to him. We had to go back to his house to have this conversation and I knew it was going to kick off. I took a deep breath and said, “We need to talk about what you were sentenced for.” He ripped the mic off, started shouting – I mean no one likes confrontation, no part of me enjoys it, but sometimes it’s necessary. Then he stormed out of his own house. I was there saying, “Should 
I lock up? What am I supposed to do?” Those are the moments you wonder, ‘What is my job?’ 

I’ve just watched your recent fast fashion documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets and found it shocking how the demand for clothes is destroying parts of the planet…

It’s very relatable. Child soldiers in the DRC and women in Iraq feel very removed from our lives, but we all shop so we are all part of this. The story of the Aral Sea [in Central Asia] was mind- blowing; the idea that an entire body of water all but disappeared because of our insatiable appetite for cotton. I was assuming people were going to say, “We don’t want to be preached to by do-gooders,” but people were hungry for information. Everyone knows that plastic is trashing the planet, we’re told it every day and rightly so, but I don’t think we knew that story.

How do we ensure this doesn’t become
a wealth issue? Buying sustainably
 is a great idea in theory but a lot of people can only afford to shop in Primark.

I totally understand that; it was my initial concern. Now I work in telly it’s easy for me to say, “Let’s pay a bit more and shop a bit more ethically.” My mother works in TK Maxx, she’s not a wealthy woman, when she used to buy school uniforms she’d have to buy Airtexes for three quid. So it’s never about wagging the finger and saying ‘do this, don’t do that’, it’s about our mindset and how we look at clothes. I’m not saying buy expensive clothes, just buy clothes you love and will wear time and time again, and look after them. Buy what you need, wear it to death and then replace it with what you can. I would never want to turn into one of those people working in telly who’s got a bit more money and so tells people to spend what they can’t afford.

You said earlier this world
you’re in is different from 
the one you grew up in.
Did you travel much when
you were younger?

[Laughs] Benidorm, Tenerife,
 and Haven, the caravan park. I’ve never been particularly academic, I’ve never really loved learning in the traditional way, but travel opens your eyes and shapes you in a way nothing else does. You understand things from a different perspective. You realise it’s a luxury to be in a position where you have Western privilege.

This issue is dedicated to cosiness. Describe your ultimate cosy set-up…

Winter is 100% my favourite time of year, I’m not a summer baby. All my girls love the summer, they get really down in the winter. But I love it so much: the style, the ambience, the fire, hot drinks. I love being in our little flat in Brighton – I’m away 8-9 months of the year. I love being on the sofa with Bernie [her English bulldog] and Sam [her boyfriend], with a throw and candles everywhere.

What sort of candles?

Obviously overpriced candles! I love Byredo, Le Labo, all of those. 

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Will you be watching anything on TV? 

I’m obsessed with Dynasties at the moment.
I just can’t with the penguins. And I’ve really got into Louis Theroux’s new series [Altered States], it’s brilliant. He’s so clever. Anyone who makes documentaries, we’re all like, “he’s King Louis”. A while ago, I think it was at the Baftas, he was there and I was really starstruck. He was very generous with his time. He sometimes messages; he’s a really decent person.

Watching Louis Theroux isn’t the most cosy, but it’s your scenario. Any more details?

I like eating everything in sight. My top three [favourite foods] are roast dinner, my second is sushi and my third is puttanesca pasta.

Can you cook?

No. I can’t make any of those things. And I don’t care. Maybe if I had a dishwasher it would be different, but when I cook I know I have to wash all the bowls and plates and I can’t be bothered. Maybe I’ll treat myself with my Strictly Come Dancing money
to a dishwasher.

What is Christmas like in the Dooley household?

No one gets dressed up fancy, it’s pyjamas all day and we’re all steaming by 3pm. Last year I was [working] in New Orleans alone on Christmas Day in this hotel with two students working on reception. I love going shopping for other people. I used to go a bit nuts and it can be a bit wasteful. I hate novelty gifts, they’re a waste of money – just get me a Space NK voucher!

The Strictly Come Dancing final is on at 6.30pm, Saturday 15 December on BBC One 

Photography: Matthew Shave

Fashion: Polly Knight