Reggie Yates meets Chewing Gum creator Michaela Coel: “I never saw my life represented on TV”

The creator of E4's Chewing Gum sits down with presenter Reggie Yates to talk role models and representation

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Michaela Coel, 29, is the multi- award-winning star, creator and writer of E4’s hit comedy Chewing Gum.

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When she went up on stage to collect one of her two Baftas in 2016, she said: “If there is anyone out there who looks like me and is trying to get in to performing, I’d say: You are beautiful. Embrace it. You are intelligent. Embrace it. You are powerful. Embrace it.”

Lenny Henry hailed her words as “perfect”, but my mother chose to focus on Coel’s free-flowing dress made up of traditional Ghanaian kente cloth…

Reggie Yates Your upbringing wasn’t that dissimilar to mine – we both grew up on London council estates, with a Ghanaian family –

Michaela Coel A Ghanaian mum – I grew up in an all-female house: me, my mum, my sister and my grandma! Four black women in a house walking around naked…

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Reggie How traditionally Ghanaian was it? Based on the show, where your character and her family are pretty religious, I thought you would all be Pentecostal.

Michaela In the show, the mum introduces religion to the family, but in my own life, I did. At college I became friends with this girl who was a “cool Christian”. They did street dance, then they prayed. It became my whole world. I had Christian friends. I went to Christian parties. I listened to Christian music – which is basically hip-hop music with morals, so all about God or just about being a good person – no sex, cheating on your man…

Reggie Academia versus creativity is something Ghanaians struggle with. After I did my A-levels I went to art college and then I was offered the presenter’s job on Top of the Pops. My parents said, “No, you’re going to do your degree.” Was that ever a clash for you?

Michaela Oh, yes. Massively. When you’ve got African parents you go to uni, do finance and go into accounting. But I’m not good with systems. I dropped out in my final year of college to become a Christian poet. Then went back to do my A-levels and went to uni in Birmingham to do political science and theology. I lasted 12 weeks. I had to promise my mum I’d go back the next year. The second time, I did English literature. But I still hated it. When I told my mum I wanted to go to drama school, she was so disappointed. I was sleeping in my car because I couldn’t face her.

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Chewing Gum series two begins Thursday 11 January at 10pm on E4

Reggie And it was at drama school that you wrote your one-woman play, Chewing Gum Dreams?

Michaela In our final year we all wrote a play. But the plays we studied were all very classic, corsets and costumes – definitely not for me. My heart is in telling stories that comment on the time we’re living in. So I told my story, because I couldn’t find a trace of it in my training. I wrote about my school days; about a 14-year-old girl called Tracey, an amalgamation of me and the girls I grew up with. But the story was completely made up. It was great. I loved it.

Then I found a theatre that was just starting out and spoke to the artistic director who gave me good advice. There was a pivotal – and when I look back, quite cheesy – moment in the play where someone got shot. Very “living in the ghetto and somebody dies”. He said, “Just take that out.”

Reggie Did you feel like you had to have that in? One of the things I get incredibly frustrated about is films and dramas about the areas we grew up in, where the central thread is violence or crime.

Michaela Yes, I probably did. I think I was telling a similar narrative to what we always see, when I should have been telling a different narrative, which is what I’ve tried to do with the TV show.

Reggie I remember seeing the trailers for it and thinking I’d never seen a black woman be so “out there” on TV before. Were you worried about what your mum would think?

Michaela I really can’t afford to care what my family will think because it will restrain me. Also, I didn’t think my mum would watch the show. But actually, she loves it, which surprises me. And let me tell you, she’s a walking contradiction. She is on all social media and comments on my pictures; she loves Kim Kardashian and she has no hesitation making the dresses I wear, some of which are incredibly revealing!

Reggie Like the amazing one you wore to the Baftas! What was it like receiving the award for female performance in a comedy from Idris Elba? Did you feel like you deserved to be there?

Michaela Yes, I felt like I deserved to be there. I don’t know how to say that without sounding arrogant, but I’ve worked hard to be in that room. I just wish I could have done the whole thing from my laptop, because it was all so big and glamorous and I’m not a hair and make-up person. I’m not into the whole Cinderella thing.

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Reggie I just got back from LA and on Netflix over there Chewing Gum is going down brilliantly. What are your plans for the future: would you like to go out there?

Michaela When the show went up on Netflix it all went quite mad. 
I wasn’t sure people would understand it [in the US] but the response has been amazing.

As for future plans… I’m going to do a drama next year. A pretty big one. Which people might think is a bit different for me, but if you look beneath the laughter of Chewing Gum, there is a drama there. I don’t believe in comedy as a TV genre – I think there’s drama that is funny. Because beyond the laughs there has to be cost and there has to be heart.

Reggie What did you watch on television as a child?

Michaela I liked Moesha. I was a Sister, Sister girl. Fresh Prince is still funny.

Reggie All American programmes?

Michaela I couldn’t tell you a single British programme I used to watch.

Reggie Desmond’s on Channel 4? That was pretty much the only black British sitcom.

Michaela No… I never really saw my life represented on TV. There were no black female role models for me at all in this country, which is why I had no idea what I was doing with my life growing up. I hadn’t seen it.

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Coel watched US comedies when she was growing up due to a lack of black British sitcoms

Reggie Aside from Three Non-Blondes I can’t think of any other black female comedies. Do you think that will change now that you’ve had so much success?

Michaela I hope so, or else all this is a waste of time. I hope women will emerge who are happy with being strong, who think and have minds and are creative leaders. I’m hoping that I am part of that change.

Reggie Have you encountered any racism?

Michaela Yes. Definitely. But I don’t think many black people, black women especially, who receive racist comments, spend the rest of their lives bogged down or affected by it. It’s just like missing a train. You’re a bit “aaaw,” but you’re not going to dwell on it because you think, “I’ve missed so many trains in my life.”

Reggie And you’re probably going to miss another train later this week!

Michaela Do you know what I mean? It’s like, “Oh, well…”

Reggie The landscape of TV has changed in the past couple of years with more female voices, like Sharon Horgan behind Catastrophe here and Lena Dunham behind Girls in America. Are you comfortable sitting alongside those names?

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Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney in Catastrophe

Michaela We’re all making work set in the day we live in and openly discussing sex and relationships in a very bold way, so yes, I’m proud to be in that group of women.

Comedy in the past hasn’t spoken to women because it wasn’t written by women, and male writers don’t make women three-dimensional characters. Too often, women just facilitate the man’s comedy; they’re not crazy, they’re not funny. But women are as vulgar as they are elegant; as stinky as they are smelling of eau de parfum.

Actually, I really hate and resent the representation of women in the media because it has meant that women like me are seen as crazy, and I’m actually not crazy. I’m just me. But the perfect image of a woman we see in magazines is a box that gives us no freedom to move. It means that women are happy to live their lives unhappy, trying to live up to this idea the media has formed of us. But I think women are starting to go, “Maybe I can be free. Maybe I can just relax.” That’s what I’m trying to contribute.

Reggie And the crowd goes wild!

Michaela The problem is, that’s what I’m doing with my show, but it’s hard, actually. Because I’m also the girl who takes 25 selfies trying to get the best one to share with the world, which I know is a contradiction. I could tell a different story, but then if you went on my Instagram you’d be like, “You’re a liar!”

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Chewing Gum series two begins tonight at 10pm on E4. Reggie Yates’s new documentary, Hidden Australia, is available on BBC3 and iPlayer later this month