Chewing Gum’s Michaela Coel: ‘I enjoy making people uncomfortable’

As the TV comedy returns for a second series, its Bafta-winning creator talks about bullying, evangelical Christianity, and how she ended up in a sex club

Like Her Majesty, the Queen – a woman she is not habitually compared to – Michaela Coel has two birthdays. The actor-writer-showrunner’s regulation one is in October, and she’s had 29 of those. A more recent innovation is her “artistic birthday”, which falls on 22 May. It recognises the first time she did anything creative, which in her case was to write a poem. By this calendar, she’s 10 years old.

So, how does she celebrate? Does she throw a party? “Normally I’m by myself, writing somewhere,” she says, before exploding into a honking laugh. “So I celebrate it by crying loads!”

The story of how that teenager became the Coel sat opposite me in a Soho restaurant, who in 2016 won two Bafta awards (breakthrough talent and best female performance in a comedy) for her E4 sitcom, Chewing Gum, is a strange, brilliant and, I’m going to venture, unprecedented one. A decade ago she was an evangelical Pentecostal Christian who lived on an estate in east London with her mother and sister. She had a mohican, practised celibacy and tried to convert everyone she met. She was pretty successful too: she had grown up in a household that “definitely believed in God” but didn’t attend services; now she brought her family and then-boyfriend into the church, though her hardline stance did alienate most of her school friends. She wrote her first poem one afternoon after reading the Bible, inspired by the language of the Psalms and Proverbs. She performed it a few days later at a poetry cafe in Ealing.

Coel is not religious now – though her mother, sister and ex-boyfriend still are – something that becomes clear pretty quickly during the first series of Chewing Gum, which aired in October 2015. The central character is an unworldly 24-year-old called Tracey Gordon (played by Coel) from a Pentecostal background who decides to leave the church and fast-track her missed adolescence. Specifically she wants to lose her virginity. She is guided on this quest by her best friend Candice (“A Tinder bang ain’t even a bus fare, bro”) and her idol, Beyoncé. At one point, Tracey prays to a poster of the singer on the wall of her bedroom: “I need the strength you had to switch from R&B to hip-hop when they doubted you – Amen.”

Watch clips from season one of Chewing Gum.

The show is rude, fearless and uncensored – also stunningly observed and very funny. And somehow it manages to skewer hellfire-and-damnation religion while at the same time showing much fondness for it. “I wasn’t really doing anything artistic before,” says Coel. “It was absolutely becoming a Christian, 100%, and that’s why every year I celebrate that day. It reminds me that I can do whatever I want, because it was a big deal to leave Christianity. Especially because I was known as a Christian poet. I was on stage at Wembley Arena at gospel events, so it’s a big deal to suddenly go, ‘I’m going to have sex with guys, I’m going to write TV shows about this stuff and I’m going to be this person.’”

Chewing Gum, which returns for a second series this week, is both deeply autobiographical and not. Even Coel can’t work out if Tracey is exactly like her or the total opposite. It’s particularly hard to decipher today over lunch: Coel wears a buttoned-up shirt and a prim, knitted jumper; her posture is ramrod straight and the effect is of a fashionable librarian. Very Tracey. She squeals with shock when I point this out: “Oh my God, I mean look at me now! That’s not on purpose. I didn’t dress like that before, that’s hilarious. The idea with Tracey is that she’s a child in the head, so a lot of her costumes are quite childlike.”

Coel glances down at the banquette she is sitting on. “Oh God!” she exclaims. “I’ve got a fucking backpack, like a fucking kid!”

Where Tracey and Coel clearly do overlap is that they are magnets for a certain kind of misadventure, often sexual. One example: in the new series Tracey finds herself in a sex club – the fancy Eyes Wide Shut kind, where single women and couples submit a photograph, pay a fee and are invited to an orgiastic party where everyone wears masks. This, naturally, was inspired by something that happened to Coel, not long after she had renounced Christianity.

“It was just a weird experience for someone like me, who is not that way inclined,” she recalls, sipping a herbal tea, ignoring her celery and apple salad. “It’s like being in a weird zoo, it’s very odd, and everybody is a certain way, and I’m just not that way.”

How did she wind up in a sex club then? “Well, I’m massively open-minded to pretty much anything,” Coel replies. “So I thought, ‘I’ll go for the experience and because my boyfriend really wants to, because obviously I’m not doing a very good job!’”

She erupts into laughter again. “So, really, it was because of my boyfriend I went, because if you go to a sex club it’s gotta be because you want to have sex with people, and I just want to have sex with my boyfriend. So it’s hard… We’re not together any more.”

The plotline is a hint that the new batch of Chewing Gum episodes are not going all vanilla on us. If anything, Coel felt even more daring this time. “I know it’s hard for people to imagine, but I do have a line – I do have a rude line,” she smiles. “And I would say my toes are over the line with that episode. I can’t pretend it’s not. It’s a little bit much. This is the truth. All I can hope is that people forgive me, ha ha! And, you know, just stay with me, ha ha! Because it’s a bit much even for me.

“But I enjoy making people uncomfortable. For me, I don’t want to write a show that doesn’t make people uncomfortable. I don’t think I know how to write a show that doesn’t make people uncomfortable.”

As I say, Coel doesn’t often overlap with the Queen. “Yeah,” she says, “it so happens that my life is very colourful.”

‘Colourful life’: Michaela Coel in the second series of Chewing Gum.
‘Colourful life’: Michaela Coel in the second series of Chewing Gum. Photograph: Mark Johnson

Coel’s colourful life began in 1987 as Michaela Ewuraba Boakye-Collinson; her Ghanaian parents separated before she was born. Her mother started out as a cleaner but studied for a degree after hours, then a master’s in psychology, and now she’s a mental health nurse in the NHS. “She’s a superhero,” says Coel. “She’s a single mum and the odds were set against her. She worked very hard. She worked Christmas Day, and she taught me how to cook aged 10 because she wouldn’t be there. But at the same time she smothered me and my sister with love.”

Their home was a council flat in Aldgate, and Coel continues to live in the area – “an eight-minute walk from where I grew up” – in a house-share with three other people she hadn’t known previously. “Growing up, there was no reserve in my house – it was always the three of us, very free,” says Coel. “Which means that now I live with three housemates and it’s the same. I’m a piss-with-the-door-open kind of girl and they are slowly becoming used to that, so it’s good.”

Race was never especially an issue in Coel’s upbringing but class was, and she reflects that in Chewing Gum – Candice, the best friend, is mixed race and Tracey’s boyfriend, Connor, is white; the characters contend with lack of money and opportunities. The fictional Pensbourne estate is meant to be realistic but Coel was adamant that, aesthetically and spiritually, it should not be a depressing place. There’s a strong community and no one bemoans their bad luck. She intentionally shoots the series during summer, and there is often an alluring, sun-dappled patina on the high-rise flats.

Her own primary school was a sweet Catholic institution, but her all-girls secondary school was something else. “The first day, the open day, I saw a girl smash a girl’s head through a window,” she recalls. “In fact, that’s probably where I got a bit crazy. I was talking to a girl who was in my year, and she said, ‘Yeah, that’s why we’re crazy, because of the school we went to. It was nuts!’ And it was nuts. To come from a little Catholic primary school and to witness that, I was like: ‘Where the fuck am I?’ It’s inspired much of my work since.”

Coel can be unsparingly self-deprecating about her own looks, and this dates from that time. Chewing Gum characters refer to Tracey’s “goggly eyes” and “dangly boobs”. Her ex-boyfriend says she has “lips the size of a boat, two boats that crashed into each other… killing everyone”.

“I’ve been bullied about my appearance since for ever,” says Coel. “I’d been getting bullied by these girls in the year above me. I used to play clarinet and they’d come into the music room and lock the door and bully me for ages. They’d just be cussing me, many cusses that I now use for my own fucking TV show. I’d be standing there, trying not to cry, trying not to cry… and then it would break me.

“Then one day I saw the main bully in the corridor and she was on the phone, looking stressed. For some reason I said to her: ‘Aww, you look upset, do you want a hug?’ And she said something like, ‘Oh fuck you! I bet the hardest part of your mum’s pregnancy was pushing out your lips.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it was a really intense labour.’

“And that was the day I was, like, ‘I’m just going to take the piss out of myself. I quite like this!’ Also, there’s something liberating in the fact that I navigated my way through life because of who I was and I had friends because I was funny. I wasn’t part of that whole shallow girls with handbags and stuff. I escaped that.”

Coel did well enough in her exams: “It was a largely black school and, especially when you’re African, your parents tell you that you need to work hard or you’re going to die, basically.”

Watch Michaela Coel’s Bafta acceptance speech.

She got a place at university to study English but nothing stuck until she won a scholarship to Guildhall School of Music and Drama in central London. It was around this time that she stopped going to church, after an intense five years of discipleship, having lost the conviction that her new friends at Guildhall, many of whom were gay, needed saving from something.

A 15-minute monologue called Chewing Gum Dreams was her graduation piece, in which she took to the stage as a hormonal 14-year-old Tracey. It started on the fringe at Hackney Wick’s Yard theatre then transferred to the Shed at the National. A production company took notice and suggested Coel rewrite it as a sitcom. She had never been a comedy nerd – growing up, she’d watched Moesha and Kenan & Kel, mainly because it was one place to find black people on TV. But she decided to try, and, 41 drafts later, she had the first episode of Chewing Gum.

Please tell me you don’t still write 41 drafts! “It’s gotten easier, yeah,” says Coel. “But the process of writing is stressful and ageing, very ageing. Every time I do this show it’s like I age 15 years. There’s times when I’m crying because I’m feeling, ‘Oh my God, my heart, I can feel her heart.’ Then I’ll be crying because what I’m writing is shit. And, if I’m being honest, I probably shouldn’t say so, but there’s absolutely times when I sit there in a cafe grinning from ear to ear.”

The first series of Chewing Gum has had a slow-burn longevity. Although underappreciated originally on E4, it received a boost when Coel and the show were up for three Baftas in May last year, and won two. Another surge, and a global following, came when it moved on to Netflix last autumn, with the New York Times naming it among its best TV shows of 2016.

“It hasn’t disappeared yet, has it?” says Coel. “It’s the gift that keeps on giving!” A waitress appears and lights a candle. “A candle!” Coel exclaims. “I kind of don’t like it.” She blows it out.

“I think people saw a show that a) was on E4, which is quite a small channel; then b) you’ve got a black female protagonist; and c) it’s on a council estate and everyone’s poor. Then people can assume that it’s not for them. What the Baftas did, which I’m really grateful for, is that it made people go, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ But it’s a shame people need that.”

Coel’s career is inevitably elided with other female writer-performers on TV, such as Sharon Horgan, Lena Dunham and Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who also transferred work from theatre, and she understands that connection. She was a fan of Horgan’s Catastrophe (“one of very few shows that every week I was at home at the time and put it on”) and Waller-Bridge’s Crashing (“fucking genius”) but she struggles to see a deeper, intrinsic link. “I can appreciate and love the work but it doesn’t mean that I identify with them as writers, no,” she says. “What dominates my life isn’t the fact that I started off doing theatre. It’s probably to do with Christianity, my race, the class I was born into. These are the things that make my work. They make who I am as well.”

Having also appeared in Aliens on E4 and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, Coel finds she is recognised a lot more these days, and it slightly perturbs her. “I appreciate and will hold on to as long as I can the smallness of my life,” she says. “I still live a very small life now. I live with three strangers in a house-share. My life hasn’t changed much. I don’t really go out. I only really meet people on the internet, and those people I’m not going to now meet in real life just because they’ve got a blue tick on their Twitter name.

“I’m sure some people with blue ticks are really nice people,” she continues. “But I can’t keep kissing frogs. So I’d rather just value the people I have now, and I’m sure, organically, I will meet people on jobs. But I don’t like drinks at receptions, I hate all that stuff. I’ve also got a lot of social anxiety.”

Not long ago Coel engaged a therapist to help her with the transition into the blue-tick world. “Yeah, it can be really hard: I’ve gone from waiting for calls for work to, like, whoa! And that can be intense.”

So it’s not revisiting-childhood counselling then? “No, no, it’s not childhood stuff,” she says. “It’s now! I basically don’t have a life. That’s the key. I work so much and I take on too many projects at one time because luckily I’m in a position where great things are thrown at me. I didn’t know I was going to write for TV until I was suddenly writing for TV, so that kind of stuff can bewilder you. And in order for me to stay healthy and stay grounded, I have therapy.”

During one session Coel spoke about a boyfriend and how frustrating she found it that she always had to make compromises in her relationships. Her therapist suggested she was sounding like a narcissist and she really wanted to go out with herself. “I was like, ‘Well, in a way, yes,’” she says, with a broad smile. “I know many people wouldn’t admit that but it would be a lot easier if I was with someone who wanted to wake up when I want to wake up. Who wants to have sex when I want to have sex. Who wants the exact same things. But it’s not possible.”

Coel, who is currently single, has decided she can only go out with someone who has no idea who she is – which, of course, could be increasingly problematic.

“Yeah, I know this will sound a bit ridiculous and probably I’ll change my mind, but really my work is such a big part of my life, and I might be OK just living my life with a vibrator, if I’m honest with you. I have a vibrator, I have some mates, and I watch TV – I’m getting to the point now where it doesn’t sound bad to me. I like making work and it doesn’t sound crazy to me to dedicate my life to doing that. And when I’m dead, this stuff still exists and not a lot of other things do.

“I see these shows as my children – absolutely compare it, 100%. When we wrap on the shoot, I’m a mess. I’m crying. I don’t see anyone. I stay in my trailer. Everybody’s out there having drinks, celebrating – I’m crying! Like I’ve given birth, it’s such a big deal. Then at the press screening it’s like, ‘Oh my God, my child is going to school.’ It takes up a lot of my everything.”

Does the pressure diminish with season two? “Well, very much like having your second child, you panic less. You’re a bit less, ‘Oh no, we’ve got to make sure there’s no GM foods’ or whatever. Now it’s, ‘I’ve done the first one, she survived, I survived, I’m sure this one will be fine.’”

This is Coel: forthright, unpredictable, an authentic one-off. Our time is up now; almost every minute of 2017 is already assigned to writing or acting projects that she can’t talk about yet. She’s taking over the world, I suggest.

“Nah.” She shakes her head. “It’s funny – there’s a line in the first series where Tracey says to her sister, Cynthia, ‘What do you want from life?’ And Cynthia says, ‘Nothing.’ It’s not that I want nothing, but I don’t need more. So I don’t look ahead, going, ‘I’m going to be that.’ I’m very happy, very grateful for the life I’ve got now.”

Chewing Gum returns on 12 January, E4, at 10pm


Tim Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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