Stacey Dooley: tenacious film-maker turned Strictly champion

Dooley was widely admired for her hard-hitting documentaries before anyone knew she could dance

It has been more than a decade since Stacey Dooley was plucked from her job at Luton airport’s duty free makeup section to join five other young fashion-loving Brits toiling alongside Indian factory labourers for the BBC Three series Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts.

Shock was rawly evident on the face of the then 20-year-old, who campaigned against child labour on her return home before her first documentary was commissioned by Danny Cohen, then controller at BBC Three. The channel has since aired investigations by Dooley into everything from Mexico’s drug war to the sexualisation of Japanese girls. Cohen, who went on to be the BBC’s director of television, had advised her to eschew a conventional journalistic persona in favour of her own natural empathy.

Fast forward 10 years to exposure of a very different kind in the form of her victory in this year’s Strictly Come Dancing on BBC One and it’s clear Dooley’s ability to connect with as big an audience as it gets on terrestrial television makes her a force to be reckoned with. At a time when young, female faces from working-class backgrounds are at a premium in television, not least at the BBC, the broadcasting world is her oyster after years of building up a dedicated fanbase among younger viewers.

“She is just very warm and creates a very human connection with interviewees,” said David Fuller, a journalist and film-maker who has worked with Dooley on productions including 2016’s investigation into the Russian sex trade. “She was already a kind of celebrity at that point. I haven’t watched Strictly so I don’t know if she has shown this, but she is also very self-aware and very amusing. She would joke from time to time and point at herself, saying: ‘Face of a generation, Dave, face of a generation’.”

Dooley’s own wry self-deprecation about her marketability aside, casting this year’s winner of the BBC’s flagship entertainment show as a breakout star is somewhat off the mark. But while some ask: “Where has she come from?” the BBC Three controller, Damian Kavanagh, speaks glowingly of a talent that he says has been “developing and growing for some time”.

Still from Stacey Dooley Investigates: Kids Selling Drugs Online.
Still from Stacey Dooley Investigates: Kids Selling Drugs Online. Photograph: BBC/Time Inc UK Ltd

“We have worked with a lot of people who have come through a non-traditional route” – [rapper] Professor Green [who presented a film about suicide for BBC Three] is another – so it’s quite odd when people ask that, because she has made nearly 60 films.”

Strictly Come Dancing attracted a peak of 12.7 million viewers for Saturday night’s final as Dooley and her professional partner, Kevin Clifton, emerged as the people’s champions in a vote following three months of competition. Despite scoring lower among the judges than fellow finalists Ashley Roberts and Faye Tozer – both of whom have music backgrounds – Dooley had been widely tipped as favourite alongside the fourth finalist, YouTube star Joe Sugg.

Her reply to to the question of how she planned to celebrate was classic Dooley: “Go to McDonald’s. I’m starving,” as was a subsequent tweet that made light of a so-called “wardrobe malfunction”.

“I’ve won Strictly and flashed my knickers. A perfect Sat night,” she told her more than 234,000 followers.

To fans, it’s the type of language that reflects her down to earth Luton roots, a town to which she returned in 2013 to make a documentary about extremism, at one point interviewing the far right figure Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – who calls himself Tommy Robinson – whom she spoke of knowing when growing up.

Dooley, who left school at 16, is spoken of by broadcasting colleagues as being instinctively “streetwise”, an asset also seemingly married with steely determination.

“She is tenacious and she is charming,” said one, who spoke of Dooley catching malaria while shooting in the early days of her career in the Ivory Coast, returning again after recovering in the UK.

“She can charm her way out of trouble or into wherever she needs to be, whether it’s with the driver of the jeep, a shy 12-year-old interviewee or a menacing government official.”

Dooley spoke of her own candid style during an interview with the Observer: “You have to be brave and ask the questions on the tip of your tongue. Sometimes, you’re cringeing inside. But you can’t have people screaming at the screen the question you didn’t have the balls to ask.”

Fashion’s Dirty Secrets: Stacey Dooley Investigates.
Fashion’s Dirty Secrets: Stacey Dooley Investigates. Photograph: Olivia Strong/BBC/Hello Halo

A more cynical reading among some industry watchers has, meanwhile, viewed this year’s Strictly, and previous episodes of ITV’s I’m a Celebrity… as a classic tactic to introduce potential future stars into the mainstream.

It’s a view at odds with the reality of Dooley’s appeal as told by Kavanagh, who said she has “a whole tranche of fans who are literally waiting for a new documentary by her to drop on iPlayer”.

“It’s also subject matter [she covers] that you probably would not think might appeal to [those] groups. Quite chewy stuff,” he said, citing Dooley’s live shows as another example of her appeal.

“I went to one in London a few months ago and it was basically packed to the rafters with young men and women who were in thrall to her as she spoke, and when there were questions afterwards, every one of them started off by telling her how much she had changed their lives.”

While Dooley’s next steps will be closely watched, Kavanagh pointed out that she has already worked on a number of films for BBC One and has further titles on the way with BBC Three. Her appeal has been clear for some time. Last year’s documentary on young DUP members – suddenly relevant again to UK politics – was one of the most-watched programmes for a period last year on iPlayer, as visible a gauge of popularity as one might find.

Will success change her? The bets are very much against that happening. “She is basically extremely down to earth and decent,” added Fuller.

“In fact, the only difficulty we had in Russia with her was that she didn’t like using the lift. You could read into that what you will, but the truth is that she is claustrophobic.”


Ben Quinn

The GuardianTramp

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