Michaela Coel is a tough act to follow… literally. Due to her hectic schedule, I finally catch up with her in early-March, during a brief bout of downtime for a Skype interview after about a month of playing e-mail tag. I’m also on literal downtime, as I tuck in a quiet, carpeted corner of our office to sit and talk to this magnetic up-and-comer.
Ever the busy bee, Coel, adorned in periwinkle overalls and a tan shirt, explains that she is trying to be mindful of the pace for our chat, as she’s getting ready to run off again—this time, for a date.
“It’s so rare for me! I’ve spent, like, three hours trying to figure out how to be a person who goes on a date,” she says while smiling and touching her center-parted onyx bomb, which gets shaved off just two days later for her turn as single mother Simone in the forthcoming musical film, Been So Long. Her effervescent personality shoots straight through my Macbook Pro, and our laid-back conversation makes it feel like we’re not a computer screen, five hours and a continent away, but face-to-face, yucking it up. All the chasing was worth it.
"I'm black, I'm dark and I'm f**king beautiful. My skin is gorgeous, I love myself, people with good eyesight love me too, and the rest of the world can f**k themselves." —Michaela Coel
The 29-year-old screenwriter and actress hails from London, where her comedy sitcom Chewing Gum recently started its second season. The show made its way into global consciousness after it nabbed a deal with Netflix, and Season Two will drop on the streaming service April 4. Although Chewing Gum is relatively new on television (it first aired in late-2015), it has earned Coel not one, but two BAFTA Awards: Best Female Performance In A Comedy Programme and Breakthrough Talent for writing the show.
“I mean, it's quite mad actually,” Coel says in her charmingly raspy English accent, regarding the success of her hit show. “It's quite mad how people seem to get the show the way I wanted them to get it. I get messages from people that break down the show to me, and I'm like, ‘You get the show as if you wrote it,’ and that's amazing. It's been really cool.”
The aforementioned sitcom is based off of Coel’s one-woman play Chewing Gum Dreams, which is named in reference to a symbolically dark poem about London’s working-class. As Coel explains of the poem, citizens are portrayed as Hooded Angels who are unable to balance the different aspects of their lives, and as a result, everything falls and splatters to the ground like chewing gum.
The show tells the story of Tracey Gordon, a chaste 24-year-old shop clerk living in an underdeveloped London housing estate, who is ready to become more worldly and swipe her V-card. However, Tracey’s family of militant Christians and her own unfamiliarity with anything remotely sexy complicates her endeavors, yielding hilarious results. In the first season, viewers are introduced to Connor, an enthusiastic-yet-dreadful poet who becomes Tracey’s romantic interest; her best friend Candice, a BDSM enthusiast who is a fervent supporter of Tracey’s sexcapades; and an ex-flame named Ronald, who is harboring a secret of his own. Coel excitably assures that the second season will bring more in-depth storylines for series regulars like Candice and Grandma Esther, the official introduction of a secondary character named Ola and, of course, the crude humor fans have come to love from the show.
Chewing Gum doesn’t hold back on the abundance of OMG-moments, which aim to challenge the stereotypes of Christianity and sexuality. In the first scene of Season One, we find Ronald and Tracey praying. As Ronald passionately promises God that he and Tracey will wait until marriage (or “until they die”) to have sex, Tracey fantasizes about gettin’ it on. In another hilariously cringe-worthy moment, Tracey finally gets alone time with Connor, and tries to kiss him virtually everywhere before an unsuccessful attempt to “sit on his face.” While the comedy has supporters all over the world, Coel assures that not everyone is ready for a TV series where absolutely nothing is off-limits.
“Those who get the show, get the show, and then I think [for] other people, it's way too vulgar and disgusting,” the former self-proclaimed “super-Christian” explains. “But really, I have never wanted it any other way. I’m not afraid to comment [on sex and religion]. I think you just have to do you, whatever that is, and not feel like you have to be a certain way for other people to like you. That's bullsh*t.”
Another important aspect of Chewing Gum is that it displays race and class differences without making them the central focus of the series. Both are unspoken, but never unnoticed. Tracey’s love-interest Connor is a white man, while Esther, a white woman, is the grandmother of Candice, a black woman.
The characters also live in an area that, financially, isn’t too well off. Coel was raised in London's Tower Hamlets in a similarly styled residential area to that of the Chewing Gum universe, where she faced economic hardships growing up. Her experiences in her hometown are one of the major inspirations for the show.
“There's loads of different cultures,” she explains of her old neighborhood. “There's loads of different people from different countries, but at the same time, it's not a very happy area. Chewing Gum is kind of like the world I wish I grew up in. There wasn't really a sense of community growing up. You [also] don't see working-class black people being happy on TV.”
The show also taught Coel valuable lessons as a relatively new comedy writer. Before the show, she primarily penned poems, songs and plays, so she explains that she was “aiming in the dark" when she was first tasked with writing a sitcom.
“I didn't write a pilot, there wasn't a pilot for Chewing Gum. I did, like, two five-minute scenes. I did 41 drafts of my first episode,” she notes as I clutch my chest, feeling sympathy for her and the writer’s struggle.
“Oh it was hell. It was absolutely hell,” she continues as her oval-shaped eyes widen. “I had never done scripts. I hadn't written in commercial breaks. The stories were all there, they were just in the wrong place. It was like a really long, two-hour film. I had to learn how to write episodic. My friend was like, ‘Use a script editor, shows normally have a script editor.’ So I was like, ‘Um, excuse me? Can I have a script editor?’ [laughs]… This was, like, six weeks before we f**king shot it.” This situation taught her how comedy is structured in a different fashion than that of a poem or play, and she wrote the script in more of her “natural” style and rhythm for season two of the show.
"It's just a constant reminder that I can come to this party, but it's not my party. I've been allowed in. This is not my home, and I don't really have a real space here.” —Michaela Coel
Of course, Coel got the hang of comedy writing, and she was awarded with a BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Academy Awards) for penning Chewing Gum. During her acceptance speech, where she wore a Kente cloth dress made by her mother, Michaela made sure to speak directly to young women of color, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams with unabashed confidence.
“If there’s anyone out there that looks a bit like me, or just feels a little bit out of place just trying to get into performing,” she emotionally proclaimed, “you are beautiful, embrace it. You are intelligent, embrace it. You are powerful, embrace it.”
Chewing Gum’s goofily lovable heroine Tracey portrays black self-love and acceptance in her own wacky-yet-captivating way.
“[Tracey is] a black, dark-skinned woman, who is just being free and crazy, and she's vulnerable, and she's funny, and she's cute, she's endearing and she's messed up,” Coel says. According to her, there is a need for more “nearly invisible” black characters on television who represent the imperfect woman and their navigation through life.
“I don't see it on TV enough, and that's why I made the character,” she continues. “If I wasn't black, I would have wrote that part for a black person and cast someone else. I want people to watch it and to feel liberated and do whatever they want.”
Black female creatives like Coel, The Chi’s creator Lena Waithe and Coel’s close friend, Insecure’s “super dope” Issa Rae, have gone over massive hurdles to create television shows and films featuring characters who are relatable to one of television’s most important demographics. However, Coel says the entertainment industry itself still couldn’t be further from the finish line when it comes to inclusion and acceptance.
“Being a dark-skinned woman right now is interesting. It is really, really interesting,” she says as her brows furrow and the energetic tone in her voice shifts to something more serious. “At awards shows, you win an award, right? And you get your gift bag, and it's like M.A.C makeup or something, and it's all for white people. You get tanning lotion, white people's foundation, and it's just a constant reminder that I can come to this party, but it's not my party. I've been allowed in. This is not my home, and I don't really have a real space here.”
Despite the ever-apparent racial struggles within the industry, Coel continues to look on the bright side, and assures me nothing is going to deter her from chasing her dreams and creating compellingly colorful content like Chewing Gum. Nothing will steer her away from being unapologetically true to herself, either.
“[Marginalization] is what breeds creativity, it's what inspires us,” she says as her broad smile reappears. “I can't be mad about it because I'm black, I'm dark and I'm f**king beautiful. My skin is gorgeous, I love myself, people with good eyesight love me too, and the rest of the world can f**k themselves. I’m gonna have a little dark-skinned party over here. I'll have a good time!”
Chew on that.