Spotlight No 2: Michaela Coel
Mar 08, 2021 | Tim Marshall
Before the age of 30, Michaela Coel came to international prominence with the creation of the E4 series Chewing Gum, later streamed on Netflix. Written entirely by Coel, the series traverses the coming-of-age story of Tracey, a highly sheltered, highly religious character seeking sexual liberation while still living at home with her conservative family. The comedy-drama is a bold delight, but more importantly, it has resonated with a generation of Black women who have not seen themselves on screen.
Quickly becoming a celebrated media figure, Coel was the youngest woman to deliver the keynote address at the Edinburgh International Television Festival in 2018, and the first Black speaker in the festival’s history.
Coel began identifying as aromantic in 2018, after stumbling across the term on the internet, like so many before and after her. On being aromatic, Coel says:
“If you tell me to dress up nicely because we’re going to go to a dinner with candles, it’s not going to mean a lot to me. It’s a waste of money and I have ingredients at home. Things like weddings and the expense of these things — I would rather settle for the rest of my life with a person… I am OK being by myself. I like having intimate relationships but I don’t want to change people or want to be changed by anyone. Diamond rings don’t make me happy. Flowers don’t make me smile. I can’t smell them. I don’t have a sense of smell. I want to know who you are.”
Born in 1987, Coel grew up on an estate in Tower Hamlets in east London, with her Ghanaian immigrant mother and sister, surrounded by the cultures and characters who influenced her TV show Chewing Gum. She would later recall how after entering the media industry, she would often find herself in rooms where she was the only person who looked like her and felt great anxiety. Coel grew up watching TV, and didn’t think working in media was possible for her due to the overwhelming absence of Black and working-class characters.
As a young adult, Coel started studying English Literature and Theology at the University of Birmingham, but eventually moved toward performing arts, enrolling in drama school at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. While at Guildhall, she experienced racist verbal attacks by fellow students and was described as ‘the elephant in the room’ by the head of the school.
While wading through these challenges, she began performing poetry at open mic nights in London, going by the name Michaela The Poet. Although she knew poetry was her calling, she reflected later that it was initially a disappointment to her mother, saying, “it’s very scary when you then see your child on nothing, just writing poetry. Now my mum is my biggest fan, and she makes my dresses. She’s very proud and embracing and supportive of my kind of quirkiness.”
In the mid-2010s, Coel began working on capturing her experiences in what would become her first TV masterpiece, Chewing Gum. Based on her 2012 play Chewing Gum Dreams, the process was not easy, as the pilot script went through 41 drafts before it reached TV screens. Being faced with a long list of white collaborators who weren’t sure how to publish her vision, Coel persisted in the pursuit of Black media representation.
After airing, Chewing Gum earned her a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award for Best Female Comedy Performance in 2016 and one for Breakthrough Talent for her screenwriting, also receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews in the U.S. once streamed on Netflix.
Aside from Chewing Gum, Coel has flexed her acting muscle in projects like Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Black Mirror, also releasing two albums of original music. Her most recent project is the groundbreaking series I May Destroy You, chronicling the experience of a woman working to rebuild her life after being sexually assaulted. Drawing on personal experience for the project, Coel wrote, directed, and produced the series. Continuing her success of Chewing Gum, I May Destroy You became one of the highest critically rated series of 2020.
Coel is determined to keep writing and producing projects that boost representation of marginalized communities, saying “people don’t know these jobs exist – especially when you go to schools like mine. These are not options. Being a writer is not a thing. But I would plant that seed in the head of every child, especially working-class children, women of color, men of color, [and] the queer community.”
Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You are available to stream on HBO Max.
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