Ever since that TV breakthrough, Stacey has continually placed herself on the frontline to powerfully give women in vulnerable positions a voice and a platform.
Her respect for every single person she meets, from sex workers to female lifers, is nothing short of extraordinary and she still found to the time to win Strictly Come Dancing. But the press attention around her has, markedly in the last year, taken a negative turn and is remarkable in its sexist tone.
Stacey Dooley has come a long way from her 12-hour shifts as a promotions girl at Luton Airport – the job she held just before she became the queen of documentaries at 19 years old fronting the BBC documentary Blood, Sweat and T-shirts.
Here, as Stacey prepares to present the second series of Glow Up – the empowering competition series where aspiring makeup artists overcome a variety of challenges under the watchful eyes of industry legends Val Garland and Dominic Skinner – opens up about dealing with negative press, her incredible mental strength, the stories that have shaped her and why, more than ever, it’s important to listen…
Babes, how is lockdown treating you?
I can’t grumble. You know, I’ve got the kettle here, the cupboards are full, the flat’s immaculate. The flat’s never been so clean, I can’t tell you! All I do is clean, cook, clean and cook. It’s like the 1940s! But it’s week six now, I’m over it. I think, do you know what, it’s a miracle if I get out of the bed at midday. I’ve put a silk shirt on today. I’ve done my teeth. I think actually this is a massive, massive effort! I had a hair saga. My roots f**king halfway down my head. I thought, “This cannot continue.” So, my boyfriend, bless him, was by the window trying to do my hair. I just thought, “Oh, God, we’re at this point.”
Glow Up is back on BBC3! One of the things that I love about it is this strong message about celebrating beauty, whatever form it comes in, and really bringing out your beauty within. From your perspective in your own life, how has that been for you, and how has your relationship around beauty changed?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. Interestingly, when I first took Glow Up, I was getting a bit of a hassle. You know, people saying, “Why are you fronting this makeup gig? What are you? Are you a serious documentarian, are you a journalist or are you hosting reality shows?” And I’m thinking, “Well, I don’t really know why I can’t do both.” Immediately I was on their team, I was on their side, in terms of the MUAs, I was quite curious, and I could see they were so talented. But my own relationship with makeup and beauty, I fucking haven’t got a clue.
It’s a miracle I’ve got mascara on at the minute. I thought, “I can’t speak to Glamour the state I’ve been in the last couple of weeks.” I think the older you recognise it’s not the be all and end all in terms of your exterior. It sounds so cheesy, and painfully predictable, but you’d rather be beautiful inside. But I hated the way that people were quite dismissive and didn’t recognise that makeup is really important to lots of people. And I think that’s why Glow Up’s done so well, because it shows these kids and we learn a lot going through them, and then the end result’s always so impressive.
What have been some turning points in becoming at one with your own beauty and body?
I was 19 years old when I did Blood, Sweat. That’s the first time I was on telly, and my skin was a mess and I wasn’t ever done up. I remember people suddenly having an opinion, people that write in newspaper columns or whatever were talking about my looks. That’s the first time I was like, “Oh God, there’s loads of people looking at me, and I don’t know them, and they’re strangers passing judgment.” However, rock and roll or however strong you are, it does sort of chip away at you sometimes. So, then you make more of an effort, and then you just don’t care. I think now I’m 33, I think I do like to feel the part and I love it when I’m having a good skin day. Thinking about beauty is not right up there for me, although I recognise the importance of it.
We can all be judged on reductive first impressions like the way you look, the way you talk and the way you act. How has that been for you?
That was it! When I first started in telly, it was a very middle-class, middle-aged, male-dominated space, because I was doing documentaries and current affairs. So, it was very sort of beige chino! And so, the idea that I had the audacity to come in and do things in a totally different way, I think shocked a few people. Interestingly, I remember very vividly, I was in the Beeb office (BBC office) and there was an older guy there. I think I was wearing ripped jeans and he was saying something about what I was wearing, and I bit back. Then I remember thinking, “Oh, sh**, I shouldn’t have been so reactive.”
But actually, I think they sort of semi respect you for it, because they know not to come again. But I think that’s why I was just so fond of some of the MUAs, because they’ve been judged their whole lives, especially the kids that do drag. You know, just people shouting abuse at them and people just not allowing them to live their lives. I hate that. I hate the idea that they’d feel uncomfy. So, the fact that they’re celebrated in Glow Up is really cool.
Some of the press you have received over the last year has without a shadow of a doubt has been very sexist and it’s made me so angry for you and I don’t know how you have managed it. How have you dealt with that, because you seem stronger than ever?
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think whether we like to admit it or not misogyny is still alive and kicking. I think lots of people always liken me to Ross Kemp or Louis Theroux. They always say, “She’s the female version of…” Well, I’m not really the female version of anyone. I’m just me, actually. Some people really like me, and some people can’t bear me, and they don’t understand why I’m on the telly. I’m sort of all right with that. I’m sort of past caring what strangers think of me.
This again sounds really cheesy, but I think as long as you know what you stand for and what your priorities are and what’s important to you. You’d be riddled with nerves and you’d never leave the house if you placed importance on what every single person said about you. So, I think you just surround yourself with decent people and sort of live your life. I know that sounds like a f**king quote that should be hanging above some naff kitchen interior, but it’s true. That’s really what I’ve learned. There’s so much noise and there’s so much nonsense. I don’t pay it any attention.
How have you learned to shut that off?
I don’t know, because so many people I know that work in the same industry struggle with it, and they’re back and forth a lot more and they’re trying to defend themselves, understandably so. I wonder if because of what I do for a living that gives me a real perspective. I’m spending so much time in refugee camps, for example, or with women on the frontline in Syria, or remarkable individuals in Latin America that have been through hell and face real struggles and are really suffering. I think I’m not arsed what the tabloids are writing about. It’s story time. Knock yourself out, do what you want to do, because you’re so irrelevant in my world.
I do find it remarkable that I know how much goes into making a BBC documentary, for example, in terms of consent. We need written consent, verbal consent. There’s a duty of care. It needs to be checked for factual accuracy. Legal, it needs to get past legal and rightly so. So, the idea that some papers can print seemingly whatever they want, and you know it’s entirely untrue sometimes, does blow my mind in 2020. I do find it bizarre that they aren’t held accountable, but I think lots of people are starting to recognise that now.
You have incredibly bought the plight of many to the foreground with your documentaries and you’ve got the MBE to prove it, honey. But you place yourself in places of extreme dancer. What have you learned about your own mental and almost physical strength by placing yourself in such extreme situations?
I’m actually a massive wimp. I think people assume that I’m really brave and I’m really courageous because I go to these quite hostile environments, but Josh, actually I’m such a pussy so much of the time. I am sh**ting myself when I’m on the front line or when I’m not entirely sure how it’s all going to play out. I do feel sick, I think, to the pit of my stomach. I’ll think, “Oh, Stacey, you voluntarily got on the plane, you really wanted this commission, and now you’re here, you’re really frightened.” Because I could very easily just do straight entertainment, I could stay in the UK and do well-paid gigs, but I don’t think I’d feel fulfilled.
That’s not to sound too earnest or too highbrow, but I think I recognise my privilege and I think, God, we’re able to bring stories to a demographic that don’t necessarily listen to Question Time or News Night religiously. And I’ve only got to be there a couple of weeks, give these amazing women a platform, and then a couple of million people, hopefully, will watch it. Then it’s, “Oh, f**k, I didn’t know that was an issue. I didn’t know that was how things were over there,” and then they can form their own conclusions. That’s the idea. But I’m so frightened all the time.
Is there a moment or someone’s story that has stayed with you and shaped you as a person the most?
I think the Yazidi girls. I’ve been to Iraq a couple of times, spent some time in Mosel, and the Yazidi community, for whatever reason, really do have a special place in my heart. I don’t know how much you know, but in 2014 ISIS targeted them specifically. I mean, it was abhorrent. It was barbaric. Sort of systematically raped the women and killed the men. It was the stuff nightmares are made of. The girls were still so, despite they’ve gone through all of that, they were still so soft and still really girly, dignified, really progressive and tactile. I love them.
I also met a girl in Honduras years ago, Heidi. She was in a relationship and domestic violence was a real issue, and he would just treat her really appallingly. One day she said, “I’ve had enough. I’m not doing this anymore. I’m out.” And he said, “Well, you can’t walk out if you haven’t got any legs,” and he macheted both her legs off, in front of the kids, and she survived.
Weeks later, she was sat there with an NGO, she was talking to us, and she was offering us so much information because she was sick of people not being held to account and the justice system being against women. I think again, that’s perhaps why I don’t get too bogged down with the noise and the nonsense at home, because I think there’s people going through this kind of thing. F**k it!
To give people a platform and also just to have open and honest conversations is the greatest gift of all really, isn’t it?
Mm-hmm (affirmative)! And just, it’s lovely to spend time with people that you wouldn’t ordinarily go about with. I think that’s really healthy, too. Even if you fundamentally disagree with them, their politics, the way they vote, their ethics, their morals, I think it’s good to always listen to the other side and constantly question yourself, “I thought I thought this, but actually do I think that? Hadn’t seen it from that point of view before.” I love it. I really like talking to people and spending time with people.
That’s exactly what the mark of a good person is, It’s not how you argue, but how you respond to a person you disagree with?
Or even listening! It’s tempting, isn’t it, to dig your heels in? It’s good to stand up for what you believe in and for what you think is right, but also, they might have a valid point, or they might be able to offer you something that you hadn’t heard before. I don’t know.
What have you learned about the power of listening?
I think I echo what you’ve just said. Just the importance of it, and also being willing to change your mind, I think is a really beautiful trait as well. I try and practice it. Interestingly, I was making a film in a prison in Iowa a couple of months ago with lifers. I went in there and I was listening to all the women and listening to their stories and listening to what they’ve done. And some of the crimes, I think was born out of circumstance, it’s circumstantial, but others, just seemingly, they were quite evil. There was one woman who had slit… this is all quite morbid… but she had slit both the kids’ throats. And I sat and listened for about 15 minutes. We didn’t end up including her or actually interviewing her, because I thought, “I just can’t be totally objective.” So, she didn’t end up in the film, even though the crime was so shocking.
How do you stay mentally strong when you listen to stories like that? How has your relationship with your mental strength changed throughout your career?
I do think I am mentally strong, and I recognise how important it is to look after yourself. I think it’s very admirable when you are struggling or you’re having a wobble to say, “F**k it, I need a bit of help.” I would never be against that. People always say to me, “Have you had therapy? Do you speak to someone after all of these trips?” And I haven’t, actually. I’ve been offered it a couple of times, but I haven’t rejected it because I’m this fierce, strong woman and I can handle this. Actually, if I needed to speak to anyone, I think it’s really brave when you say, “Actually, I need a bit of help.” But I think just looking after yourself, surrounding yourself with people that you love and you trust and you rate keeps you balanced and it keeps you on the right track.
Do you think your therapy comes from interviewing and meeting these people?
Well, I find it quite cathartic. I quite like sitting down with people and listening to what’s going on for them. It’s funny, when you’re on location it’s like your life doesn’t really exist. It’s almost on the back burner, isn’t it?
What is so incredible about listening to you is it’s so evident how much of a grafter you are…
Yeah, that is true. I haven’t got many skills, but I’ve got a decent work ethic. I think with Glow Up you’re filming 14- 15 hours a day. When the girls are in tears or when one of the lads has run out and he’s feeling a bit panicked, you have to go and give them a bit pep talk. You know, “You can do this. You’ve been doing makeup for years. That cut crease is going to be amazing.” I’m using all the ling, now! But if I’ve said yes to something then I’m in it. I think that’s the only way to do things, I think.
Given everything you’ve done and all you’ve achieved, if you were on a Zoom call right now with the 19-year-old self, starting out in telly, what would you want to tell her?
Wow. I would say try your best. Work really hard. Work out who’s in charge of the tea deliveries, because you want to pal up with them. I would say don’t place too much emphasis on what strangers are going to think of you, and just be honest about what you’re seeing and what you believe and what you think. Don’t be afraid to offer opinion but listen. Enjoy it. Have a good time That’s the thing, as well. When I started doing telly, I came from working at Luton Airport. I was selling perfume and makeup, interestingly – I was a promotions girl. So, I’ve gone full circle, really. But I was working, 6AM till 6PM, on like £10 an hour or whatever. Then I started doing television – so it’s like, “what a beautiful touch!”