By Lauren Edwards
At just 33, Michaela Coel, has achieved more than most people twice her age. She is a British actress, screenwriter, director, producer, author, poet and singer. This week she scooped a BAFTA for Best Actress for her role in the drama series I May Destroy You, which she also wrote. This is her second BAFTA, having won the BAFTA award in 2017 for Best Female Comedy Performance for her starring role in her self-penned sitcom Chewing Gum.
Michaela Ewruaba Boakye-Collinson was born in 1987 and raised in East London by her Ghanian parents, along with her older sister Jasmine. Following a secondary education in Tower Hamlets, Coel attended the University of Birmingham to study English Literature and Theology. In 2009, Coel enrolled at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama on a scholarship. As a drama graduate, she became ‘Michaela the Poet’ and performed her poetry on stage at the Hackney Empire.
Following a brief foray into writing and performing music, Coel performed in her one-woman play, Chewing Gum Dreams, that she had written whilst at Guildhall, on stage at the Bush Theatre in London. In 2014, Channel 4 commissioned Coel to rewrite it for television as the sitcom Chewing Gum.
Generally when projects come out, my habit is to run away to a country where it isn’t airing, because I think I struggle with that bit of things, so I tend to go somewhere to hide for a little bit.
Coel went on to appear in numerous acting roles, including Black Mirror and Top Boy. During this time, whilst writing the second series of Chewing Gum, Coel went out for a drink with a friend and woke up the next morning, experiencing flashbacks, realising that her drink had been spiked and that she had been sexually assaulted. She transferred this awful experience into a script and created the drama I May Destroy You, which launched on BBC1 and HBO in America in June 2020.
During her BAFTA speech on Sunday, she thanked Ita O’Brien, the intimacy director, who she said had made a safe space so that work can be made without exploitation, loss of respect, abuse of power, without being exploited or abused in the process.
Coel was initially offered a $1 million deal from Netflix to televise I May Destroy You on their network, but when faced with the prospect of signing away the copyright to her story, she turned down their generous offer and offered it to the BBC instead.
There was just silence on the phone and the Netflix development executive said that ‘it’s not how we do things here. Nobody does that, it’s not a big deal.’ I said, ‘if it’s not a big deal, then I’d really like to have five percent of my rights.’
When you have a CV as impressive as Coel’s, where does she go from here? Well, she is about to became an author with the release of her debut book, Misfits: A Personal Manifesto, which will cover topics she has experienced as a young black woman making her way in the television industry, as well as her sexual assault. She is also developing a new series for the BBC. The future is most definitely bright.
The term misfits takes on dual notions; a misfit is one who looks at life differently. Many however, are made into misfits because life looks at them differently; the UK’s black, Asian, and ginger communities for example … The term can be cross-generational and crosses concepts of gender or culture, simply by a desire for transparency, a desire to see another’s point of view. Misfits who visibly fit in will sometimes find themselves merging with the mainstream, for a feeling of safety.