There’s barely a day goes by in which Stacey Dooley doesn’t ask herself: How did I get here?
Whether embedded on the frontline in the war against ISIS in Iraq, dodging Columbian narcos in remote Amazonian villages or travelling through lawless southern Mexico, where they cut off the heads of journalists and leave them at bus stops as a warning, it’s all a very long way from her days on the duty free perfume counter at Luton Airport.
‘Sometimes you’re having the highest moments, the most incredible experiences,’ the 30-year-old tells Weekend. ‘And other times you feel incredibly vulnerable, or devastated, or scared. It’s both extremes, and nearly every day at work I’ll find myself thinking, “What on earth is going on? How did I get into this situation?”’
Over the past 10 years, Dooley has fronted more than 60 documentaries, mostly for BBC Three, with such arresting titles as Kids with Machetes, Girls, Guns and ISIS and Mums Selling Their Kids for Sex.
But growing up in Luton, she never had any ambitions to work in television, let alone put herself in the line of fire in some of the world’s most hostile trouble spots. By her own admission, her main interests were shopping, holidays and clothes – which is what prompted her mum to pick up a leaflet from a TV production company looking for ‘young consumers obsessed with fast, throwaway fashion’.
As a result, the 19-year-old was picked to take part in the documentary Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, travelling to India and working 18-hour days in hot, dirty factories and sweatshops making cheap clothes destined for the British high street. On a visit to Asia’s largest slum, she met starving children, some of them still being forced to work with broken bones, and the reality of life for millions of people around the world hit her ‘like a tonne of bricks’.
‘That was the trip that changed everything for me,’ she says. ‘I’d never been to Asia, never seen real desperation or poverty. India changed my life, no question.’
As well as a political awakening – when she turned 20, she sent her birthday money to an Indian orphanage – the programme led to an unexpected proposition. Impressed by her performance on Blood, Sweat and T-shirts, BBC Three controller Danny Cohen offered her her own series.
And so it was that Dooley – now holding down three jobs as barmaid, shop assistant and part-time TV reporter – found herself on the Ivory Coast making a film about child labour. Or at least she did until she contracted malaria and had to be airlifted to hospital in Ghana.
‘I just remember feeling so bloody ill,’ she recalls. ‘I thought, “There’s no way I can have malaria, on my first job – that would just be too unlucky.”’ Failing to respond to treatment, she became very poorly indeed. ‘To be honest, though, I was more worried about not jeopardising this chance I’d been given,’ she says. ‘And I didn’t want anyone telling my mum, ‘cos she’d just panic.’
Dooley’s mother raised her as a single parent: her father was ‘never on the scene’ and she describes their relationship as ‘difficult and fractured’. ‘It must have been very stressful for my mum,’ she reflects. ‘But she never moaned, never said she was hard done by – she just worked really hard.’.
It didn’t help that the teenage Stacey was, in her own words, ‘a nightmare’ – bunking off school to steal clothes and make-up with her mates, before leaving at 15 without bothering to sit half her GCSEs.
‘I wasn’t really frightened of anything,’ she says. ‘I didn’t recognise there were consequences, so I literally just did whatever I fancied at the time, driving my mum to worry. But it’s all character building, isn’t it?’
To mark a decade in television, Dooley has written her first book, On the Frontline with the Women Who Fight Back. Alongside her own story, it’s a vivid chronicle of the places she’s been and the extraordinary people she’s met – in particular the women who, she observes, ‘are always up against it that bit more than the men’. From sex workers in St Petersburg to victims of ‘femicide’ in Honduras – where a culture of toxic machismo results in thousands of women and girls being murdered, raped or abused simply because of their gender – Dooley’s experiences have hardened her belief that, in this world, you need to be a ‘strong, fierce female’.
‘I’ve always been strong and I’ve always had opinions,’ she says. ‘I was never shy or an introvert. But you are desperate to become more strong and more fierce after spending time with women that inspire you. To spend time with the [Kurdish] Yazidi women fighting in Iraq, to spend time with girls who have overcome the unthinkable… You want to be as strong as they are.’
She’s an avid supporter of the #MeToo campaign that emerged in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, and ‘stands completely’ with her colleagues fighting for equal pay at the BBC. But it’s not only a gender issue – as a working class kid from a Luton council estate, she’s also had to fight for her place in a media landscape dominated by middle class graduates. ‘I do think things are improving,’ she says. ‘But we’re still not in a position where television offices represent what our society looks like. It’s still very white, middle-aged and middle class.’
In the early days of her career, she met with resistance from TV critics who made fun of her accent and natural, unstudied presentation style – the very qualities audiences love about her. She admits she was ‘mortified and devastated’ by the criticism, and credits the late AA Gill with turning the tide when, in typically forthright fashion, he declared her a major talent who should be presenting Panorama.
Now living in Brighton with her personal trainer boyfriend Sam and dog Bernie, Dooley admits she’s spent much of the past 10 years feeling scared. ‘I am always nervous, especially in places like Iraq or Honduras or Congo. But it’s better to be that way than cocky or casual. If you get lured into a false sense of security, or get too relaxed, that’s when things can catch you by surprise.’
What’s been her most terrifying moment? ‘Mosul was hard,’ she says. ‘It had only been liberated from ISIS for three months when we were in there – there were still ISIS sleeper cells, still unexploded IEDs, still a lot going on. It’s hard to operate there.’
As well as joining the army of young, female Yazidi fighters on the frontline in Iraq – amidst the ‘fire and smoke’ of gunfire and mortar shelling – Dooley also came face to face with a captured ISIS fighter who, in addition to hundreds of killings, boasted of having raped around 200 women and 50 children.
‘It’s difficult to comprehend,’ she says. ‘When you’re sat in front of this guy who has done all of these horrendous, heinous crimes, and he doesn’t recognise the enormity of what he’s done, every part of you wants to stand up and… You hate him, you’re repulsed by him. But you’re there to do a job. You’re there to show the viewers his mentality and his thought process, so you have to allow him to speak. But it’s not always easy.’
Having regularly been confronted with the absolute worst of humanity, how does she stop herself from plunging into despair?
‘You have to try to take control of that,’ she says. ‘You have to be aware these environments are extremes. I do believe there are more goodies than baddies in the world. And in really desperate circumstances you always meet really amazing people trying to counterbalance that. It’s true that, wherever you go in the world, those with the least give you the most. So you’ve got to try to focus on them.’
Dooley also knows you don’t have to cross oceans to find the darkness in the human heart: in My Hometown Fanatics, she investigated the growth of Muslim extremism and far-right hatred on the streets of her native Luton.
‘I was keen to do that, it was my suggestion,’ she says. ‘It’s all very well travelling the world and saying “this is wrong” and then being able to jump on a plane and go home to your comfort zone. I think it takes courage to do something on your own doorstep. The were repercussions – I was walking down the arndale with one side shouting one thing at me and the other side calling me other names but… It was a good watch. It threw up some interesting questions.’
Among her interviewees was Tommy Robinson, co-founder of the far-right English Defence League, who she’d known since childhood, back when he was still Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. As recently as last year, Robinson was goading her on Twitter, asking: ‘Why did you leave Luton Stacey? If Islam is so great? Don’t forget where u are from.’
‘I know Tommy in the same way I know boys that associate themselves with the Al-Muhajiroun,’ she says. ‘We all grew up in Luton, we all know one another. We disagree, clearly – we’ve taken very different roots. But I’m not interested in what he thinks of me, or what the EDL think of me, or what the Al-Muhajiroun think of me. You have to stick to your guns and be able to look at yourself in the mirror.’
For her part, Dooley is proud of who she sees in that mirror. ‘I’ve no idea how things would have materialised if my mum hadn’t picked up that leaflet,’ she admits. ‘I’ve no idea where I’d be, or the kind of woman I’d be. My life has taken such an unexpected turn.’
And it’s those ‘women who fought back’, in particular, that she credits with making her who she is.
‘They have shaped me,’ she says. ‘Without sounding too cheesy, or too earnest, you become the woman that you want to be because of your experiences.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, 15 February, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend