Poet, writer and actress, Michaela Coel has many strings to her bow. And in 2016, the rising star was in the midst of one of the most exciting periods of her life.
But midway through penning a second series of her BAFTA-winning series Chewing Gum, she was sexually assaulted after being drugged while out for a drink with a friend.
Michaela reported the attack to the police the following day, but the perpetrator was never convicted. On reflection, the 32-year-old explains, “I quickly realised that I had to find my own way of bringing closure into my life.”
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Her most recent work, BBC Drama I May Destroy You, is one such way she has done so.
Praised for its realistic and fearless portrayal of consent, the show, in which Michaela stars as lead character Arabella, was inspired by the dreadful assault. Putting pen to paper, she says, was “cathartic”.
Here, the actress opens up about the experience that informed her latest work…
I May Destroy you was inspired by a very personal experience. Would you share some of that story?
I was sexually assaulted in 2016. It’s a flashback. I don’t remember because my drink was spiked. I was writing the second series of Chewing Gum at the time and I was doing long hours in London when I decided to take a break and have a drink with a friend. It was a 10-minute walk from where I was doing an all-nighter of writing – but the next day I realised I had lost a huge gap of time. I didn’t know how I’d got back to work and I had a flashback of a man. I called a friend, who quickly took me to a police station.
Was anyone brought to justice for the assault?
A man was arrested, but the charges were later dropped because there was no DNA evidence to link him directly to the case. And then the case was closed. I quickly realised I had to find my own way of bringing closure into my life. A week after the sexual assault, I went into therapy, where I remained for two years. I still sometimes check in.
How cathartic was it to write the show?
When I started to make this show, I definitely didn’t begin it from a place of anger. It was from a place of curiosity. I wanted to try and forge understanding in this senseless, horrible act. Writing the show was incredibly cathartic.
What advice would you give to others who’ve gone through a similar experience?
Know that there is hope and know that you are not alone. I realised through writing this show how common it is, which is heartbreaking.
Was it difficult to share your experience?
I share a lot. I’ve always been a very open person. That’s just the way I am. After the experience, I began to talk to my friends, and I quickly discovered that they had things they wanted to share with me about consent.
Has this experience made it harder to completely relax on nights out with friends?
The thing is, you could go for a drink with a friend or have lunch with one drink and a barman could spike your drink. The world is so uncertain and if I live from that perspective then I’m living my life in fear. In life, I think we should all be free, but also take caution because there are people out there that want to harm. However, we can’t live in fear. It’s also important to know that if you’re a victim, you’re a survivor – and there’s nothing wrong with being a survivor. There’s everything right about being a survivor. As tragic as this experience was, I’ve learned from it.
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What safety nets were put in place for your wellbeing on set?
Everyone’s wellbeing on set was really important to us, especially because we were exploring the theme of consent. We had an intimacy director on set. I didn’t want anyone to look back on the experience and think, “Oh, I felt a bit uncomfortable back then.” We also had a therapist on set, which was a credit to [producer] Phil Clarke.
You’ve worked on a number of successful shows since Chewing Gum. How are you coping with fame?
I began my career as a poet, so it’s been a slow process. It’s different when you do TV or theatre. It builds up. For a period, I think I was quite anxious because there’s something about people knowing you and you not knowing them – but now I’ve learned to really listen when people speak to me. I’m realising that I am just getting free love from strangers, which is in short supply in this day and age.
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