Fearless reporter, feminist, Strictly victor… Stacey Dooley is the BBC’s new golden girl. But her decision to front a make-up show has prompted a Twitter backlash. Here she explains to Julia Llewellyn Smith why she’s unfazed by social media spats (and Strictly snogs).
Conversations with Stacey Dooley can turn from deeply serious to cheerfully frivolous in seconds. One minute, the 31-year-old BBC presenter – who shot to fame last Christmas when she won Strictly Come Dancing – is passionately describing a recent visit to a polluted river in Indonesia for last year’s acclaimed documentary Fashion’s Dirty Secrets about the environmental damage caused by the clothes industry. ‘It was this beautiful river that had just been trashed when people are trying to live off the land – the fish are dying, the kids are covered in rashes… You think, “How have we failed so spectacularly? What are we doing to this planet?”’
The next she’s giggling, discussing professional dancer Aljaz Skorjanec who partnered her on the recent Strictly arena tour (her partner on the show, Kevin Clifton, being otherwise engaged with the musical Rock of Ages). ‘Aljaz is like a big, excited puppy; he’s like a beautiful statue and she [his wife and fellow professional Janette Manrara] is like an angel. I say, “When you have a child it will look like a supermodel; the world is going to stop spinning.”’
These two sides of Stacey are leading to her being hailed as the BBC’s newest, brightest star. Shortly after she received the coveted Glitterball, she co-presented the BBC’s New Year’s Eve concert with YouTube vlogger and fellow Strictly finalist Joe Sugg. So many of her fans were taken aback to discover that her next project was to be neither a prime BBC gig, nor more hard-hitting reportage, but hosting Glow Up, a make-up competition for digital-only ‘youth’ channel BBC Three.
Some took to social media to accuse Stacey of selling out. ‘From documentary maker to this! Wow!’ was a typical comment. Stacey lashed right back. ‘For those telling me you’re suddenly doing “trivial” work… I’ve been filming stories covering rape, incest, drugs, murder and war for a decade,’ she tweeted. ‘It’s a privilege to cover these issues, but I also need to take time out to enjoy the lighter side of life.’
Was Stacey shocked at the jibes? ‘Of course not,’ she says, stony-faced. ‘It’s painfully predictable: there are always people who are desperate to put you in your one camp and never let you leave. The idea that you could be interested in the Yazidi community and also in lipstick blows people’s minds. It’s a really short-sighted Stone Age attitude; it’s boring, actually.’
Just before Strictly and Glow Up, she says, she’d reported on several ‘really harrowing’ stories, particularly in Mosul, Iraq [which she visited three years ago]. ‘I was getting out of the car and I could smell death; there were dead bodies on the ground and you had to walk relatively close to them because there were unexploded IEDs [improvised explosive devices] everywhere so you could only go in certain areas.’
Over the past decade, Stacey has made more than 70 documentaries, meaning she’s had dozens more deeply affecting moments, from confronting a convicted paedophile about his crimes in the US to encountering child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She’s never had counselling, though the BBC has offered it. ‘But after all that, it seemed really important to be at home and enjoy some escapism. Anyway, I’ve earned my stripes; I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.’
Filmed before and during the early rounds of Strictly, Glow Up’s premise is, Stacey says, ‘like Bake Off; every week talented, aspiring make-up artists are given new challenges, such as creating prosthetics with someone who’s Oscar-nominated’. Stacey is genuinely admiring of the skills she witnessed. ‘We should celebrate make-up,’ she adds. ‘It’s a lucrative industry; a massive employer.’
We’re sitting in the café area of an East London studio where Stacey is about to be photographed for YOU. Petite in a black tracksuit and white Gucci trainers, she’s surprisingly softly spoken and painstakingly polite, thanking me several times for meeting her and apologising for requesting tea with oat milk. ‘Would that be all right? Sorry to be that person.’ She explains she has jettisoned dairy products not for ethical reasons but ‘because it gives me s*** skin. Generally I’m quite chilled about my looks, but I’m gutted if my skin’s bad.’
As a teenager, she adds, she was obsessed with fake tan, blue eyeliner and blue mascara (‘I thought that was the coolest thing ever’). But now, Strictly apart, she rarely wears more than concealer and mascara. ‘In the places I go it’s not appropriate for me to have an immaculate, made-up face. You can go for days without washing, so I always pack baby wipes, Batiste Dry Shampoo… oh, and Yorkshire Tea bags.’
There’s a relaxed quality to Stacey, who, having witnessed so many horrors, rarely sweats the small stuff. Yet, as the Glow Up Twitter spat demonstrated, she’s no pushover. Does she have a temper? ‘The older I get, the less reactive I’ve become. But if someone says something unkind I’ll pull them up on it.’ She responded to one critic’s carping that Strictly’s line-up was a ‘rag-tag bunch of TV D-listers’ by pointing out she’d just been awarded an MBE for services to broadcasting, though work commitments meant she’d no time to collect it from the palace. ‘We’ll go some time this year,’ she smiles. She’s used to defending herself, having long endured snooty comments about the fact she left school at 16 and her accent, described by one sniper as ‘whining’.
‘Some people can’t believe the audacity of my covering important subjects,’ she says softly. ‘Of course it hurts when people make fun of how I talk, especially when I’ve probably got more life experiences than someone who studied at Oxbridge and went straight into the Beeb.’
Stacey grew up in a council house with single mother Diane supporting her through cleaning and pub work. Her father left when she was two and, until he died when she was in her 20s, she only saw him sporadically. ‘Of course it would have been nice to have a relationship but sometimes these things are not meant to be,’ she shrugs.
Diane remarried Norman, who works in IT, with whom she had a daughter, Olivia, now 25, who’s studying to be a doctor. ‘I admire my mum so much; she’s principled and selfless. I’m a bit selfish – if I want to go away travelling I go away travelling. I don’t see my family enough,’ she adds thoughtfully. ‘I have got to be mindful of that.’
Now living in Liverpool and working at TK Maxx, Diane cheered her daughter every week from Strictly’s front row, but it sounds as if the teenage Stacey gave her a few headaches. ‘I was a naughty child – not malicious, just a free spirit, with no concept of respecting authority,’ she says. ‘From 13 to 20 I was mental, a right tearaway, all over the place, drinking, smoking, going down town nicking stuff.’ Happily, she never touched drugs. ‘They were everywhere – a schoolfriend died of a heroin overdose – but Mum stuck a picture of [teenage ecstasy victim] Leah Betts on the fridge and that sits with you, so I was never interested.’
She was selling duty-free perfume at Luton airport, aged 21, when Diane showed her a leaflet she’d been handed from a TV company looking for young people who liked fashion, shopping and travel to go to India to see the sweatshops where their clothes were made. She was one of six picked from thousands of candidates. ‘Aside from New York, I’d never left Europe, so India was an assault on my senses. I thought: “This is mad.” It was the first time I’d seen acute poverty. Even if I sounded ridiculous I was asking honest questions and felt they were interested in my opinions, and they might ask me to do something else.’
From then, the partying stopped as Stacey became focused on reporting from troublespots. She quit booze in her early 20s and has never drunk since. ‘There wasn’t any big reason, just I get p***** quickly.’ Her hectic schedule made romance difficult but, four years ago, she got together with personal trainer Sam Tucknott, 30. ‘Sam’s very chilled and supportive,’ she beams. ‘He understands when you’re on top of a hill in the Democratic Republic of the Congo you can’t panic because someone’s waiting for you to call home.’
The couple live in Stacey’s one-bedroom flat in Brighton, bought with her estimated £150,000 salary. ‘I couldn’t afford London and although it sounds a bit earth mother, I love being by the sea.’ Now, having vaulted into the BBC premier league, she’s saving for a two-bedroom pad. ‘Then I’d treat myself to a cleaner once a week; that would be a real luxury,’ she says. ‘And a dishwasher. If I had one of those I’d feel I’d landed, I’d be living my fantasy life. Now I never cook because I think, “No, I’ll have to do all the pots.”’
Can’t Sam do the pots? ‘No, I do most of the housework. Sam’s not very whizzy around the house. When I’m away he’ll let the dishes pile up, then when he knows I’m in the taxi coming back from Heathrow, he rushes about and smashes three bowls, so I’m like: “Just leave them.”’ As a self-proclaimed feminist, does his ineptitude annoy her? ‘Nah, Sam’s great in other ways – he’s patient and understanding. And doing what I do changes your perspective – things like that don’t fuss me.’
Stacey’s perspectives also meant she was hardly stressed by Strictly, unmoved by the scandal surrounding the kiss between comedian Seann Walsh and his married pro-partner Katya Jones. ‘When you do what I do for a living, in the scheme of things it doesn’t bother me who’s kissing who.’ She was ‘gobsmacked’ to win the show. ‘I thought Joe had it in the bag. But I never took it too seriously; I always thought, “If I don’t nail the foxtrot, no one is going to die.”’
She enjoyed the arena tour that followed, but now she says, ‘I’m itching to get travelling again; I’m ready to move on. Strictly’s lasted six months – it’s a long time.’ With that gruelling schedule behind her, and Sam waiting at home, she must be incredibly fit. ‘No, I’m useless at fitness and the tour dances were only a minute-and-a-half long – and they weren’t challenging ones like the jive or the charleston – so I’m as bad as ever,’ she giggles.
Fans who worried she was going ‘soft’ can relax: upcoming projects include Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over, where she spends 72 hours with British families from different walks of life to compare the way they live. There will also be investigations into US arms dealers and Nigerian jihadists Boko Haram. Poor Diane, I say. ‘Mum doesn’t know any more where I’m going,’ Stacey laughs. ‘When I go to Iraq, I say I’m going to Turkey and I’m not lying because you have to pass through Istanbul airport on the way. But she’s getting savvy; she’ll say, “You haven’t been on Instagram for a few days – where are you?” That’s why she loved me doing Strictly. She’d say, “What’s the worst that can happen in a dance studio in West London?”’
Diane would love her to have babies. ‘But it won’t be for a bit. There’s lots to do,’ Stacey decrees. For now, she’s besotted with her and Sam’s two-year-old bulldog Bernie. ‘If it was Sam versus Bernie, I’d choose Bernie every time,’ she jokes. ‘I adore him. We were in the park the other day and this manky dog bit Bernie’s face. I wanted to kick that other dog down the hill. It was animalistic: “Get off my baby!” I was so angry with the owner. It frightens me how much I love Bernie, how protective I am. I think, “What would I be like if I reproduce?”’ As I said, Stacey’s an utter delight, but she’ll always fight her corner.
Team Glow Up
Meet the judges of Stacey’s new show
Val Garland: ‘I have a feeling I’m going to come across as bad cop – I don’t suffer fools,’ laughs Val, 62. Now global make-up director of L’Oréal Paris, she’s the go-to artist for stars such as Kate Moss, and created alien-like prosthetics for Lady Gaga’s Born This Way album cover. ‘I don’t like make-up having a frivolous image – it’s a tough business – but with Stacey on board I knew we were coming from a serious place,’ she says.
Dominic Skinner: Global senior artist for Mac, Dominic, 41, has created looks for the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen. ‘Stacey was so supportive of the contestants,’ he says. ‘Halfway through filming she started on Strictly, so a few times we’d have her dance partner Kevin Clifton there, tapping his foot and checking his watch.’
The new series of Glow Up begins on Wednesday and will be available to watch on BBC Three via BBC iPlayer and on BBC One at 10.35pm