From her work as an award-winning documentary maker to bagging her Strictly glitterball (and man), Stacey Dooley is proof that being a school dropout puts no limit on your dreams, as Jo Elvin discovers.
Stacey Dooley is not one to be easily rattled. But for the woman whose job has taken her into the world’s most dangerous war zones, picking through corpse-lined streets to meet terrorist leaders and confronting violent rapists, it seems nothing has shocked her more than the media frenzy that engulfed her life almost two years ago.
‘It was nuts!’ she says, shaking her head as if she can’t believe it all really happened. ‘When Kevin and I first got together, I did really underestimate how much interest there’d be. I understood there’d be a couple of articles or whatever. I can’t blame the public for having an interest, because we met so publicly on an enormous entertainment show. But for the first six months it was pretty relentless. Every time we left the flat, there’d be paps standing out there, down the alley. If we were eating out they’d be hiding behind the restaurant door. It was strange to me because I’d never had that level of intrusion before.’
If you’ve just landed from outer space, perhaps you missed all the fuss. So where to begin? It would have to be with Strictly Come Dancing. When Stacey signed up to compete in the 2018 series, she wasn’t quite a household name, but she was definitely heading that way. The daughter of a single mum, Diane – her dad having left when she was two – Stacey was, by her own account, quite the tearaway teen.
By the age of 20 she was working in Luton Airport duty free when Diane showed her
a leaflet she’d been handed from a TV production company. They were looking for fashion-obsessed young people to take part in a trip to India to witness the conditions in sweat shops. Stacey was plucked from thousands of applicants to appear on the show and her wide-eyed inquisitiveness made her a natural on camera. It launched the unlikeliest of careers that saw this diminutive young woman wading in fearlessly to the war-torn regions of Syria and Iraq for her documentary series Stacey Dooley Investigates. She’s won journalism awards and an MBE for services to broadcasting. Not bad for a girl from a Luton council estate, who left school at 15 and has the ‘wrong’ cockney accent for telly.
As a rising BBC star, she was a natural choice for Strictly. She cemented her fame when she and her dance partner Kevin Clifton won the competition. Cut to a few weeks later and she had split from her boyfriend of five years, Sam Tucknott. A few months later, nobody was hugely surprised when the chemistry we’d witnessed between Stacey and Kevin on the dancefloor spilled over into real life and they became a couple.
Strictly romances are nothing new, but I can’t help wondering: how do you know something that started amid all that glitter and glamour is ‘real’ outside the showbiz bubble? ‘I think you’re right, especially when you’re working on something really exciting together like this big show,’ she says. ‘But I think that’s why everything was very slow with us and not rushed at all. We finished the show, we went off. Kev lived in London. I was in Brighton. you know, we started seeing each other months after the show had finished.
‘By then there was a brilliant foundation. We were so fond of one another. There was respect. Kev has always respected me and I respected him. It sounds so cheesy! And then you miss it, and there’s been a couple of months where you haven’t seen each other and you’d hang out again and I’d be delighted to see him and, you know… It’s quite a… it’s come from a deep place, I suppose.’
So far, so lovely. But unfortunately the whole situation became something of a mini scandal when Sam, in a jilted fury, sold his story to a tabloid newspaper, calling Kevin a love rat.
‘I was in America when that happened and I’d had no idea it was going to be all over the front pages,’ she says. ‘I just thought, “I need to take a moment and not react.” I didn’t want to get into a slanging match. Because there was a time when I really loved Sam. I adored his family. And I still really want what’s best for him. I just… feel like I’ve grown a lot. I feel so much more mature than I was then. I want him to have a brilliant life. I’m never ever going to say anything that would hurt him. It’s actually one of the things I really love about Kevin. He and Karen [hauer, Kevin’s ex-wife and fellow Strictly pro dancer] have always been really amicable. Karen and I have always been really amicable. We toured the country together for the show. We’re all grown-ups.’
To Stacey’s relief, the tabloids have moved on and ‘everything’s much calmer now’, she says. And she certainly looks completely chilled, as I get a glimpse, via Zoom, into the new home she now shares with Kevin. It has the serenity of an upscale hotel spa: blonde woods and bare walls all painted in calming, tasteful taupes, natural light flooding in from every direction. Stacey is wearing head-to-toe cashmere that’s the same creamy shade as her flawless, make-up-free face. If it wasn’t for that trademark tumble of flame-red hair, she’d blend right into the background.
‘I have a friend who comes round to help me with my podcast and she says, “Where’s your stuff? There is nothing in this house.”’
Of course, this is not entirely true as, right on cue, Kevin pops his head round a door. He gives me a shy wave and a smile, darts out of view and reappears minutes later to hand Stacey a cup of tea. They bought the place together last summer. ‘It’s my first proper house. I’ve always lived in flats. Tiny flats. I’ve never had stairs before. Or a garden. Or my own front door!’
For two people used to living their showbiz careers out of suitcases, lockdown living looks good on them. They’ve been decorating (and have a penchant for sculptures of bare breasts and buttocks that has titillated her 943,000 Instagram followers no end), trying to become people who like cooking (‘we’re both s***’), and binge-watching the TV comedy Schitt’s Creek. Kevin made a good fist of keeping her roots looking good, but trying to get him to paint her nails was a mistake (‘I’m no good at that either,’ she says).
Travelling to war zones has not been an option, of course, but Stacey has been keeping busy with projects much closer to home, not to mention less life-threatening. She’s making a podcast called Fresh Starts, where she talks to people who’ve gone through massive life changes. Then there’s the three-part BBC2 series DNA Family Secrets, which aims to help people trace missing pieces of their family puzzle. I can’t help but wonder if this is a personal passion for Stacey, given that she never really knew her father.
‘I’ve got a great relationship with my mum, but yes, it’s well documented that my biological father was never around,’ she says. ‘Not a bad guy, just sort of had his own issues and his own demons. But now he’s dead, so you can’t really…’ She trails off thoughtfully for a moment. ‘I know very little about my father’s side, and I’d love to know more, actually. It’s funny, a couple of years ago I was approached by the Who Do You Think You Are? producers and I said I’d love to do the show. They went and did their research and came back saying there was nothing interesting enough about my family history to fill an hour! It’s all Ireland, Ireland, Ireland, Liverpool, Liverpool, Liverpool.
‘As an adult, I think about it more. I’d have liked to know a bit more about my father, what traits I’ve inherited from him. My mum has always been brilliant when I’ve asked questions, and there’s only been a handful of times when I have, but she’s always dignified about the whole thing. Because I’m sure at times it was really tricky. But she answers whatever she can. She says, “Ultimately he gave me you, so I’ll be eternally grateful to him for that.” And I think, that’s so principled. I don’t know if I would be.’
Diane later married Norman, who works in IT, and they had a daughter, Stacey’s sister Olivia, now 27, who studies genetics. ‘She’s the intellect,’ quips Stacey. But her own career has spanned a curious mix of the intellectual to gritty to sometimes ludicrously frothy, which brings us to her latest project, the TV show This Is My House. ‘I know, my career’s hysterical,’ she laughs. ‘It’s one extreme to another. I’ll be on the frontline somewhere like Syria or in Nigeria talking about Boko Haram. And then, literally a couple of weeks later, I’ll be presenting a make-up show or dancing. Or doing a really daft show like this.’
She’s right. This Is My House, created by former Blue Peter host Richard Bacon, is quite daft, but in all the right ways. Four people claim that the house in question is theirs. Only one of them is telling the truth and a celebrity panel tries to decide who that is. Stacey’s
job as host is to coax answers from each contestant that might give the panel, and we viewers, the clues to guess correctly. But each liar is so detailed, so convincing, that you can’t help but watch until the truth is revealed.
Stacey is bored with constantly being asked to justify enjoying making both serious and silly TV. But as I chat to her today, and watch how content she is in her new house, and the way her face lights up when Kevin pops into view: I wonder is she becoming less inclined to risk her own safety for work?
‘I suspect that time will come,’ she says. ‘I wonder, if I were to go on and have children, would I feel differently, because then I suppose I have to prioritise. They always come first, right? If something horrendous happens to you, there would be all kind of ramifications. But as it stands now, I really enjoy working in hostile environments. I love working in the Middle East, and Latin America is really exciting. And some of the stories are so important. So I’d definitely like to do more before I shut the door on that.’
This Is My House appealed to her because ‘I’m so nosy, and so obsessed with people’s interiors, it felt like a treat to just go round the country looking at people’s houses. I’m not going to pretend it’s got some earnest, underlying message,’ says Stacey. ‘But it does make you think about your own preconceived ideas about people.’
Speaking of which, there’s a moment in This Is My House when, as soon as Stacey is out of earshot, a contestant says, ‘She’s a lot nicer than I was expecting.’
‘I never know what to reply when people say that,’ she says, which suggests people say it quite a bit. ‘I got in a car with a producer once, the first time we’d met, and she said I was much nicer than she was anticipating. And when I was doing Strictly, after the show on Saturdays you’d go into this big tent, have a couple of drinks. It’s all quite buzzy, the people from the audience are excited to see their favourite pros. And these two women came up to me and said, “Oh Stacey, you know, we used to find you irritating, we never got you.” And then they asked for a photo!’ They didn’t get a photo. And while Stacey says her skin is ‘much thicker these days’, I can understand why the ‘irritating’ insult particularly grates. She’s had to take some mistakes on the chin – like the 2019 BBC documentary Sex In Strange Places, which incorrectly identified a Turkish woman as a Syrian sex worker – so sometimes it must feel like there are people intent on being negative.
‘Every time I’m doing something for work, I can already hear the comments coming in to Points of View,’ she says with a wry smile. ‘Some people find me a breath of fresh air, and others are like, “Why is this girl who left school at 15 talking about child soldiers? It doesn’t make an ounce of sense.” I think it used to bother me a lot more. But I remember someone saying to me years ago, “Your unique selling point is that you haven’t come through from some private school. We like how normal you are, how relatable.” So I’ve tried to keep that in the back of my mind. Sometimes you can’t help but be mindful that some people just don’t get you. Ultimately – this sounds cheesy and earnest, I know – it’s about knowing who you are and what you’re about. I’d be gutted if someone met me and thought I was an a***hole. But when I haven’t spent time with someone and they think I’m a moron, what can I do?
‘I really felt like I had to justify my existence within that space and now I think I don’t really. Because the documentaries rate well. We reach people who probably don’t listen to Radio 4 or watch Panorama religiously. We’ve been nominated for various awards and so we’re doing something right. When it comes to being a documentary presenter, I f***ing have done it. If I worried about what every single stranger thought, I’d never leave the house. You can’t allow, you know, Barbara in Salisbury to tweet something about you and for that to crush you.’
The Barbaras of this world may not have crushed her, but it turns out they have turned her right off Twitter. She quit the platform for good last month. ‘And do you know, I feel so much better for it,’ she says. ‘I said to Kev, there were some days where I’d get up and the first thing I’d do is look at my phone and read something not very pleasant about myself. And then when I went to bed, the last thing I’d do is look at my phone and read another negative comment. So I’d be starting and finishing the day reading unkind things about myself. And I think, if that was a person saying it in my bed, I’d be in an abusive relationship and I wouldn’t put up with it.’
As Stacey herself says, ‘Certainly, over the past couple of years, my life has changed in quite a significant way. I’d just turned 20 when I did my first TV gig. I’m 34 now. The last three or four years, I’ve sort of found my flow and I feel less a d about what people think of me.’
One thing Stacey hasn’t got round to in a busy period is collecting that MBE. Between her schedule and lockdown, it just hasn’t happened. ‘I need to sort that out, yes,’ she says, as if we’re talking about getting the milk in. ‘The Palace is probably so annoyed that I’ve taken so long they’ll withdraw it.’
Well, I joke, the Palace has some other stuff going on they’re probably more annoyed about. ‘Harry was always my favourite!’ she says. At the time of our chat, the world hasn’t seen his and Meghan’s interview with Oprah. ‘I really feel for them. When you listen to Harry, essentially he’s saying he’s prioritising his family and he wants to protect them. I don’t find that massively unreasonable, I’ve got to say.’
Whenever Stacey does get to the Palace, the joy of it for her is in the pride it gives her mum. ‘She gets excited whenever something brilliant happens for me or my sister. I can’t imagine how tricky it must have been for her at times. You know, there was one point where we lived in a bedsit above a pet shop and my dad wasn’t on the scene and she was cleaning her mates’ houses to get by. Parenthood is difficult anyway, even if you’ve got support and there’s two of you.’
From living above a pet shop to a date at the Palace, Stacey really has come a long way. But I get the feeling she’s just getting started.
LOVES, LAUGHS AND SAVED BY A SHOEBOX
What’s your earliest memory?
When I was a kid in Luton, about seven or eight, running my sister’s buggy over a toad. It’s so graphic in my mind. I wish it was something more poignant but that is my first memory.
Career plan B?
Well, there may still have to be! You can’t take for granted that you’ll be on the telly for ever. Maybe I’d like to do something with interiors. I love sitting on the sofa and trawling through Rightmove.
Secret to a happy relationship?
Kindness. And I’ve learnt to… sort of not have the last word on everything. Also humour. There’s no use fancying someone if they’re not funny. When Kev makes me laugh, that’s when I really want to bite his face off, that’s when I really fancy him.
I think I’m not very judgmental which I think is… useful.
I’m quite impatient. I used to be very stubborn but I’m less so now. I think that comes with age.
Last meal on earth?
Roast chicken dinner. This is not interesting at all but when I make a roast dinner, I make two gravies. An actual gravy, then a gravy for me where I put in three Oxo cubes and a load of Bisto and stir it. But I don’t stir it properly so the Oxo cubes still stay solid… and when I pour it over, I bite into an Oxo cube.
On a day off, we’d find you…
On the couch watching Schitt’s Creek.
Your most starstruck moment?
Kev is here and just pointed at himself. No, Kevin. A couple of years ago, I was invited to watch Barack Obama speak in London. It was truly incredible. He’s massively charismatic. Even the way he holds a coffee cup… he’s so cool.
Most embarrassing moment?
So many. There was the time I had to go to the toilet in a shoebox because I was on a dual carriageway in LA. That was embarrassing. It was a convertible as well, so I was, like, ‘You know, you’re going to have to put the roof up.’
This Is My House airs from Wednesday 24 March at 9pm on BBC One