TV

Spent star Michelle de Swarte: 'Someone had to tell me I was homeless – I was in such denial'

The writer and actor's new BBC Two comedy series Spent, about a former top model who becomes homeless, has its roots in her real life

Michelle de Swarte

Image: Robert Viglasky / BBC Pictures

“When you grow up with no money and then you get a big chunk of money, you have to spend the poverty out of your system… to celebrate.”

Meet Mia Sinclair, central character of new BBC Two comedy Spent, a story of homelessness unlike any previously seen on British television. It’s no accident that the working title for the series, created by and starring Michelle de Swarte, was High-End Homeless. Mia lived the high life as a successful catwalk model in New York. Staying in fancy hotels, wearing designer clothes, earning huge sums – you name it, she did it. But Mia spent her money as quickly as she earnt it, and then, like so many before her, was aged out of the modelling industry.

Mia might have high-end taste – “I just like nice stuff. I’ve got a visceral aversion to cheap shit,” she says, at the start of the five-part series. But with no income and nowhere to call home, Mia returns home to South London and gets a rude awakening.

It’s a story that mirrors de Swarte’s own life. After growing up in South London, de Swarte was spotted by a modelling agency and swept up into a different world. She became a runway model for Gucci, Versace, Tommy Hilfiger, Levi’s, Burberry. But when that career ended, so did the high life.

“I was technically homeless but didn’t realise it,” says de Swarte, when she meets the Big Issue in London.

“I didn’t understand the severity of my situation. I was staying at people’s houses, but I did it for a few years.”

De Swarte still recalls the conversation when reality finally dawned on her.

“Someone had to tell me I was homeless,” she continues. “They told me sort of as a joke. I was keeping up the pretence that I was ‘travelling’, but I was only meant to stay with my friend for a few days and had my whole life with me.

“She joked about me being this chic bag lady and said, ‘You know what? You’re high-end homeless.’ I laughed. But then I was like, ‘Wait, what?’ She said, ‘Well, you don’t live anywhere.’ I was in such denial. If I’d admitted it to myself, I probably would have had a breakdown.”

De Swarte was used to a transient existence. It did not come as a shock to her grown-up self because she’d already spent time in temporary accommodation.

“When I started school, my mum, my brother and me were living at a Women’s Aid safe house,” she explains. “My school was the other side of London.

“I was scared people would find out I lived with seven other families. And I couldn’t give my number out because it was a payphone. I was quite insecure, but how that played out was me being a bit of a dickhead. That was probably the start of comedy for me, finding ways to avoid certain conversations.”

Michelle de Swarte left school at 14. “I wanted a Naf Naf puffer jacket. I wanted clothes,” she says, still deflecting difficult stories with humour.

“It was an achievable goal, unlike getting GCSEs or finding a career. I did all the jobs you do as a teenager in London – bartending, working in shops, cafes and on market stalls. I was a cleaner.

“Then, when I was 20, I got scouted to model. I moved to New York and got my head firmly jammed up my arse.”

How long did that take?

“Ooh, I give it a solid three months,” she grins. “When I made my first big cheque, my agent said, ‘You have to buy a designer bag.’ I was told it takes money to make money. You have to turn up looking like you’ve just stepped off a runway.

“When you start to look like you’re a model, you see how society treats you differently. It is like being a rich white man – you get to sail through life. Then, all of a sudden, it stops. And you’ve got a lot of tat that cost a lot of money.”

De Swarte’s description of her years as a model highlights the contradictions of the industry. She spent her early career with nine other models, five bunk beds split between two rooms. If the travel and hotels and parties were exciting, the lack of safeguarding led them into dangerous situations.

“There’s a lot of weirdness in the modelling industry. It looks glamorous, but there’s a seedy underworld. You’ve got young girls without a chaperone or a parent,” she says.

“I wouldn’t say I liked it. But I knew was definitely having a Cinderella moment – this was what we used to call then ‘a fucking touch’. I didn’t yet realise the money they tell you you’re making is very different from what you get in your pocket. But it was still way more than I’d ever seen.

“I wanted to share it. Especially with my family. It was like, ‘We’re going to Magaluf!’ or ‘Who wants trainers?’ It was like winnings, not money I’d earnt. I’d gone from a Women’s Refuge to the Four Seasons hotel. It was like I was in a ’90s kids’ film, I was on the bed jumping around on my own.”

De Swarte’s story veers away from that depicted in Spent in multiple ways. She was in LA for her sofa surfing years, while Mia is home in London. But both hid their situation.

“As a kid, when we were living in Women’s Aid, my mum did a thing for London Tonight about homelessness. I was like, ‘How dare you, we’re not homeless,’” she says.

“But we were. We were in temporary accommodation.

“I’ve moved my whole life. I have always been transient. It can become an identity. I ended up in homeless accommodation again in my teens and late 30s.”

Michelle de Swarte began charting her story as a stand-up comic in LA. “I didn’t have any roots to put down, so I poured it into writing,” she says.

Her script impressed Peep Show creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain at VAL [Various Artists Limited], who previously helped develop Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, Mawaan Rizwan’s Juice and Kat Sadler’s 2024 Bafta winner, Such Brave Girls.

Joseph Ollman as David and Michelle de Swarte as Mia in Spent
Joseph Ollman as David and Michelle de Swarte as Mia in Spent. Image: Ludovic Robert / BBC Pictures

Spent is as funny as it is original, dealing with complex family relationships and mental health issues. De Swarte has a winning way with words as a writer, performer and interviewee. So what has she learnt along her journey?

“If I could go back to my younger self, I would say, look – by the age I am now you’re going to be unmarried, childless, have made a TV show, be a stand-up comic, and will have done journalism, modelling and a bunch of other stuff. She would be ecstatic. I would have been over the fucking moon to hear that.

“I would have felt immense relief because I was so fearful that I didn’t have any real foundations. I’ve learnt humans have a bigger ability to adapt than we might think. When I started stand-up, I’d stay in a Holiday Inn and think, this is a shithole compared to hotels I’ve stayed in. Fast forward a few years and I’m staying on my mate’s sofa, covered in cat hair, thinking, thank fuck for this.

“And now I’ve got a flat of my own. I am so happy – I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”

Michelle de Swarte on The Big Issue: “My mum always bought The Big Issue. It’s a fucking great magazine. It’s funny how your parents dictate how you navigate the world. She would always give buskers some money and she always bought The Big Issue. It’s a bloody great read – you can buy a bloody great publication without going into a shop. I’ve always been a big fan, so genuinely this is a pleasure. I’m a big fan of The Big Issue.”

Spent is on BBC Two and iPlayer from Monday 8 July.

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