Stacey Dooley: “We’ve lost the art of debate”

Reigning Strictly champ Stacey Dooley tells The Big Issue about meeting IS brides in Syria, bounty hunters and arms dealers in the States, and Boko Haram militants in Nigeria – as well as the challenges of becoming one of the country's biggest celebrities

The Big Issue: What have you found to be the difference between being well-known and being a celebrity?

Stacey Dooley: You can’t deny that Strictly puts you on a different stage. You come out the other end with lots of deals being thrown at you: ‘Do you want to be the face of this campaign?’ You can either take these gigs or get back to the day job, and you go to Nigeria and Syria and you work really bloody hard. I can’t make a documentary about sustainability within fashion then be the face of a fast fashion brand. You can’t do that. Yeah, the money’s great but it’s not what you believe.

When you’re famous, and even more so if you work for the BBC, do people feel entitled to have an opinion about everything you say or do?

Of course they do. I’m made of hard stuff. I’m not going to crack every time someone says they don’t like me. I’m not for everyone. I really mean this, it doesn’t hurt me. It doesn’t penetrate. People will judge all the time. As long as you rate yourself and the people around you – you feel loved and they rate you – that’s what it’s all about. You can drive yourself loopy trying to make sure everyone likes you and it’ll never happen.

Your critics have always referred to the fact you don’t have qualifications and used to sell perfume at Luton airport as if to say you shouldn’t be doing what you’re doing. Has that been replaced by them dismissing you as a celeb who won Strictly?

I think it’s still probably a mixture of the two. Some people think, ‘Why has she been given these amazing opportunities? She’s not a trained journalist.’ But that’s such a tired argument and it doesn’t really wash now. I’ve been making documentaries about current affairs issues for the last 12 years. Often I have much more experience than anybody who’s come out of Oxbridge. I’ve been to some of the most hostile environments of the world – Syria, Iraq, Honduras, the DRC – I have lots of experience I can draw from.

Last time you spoke to The Big Issue you said one subject you wouldn’t cover was Boko Haram in Nigeria  because of safety concerns, but now you’ve made a film about them. What changed?

That was probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I just think Boko Haram get less airtime than Isis and they are as radical and as crazy and as much of a threat. Boko Haram tend to target schools. They’re always after young girls. Then when they capture these girls they convince them that the only way they’re going to secure that place in paradise is to go into a really busy market place and blow themselves up. I was in a place called Maiduguri, which isn’t safe. It’s unpredictable. One night I was in bed and I could hear the military shelling. It’s really frightening but on the other hand there are girls who are too frightened to go to school because they don’t want to get kidnapped. It’s mad.

How is it possible to relate either to girls faced with this terrible situation or men who force them into it?

I was interviewing some of the guys and they were saying, ‘These girls have to secure their place in paradise’. I was saying, ‘If you really believe that, blow yourselves up. Why has it got to be the young girls?’ ‘Oh well…’ There was always some excuse.

You have also made your first Panorama episode on Isis brides. Did you have to change your style of presenting for BBC One?

Not really. Certainly with Panorama it’s much more about getting the facts out. Perhaps there’s less opinion and emotion from me. I said to them, I don’t want to turn into a sanitised, straight current affairs war reporter because that’s not what I am. They’ve obviously asked me to do it because they wanted it to have a bit of me in it, I suppose. I’ve watched Panorama for a long time, but I think they’ll be the first to say they struggle with the younger audience, so it was a nice collaboration.

Where did you go in Syria?

We were in two camps, essentially detention camps for European and British women who have left their countries to pledge allegiance to IS. Irrespective of what you think of these women – and I do believe some of them are a threat – I cannot believe we’re in a situation where some of these kids have been taken from Europe by their parent and there’s no sense of urgency to bring them home. They’re kids. They’ve been brought to a warzone and left to rot. Even if you don’t think from a human level it’s the right thing to do, from a security perspective, if you leave them there for months, years, they’re going to become the next generation that believes in Jihad. It’s painfully predictable.

Is it your job to draw a conclusion on a subject or present the information to the audience and let them decide?

I’ve learned actually, never go in with preconceived ideas because life is so crazy and people are so unpredictable, nothing is ever what it seems. We just want to encourage discussion. I’ve never been under the illusion that I can change the landscape, I’m holier than thou. It’s about taking on really important issues and saying, what do you think?

stacey dooley IS brides

The bounty hunters and Gretchen, the arms dealer in Arkansas, you expect them to be horrible people but they’re actually quite nice.

There’s always some common ground. The arms dealer illustrates that very clearly. Gretchen – she’s an avid Trump supporter, she says the Republicans are too far left for her, she loves guns and she’s obsessed with the constitution – everything I’m not really. And you think, how is this going to play out? But she’s also a mother, fiercely loyal and somebody who’s working bloody hard to put food on the table. I think that’s really healthy in 2019, to surround yourself with people who don’t think the same as you, don’t vote the same as you, don’t come from the same background, because we’ve lost the art of debate. We don’t listen to the other side.

You cover individual issues in individual episodes – but are they each pieces of a big global jigsaw where everything is connected?

You’re completely right. From Gretchen’s point of view she just needed a job because she was a single mum. But she is complicit because she is selling arms to people all around the world. I go to the places like the Middle East and I understand what war and devastation look like.

How are you not overwhelmed by the things you see and the stories you hear?

I’m quite straight in my personal life, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs. I think you have to have quite a clear mind when you’re putting yourself in situations like that. It’s important to do lighter things. I did a series about makeup, The One Show, Strictly, of course. There’s no shame in that. It’s good to enjoy life as well and recognise that it isn’t all pain and misery and suffering.

When you’re travelling, what does the person at immigration see when they flick through your passport?

There are so many stamps in there. I’ve been to the Middle East so much. ‘Why were you there? Why were you there for so long? Why were you back and forth?’ It can be a bit spicy sometimes.

You probably don’t fit the profile they’re looking for.

I’m sure some of them have a very rigid profile in their minds.

Being in Strictly changed your life. Do you think about the how someone appearing in one of your shows might also have their life transformed?

I don’t underestimate that. Generally, people will only be filmed once in their life. And often it’s really chaotic. We’re following an enormous moment for them. If you’re dealing with cartels, criminals, paedophiles, that’s a totally different approach, but for victims and survivors, of course I think about that a lot. There is a duty of care. If they’ve agreed to be filmed they want to tell their story. Lots of people don’t understand the amount of work that goes into making a documentary. It might look like we’ve just rocked up and come across people. If not months, certainly we’ve had weeks of conversations with them. You’re very invested. That’s why it’s so frustrating when you see other people perhaps not behaving that way, because these relationships are so precious.

What do you mean?

There are other outlets that perhaps don’t invest in the same way and don’t prioritise people’s wellbeing.

In the last year you also made a film about homelessness.

It was the hidden element I found most surprising. Why is it that one of the richest countries in the world is OK with loads of people not having a place to call home? It’s circumstances. They’ve had a real shitty time of it.

You spent time with young homeless people at a hostel in Blackpool – then returned later with Strictly. Were the kids in your thoughts when you were on the dance floor?

I went to go see them. I buzzed up, it was quite late because I’d just finished. I said, ‘It’s Stacey, I don’t know if you remember me. How is everyone?’ Some of them not so good, others had done well. There was a boy called Josh, he was like an old gent in a young body. I was back in Blackpool recently and a girl said he was expecting a child. It’s funny innit, what can happen in a year.

Do you get to keep the glitterball trophy?

We get a trophy each. Kev and I. There’s the big one, that you get your name on, then you get a little diddy one to take home. I think it’s in the kitchen. It’s not particularly impressive when you see it, it’s quite small.

Watch Stacey Dooley’s documentaries on BBC iPlayer