Ten years ago, Michaela Coel was a celibate, ultra-religious Pentecostal Christian who wept when her friends got tattoos and begged them to believe in Jesus. Now she's one of the biggest rising stars in television, creating and starring in Chewing Gum, the BAFTA award-winning Netflix and E4 comedy described by the New York Times as one of the best TV shows of 2016.
Losing your faith isn't exactly a typical route to stardom, but Coel is far from your typical comedy showrunner. She started off by writing and performing poems about Jesus, before abandoning religion at drama school and penning Chewing Gum Dreams, a one-woman play about growing up in public housing. Her performance electrified audiences in fringe theater, and Coel was asked to develop the idea for television. The result, Chewing Gum, is a filthily inventive, bubblegum-bright vision of inner city London that bypasses all the usual TV cliches about working class life and female sexuality.
Coel plays Tracey Gordon, a clueless 24-year-old virgin who lives on a council estate with her conservative family. They're expecting her to stay at home, worship God, and marry her equally uptight and religious fiance—but Tracey has other plans. In the first season, Tracey ditches her boyfriend for the sweet but dim-witted neighborhood poet, gets educated by her BFF about sex and Tinder bangs ("set the ting to find someone in your borough… and walk"), orchestrates her first threesome, and takes molly at an office party.
All through the series, Coel inhabits its motormouth heroine with the kind of physicality and comic timing that would make Buster Keaton jealous, and she's picked up roles in cult TV shows like Black Mirror and The Aliens since. But it's Chewing Gum that tackles God and sex with the kind of taboo-busting raunchiness rarely seen on television, and has seen Coel compared to other female comedian-creators like Girls' Lena Dunham and Issa Rae of Insecure and Awkward Black Girl.
As Chewing Gum premieres its second series on UK screens, we sit down with Michaela Coel to talk about how she traded Christianity for comedy, and why sex will never stop being funny.