Stacey Dooley: How I kick-started my career in journalism

In 2007, Stacey Dooley was a twenty-something working in fashion retail. Now, she’s made over 50 documentaries, covering topics ranging from sex trafficking in Cambodia to Yazidi women fighting back in Syria. In this extract from On the Front Line with the Women Who Fight Back, she tells us how a serendipitous stint on BBC's TV series Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts changed her life.


The flight home was the longest I’d ever been on, and I had mad jetlag on my first night back at my mum’s house where I was living at the time. I just couldn’t sleep. I felt I’d been on an emotional rollercoaster. I lay in the bed thinking, That was all just so unbelievable!

I sat up. Here I am in my comfy bed, I thought, but what about the boy at the orphanage and the girl with the bleeding hands? The thoughts were rushing through my head: I want to do something to help them. I want to do my bit.

I racked my brains for ideas and then suddenly it came to me. My twentieth birthday was coming up; I would ask the kids at the orphanage to draw some pictures and I would auction them at my birthday party. We’ll go for a curry, I decided. I’ll give the curry house a couple of hundred quid and they’ll put some food on. We’ll sell the pictures and then we’ll give all the money back to the orphanage, back to the kids.

I got in touch with the production company, and explained. ‘I’d love to do this. Can you let me know how to get in touch with the orphanage?’
They were very supportive. ‘We’d like to film it, if that’s possible?’
‘No problem,’ I said.
We raised over £500 for the kids that day and I gave my birthday money too. It wasn’t much, but I knew it would make a huge difference to the orphanage.
Meanwhile, I think my mum was thinking, What the hell is going on? Where has my devil child gone?

I went back to waitressing and started campaigning; I wrote to organisations and shops where I loved to spend my money. ‘I’ve just come back from India,’ I said. ‘I am a consumer and if you want me to spend my money with you, you have to ensure that the workplace conditions of the people who make your clothes are up to standard.’

Quite who I thought I was, I don’t know. I was writing to these multimillion-pound corporations, saying, ‘If you want my business (which was probably about £40 a month) then you’re going to have to tell me that you’re not using children in your factories.’
Very few of them got back to me.


Quite who I thought I was, I don’t know. I was writing to these multimillion-pound corporations, saying, ‘If you want my business (which was probably about £40 a month) then you’re going to have to tell me that you’re not using children in your factories.’

Then the production company rang to say that Newsnight had invited me on – my first live telly gig. Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts was being heavily trailed and I think the channel was quite excited about it.
‘Yes, that’s cool,’ I said.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Of course.’
 Obviously I had never watched Newsnight. I didn’t have a clue about its style and tone, or how much of a hard time Jeremy Paxman gave the guests and politicians.

I rang my mum. ‘Mum, I’m going to be on Newsnight.’
‘What?!!’ she spluttered.
‘Yes, I’m going to talk about globalisation and our shopping habits and how we can change as consumers.’
‘You’re mental,’ she said. ‘Jeremy Paxman is going to tear chunks out of you! I think you’d better watch it before you say yes.’
I googled Newsnight. ‘Hmm, I see.’
But I can’t be a wimp, I thought. I feel fairly comfortable about what I believe, so I’m just going to say yes and see how it goes.

On the day, Georgina, one of the other contributors on Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts, and I were ushered into the studio. Paxman was very sweet to us – really lovely, in fact – but he seemed to think my name was Racey. ‘I’m Stacey,’ I said. A little later, he called me Racey again.

I was thinking, Shit, don’t get that wrong because we’re about to go live and you’re going to call me Racey.
Just before we went live, I said to him, ‘Look, Jeremy, I know you can sometimes give people a hard time, but don’t try it with me.’
He must have thought, Who on earth is this leery girl that they’ve wheeled in front of me?
But he leant over and winked at me and he said, ‘I only give you a hard time if you’re a politician.’
I really enjoyed it in the end!

Nothing much happened after that. I was broke, and I got a job working in a clothes shop, Jigsaw, in St Albans. Then I started working in a pub in the evening as well. At one point I had three jobs: I was working in Jigsaw, in another shop called the Dressing Room and at the pub.
I didn’t mind it. It was always exciting when the deliveries came in and all the new gear arrived. I’d put something aside and then I’d have nothing left from my wages because I’d spent it all! I loved the camaraderie of working with the other girls and really enjoyed interacting with the customers. The best part was helping them sort out their outfits to go to their dos, their weddings and their christenings.

I sometimes miss working in a shop, even now. I was happy. But then Danny Cohen, the controller of BBC3 at the time, asked to see me, and obviously I jumped at the chance. He started things rolling for me.

‘I found you quite inquisitive: you were asking questions and you weren’t worrying about coming across as being stupid,’ he said. ‘You empathised, you sympathised. How would you feel about your own series?’
He was being very brave because I had no experience and was totally unqualified. But he took the risk and commissioned two 60-minute programmes about child labour.

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For the first few years doing telly, I was still working in pubs and in shops, because I wasn’t earning loads. It was only two or three weeks filming here and there. That was how it worked out for the first few years, until I was about 25.
People were really surprised when they came into the pub and I served them. ‘I think I’ve seen you on telly, haven’t I?’
‘Yes, you probably have,’ I’d say.
 ‘Why are you working here?’ they’d ask. There’s always an assumption that as soon as you’re on the screen you’re rolling in money.
‘I’m broke – that’s why I’m working here,’ I’d laugh. ‘I need to pay my rent.’
I moved out from my mum’s a few years after I got back from India. Then I moved back. Then I moved out again, until slowly I became a bit more settled. Now I’ve got a flat that I share with my boyfriend, Sam, and my dog, Bernie – and a job that takes me all over the world.


My morals, my ethics and everything I’ve been through has shaped me and turned me into the woman I am now – but it started with my trip to India, no doubt.

Looking back, I always think, Thank God I answered that advert! Thank God my mother showed it to me! Thank God Danny Cohen was at BBC3 at the time, because he changed my whole life. Sometimes I can hardly believe it happened, but the fact is that in the last ten years I’ve made more than 50 documentaries – 70, if you count the films I’ve made for CBBC. I’ve achieved more than I could ever have dreamed of.

I’m under no illusion: I know my life would be completely different if it wasn’t for Blood, Sweat and T-Shirts and Danny Cohen. I would probably still be in Luton, which isn’t a bad thing, but I would never have travelled as much as I have, seeing the world and witnessing things from other people’s point of view. Politically, I might have even voted differently to how I do now, and I think my crowd of friends would have been very different. My morals, my ethics and everything I’ve been through has shaped me and turned me into the woman I am now – but it started with my trip to India, no doubt.

My work has definitely made me less self-obsessed. I’m not perfect – I am still quite vain and love fashion and spend lots of money on myself – but I think I’m a lot less judgemental now, and a lot more open minded and reflective. If I hadn’t left Luton I don’t think I would have grown in the same way – travel is such a brilliant way to challenge yourself and make you think.

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