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As The TV Industry Praised Michaela Coel, She Says She Felt Like A Misfit

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Michaela Coel achieved critical acclaim last year for her show "I May Destroy You," which explored issues like sexual assault and consent. The show is up for nine Emmys this year, and now she has a book called "Misfits: A Personal Manifesto." NPR's Sam Sanders spoke with her on his show It's Been a Minute from NPR and asked what inspired a whole manifesto.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Before Michaela Coel made "I May Destroy You," she got a very prestigious invitation in 2018 for her earlier television work, the MacTaggart Lecture. It's the keynote speech of the Edinburgh TV Festival, this media event where people working in TV around the world meet and talk about the state of the industry. And it was a very big deal for Michaela to give that lecture.

MICHAELA COEL: I was trying to understand why I had been asked to give the lecture. Oh, you've never had a Black person or a person of color give this lecture. I'm the only person under 30. What is it that I am supposed to say that makes this makes sense?

SANDERS: That lecture and now Michaela's book - they're both all about that - Michaela kind of feeling like an oddball in her industry, even as that industry was showering her with praise. She defines herself and others like her as misfits.

COEL: A misfit is someone who either feels ostracized by society because they don't fit in to whatever ideals the society has established as normal. But also a misfit is someone who simply looks around the world and sees it in a way that's different.

SANDERS: Michaela says creative fields like misfits - their creativity, the newness they bring. But she also said they don't know how to take care of the misfits once they bring them in. Here she is in her lecture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COEL: Why are we platforming misfits, heralding them as newly rich successes whilst they balance on creaking ladders with little chance of social mobility? I can't help usher them into this house if there's doors within it they can't open. It feels complicit.

SANDERS: She posed a simple question. Are creative fields doing more for the misfits than just opening doors? Are they helping them feel welcome and succeed long-term?

Do you think the industry has begun to answer that question yet or fix it?

COEL: No, I actually don't. I think the industry is sort of hearing the question and discussing the question, but not doing much to solve the problem.

SANDERS: Michaela gave me an example. When she was hired to write her first TV show, executives just told her to write. But she had never written a TV script before. She wrote for months before figuring out that there are TV script editors who could help her. And there are other issues, especially for creatives who don't come from money.

COEL: They wonder why writers don't meet their deadlines and end up paying back their commissions and failing to deliver. But it's often because the writer is paid so little that they have to take four writing jobs.

SANDERS: Besides asking the industry to be better, Michaela is also asking why so many creatives feel so much pressure to climb that ladder she mentioned earlier - to prove yourself, to be palatable and accepted.

COEL: That ladder and that race is not necessarily necessary, really. Nonetheless...

SANDERS: Yes. Yeah.

COEL: ...We climb it. Nonetheless, we climb it.

SANDERS: But Michaela told me she has found a different path.

Have you gotten off the ladder yourself?

COEL: Honestly, I think I have. I know.

SANDERS: It's good to hear that.

COEL: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: How'd you do it? Tell me your secret (laughter).

Through her most recent work, which she wrote herself and stars in.

COEL: I think "I May Destroy You" maybe destroyed my ladder (laughter). Sharing that much pain was quite healing.

SANDERS: The show was loosely based on Michaela's own experience being drugged and then sexually assaulted and then having to go right back to work and keep on living life. Michaela says she has made peace with that trauma, even though it's still there. And the show and her lecture and her book - they're all about that process, really.

COEL: The journey from pain to - sounds so cliche - power - oh, God.

SANDERS: No, but it's real.

COEL: Can I say that - pain to power?

SANDERS: Say it.

COEL: Oh, God.

SANDERS: It's real.

COEL: Pain to power.

SANDERS: Michaela Coel's new book is called "Misfits: A Personal Manifesto." I recommend it to anyone getting tired of climbing their ladder. Sam Sanders, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EDAPOLLO'S "SHIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.