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Emmy award winner Michaela Coel discusses career, taking risks at Wintersession

Keynote Wintersession event hosts Emmy and BAFTA award-winning actress Michaela Coel.
Justus Wilhoit / The Daily Princetonian

Content Warning: The following piece references sexual assault.

Emmy and British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTA) award-winning actress Michaela Coel discussed her accomplishments and challenges in the entertainment industry, including imposter syndrome and standing up to power, in conversation with Mutemwa Masheke ’23, the vice president of the Society for African Internationals at Princeton (SAIP), for Wintersession’s third annual “Beyond the Resume” keynote event.


Coel is best known for creating and starring in the show “Chewing Gum” and the BBC One/HBO comedy-drama series “I May Destroy You,” where she won BAFTA awards for Best Female Comedy Performance and Best Actress, respectively. For her role in “I May Destroy You,” Coel became the first woman to win the Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special at the 73rd Primetime Emmy Awards. She is also the first person to ever shoot for Vogue in Ghana.

“[I am] really in love with the process of making my work. It is my drug. And everything else that happens — the awards — only happen because I’m on drugs,” she said, while describing the awards.

Combatting imposter syndrome 

Despite having worked with A-list celebrities, Coel admitted, “I don’t see myself as a Hollywood person.”

Coel referenced the phenomenon of imposter syndrome: “I have it, I am it.” However, she noted that there are benefits to it.

Imposter syndrome is described by the American Psychological Association as “the situation in which highly accomplished, successful individuals paradoxically believe they are frauds who ultimately will fail and be unmasked as incompetent.” The phenomenon is a frequent subject of conversation at Princeton and has been described as pervasive on campus.


Imposter syndrome is explored in Coel’s best-selling book, “Misfits: A Personal Manifesto,” described as “a passionate and inspired declaration against fitting in.” 

The book builds on her celebrated speech at the Edinburgh International Television Festival which touched on imposter syndrome, where she was the first Black woman to give a MacTaggart lecture. In 43 years, Coel was only the fifth woman to take the podium and the first person of color to do so.

Fighting for artists rights

Coel shared her own experience with standing up for her artistic and creative liberties amid  substantial corporate influence in the art, with one study showing that only 3 percent of the revenues generated by creative work end up in the hands of creators,  

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Coel said that she came up with the idea for her comedy/drama “I May Destroy You,” after she was sexually assaulted in 2016. She explained that she wanted to make the show funny and successful “out of spite” to her perpetrator. According to Coel, Netflix loved the idea and offered her a million dollar contract. 

However, Coel rejected Netflix’s deal, as she would keep only 0.001 percent of her rights to “I May Destroy You.” When she discovered her agents would receive compensation from the show, she began asking questions, explaining that “lack of transparency is troubling and it’s important to be brave and ask tough questions.”

Afterwards, Coel remembers speaking with a Netflix executive. The executive initially claimed that the rights weren’t a big deal, but later conceded that she made the right decision.

After pitching the project to Netflix, Coel approached BBC and HBO with the show and was guaranteed full creative control by both production companies. 

Encouraging taking risks

“I really believe in taking risks — it’s all I've done,” she said.

A year later, the series earned nine Emmy nominations and one win. The series also garnered BAFTA awards, as well as a Peabody Award, two Independent Spirit Awards, and a GLAAD Award, amongst various others.

“Success is if I am happy with my product, and that [pressure to succeed] can be paralyzing.” She added that there were times she’d even had panic attacks — Masheke suggested that Princeton students may relate to the tenedency to spiral when pressuring themselves.

The effect of high standards on mental health has been a major topic of debate in the past semester, after University President Christopher L. Eisgruber wrote that excessive academic rigor was not a major contributing factor to the campus mental health crisis.

During the talk, Coel sang a song she wrote and shared snacks from her hometown with Masheke. Her sincerity was appreciated by many audience members, including SAIP President Adwoa Afrifa ’24.

“I really appreciated [Coel’s] candidness and ability to speak to us straight from the heart,“ Afrifa said. “It didn’t look like she was trying to manicure herself or present a specific image to the community, it was just really her and I strive to do that.”

Although Coel attended the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, she recalled that she was more involved in organizing for the African and Caribbean Students Club than attending class. After attending a lecture one day, she “decided it wasn’t for [her].” She then studied at an art guild for three years.

Coel left school to perform her own play in an industrial area of the London Borough of Hackney, where she said saw people genuinely moved by her work. 

Coel’s decision to pursue acting wasn’t all smooth sailing. She explained that her mom was devastated when she left school and kicked her out.

She claimed that she “never obeyed her parents” and recommended “living as if your parents are dead.”  

Support from African international students

Adwoa said that she was glad the Coel’s visit “brought more visibility to the Society of African Internationals. I want the Princeton community to know that we are here.”

SAIP hosts community-building events focused on the African international student community.

“It is really nice for African internationals to see these events to know that there is programming for them and that they are represented in the programming as well,” she added.

On portraying the character Kate in the show “Black Earth Rising,” one audience member asked if Coel was aware of the inaccurate depiction of the Tutsi people in the show. 

“When I was a young actress I was uneducated. My friend helped me learn that it was an uneducated thing to do,” Coel said.   

Her honesty and accountability stood out to audience member Gil Joseph ’25. 

“She was entirely honest, not putting on a show and it was really refreshing,” he said. “The part that showed the most was at the end when she was asked a very difficult question and she took full accountability that she was wrong.”

Coel is slated to co-chair the 2023 Met Gala in New York City alongside Roger Federer, Penelope Cruz, and Dua Lipa. She said that when Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour asked her to co-chair, she was unsure of the responsibilities that came with the role, but is now excited about the event taking place on May 1.

“I’m down for the ride,” Coel said.

The event was co-hosted by the Office of Campus Engagement (OCE) and SAIP and took place in Richardson Auditorium on Saturday, Jan. 28. 

Abby Leibowitz is a News contributor for the ‘Prince.’

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