It’s hard to know what to make of Stacey Dooley, the guileless presenter of BBC Three’s Stacey Dooley Investigates, Coming Here Soon and The Truth About Magaluf.
After her 2008 appearance in BBC sweatshop documentary Blood Sweat And T-Shirts, where the fashion-obsessed then 21-year-old showed a certain wide-eyed charm when exposed to the darker side of the British high street, the BBC decided to give the former shop assistant her own series.
She has since been sent everywhere from Thailand to Mexico and has investigated Congolese child soldiers, sex trafficking, religious extremism and – this month – bingedrinking in Magaluf.
In each, she tackles the often complex issues at hand with an innocence that has divided audiences.
“Dooley isn’t exactly Orla Guerin… she doesn’t really do big-picture geo politics,” wrote Guardian critic John Crace.
“What Stacey does very well is the human angle, and it’s her ordinariness that makes her a natural in front of the camera.”
The New Statesman was less favourable, describing Dooley’s documentary on young suicide in Japan as “ill-judged and offensive”.
Writer Chris Atkins added that it was “in shockingly bad taste” to have such a serious subject approached in a lightweight “yoof” tone.
Dooley, who recently decided to base herself in Brighton, takes a philosophical approach to such criticism.
After all, you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
“It would be in bad taste for me to say that the critics are wrong but I thought we covered it well and I felt comfortable with the way it was edited.”
She is aware that her youth, background and lack of professional training has led some to be disdainful of her success.
“I think people can be quite dismissive about people who cover heavy subjects in the media; they seem to expect people to look or talk a certain way.”
She will happily admit she’s been “very lucky” in her career thus far. “BBC Three have been so supportive and brave to give a complete nomark their own series. But I’ve worked hard too.”
When she started, she was “a rabbit in the headlights”
she says, prone to frequent “wobbles” and bursting into tears. Some of the stuff she was exposed to was painful, some confusing.
“In my first documentary I went to India and I just didn’t know what was going on.
I didn’t even realise the hole in the ground was the toilet!”
Now she tries to take a cooler approach and rein in the tears.
“These problems exist, these things go on. You have to be strong. It helps when you see measures being put in place to improve situations.”
When we speak, she has just returned from a trip to Bosnia with aid charity Care International.
She describes it, as she does many of her assignments, as “a nice gig”.
Dooley was taken to meet women who have been helped by Care’s micro-lending site that allows UK residents to lend money to entrepreneurs in developing countries. Many of the women had lost husbands, sons and brothers in the Bosnian War.
Dooley was only five when the fighting began in 1992 and says she “truly underestimated”
the impact it continues to have on the country.
“We went to Srebrenica [site of the 1995 massacre] and our driver was talking me through everything. It was astonishing.
“Even driving to Sarajevo from the airport there are buildings with the side blown off. Our driver was describing how he’d have to run past snipers on his way to school.”
One of the women she met had used a loan from Care to buy a cow, using the milk to feed her new baby. She will now sell on the calf.
Despite the obvious differences, Dooley immediately found common ground.
“You do, don’t you? Even in the most random places, if you’re speaking to girls of a similar age, you always have some things in common.”
She continues to be “slightly ‘obsessed” (a rather strange turn of phrase) by young women in prison, a topic on which she made her Girls Behind Bars documentary.
“Often their backgrounds are so different to what you’d think,” she muses.
There’s something disconcerting about Dooley’s approach to her work, on the one hand passionate and empathetic, on the other, weirdly detached.
“It’s been a wicked couple of years,” she says of her time hanging out with peopletraffickers and Thai sex workers.
“I’ve travelled around the world and learnt so much.
Travel is great for that, isn’t it?
It’s nice to knock around in circles you wouldn’t usually.”
It’s easy to see why some have questioned how qualified she is for investigative reporting.
But perhaps there’s a value to the “innocent abroad” shtick.
She tells me about her trip to the Congo to film Children With Guns.
“The Congo was scary.
Even deciding whether to go was a big deal. But it felt important. Lots of people didn’t know child soldiers existed – I didn’t. I thought if I don’t know about this, there’s a probability other people don’t know either.
“It was really nice after it aired because people were coming up to me and saying thanks for opening their eyes to what was going on.”
I wonder whether she has much input in deciding her assignments?
“More now than I used to.
I used to sit down with a producer and discuss things they found important and I thought were engaging. Now it’s more of a joint effort.”
She would like to do more “domestic” programmes – so far, there’s just been the one, on religious extremism in her hometown of Luton.
“There are lots of things that go on here in the UK that aren’t brought to light. I’d really like to do stuff in prisons here, look at homelessness, drug problems.”
In the meantime, her show looking at the drunken antics of Brits abroad in The Truth About Magaluf has just aired.
“Some of what goes on out there… it’s horrible!”
I assume Dooley doesn’t get up to such dreadful behaviour in her time off?
“Oh no, I’m very homely. I’d like to say I’m rock ’n’ roll but when I get back to Kemp Town I’m totally girly – read all my magazines I’ve missed being away, do my nails, a couple of my girls will come round – bliss.”
*To find out more about Care International, visit www.care international.