'It's never been so good for queer people in TV and film, but it's still not great'

Michelle de Swarte shares her experience as a queer person in the industry and making BBC series Spent

Spent (BBC)
Michelle de Swarte uses her own experiences as a model as loose inspiration for her new BBC Two series Spent. (BBC)
  • Michelle de Swarte created, wrote and stars in new BBC Two series Spent, which takes inspiration from her own experiences as a model. When that job abruptly ended she changed career paths, becoming a stand-up comedian, as well as an actor and writer.

  • In Spent the multi-hyphenated creator plays Mia, a model who is forced to return home and try to renew herself now her career is over, she’s broke and she’s homeless.

  • Michelle de Swarte identifies as bisexual, and she shares her experience as a queer person in the entertainment industry with Yahoo UK for our new feature series Queer Voices.

  • Spent airs weekly at 10pm on BBC Two from Monday, 8 July, and all episodes are available now on BBC iPlayer

It's never been so good to be a queer creative in TV and film, but it's still not great. I think it's important that people get to tell their stories but also that they don't have to represent everything there is about queer culture, or about the queer experience.

As humans, we're multifaceted and being a queer person is no different, you're all at different ends of the spectrum. For instance my gran is a woman who only dates women, me, I date men and women, and everything in between. But I've mostly had long term relationships with men, so it's not a one-size-fits-all thing.

It's the same with being bisexual, I think people tend to think that means you're 50/50 and you're not. So I think it's important that the more queer stories that we get to tell and the more people from different backgrounds — whether that be class, race, or where they are in a binary sense — allows there to be less pressure on one person to be the spokesperson for everything that person is meant to represent.

Making my BBC series Spent represents that idea, in a way. I felt I could write about what I know without fear of how it's going to be received, because I haven't grown up in an environment where I've had to think about it too much, in terms of holding back elements of myself, so I'm extremely lucky in that way.

Spent (BBC)
In Spent, Michelle de Swarte plays Mia, a model who learns she has gone bankrupt and is forced to return home and try to renew herself now her career is over, she’s broke and she’s homeless. (BBC)

Being bisexual you sort of feel like, am I taking up too much space? Should I be having this conversation with you? When was the last time I had a relationship with a woman? When was the last time I slept with a woman? Does that qualify me to be bisexual?

There's all of these things that are constantly going on in your mind, and I think part of that is that you have to represent everything for people. But I believe that's why it's important to have more stories that can be told, the more things that are on the spectrum, and the more that someone can identify with you particularly, means that a show doesn't have to be all-encompassing for everyone all the time. It's a lot of pressure otherwise.

Sometimes you have to write about what you know, right? I would say there's starting blocks for Spent and my character Mia's story, it's based on my having similar experiences because I was a model and those careers don't last forever.

I'm from South London and I did grow up in Brixton, but then past that you build on the characters and you make them their own thing and let them have their own experiences. Mia going from being a catwalk queen to returning home after realising she's broke is about that, and the twists and turns she experiences in the show are for the show.

Watch the trailer for Spent:

The fashion industry is something that isn't joked about from first-hand experience a lot. Although people are always cracking jokes in the job, they're kind of two separate entities, aren't they? You kind of have to take fashion quite seriously, but there's a lot of comedy in there.

I've worked with Kate Moss and she's really funny, but I guess on the face of things you have to be quite serious about fashion, which is a shame, because there's a lot of comedy involved behind the scenes of it all, and it's absurd. It's an absurd industry.

The experience making this for the BBC was great, I loved it. I'm lucky that I really felt supported by Jon Petrie and Tanya Qureshi, they've just allowed me to tell the story that I want to tell and also to feel like I am heard creatively. I think that's really important.

It was also the same with the production company VAL [Various Artists Ltd] that I worked with, they have just been incredibly caring, nurturing and supportive. I think about the other shows that they've done — especially with Juice and with Such Brave Girls — they've really nailed it in making sure that creatives that don't take the normal channels to get to a desk where they're writing are looked after and made to feel safe.

Spent (BBC)
Michelle de Swarte, who identifies as bisexual, hopes for more queer representation so people 'don't have to represent everything there is about queer culture, or about the queer experience'. (BBC)

When I was younger I was very fortunate that I was never encouraged to be anything but exactly who I am, and now I'm an adult I am grateful for that. When I was growing up I really didn't think of it as anything but something that I could do, I've always been able to explore my identity, and my mum's always been very clear that I can be with whoever I want to be with.

To be honest when I wrote Spent it wasn't with the intention of normalising queer relationships on screen through character's like Mia's friend Jo, but that's because that's been my own experience.

I was brought up in a queer family, my grandmother is queer, and so are my cousins and siblings, and my aunt is queer. My Gran and her wife have been together my whole life, and so that, for me, has been very normal. So in my own experience it hasn't had the bells and whistles, that's just been a big part of my life — growing up around people in same sex relationships, in trans relationships, in heterosexual relationships, in no relationships.

It was the same for me growing up, I was always free to date, and sleep with, and have relationships with, whoever I wanted.

Spent (BBC)
Michelle de Swarte told Yahoo: 'The more nuanced the stories are, the better, and I hope that, whatever I add to the industry, it is a drop in what will soon be a massive pool of stories'. (BBC)

There is some great queer representation out there in the entertainment industry. I remember watching Moonlight — I loved that film so much. I just watched Femme, which I thought was f***ing excellent, and I just produced a short film called Killer Heels that a friend of mine, who's also from Brixton, a queer guy called Daryl Dyer has made. I produced his film, that's about a drag queen assassin.

I really enjoy seeing Black queer stories in film and TV. I really enjoyed the queer storyline in I May Destroy You, for example. I thought that was great because I don't think we get to see loads of examples of British Black queer culture here. So I welcome all the new things that come out.

Representation is important, I think it might be a bit arrogant for me to be like 'this is how I think' but, again, I just think the more the better. The more nuanced the stories are, the better, and I hope that, whatever I add to the industry, it is a drop in what will soon be a massive pool of stories and experiences of things people are able to relate to.

Michelle de Swarte told her story to Roxy Simons.

Michelle de Swarte's Spent airs weekly at 10pm on BBC Two from Monday, 8 July, and all episodes are available now on BBC iPlayer.