They used to say you should never meet your idols, and the updated, 2017 version of this is definitely 'never meet someone that's cool online' (they'll almost always be a weirdo). I broke this rule with Dolly Alderton, features journalist, script writer, ex-Sunday Times dating columnist and co-host of The High Low Show podcast with Pandora Sykes - and she did not disappoint. Mainly because she sent me a link to a fluffy guinea pigs Instagram page. But we'll get to that later.
You might think scrolling guinea pig themed Instagram accounts and tweeting about Trinny Woodall would be a waste of your spare time, especially when you don't have much of it. But apart from the small matters of the Sunday Times column, journalism, the weekly newsletter The Dolly Mail, the podcast, writing TV scripts and novels (Dolly's just finished her first novel Everything I Know About Love), she's also become one of Twitter's favourites, amassing nearly 24k followers due to the hilarious tone of voice that translates from her long form pieces to her 140 character snippets (btw she's also great on Instagram, too).
She tweets about the funny things she encounters on the daily, be it a man screaming on a train, or titty themed furnishings. So how does she manage to have a Tweetable life, as well as such a hectic schedule? Dolly says it's more out of necessity, rather than carving out time for herself, explaining that "you can’t write without a life. That’s the one thing a writer needs to do their job. I’ve got to go out, listen to friends’ stories, travel to new places, have sex, eat middle-eastern pastries I can’t pronounce, fall in love, get my heart-broken, learn some lessons, have a big shouty argument, watch old films and new films, read a good book and chat to a stranger on the bus. Because otherwise, what will I have to write about? Even if you’re not writing personally – even if you’re interviewing a pop star or reviewing a play, I truly believe all that life experience and understanding of the world and the human condition feeds into how you perceive things and every sentence you write. The more you ingest, the more curious you are, the better your writing voice will be. So making time for life experience is just crucial, not only for your wellbeing but for your work as well."
But Dolly didn't always have her life so together; her career was unplanned. She knew she always wanted to be a writer of sorts, but didn't know whether she should take the journalism route, or think about writing plays and stories. This lead to a, in her words, disastrous decision to do a drama degree (which she hastily switched to English).
"I did a journalism MA, then sort of accidentally got a job in TV – story producing Made in Chelsea. I worked on the show for two years, before moving into TV development. I then went into scripted TV, working as a script assistant on E4’s Fresh Meat, then spent some time doing more development. For the four years I was working full time in TV, I was also moonlighting as a freelance journalist, and two years ago I became a full-time freelance writer."
The here and now...
At the moment, Dolly's main focus is her podcast, The High Low Show. Despite it ranking at #2 on the iTunes podcast chart within its first month, she's focused on developing its listenership, interviewees and sponsors. And it's not easy, "who knew that podcasts were more than just two horizontal pals gassing away while sipping Rooibos with a microphone balanced on a cushion?". That's basically where the inspiration for the podcast came from; girls chatting shit with their friends.
"The founding ethos of The High Low is that life is enjoyed best when consuming both high and low brow cultures while being curious, open-minded and non-judgemental. I think a lot of women felt relieved that we were saying it’s OK to elevate the trivial to the academic, and talk about the hard-hitting serious stuff with a digestible language and reference points and no fear of asking questions. We all pretend like we know too much. Any given week we could be talking about racism within the NYPD, Trinny Woodall’s Instagram account, a Martin Amis book, a Gemma Collins meme and we hope to approach all those subjects with just as much vigour, interest and honesty.
Alongside the podcast, Dolly is also developing her book for TV, so she's working on how to transfer the story onto screen. If that wasn't enough, she's also creating two TV shows with her writing partner Lauren Bensted; "one about Brexit, the other about polyamory. They're more fun than they sound, promise".
An analogue girl in a digital world...
Interviewing a writer in the same week Nylon magazine was yet another print publication forced to close its doors to focus on digital (RIP), I was keen to get Dolly's opinion on 'pivoting to video', to which she replied, "I'm so out of touch, I haven’t even heard of it, it sounds like a move you’d learn in hip hop dance class at a Fitness First". She accredits this 'out of touchness' to being a freelancer instead of a staffer - and also reckons that assuming everyone's a TV natural is most definitely not the future of journalism.
"Here’s the thing with video content – and this is only going on my experience of working in reality TV having to do a lot of casting and screen tests: it is one in five hundred people who is really good on camera. A big mistake journalists make is assuming that because they can tell a funny story, or they’re the gregarious one in a group of their mates down the pub or that they know a little bit about a lot of things, they’d be a great presenter. I am terrible on camera. Which is why I nearly always say no to the rare occasions when TV or online video jobs are offered to me. I’m a words-on-paper girl. I once read somewhere that Twitter has made celebrities think they’re journalists and journalists think they’re celebrities, and I do think there’s perhaps something in that."
"I also despair that publications assume we can only consume thoughts through video content. Reading is a skill, it takes concentration and a degree of creativity and I worry we’re all losing it because of browsing culture. I know it’s one I have to work really hard on. I put my phone on airplane mode if I ever really want to immerse myself properly in a book."
Bad men and bad dates...
As a woman with a relatively small platform, I still receive disgusting comments and abuse (usually, from men) online daily. It's the unique trade off with being a woman online; you can have some incredible opportunities afforded to you, if you put up with the relentless harassment. As Dolly's platform is a thousand times bigger than mine (and curated through a variety of different mediums), and despite her being incredibly lovely, I knew she must have been through the same. I asked her about the worst abuse she's received, and how she deals with it (mainly for the interview, but also just because I was curious).
"I wrote a dating column for The Sunday Times Style for two years – it was great fun and a wonderful opportunity, but it also really exposed me to the deeply embedded misogyny female story-tellers, and women in general, have to face day in day out. Incredibly patronising, rude, aggressive emails from middle-aged men from middle England became completely commonplace. The main theme was that they hated that I wasn’t looking for a relationship, or that I occasionally made jokes about men which obviously meant I was self-absorbed, narcissistic and “actually quite an unpleasant young woman,” one read. I only ever replied to one, from a man who emailed me to say he hated my column so much that it had forced him to stop buying The Sunday Times altogether. Incidentally, that week was the fashion week special which meant mine and Cosmo’s column wasn’t on the back page, so I cheerily emailed him to inform him of this and told him I hope he enjoys the entire paper from cover to cover, relaxed in the knowledge that not a word – not even a comma – of mine would feature in it."
But, ever so graciously, Dolly takes the abuse as being part and parcel of being a woman visible online.
"There was a particularly horrible discussion forum I once found about me on a website of a man who endorses rape, which I found very distressing, particularly as the language was very graphic and I know my dear old dad googles me religiously to read all my work - and hated the idea of him seeing it. It was a discussion about how much they did or didn’t want to have sex with me, with one man photo-shopping me next to Miss Piggy. The real bummer is that in reality, I am six-foot-tall with googly blue eyes and quite fluffy blonde hair, so I look very little like Miss Piggy and actually quite eerily like Big Bird. It was an adolescent nickname in fact. So they got the wrong Muppet. I nearly waded in to tell them, but my friends advised otherwise."
And the man who refused to buy The Times because of her column missed out; her quips about romance both reveal everything, and nothing. When asked about her best date, Dolly simply says "it was a depressing ten years ago, when romance was all shiny and new. I met him under the twinkling giant Christmas tree in Covent Garden and it ended with a hotel breakfast the next day." Her worst date, however, is a bit less magical; "It involved a man telling me he wasn’t quite on board with feminism and singing The Smiths, acapella, apropos of nothing, with his eyes closed." Ouch.
So what's next for Dolly? Apart from making her book into a TV show and avoiding men who sing, unprompted, over dinner, she says she would "love to write fiction, even though I know that is an extremely hard discipline and very different to memoir. I really want to give it a go and learn that craft. I’d love to get a script out of production company development and off the ground with Lauren. There’s also a low budget short comedy film we want to make in the next few months that’s about the wedding industry, so I’d really like to make the time for that. I’d love to do more travel journalism. I’d love an agony aunt column. I’d love to interview Rod Stewart. There’s masses and masses of stuff and skills I am yet to do and learn."
And her list of things, and people, she loves, is just as long as her to-do list. Her Instagram recommendations are as follows; "Trinny Woodall, she liked one of my photos the other day and my heart stopped but, alas, still no follow back. For beautiful aesthetics: @pandorasykes, @chrisfloyd, @cocofennell, @lukeedwardhall. For lifestyle porn: @courtneyadamo, @theapartmentdk, @chateagudanes. For nostalgia: @lostinhistorypics, @70sbabes, @mariannefaithfuldaily. For lols: @everyoutfitonsatc, @thefatjewish, @bymariandrew, @jessiecave, @beigecardigan. For guinea pigs: @ourfluffyguineapiggies" (Yep, I told you we'd get to the guinea pigs).
And, as always, I had to give her some quickfire questions to round things off.
What phrase do you wish everyone would stop using? "I still don’t really know what lit or fam means."
What are 3 things you need to be able to do your work? "Tea, warm socks, my phone on airplane mode, an empty fridge so I don’t take a two hour lunch break making complicated recipes to avoid work, Camel Blues when it’s hard."
What are you currently obsessed with? "I am a woman of hyperbole, so where to begin. These change every single day. See? I’m doing it now. Today my obsessions are: Joan Didion being Radio 4’s Book of The Week, Tiny Ladies Shiny Pants, waking up to Biggie Smalls Mo Money Mo Problems, working to 'In Trutina', and Raw Choc Pie 'healthy' chocolate bars" #NotSpon