Michaella McCollum: 'Mine was a bad mistake, but I was young, and I think I've proved that I'm not that kind of person'
Dungannon woman Michaella McCollum, one half of the Peru Two, tells Emily Hourican about the breakdown she had in prison, why people's judgements of her are 'a bit harsh' and how she is trying to turn her life around by applying for a place at a Belfast university
When the first photos of Michaella McCollum were released, following her arrest for drug smuggling in 2013 - with Melissa Reid in Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Peru - there was something unknowable about the girl they showed us. With her dark hair, winged eyebrows, large bun and black leather jacket, the girl in those photos looked older than her 20 years, shuttered, resigned.
In the speculation that followed - what, exactly, were these girls? Pathetic dupes? Hardened criminals? Fall-guys for a bigger operation? - fuelled by tabloid tit-bits but without any real access to Michaella that would have revealed her personality, we all made up our own versions.
Now, six years after her arrest and three since she was released from prison having served two-and-a-half years of a six-year-eight-month sentence, Michaella has written a book telling her story. And, she says, it hasn't been easy.
"Because of the book, I'm starting to revisit all of those emotions and feelings that I've kind of manipulated myself to not feeling," she says.
"I had always been thinking 'I shouldn't be upset and I shouldn't be angry, because I've done this to myself'. And I think this whole process… I've been so emotional these past three weeks - and I know it's because of all of this, because it's so overwhelming."
We're in a coffee shop in Portadown, an hour or so from where Michaella, now 26, lives. She is, if you ask me, unrecognisable from that pale, exhausted-looking girl in the arrest photos. She's blonde, for a start, with long loose curls around her face. She's glamorous and well put-together.
More than that, though, she looks younger now than she did six years ago, and seems naïve, almost hopeful, rather than hardened. Which is all the more surprising when you've read the book.
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"Initially I thought the book was just going to be about Ibiza and prison," she says. "I didn't intend to have anything about my childhood, because it makes me even more vulnerable, but then I realised, it is important to tell the whole story, because then people see the bigger picture."
Ibiza wasn't the start of it for Michaella. She had lived a whole lot before she ever got out there, including some years as a wild child. She started going to clubs and taking drugs when she was 15.
At the age of 16, she left home to live with an older boyfriend, a local hard man, who, about six months into their life together, beat her so badly that she had a cracked jaw and four broken ribs. Michaella went to the police, and succeeded in getting the man sent to prison - something that made her very unpopular in the local community. That, I say, was brave. Too often, women don't.
"My family made that happen," she says. "They said 'you have to send him to jail'. Of course I was scared, I was so young. And I was in this bubble. I thought I was in love with this person and I didn't want to cause problems, but I realised it was the right decision. I realised how toxic it was, how abusive he was, and that I didn't want someone to treat me like that." You grew up fast, I say. "Too fast," she agrees.
Michaella, the youngest of 10 children, was born in 1993 in the Republic of Ireland, and was brought up by her mother after her ex-Irish army father left home. They moved back to the North when Michaella was five, and were one of few Catholic families in a loyalist town.
Despite the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, sectarianism was still rife, and Michaella recalls crouching in her bedroom one July 12 while an angry loyalist mob threw homemade firebombs at their house. This sectarianism, the general bitterness and lack of opportunity are part of what sent her to Ibiza aged 19.
"I thought 'I don't want to do this any more. I don't understand why I'm a bad person in some people's eyes just because I'm a Catholic. I just want to get out of here.'"
She had been in Ibiza just five weeks when she set off on her mission to Peru. The story of how that came about is absurd, and highly plausible. Michaella was hustling in clubs and bars, dancing on podiums, handing out flyers, waiting tables (delivering drugs as well as drinks).
She fell in with a hard-partying crowd, one of whom was clearly richer than the rest, a 'businessman', who introduced her to a friend of his, another 'businessman', who asked did she want to earn £5,000 by bringing "a package" (she doesn't ever pretend that she didn't know what was in the package) over from the mainland of Spain. Tempted by the money, lulled by the apparent normality of drugs in the Ibiza scene, high on a cocktail of cocaine and ketamine, under-slept, under-fed and generally wired, she said yes.
What does she think those guys saw in her that made them pick her? "I think they saw that I was really young, and maybe naïve and immature. It was my first time ever on holiday, out of the UK."
Originally, she thought she was going to Barcelona. Then she was told it was Majorca. And finally, that Peru was in fact her destination. Which seemed fine to her, she writes in the book, because she thought Peru was just another town in Spain. Did she really have no idea she was headed for South America, I ask?
"No, and I feel so stupid about that as well. I had heard of a few countries in South America, I'd heard of Colombia, Brazil, but I'd never heard of Peru. I didn't know where it was."
This leads to one of the few funny moments in a book that is full of drama and trauma: Michaella, six hours into her flight, realising that she is clearly not headed for a town in Spain, trying to find out where she is going from the passenger next to her.
She and Melissa met for the first time in the airport, and, according to Michaella, initially had a fractious relationship; she found Melissa bossy and overbearing. She also writes in the book that she had no faith that the smugglers' plan (apparently, the correct officials had been paid off so the girls would travel unchecked) would work.
This is the bit that is hard to understand - I can almost see how she said yes, but not how she hung around Peru for days, making tourist visits to Machu Picchu to create a cover story and staying in a hotel in Lima, all with a growing sense of dread. Why not just run away? There was no one with the girls at that stage, just regular phonecalls from the man she calls 'Mateo' in the book.
"I was quite scared," she says. "And I didn't want to seem weak, because everybody else who was involved was so strong. I thought, 'maybe this isn't that big a deal', and I started to doubt myself for feeling fearful."
But there is another, more complex, reason, too: "I felt pulled towards it. I don't know if I felt pulled towards it because I knew the cycle of my life - always running away - and if I felt like, going to prison, I couldn't run away any more. I had to sit down and reflect on my life. I couldn't have continued living the way I was. I don't know if that was a way to teach me all the things I hadn't learned previously in my life, but somehow, I just felt I needed to do it."
Sure enough, it didn't work. The girls were arrested almost as soon as they set foot in the airport, with 11 kilos of cocaine between them, valued at around £1m, and incarcerated in various different prisons, depending on the stage of their legal process.
These prisons were overcrowded, understaffed (leading to a system whereby certain prisoners would be appointed 'delegado', meaning they were in charge of other inmates), often violent, corrupt (everything except the most inadequate basics had to be paid for, in money or other bribes), bug-infested (Michaella's descriptions of a bed full of cockroaches are particularly hard to read). At one stage, a cellmate tries to hang herself; another day, one inmate is viciously attacked and slashed, in front of her.
Through most of it, as the wheels of Peruvian justice ground slowly along (the girls pleaded 'not guilty' at first, insisting they had been coerced at gunpoint, then eventually changed their pleas to 'guilty'), and often hindered by the relentless UK tabloid focus (reporters regularly posed as friends and boyfriends to get access to the girls), Michaella stayed quite remarkably sanguine.
"I probably only broke down to my family twice," she says, "because I didn't want to hurt them or upset them. I knew they were already really, really worried and upset, and I felt like if I was upset, and weak, that would make them worried even more and that would upset my mum. I felt I didn't deserve to be upset. I felt like I had to put on a brave face. I think guilt was the worst thing I had to deal with. Even though I knew my family forgave me and still loved me, I still felt really, really guilty."
Her worst moment, she says, came about two years in, when her beloved uncle Gene, her father-figure and general champion, died of cancer. That precipitated what she describes as "a breakdown", during which she availed of the easily got sedatives and tranquillisers the prison was full of. "I was grieving for him and I was grieving for myself," she says.
"Up until then, I believed everything was okay. That time, I looked at the situation as the situation really was, rather than fooling myself. And I found it really hard to be blind again. I was grieving for my freedom and my family and all the time that I'd lost."
And so, for a few months, she turned to prescription drugs.
"I know I've consumed drugs in the past, but when I went into prison, I decided 'I don't want to be that person any more; I've been given an opportunity and I need to learn all these things, because if I don't, these things are going to continue to happen in my life' - so when I saw people taking all these drugs, I thought they were so foolish. Then when that happened to me, I just wanted to go to sleep. I didn't want to wake up. I didn't want to feel the pain. I didn't want to hurt myself, I didn't want to die, but I just felt all these horrible feelings, all these emotions I'd never felt before.
"I was sick with worry and guilt, I felt awful, and I didn't want to feel those feelings, so I would take sleeping pills to go to sleep so I didn't feel the pain. I did that for a couple of weeks, and then I just snapped out of it. I thought 'what am I doing? Who have I become? This is not who I want to be. I need to feel these things, I need to deal with it…'"
That time was grim, but it "kind of gave me the motivation to get myself out of that situation. I turned things around then. I feel like I needed that breakdown to wake myself up."
She did indeed 'turn things around'. By chance, she learned that she could apply for something called 'benefits', a kind of parole option. And so she threw herself into presenting herself as a model candidate.
She learned Spanish, she ran a beauty salon for other prisoners, put herself forward as 'delegado' and won, kept up a perfect behaviour record, and it all came good. She was given early release. She got out of prison, a couple of months before Melissa applied for and got the same early release, and spent some time in Lima before returning to Northern Ireland.
That, she says now, was hard. "When I first got out, I was so relieved, I felt I'd gone back to normal. But I found it really hard to adjust when I came back to Northern Ireland. I found I lost myself. I was really paranoid, I had no confidence. I felt like everybody hated me and everybody was talking about me. I was trying to get back, not to my old life, but to a normal life, and I found it very hard to adjust to everything. It was really difficult and probably took me about eight months before I was able to get back to myself and be able to walk out of the house with my head held high."
The gym was the first place she felt comfortable going.
"I started going every day. I felt like I should be valuing my body because I abused it so much in the past. And I felt like that was a really good mental escape. I started college and that was my life for the first year. I didn't socialise, I didn't meet up with any of my old friends. I became really weird. I felt like I couldn't connect with people, like I didn't have anything to talk about with people. With my friends, I felt like we were in different places, that I was a different person."
Except that to others, she wasn't different enough. In fact, everywhere she went, she was 'that girl…' "When I first came back, I suffered from that for a long time. When I applied for college, they held me back for a long time while they investigated. Eventually they let me in. With regard to work, I'd get a job, then they'd realise I was 'that girl,' and they'd say 'we have to let you go…'"
Did she have any kind of therapy? "No. It probably would have been good to talk to somebody. But I feel like doing the book was kind of therapeutic as well, because it was a way for me to let go of it. Because I hadn't let go, I had bottled it up."
A year ago, Michaella had twin boys, after a short relationship. "I was in denial when I found out I was pregnant - 'how did this even happen?'. And then I was even more shocked when I found out they were twins. My family were like 'only you… everything extreme happens to you!'."
She raises the boys alone, with help from her mother and family. "I'm sure I'll be enough for them."
After studying psychology and sociology in college, Michaella did a Spanish A-level, and applied for university in Britain, to study International Business Management, and was accepted. And then rejected.
"I had enrolled, I'd already rented a house in the city, I had half moved over, then two weeks ago they removed me because of my past. They gave me a few reasons - they said I was a potential risk to their students, to their reputation, to the community. I was going to appeal it, but then I decided… for me to make that decision, to move, with my children, away from my family, was massive, and my family were heartbroken. I felt really guilty, but I really want a degree and to have a successful career, and I felt going there was going to be the best thing, even though it was going to hurt my family.
"But their decision left a bad taste in my mouth… I felt kicked to the ground a wee bit. I know I could appeal it, but it would take a lot of time, and I felt so emotional with the book and everything, and I thought this will be more emotion and stress and maybe this isn't the right time to do that..." Instead, she will wait a year, then apply for university in Belfast.
Is she still in contact with Melissa? "No. We're in touch, we speak, but not a lot. But I feel like I'll always have a close bond with her."
What does she hope for from the book? "I hope it softens people's opinion. That it gives them an opportunity to get to know me and know the true story, rather than what they've read in the newspapers. I feel it's a bit harsh that people have these really strong judgments on me. Yes, I made a mistake, but we all make mistakes. Mine was really bad, but I was young, and I think I've proved that I'm not that kind of person - taking drugs and committing crime after crime. I am really trying."
Clearly, she is. Trying to make something impressive of her life; trying, too, to see what happened to her in a positive light.
"I feel you have to look at it and see the positive things that came out of it. I believe everything does happen for a reason and I feel you have to make it what it is. I could look back and go 'that was a really horrible time', or I can look back and go 'that was really horrible, but good things came out of it'. I'm at the place in my life that I am because of that, and I'm the person I am because of that, and I wouldn't change where I am. I wouldn't have my children if it wasn't for that. So I have to be grateful for that experience, even though it was horrible."
You'll Never See Daylight Again by Michaella McCollum is published by John Blake
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