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Reggie Yates: I was a bit ego driven in my twenties, but in my work I am reminded constantly that the world's not actually about me

Reggie Yates was just eight when he started work and his career spans almost 30 years in television. He tells Gabrielle Fagan what makes him tick

Reggie Yates
Reggie Yates

By Gabrielle Fagan

Documentary filmmaker Reggie Yates has never been afraid to confront difficult situations - from encounters with members of the Ku Klux Klan in America, being incarcerated in a jail in Texas, through to meeting Mexican drug cartels and exploring homophobia in Russia.

"I love to engage with people and have conversations that can be revealing, thought-provoking and change the way people look at an issue or themselves," says the 36-year-old, who shines a light on issues around the world in his highly regarded programmes.

Remarkably, his career spans almost three decades; he began working in children's TV aged eight. In his 20s he presented The Radio 1 Chart Show as well as Top Of The Pops, before moving into entertainment and then factual programmes.

Yates is currently working on a campaign with Plusnet and Scouts to help young people use technology for social good.

"It was so inspiring to see Scouts not just using computers, but coding on them, and using technology as a tool for good to effect change for society on issues they feel strongly about," he says. "I make documentaries to focus on issues and to see them have the same motivation was really galvanising to me."

Yates, whose written a drama about reality TV - Killed By My Fame - airing on BBC Three, opens up about coping with challenging situations, what drives him, and how therapy is vital to his well-being.

How do you approach making a documentary?

Whenever I meet new people when I'm making a documentary, I'm excited and interested to learn not only about their lives, but what it is that powers and drives their opinion on the world.

For instance, it was incredible to meet a young generation of men and women in their 20s in China, who want to redefine what it means to be Chinese, powered by technology I'd never even considered.

You've filmed in some difficult locations - a toxic waste dump in Ghana, a jail in America - have those experiences changed you as a person?

All those situations remind me how lucky I am. I would feel incredibly disrespectful to say that my seven days in a toxic waste dump were the hardest thing I've experienced, when there are people who'd lived there for years prior to my coming and remain there. That's hard, not my short stay.

I hope that for people watching the film, it's a reminder their lives aren't actually as bad as they may think and also that I am their eyes and ears in that environment.

They should use my experiences as a lesson, and also a motivator, to actually do something about the world and the way they navigate it.

What do you think is the secret of your success?

I don't want to seem faux humble, but I don't see myself as successful. I see myself as maybe three or four stages into a 10-point plan. I'm a work-in-progress and I've still got a long way to go.

I have a real insatiable appetite for growing myself both professionally and personally, and I'm not scared of hard work. I'll often get up at 5am to go to the gym, sort out my emails, and get ahead with my day. I firmly believe that if you work hard, good things happen.

I was a bit ego driven in my 20s, but through making really good documentaries and getting involved in worthwhile campaigns, like the Plusnet Scouts campaign, I have a constant reminder that the world's not actually about me.

What drives you?

To have the strength to keep learning. I really enjoy being new at something, because there's nothing worse than coasting. I don't believe in it and I've never done it.

Staying in your comfort zone is so easy, particularly if you're doing well, but in my life and in my career, I've changed direction regularly, even though it was difficult each time. I've gone from acting to presenting, radio presenting into entertainment, and then documentaries.

What's your latest project?

I'm very excited about my TV writing debut, a drama Killed By My Fame, which I've also produced on.

Growing up in television I've continued to be fascinated by the evolution of reality TV. I've often questioned how affecting whirlwind fame can become once the cameras are gone.

All too often the audience sees the glamour and popularity that comes with being in the public eye, but in this drama, we explore the true impact instant fame can have.

What's your ultimate goal?

To be financially free, creatively fulfilled, but more importantly to be the best man that I can be.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, I started work as a child at eight, and there's a permanent record - video, audio and pictures - of my progress.

I can look back and see my naivete, change, growth and progress. Some people might be embarrassed by their younger self, but I'm proud of my work and who I've become.

How do you look after your health?

I go to the gym about five times a week. It's incredibly therapeutic as there's nothing better than exerting yourself and actually seeing a result.

My idea of relaxing is a cup of mint tea, putting the phone away and having some good conversation.

How do you look after your well-being?

I realised quite early on that I wasn't looking after myself properly following making each of the documentaries. I was neglecting the fact I was still carrying some of the things that I experienced with me.

Decompression afterwards is a key part of being able to process something and then move forward. Being around my eight nephews and nieces is a brilliant way to achieve that.

It's like treating the children in your life as the water to your cordial. So if your problems are the cordial - the thick syrupy stuff you can't break down - children are the water to that and put everything into perspective.

I see a therapist regularly and I'm incredibly fortunate, with a great circle of close friends and a brilliant family.

What would your older self tell your younger self?

Nothing happens before it's meant to. I didn't really understand that in the past. I'd end up getting frustrated at things not happening sooner.

Now I know that I wasn't ready and if they had happened when I wanted I would have messed them up. So there's something beautiful about the universe taking its time.

Do you have any regrets?

No, I've never done regret. Instead I see some of the more difficult things I've experienced as lessons.

One of the best things I've learnt over the years is that everyone can teach you something, no matter who they are and no matter what you think of them. I try to take a lesson from every situation I'm in and to me every day is precious.

I've lost a lot of people that I love over the years and I value my time, so wasting my energy on negativity and regret doesn't make sense.

Young people from across the UK can also now try their hand at using their digital skills for social good by downloading their own Plusnet Hack at Home Pack:

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