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Grace Campbell: ‘I’m moving into a different feeling of wanting to protect myself quite a lot’

The rising comedian, author and actor speaks to Olivia Petter about undertaking the ultimate dating challenge, carving out her own professional path, and what it means to share so much of yourself online

Wednesday 27 December 2023 13:39 GMT
Campbell: ‘I did four dates in one day; I was so drunk by the end of it. After that, I started doing them sober’
Campbell: ‘I did four dates in one day; I was so drunk by the end of it. After that, I started doing them sober’ (Grace Campbell)

If dating is a numbers game, no one is playing it better than Grace Campbell. Earlier this year, the 29-year-old comedian, actor and author went on 28 dates in two months – which equates to roughly one every two days. The premise was simple: set up the dates, record and analyse each of them with the help of two pals, then package up the whole thing for a podcast, 28 Dates Later, all the while maintaining a modicum of sanity.

“It was very intense,” says Campbell, smiling and stroking her dog, Eddie, in between sips of tap water at a pub in north London. “I did four dates in one day; I was so drunk by the end of it,” she laughs. “After that, I started doing them sober. But then that was f***ing boring.”

The “28 dates” concept was coined by journalist Willard Foxton, who set out on the same challenge himself in 2013, blogging every date along the way. By the end of it, he wound up with a partner. Campbell – who is the daughter of Alastair Campbell (yes, that one) – was approached by the US podcast production company Novel to try it out herself. The idea made sense; Campbell had regularly used her love life as material in her stand-up. The result is a hilarious, at times eye-wateringly raw, 28-part series that lifts the lid on the Byzantine world of modern dating.

“I didn’t find my husband,” Campbell sighs. “But I did start seeing someone I met on one of the dates for a bit.” As luck would have it, he was the final date; you’ll have to wait until the series finale in February to find out what went down. Before Mr Almost Right (they aren’t dating any more) comes an eclectic cast of characters that, quite frankly, could be straight out of a Sex and the City episode. There’s “The Sugar Daddy”, who has dated more than 1,000 women in three years. “The Guy with the Foot Fetish”, who insists most women don’t know how much they’ll love having their toes sucked. And “The Bouldering Vegan Cyclist”, which is fairly self-explanatory.

“The point was to date against my type,” Campbell explains. “I have two: hyper-masculine men who wear Stone Island, and bisexual guys who paint their nails. That’s been it for most of my twenties.” Logistically, the project required a delicate touch: all of the men had to consent to being recorded (“I was surprised by how game they were”); each date had to last at least an hour so they had enough content for an episode; and they all had to be wildly different from one another. No mean feat.

“Most of them came through the apps,” says Campbell, who, despite being a dating aficionado, found herself pushed entirely out of her comfort zone. “There were so many dates that surprised me; men I never would have thought I’d enjoy sitting opposite, but who ended up being fascinating. The whole thing has taught me to be a little more open-minded about the kinds of people I meet.”

The podcast also opened Campbell up to less conventional dating styles, like polyamory. She goes on a date with “The Guy with Five Girlfriends”, for example, and in one episode, which is yet to air, there is a date with a couple. “It taught me so much about open relationships,” says Campbell. “But I’m actually quite boring; you’ll never find me going on a date with my partner, for example. That would be a stretch too far.”

Enlightening as the experiment might have been, as any single person will know, going on one date is draining enough – let alone 28. “It made me really existential about dating,” says Campbell. “It kind of took the value of it away, because it made me see dates as material, which I already have a muddy relationship with because of how much I talk about it in my stand-up.” She hasn’t been on a single date since she finished recording in May.

It kind of took the value of it away, because it made me see dates as material, which I already have a muddy relationship with because of how much I talk about it in my stand-up

Grace Campbell

There was more than one occasion when, midway through a date that was going badly, Campbell would find herself texting her producer under the table, asking them to interrupt. “It was the dream get-out scenario,” she laughs. “Someone would just come over and say, ‘Sorry, Grace has to leave now for a show.’”

One crucial caveat in all this, though, is that Campbell isn’t exactly dating like a regular person. With more than 124,000 followers on Instagram, a hugely popular memoir, a series of sold-out one-woman comedy shows around the country, and a fan in Katherine Ryan, Campbell is a bona fide public figure who is frequently recognised and approached by fans (one of whom, as if to illustrate the point, politely interrupts our interview).

And if you don’t know her, you’ll almost certainly know her father. Alastair Campbell, the journalist, author and broadcaster who headed up Tony Blair’s communications team when Blair was prime minister, has embarked on a handful of projects with his daughter, including a podcast that featured guests such as David Lammy and Russell Kane. “When I was starting out in comedy, for me it was like, ‘How can I establish myself completely distinctively and away from my dad?’” says Campbell. “And talking about sex and relationships is a great way to do that, because it’s setting up my own audience.”

Grace’s podcast, ‘28 Dates Later’, is out now (Novel/iHeart)

Some of that audience ended up making its way onto the podcast. “It’s so weird,” recalls Campbell, noting how two women interrupted one of the dates to praise her work. “Then there was one where the guy I was with revealed he was quite a big fan of mine... that was strange.” How does having a public profile affect her love life more generally? “I’m thinking about this a lot at the moment,” she says, pensively. “The thing is, I’m very discreet and would never s***-talk about any of my exes. But I do worry about what people can find out about me before they’ve even met me.”

In August 2022, Campbell published an essay in The Guardian about being raped in Las Vegas three years ago. The piece – poignant, harrowing, and devastating – went viral, and she was suddenly inundated with messages from people wanting to talk about one of the most traumatising things that had ever happened to her. “I got 8,000 DMs the day the article came out,” she recalls. “I couldn’t reply to any of them. I didn’t even reply to some of my friends. It was insane; I was getting stopped by people every day whenever I went out.”

It’s an inordinate amount of responsibility; along with the validation that comes from knowing your experience has struck a chord with others, there is also the pressure of having to relive it over and over again in conversations with people you’ve never met. “It’s so hard, because I feel like I have to talk to everyone about everything, which I want to do,” she says. “But then I’m still processing stuff in real time, and it takes such a toll on your energy.”

Then there is the guilt. “Some of these people haven’t spoken to anyone about these things,” she says. “It’s so sad. You’ve given them a voice to talk about it, but if I spoke to every person that messaged me or stopped me on the street, the person my friends and family have to look after is going to be in a much worse state. And I want to make sure they don’t have to see me like that.”

Campbell will tour her next comedy show in October 2024 (Grace Campbell)

When it comes to how much of her own life she shares, Campbell is taking a different approach for 2024. “Next year, I’m turning 30 and I’m moving into a different feeling of wanting to protect myself quite a lot,” she says. That’s not to say she’ll stop talking about her personal life in her work – there is a tour scheduled for late 2024 that covers some “traumatic” subjects, she says – but she will be doing so with some “slightly healthy boundaries”.

There are other projects in the pipeline, too. “I’m writing a lot,” she says, careful not to specify. “I’m making some scripted stuff, too, and I’ve just made a short film that I wrote and directed. Then there’s the tour. And maybe another podcast.”

It’s a lot to pack in, particularly for someone on the precipice of entering a new decade and, by the sounds of things, a new perspective. “I’m feeling very reflective,” Campbell says as our time comes to an end. “My twenties have been a long 10 years of trial and error, and so many mistakes. I feel so much happier with myself now than I did even four or five years ago. And I think that will only increase, the older I get.”

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