WHEN growing up in California there was no indication that Michelle Joy Phelps would eventually carve out a career in boxing. Phelps, though, dreamt of one day living and working in the UK and has achieved this dream via her company Behind The Gloves’ successful YouTube channel.
Phelps now splits her time between her home in Manchester and the US, she also appears on both YouTube and the odd network broadcasts and, like her or not, is now one of the most prominent faces of the so-called “new media” of video interviewers and Youtubers.
“My mum said to me that what blows her mind is that at such a young age I would always say ‘I’m going to go to England one day’,” she told Boxing News. “I always knew what I wanted to do, always had this plan, and I went out and executed it.”
“I wouldn’t sit here and say my family were diehard boxing fans, but we got all the big PPVs growing up so I grew up as a massive fan of Oscar De La Hoya,” she added. “Interviewing him was major. I think he was my second or third interview and it was a trip. Now he follows me on social media, knows my name — it is kind of cool. I loved him as a kid.”
The decision to make a go of it was prompted when Tim Bradley controversially beat Manny Pacquiao in 2012. Phelps recorded a reaction video that blew up. She then used the burst of attention to launch her brand, which has grown at an incredible rate.
“It is funny because I don’t want to downplay it, as it hasn’t necessarily been easy, but it kind of just fell into my lap,” she recalled. “I went off on the decision on the video, put it on YouTube, and by the next morning I had thousands of views — people were telling me to do more videos.
“I started in 2012, then in 2013 I created Behind The Gloves. I think people were ready for female video interviewers so I started at the right time. There are many more of them around now. It is a good thing. I don’t know why there weren’t too many before.”
“It takes women wanting to be a part of it as well,” she answered when asked about the changing media landscape. “I’m not saying that women don’t like boxing, many do, yet you didn’t always see as many women as men following the sport. Now we are seeing a resurgence. When I first started that wasn’t the case, most of the women were working as publicists.”
There is a lazy assumption from many, this writer included, that creating video content is easy. Equally, some assumed that Phelps had an easy passage into the sport due to her looks and the fact she is a woman. As with most success stories, the secret boils down to hard work.
“It is a lot of long hours,” admitted Phelps. “Fight week is dreadful. I just have to mentally prepare myself. You are talking about 12- and 15-hour days. I’m not just an interviewer, I edit and do the social media and everything across the board. I don’t just hand my SD card over to someone. I am up until the wee hours of the morning and then have to prepare for the next day. On top of that you are maybe dealing with jetlag so might get no sleep. Come the Sunday, I am in a coma for about two days — I am too drained to get out of bed.”
It is not all gravy, though, as Phelps was met with plenty of resistance and scepticism from the get-go, receiving a huge amount of abuse purely because she is a woman working in what some still perceive to be a man’s field.
“It was tough because people could see that I’d gone from trying to be an actress and doing some modelling for Maxim and FHM to what I was doing, and I think that actually hurt me,” she said.
“It created an interest and got people talking yet in the long-term it made people say: ‘Oh, she is doing this for attention or to find a husband’. I was trying to make people understand that I was passionate about it. It was fun. Then it grew into something bigger than I could have imagined.”
Another by-product is that rather than being seen on her own terms and in the light of her role, Phelps is categorised by her sex and, as evidenced by the direction this article is going in, not to mention the fact it is written by a man, is picked out to speak on behalf of all the women working within her field. Indeed, the irony was not lost on me that by opening a line of questioning about the role of and treatment of women in boxing I was going down a very predictable, very male, path.
“I don’t know why we are subjected to the thinking that if we are pretty then we are only there because we are pretty rather than being passionate about the sport and good at what we do. It is either one extreme or the other: Either, ‘I really like her’ or ‘I hate her’, or ‘she is good but only here for a reason, and she must do all of these things to get the access.’ There are no shades of grey. People don’t realise I have to do all the regular things such as going through a publicist, trainer or someone else to get into camp. I don’t know why those comments are only directed towards women.”
The ongoing situation between heavyweight Kubrat Pulev and Jennifer Ravalo brought it into fresh focus. Pulev ended an interview by planting a kiss on Ravalo’s lips. She responded by initiating court action. Then a video emerged of her with Pulev and his team after the event that created blurred lines. What is interesting was the ideas that popped back up again over what a woman should wear and how she is perceived based on it, something that Phelps has faced.
“Number one, Pulev is wrong in every sense, you don’t just grab someone and kiss them like that,” she declared. “He is 100 per cent wrong. My other thought is that if I feel offended by or uncomfortable with someone then there is no way that I am going to party with them afterwards. Was he wrong? Yes. Was she lying about being uncomfortable or offended? Yes, in my opinion. Pulev was saying there is more footage that he is saving, presumably for court.
“He is wrong for sexually harassing her and she is wrong to sue for money under the pretence that she was made to feel uncomfortable when she went to a party, gave a lap dance to someone and then asked if there was any video being recorded. I’m just calling it as I see it. Unfortunately, I and other female interviewers have been harassed with comments over that situation.”
It is a funny thing in that some boxing fans become ultra-prudish towards women. Ring card girls can wear very little, that is fine, but, for some, every woman who goes on camera should wear a duffle jacket and baggy trousers while it is perfectly fine for men to show off their physique on camera or via selfies.
If women dress any other way than conservatively they are opening themselves up to unwanted claims or advances would seem to be the perception. But Johnny Nelson, for example, wearing tight clothes that show off his impressive physique is something entirely different.
“People just need to relax and not make it into a sexual situation every time. I’m not sure if it happens in other sports, but it definitely turns sexual with the comments in boxing. I just feel it will always be this way. If you look at entertainment where a woman is interviewing an actor or a musician it is not about what she is wearing. There seems to be a very obvious line between the two in sport. If a woman is getting harassed for wearing tight pants yet a guy isn’t then it is not the same for both sexes — I don’t think we will see that change with the way the Internet works.
“People can speak without consequences now, so how do we put a cap on that? How do we change that? It is cool to be negative now. People intentionally troll people for amusement and if you clap back people ask you why you even responded. Then they might say they are just trying to be funny. Is it really a joke to tell a woman she is fat? Is it a joke to tell a woman she is ugly? I’ve had comments about rape, which is not even remotely a joking matter. Here, let me show my tagged words on Instagram so you get an idea.”
Phelps showed me terms that she has had to either mute or place tags on so that she does not see certain comments. It was quite the list: sexual swearwords, words associated with acts of sexual violence, the lot.
“I’ve had to tag all of these words to avoid abuse — I’ve muted a bunch of others. Someone made jokes saying I was being sexually abused growing up, how do you even joke about that? One time I went six months without looking at social media, a friend who worked at Behind The Gloves did it for me as I made the choice to enjoy real life.
“If every day you had people who subjected you to harassment just for showing up for work then it would be too much. They don’t see it like that, the people doing the comments, as they say I put myself out there so deserve to be criticised. I am doing a job. I am going out there to do interviews so at what point am I putting myself up for being harassed?
“A person’s success is a mirror to another person’s failure, so oftentimes the people sitting there harassing you are being reminded every day that they are not chasing their dreams. They are not living out the life they actually want for themselves, so the next best thing is to harass the people who are. My perspective has changed. Before I used to cry about it, now it is water off a duck’s ass to me.
“On the other hand, I had to create my own position off social media. It is a double-edged sword. I am grateful for it for getting me to this point. You have to be thick-skinned. As a woman you are tested in this industry. If someone wants confrontation with you, you have to stand up. You have to do a bit more than a man would have to do to get that same level of respect.”
Phelps hopes that after breaking down one barrier she can break through another by getting a permanent role on a network, many of whom still regard the new media with suspicion and, in all likelihood, something approaching fear. “People ask what the bigger picture is,” she said.
“I applied with two major networks in the US, with one I made it to the top two, the other top three, which is a major thing for someone who came from YouTube. I’m up against people who graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism. Some television people can be a bit snobby, maybe not wanting to see a Youtuber get an opportunity that they went to college for. It is only a matter of time before opportunity comes knocking.”
“If you had told me seven years ago that I’d be doing this professionally I’d have collapsed,” she marvelled as our talk neared its end. “My advice for others is to find your own way so you don’t become the 2.0 or 3.0 of somebody else. Find what works for you and go with it. It is the only way to be successful in any industry. Stand on your own feet.”