‘Ellie Undercover’ talks rent for sex and shady botox for her new documentary series

Ellie Flynn is BBC Three's latest shining star in investigative journalism. In her new series, 'Ellie Undercover', the 25-year-old hides her identity to meet with exploitative rent-for-sex landlords and a struck-off doctor providing botox prescriptions over the phone. We asked her what she learned.

Why were you drawn to these stories?

Rent for sex has been happening on a local news level for a while, so I just wanted to look into it and see how widespread this problem is. I found out it’s happening on a huge scale nationally and it’s just shocking. It’s exploiting people who are extremely vulnerable, and I think it’s quite a sad comment on our current society.

Why is it on the increase? Is it just about rent prices?

I think rent prices probably play a part in it. I think there are more people who are struggling to afford housing, definitely in big cities like London, but also in Edinburgh and Manchester, housing is becoming more and more unaffordable.

But I also think it’s that time-old tale of people who have power exploiting people who don’t.

Were you frightened at all by the landlords you met, or were they disarming?

It was a real varied bunch. ‘On edge’ would probably be more the right term, because I knew I was physically safe. But there were definitely times when I felt like if I had been on my own I would be frightened. Some of them were less threatening. I think that was what was surprising about all the people I met. It really could be anyone.

What would you say to the argument that the women have chosen to be there and it’s like any other sex work?

I don’t think they have chosen to be there, personally. I think that both the women I met in the program who were in this situation or considering it were there because they really had nowhere else to be. I didn’t meet anyone who had entered this agreement because they wanted to and saw it as a viable option. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but it’s not something that I came across. I just think the reality is that if you’re going to put yourself in the position where you’re living with someone else, you really are at their mercy. You have put your complete life in their hands. You have nowhere to escape to. I think to put yourself in that position you have to be so desperate.

Why are these scenarios so dangerous and exploitative?

I think the consent in these situations just becomes a completely grey area. The idea [of consent] becomes completely mashed up because you’re in their house, you’ve gone to their house, either knowing in advance that this is the arrangement they want, or they’ve told you pretty soon after you get there. If you’re there and you’re staying there, the reason you’re staying there is because you’ve got nowhere else to go. So I can see how people maybe feel obliged to sleep with that person. They don’t really feel they can say no, maybe out of fear or a sense of obligation. I think that’s really sad.

Your second documentary, on botox, has just hit iPlayer – why is botox becoming more popular?

It’s massively on the increase. There’s a huge spike in young people. In the programme I meet with a girl who’s been getting botox since she was 18. It’s sort of become part of a whole package where you get your nails done, your eyelashes done, and then you get your botox done. That’s how a lot of young people see it. I don’t know if that’s to do with pressures from social media maybe, or if it’s actually something where people think: ‘If I can afford it and it’s going to make my eyebrows go up, and it’s going to make me have flawless skin, then why wouldn’t I get it?’

I don’t really have an opinion on people who do. I think if someone wants to get botox they’re perfectly within their rights to do so. I just think that if it’s going to be so commonly done, people should be doing it properly, know the risks, and go to a proper practitioner.

Have you been recognised at all since making the documentary? Do you think going undercover will become more difficult in future?

No I haven’t, and I’m hoping I can continue to do that side of it myself. But obviously the more I do the more risk I’m under that someone will have actually watched the program and won’t be fooled by my wig!

For information on emergency housing, contact the homelessness charity Shelter.

Ellie Flynn gave a right to reply to all the landlords featured in Rent for Sex, who all denied wrongdoing.