Rylan Clark

Face to face with Rylan

With his jet-black beard and Daz-white smile, he's one of the most recognisable faces on television... but how did he get there?

Like Boris and Beyoncé, Ant and Dec, the television presenter Rylan has ascended to that rung on the celebrity ladder where his first name alone rings the bell of instant recognition.

And it is not simply the name. Nowadays Rylan, who describes himself as being ‘seven feet tall with the biggest teeth in show business’ (he is actually 6ft 4in, but a degree of exaggeration goes with the territory), is recognised wherever he goes. Walking the 50 yards from the restaurant where we had been having lunch to his publicist’s office, where we continue talking, he has been approached half a dozen times for photographs. And it is one of his regrets that he can no longer travel on the London Underground untroubled. He has compensated for this by building a replica of a Tube station (actual size) in the drive of his Essex home, which he designed himself. He has put a London bus stop there, too.

‘I come from London,’ he explains. ‘So now I’ve got London on my doorstep.’

Then there is his fondness for domestic cleaning products. He is fastidious about cleanliness in his home, and as he writes in his memoir, Ten, there is nothing he loves more ‘than a browse in the cleaning products aisle of the supermarket’.

He was recently in Corby, doing promotional work, and happened to pass a branch of B&M, the household goods supermarket.

‘I went in there and within three seconds it was, “What are you doing in here? Surely you don’t need to shop here.” I’m like, I don’t need to, but I want to. Every step I took, it was photo, photo, photo, to the point where I had to go. Then I got a message from someone saying you’re all over this Facebook group “Spotted in Corby Town” with loads of pictures of me in B&M.

‘Unless I’m in, like, a burqa and a wheelchair I’m going to be spotted, but listen, this is not “poor me”. There’s a lot more worse than that going on. But just on a personal level I’d like to be able to have a walk around a B&M once in a while.’

He laughs. That’s fame for you.

Rylan laughs a lot. He is 34, an affable man, very polite, thoughtful, almost earnest at times, looking like – well, Rylan. He’s dressed in black trousers, a black shirt and a gold Audemars Piguet watch (at a price you could probably put down for a mortgage). He never understood the fuss about watches, but after his divorce and subsequent breakdown two years ago – more of which later – he treated himself.

Rylan Clark presenting ITV's This Morning alongside Holly Willoughby and Philip Schofield in 2017 Credit: ITV / Shutterstock

I was a late adopter of the world of Rylan. I missed his first major appearance on British television in 2012 on The X Factor. I didn’t see him on Celebrity Big Brother, either. But then I noticed he seemed to be everywhere: on the sofa of ITV’s This Morning with Holly Willoughby and the subsequently disgraced Philip Schofield, presenting The One Show, on gameshows and in advertisements (he even popped up in my Twitter feed promoting a mobile game, along with a number of presenters and Simon Cowell) – and then there’s his Radio 2 show, Rylan on Saturday, where he spends three hours playing records and phoning his mother. Belatedly I realised how interesting, how funny, and how clever he is – and how he has become part of the national conversation.

He has even received the imprimatur of true fame, like Princess Margaret, Queen Camilla and Dame Judi Dench: making a guest appearance on The Archers, in an improbable storyline about being stranded in Ambridge on his way to Liverpool to host Eurovision.

‘I remember one night,’ he says, ‘I turned on the television, BBC One and I was on a show. I turned over to ITV and I was on an advert, then I went to Channel 4 and I was on a panel show, and I was like, what the f—k…? The joke about me was “you’re everywhere” – and I was.’

Ask Rylan to explain his popularity and he replies that he was ‘the normal boy who did all right. I’m sat here with my PR, and we can talk about branding, what you want people to think of you. But taking that away, what people think of me is I don’t try to be anything else other than what I am.’

The normal boy… in some ways, yes. But in other ways, very much no. There is his appearance, for one thing. The artist Grayson Perry once affectionately described Rylan as looking like a ‘computer-generated Tudor nobleman’, with his plume of black hair and Van Dyke beard. His manicured appearance is the result of foundation, dye, moisturiser… basically whatever it takes. (His book, which is released in paperback later this month, includes an entire section headed ‘Rylan’s make-up and beauty secrets’: ‘Eyebrow hack. If you run out of eyebrow gel, a lick of Vaseline does the trick.’)

His teeth, preternaturally gleaming, are given a chapter of their own, describing his pursuit of ‘that Hollywood smile’ in gripping detail – involving two sets of veneers and ‘five weeks of hell in Harley Street’.

Cue the inevitable jokes about Shergar. But here’s the thing: anybody seeking to make a mockery of Rylan’s appearance, don’t bother. Whatever the joke, he’s thought of it, and exhausted it long ago.

And he is the opposite, he says, of a narcissist. ‘Talking about my appearance, for argument’s sake, yes I’ve made a Rylan façade, I suppose you could say – but I don’t look like any of this naturally. I wear make-up and I colour my hair and things like that. But that’s just an image thing for work… I don’t sit at home with a full face of make-up, wearing tight black skinny fits and ultra-tight tops… For me, it’s part of the package. We’ve all got a work outfit, a uniform; my uniform is the face.’

So Rylan was a construct? ‘Absolutely.’

Before there was Rylan, there was Ross Clark, a ginger-haired boy transplanted from Stepney to Essex. Leaving school at 16 with 12 GCSEs, he started modelling, adopting the name Rylan after going into a branch of WHSmith and browsing through a book of baby names.

He went to Ibiza, where he joined a Take That tribute group singing in nightclubs, and in 2011 he was a finalist on a modelling competition on Sky, judged by glamour model Katie Price, formerly known as Jordan. ‘I’d see how her being Kate and her being Jordan were very much two separate parts of her life, so I almost got a little look in before it was me, and I always kept that thing in my head.’

Before the X-Factor, Rylan had a taste of the spotlight when he made it to the final three of Katie Price’s modelling show Credit: Steve Meddle / Shutterstock

In 2012 he auditioned for The X Factor. His first appearance was a curious mixture of the bizarre, the hilarious and the strangely endearing – on being bottle-blonde, he commented, ‘This ain’t my hair, I’m full of extensions.’ Nobody thought he could sing, but that was irrelevant. As he points out, ‘The X Factor is not so much a talent competition as an entertainment show. There’s a list of people that need to fill that quota, and I was that one… I went on not as a “character” and within minutes realised the box I had to tick. That’s when I started thinking, they see me as that one – the joker, the non-singer that everyone talks about and maybe gets the s—t thrown at them.

‘And I thought, the sooner you know that you’re the joke, you can be in on the joke. So I just played the game and was in on the joke from day one.’

At the time, The X Factor was still the most popular Saturday night show on television, watched by more than 10 million people.

The night his first appearance was broadcast he was on a plane to Dubai, where contestants would face the Judges’ Houses stage. Phones had been confiscated so he had no idea of what was being written or said about him. When he was told by his mentor Nicole Scherzinger that he had been chosen to progress to the next round and appear in the live shows, he collapsed to the floor, weeping hysterically. It was television gold. A perfect love-him-or-hate-him moment for the tabloids.

It was the same week that ITV broadcast the documentary The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, exposing Savile as a paedophile. ‘In real time I’d just got through to the live shows, but I didn’t know what the f—k was going on. And then as the weeks went on – and I say this in the nicest possible way – there was two people on the front pages of the papers, me and Jimmy Savile, and I was getting worse f—king press. But the way I dealt with that was, “That’s Rylan [not Ross]…”’

He has hardly been out of the tabloids, or off social media, since. ‘My PR rings me all the time – “This paper’s got this story about you, you’ve done this or that.” No, I’d have definitely told you if I’d slept with that person…’ He laughs. ‘Just for bragging rights probably. In the world of social media, anyone can say anything, and anyone can believe it.’

When, in July, allegations first surfaced in The Sun that an unidentified BBC presenter – subsequently named as Huw Edwards – had been paying a young person more than £35,000 for sexually explicit pictures over a period of three years, Rylan happened to be in Rome, and woke up to find his name trending on Twitter. ‘I was like, what did I do last night? We only went to a karaoke bar…’ Then he discovered that his name, along with Jeremy Vine and Gary Lineker, was being linked to the story on social media.

‘Since the end of my marriage, every single day has just been confirmation to me that it was the right thing.’ Credit: Ahmed Hassan

‘But this is my point. One person would have said, “I’ve heard it’s Rylan,” or, “I bet it’s Rylan,” someone else sees that, and the next thing you know there’s a paper using my photo on the story. In this situation people are expecting you to bring in your PR company… But if I know I’ve done nothing wrong and my name is attached to something I’ll be the first one to say, it’s f—k all to do with me, wish everyone the best, and I’m out. Bye!’

He has a policy on this: when people he’s shared a TV couch with (including, presumably, Schofield) become caught up in show-business gossip and tittle-tattle, whatever they’ve done, if it’s nothing to do with him, he has nothing to say.

‘The only time I ever get involved in something like that is when my name’s involved.’ That, he says, is the recipe: ‘Work hard, be decent to everybody and be nice to everyone on the way up, because everyone has a fall.’

When I ask why he wanted to pursue fame in the first place he pauses, as if he’s never considered the question before. ‘I don’t know… I think it was the times I was living in and the way celebrity, I suppose, was idolised.’

So what did he think becoming a ‘celebrity’ would give him?

‘A career. But then you could say, why didn’t you become a plumber? I don’t know… I always wanted to be a performer. I’d been to drama lessons and dance lessons… and because of what I was into, the only way up, and to the heights of this world, was the world of celebrity.

‘I just fell into TV presenting on the back of being on a singing show,’ he adds. ‘The only reason I’m doing the job now is not because of talent, not because I’m the best TV presenter, not because I’m the best singer, it’s because I worked hard, I was nice to everyone – and I was cheap in the early days.’

He grew up in a council house in Stepney, moving to the suburbs of Essex when he was 14. His father is a mystery. He was never around when Rylan was growing up, and Rylan was raised by his mother, Linda, and his grandmother. He has an elder brother Jamie, who now works as his driver.

When I ask what his father’s job was, he hesitates. ‘I will say he was a typical East End man of his generation when it came to work. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of labour…’

Rylan Clark with mum, Linda, in March this year Credit: Instagram / Rylan

Is he saying he was on the fringes of crime? ‘I’m saying it wouldn’t surprise me, that’s all I’ll say. I don’t know. I had a lot of curiosity about him growing up. He used to come and see me up until I was about five-ish, once every couple of weeks or whatever. It transpired that he had a family that my mum didn’t know about at the time when she got pregnant. He had two other kids, then that was found out, whatever. But growing up it wasn’t really something I spoke about with my mum, because I never wanted her to be upset.’

He knew he was gay at an early age. He was, he says, ‘the stereotype. I always knew that I didn’t want a girlfriend and stuff like that.’

He idolised the Spice Girls, and when he and his friends (mostly girls) played at pretending to be the group, he’d always be Geri Halliwell – Ginger Spice. Now they’re close friends. ‘If you’d told me then, one day you’re going to be visiting Geri at home, I’d have been, what? Don’t be stupid.’

This is said with a sense of wonder.

He was comfortable with who he was. ‘And I was very lucky with the family and friends I had around me that no one gave a f—k – and it weren’t really the biggest shock, to be honest.’

But inevitably, the bullies came after him. ‘I was the ginger gay kid, what do you expect? I was f—king asking for it.’ By the time he was 15, he’d had enough.

‘I thought, I ain’t having this no more, and some kid that said something to me for no reason, I ended up knocking him out.

‘My mum was so happy she took me to the sandwich shop in Hornchurch, she was so proud that I’d hit back.’

Strangely, that day was the last time he’d ever see his father.

‘As we were walking to the sandwich shop, bearing in mind I’d not seen him for 10 years at that point, I just looked and saw this man and said, “Mum, that’s Daddy.” And she went, “Oh yeah, it is – you all right?” They chatted, and he just went, “Oh, my boy…” And I said, “Bye.” And he went.’

He has no idea about his father’s other family. ‘Maybe they’re sitting watching me on the telly…’ And he has no desire to meet them. ‘I don’t want to do a Cilla – surprise! No.’

His mum, I say, is a force of nature. ‘She f—king is, yeah.’

He clearly adores her. And she him. Through her appearances with him on Celebrity Gogglebox and their calls during his radio show, she has become something of a celebrity herself, beloved for her candid chat about her new teeth (she shares her son’s dentist), Crohn’s disease and excursions to the M&S Café at Lakeside. Rylan’s social-media updates about her recent health problems have been met with a flood of supportive messages from fans.

She contributes a chapter to Rylan’s book about her life that had me laughing out loud. If Rylan could be said to know exactly who he is and how that plays to the public, Linda gives the appearance of being completely unaware of how funny she is.

Louis Theroux describes Rylan as having ‘a quality of unself-conscious charm’ Credit: Ahmed Hassan

Surely she must know. ‘She doesn’t. I swear to God. I challenge you to spend an hour with my mum, and you would never ask that question again. She knows people like her because people go up to her all the time. But she forgets.

‘After Covid, [when] people were still wearing masks, she went to the pie and mash shop; she’s got her mask and she’s, “I’ll have one of them, and one of them,” and they went, “No charge, Linda.” She went, “You what?” “No charge, Linda.” She went, “Do I know you?” They were like, “No, we know you. We watch you on Gogglebox.” And she was like, “No, I’ll pay. I’m not taking anything for free.” Left a tenner and walked out – even though it came to 22 quid.’

When the money started coming in, he bought her a house and gave her a key to his own nearby; she’s apt to turn up as and when. On the morning we met he had been doing a corporate talk on Zoom to 500 people, when he heard the front door open.

‘It was my mum in the loudest blouse I’ve ever seen, looking like Miss Marbella 2023, and she says, “Don’t mind me.” I say I’m on a conference call with 500 people, and she goes, “Hello! You all right? I’m going to Russell & Bromley because they’ve got my handbag in.” Everyone’s p—sing themselves with laughter. She’s got no awareness of what to be like.’

Rylan has lived by himself since his divorce from Dan Neal, a Big Brother contestant whom he first met in 2013, while interviewing him after his eviction from the programme. They married in 2015, divorcing in 2021, following Rylan’s admission of past infidelity.

The breakdown of the marriage led to Rylan having a mental breakdown. ‘It literally hit me round the face like a baseball bat,’ he writes in Ten.

Rylan with ex-husband Dan Neal Credit: Mark Robert

Unable to face being in the marital home, he moved in with his mother. In the depths of depression he attempted to kill himself and was eventually admitted to hospital.

He’d come to think of himself as resilient, able to deal with anything. ‘During my bad days I thought, I can’t believe I’m like this. My mum used to be like, “What is wrong with you? Why are you so ill? We’re not like this.” But when your head goes, your head goes.’

He’s written and talked about all this enough, he says. ‘But what I can say is I’m very happy now. I hate to say it, but everything happens for a reason. And since the end of my marriage, every single day has just been confirmation to me that it was the right thing.’

For a few months he continued seeing a therapist, until it reached the point where the sessions just reminded him of being ill. ‘When I got back to where I needed to be in my head I was, OK I’ll take over from here.’

He recently stepped down from presenting Strictly Come Dancing: It Takes Two, after four years. ‘And when you tell your agents you’re quitting the biggest show on TV you can imagine, they s—t themselves.

‘But I’ve been doing the same type of job for 10 years. For me, I just got to that point: what do I want? What would I like to be? Who do I want to be? What show do I want to do in the future? And it’s really hard to try and work that out while you’re doing different things.

‘So take that step back, have a minute to myself, let it breathe, and not turn on the TV and see yourself while you’re watching what everyone else is doing. That’s a really good decision for me.’

Still, he’s juggling plenty of other projects – he recently finished filming a new show for Amazon Prime following a group of young Brits as they try to run a bar in Greece. Then there’s Celebrity Gogglebox, and a new Channel 4 series called Sex Rated (where single people learn where they’re going wrong in love).

Earlier this year he presented a podcast for BBC Radio 4, How To Be a Man, interviewing a variety of guests including boxer Amir Khan, model David Gandy, and Jake Daniels, the first male professional footballer to come out as gay in 32 years. The idea came out of a number of conversations with Louis Theroux, who featured Rylan in his podcast series Grounded in December 2020. Theroux’s company Mindhouse produced How To Be a Man.

Theroux first noticed Rylan on The X Factor. ‘He had something even then – a quality of unself-conscious charm,’ Theroux says today. ‘He just played the character of himself exquisitely. But I think what’s easy to miss is just how much intelligence and sensitivity there is behind all that.

‘“Reality TV contestant”, fairly or unfairly, is almost a byword for a low-calibre, low-wattage celebrity in the league table of fame. But Rylan has transcended that and come through as an extraordinarily accomplished broadcaster.

‘There are a lot of dimensions to him that could be overlooked by someone who just judged him at face value. He plays up the campness a bit, and he’s got a seaside-postcard sense of humour, but he’s a thoughtful and sensitive and highly intelligent person, and a brilliant interviewer.’

Rylan says he wanted How To Be a Man to ‘speak to the stereotype – to the alpha male, the model, the gay guy, because everyone gets stereotyped. I’ve been stereotyped my whole life. And I was interested in how people identify differently now: you have them/they, this/that. And and I was like, do we even know how to be a man these days?’

He has no questions about how he identifies. ‘I’m a he – always have been a he. But I’m happy for anyone to be called what they want… If you wanted me to call you Sandra, I’ll call you Sandra. You’d make a lovely Sandra.’

When he was approached to make How To Be a Man, he thought it was ‘just another job’. ‘With the greatest respect to the BBC, I didn’t give it a second thought.’ Then he went away to Italy to film another show, The Grand Tour. ‘And I came back and everyone’s listening to the podcast… and it’s getting really great reviews.’

Listen, and you can see why.

As casting goes, Rylan was an inspired choice. He asks thoughtful, often surprising questions. Interviewing Amir Khan, his first question was one never asked by boxing pundits and journalists. ‘What is it like, going to work, knowing that you’re going to punch someone in the face repeatedly until you win?’

For several seconds Khan is stumped. ‘You know, I’ve never thought of it – but now you’re saying that, that is my job. And I get paid a lot for it. It’s crazy, isn’t it?’

It was a reply that put me in mind of Rylan himself. He has not punched anyone in the face since he was 15. But being Rylan is his job – and he gets paid a lot for it. Somebody should be thinking of giving him his own prime-time, live Saturday night interview show.

You may laugh. But he won’t mind that at all. ‘I started as a joke, and I’m still laughing – that’s my tag line,’ he says. ‘And it’s absolutely true.’

Rylan is on BBC Radio 2 on Saturdays at 3pm. Ten: The Decade that Changed My Future is out in paperback on 28 September (Orion, £9.99); pre-order a copy at books.telegraph.co.uk