Dermot O’Leary looks back: ‘I don’t remember having a bowl on my head for a haircut’

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The Guardian

Dermot O’Leary in 1977 and 2022
Dermot O’Leary in 1977 and 2022. Later photograph: Simon Webb/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman. Grooming: Gemma Wheatcroft. Archive image: courtesy of Dermot O’Leary

Born in 1973 and raised in a village near Colchester, broadcaster Dermot O’Leary studied at Middlesex University before becoming a TV runner and researcher in the mid-90s. Part of a new wave of fresh, young British presenters, he was the poster boy for hangover TV, hosting T4 from 1998 to 2001, until his career on the vanguard of reality TV began: first as a presenter on Big Brother’s Little Brother, and then on The X Factor in two stints between 2007 and 2018. He now presents This Morning on Fridays and has a show on BBC Radio 2. His podcast, People, Just People, is available now on Audible, and series four comes out on 21 July.

This photograph must have been taken at nursery just before I started school – there’s no way my parents would have taken me to a photo studio, even if they could have afforded it. I was four years old, and while I don’t ever remember having a bowl on my head for a haircut, the style doesn’t look far off it. Most of all I just see the happiness of my childhood bursting through my eyes.

I had a strange and magical upbringing. My parents came over from Ireland in 1968 and, like a lot of people from that generation, there wasn’t a real plan. They lived in north-west London and their whole life revolved around church, hurling and the Irish community there. They didn’t want to raise my sister and me in the city, so they moved to a village in Essex. Nestled between two motorways, we were kind of cocooned: there was just one school, and most of the families had moved there at the same time, so there was a tight-knit Essex community. Every time I shut the door, however, I was very much in an Irish household – lots of crucifixes on the wall and Irish music playing. Politics and religion were always the topics of discussion when we sat down to eat dinner. We didn’t have much money, but we had so much love and laughter.

I was definitely a show-off at school and while I was relatively popular, I’m not quite sure where I fitted in. I wasn’t exactly a jock and I wouldn’t say I was the class clown either, as I was a bit too diligent. The idea that a teacher could think I wasn’t doing my best would kill me – but I was always easily distracted. If there were two people in class sitting in the corner mucking around, I’d want to know what they were up to – I was endlessly curious. It was handy that my sister was three years older than me – I was never going to get duffed up because I was Nicky O’Leary’s little brother.

I don’t know if it was by accident or design, but my parents gave me enough rope that I didn’t feel the need to rebel. If I annoyed them, I knew about it. When I failed my GCSEs, my dad just said to me: “Let’s do this one more time in a different school. If it doesn’t work, then we need to think about what you’re going to do.” That was the only kick up the arse I needed – and by the time I did retake them, I had matured a bit.

I wanted to be an actor for a while, but I realised – midway through my first GCSE drama exam, in which I performed a terrible play my class had written – that I didn’t have what it takes. Terry Wogan was one of my heroes, in that he was an Irish man who’d done well. But the real lightbulb moment for me was watching The Last Resort with Jonathan Ross. He was so funny and subversive.

Breaking into the industry seemed impossible, but I had a fierce work ethic. Once I’d graduated, I spent my time applying for TV internships. I’d send 300 letters out and mostly receive silence or rejections, but eventually I managed to get a reply from a production company and on 2 January 1995 I started as a runner. I was doing research jobs, and on my lunch break would literally run into town to do screen tests for presenting jobs, try not to mess it up, then run back to the office.

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I was working on Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins’ Light Lunch when I got my big break. They had sacked the guy who warms up the audience before the broadcast because they’d overheard him on the phone saying: “I can’t believe how much money I am getting for doing this!” I was asked to step in, without the huge wages, and when [TV presenter and producer] Andi Peters came on as a guest we got chatting afterwards. He said: “I’m setting up this thing called T4. I can’t give you a job, but I can think about you for some screen tests.” So I did some, and ended up getting a co-hosting job on T4 with Margherita Taylor. T4 was for a duvet generation – uni students, sixth form, school kids. But my next step – Big Brother – was another level.

There’s a lot of retrospective negativity about Big Brother, but the first few series were really innocent and playful. There was never anything vindictive going on. It’s a popular misconception that all reality TV producers are evil puppet masters, but really it’s just total plate-spinning panic and hurried five-minute meetings. As for the contestants, the worst you got was some shit on a chatroom and a bit of booing when you left the house. By the time they got to the bottom of the stairs, everyone was cheering, and I never remember meeting anyone who didn’t utterly enjoy their time on the show. It felt incredible to be part of a real water-cooler moment in cultural history.

When I got the call to do X Factor, I immediately thought: no, I do not want to do it. But, of course, deep down I did want to; I was just overwhelmed. I was in America at the time covering SXSW for Radio 2, and I kept waking up in a gloomy hotel room in Austin to make a list of the pros and cons of taking on such a massive job. By the end of the week, the list of cons was three and the pros were 15. I got back to London and had a meeting with Simon Cowell and the team: I told them I didn’t want to be just a traffic cop. I wanted to be able to put my own personality on it, and I never wanted to be told what to say. Simon, to his credit, agreed, and he has always let me get on with it.

That first show, though. The noise. The audience was just so loud, and it boomed like a cathedral. When I was growing up, the one day of the week we were allowed to watch TV while we were eating was a Saturday. We had a tablecloth on the floor and a picnic tea with Larry Grayson on the telly. It wasn’t lost on me that 30 years later I was doing that very slot. When I got home that night, it was impossible to come down. It got easier as it went along, but after that initial one I just drank red wine and stared at a wall for hours.

Part of me thinks very little has changed from age four to now. My bags are a bit darker, perhaps, but I still have a twinkle in my eye and I’m just as curious and interested in people as I ever have been.

July 16, 2022 at 04:51PM Harriet Gibsone

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