THOUGHT you’d seen it all and that the world couldn’t possibly get any weirder? Um… hello, X Factor 2019.
Because this year will see the regular format scrapped and replaced with a version bringing together the most mind-boggling celebrity line-up – including Vinnie Jones, Ricki Lake, Brendan Cole and Megan McKenna – to compete for a recording contract courtesy of Simon Cowell. Yes, really. Dermot O’Leary, the man who so expertly holds the chaos together, is recalling the moment he was told of the plans.
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“It was a bit like: ‘OK, so, we’re doing what now?’” he says still with some bewilderment.
So what made him want to sign up to such an off-the-wall concept?
“Well, I’d signed a contract,” he laughs, referring to the reported £8million four-year deal he was already tied into.
“And then I thought: ‘Well, it’s a risk, but it’s worth it.’ Honestly, though, it was a pretty easy sale for me. All I know is that I think this will work. I think it’s funny. I think it’s warm.
“Of course you want to find someone with a good voice, but the show isn’t going to take itself too seriously. It’s going to be different and interesting and I think that is hopefully going to keep us fresh.”
It’s a drastic overhaul for a show now into its 16th series (apparently even the theme tune is changing), but with ratings falling and stiff competition on the other side from Strictly, it was surely prime time to try something new.
And of course, these are tricky times for reality TV in general, with the mental health and wellbeing of the ordinary people it catapults to instant fame now a national talking point. The Jeremy Kyle Show and Love Island tragedies, which saw three people take their own lives after appearing on the shows, have given everyone involved pause for thought.
The X Factor itself has had its fair share of critics over the years, and certainly some of the early auditions would make even the hardest-hearted wince today.
“I think the world around us is changing and you have to change with the world,” says Dermot, 46.
“You’re allowed to take the mick, but the show is now – and has been for a long time – a softer beast. I guess we just evolved. These are real people on television and you’ve got to make sure you look after them. I think the fact we’re talking about mental health now is only a good thing.
“I do get kind of a bit weary about the notion that the show was ‘nasty’. Simon was never that nasty in the first place. All I could do was control my little bit and make sure I treated people with respect, while still having fun with them.”
There has been much discussion about the ongoing duty of care reality producers owe to the stars of their shows, and Dermot says this is something The X Factor has always been extremely conscious of.
“The duty of care has always been paramount. The team working on that show are all ‘people people’ – you don’t get to work on X Factor if you’re not good with people. I was always really proud of the aftercare we had in place. A couple of years after I started [in 2007] we got a psych in and so that’s been there for a long time, before any of the current climate. That’s something I have always slept well on.”
Was it the right decision to axe The Jeremy Kyle Show earlier this year? “I don’t see how they couldn’t, really. I know nothing about the show. I don’t know anyone who works on it and I’ve only met him a couple of times. But, yeah, from a broadcaster’s point of view, I can’t see how they could have kept it going after that.
“I don’t think you can condemn a guy and his whole career for a tragedy that happened. I’m not a massive fan of pitchfork justice, but of course it was on his watch, so I don’t know.”
Dermot has always had a firm handle on his own mental health. He’s never succumbed to the pitfalls of fame or needed therapy to cope.
“I’m kind of lucky if I’m honest with you. I’ve always had a good structure around me and I’ve always been a cup-half-full sort of person. Everyone gets blue and I embrace it sometimes. It’s not bad to have blue days. We all have our ups and downs in life. But for the most part, I’m unwaveringly a happy, cheery person. I think a lot, but I’ve always been an optimist. It’s just something I feel very blessed with and I’m lucky it hasn’t affected me.”
It’s true that Dermot is a perpetually positive Springsteen-quoting presence. He’s a bit like an excitable puppy, easily distracted and interested in everyone around him. He takes time to engage, ask opinions and get to know people. That cup-half-full attitude was evident when he found himself with an unexpected hole in the diary in 2015 after contract delays left him feeling forced to walk away from The X Factor. He was later replaced by Caroline Flack and Olly Murs.
“I woke up and thought: ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?’ But then I thought: ‘Hang on a second… just do all the things you really want to do but haven’t had time to and see what happens. Let’s go out and see what else there is.’”
From there, he was commissioned by Channel 4 to produce and present a two-part Battle of Britain documentary (“a real passion project”). And fulfilling a lifelong ambition to write, he’s now on to his third children’s book featuring Toto the Ninja Cat, based on Dermot and wife Dee Koppang’s pet cats Toto and Silver.
Book you read?
Dark Pines by Will Dean, who’s an English guy who moved to rural Sweden. It’s Scandi Noir – really good.
Box set you watched?
The Handmaid’s Tale for a really cheery, fun evening in.
Movie you watched?
They Shall Not Grow Old – the Peter Jackson reworking of WWI.
Time you cried?
I cry at everything. There’s an Instagram account called The Dodo that is essentially just people rescuing animals. It absolutely tears you apart.
Time you lost your temper?
I don’t really, but it’s almost always at inanimate objects or if I can’t get the bed sheet on right.
Time you were drunk?
We did Wilderness the other weekend and I was drunkish. I gave up drinking for two months this year for Lent, just to see if I could.
“I had this idea [for a children’s book] and obviously who I am got me in the door initially. So I pitched it, went away, wrote the chapter plan, came back and they said: ‘OK, let’s do two books.’ I left the meeting and said to myself: ‘Two?! I’ve only got one idea!’”
Thankfully, the idea for the second came to him as he wrote the first and the success of both led to a further two-book deal.
It’s not hard to see why they’ve proved so popular – they’re imaginative, funny, the central characters are completely charming and the illustrations by Nick East bring them beautifully to life. Silver, who sadly died in 2017, lives on through the books, while Socks, the abandoned kitten Dermot and Dee adopted from Battersea last year, joins the gang in the latest adventure, Toto The Ninja Cat And The Superstar Catastrophe.
“I wasn’t sure about including him at first, cos do you remember when Scrappy-Doo joined Scooby-Doo and everyone was like: ‘He’s so annoying’? No one wants the curse of Scrappy-Doo.
“But you attribute personalities to your pets and Socks always comes across like he’s quite cheeky. We got him when he was only eight weeks so somehow he’d been given up for adoption or abandoned within the first few weeks of his life and he never really learned how to be a cat. So he’s sort of learning as he goes, which makes him more adorable I suppose.”
Dermot enjoys the alone time he gets to write, blocking off part of the year to dedicate to getting the job done.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the process. I had very romantic notions when I first started. You know, cottage in the Cairngorms for a couple of weeks, a little Westland terrier, single malt. And actually it’s more like: ‘S**t! I’ve got a morning! Christ, get on it. I don’t make any sense! OK, f**k! Shelve that bit. S**t!’
“But I do find it quite refreshing to have that time on my own. I think we all need some of that, don’t we?”
It all slots in nicely around the X Factor schedule and Dermot’s Saturday breakfast show on BBC Radio 2. There are also plans for more one-to-one star interviews for Reel Stories – his “baby” – and a new podcast People, Just People, which launches on Audible this month. Guests so far include Stephen Graham and Ed Miliband.
“I really like interviewing people and that’s what I want to do, hopefully, for the next 15-20 years. And you can’t just sit there and wait for that to come to you, you’ve got to go out and get it. So that’s what I’ve done with Reel Stories and the podcast.”
Being able to work on big, mainstream projects alongside these smaller, more niche sidelines gives Dermot the best of both worlds.
“I always say – and it’s going to sound a bit poncey – I have a sort of actor’s mentality. I’ve got a great Hollywood blockbuster like The Avengers and it’s brilliant. But I also love doing this little off-Broadway show over there.”
This latest series of The X Factor – Dermot’s Avengers – will be followed immediately by a Champions version featuring some of the most memorable contestants (think Wagner and Jedward). And the shows have brought some of the old gang together again with Louis Walsh and Nicole Scherzinger re-joining the panel.
Simon is also back, looking like a shadow of the man he once was, having reportedly lost 20lb after transforming his lifestyle on a vegan diet.
Dermot raises a cynical eyebrow.
“Is he vegan? Really?”
Simon says so…
“I’m not so sure. He looks good, though. He had that nocturnal existence, but I think he gets the fact that he needs sleep. We’d just wrapped filming [the celeb auditions] at his house in Malibu and he said: ‘That was great, wasn’t it? Right, I’m off to bed.’
“‘Er, you know it’s your house don’t you? And there are still 100 people on your lawn?’ So, yeah, he goes to sleep quite early now.”
Does that mean he’s become more punctual during the day and no longer leaves everyone waiting hours for him to arrive?
“Ha! No, he still does that. I think he just sleeps longer. But he’s definitely more conventional with his hours these days.”
Dermot is relaxed about ageing (“Nothing you can do about it. I call it pushing the ocean back with a broom. All you can do is look after yourself”) although judging from a recent “wife-approved” topless picture of him on Insta, he’s in pretty good nick. “Sorry about that,” he says, slightly bashfully. “That wasn’t on my feed. My make-up artist Sarah took it when we were dicking around and the light did me a lot of favours.”
His 20s and 30s were a learning curve, and now he’s in his 40s, he says the most important thing for him is to have “curiosity” rather than living in an echo chamber.
“I had someone ask on Twitter: ‘Why do you follow [home secretary] Priti Patel?’ Well, why would I only follow people I agree with? If you do that, your world is just going to become smaller and smaller.
“You either become entrenched in your views or you try to see the world around you and accept it from other points of view. I think in my 40s I’ve found that.”
On Brexit, for example?
“Well, I still don’t like it, I don’t want to leave. If you gave me the option of another referendum I’d vote to remain. It’s extraordinary how this has happened.
“I respected the referendum and the result, but if the only options are crashing out without a deal that no one voted for or to remain, then I want to remain. But constitutionally I have no idea.”
He reckons there are positives to arise from the chaos, though. It’s that cup half full thing again.
“The two good things to come from Brexit were people, especially young people, becoming engaged in politics. And secondly, I’ve enjoyed collective cabinet responsibility going down the swanny. For the first time in years, I’ve heard politicians saying what they really think rather than just sticking to the script.”
Away from the TV cameras, Dermot lives in north London with producer and director wife Dee, 40. They are rarely papped and have very deliberately avoided becoming a public couple.
“Oh god no, that’s my idea of hell. But at the same time I don’t want to hide my wife away! So I’m never going to turn down an invite for something really cool. Some mates of mine, largely in music, have almost become prisoners in their own homes. You can’t live like that.
“It’s about the neighbourhood you live in. If you embrace the greengrocers, the local store, the dry cleaners, you just become a face and part of a community. And that’s how you have a normal life.”
He says Dee is tired from the night shoots for new high society drama Bridgerton, which is coming to Netflix next year.
They’ve been together for 17 years, married for seven.
“We don’t have the recipe, but it’s going well,” he says. “It’s a work in progress, isn’t it? The key for me is giving each other space, not giving each other a hard time and actually having fun together. And we do.”
- Toto The Ninja Cat And The Superstar Catastrophe (£9.99, Hachette Children’s) is out on September 19.
- Grooming: Sarah Exley using Perricone MD
- Styling: Nana Acheampong
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