Television and me: whatever it is, the answer's yes
TOBY YOUNG ne of the occupational hazards of being a journalist these days is that, sooner or later, you'll get a call asking if you want to be in a reality show. The reason is simple: we're just about the only people left in the country who are likely to say yes. It is not just that we're complete publicity whores — we're hardly alone in that respect — it is also that we have the perfect excuse: we can pretend we're just doing it for 'journalistic reasons'.
I don't think I've ever turned down the opportunity to appear on a reality show. Indeed, earlier this year, I agreed to fly to Kenya and take part in a marathon alongside Les Dennis, Michaela Strachan and Ruby Wax. Unfortunately, I had to pull out when I realised it clashed with another reality show I had already agreed to do in a railway arch in Bermondsey. I'm thinking of changing my answering machine message so it says, 'Whatever it is, the answer's yes.' (For years, this was the outgoing message of John Leslie, the ex-Blue Peter presenter.) I've now done so many reality shows that I've had to abandon the journalism excuse. These days, I pretend I'm just doing it for the money — and, in fairness, you can earn a decent living as a reality show contestant. I don't wish to be unkind to Jade Goody, whom I regard as a sort of role model, but I think it's unlikely she'd have a net worth of over £2 million if she had never appeared on television.
Of course, the real reason journalists always say yes is because we cannot resist the allure of television. Cathode rays act like a tractor beam, sucking us all in, no matter how highminded. The last of us to hold out was A.A. Gill who, for years, maintained that he simply didn't do telly. Then, in a day that will live in infamy, he popped up as a judge on Project Catwalk, a Sky One knock-off of Britain's Next Top Model. Whatever it is, the answer's yes.
You can imagine my excitement, therefore, when I received an email from an ITV executive asking me if I wanted to be on Hell's Kitchen. This wasn't in my capacity as an occasional food critic, but as a full-blown contestant. I and ten other 'celebrities' would receive a crash-course in cooking from Marco Pierre White, then compete for the public's affection while working in the restaurant equivalent of the Big Brother house. 'This would be approximately a two-week commitment,' the email concluded. Would I be interested in meeting with the show's producers to discuss it further? You bet I would.
The conventional wisdom about how to impress television producers is that it's like seducing a beautiful lover: you have to play hard to get. While this may be true of Question Time, it isn't true of reality TV Being shy and retiring isn't an asset on, say, Celebrity Love Island. What the producers of these programmes want are people who are 'interested in new experiences', 'willing to have a go' — or, in other words, slags.
After making a very favourable impression on the producers of Hell's Kitchen —I want to go on a journey of self-discovery' — I thought it was in the bag. I even made the mistake of bragging about it to Giles Coren, the Times's restaurant critic, who immediately informed me that he'd turned it down. I don't know if he was telling the truth — he may have been — but whenever a fellow journalist tells me that he's about to appear in a reality show I always tell him that I turned it down. The number of hacks who say they've foregone the opportunity to appear on I'm a Celebrity . . Get Me Out of Here is at least as great as the number who claim to have seen the Sex Pistols play at the Screen on the Green in 1976. (I was invited to that gig, by the way, but I turned it down.) Then, just before Hell's Kitchen was due to be broadcast, the ITV executive called and said that they'd decided to make me `the first reserve'. 'If any of the contestants drop out, you're the first person we'll call,' she said. I duly explained this to all the people I'd already told I was going to be on the show, such as my parents-in-law, and then had to deal with a deluge of inquiring phone calls when not one, but two of the contestants dropped out and neither of them were substituted. I didn't even get summoned to give my verdict on the dishes of the two finalists — that honour fell to Giles Coren. My humiliation was complete.
Ah well. There's always the next series of Extreme Celebrity Detox. Whatever it is, the answer's yes.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.