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The big interview

Who is the real Dermot O’Leary?

Politics, pushing boundaries and proof that Simon Cowell was wrong for letting him go. Inside the mind of Dermot O’Leary - meet TV’s Mr Nice Guy...
Who is the real Dermot O’Leary?
May 8, 2017   |    Gemma Calvert

Few men in showbiz can talk as enthusiastically about George Clooney’s skin as French politics. Which makes Dermot O’Leary, Britain’s King of Saturday night television, a rare breed indeed.

We meet on a sunny Thursday morning in April, when Marine Le Pen, former leader of France’s biggest far-right, anti-immigration party, The National Front, is a candidate in the running to become president in the country’s May election.

‘I’m excited that [someone] can quit a party and still be favourite to be president and I’m appalled that National Front can be so huge,’ says Dermot, a self-confessed history and ‘politics nerd’ who has one big grumble about British politics: ‘I’m not a massive fan of our electoral system,’ he says. ‘We’re kind of stuck with two party politics.’

It begs the question: Who will Dermot vote for next month when Britain goes to the polls for Theresa May’s snap general election?

‘It’s hard for me to answer only because I work for the Beeb,’ says Dermot, 43, who hosts BBC Radio 2’s Saturday Breakfast With Dermot show. He glances cautiously across the Spring Restaurant at London’s Somerset House, where two hours earlier he launched his male grooming range for Marks and Spencer, 24.hr Grooming for Men by Dermot O’Leary – yet another surprising side to a man known more for his on-stage dancing than commitment to beauty. ‘For some reason, we love to put people in boxes in this country.’

As conversations go, shower gel might be a more preferable topic than politics, given Dermot has declined invitations to appear on BBC One’s Question Time.

‘For one night on Question Time, which I think I’d really enjoy, it would probably make the rest of my BBC career on radio more difficult,’ explains Dermot, adding that his ‘broadly centre left’ views would also make it tricky to follow in the footsteps of stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have branched into politics.

‘I don’t think I believe in a single party enough or think I’d be able to tow a party line enough,’ he explains.

BOUNCING BACK

Dermot grew up in a Roman Catholic home where political opinion dominated dinner table conversation. His parents, Sean Dermot Snr (also Dermot’s birth name) and Marie, ‘were a pair of Irish kids’ who relocated to Colchester, Essex, to create a more prosperous future for their family. While Dermot’s dad influenced his work ethic – progressing from labouring to getting a management job at British Telecom – Marie taught Dermot and his sister Nicola (who’s three years older) how to cook, a passion that Dermot loves to this day.

‘I didn’t have any discipline or concentration at school,’ he says, revealing that reports from when he was 11 were recently unearthed in his parents’ attic. ‘They said “fine for talking, life and soul of the class, attendance 100%, but could do with a little bit more focus”. If you ask all my producers now they’d say exactly the same thing!’

After retaking and finally passing his GCSEs, he went on to graduate from Middlesex University with a degree in media and politics. Then, at the age of 22, while working as a runner at a documentary company, Dermot secured his first presenting gig for a Channel 4 pilot, Seaside Special. He later hosted Channel 4’s T4 and in 2001 became a household name presenting Big Brother’s Little Brother.

Presenting The X Factor, though, has truly defined Dermot’s career but, two years ago, after eight years at the helm, he made a shock decision to resign after hearing whispers that his boss, Simon Cowell, was investigating a replacement. Olly Murs and Caroline Flack were later recruited in his place.

‘The first morning I woke up I thought “Christ, what am I going to do with the rest of my life? I’ve been doing this job for the last eight years.” It brought a sense of momentary panic,’ recalls Dermot.

Passion projects followed, including presenting and co-producing a Channel 4 documentary about the Battle of Britain, creating his M&S grooming range, and writing a children’s book, inspired by his love of cats, which will be published this summer. Long standing commitments – an annual presenting gig at the National Television Awards and running his production company Ora Et Labora Ltd – also continued. But 10 months after Dermot’s departure from the hit ITV show, following a series of presenter gaffes and plunging ratings, Simon asked him back and Dermot signed a new four year deal reportedly worth £8million, making him the highest paid solo presenter on British TV.

‘When you go back to somewhere, you feel a little bit more valued. I definitely felt welcomed back,’ says Dermot, who owns two homes abroad and lives in north London with his TV producer wife of five years, Dee Koppang, 38.

MAKING SACRIFICES

For a job that consumes nine months of Dermot’s diary annually – auditions for the 14th series began last month – it’s intriguing to hear that he credits The X Factor for encouraging balance in his life by enforcing ‘structure’. He’s equally strict about organising his home life.

‘It’s all about discipline. At home, I work very well in the morning and I try to stop working in the evening and give myself time to cook a nice dinner. It’s about finding down time, whether that’s reading, walking or exercise. It sounds boring but it really is about time management.’

It wasn’t always this way. In the early days, The X Factor consumed Dermot’s life and led him to sacrifice beloved weekend games of rugby and American football. Nowadays, exercise is non negotiable – Dermot plays five-a-side football every Thursday in Brixton and works out twice a week.

Dermot is in good nick for his age, and easy on the eye, but he’s no Ken doll image of perfection. There are laughter lines around his eyes and creases in his brow, which may be one reason why M&S invited him to launch some male grooming products. He’s a real man who real men buy into.

Ask Dermot if men fret about their looks as much as women in the entertainment industry and he tugs George Clooney into the conversation.

‘When he started going grey and getting wrinkles, no one went “this guy can’t be cast any more”. The same thing just doesn’t happen in a woman’s world and that’s grossly unfair and by virtue of that, men probably don’t pay enough attention.’

Simon Cowell might, however, be a different kettle of fish. ‘He once gave me £1,000 worth of Harrods vouchers and a contact at a Botox specialist – 30 seconds before we went live on air,’ laughs Dermot, pointing out that he did not book an appointment. ‘I’m not that guy!’

HAVING FAITH

While some of Dermot’s friends have used therapy to combat addiction, he has never turned to psychoanalysis and struggles to understand how it could benefit him. ‘I’m not that introspective,’ he explains, adding his job is all about being interested in other people. When he has down time, he prefers to just ‘be’.

But let’s see. What traits does he most deplore in himself? He settles on ‘impatience’ and ‘pride’. Has he ever questioned his Roman Catholic faith? Affirmative. ‘That flies against the notion of being brought up in a faith, but me and my sister still go to mass so it was probably the right way of doing it,’ he explains.

Finally, is on-stage Dermot different to the Dermot chatting to us today? ‘No and yes,’ he answers. ‘I equate being on stage to when I’ve got 600 people around for a drink. That’s when you are the host of a party and you want to make sure everyone’s got a drink and is happy. Then when those people leave, you become the other version of you. On the outside you might seem different but inside you’re still the same person.’

Dermot introspection. It gets our vote…

24.hr Grooming for Men by Dermot O’Leary – launches 8 June exclusively for Marks & Spencer

THE SOUNDTRACK TO MY LIFE

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, THUNDER ROAD

‘All killer, no filler. Thunder Road and Born To Run were the two big songs on Bruce’s album Born To Run. Bruce Springsteen and that whole album reminds me of unrequited love at aged 13 in small town claustrophobia.’

THE POGUES, STREAMS OF WHISKEY

‘The Pogues were my first live gig, in Brixton, when I was 16. I was brought up on Irish music and The Pogues were the quintessential second generation Irish band that truly spoke to me when I was growing up.

WHAM!, YOUNG GUNS (GO FOR IT)

‘My first single. Nicola swindled me out of my pocket money, saying “let’s buy a single together. We’ll co-own it”. She bought Wham!, Young Guns (Go For It!), then only played it on her record player so I never listened to it!

I was heartbroken but not surprised when I heard about George Michael’s death. I met him after he performed on The X Factor. A lovely chap.’

Read more: Who is the real David Gandy, the man behind the model?

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