By Kerry Potter
DERMOT O’LEARY on working with Simon Cowell – ‘he’s a hoot’ – his Catholic faith and how the stray cats he rescued from Italy inspired his first children’s book
As well as fronting ITV’s The X Factor for the past ten years (except for a year out in 2015), Dermot was the original presenter of Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Little Brother and has had his own BBC Radio 2 show since 2004. He and his elder sister were born and raised in Colchester, Essex, by their Irish parents Marie and Sean. Now Dermot lives in North London with his wife of five years, TV producer/director Dee Koppang, 38, who is currently working on Netflix royal family drama The Crown. Also part of the family is their cat Toto, who inspired Dermot’s first foray into children’s books, Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape, along with her brother Silver (who sadly died shortly after our interview).
Dermot O’Leary was the original presenter of Channel 4’s Big Brother’s Little Brother and has had his own BBC Radio 2 show since 2004
I didn’t set out to write a children’s book. But if you take inspiration from your blind Italian ninja cat, chances are the book is going to be for kids. Four years ago my wife Dee helped deliver Toto and Silver in an incredible piece of cat midwifery. We have a house in Italy and their mother was a stray who lived in a tree in the garden. We flew the two kittens back to London and quickly realised Toto was blind. She kept banging into things but she had incredibly fast reactions.
I’m not the greatest author in the world, but I knew I had a good story in my head. You have these romantic notions about being a writer: you’ll rent an isolated cottage in the Cairngorms and write in front of a roaring fire… But it doesn’t actually work out like that. I wrote in my home office or in the dining room on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7am until lunchtime, then did my washing and emails, before reading over what I’d written that day. I’m quite disciplined. I like James Caan’s character’s ritual in the film Misery: when he completes a novel he has a cigarette and a glass of champagne. I don’t smoke but after I finished a draft I’d treat myself to a glass or two.
I wrote with my niece, my godchildren and my friends’ kids in mind. And I’m prepared for savage feedback! It’s lovely to see how into books my sister’s daughter [Josette, nine] is. I used to read her stories a lot. I’m not sure quite how many godchildren I’ve got – four or five, I think. I said to my oldest friend the other day, ‘Am I Poppy’s godfather as well as the twins’?’ It’s a very fluid situation.
The book is about accepting people who are different. It wasn’t a conscious theme but I’m glad it came out like that. One good thing about this weird, terrifying time we’re living in is the backlash: the idea that love is love, Pride festival, the response to Grenfell. There is definitely more that binds us together. There’s something really heartening about the fact that people here – and my parents found this coming over from Ireland in 1968 – understand that being a Muslim doesn’t make you a terrorist, just like being a Catholic doesn’t make you a terrorist.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a book on my bedside table. My dad would tell me Irish fairy tales and there were lots of books about Irish literature and history around. At 17 I got into James Joyce. Maybe it was the romantic poet in me, but if it was to impress girls it did not work! Ulysses is the only book I’ve never finished – I got lost halfway through. It was the same era I was listening to the Smiths, so I guess it was a phase.
I know my name got me through the publisher’s door, but it wasn’t a golden ticket. I still had to put the hours in to write the book! I’m prepared for criticism because we live in a ‘stay in your lane’ society, don’t we? And I do have some sympathy with that view: I shudder when I see a young reality-TV star get a high-profile presenting job. You’ve got to learn your trade before you take on something like that.
I fell in love with the TV industry. Originally I wanted to be an actor – maybe that comes from my dad, who has a touch of the showman about him. I have always been gregarious and was on the debating team at school. But I also loved entertainment and talk shows. At 15 I’d watch The Last Resort and marvel at Jonathan Ross tearing up the chat-show format. I was a runner for a couple of years [on Light Lunch with Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins], a researcher for another couple, then I got into producing and presenting.
It was brilliant working on Big Brother in the early days. They’d never made TV like that before, so we were making it up as we went along. We’d say, ‘Shall we do this? Are we allowed to do that?’ I got an email from [anthropologist] Desmond Morris saying that it was a fascinating study of human behaviour. There was an innocence to it back then, but that changed with the explosion of social media.
I don’t watch Love Island or Big Brother any more, although I occasionally watch the celebrity version. Have I grown out of reality TV? No, I don’t think you do if it’s well made. If Big Brother went back to Channel 4 [from Channel 5], I think there would still be a buzz and pizzazz about it.
Dee and I both work away from home a lot, which is hard, but it’s the reality we live in. When we first got together she went away immediately, then I went off for a month, then she went off again. But we make it work. We’re both independent people and the space we give each other is as important as the time we spend together. Whoever isn’t away working runs things at home. Responsibility for Toto is a 50/50 split, but with domestic chores it’s 99 per cent me, ha!
The secret to a happy marriage is compromise, compromise, compromise. Never forget that you’re on a constant date night with your best friend. Even when you’re watching TV, make it a date night. A few of my friends have got divorced recently and I get a bit of vicarious therapy through what they’ve learnt. The idea of not being able to change other people is key.
Simon Cowell is far more fun than people think. He’s not an ogre, he’s a real hoot and he likes banter – he can’t bear people pussy-footing around him. And he’s more paternal and caring towards auditionees than you’re led to believe. We’ve both moved on since my break from The X Factor [in 2015 Simon replaced Dermot with gaffe-prone duo Caroline Flack and Olly Murs; the lowest ratings in nine years followed] and I think our relationship is better for it. In many ways it wasn’t the worst thing that could’ve happened – it gave me the chance to write the book, create my grooming range with Marks & Spencer and take on other TV work. I got a taste of what I’d been missing.
The X Factor is like panning for gold. And occasionally it produces someone like Harry Styles, a genuine renaissance man. Dunkirk showed he can act and he’s written a great album. Finding people like that is really rewarding. You get them to a certain point and then you watch them go. Everyone who walks through that door is different – I never get bored with it.
I miss Terry Wogan – he was a lovely guy, an inspiration. I met him at my first Radio 2 dinner 13 years ago. He said, ‘I won’t give you much advice, but I will say never be afraid of the silence’ – which is the opposite of what they usually say about radio. It’s great advice and I remember it all the time because I’m prone to speaking too fast.
My Catholic faith is important to me. I try to go to church every Sunday. I’m trying to live in the moment more rather than constantly chasing things. Happiness is about tiny moments rather than getting drunk or watching your football team or making love. It’s that cup of coffee outside in the morning, listening to the birdsong before anyone else is up, or looking at the sky during a thunderstorm. I set time aside – whether you want to call it prayer, meditation, mindfulness, whatever.
‘I know my name got me through the publisher’s door, but it wasn’t a golden ticket’, says Dermot
‘I’m ambitious in the sense that I want to carry on doing work I love, but I don’t look at someone else and think, “Aargh, why are they doing that?”‘
Part of the reason I work out is so I can still eat potatoes. I’m 44 and I want to look and feel healthy. When you feel fit in your body, you feel fit in your mind. I see a personal trainer twice a week, play football once a week and I’ve just started [indoor cycling workout] Psycle. Someone asked me the other day: quinoa or Quavers? I don’t dislike quinoa but whenever I eat it I think, I’d rather be eating a potato.
I’d love to do more political TV. Interviewing Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron [as part of the BBC’s election coverage in 2010] seems like an age ago – they’ve all gone. I wouldn’t go into politics myself – why would you in this toxic environment? – but I admire people who do. I know some terrific MPs who do it for the right reasons. I’ve met Chuka Umunna a few times, he’s a good guy, Stella Creasy is a fantastic local MP, and Keir Starmer, my MP, seems to know what he’s doing.
It’s sad that people don’t want to chat any more – they just want a photo. I’ll say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? Having a good day?’ And they’ll just say, ‘Um, picture?’ I hate people who moan about fame so I’m not going to start, but I’m glad I became famous before social media, before I had to worry about how many Instagram followers I had. When I started out, people weren’t putting a camera phone in your face, taking a picture of you eating a burger.
I probably did get jealous as a younger man but that way lies damnation. I’m ambitious in the sense that I want to carry on doing work I love, but I don’t look at someone else and think, ‘Aargh, why are they doing that?’
The key to being a broadcaster is curiosity. You never know what’s around the corner. The X Factor wasn’t my grand plan – I got it out of the blue. But I’m interested in people, I love meeting them and I’d like to interview more of them. I’m still curious.
Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape by Dermot O’Leary will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 21 September, price £6.99. To pre-order a copy for £5.59 (a 20 per cent discount) until 24 September, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15. Dermot will discuss his book at the Henley Literary Festival on 8 October. For details, visit henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk