Reality-TV star Gemma Collins has built her reputation on her witty, glitzy Essex bravado but, as she reveals to Judith Woods, beneath that sparkling veneer hides a down-to-earth girl who just wants to find Mr Right.
Over an hour late. Barefoot. Wearing last night’s glitzy party dress at midday, spangled Dolce & Gabbana heels dangling from her manicured fingers. Reality-show queen Gemma Collins is in the house, folks. She stands in the doorway with a comically sheepish expression that gives way to a broad grin, hugs everyone and asks for an urgent restorative cup of tea.
It is not how photo shoots usually begin. But, truthfully, we would have been disappointed if the nation’s least-likely national treasure hadn’t made some sort of dramatic entrance. ‘I have not slept a wink!’ cries Gemma, 36, a compelling vision of ultra-white teeth, cascading blonde hair and a plunging mahogany cleavage.
‘It never stops. Tonight I’m being collected by a car and driven to Norwich for a personal appearance at a club. I go on stage at 1am and say “Hi”, the place hits the roof, then I spend two hours posing for selfies with 150 people. Then it’s the same thing in a different club the night after. Everyone wants a little piece of GC.’
Of course they do; the star of The Only Way is Essex (TOWIE), plus-size designer and curvy pin-up seized the media by storm in 2017. She had already ticked off the TV milestones to household-name status: appearances on Loose Women, Celebrity Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. But last year, GC, as she’s known by diehard fans, was dubbed Queen of Memes on social media after her image was affectionately copied, tweaked and shared thousands of times. One Instagram account Gemma Collins Reactions pairs comments with images of her funny facial expressions.
Barely a day went by without tabloid stories about her love life, her weight and her extraordinary – and gloriously unapologetic – fashion faux pas. Google ‘Gemma Collins and that dress’ and you’ll understand why her agent’s phone never stops ringing.
In 2016 Gemma appeared on Sky News with Kay Burley defending the reputation of Essex girls. ‘It was just a bit of banter saying we’re not all materialistic and easy, but everyone seemed to be taking it so serious,’ she giggles. Over on the BBC, she made headlines in October when she fell through a trapdoor during a live broadcast of the Radio 1 Teen Awards. It was undignified, calamitous even, but Gemma proved to be a trouper and picked herself up, literally and metaphorically. ‘I was going to sue, but you know what? It happened. I didn’t die. I wasn’t paralysed,’ she says, beaming. ‘No point bearing a grudge, you gotta keep moving forward, living your life – and my life is fabulous, fab-u-lous! I don’t need any New Year Resolutions; I’m just rocking it for all those normal women out there who need a role model who hasn’t had a boob job, fillers or Botox. Yeah, I got thick thighs, but I am owning them. Own-ing. Them.’ To be honest, 2018 is stacking up to be another bumper year for the unstoppable force of nature that is Gemma.
This month she’s appearing on the Channel 4 reality series Celebs Go Dating and it’s fair to conclude the results will be riotous – and very real. Apart from being irrepressibly bubbly, Gemma’s USP resides in being the absolute antithesis of airbrushed celebrity perfection. She might tweak the lighting on her Instagram pictures but, in person, she is entirely without filters; she laughs, she cries, and is by turns outrageous and astute. Early on in her career, an agent bluntly informed her that her narrative arc would be based on ‘weight loss, weight gain and relationship woes’. And so it came to pass.
When Gemma joined TOWIE in 2011, she was playing herself; a street-smart used-car saleswoman with a great line in patter. Back then she was a size 16 and was viciously trolled online. These days, she is a size 22 – and far more confident. As far as her anonymous critics are concerned, she believes success to be the best revenge. ‘Yes, I’d like to lose a bit of weight for health reasons because I’m nearing 40 but I’m happy in my own skin,’ she says. ‘The reason why people like me and are interested in me is because fame hasn’t changed me. I’ve been offered gastric bands, liposuction and a bum lift, but I haven’t had anything done, I’m just me.’
Gemma lives alone in a two-bed apartment in Brentwood, Essex, where she is transforming the spare room into a dressing room; those vertiginous blingy heels and metallic dresses need a home. But for all the showbiz razzmatazz, her feet are firmly on the ground; her best friend owns a nail shop, another works in IT. She prioritises them and her parents. ‘I’ve learnt my lesson about the people who want to hang out with you because you are famous and have money,’ she mutters. ‘I’m done with users.’ She’s just back from a holiday in Tenerife with her mum Joan and dad Alan who clearly adore her. Joan suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and struggles to walk. Alan, 70, runs an import business with Gemma’s brother Russell, who is 40. ‘My dad controls all my money. Seriously, I have to ask him if I want to upgrade my car. I’ve just sold my bespoke £87,000 Range Rover because it just felt too materialistic and I have nothing to prove. I’m fine with a BMW 6 Series,’ she says.
‘When we went to Tenerife I took out 250 euros from a cashpoint and he kept asking me what I was spending it on. I bought a skirt and top for 60 euros and he kept fussing about whether I actually needed them. But I know he has my best interests at heart.’ From the
moment Gemma could walk and talk it was clear she was a natural performer, and Joan, in particular, was determined she should realise her potential. She attended dance classes and was driven to competitions across the country. ‘I remember sitting in the exam room for my maths GCSE and thinking, “I’m going to be famous, I don’t need maths. What I really need is to go down Romford High Street and buy new shoes”,’ says Gemma. ‘I was right, wasn’t I? Thank God for accountants, that’s all I can say.’ She was enrolled in the Sylvia Young Theatre School, but after graduation found herself working in the motor trade.
‘I am so glad I didn’t get famous when I was young, I’m not sure how I would have coped,’ says Gemma. ‘Don’t get me wrong – it’s brilliant and exciting, but there’s a downside, too; having hundreds of pap photographers descending on me, pushing and shoving so that I lose my balance and look as though I’m stumbling out of some club drunk when I’m not. I suffer from anxiety, too,’ she says. ‘It is getting better, but when I’m off duty and wanting to have a quiet wine at a bar and kick back like everybody else, it’s really hard to cope with all the attention. People don’t mean to be rude, but it can be so stressful when I need time out. I may be The One and Only GC, but I’m a human being, too.’
That is the Faustian pact of reality show celebrityhood with its emphasis on approachability and 24/7 social media exposure. We feel we know these people so well and they become such a part of our lives that natural boundaries and inhibitions disappear. ‘Every so often I need to go back home, sweep my floors and put a pile of washing into the machine,’ she says. ‘People think I’m on a chaise longue sipping champagne all day but I’m just Gemma in her PJs watching EastEnders like the rest of the country. People see me in Poundstretcher in Romford and I know they’re thinking, “She’s bloody loaded, what is she doing here?” But I love a bargain, me. If all this ended tomorrow I’d be quite content with the money I’ve made and I’d get a market stall for the banter.’
Gemma is certainly not short of a bob or two. Her Gemma Collins Collection for curvy women is available online and in her Brentwood boutique. Social media has embraced the heartwarming stories of customers weeping because her ritzy designs make them feel feminine for the first time in years. ‘It’s like therapy,’ concludes Gemma. ‘Doesn’t everyone deserve to feel special? I follow my heart – it is really moving to watch the effect a nice frock has on someone.’
That thoughtful side is less in evidence when she’s playing the fame game. On 2016’s Celebrity Big Brother she proved to be endlessly entertaining, despite – or perhaps because of – her diva behaviour. When given the choice between a professional blow-dry for her only, versus a day of hot water and electricity for the whole house, she opted for the blow-dry.
On the short-lived diving show Splash!, she took to the high board in a swimsuit and sequined purple kaftan. Her technique left a lot to be desired and it took its toll; afterwards she obligingly revealed to the cameras her horrendously bruised cleavage. That truthfulness is part of her USP but there’s a more sombre, vulnerable narrative beneath the surface glamour and endless smiling selfies. She variously likens herself to James Corden and Bridget Jones. ‘I’m like the female equivalent of James Corden – the fat, funny one who conquered the US. There’s talk of me going over there, which would be amazing,’ says Gemma. ‘People are interested in me because I’m a real-life Bridget Jones. My life’s not perfect – I hurt – but I make the best of it. I’ve got career success but can’t find love and that’s all I want. What use is all the money in the world if you have nobody to share it with?’
A short silence descends. It’s not easy for any woman, no matter how relentlessly sassy, to admit there’s a yawning gap in her life. ‘My only regret in life is all the bad boys I’ve ever met. I gave so much and received so little in return. I have never been out with a nice guy – I made the mistake of wanting the buzz they brought and I’ve been out with too many men who treated me like a meal ticket and abused me physically and emotionally,’ she says.
A case in point is when Gemma appeared on 2014’s I’m a Celebrity. She was tipped to win but left the jungle after just three days and was mercilessly lampooned for ‘being too hungry’ to continue. It later transpired that the night before entering the show she was allegedly beaten up by her then boyfriend, a convicted drug dealer.
Gemma – whose autobiography Basically… My Life as a Real Essex Girl was published in 2013 – had an abortion in her youth. Then in 2012 – when she was unknowingly four-and-a-half months pregnant – she had a miscarriage and traumatically gave birth at home on the landing. Gemma, who was on the pill and in a steady relationship, was devastated and, while trying in vain to fight back the tears, spoke about it on television, claiming she felt she was being punished for the earlier termination.
Now she is more philosophical, although she murmurs she would feel ‘my life is cursed beyond belief’ if she remained childless. Once again single, she ‘yearns’ to settle down and have a baby. ‘I want a partner who is going to love me for me. I can be intimidating,
because I’ve got more money than many men in the UK, but there must be someone out there.’ Fervent tabloid speculation surrounding her on-off relationship with fellow TOWIE star Arg appears to be wishful thinking. ‘He’s lovely: we get on so well and I know he’d make a brilliant dad but I won’t have a baby just for a business opportunity,’ she says. ‘I am dying to meet someone so I can buy a huge traditional Silver Cross pram. I’ll only share my engagement and wedding pictures and baby photographs because it’s thanks to the public that I am where I am. I just need a bit of help to locate Mr Right.’
Hence her enthusiasm for Celebs Go Dating. She has told the producer her non-negotiable criteria and is ready to go for it. ‘I want someone who is serious but funny, too, with his own business or doing well in life; I can’t have anyone hanging off my coat tails, those days are well over. I want 2018 to be the year GC finds love.’ And who could wish her anything but the best of luck?
Celebs Go Dating will begin on E4 on 4 February. gemmacollinscollection.com
Styling: Holly Ounstead, Make-up: Aimee Adam using Urban Decay, Hair: Heath Massi at Frank agency, Producer: Ester Malloy. Rex/Shuttersock, Open Mike Productions, Wenn.com, Getty Images, ITV, S. Meddle.