Ten years ago, Rylan walked on stage at an X Factor audition. Blond extensions as bright as his smile, bantering with the judges at a million miles an hour, it was his pummelling personality that got him through rather than his Ibiza-fied version of Des’ree’s I’m Kissing You.
“Everyone thought I was a joke. I knew exactly what my role was,” says Rylan. “A lot of people go on shows like that and they don’t realise they’re that one. They think they’re Lady Gaga. I love singing, but I knew that my job weren’t to stand there and sing, my job was to perform. I think I done my job all right because I’m still going 10 years on.”
The anniversary is a good time to reflect. The last couple of years have been a rough ride for all of us, but Rylan has also got divorced and struggled with his mental health. The former guilty pleasure has, however, cemented his place as a national treasure, joining 150 other celebrities on double-decker buses for the Queen’s Jubilee Pageant. Not bad for somebody who the career-advising computer programme at school kept telling to be a plumber. Instead, via modelling jobs and tribute bands, Ross Richard Clark seemingly emerged on prime-time TV fully formed.
“I was formed. Was I fully formed? No, I don’t think anyone is,” he corrects. “I’m still the same kid that was on X Factor 10 years ago. I’ve just got much tougher skin. I never know what’s next. Especially after the last year, you never know what’s around the corner. So I don’t sit here and plan world domination. I sit here and plan what I’m going to have for lunch.
“I’m under no illusions that this could all end in the morning. I’ve been saying that for 10 years. It still hasn’t, touch wood.”
Rylan diversified his career quickly from the off. Having made it through to week eight of the X Factor live shows, he won Celebrity Big Brother that winter. He then became presenter of Big Brother’s Bit on the Side and the list of presenting credits is ever-growing from Strictly to – “hand on heart, best week of my life” – Eurovision.
“Everything about it was amazing from start to finish,” he says about his trip to Turin. “I’m so lucky to have that job. Looking online you’ll get the odd idiot like, ‘Why are we paying for you to go out and get pissed?’ You’re not. Basically, as a licence payer, you’re paying 28 quid for Ryanair from Stansted at half seven in the fucking morning. If I’m going out and getting pissed, I’m paying.”
Whichever city the contest ends up being held in next year, Rylan will be there. “Listen, even if they don’t want me, I’ll be going,” he says. But you’d have thought his ambition when approaching X Factor would be to perform on something like Eurovision rather than to present.
“My genuine ambition was to get through to the live shows and last at least one week. That was it,” he says. “Because I knew that I’d earn probably 10-20 grand doing a few gigs in some shitty club. Maybe enough money to fix my car and move out. Don’t get me wrong. Of course I wanted to go on there and be massive, but I never expected that.”
Rylan became famous and infamous overnight, as only reality TV can do to you. “Back then, very early days – I’m talking just a few weeks – it was exciting,” he says. “Then you start to see the other side. When you’re out, you have to remember that you’re Rylan from the telly.”
That can be tiring, he admits.
“I stopped doing normal things like going out for dinner and going to a pub.” The self-confessed “proper train geek” (Rylan built an underground station on his driveway: “I come from London so I still want London on my doorstep”) hasn’t been on a train in years. Until the Jubilee Pageant, probably not a bus either.
“Over the course of last year, I’ve been doing a lot more normal things,” he continues. “I think I’ve found a good balance. I love coming home, no make-up on, tracksuit, having a Peroni. That’s me. I know it sounds silly, but my voice is a lot lower in real life. For some reason at work, it goes quite high. It’s nice just to turn it off at the end of the day.”
Fame is fickle. Though there have been the highest of highs, like the “proper surreal moment” he bought a copy of The Big Issue with his face on the cover in Covent Garden in 2019, there is a price to pay too. Just as he was overcoming trauma in his personal life earlier this year, the tabloids did one of their old-fashioned screaming front pages about him allegedly buying drugs. Some parts of the media love building somebody up, but absolutely adore tearing them down.
“I make a joke on a night out, and then all of a sudden I’m a drug addict on the front of the fucking Mirror. I’m labelled a fucking gearhead. It’s ridiculous,” he says.
“People forget you’re actually a real person. My mum came around. And I was like, mum, listen, I’ve got to tell you there’s a video coming out on Sunday from last week when I was out. She was like, ‘You’re not on drugs are you?’ I was like, ‘Don’t be stupid’. I was actually getting my skirting boards sanded that week and she started to hoover up. She pushed the coffee table and underneath were two massive lines of white powder where it had settled on the floor – I’m talking industrial length lines – and she was like, ‘Oh my god!’ It was quite a moment.”
Surviving a real drug scandal is easier in some ways than surviving when people try to cancel a celebrity.
“Of course I care but genuinely I don’t give a fuck when it comes down to bullshit,” Rylan says. “Someone could print tomorrow that I killed a giraffe or something like that. I don’t need to defend myself against shit that’s not happened and I’m not gonna start defending myself now. I will just sit there and go: didn’t happen. Simple as that. Photographers follow me around, which I hate. But I get it. That’s never happened to me before because I’ve been quite clean. Now all of a sudden I’m single, it’s like, ‘Who’s he fucking?’ My manager has been my ‘mystery man’ about four times in the press over the past however many months. The funniest part is they email him to ask does Rylan have any comment? It’s like, ‘Mate, that’s me. I’m his manager.’
“They’ve got a job to do. If it sells a couple of papers or gets them a couple of clicks, I wish them the best of luck.”
Rylan is more than aware as a gay man in the spotlight that he has a comparatively easy time in the media compared to entertainers like Graham Norton who he says were trailblazers.
With the 50th anniversary of Pride events taking place through summer, it’s a time to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.
“If Pride is an excuse to celebrate, and people want to celebrate, then let them celebrate,” Rylan says. “Even though I’m a gay man who’s on TV, you know, I’ve never come out publicly. I’ve not done the whole YouTube video where I’m like, ‘There’s something I need to tell you’.”
This could be your coming out interview?
“There’s your headline. I understand why people sometimes have hidden their sexuality for different reasons, whether it be the industry they’re in or things like that. I think Pride’s a fantastic thing. But I would also say I long for a time that we don’t have to have our own month. We could just all be in a place where everyone just accepts everyone for what they are and just gets on with their own fucking life.”
Rylan slips easily into talking politics. With a massive platform and working for the BBC, he knows there are certain rules and regulations he has to follow when it comes to expressing opinions. “But I won’t censor myself,” he promises.
“Big Brother taught me how to be impartial, to not affect an eviction. It’s the same with politics. I’ll have my say, but no one knows who I’m voting for. No one knows my personal views.”
He goes on to share some of his personal views.
“It does seem that there’s a lot of disingenuous actions going on, shall we say? And that’s just stating a fact. Ultimately the public will be the ones that decide – a bit like a Big Brother eviction – who stays and who goes. The time will come when people will be able to have their say. Unfortunately, that time isn’t right now.”
If Rylan is mindful of keeping his political thoughts to himself, it’s a pity because he has some really good ideas.
“I’d like to see this country being run by normal people who understand normal issues,” he says. “I don’t care whether you’re from Eton or from Basildon, as long as you’re doing a good job. Personally, I’d quite like to see party-less politics. We could do a nice little Big Brother where we vote for the prime minister, and then we vote for the deputy prime minister. I could host.
“And it doesn’t matter what party they’re from, everyone’s just got to work together. Simple as that. Around that table, better decisions would be made. We’ve all got our vaccine passports. Why have we not got a government app where we put our points across? It seems crazy that it’s still pen and paper, go to the polling station, put your X in a box. Bollocks. Everyone’s doing an app. If I was prime minister that’s what I’d do. I’d make politics accessible for everyone.”
Given how far he’s come in the last decade, and the unpredictable route his career has taken, who knows where he’ll be in another 10 years.
“In 10 years’ time I’d just like to be happy. I know that sounds wank but it’s the truth.”
What advice would Rylan give his younger self knowing what would happen to that 23-year-old who walked on the X Factor stage?
“Genuinely, the best piece of advice I could give myself is make sure you’re always happy. I’ve been in a lot of situations over the last 10 years where I’ve gone on with something because I thought it was the right thing to do. Or because I thought it was good for my job or my personal life. But if you’re not happy, it’s really not worth it. The day I know I’m fully happy is when I don’t have thoughts about certain things, thoughts about the past. Like, I’m good. I’m in a good place at the minute. But to be fully happy, I’m not there yet.
“My main aim is wake up, do my job. Not stress about the small stuff. Just try and smile my way through.”
Rylan and his mum are on Celebrity Gogglebox, Fridays, Channel 4 and he presents every Saturday afternoon on BBC Radio 2
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