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Dermot: "I'm basically a circus master"

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He’s the unflappable face (and incredibly tight trousers) of The X Factor, but he still has sleepless nights and work jitters. Dermot O’Leary talks to Jimi Famurewa

Dermot O’Leary clambers on to his tricked-out Harley-Davidson and flicks a spent cigarette butt at the pigeon blocking his path. “It’s been real guys,” he grins, producing a hip flask for a deep swig and, snapping his fingers, beckons Zondra, the pink-haired, 21-year-old model that has accompanied him to today’s shoot. He revs the engine and... no, sorry. I just can’t keep that up.

In reality it ends, of course, with hugging. Multiple members of the ShortList team receive the sort of lengthy clinches usually reserved for tearful teenagers that have just ballsed up Moves Like Jagger in front of The X Factor judging panel. O’Leary, it goes without saying, is a hugger.

He’s also a helper, a doer. A man who makes sure everyone is OK for water. A man who wordlessly moves my Dictaphone closer to him when we start our interview, to make sure it doesn’t pick up background chatter. Someone who, to the visible bewilderment of his publicist, puts off leaving the photography studio to rave about why someone MUST watch a recently devoured box set (Belfast-set BBC Two thriller The Fall, if you’re wondering).

The 41-year-old presenter is, as his TV persona suggests, likeable, charming and witty. Married (to director/producer Dee Koppang), scandal-free, hard-working. A force of weapons-grade mateyness in an immaculate suit. Manly without being laddy. Big-hearted without being sanctimonious or mawkish. A hero for the Ice Bucket Challenge generation.

But does he ever get the sense that people think he’s, well, too nice? That his amiable persona is hiding some version of the imaginings at the start of this piece?

“Erm, I haven’t really picked up on that,” he says, looking slightly crestfallen. “I try to be honest. I’m not blunt or curt, but I think people smell bullsh*t, and you’re not doing anyone any favours by lying. You change as you grow up, but I never consciously think, ‘Right, I’m going to be the bad guy this year.’”

X marks the spot

O’Leary may be reluctant to play “the bad guy” on The X Factor, but there’s no need this summer. A certain chest-baring, stack-heeled supervillain is being reintroduced to the judging panel in what’s being marketed as a ‘getting the old gang together’ return to glory. Yes, Simon Cowell is back. So what does his presence bring to proceedings?

“More fag breaks,” laughs O’Leary. “And lateness. He’s always late. I don’t know where his body clock is, but it’s not on UK time. I’d like to think it was because he’s a new dad but, let’s be honest, I don’t think he’s getting up for the 3am feed.” As well as Cowell, this year’s karaoke jamboree will feature new judge Mel B, the returning Cheryl Fernandez-Versini (formerly Cole, of course), plus reliable pop doofus Louis Walsh (“I don’t know what I’d do without him on the panel,” smiles O’Leary).

As we meet, the Colchester-born presenter has just completed work on the Boot Camp stage of the competition and, although he diplomatically avoids criticising past judges, he notes there’s an extra jolt that comes with this revamped line-up. Especially as the man who could hand him his P45 will now be sitting a few yards away.

“To have him back comes with its own pressure,” he says. “There’s that thing of stepping it up a bit when your boss is on shift. But he’s a fair boss. There’s no Alex Ferguson-style hair-dryer treatment. The Mr Nasty thing is a bit of a misnomer, but he works hard and he’s a perfectionist. He finishes a show, goes home and watches it again. OK, that may be a tad obsessive...”

This underlying pressure coupled with the delirium of The X Factor live shows – the complex matrix of promotional clips and bellowy recaps, the jet-lagged pop star who just wants to plug their single release date, another interminable silence as Louis Walsh deliberates over taking it to Deadlock – is something O’Leary, somehow, manages to glide through every week. And that’s before we even touch on the fondness last year’s judges had for the odd tipple during the later section of the show (“They’d have wine after wine and, because they hadn’t had any lunch, they’d just go,” he says. “We called it ‘The Witching Hour’. It was brilliant”).

What goes through his mind as he has to paper over those cracks in front of up to 19 million viewers?

“It’s chaos, because I have seven people in my ear going, ‘We’re going to fall off air’,” he says. “I’m basically a circus master, and the problem is [the judges] either take up too much time or too little time, I’ve got the floor manager telling me to wrap up, so half my job is doing maths in my head. And I’m terrible at maths.”

Father figure

This series of the ITV show will be O’Leary’s eighth. That’s eight years of, among other things, doling out conciliatory/congratulatory hugs to the conveyor belt of eager contestants who “really, really, want it”. But he’s quick to assure me that interacting with the public (doing that ‘X’ symbol thing outside a convention centre or otherwise) is one of his favourite parts of the job. “You’ve got to like people,” he notes. “And one of the reasons I still enjoy it is that you are meeting people you’d never normally meet. Especially now. When I first started they were generally my age or maybe five years younger. These days I feel quite paternal to a lot of them coming through, because they’re 15-year-old kids.”

This idea alights on a central tenet of the new ShortList Mentor Project O’Leary is helping us launch – you can read more about it over the following pages. At root, it’s about helping and engaging with people that would benefit from your experience. Something O’Leary has a unique insight into. Has he noticed any changes in the young people, specifically the young men, auditioning over the years?

“A lot more swept-over hair and tattoos that people really don’t know the meaning of,” he says with a smile. “But I think they’ve become more confident as the years have gone on. And it’s a good thing, because what I always used to find quite uncomfortable was when people turned up and they were just desperate to be famous. ‘I will do anything. I’ve got a half-decent voice, just tell me what you want me to sing.’ No one is interested in that. Now you’ve got these kids turning up and they’re like, ‘There’s my YouTube channel, here’s my Vimeo and this is how I’ve done my marketing so far.’ I’m just like, ‘What?!’ They’re super-sharp and they’re on it.”

It holds that this sort of committed ambition and professionalism would impress O’Leary. A TV nerd who worshipped Wogan as a kid, he worked his way up from a job as a runner (“I loved it to the point where I was a bit gutted when I started doing well,” he laughs) through the various sub-levels of the TV industry to making his name with anarchic work on T4 and Big Brother’s Little Brother. And, when talk turns to advice he may give to a hypothetical mentee, he advocates this path. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done, because not only do you learn, it teaches you humility. I’m all about apprenticeships.”

He shrinks slightly from being described as a role model (“I can give people advice on dealing with live television, not so much their high notes”), yet he’s clearly a leader in other parts of his life.

As well as putting out his Radio 2 show through a personal production company, O’Leary (an unashamed foodie) also has his own restaurant called Fishy Fishy on the south coast. And let’s just say he’s not merely slapped his name above the door to impress his mates.

“There’s an awful lot of responsibility, because you’re signing off people’s wages at the end of the week,” he says, dropping his voice slightly.

“It’s pretty onerous and it’s not much fun, if I’m honest with you. The restaurant trade is so hard. It can keep you up at night. I look at our turnover and go, ‘F*cking hell. What, we’re all millionaires are we?’ Then you’ve got cost of sale, overheads, staff and everything else. So you’re lucky if you’re getting seven per cent profit. It’s a hard business.” He raps the table for emphasis, laughs ruefully. “And let me tell you, when you run a fish restaurant that specialises in alfresco summer food in Brighton, November and January ain’t fun.”

Chasing Paxo

Now, a wealthy celebrity contemplating overheads at the seafood place he owns hardly constitutes a hard-knock life. But the duty O’Leary feels to those he employs and the bullish, hands-on way he’s pursuing a passion (he’s loved fishing since he was a boy, too) might surprise people used to his breezy on-screen delivery. There’s clearly steel, and a relatable angst, behind the “How’re you feeling after that, buddy?” patter.

He’s involved with various charities – including Soccer Aid and male cancer awareness organisation Everyman – and he fronted a spin-off of Question Time geared at young voters in 2010. The shiny floors and dry ice of Saturday night entertainment may have become his trademark, and he speaks fondly about one day doing a US-style chat show, but does he fancy breaking out into something a bit harder-edged? With another election year looming, is he still passionate about getting young people to engage politically?

“Question Time was brilliant,” he says. “But you have to do your homework on those shows – you never want to be out of your depth. I get why people are disillusioned by politics. The old party definitions don’t exist any more. It’s still important to vote, but it’s also about parties engaging with young people. These days I think it’s more about petitions and getting involved with causes.”

His days as the heir to Dimbleby or Paxman will have to wait, though. In a few days he jets off to film the Judges’ Houses segment of The X Factor and it’ll be a matter of weeks until the live juggernaut rumbles to life again. More pet hates to smile through (“If I have to hear At Last by Etta James murdered one more time...”). More judge squabbles to mediate.

More press stories and Twitter accounts devoted, ludicrously, to his trouser bulge (“It’s so surreal. It’s not like I’m asking for a tighter fit or anything.”) More complex running time arithmetic to process.

Not that you’ll know any of this. He won’t complain or crumple.

He won’t let you see it on his face. He’s not that kind of guy.

The X Factor returns 30 August on ITV at 8pm; The Soundtrack To My Life by Dermot O’Leary (Hodder & Stoughton) is out on 9 October, priced £20

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