Every time an X Factor or reality TV winner leaps for joy at the intoxicatingly beguiling prospect of fame, I want to yell: “Poor innocent, be careful what you wish for.”
Celebrity is a poisoned chalice. It’s fabulous to be famous when ratings are soaring, premiere tickets are fluttering, first-class lounges are beckoning, an organic yoghurt manufacturer has approached you to be its “face”, and the world and his wife are desperate to know where you bought your vintage leather jacket.
While your marriage is cordial, your skin is acne-free and your family obliges by leading a wholesome low-key existence, nothing is more enjoyable than a frisson of autograph hunters at the door and a complimentary queue-jumping weekend at EuroDisney.
Alas, blameless blip-free lives only occur on Walton’s Mountain, and as Ant McPartlin is currently finding out, when the blissful bubble bursts, agony replaces ecstasy, acclaim is swiftly supplanted by disdain and the whole ghastly grilling takes place in the gruesome glare of relentless media – and social media – scrutiny.
Our relationship with celebrity is confusing. We make stars, therefore we have carte blanche to break them. We extol their virtues, admire their hairstyles, follow their diet advice and hang upon every Instagram post, yet feel free to revel in their unravelling. When their flaws, failures, dependencies, infidelities and spectacular plummet from grace unfurl, we glory in their undoing.
When first I loomed into public consciousness way back in 1994, ITV’s Vanessa was Britain’s first foray into TV talk show territory as pioneered in the US. Little was said about me apart from snide musings on my ample Coca-Cola bottle figure, but quickly the show outperformed Oprah’s in the UK, soaring from two afternoons a week to five a week, garnering a 53% audience share.
Tidings of comfort and joy abounded. My little girls gambolled up the red carpet at Disney’s Beauty and the Beast premiere at the Natural History Museum. We flew in a helicopter with Bob Geldof, Jennifer Saunders and their children to the Bristol Maritime Museum for the first night of A Muppet Treasure Island and on landing were escorted to the venue by a police outriders. I learnt to sign my autograph with a flourish and happily gave interviews about the contents of my fridge, the secret of my grandma’s chicken soup and was photographed, I forget why, dressed as my favourite Quality Street.
All was sublime until the inevitable happens. The idyll implodes. Perfection is marred and the tide virulently turns. In my case it was a decision to leave ITV for the ill-fated BBC Vanessa Show, upon which, without my knowledge, some guests appeared who weren’t who they claimed to be, plus a decamping husband (the woman he’d been having an affair with was “helpfully” found by Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror). I went from nation’s sweetheart to the stuff of hostile front pages and biliously nasty “think” pieces. As if that weren’t enough, I unravelled on Celebrity Big Brother, chalking on the table, sobbing in the Diary Room, pioneering behaviour subsequently adopted by 100 per cent of celebs venturing onto reality television.
When so-called experts airily hold forth on Ant McPartlin’s “brand” now being tainted, I feel huge dollops of empathy for the fellow. He is not a brand but a human being. He is troubled and trying to survive turbulent times. Divorce and addiction are tough to conquer in private; wrestling both as the world looks on must be agonising. I wish him well and send him love, kisses and thanks for many years of hilarious viewing.