As a rule, people who look like me aren’t allowed on television. Faces like mine only appear in old paintings, symbolizing the Black Death. My teeth are yellow and splayed like a postmaster’s fingers, and I hunch when I speak like I’m leading you astray. I really, really hate cameras. And mirrors.
Nevertheless, being filmed is a prerequisite for meeting Kendra Wilkinson: Hugh Hefner’s former girlfriend, recent I’m A Celebrity contestant and current star of Kendra on Top –now showing its third series. After you sign the release to appear on camera, the production team make you hold it up under your chin to take your photograph, mugshot-style.
“Well this is alright, isn’t it?” whistles the camera guy, who I’ve been chatting to for ten minutes or so. This hotel is owned by a rock star, he says. It has shiny silver wallpaper, a circular bed (I can’t find a switch to make it rotate) and mirrored furniture. There is a long crack running across the front pane of the chest of drawers.
The cameraman likes Kendra. “She’s a real professional, really friendly and yeah I’m in the corner, I’ll sweep right as you come in, hang back until she’s sitting down” he says to no-one.
Kendra enters: petite but in a wide shouldered black and white jacket. She looks businesslike, but smiles a lot, showing lots of teeth. Behind her are another cameraman, a sound guy and a publicist who transcribes everything on an iPad. All seven of us sit down at the table.
“Welcome to London!” I say.
“Welcome to reality TV!” she says.
The cameras pan between us.
There’s a rhythm to interviews like this. With limited time and other journalists queuing up behind you like planes around Heathrow, the aim is to pile through the initial small talk then nab headlines, while still preserving the natural flow of conversation. Kendra makes it easy.
She loves London: “the vibe, the people…you guys are just are just so real.” She likes the drinking, partying, visiting old friends from I’m A Celebrity…
[Someone coughs, trying to interrupt]
Kendra is annoyed: this has knocked her off her stride. “Is everybody good?” she tisses. “I have to focus.”
It’s my fault: I started the interview before they realised, and the sound guy has to wire me with a microphone. He puts his hand up my jumper while I gaze into his eyes. The others discuss the shoot.
Cameraman 1: “ I’m using the daylight coming off the windows.”
Kendra: “This is a really fun room.”
Cameraman 2: “So you want to do the whole walking in thing again?”
Kendra: “I like the setup of this room.”
Publicist: “Yeah, it’s a lot better because you’ve got this area over here. “
[Gestures at the area currently occupied by me]
Kendra: “This room is definitely a lot better than mine. It’s so much better. I would use this area as my make-up… Why didn’t I get this room?”
Second girl: “I think they only had a couple of choices.”
Radio Times: “1…2…3….4….5…”
I’m going through the soundcheck, Any initial momentum we had is gone. I have a headache.
Kendra: “Welcome to reality TV!”
Does this happen every time she enters a room? “Yeah.” Presumably she could teach the Queen about making an entrance? “That’s right.” She must be used to glamour and bling from her time in the Playboy mansion? “Oh yeah, going up to that mansion, I felt like royalty every day. I mean the palace can probably throw a couple of parties and invite me and I’ll see what’s up.”
I like Kendra. She moved in with Hugh Hefner when she was 18 years old, and Girls of the Playboy mansion started a year later. At 29, she’s an old hand at this. She’s smart, she knows what I’m looking for and she gives it to me. That’s professionalism. That’s craft. That’s a headline. Moving on.
While in London she’s been visiting TOWIE star Gemma Collins, an old friend from I’m A Celebrity: ”I went to Amy Childs’ salon and got vajazzled. I passed the initiation, so I’m now an Essex girl.” She laughs when I bring up her former sparring partner Edwina Curry. I laugh too, treating her time in the jungle as an in-joke, fictional like the storylines in professional wrestling. Except Kendra now looks genuinely upset.
“I tried like, you know, while I was in there, but obviously afterwards she talked a lot of… you know… she talked a lot, you know, after I tried as a decent human being,” she says. “I don’t care if you’re a politician or the Queen of England. We’re all human beings and we all make mistakes and the only thing is I own up to them and she doesn’t.”
Kendra is upset because this wasn’t just television, this was her life, as strange as it may seem to us. Again, I’m disoriented, unsure how ‘real’ any of this is, what my reaction should be.
[Camera collides with a table]
Kendra looks annoyed: this is dangerously close to unprofessional. “Are we all good?” she asks the room. Keep going. Do people like Edwina Curry look down on her because of Playboy?
“Playboy was five years of my life but it is not my life now. Hef became one of my best friends, but if you watched the Girls of the Playboy Mansion…”
(Back home in America it was called The Girls Next Door, but she’s in Britain so she uses the local name.)
“…it was never really my image in the first place. I lived there, I had a great time and I dated Hugh Hefner, but what you’re seeing now is who I really am. I’m a new person now. I’m evolving. I’m about to turn 30, I feel more confident than ever and I’m looking at this trip as a kick off to my new evolution. “
She turns to the publicist.
“That was really cool, I’m so glad I said that.”
The publicist nods enthusiastically.
[The fire alarm goes off]
Kendra springs to the back of the sofa, looking out the window, scanning for danger. A camera zooms into her shoulder. I think of meerkats and my head drops into my hands. I’ve given up. How has Kendra lived like this for ten years? The glare of the cameras makes you feel like you’re constantly performing. The alarm stops. I ask if she even see the four people (again – two cameras, one sound guy and a publicist tapping on an iPad) sitting across from us at the tiny table.
[The cameras turn to stare at each other]
“I always see them,” she says. “That’s bullshit when people say they don’t notice the cameras: ‘Oh it’s like they don’t exist.’ Bullshit! That’s a bunch of rubbish. I always know that they’re there. I’ve been working with the same production company for ten years now. I trust them and they trust me and we work together and we make an amazing show, but it’s real and I trust them and it’s easy.”
But does this feel like a normal life? Cameras following you everywhere, fights with John Major’s former mistress in an Australian jungle? Does this feel real?
She thinks about it and answers like an expert discussing their field.
“I’m naturally gifted at sharing my life without feeling guilty. Like one of those people who are naturally gifted at singing or something, I’m willing to share my deepest and darkest secrets and demons with the world, because I believe no one’s perfect and I’m here to really prove that. There are artists in the music world that write about their struggles. This is my way of putting myself out there and it feels good, just as much as it does to a musician.”
So reality TV is a form of art?
“It is, I definitely believe so. When I moved into the mansion I didn’t even know what a reality show was. Then we got the offer. I hated the thought of it and I made an executive decision on the first day to be myself. And it worked out. There are some reality shows that get scripted –and even that’s an art– but this is my life. I would never let someone come in and tell me what to film. I would never do that to myself, because then I could never answer your questions.”
But is reality TV inspiring in the way great art can be?
“This is my 10th year on TV. I may not be the most famous celebrity or the most famous reality show out there, but I think that a good amount of people are out there and inspired because they know that it’s real. They know.”
The idea that Kendra on Top is art may seem absurd, but sitting there in that suite, with the minibar rattling, I believe her. The great lie of theatre is that the actors can’t see the audience. Reality TV is even stranger: not quite real, but life nonetheless. If Kendra can pull together a coherent performance out of this odd succession of stop-start conversations in front of a filmcrew, then that’s a true skill – it’s sure as hell beyond me writing this. Living your entire life this way might not be art, but it certainly is impressive.
The rest of the slot passes without incident, and soon the camera guys are waving me out the door: there’s still some business to deal with behind the scenes, but they want a natural exit on film. Kendra gives me a high five as I pass. “You’re a reality star!”
I walk out into the hall and down the stairs. The microphone is still clipped to my jumper.
Kendra on Top airs Mondays 10pm on ITVBe