She’s spent more than half a decade on The Chase, faced hundreds of courageous contestants as The Vixen and appeared in over 160 episodes – but only now can professional quizzer Jenny Ryan finally say she’s no longer the new Chaser on the block.
“Occasionally, I’ll get someone saying, ‘Oh – who’s this new Chaser?’ or ‘You’re still the new one’, and I’ve been on the show now for nearly six years,” she says. “It’s a big relief to not be the new one anymore.”
The Bolton-born brainiac, who shook up the ITV quiz with her cat-eye spectacles and big red bouffant back in 2015, was the latest Chaser to join the show’s hallowed ranks until earlier this year – when former contestant Darragh Ennis became the line-up’s newest addition.
“It’s great that the show is feeling refreshed by having a new face in there. Somebody who’s up for the challenge, somebody who can join our ranks and just join step with us right away,” she continues. “Darragh’s been practicing his whole life for this in the same way that the rest of us have – it’s our dream job – so I’m absolutely delighted that he’s with us and that’s he’s the new boy.”
It’s a late Thursday afternoon when I’m speaking over the phone to Ryan – who’s just as quick-witted as her intimidating TV alter-ego but also warm and chatty while we discuss the upcoming second series of Beat the Chasers.
The prime-time spin-off series, which sees the whole cast of Chasers team up to take on individual contestants, proved to be immensely popular during its 2019 debut. Filming for season two is currently underway, however Ryan warns that the show has undergone a few COVID-related changes – including the scrapping of its studio audience.
“It’s been a bit of a change. The audience really did bring something to the first series, it felt very gladiatorial and it was great to have. We felt like it was the five of us against the entire audience plus the contestants plus [host Bradley Walsh] so we didn’t really have that there this time.”
She adds: “But we know we make the best of it and the most important thing for us is that we’re all together. We face some brilliant people, so that more than makes up for the lack of audience.”
Teasing the upcoming series, Ryan reveals that the format is still the same and that the Chasers were able to stay within close contact in a COVID compliant manner during filming.
“The five of us were being tested loads so it meant that we didn’t have to have screens between us and that made a huge different because it would have really affected our game,” she says. “So it was worth being swabbed so many times so we could play like a proper team.”
On which show she prefers, Ryan answers diplomatically. “They’re both enjoyable and they’re both very different. When we’re doing the daytime show, obviously all the pressure is on the one Chaser so you feel very focused, whereas when we’re doing Beat the Chasers, the pressure is sort of divided between us all a little bit so we can take a little bit of slack for each other if we’re feeling tired.”
“But it’s also quite exhausting because there’s five really big personalities up there,” she adds. “It gets quite tiring after a little while to be part of that and the relentless quizzing as well.”
Before becoming one of those big personalities, Ryan worked in various temp jobs whilst acting as a question writer and researcher in TV. “I wrote questions and facts for things like QI and The Weakest Link and I did the pilot series of The Chase as well so it’s come full circle.”
Having quizzed since a young age – (“It’s our family hobby”) – and competed on University Challenge before taking on the international quiz circuit, Ryan was recommended to The Chase’s producers by the other Chasers, with Anne ‘The Governess’ Hegerty particularly keen for her to join the show.
“It was a tough old process. It didn’t take me as long as it did Darragh to get the job, but it took eight months for me – I think it was more like three years for Darragh,” she reveals.
“They have to be very sure that they’re putting the right person into such an established show as The Chase. It’s so well loved, it’s such a part of people’s routines and everyday life now that it has to be absolutely the right person at the right time.”
On what producers are looking for in a Chaser, Ryan says there are “so many hoops to jump through” for wannabe cast members. “It’s not just a matter of being the world’s best quizzer, in which case it would be a very different line-up of Chasers, and I don’t think it would have lasted as long as it has done.”
Of all the Chaser criteria, Ryan cites the ability to gel with Bradley Walsh as the most important. “If he doesn’t feel that he can chat to you and have a bit of friendly banter with you and work with you, then it’s that which won’t work.”
“We’re all big personalities and Brad is such a well-loved personality, it’s a really tricky fit so it’s finding the right peg for the hole and I feel very lucky that I’m one of the chosen ones.”
When it came to choosing her nickname, the Vixen says that she can’t claim any responsibility for her striking moniker. “I know the producers were debating nicknames for me and they wanted something quite animal-y because for some reason every audition I’d gone to I’d worn something leopard print or tiger print.”
“Originally they suggested The Cougar but I was too young to be a cougar – I’m still too young to be a cougar, I’m not having that,” she laughs.
It was actually Walsh who coined Ryan’s TV title. “When he met me, I had me I had my red hair in a ponytail like a fox’s brush. Foxes are really clever – they’re intelligent animals, they’re cunning and it seemed like the right for it.”
Ryan admits that becoming a staple of many people’s weekday afternoons was “a bit of a culture shock” initially. “To suddenly be in everybody’s living rooms, it’s taken quite a while to get any kind of comfort level with that.”
“There are people who love you and think you’re the best thing they’ve ever seen on TV, which is great. And there are also people who see you for half a minute and say that you’re the worst thing they’ve ever seen,” she says. “It’s balancing the fact that these things exist.”
“I think the toughest thing is realising that not everybody is going to like you, and that actually that doesn’t matter that much as long as you are doing your job to the best of your ability.”
Now six series into the job, the 38-year-old doesn’t have a problem watching herself back – something she thought she’d have trouble doing at first. “It thought it would be a tougher thing for me to get to grips with but I find it quite a good learning experience to watch the show back to learn from my mistakes.”
“It’ll depend on what mood I’m in – if I’m feeling a little bit fragile, if I’m feeling a little bit PMS-y or whatever, I switch it off right away. But actually, I find it very useful.”
Now she’s settled into a quizzing routine, how does the Vixen top up her trivia knowledge bank? “We’ve all got different ways of doing our revision – I think the one way [all the Chasers] have in common is that we know that the more we quiz, the better we are at quizzing.”
“So Quiz League, online quizzes and even the odd pub quiz – if you can go in disguise and get away with it.”
When I ask whether she’s managed to successfully sneak into many pub quizzes, Ryan responds: “Not many recently.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to be blasé about it and just walk in and if people recognise you, they recognise you,” she adds. “It is a double-edged sword – if you go to a pub quiz and you win, people have a little bit of a complain, and if you go and you lose, people will point and laugh at you.”
Looking back on her time on the show so far, Ryan has been involved in some of The Chase’s most memorable episodes – including a particular Final Chase last year which saw Newmarket resident Judith win a whopping £70,000 by herself. “She actually ended up being the record holder for the biggest solo win,” she says. “Very unassuming lady. You wouldn’t think twice to look at her to think that she was going to absolutely batter me in a quiz but she did. That was a brilliant one and that became like a viral moment a well.”
One of Ryan’s favourite highlights however was a Final Chase during which she managed to catch a team with a 24-place head start, robbing them of their £100,000 prize. “Any team that gets over 20 or 21 have a very good chance of winning and if you get 23, 24 or 25, you’ve got it in the bag surely – but I just had an absolute dream of a Final Chase. I was almost quizzing on autopilot.”
She adds that she still feels “very guilty” about the win and even bumped into the team’s star player on a night out earlier this year.
“I actually ran into him at a drag show in Manchester of all things and I caught his eye and I thought for a second, ‘I recognise him’ and then it dawned on me.
“He blushed and I blushed and I thought, ‘Oh, this is awful’, so I made it up to him in part by sending his table a bottle of wine, but it doesn’t make up for 100 grand does it?”
In terms of players she’d love to see on the next celebrity edition of The Chase, Ryan says that she’d love to show’s competition to take her on. “I’m talking about people like our rivals on the other channel, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman. I think that would be a great challenge.”
She adds that she’d love to see a RuPaul’s Drag Race special of The Chase. “I’d like to see Michelle Visage. I’d like Mamma Ru. I’d like our UK Queen The Vivienne on there. And maybe Bianca Del Rio because she’s my absolute favourite queen.”
For now, however, Ryan is focussing on Beat the Chasers series two, which will see “some good wins” and “a lot of very narrow games”.
“It’s thrilling. I think it’s even better than the first series,” she teases. “I think we’re going from strength to strength.”
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