WHEN Vernon Kay was told that, thanks to the pandemic, the series of I’m A Celebrity! he’d just signed up to was moving from Australia to a freezing castle in Wales, he was ready to jack it in.
“I was like: ‘Fine, never mind, I’ll do it next year,’” he recalls.
“But I got a call asking me to rethink and I thought: ‘You know what? I know the area because my auntie and uncle live there, it’s a beautiful part of Wales, the kids want me to do it… sod it!’”
It turned out to be a very good decision indeed. Vernon’s natural warmth and humour (as well as those shower scenes) got him all the way to the final – making him a man in demand ever since.
Earlier this month he launched Game Of Talents, ITV’s new flagship Saturday-night entertainment show, marking his return to “shiny-floor telly” (as he puts it) following a five-year absence.
He also has new podcast Parenting Past The Pandemic.
Not that Vernon, 46, has been out of work during the years he’s been away from prime time – although he’s the first to admit that is often the perception.
Since 2017, he has been earning his stripes as a respected Formula E motor-racing reporter and he hopes now to straddle the worlds of sport and entertainment.
He laughs as he says the differences between the two could not be more stark.
“When I first did Formula E, I walked into the gallery where the crew were all sat watching the monitors, and I said: ‘Which shirt do you think I should wear?’ And they all looked at me like: ‘Wear what you want.’
"It was a huge contrast to having a stylist and tailored suits, Christian Louboutin shoes and having someone checking if I need panty pads in my shirt so it doesn’t show the sweat marks.”
After starting his career as a model in the ’90s, Bolton-born Vernon moved into TV, getting his big break on T4 back in 2000.
He went on to host shows such as Boys And Girls, Beat The Star and Splash!, spent eight years at Radio 1 and fronted 11 series of All Star Family Fortunes.
I’m A Celebrity! provided an opportunity to revive that side of his career, although Vernon says it wasn’t until the day after the final in December – when he took a trip to his local bistro with his wife of nearly 18 years, Strictly host Tess Daly, 52, and their daughters Phoebe, 16, and Amber, 11 – that it started to dawn on him just how big the show had been.
“A lady opened the door to the cafe and the first thing she said was: ‘We voted for you, we thought you did exceptionally well!’
"She was the only person outside of family that I’d seen and the first words out of her mouth were I’m A Celeb! related. I was like: ‘Wow,’ and the kids said: ‘Dad, it’s been massive!’”
We sit down with Vernon to talk about his second-chance career, life with Tess and, ahem, that buff bod…
How have things been since I’m A Celeb?
I had a great time, I really did. When you realise: “Oh, bloody hell, people have been voting for me,” it really tugs at the heart strings.
I never thought it would be over, but there was a pressure I put on myself to wait and be asked to host something that was good
I remember coming home and Phoebe saying: “Oh my god, Dad, you’re TikTok famous now!” Great, but what does that even mean?!
Your body got quite a lot of attention on social media…
Ha! Throughout the year, I’d been going to the gym on a regular basis and I wanted to get rid of two or three pounds so I looked half decent in the shower.
I’ll be honest, there was a little bit of vanity – you’re going in there with people like AJ [Pritchard], who has this chiselled, Adonis, sculpted body from being a professional dancer. And I can’t let the kids have all the fun!
And you actually lost two and a half stone in there!
Yes, and Tess said it reminded her of when we first met, because I was really skinny back then. She told me not to put too much of it back on.
How was it being reunited with Tess after five weeks apart?
I arrived home on the Saturday and was in bed when Tess got back from Strictly because I was exhausted.
She’s always pumped with adrenalin after Strictly, so she very graciously went in the spare bedroom.
She came in the next morning, nudged me a few times and I woke up, opened my eyes and saw Tess’ big, beaming smile on the pillow next to me.
She looked so stunningly beautiful – she’d taken all her show make-up off and her beauty really shines through when she’s got no make-up on. I’m always telling her not to put it on. And she just said: “We are so proud of you.”
What were your reasons for doing the show?
The start of the Formula E season is [usually] in November and that’s something I have really invested myself in.
We’re live in 47 English-speaking territories, so it’s quite a big deal globally and also for me personally.
But when the start of the season got pushed back [due to Covid], I decided to do it. So I did it for the kids and because the timing was right.
But did you also hope it would be a springboard back to entertainment?
Well, I always said it would have to be the right vehicle. The last time I hosted a show for ITV was 2016 [Drive].
I’ve done loads of different shows [previously] that have only lasted one or two series, so to come back on the shiny floor, it had to be 100% the right format.
Did you ever think that chapter of your life might be over?
I never thought it would be over, but there was a pressure I put on myself to wait and be asked to host something that was good.
I guess the best way to describe it is that I’ve been smart-casual for a few years and now it’s time to put the suit back on. I’m having a whale of a time at the moment.
Tell us about Game Of Talents…
It’s all about perception and what your gut instinct tells you. We’ve got members of the public and celebrities and mystery performers.
I give the contestants and celebs a list of the talents – it could be a magician, a trapeze act, all those weird, wonderful talents people have – and they have to decide which one is matched to the people in front of them. It’s a lot of fun.
You met Tess back in 2000. How did you get together?
We worked on this music show and we were doing a piece on the greatest female performers – I was dressed as Geri Halliwell and Tess was dressed as Britney from the .…Baby One More Time video and we just hit it off. We had an absolute riot.
The following night was the work Christmas party and Tess didn’t really know anyone, so when she saw me across the dance floor we hung out and that was it.
We ended up in Fabric [nightclub] that night and we kissed on the balcony.
Where did you go for your first date?
Zilli Fish on Brewer Street. It was… eventful. I only had a Solo card and it bounced, so she had to pay. I didn’t have a penny back then. I’d been doing modelling and it was the very start of my TV career.
You’d actually stumbled across Tess long before that, though, hadn’t you?
Here’s the story. I’m a massive American football fan and in the late ’80s the only way to watch it was on satellite TV.
So, Christmas 1988, my dad, who was probably the hardest-working truck driver throughout his career, bought us satellite TV, fitted it himself and we had MTV.
Me and my mates would leave school and come to my house via the pasty shop to watch MTV during lunch, and it was The Beloved, Happy Mondays, Stone Roses…
And it was that famous Beloved Sweet Harmony video with the naked models that caught your eye, right?!
It was very much: “That video’s on! Look!” And it stuck with me.
Fast-forward 10 years or so…
And me and Tess were walking around Notting Hill and we bumped into a lady who Tess knew.
She said afterwards: “Oh, she was in that Beloved video with me.” And I was like: “Say that again. You were in that video?! I’ve, er, seen that video…”
You speak on your podcast about the perils of social media. How do you and Tess manage that with the girls?
Social media gives everyone access to you and that’s where the problems stem from.
So you’ve got to decide if you want to give people the keys to the castle or the shed, where it’s just a little bit of your life.
You wouldn’t sit on the Tube and say to the stranger next to you: “Mate, I know you’re on your way to work, but get a look at my holiday photos! And check out my rye bread from this morning.”
So we’ve had those chats with the girls and put all the parental blocks on our WiFi and their devices so nothing can pop up. It’s something we’re always aware of.
You’re in your mid-40s now – is getting older something you welcome or loathe?
I’ve noticed recently that I’ve started making those noises whenever I get out of a chair. I have to mentally stop myself from doing that!
Bruce [Forsyth] always told Tess that he woke up and stretched for 30 minutes before he went downstairs and had his first cup of tea, and I think it’s important to keep your body nimble and physically active.
Music keeps you youthful and I’m thankful that my mates are the generation from the late ’80s/early ’90s when house music became a massive part of UK culture.
So I think it’s acceptable for us to go and see our favourite DJs – we’ll stand at the bar and wear socks and baggy jeans, not leggings like most of the lads wear at the moment.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to about lockdown being over?
I’ve not seen my parents for more than a year and it’s horrible.
But we’re planning gatherings now Boris has allowed us to have more than two friends in the garden.
- Game Of Talents is on Saturdays, 7.30pm, on ITV and ITV Hub
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