Rylan Clark looks back: ‘I wanted people to notice me. After being bullied it was an act of defiance’

TV presenter Rylan Clark looks back at his X Factor audition and the time a school bully wanted a selfie

Rylan Clark in 2012 and 2022. Later portrait: Pål Hansen. Styling: Andie Redman. Grooming: Alice Theobald at Arlington Artists using Tom Ford Beauty and GHD Pro

Rylan Clark, born Ross in 1988, grew up in a council house in Stepney Green, east London, with his mum, Linda, grandma Rose and big brother Jamie. He finished in fifth place during the ninth series of The X Factor in 2012, winning the nation’s hearts with his outlandish outfits, quick tongue and elaborate pop mashups. From Simon Cowell’s stage he went straight into 2013’s Celebrity Big Brother, which he won, and has since worked nonstop: as a presenter on Radio 2, This Morning, Strictly and Eurovision spin-offs, and on the Celebrity Gogglebox sofa. His new memoir, Ten: The Decade That Changed My Future, is out now.

Here I am at my X Factor audition, showing off all the hits: the teeth, the T-shirt, the hair. Everything was so surreal by the time I got on stage. The hopeful contestants had been standing outside the O2 for hours and it was a really hot day, so once I got inside it felt as if I had sunstroke. The next thing I know, it’s like: bish, bash, bosh, bam. Here’s Dermot! Here’s a mic! You’re on stage! I didn’t know what I was doing.

Not a lot was going on in my life before this point. I was in a boyband, 4Bidden. Once I’d come out of that, I did a bit of modelling, but that didn’t go anywhere. Then X Factor came along and I thought, it’s either this or … I don’t know. But even though I had no plan B, I was a bit reluctant to go to the audition. I got up that morning, had a shower and was blow-drying my hair – those blond hair extensions were for a photoshoot I’d done in Ibiza while I was living my best Ursula Andress life. There was this voice in my head saying, “Are you really going to do this? You’re not going to get through, it’ll be embarrassing, and everyone will see it.” But once I had the right outfit, I felt more prepared. I had a pair of Converse that had crystals on, then I found that top – I think it was from Zara. Looking back, I wish someone had told me, “Bloody hell, do not wear that.”

Although I didn’t like my look when I watched it back, I’m glad it’s how I looked because a 6ft 4in guy with blond hair extensions is a cameraman’s dream. The producers would have probably ignored me if I had been standing in the queue being all normal in Adidas joggers. It was my thing back then, dressing to try to stand out. It started in my early teens. I wanted people to notice me, I wanted the attention. After being bullied at school it was an act of defiance. I thought: “If you’re going to talk about me, I’ll give you something to talk about.”

Once I was on the show, I learned very quickly what my role was. I was the gay stereotype who’s not good at singing. I thought, “All right. I won’t sing, and I’ll wear a light-up outfit or dress like an Egyptian. Or a onesie to go to Tesco. I’ll play the game. That’s what you want, that’s what you’ll get. I know I’ll get an opportunity to show you all who I really am.” Once the cameras were off, once I was back in the hotel room, me and [2012 winner of The X Factor] James Arthur would just sit there in our tracksuits having a beer.

I hardly had any money back then but I’d always try to make a proper effort. Like any 22-year-old, I’d spend everything I had at [shopping centre] Lakeside, buying clothes and getting bronze foundation and my eyebrows done. Everyone would take the piss out of my face but they’re all getting tweakments done now! That said, there were times I took it too far. My lips burst open at the end of The X Factor. They literally split open because I overfilled them. But I think sometimes you do have to push it to realise when you need to rein it in. Having work done was always about prevention rather than cure. I don’t want to get to 50 and have these deep lines in my forehead. I’d rather freeze where I am. Nowadays I get the odd bit of Botox and I might have a bit of lip filler but that’s it. Everyone thinks I have a hairdresser every single second of the day but I colour my own hair and get it cut once every five weeks. Until a few days ago, my eyebrows hadn’t been done for four months. I’m a lazy bastard.

It’s been a tough few years but I am really happy with who I am now. I feel like a better person, and a lot stronger [in 2021, Clark separated from Dan Neal, whom he had married in 2015]. It is a nightmare being famous and dating, though. At this stage, I think I’m going to be single for ever. I’ll probably die surrounded by cats, and I’m allergic to the bastards. I’m on all the apps but people just send messages like, “Hello you!” Or, “That ain’t you!” I was kicked off Tinder last year because they thought I was a catfish. I’ll have to hang around the corner shop and wait to meet someone instead.

I’m less polished at work, too: a bit more myself, a bit more Ross rather than Rylan. I’ve learned that people prefer it when you’re real. Gone are the days of: “Good evening and welcome to this show.” I’m more inclined to be like: “Fuck off, what are we doing today? Let’s have a chat.” As well as that I am trying not to sweat the small stuff. You can say what you want about me. That I’m talentless, that I’ve got big teeth, that I’m a prick, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. But the second you lie, I’ll call you out. Like that whole drug thing [in January, the Sunday Mirror published footage of Clark allegedly making a drug reference during a night out] – I thought, I’m not having that bullshit. I’ll call it out and I think more people should. I wouldn’t deal with it in my real life, so why would I in my career? If someone was standing on the street lying about me, I’d knock them out.

When I was on The X Factor tour, one of my security guys said, “There’s a guy here who went to school with you and wants to say hello.” It was some bloke who used to take the piss out of me at school, so I said I’d love to see him. I went up to the side of the stage and he was there with this woman. He said, “Oh my God, mate, how are you doing? This is my girlfriend. Can I have a photo?” I said: “Yeah, of course you can.” Afterwards I go, “Oh, give me a cuddle.” I put my arms around him and said, “See you, you prick, you’re lucky I didn’t say anything.” I knew it would hurt him more than having a row. That whole attitude comes from my mum and it comes from Stepney. It makes you tough. My mum knows I can handle anything.

Although my career started off as a joke, now everyone is laughing with me. It made me really proud that in spite of that shift, I didn’t change. People might look at me differently these days, but inside I’m the same bloke that walked on to The X Factor stage 10 years ago. Just slightly stronger and with better hair.


Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
John Whaite looks back: ‘I just wanted to be a fairy. I still do’
TV presenter and chef John Whaite on terrible tattoos, body dysmorphia and making history on Strictly

Harriet Gibsone

09, Sep, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Fleur East looks back: ‘My mum loved to put me in the most flamboyant dresses: big poofy sleeves and shoulder pads’
The singer recalls her shy childhood, how she ended up on X Factor twice, and finding her own voice

Interview by Harriet Gibsone

20, May, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Giovanni Pernice looks back: ‘The bum bag was probably for sweets’
The Strictly winner on his dancing odyssey – and why he’s not really a lothario

Harriet Gibsone

27, Aug, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Flashback – JLS: ‘X Factor was a crash course in this industry. Zero to hero in 10 weeks’
Aston, Marvin, JB and Oritsé recreate their audition photo and reflect on backflips, friendships, reuniting and turkey farming

Harriet Gibsone

04, Dec, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Alex Jones looks back: ‘I was filming a reality show in Magaluf when I did my finals, and Davina McCall was my exam invigilator’
TV host Alex Jones on growing up in Wales, overcoming her shyness, and being more feisty than people might think

Harriet Gibsone

15, Apr, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Dermot O’Leary looks back: ‘I don’t remember having a bowl on my head for a haircut’
The TV presenter recreates an old photo and recalls his Irish household – and breaking into TV

Harriet Gibsone

16, Jul, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Olly Murs looks back: ‘Our house was like Witham’s Got Talent, without the talent’
The singer and presenter on staying true to his Essex roots, X Factor fame and losing his friend Caroline Flack

Harriet Gibsone

03, Dec, 2022 @12:00 PM

Article image
AJ and Curtis Pritchard: ‘Whatever happens on his side of the door stays on his side of the door’
The dancing brothers recreate an old photograph and reflect on Strictly, Love Island and living together

Harriet Gibsone

27, Nov, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Hilary and Michael Whitehall look back: ‘I wanted an agent, he wanted a wife’
The parents of comedian Jack Whitehall on running wild at the Acropolis, their age gap and getting married

Harriet Gibsone

09, Jul, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Strictly’s Motsi Mabuse looks back: ‘I knew from the outset that the world wasn’t fair’
The dancer on growing up in the ‘mess’ of South Africa, the pressures of competing and the joys of the BBC dance show

Harriet Gibsone

01, Oct, 2022 @11:00 AM