• This interview originally appeared on Scotsman.com on 29 May 2009
The Chat show host Jeremy Kyle has his back to me when I approach and is busy licking the screen of his mobile phone. Not a dainty little lick around the edges but a proper, industrial-strength mop-up. Kyle says this is evidence of his obsessive compulsive disorder though it seems a bit of a manky habit to me for someone with a cleanliness fetish. He admits he even licks the dirt off golf balls when he’s playing a round, but to be honest, by the time he gets to “the reason I lick my balls in this way …” I am beginning to wonder if he’s having a laugh. Apparently not. “It does not lend any discernible benefit to my game, it’s just that cleaning my balls on the white towel dangling from my golf bag might in turn make my golf towel dirty. And I most certainly could not have that …”
It’s hard to know sometimes if Kyle’s for real. Part of you fervently hopes he’s being ironic, that he’ll suddenly slap his knee and say: “Ha! Fooled you!” But he doesn’t. He is king of morning television (reports he is to be fired are wrong, he insists), presiding over a hugely popular daily chat show with 1.3 million viewers and an array of guests in varying degrees of familial meltdown. Single mums, alcoholic dads, cheating lovers, addict siblings, tearaway teenagers, all of whom submit themselves to the judgment – and usually wrath – of the indignant presenter. His advice makes up in pithiness what it lacks in elegance: “Get a job!” “Stick something on the end of it, mate!” When one guest ended up in court for headbutting his love rival, a judge declared the programme a human form of bear-baiting. Kyle prefers to call it a social service. Hundreds of people ring his show every week, he says, looking for the help society can’t provide.
He’s very opinionated, though according to him he’s just telling the truth. In fact, the veracity of what he says is emphasised so much it has the curious effect of making you wonder if he lies a lot. “I’m being straight.” “No, seriously.” “I’ll be honest with you.” He never does interviews normally but he’s just written a book, for which there really was only one possible title: I’m Only Being Honest. It’s about broken families and broken Britain and it contains a lot of exclamation marks because Jeremy Kyle exclaims a lot. Exclamation marks are the “less is more” of punctuation and one is always enough, but he piles them up like bookends both sides of a sentence, then throws in some capital letters, with the result that reading his prose feels a bit like someone sticking their hands around your neck and throttling you slowly and silently while your head reverberates on its stalk.
“One youth boasted of being able to get a hand grenade for 450 pounds!” he writes. “A HAND GRENADE! UN-BE-LIEVE-A-BLE!!!”
Kyle’s opinions are based on the 870 shows he’s done in the last four years, which he thinks give him the experience to draw certain conclusions without having to bother too much with irksome research. Don’t tell him crime figures are going down. He knows how he feels walking the streets. Just as he knows the government “incentivises” single motherhood, doling out council houses instead of retribution. Tackle him on the sweeping generalisation of that and he insists: “In the book I say repeatedly there are thousands of single mothers who do a fantastic job.” Repeatedly? I don’t remember him saying it even once. Maybe he should have used an extra exclamation mark for emphasis.
“We hold a mirror up to a certain part of society,” he says, “and that makes some people uncomfortable.” The way he tells it, there’s a big underbelly of people in Britain on extensive benefits who spend their days with a Special Brew in one hand and a fag in the other. Now we all know that if you have a system, some people will abuse it and, yes, of course there are spongers. But it’s a bit easy to assume the worst excesses are at the bottom end as our “Clean my moat, peasants!” MPs have shown. Is the picture in Kyle’s mirror really an accurate reflection or a hall of mirrors distortion? So, I say to him, what does an unemployed person get on Job Seekers Allowance, then? Jeremy looks fixedly at me with the bluest of eyes, so startlingly light they seem almost translucent. “Do you know something?” he says earnestly. “I’m going to be completely honest with you. I have no idea.”
Interesting body language. We are sitting on a sofa in a London hotel. When first introduced, Kyle had done that thing of not looking up for a moment from a book while the introduction was being made, before switching the full dazzling beam of his attentive smile on to me. Fair enough, sometimes that’s no more significant than someone simply finishing a task but more often that slight, deliberate delay of attention is a small control in a person who has a well-developed sense of their own importance. A neat, slight figure, Kyle sprawls in relaxed manner across the sofa, arm stretching partly across the back of my chair as well as his. I’m not suggesting there’s anything creepy about that – there isn’t. But it is unusual for someone to have a bit of your space as well as their own and it’s interesting how many subtle signals of confidence and ease Kyle transmits, at least initially.
It wasn’t always that way, apparently. Kyle was the youngest of two boys and his brother, Nick, was brilliant at everything. “I sort of felt like the runt of the litter,” he admits. “My brother was just great. If you gave him a cricket bat he’d score 100. If he walked into a party he’d pull the best-looking girl. He was my hero.” Except that his brother became a drug addict. Kyle says his brother had more talent in his little finger than he, Mr Average, had in his entire body but it ends up sounding more self-righteous than humble. His brother squandered so much; Kyle capitalised on so little.
A little sibling rivalry would be unsurprising, given that his grandparents on his father’s side always ignored Jeremy but made a huge fuss of Nick. Kyle paints a rather Dickensian picture of standing outside the house kicking his heels against the coal bunker, watching through the window as his brother was bounced on his grandfather’s knee. The situation created a split between his father and grandfather but his grandfather was unrepentant. “We have an heir,” he said. “We don’t know Jeremy.” Yet Kyle says it was he who used to go and visit his grandmother before she died and, years later, when working as a salesman, a female colleague invited him to a psychic fair. No thanks, he said. He didn’t believe that stuff. No, retorted his colleague, but he didn’t know that ever since he’d started at this office, a wizened, 96-year-old lady called Iris had been sitting on his left shoulder. She was there because she felt guilty about the way she treated him. “I went, ‘Whoa!’ That was my grandmother’s name and she had no reason to know that.” Coincidentally, his second wife, Carla, is forever going to psychic readings. “I never allow anyone to diss it now because I don’t quite know the truth of it.”
It’s the solidity of his own childhood that he thinks contrasts with so many modern families. His father worked for 40 years as an accountant and personal secretary for the Queen Mother. “My dad epitomises everything I’d like my kids to say about me. He gave his kids the best start and he had values. He would open the door for a lady ... It’s about having your kids and investing in your kids with time, really. They set your moral compass.” And his mother? He phones her every day. He’s never really lost anyone important in his life, he acknowledges. There’s been that enormous security.
“I always remember one thing about my mum,” he says very earnestly. “She would always meet the old man off the train. Having worked all day and put our tea on the table ...” (This is like the Dickensian coal bunker moment where it might be advantageous to imagine violins playing softly in the background.) “... she would always go upstairs and do her make-up and meet him at the train station at 7pm.”
I laugh because it reminds me of advice from a 1950s home economics textbook that for a while was circulating offices in joke e-mails. Directed at young married women of the time, it advised them how to keep their husbands happy. “Prepare yourself. Take 15 minutes to rest so you will be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh looking. He has just been with a lot of work-weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift.” It’s one of those moments where you anticipate a jokey aside from Kyle that simply doesn’t come. In fact, he looks a little offended.
His own private life has not been as straightforward as his parents’. He married his first wife, Kirsty, and had a daughter but the marriage failed. After graduating with a degree in history and sociology, he had started out in insurance before moving into recruitment. Later, he sold advertising space and it was while selling radio advertising that he was asked to fill a gap. A highly successful late-night confessional show followed before his break in television. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was 40,” he says. “Seriously.”
While his brother became a drug addict, as a young adult Kyle became hooked on gambling, secretly building a 12,000 debt that took years to clear. What was it about gambling that sucked him in? “It’s an interesting question. I wonder if it was escapism, if it was an opportunity to make money. Was it a bit naughty? It did pull me in.” He still has an occasional punt, which is interesting because he tells other people if they have shown themselves not to be in control of a substance, like alcohol, then they must never touch it again. Why is he different?
“I can control it. For me now it’s absolutely fun. You start with an amount of money and if you lose it, that’s it, rather than feeding the cash point machine or standing there all day hoping it is going to snow in Trafalgar Square … I do still have a punt but it’s not all I think of each and every day. It’s not where I want to go at the end of the day.”
Is that why his first marriage failed? “All sorts of reasons,” he says, the atmosphere beginning to get strained. “The good thing is we are both immensely proud of our daughter, who is 19 next month and travelling in Australia.” A couple of years ago, his ex-wife Kirsty gave her first newspaper interview. She claimed he was a persistent liar but also recounted a bizarre incident where he called her a slut because his red golf jumper was dirty and then took scissors to it. (“Is that any way to talk about the mother of your children?” he sometimes fumes to men on his show.) What did he feel when he read the interview? “I read it and got on with my life.” Was it true? “Was what true?” he says, very quietly. She said he was a persistent liar. “This came about 17 years after we split up on the back of other publicity and that was two years ago. My kid’s fine.”
Well that’s good but it’s not what I asked. Kirsty said he claimed to have a terminal illness which he didn’t have. Kyle looks steadily at me but you sense a surfeit of emotions. He is no longer spread across the sofa but is sitting more tightly coiled. “I don’t want to get into a debate. I have never talked about my first marriage for that reason. I don’t think it would be fair to my daughter. I don’t think it would be fair to my second wife. That’s the past.”
Both in conversation and in his book, it is noticeable how Kyle avoids confronting his own behaviour but consistently attempts to seize some kind of moral high ground. He doesn’t deny anything, but adopts a slightly martyred moral position that implies he is retaining a silent dignity and protecting his daughter from negative publicity. (Not, incidentally, something he finds it necessary to protect other peoples’ daughters from.) “There are two different sides to every story,” he says.
What about the News of the World report about him making sexual advances to a 16-year-old schoolgirl when he was between marriages. He was 35 at the time and in a later interview, the girl claimed he asked her to wear school uniform, was excited by her virginity, and indulged in extremely explicit phone sex as well as arranging a rendezvous with her in his car. There are endless pages in his book about the agonies of being pursued by journalists but what about the truth of the story? “I admit I had a fumble,” is all he says.
The morning that story appeared, he curled up in a ball at the side of his children’s playroom at 5am. “Even now …,” he says. For a moment he looks emotional and very vulnerable. But that period of his life was critical. “It taught me a lot. It gave me resolve. I thought that I would crack, that I would walk away. But afterwards when you survive something like that you get a strength. Life goes on.” He was scared to appear at the National TV Awards that week. “Someone said to me half the people in the hall will have already been done (in the press) and the other half will be living in fear that they are next. Nobody said a word.”
There is something disconcerting about Kyle’s rationalisation of his own behaviour, the way he separates himself so completely from those he criticises. He argues that society is broken because families are broken. (He’s divorced with two families.) He argues that too many people are under the sway of addictive substances. (He’s a former gambling addict.) He thinks teenagers are too promiscuous and having sex too early. (As a 35-year-old man he was ‘fumbling’ with a 16-year-old girl.) If you want to be harsh you could say the only difference between Kyle and some of the guests on his own show is a smart suit and a posh salary. Did it not occur to him that a mature man who chased a 16-year-old schoolgirl might be ill-advised to write a book slamming irresponsible sex and teenage pregnancies? His response is long and avoids the question. Put it more simply. Did he behave badly? “If I was looking back now I might do things differently in many things in my life.”
Yet at times in this conversation, there are glimpses of distress and panic in Kyle that provoke some empathy for him. Clearly, telling his teenage daughter about the headlines she could expect to read about her father was a traumatic experience. “It was difficult and it was horrible but it was something we got through. My relationship with her is fantastic.” Everybody has their faade but with Kyle the joins show a bit. He may appear brash and opinionated but his ex-wife said something very interesting about him. “I think he needed people’s approval. Deep down, I don’t believe he has a very high regard for himself.”
Kyle met his second wife, Carla, when she won a competition to marry a stranger run by the Birmingham radio station he worked for. She duly married her stranger, the marriage collapsed three months later, and she sought comfort in the arms of Kyle. But doesn’t that competition show blatant disrespect for the old-fashioned values Kyle is always banging on about? “I have always said I completely and utterly disagreed with the competition and I was one of only two DJ’s who would have nothing to do with it. I met her three months later and she was like a rabbit in the headlights. She would tell you in her Brummie lingo that it was Monday, it was January, she had been dumped and was hung over, and her mate said, ‘Why don’t we go for it?’”
The couple have two daughters and a new baby boy. If she had never done that stupid competition, he would never have met her and she’s one of the biggest joys of his life. That’s the thing about journalists, he says. They don’t see his soft side. “You never talk about the heart-rending stories we’ve done that I’ve cried my eyes out over.” Maybe because his swings between anger and sentimentality make it hard to know when he’s being completely sincere.
He’s learned a lesson today, he says sombrely. What’s that then? The Job Seekers Allowance – he saw my face when he admitted he didn’t know. (Ah – the don’t-get-found-out-lesson.) He didn’t want to pretend, he says. He concedes that if he stands up on television and lectures people about the standards of their behaviour, then journalists have the right to quiz him on his. What are Jeremy Kyle’s standards underneath all that bluster? The jury’s out. Though it’s pretty unanimous that he has the cleanest balls of any man on the golf course.
I’m Only Being Honest, by Jeremy Kyle, is published by Hodder & Stoughton, priced 16.99.