Jerry's journey: Jerry Springer interview

As surreal moments go, they don't come much stranger than this. Jerry Springer, one of the planet's most famous talk show hosts, is gazing deep into my eyes and singing a very heartfelt – if not pitch perfect – version of the Elvis Presley classic, Love Me Tender.

Springer is the undisputed King of Trash TV. He reigns over the utter chaos of shows with unforgettably unique titles such as "I'm Pregnant by a Transsexual", "Invasion of the Little People" and "I Married a Horse".

There's nothing this man hasn't witnessed over the past 17 years while presenting The Jerry Springer Show, so I've been steeling myself to meet one very cool customer. Which is why I'm caught totally off-guard by Springer's impromptu crooning. Perhaps that's his aim. Either way, I'm secretly enjoying it, and the 64-year-old is more attractive than I'd expected. There's also a sweet vulnerability in the way Jerry delivers his song; he's road testing a tune he'll be using later to audition for a West End musical.

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TV viewers will also witness Springer's soft side this month when he becomes the latest celebrity to be featured in the BBC1 genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? During the hugely personal and deeply moving film, Gerald, who is Jewish, embarks on a mission to uncover his grandmothers' fates.

Maria Kallman and Selmar Springer both perished during the Holocaust. However, the precise details of the final chapters of their lives have been shrouded in mystery until now.

"My parents, Richard and Margot, never spoke about it in front of me and my sister Evelyn," says Springer, born on 13 February, 1944, in the safe haven of Highgate tube station in London, during an air raid.

"For their generation, the atrocities that happened in the Second World War were still too raw. All of her life, my mother couldn't bear to watch The Sound of Music because of the Nazi persecution in the film.

"Until you personalise the Holocaust, it really is hard to comprehend. Six million Jewish people were exterminated, but how can you get your head around that number? It's only when you focus on the fate of one family that you can start to understand the horror."

The Springer story starts with Jerry's father abandoning his successful shoe shop in Landsberg, Germany. It was 1939 and the Nazi stranglehold was slowly tightening across Europe. Richard and his young bride arrived in London alongside other fleeing refugees; their lives saved by the donation of 50 from a British sponsor.

The couple clung fast to the hope that their parents would soon follow them to safety. But, ominously, all the letters they sent back to them were returned, unopened. Perhaps mercifully, Richard and Margot went to their graves without finding out exactly why.

Jerry's own search for the truth results in some powerful body blows. In one of the programme's most emotional scenes, he finally learns the fate of Maria, his maternal grandmother.

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"The genealogist, Petje Schroeder, shows me a record card with 'weider besiedelt' on it – the German word for 'resettled'," he explains. "Then she gently breaks the news that it was a euphemism for 'ausgerottet' – exterminated. To see this official card, with such ruthless information on it, was just chilling. It was just a job to the Nazis – like stacking shelves in a supermarket."

Springer then retraces Maria's last journey to Poland's Chelmno death camp – the first Nazi extermination camp – where she was forced into a gas van. These vehicles were the terrible precursors of the gas showers; passengers died slowly during an agonising, 15-minute ride into the woods.

His back might be to the camera when they film him at Chelmno for the programme, but he can't disguise his sobs. Springer's whole body shakes as he surveys the site where the atrocities took place.

Mercifully, Springer's paternal grandmother, Selmar, was spared that fate. Sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in the Czech Republic, she died in hospital after contracting pneumonia. But Springer shakes his head, sharing his deep anxiety that the dreadful lesson of the Holocaust has not been learnt.

"We can't even say it was 500 years ago and it was a tribal thing. And look at the situation in Zimbabwe," he says. "The genocide is going on there and what are we doing? Nothing. We've got to step in. There are no such things as national borders when it comes to genocide; you go in and stop it."

In post-war Britain, Springer describes his own childhood as "really very happy". The family moved to Queens in New York when he was five years old, the young boy's first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty forever etched on his memory.

"Always at dinner, every night, my sister and I would have to talk about one thing we had read in the paper that day," he reveals. "And, of course, I was a little boy, so I would talk about sports most of the time but they would encourage me to pick another story and then I became very interested in presidential elections and things like that."

The political seed firmly planted, Jerry majored in political science at Tulane University in New Orleans before becoming Robert F Kennedy's campaign aide. After the assassination of his boss in 1968 he joined a law firm, and in 1970 ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He was elected to the Cincinnati city council the following year.

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Springer's career as a Democratic politician was nearly cut short, however. In 1974 Cincinnati police raided a brothel that had been masquerading as a health club – and found a cheque signed by a certain Mr Jerry Springer. Another politician might go for flat-out denial. Not Jerry. Displaying the chutzpah that makes him a hit with viewers in 51 countries around the world, he admitted he'd been well and truly sprung, and resigned. The voters rewarded his honesty by returning him to his seat the following year; and his triumph was complete when he became Cincinnati mayor in 1977-8.

"We're going back 36 years," he shrugs, sipping his English breakfast tea. "I'm sure it was a bigger deal to me then, but it wasn't like I did something really horrible, like murder someone. I spent less than an hour with the prostitute. It was flat-out wrong, but there are worse things a person can do."

Springer earns a rather hand- some 2 million a year refereeing the flurry of fisticuffs on his show. That bank balance is boosted by his pay packet from the most-watched show in the US – America's Got Talent. Now in its second season, the weird 'n' wonderful talent competition attracts 30 million viewers who tune in to watch Springer playing ringmaster.

Naturally, I ask Springer – who is still sporting a gold wedding band despite persistent rumours of a split with Micki, his wife of 35 years – whether he has any secret talents.

"No-one would have picked me out in high school and said, 'This guy is going to be in show business'," he says, almost apologetically. "I don't have any of the talents you would normally associate with show business. As you've heard, I can't really sing – and you should see my dancing."

Ah, Jerry's dancing. He tripped (up over) the light fantastic in Dancing with the Stars, the US version of Strictly Come Dancing, in 2006. It was for a noble cause: with daughter Katie's wedding approaching, he wanted to waltz her around the dancefloor with fatherly pride.

The pair are especially close. Katie was born blind, deaf in one ear and with no nasal passages. Springer has supported and raised funds for several disabled charities since his political debut back in the 1970s.

As the underdog on the wonderfully camp sequin and lycra dance-off, Springer won the pity vote – something he wasn't too chuffed about.

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"What can I say?" he laughs. "It hurt. I was the oldest competitor there by about 35 years. I asked my partner, Kym Johnson, to make sure every dance ended in the corner, where there was a paramedic with an oxygen mask.

"I don't want to be a celebrity," he continues. "So it was very scary because I've never been myself on TV before. I've always had a role to play – the news anchorman; the crazy chat show host. But dancing – it's me, the schlub, who can't put his feet together. There's nowhere to hide."

Fervent fans kept Springer in until the closing stages of the competition; he was the fourth finalist. A few weeks later, he didn't put a foot wrong, waltzing 32-year-old Katie around the floor on her big day.

One gets the feeling that Springer's enthusiasm for his show – which has turned him into a cult figure – has waned in recent years. He can hardly be blamed. In its infancy, The Jerry Springer Show was a very different creature. Serious political debate was interspersed with soft, Cilla Black-style family reunions.

When channel NBC realised that sensationalism equals ratings, the freak factor shot through the roof. Though Springer is very gracious when he is approached by three fans during our time together, it's clear that TV is his job and politics his true vocation.

"Most people are really nice to me. They chant 'Jer-ree, Jer-ree', like they do in the TV studio," he confides. "I'm a happy guy, but if I'm in a rare dark mood, I won't go out because I don't want to be horrible to people."

Springer explains that a majority of his time these days is devoted to politics, raising money and campaigning. He zigzags between the TV studios in Chicago and his second home in Serasota, Florida.

So has watching this year's extraordinary race for the White House between fellow democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama re-ignited any of Jerry's own secret dreams of being sworn in as President?

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"Well, I could never have been the President or Vice President because I wasn't born in the States," he explains. "But I could have been a senator – I think about that sometimes, but I'm so active politically. And it's hard to imagine a bigger platform than the one I have now with my TV show. I get to speak to a huge number of people instead of just a few in the state I would be mayor for.

"Obviously, Hillary was my first choice," he continues. "But Barack is very intelligent. I've been one of the most vocal critics of what George Bush and the Republicans have done in the last ten years, especially with Iraq. It has been horrendous.

"But I must say, good for the American people. Seven years after 9/11, and America is about to elect an African American. Where else would that happen? I can't see the UK electing a black prime minister.

"There's something about the openness of the American people. Yes, we have our faults but deep down, there's a goodness. America doesn't want to take over the world; in many ways, we don't want to be bothered by the rest of the world."

Springer's really opening up now. So it strikes me as the perfect time to try and get him to reveal the usually closely guarded details about his private life. For a man who gleefully encourages people to wash their dirty linen on international TV, he's notoriously private about his own life.

Instead, he strikes up again with the opening words of Love Me Tender. He keeps a cheeky glint in his eye while he does it, but Springer's not giving anything else away. It's a shameless politician's tactic of evading the question.

Forget Who Do You Think You Are? This is one man who knows exactly who he is.

• Jerry Springer traces his roots in Who Do You Think You Are? on 27 August, BBC1, 9pm.