‘You get the wig on, you put the lipstick on, you get the big eyelashes on and that’s the GC,” says Gemma Collins, explaining her alter ego. “It’s like Paul O’Grady when he does Lily Savage … But when I’m not working, I don’t wear a scrap of makeup.”
It is hard to imagine that today, as the GC strikes a pose in a photo studio laden with rails of clothes. A makeup artist, a hairdresser, a photographer and multiple agents fan around her. “Pull down my sleeve, Jeff!” she calls out to her stylist. The room buzzes with chatter, as Collins – who says she has been awake and working since 5.30am, when she fashioned a makeshift eye mask out of her dressing gown cord and got into a taxi – summons various members of her team.
It is little wonder Collins lives a double life. In 2011, the former car salesperson joined the cast of The Only Way Is Essex, the wildly popular ITV reality soap opera, in which real people from Essex play themselves in plotlines and scenarios invented by the show’s producers (succinctly described by one comedian as “a never-ending hen night mixed with Waiting for Godot”). In the 10 years since, she has become a titan of British pop culture, a bombastic blonde known for hilarious one-liners, calamitous public falls (disappearing down a trapdoor at a Radio 1 event, for example) and over-the-top demands of the people who work for her.
In August, she launched a podcast with BBC Sounds, which zoomed straight to the top of the iTunes chart, completing her transformation from bit-part actor on reality TV to the biggest podcaster in Britain. Now on its second series, the Gemma Collins Podcast is a riot of bizarre chat, hilariously meandering stories and motivational speeches.
“I think it’s been one of my most proudest jobs that I’ve done in my career, to be honest, because I get to be myself on it,” she says. “It’s not really overly scripted or directed, it’s like: right, what do you want to talk about this week?” It also means connecting with her audience on a closer level: she offers unbridled body positivity (“Just be you – if you just be you, nothing can go wrong,” she implored listeners in a recent episode) and an agony aunt section, in which she advises listeners on their life and relationship woes. “Dear Deidre, eat your heart out!” she says with a laugh, although it is clear that she has embraced the role. “I’m here for a reason and I think it’s to reach out to people – whether that’s to give people a little bit of confidence if they’re having a terrible day, or to give them advice, or just to make them laugh.”
As I wait for her to finish the photoshoot, she gestures to a pink fleece blanket in the studio and tells me to put it on in case I am cold. We then head to a local cafe, where she holds open the door for me. On the way there, the zingers continue to flow like prosecco in an Essex nightclub. “I was supposed to be going to China this month, but, with the coronavirus, I don’t wanna risk it.” She pauses. “Then again, when it’s your time, it’s your time.” She sounds somewhere between a reality star and Julia Davis in Nighty Night.
Collins is warm and open. As we wait for our mugs of hot chocolate, a fan stops to ask her what she is doing here. She tells him about our interview and they natter until our drinks arrive. She is a far cry from the woman denounced in the tabloids for her supposedly monstrous conduct. “Gemma Collins’ ‘extreme diva behaviour forces Dancing on Ice staff to work through lunch’,” reads one headline. Another says: “Gemma Collins, you’re going to be single for ever if you don’t stop being a dating diva”, claiming that, “if she really wants to find love, she should stop being so awful” to men. A third headline reads: “Gemma Collins labelled a ‘rude bitch’ as she kicks camera crew out of shop during Diva Forever premiere,” after she asked a crew filming her for a reality show to leave her Brentwood boutique. For every instance where she has been portrayed as rude or arrogant, there are another 10 headlines about her body, her weight or her fertility. “Gemma Collins ‘will have a surrogate because she doesn’t want to put on weight’” claimed one story.
“There was a time where I just thought: ‘This is all getting a bit much,’” she says of the tabloid coverage. “I had to grow a very thick skin very fast. I think that’s where the GC came about.” It may seem difficult to tell the GC and Collins apart, but for her the differences are clear. “I try not to bring any attention to myself. I like to cook, I like nature, I like to read. I do like to shop, don’t get me wrong, every now and then. I like a good day out in London, but, yeah, they are two very different people – massively.” Her close friends, she says, “don’t even ask about the GC. But when my best friend drops her kids at school, people in the playground ask her: ‘What’s she like?’ That’s the million-dollar question that everyone wants to know. The truth is, in day-to-day life, I’m just grinding like everyone else.”
It must be extraordinarily difficult to keep “Gemma Collins” going in the face of a media industry that wants headlines. Her partner, James Argent – known as Arg – also appeared on Towie and his problems with addiction have featured in gossip columns in recent years. A few weeks after we meet, Collins posts on Twitter about the tragic death of the Love Island host Caroline Flack, commenting on her own experience of being “personally hounded” by a tabloid reporter.
When we speak on the phone a few days later, Collins says that she has hardly stopped thinking about Flack. “It’s absolutely devastating,” she says. “No one knows exactly what went on, but it did affect me, because I remember a time when a reporter hounded me every three hours – it was like they hated me. It’s easy for someone to say: ‘Ignore it, it will go away tomorrow,’ but it can have huge implications on a person, and a lot of time what [the papers are] saying isn’t true.” She sighs. “The press is a double-edged sword in this industry, but I hope everyone is going to be a lot more mindful and respectful regarding celebrities – we’re doing a job.” She thinks that perhaps it’s time for “a rethink” where Love Island is concerned. “Or maybe they should pull it off air. They’ve had three people pass – it’s got a taint over it.”
Now 39, Collins was working at a BMW showroom when she was approached about appearing on Towie. She had always been a performer; she went to the highly competitive Sylvia Young theatre school in London in her teens, where alumni include Amy Winehouse and Rita Ora. Even so, she thought the offer to join the nascent reality show was a wind-up. “I’ll never forget it,” she says. “It was my 30th birthday and the producers called me up and said: ‘We’ve heard you’re a right character; will you come into the office?’ I thought someone was messing about, so I put the phone down twice. The third time, they said: ‘Gemma, we’re not messing about; here’s our email address.’” Collins had a hunch that this was not just any old offer. “It was like someone stood next to me and whispered in my ear: ‘Your life is about to change.’ All the hairs stood up on my neck; I was like –” She gasps for effect. “It was one of them moments where you’re like: who was that? I’m in some twilight zone.” Collins is an avid proponent of “angels and stuff”, something she expands on via her podcast, where she has tackled subjects including “What animal was I in a past life?”, “Who do I need to call to become the Illuminati?” and whether houses have feelings. She says she believes in the supernatural “1,000%” and that a future episode of the show will involve going to a haunted house à la Derek Acorah, the medium from the TV show Most Haunted, whose death in January left Collins “devastated”.
Perhaps her belief in fate and destiny is a way to rationalise how she has gone from earning £50 a day on Towie to amassing a fortune estimated at £3m. Collins was born in Romford, on the border of London and Essex, to a working-class family – her parents, Alan and Joan, and her older brother, Russell – that she describes as “very grounded”. Even now, her dad, who has watched only one episode of Towie, keeps an eye on her finances for her (“He called me last Christmas and was like: I can’t believe you spent £2,000 in Harrods”).
“We was really poor growing up,” she says. “People don’t believe it when I say it.” She mentions an appearance on the Jonathan Ross Show last year, where she mentioned that the family didn’t have a toaster in their kitchen when she was growing up. “People sort of laughed like I was joking around, but I’m not: it’s the truth. My dad had to do an extra shift in the pub to put shoes on my feet. I used to go round my nan’s and she’d have HP sauce in the cupboard and a bit of bread – I’d have an HP sauce sandwich and it was the best times ever. There wasn’t luxuries.” Reading between the lines, it seems to have informed Collins’s relentless work ethic: as well as her boutique, she has her own perfume, Diva Pink, and a clothing line for the retailer Boohoo. She even lists her castoffs on the online marketplace Depop; items recently for sale included a camisole from Missguided (£7) and a New Look T-shirt (£5).
Collins is also far more understated than the GC when it comes to material goods. The GC, she says, would love to be “cruising around in a Bentley”; Collins just bought a used car (“Three years old, so it had already depreciated in value”) and was papped last year driving her sister-in-law’s Nissan Micra (“The papers kindly said the car was worth £695 – it was more like £395”). “People just think I lay in bed every day with people fanning me down or bathing in asses’ milk like Cleopatra,” she says. “It’s not the case: I work, I work and I work.”
I wonder what it must be like for Collins to have two personas. Is everyday life ever overwhelming? “I’ve been to shopping centres before where people all start crowding round. They get excited, obviously, but when I go to the shopping centre, I’m not the GC. I’m just there with my mum, and then I’ll have had so many selfies that I’m like: shit, I’ve left the shop and I’ve not got what I’ve needed to get. Some days I do just want to go to the market with my friends, but then people will be like: what’s she doing at the market?”
She is keen to emphasise that she is always happy to interact with fans, but she thinks they can cross a line. “Sometimes they bark at you like a rottweiler: give us a picture, give us a picture … all they have to say is: ‘All right, Gem, how are you? Can I have a picture?’ and I’d be like: yeah, course. When they start grabbing and mauling it, it’s a bit … it’s scary, you know? I would never say that to someone, or pull someone.” Ever the stoic, she describes such interactions as like “loading the dishwasher. It’s just a part of life.”
Collins calls herself the “underdog” of Towie – and it is easy to see why. “Someone said to me once: you know, it just don’t stack up – you’re the fat one, you’re not the most prettiest, but you’ve been the most successful,” she says. “I was like: that’s charming!”
Criticism of her image was one thing, but Towie also provoked a classist brand of disdain among audiences and critics alike, who reached for a decades-old cliche of Essex’s inhabitants as coarse and uncultured. How did Collins react to this wave of criticism? “I was very proud to come from Essex, at the end of the day,” she says. “You know, there’s a lot of lovely people in Essex – just look at Gavin and Stacey. People can look down all they want, but there’s a lot of successful people there.” She tries not to dwell on the haters: “If they’ve got them awful thoughts in their head about people, what a shame for them.”
A waiter comes to get our mugs. “Thank you very, very, very much,” she says to him, before turning to me: “You don’t want anything else, do you? A biscuit or anything?” As we get up to leave, she puts her slippers on – a pair of sequin Ugg boots – and asks if she can call me a taxi. “And if you ever want anything from my shop, anything, a bottle of perfume, you just give me a call.” I get the feeling I probably could.