Dermot O’Leary holds a small fish in one hand and, with the other, gently tries to extract a hook from its jaw. “Shhh, shhh, shhh,” he coos.
After a long struggle, he frees the fish and throws it back into the English Channel, where it bobs to the top, evidently dead.
“Sometimes they take a little bit of time and then they come to,” he assures me.
Only this one doesn’t. We watch it over the side of the boat and he makes further upbeat noises about its probable recovery before turning around to joke with the other people on board.
Later, as I think over the strange day I spent at sea with one of the most popular men on the telly, the fish keeps swimming back into my mind. I think of O’Leary’s tenderness towards it, as well as his blind optimism about its chances of survival.
Earlier that morning I’m waiting for him at Fishy Fishy, a restaurant he co-owns in Brighton. A little late, O’Leary comes bursting through the door as if there were springs in the soles of his Converse trainers. Were it not for the energy of his entrance, I doubt if I would have recognised him. The neat symmetry of his face is oddly forgettable, and without the three-piece suit, and with tight jeans, tighter T-shirt and crew cut, he seems more like an off-duty soldier.
O’Leary seizes my hand – a bit damp, as I’ve just been to the loo and haven’t stood long enough in front of the hand dryers – and holds it for the right amount of time, before dropping it and wiping his own hand on the side of his jeans. The friendly expression on his face doesn’t slip.
“Hey Lucy! How are your sea legs?” he asks.
O’Leary presents one of the most loved and loathed shows on television. About to crank up for its ninth season this weekend, The X Factor attracts well over 10 million viewers who tune in to gawp at its double freak show. On the judging panel the frocks and squabbles get more baroque each year, while the contestants seem increasingly chosen for their ability to generate tabloid headlines rather than for their mastery of Beyoncé covers.
Every season the criticism of the show gets wilder, too. Last year, Iain Duncan Smith said The X Factor culture was partly to blame for the London riots, while the head of Mind, the mental health charity, blamed it for messing with people’s sanity.
Today, its presenter is putting on a different sort of show. The 39-year-old has chosen to combine this interview with a fishing trip with two of his oldest friends – Neil McCallum, who worked with him on Channel 4 15 years ago, and James Ginzler, who runs his restaurant. Together, we’re a ramshackle crew – three likely lads, me, O’Leary’s PR girl, a photographer, a photographer’s mate, a fisherman and a man to drive the flashy boat that waits at a deserted quay in Newhaven.
As we get on board, O’Leary is doing what he does best, putting everyone at ease with an outpouring of nicknames, questions and assorted quips. No one must be left out.
“What’s that beard like in the sun?” he asks the photographer’s assistant. “How you doing, Pol? Ever been to Newhaven before, Lucy-Lu?”
His dogged cheerfulness has even affected the weather. The sun beats down from a cloudless sky. The Channel is pretending to be the Aegean, pale turquoise and flat as a pond.
The lads dip their fishing rods in the water, and O’Leary helps me with mine.
“Here you go, Lucy-Lu! Jig it about a little bit.” O’Leary, who was brought up in Colchester, son of devout Catholic Irish immigrants, learnt how to fish as a child in summers spent in Wexford, and now does it whenever he can. Which isn’t all that often, as in addition to all the telly work, he is a DJ on Radio 2.
“That seagull is downing the biggest mackerel I’ve ever seen!” O’Leary exclaims. “I love mackerel. They are rock-and-roll fish. Live fast, die young.”
“Nah,” says McCallum. “Mackerel are common fish. Rock and roll is special.”
As I watch the bird savage the fish, I think about other similarities between this scene and reality TV – the difference being that the first is natural and the second contrived.
“Live television is not contrived,” he corrects me. “You can’t control it. That’s the beauty of it.”
He reels his line in, and then lets it out again.
“What’s brilliant about reality TV,” he says, “is how honest it is. Take a show like Big Brother (on which O’Leary worked for seven years). There is no one pulling the strings. It was all about human nature. There’s nowt so queer as folk. That’s why I loved it.”
I’m prevented from replying by a tug on my line. Two very small flat fish dangle on the end of it.
“Yes!” O’Leary roars, “she’s caught two dabs. I’m calling her Lucy-Two-Dabs!”
He flings an arm around my shoulders. “How are you feeling?” he inquires, as if I were an X Factor contestant who had just belted out a mediocre version of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and been told by the judges that I was the next Aretha Franklin. Good, I reply. O’Leary looks a bit crestfallen, as if he was hoping for something stronger.
In any case, it’s a lie. How I actually feel is stressed. It is hard balancing a fishing rod without dropping the tape recorder over the side of the boat.
What I want to catch are answers to some questions. What is it about this ordinary Essex boy that has made him such a sensation?
“I’m good with people,” he replies, quick as a flash. “I’m never happier than on live TV. I’ve got quite a quick wit. I’ve got heart. I’m good at my trade technically. I love what I do. If you don’t, you get found out.”
As he trots through virtues, the impression isn’t of a man blowing his own trumpet, more of one giving a straight answer to a straight question.
“You’ve got to be cool under pressure,” he goes on. “You’ve got to multitask. And the best bit of advice Wogan gave me – don’t be afraid of silence.”
It’s a shame O’Leary isn’t more afraid of silences. One of the most annoying things invented by The X Factor, but now copied by all telly competitions, is the interminable, hammy pause before the winner is announced. In the last series it ran to 40 seconds – easily long enough to get up and put on a load of washing without missing a thing.
He laughs. “Is that your only criticism of The X Factor? I was expecting more.”
There is more. For a start, the formula is now, after almost a decade, pretty tired.
“I think it’s still got an incredible shelf life left,” O’Leary says, with what looks like total conviction. “It’s the transformation from ugly duckling to swan. That NEVER gets tired.”
And then it’s not the same without its inventor and owner, Simon Cowell, who left last year to judge the US version instead.
O’Leary starts to talk about Cowell, what an enigma he is and how grateful he is to him for giving him the job. But then, when I ask what he’s like as a boss, O’Leary says: “I don’t hear from him enough. I don’t see enough of him.”
This, it seems to me, is quite a failing in a manager. The Cowell style seems to involve calling people only when he’s unhappy. And he has been unhappy since the British X Factor started to lose ratings last year, and on the phone to a lot of people. Only not, it seems, to O’Leary.
A roar goes up from the other side of the boat. Someone has caught a mackerel, which the fisherman kills by biting its head off and spitting it into the sea. At this grisly performance the telly host buries his face in his hands. “I don’t like that,” he says. “I’m a passive alpha male.”
The fish is sliced into pieces and we eat it at once, dipped into a rather nice sauce that Ginzler has brought along from the restaurant.
I ask if he felt like hiding his head in his hands during one of the most infamous moments of the show last year, when Ceri Rees, a vulnerable, middle-aged Welsh woman, was filmed at merciless length singing tunelessly while the judges did stagey wincing and the audience jeered.
“I think there is quite a … I struggle to find the word. Is it liberalistic? Intelligentsia? An upper-middle-class sneer. No one forces people to turn up to audition for The X Factor. But Ceri turned up year after year after year. Every year she had a ‘no’, and every year she came back again.”
Afterwards I watch again the horrible seven-minute clip on YouTube, and suddenly understand why O’Leary is so brilliant on TV. He alone behaves naturally with her. He is normal in a sea of abnormality. It’s a bit like in the film The Truman Show, where Truman is the only person who doesn’t know he is on television.
Suddenly O’Leary gives a whoop. He’s caught a bream, and as he lands it, as if proving how well he multitasks, he asks me what I think of him on TV. I put my theory to him – that he stands for niceness and normality – and a cloud darkens his face.
“I hope you don’t mean I’m bland,” he says, informing me that he has a degree in media and politics from Middlesex university and has lots of opinions about things. But when I ask what these opinions are, he won’t let on. He thinks it might upset his fans, or ruin his chances of a future career with the impartial BBC.
He’s often asked to appear on Question Time, but always says no, as he thinks the British viewing public wouldn’t like it. “The last thing they want is to turn on the TV on Thursday and find me saying: ‘Isn’t it a shame Bombardier didn’t get that contract.’”
The boat has turned around and we’re heading back to shore. The fish tally is somewhat low. In addition to the bream, there’s a mackerel in the bucket, and that’s about it.
As we get out of the boat O’Leary is accosted by a woman and a young child, asking if he’ll pose for a picture. O’Leary chats easily to her, ruffles the boy’s hair and talks to him about his Spider-Man T-shirt. It’s a sweet scene, one that is repeated again when we arrive at Fishy Fishy.
“Looking busy, James. I like your style,” he says to Ginzler as we enter the restaurant. Only it isn’t, terribly. It looks barely half-full to me.
O’Leary does more glad-handing while the rest of the party climbs some narrow stairs to the top floor. When he joins us, I ask him if he finds it tiresome to be famous.
“No,” he says with an urgency that surprises me. “It’s a wonderful feeling. It’s great. People are nice to you for no reason.”
While he has had 15 years to grow into being famous, he’s witnessed the ravages caused by instant fame as X Factor contestants go from nobodies to celebrities to nobodies again. “What amazes me is how well they handle it. I look at them in awe.”
That fish comes swimming back into my mind. I say I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone famous who hasn’t been to some extent screwed up by it. Doesn’t he ever have dark nights of the soul? Doesn’t he ever worry if he’s good enough?
“I don’t,” he says, so firmly that for a moment I think he might thump the table. “I can’t bear all that chin-stroking, woe-is-me stuff. I’m not making myself out to be a working-class hero, but my mum and dad worked hard. I think, ‘How dare I question what all this means?’ Or whether I’m worthy? It’s that morbid introspection where you question your own right to be happy. I mean, Jesus Christ, geddoverit!”
The others stop eating briefly and stare at us. I feel I’ve been a bad fairy, spoiling a lovely day and a delicious lunch with my futile attempts to find a darker side to this cheerful, normal, Catholic boy who has made it in TV. In a minute, he must drive back to London to go to the rehearsal of the Olympics opening ceremony, where his long-time girlfriend, Dee Koppang, is one of the producers.
The two are finally getting married next month, and when I congratulate him, the bad atmosphere vanishes: “It took us 10 years! Mental!” he says, and then looks me straight in the eye and declares with perfect simplicity: “We love each other.”
‘The X Factor’ starts Saturday night on ITV1