When you walk into the central London townhouse which, for three months a year, is transformed into the Celebrity Dating Agency, you don’t really get much sense that you’re in the midst of a working TV production. The building is tucked away on a posh but quiet and inconspicuous street, and in fact, the only indicator that you’ve arrived at the base location for E4’s Celebs Go Dating, one of the UK’s favourite reality shows, is a shiny gold plaque outside.
Open the front door, and the ceilings are high, the place is bright and airy, and the giveaways, again, are subtle. There’s a wall lined with gilt-framed photos of the royal family (nothing so gauche as the queen, you understand, but the actual royal family: Celebs Go Dating alumni Lee Ryan, Chloe Ferry, and Kerry Katona), and nestled in among the fake flowers and rose-gold decor are multiple fixed rig cameras – the overall effect is like if the Big Brother house rolled around in Zara Home.
Photo: Chris Bethell
The cameras are small and semi-hidden. When celebrities enter the Agency, they’re here to get genuine advice from onscreen coaches and matchmakers Anna Williamson and Paul Carrick Brunson, so while their actual dates are filmed by a crew, it’s best they’re not distracted by a big set-up in these moments.
Indeed, while Celebs Go Dating is first and foremost an entertainment show, the sessions with Anna and Paul often remind viewers that the celebrities who come through the doors are more than just characters in the extended soap opera of British media culture, and can show audiences a different side to people best known as outrageous reality stars or notorious party scene fixtures.
Photo: Chris Bethell
As a result, viewers love it, and celebrities fresh from other reality shows (or looking to revive their careers) are keen to be on it. But what exactly can a place on Celebs Go Dating do for a celebrity, both in terms of their actual relationships and their public profile? And what goes into casting and making the fairly unique hybrid of comedy and therapy we see on our screens?
Ahead of the show’s return on E4 at 9PM tonight, I spent a day with its dating agents, receptionist-turned-junior client coordinator Tom Read Wilson, a couple of this year’s celebrity daters, and executive producer Nic McNeilis, to find out.
Photo: Chris Bethell
Celebs Go Dating first attracted attention by wondering “What if celebrities dated members of the public on TV?”, and has, since its 2016 debut, become one of E4’s flagship properties, having borne such moments as Gemma Collins standing a guy up on a Eurostar platform, and Amy Childs asking a date: “If you were a sandwich, what would you be?”
New seasons air twice a year, and it’s generally seen as a good gig because it offers the chosen celebrities eight weeks of sustained airtime. While some stars do come from the worlds of music, TV, and sport, reality personalities tend to dominate (over the nine seasons, the show has hosted 13 members of the cast of The Only Way Is Essex.) For its first 2022 instalment, it’ll feature Chloe Brockett from TOWIE; Married at First Sight’s Nikita Jasmine and her counterpart on its Australian version, Jessika Power; Geordie Shore’s Marty McKenna, Ryan-Mark Parsons from The Apprentice, and Miles Nazaire of Made in Chelsea fame, along with TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson and Abz Love, best known for making music with the band 5ive.
The show plays a crucial role the UK’s self-perpetuating reality TV ecosystem, offering a step up from the shows where celebrities first made their names and into a different – and slightly gentler and more forgiving – format. “We talk to a lot of celebrities for the show,” says executive producer Nic McNeilis. “They must be open to the experience, and meeting a whole range of people, and open to chat about their life to the agents. You can’t really be a closed book in that respect.”
That makes casting the line-up an especially enjoyable experience, she says. “They’ve all heard it’s a fun, positive experience, so we do have a lot of celebs wanting to do the show. We have a lot of fun chatting to so many, and then just honing it down to that mix.”
Anna Williamson and Paul Carrick Brunson / Photo: Chris Bethell
Anna, one of the dating agents, agrees. In heels and a pink, heart-print midi dress look that I’m terming “Therapist Glam”, she tells me: “The word has got out in the world of celebrity. They’re now clamouring to sign up to this show. I know they are because I get DM’d by celebrities that don’t make the cut… because they genuinely want the help in their love life, and their life. I’m sure they don’t mind any pay cheque that comes,” she laughs. “But what is a compliment is that they see the show now for a lot more than perhaps what started out.”
Celebs Go Dating began largely as another reality vehicle, but its tone has shifted in recent years. Its sense of humour remains the same, steered by comedian Rob Beckett’s acerbic narration (not a million miles from Iain Stirling’s Love Island bit), and the dates still offer the bulk of the entertainment, but the coaching sections now go a little deeper. Much of this is down to the trio at the centre of the show: Anna, Paul and Tom.
Paul and Anna, who joined the show in 2018 and 2019 respectively, both have backgrounds in counselling and matchmaking (you might recognise Paul from Married at First Sight, while Anna, who has worked in TV for 20 years, gained her counselling qualifications outside of her entertainment career but was later encouraged to combine the two). Along with Tom – who greets the celebs when they arrive, assists them at mixers, and is a generally genial presence – the two dating agents are more interested in creating an environment that differs from the more dramatic, aggro-fuelled part of the reality world.
Tom Read-Wilson / Photo: Chris Bethell
They go into the process without preconceived ideas about the celebrities, Tom – a person who was born for television, so perfect are his teeth and so apparently unaffected his eccentric mannerisms – tells me. “Our knowledge of reality telly between the three of us, I would describe as scant, so that is enormously helpful, because we are starting with a tabula rasa” – another of the things that make him so eminently watchable is that he’s the exact type of person who peppers his speech with Latin – “so what we see is what we learn from them.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the celebrities themselves don’t initially walk into the Agency expecting the show to be their usual day’s work. Paul, a grounding, thoughtful presence during our interview, says that breaking down the celebrities’ expectations can be “the most challenging aspect”.
Paul Carrick Brunson / Photo: Chris Bethell
“What happens with all the celebs is that they walk into the agency and they think, ‘This is TV, we’re gonna have a good time!’” he says. “And they get in here and they’re like, ‘Oh my god it’s real, they’re real! They really mean business!’ Then when they leave the agency, and they get a message from us on IG or WhatsApp, or they reach out to us when they have a problem, they realise this is much more than a television show. And that’s how we break down the barrier. But the hardest part is them being able to understand that while this is television, this is also real.”
Chloe Brockett, one of the most entertaining TOWIE stars in years, is part of the incoming Celebs Go Dating cast. The 21-year-old says that her experience of the show helped her delineate between her reality persona and her real self. “Sometimes I find it hard to tell the difference between a scene and real life. There’s me in TOWIE and there’s me at home. Sometimes, them people just get meshed into one, and I turn into a right prick!” she giggles, throwing back her dark hair extensions.
Chloe Brockett / Photo: Chris Bethell
Chloe makes for a fascinating interview because of her disarming honesty and self-awareness, particularly when it comes to her role on TOWIE. “I’m always going to be a fiery person, it doesn’t matter how grown up or how mature I get, it’s always going to be me,” she reasons. “But it can be a bit draining sometimes, always having arguments and stuff like that. Then again, I never complain because with me, I love being the centre of all the stories and all the drama, so the minute my story starts to dry up I’m like, ‘What the fuck?’ … So I can’t sit there and play the victim because I’m not. But I’m grateful for the last series, because now I’m doing this [show].”
Celebs Go Dating occupies a unique space on TV because, in Anna’s words, “there is that time and space for celebrities that get cast on this show, particularly those that have quite checkered lives, are often in the tabloids a lot, and it gives them an opportunity to be seen in a new light”.
Chloe agrees: “Doing this show has allowed me to be more myself and show more of a softer side to me, because I do have that side,” she says. “And yeah, I’ve definitely got better at differentiating from being Chloe TOWIE and being myself now.”
Photo: Chris Bethell
Another of this year’s cast members is Ryan-Mark Parsons, best known for being the youngest ever Apprentice contestant, and for subsequent appearances on Good Morning Britain RE: issues such as sending retirees back into the workplace, and whether or not it would be a good idea to benefit animal charities by selling the fur of the koalas that perished in the Australian bushfires.
Like Chloe, the 21-year-old is aware that he courts controversy, and describes himself as a “blunt, straight to the point, don’t beat around the bush”, adding that his experience on The Apprentice “was a really good lesson in terms of being able to deal with the trolling and just take it on the chin”. He too is hoping “to show the public a different side of Ryan-Mark – a funner side, a more euphoric side”.
“The idea of doing more and more TV shows is really appealing, 100 percent,” he says. “I love getting the public reaction, good or bad. I can take it, nothing affects me.”
Ryan-Mark adds that “getting booked for this kind of big series is a massive achievement, in the sense that I have been working very hard since The Apprentice to get something like this”. As reality TV becomes one of the dominant genres on UK screens, it’s clear there are viable and lucrative careers in going from one reality show to the next; in being a genuine reality star, whose force of personality is intriguing enough for viewers to stick with them, and who is able to let the inevitable negativity slide off them.
Anna Williamson / Photo: Chris Bethell
Celebs Go Dating, then, occupies an important slot in that economy, because it’s about demonstrating a more intimate side to people whose whole deals you thought you already knew, and allowing them to go into their next project having given a more rounded view of themselves. Anna singles out DJ Tom Zanetti as someone who she feels really managed to use Celebs Go Dating to do this. “He made a nation fall in love with him really, which was quite extraordinary,” she says. “I think celebrities see that as well, they see how it can really work in your favour.”
As we’re finishing up our interview, Paul leans in conspiratorially. “You know, I’ll say something on the controversial side, because you’ll like that.” I laugh, unsure of what’s coming next. “I don’t like all of the celebrities that come in the door,” he admits, shrugging. “Even when they leave. But a testament to the quality of what we’re doing here is that everyone gets 110 percent of our time and energy. And they have to take that, and it’s up to them to use it.”
This amount of dedication from two highly qualified dating coaches, guaranteed screen time, and endearing personal growth? If you’re a reality star, I’d say there’s hardly a bigger TV win/win than Celebs Go Dating.
Celebs Go Dating airs on E4 at 9PM Monday to Thursday.