Gemma Collins is in her natural habitat – hair and makeup, babe – and she’s got a bone to pick.
“Do you know what I don’t understand though? If everyone loved me on Big Brother so much, why didn’t I win?”
The stylists brushing blusher on her face and curling her hair laugh, but it’s a fair point – just not one most people would make. While other former Celebrity Big Brother contestants might have smiled in a tight-lipped sort of way, and offered some platitudes about how “it’s the taking part that counts,” the woman known as The GC would never dream of underselling herself. She doubles down instead, growing even more incredulous: “I came out to boos, it’s really weird. I do not get how I was the biggest thing on the show but I didn’t win.”
Such is the planet-scale confidence of Gemma Clare Collins, reality stalwart, megawatt TV personality and, lately, internet sensation. Though she may have come sixth when she left the Big Brother house in 2016, there’s a very strong argument for The GC having been the show’s real winner. In the years since her eviction, her CBB appearance has become the stuff of legend, granted immortality through its transformation into a number of widely shared memes: her off-the-cuff outbursts, somehow always better timed than most scripted comedy (“I’m claustrophobic Darren” – pure music!), now part of the lexicon of a generation.
It’s this online fame which skyrocketed Collins’ already ascendant star to the very highest reaches of reality TV fame in the UK: her own show. What began as a one off (2018’s Diva España, which followed her attempt to launch her clothing brand in her beloved Marbella) quickly became Diva Forever, a full blown series for ITVBe, in 2019. Since then, fans have been graced with Diva on Lockdown – a three-parter consisting mostly of footage from cameras installed in Collins’ home during the coronavirus lockdown– while the newest part of the Diva saga, Diva Forever and Ever, debuts on ITVBe on the 13th of October.
To discuss the new series and its place in Collins’ growing TV legacy, as well as to ask what’s next for the woman who has done everything (including ITV’s short-lived celebrity diving competition Splash!), I’ve come to Hutton Hall, a high-end wedding venue in her native of Essex, which has the pillowed-velvet feel of a 3D model of Mrs Hinch’s Instagram grid, and where the toilets are about five hundred times nicer than my actual flat.
When I arrive in a taxi on a rainy Tuesday, a white Land Rover has pulled up in front of me. The door opens, and suddenly there is Gemma Collins – a person whose sunglasses-covered face, captioned with the words “Can you just please be quiet? Have a bit of respect,” I share with my friends every time I am even a bit pissed off – just standing in front of me, in a silver two-piece from her own clothing collection. We’ll be formally introduced later – when Collins is sat in the glam chair, bringing the validity of the entire Celebrity Big Brother voting process into question (“I think it was a fix,” she concludes) – but for now, the first thing I hear her say, as she turns to one of the publicity managers present on the day’s shoot, is this:
“I need tea, I need sugar free Red Bull. I am The GC, I need a full buffet wherever I go.”
And with that, as they say, we’re off.
Back in hair and makeup, I mention that it’s a privilege to see The GC being constructed in front of me, one strip lash at a time.
“Course!” Collins laughs. “Pre-GC. Once the make-up goes in, I’ll be the crazy GC. What’s good about my reality show is that you get to see quite a lot of me more normal. I still put my own washing in, hun. It’s not all glamour.”
Collins, of course, has two personalities, and during our conversation she oscillates between them both for effect. There’s Gemma, who happily loads the dishwasher, and the über-diva GC – a sort of Sasha Fierce for people whose ideal Saturday night consists of a pitcher of Cheeky V (guilty as charged) – who wouldn’t dare. “The GC is a character, and she’s hilarious,” Collins says, promising that she’ll be out in force in Diva Forever and Ever, and assuring me that the upcoming series is her best yet. “Because I was fresh out of lockdown, raring to go,” she explains. “I’d had a good rest. I suppose it’s like a racehorse really. You have to rest them and then get them back running.”
She is pleased, however, that Diva on Lockdown allowed fans to see a bit more of her Gemma side. “I think people do love to see a bit more of me normal, because I do have the same dilemmas as everyone else, and I think people just find it really relatable.”
Collins’ relatability is her greatest asset, as is obvious from her social media success (she currently has 2 million Instagram followers, while the @gemmareacts meme page, whose content she frequently shares, has 160k) – though it was first proven during her tenure on The Only Way Is Essex, from 2011 to 2019. Remembering the early days of TOWIE, she says, “When I went on the show I probably didn’t quite fit the mould. But of course, there’s so many people out there like me, who wanted to watch the show but thought, ‘It’s all full of skinny, beautiful girls.’ But I think I changed that, then everyone fell in love with me, and that’s it. I lived to tell the tale."
The tale began when Collins was initially cast on TOWIE for a few weeks. At the time, she was a hotshot car saleswoman on a BMW forecourt: “I used to try and sell three cars a day because I knew that would keep the boss happy, and I could go and get a blow dry,” she explains matter-of-factly. “They used to call me The Hattrick Collins, because I’d do one at nine, one at 12, one at like, three. I was like ‘Listen, I’ve done the cars for today, can I go?’”
On her 30th birthday, however, everything changed. Producers had asked the original cast of TOWIE if they knew any interesting characters in the area, and Amy Childs’ mum pointed them in Collins’ direction. “I’d fractured my coccyx at the time and I had to have two weeks off work,” she thinks back. “I got the call and they were like, ‘Right, come to TOWIE.’ I thought it was a joke; I thought it was my mates messing me about. I was like ‘I’ve got a fractured coccyx, I do not need pranking right now.’ And literally, I put the phone down and this girl called me back, and she went, ‘This isn’t a joke, please don’t put the phone down, we wanna see you.’ And I was like, ‘shit.’ So I started whacking down the diazepam so I was able to get out the pain and go for the interview.”
Since making a significant impact on TOWIE, Collins has taken TV by the scruff of the neck, gracing every reality show under the sun – from I’m a Celebrity… to Celebs Go Dating – with her inimitable part-Del Boy, part-Barbara Windsor presence. I ask her about her experiences of one of my personal favourites, Celebrity Masterchef, and she recalls it with gusto. “Couldn’t stand that if I’m being honest. Because I had to peel 50 potatoes. Now don’t get me wrong darling, if it’s a Sunday and I’ve got all the family over pre-COVID, I might have peeled them. Well, no, I wouldn’t have. I’m lying.” Once again, she’s got the room laughing. “But 50 potatoes is a lot of potatoes to peel. I think on the average roast dinner you might do one bag of potatoes. I had to peel 50, I thought it was a joke. I was like, ‘Are you sure?’”
If Masterchef wasn’t quite to her taste, I’m interested to know which of the shows she’s taken part in was her favourite. She mulls it over for a minute – “I’ve done loads of shows. You forget. I’ve done ‘em all,” she says. There was Dancing on Ice, which she enjoyed because it taught her endurance and helped her grow, but it wasn’t the best. That accolade, surprisingly, goes to Who’s Doing the Dishes – a short-lived ITV dinner party game show, filmed in celebrities’ homes. It ran from 2014 to 2016, and was hosted by former Westlife member Brian McFadden (with whom Collins was actually later reunited on Dancing on Ice in 2019). Telling me about it, Collins gets a glint in her eye.
“I was a huge Westlife fan. Brian McFadden was my favourite because he was always the naughty one in the band,” she says. “When they called me and said ‘Do you wanna do Do the Dishes?’ I was like, ‘I ain’t doing the dishes.’ And then they said, ‘Well Brian McFadden’s doing it.’ And then I was like, ‘I’m definitely doing the dishes then.’ Otherwise, I just would have been like, ‘Nah’ – a bit GC about it.” Remembering her day with McFadden, she smiles serenely and says simply: “I’ve gotta say, he sat on my sofa, he ate a KFC bucket, and it was the best day of my life.”
Gemma Collins knows she is funny – she tells me so herself – and one of the best things about interviewing her is the sense that you’re in the orbit of a pro. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who is better at being interviewed – or indeed, better at being a celebrity – than Collins. She’s a star in the old showbiz sense – the type of warm talent who works a room and holds a sing-song at the end. Sipping tea from a little cup with a saucer, her curls pinned in place ready for photos, eyelashes out to her nose, she delivers quotable line after quotable line, fully aware that they’re her currency. After almost a decade in the industry, she has total mastery over her persona, and what people want from it. “I’ve got an ability to make people feel really good, even if I feel shit myself,” she says. “That is the skill, that’s entertainment, do you know what I mean?” Even in front of our small assembled audience of management, makeup artists and hairdressers, everyone is eating out of the palm of her perfectly manicured hand.
Collins’ magnetism is the reason why she so easily transitioned to her own reality show, ITVBe’s Diva series, named for her iconic TOWIE “earned my divaship” moment. I ask her how a person would go about earning their divaship (and for posterity, let the record state that she told me I’d already earned my own, in what was a deeply life-affirming moment.) As a scholar of the topic, she has some thoughts about what being a diva truly entails:
“I am a diva and I love it,” she says, speaking slowly and measuredly, more Gemma than GC. “Saying to someone: ‘Do my fucking hair now bitch,’ ‘Get me this, get me that’ – that’s a rude fucking person. Right? But a diva knows what she wants. A diva is to be celebrated. I am a woman who has always known what she’s wanted. I’m a woman that basically has never been afraid to say what I think. I’m a diva. I’m not gonna agree with something if I don’t think it’s right.”
“Obviously,” Collins continues, hitting her stride, “there’s a lot of people that follow the crowd. I’m a trendsetter honey, I make the rules. And I break them as well. What’s a diva about knowing what you want? Women should be really empowered and we should be celebrated. And ‘diva’ is a beautiful word at the end of the day. I know what I want. I don’t care if I offend you. Sometimes it’s very hard. Obviously, over a period of time, I’m just gonna be honest, men have been seen as the better sex, and I just feel that sometimes if you are an upfront, outspoken person, you get smacked back down for it. But not me honey. So call me a diva all you want. There’s a difference between a diva and a bitch – which I’m sure I can be sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with an assertive woman that knows what she wants.”
It turns out that what Gemma Collins wants next is twofold. Firstly, she wants to do more charity work, specifically with animals in captivity. And secondly, she’s hoping to go international. Next year, coronavirus permitting, she’ll be embarking on a UK theatre tour (“One woman show,” she clarifies. “People will be surprised because I used to do a lot of amateur dramatics, when I was younger. So doing this theatre tour for me is really exciting”), and after that? Well, of course, the natural progression for a star of Collins’ magnitude is Las Vegas.
“Move over Britney, I’m coming to Vegas. That is where I’m going next – feel free to write it in your article,” Collins declares, leaning back in her chair. I wonder aloud what a Gemma Collins Vegas show would look like, and she’s quick to enlighten me, the knowingly braggadocious GC persona rearing its lacquered head.
“Full of sexy, hot gay men,” she exclaims. “I massively support the LGBT community. I love them. I’d have everyone, all walks of life, appearing in the show.” Her list of demands doesn’t end there, however: “I want a big old performance before I step out. I’ll be singing ‘Hey Big Spender’. I’ll probably do like, ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ – I’ll do a few songs in the show. Maybe I’ll fly across the audience and they can hand touch me, if I put my hand out. It is Vegas, anything can happen. I’ll have celeb guests pop in. I’d love to get Paris Hilton to come in. I can see that is the way it’s gonna go for me. I’ve pretty much done every show in the UK. Vegas is next.”
While many would be (and have been) quick to write off someone who got her start selling Kirk Norcross a car on TOWIE as delusional, sitting in front of Collins right now, I fully believe she could take Sin City by storm: her confidence just does not falter. “I have got this huge platform,” she says. “It’s just worth a shot: there’s nothing I can’t achieve. I wish everyone had that belief in themselves, because the world is your oyster. I just think, ‘We’ve got one life, let’s enjoy it.’”
Other than her designs on global domination, when I ask Collins, a decade into her career, about her main aims for her next ten years, she’s back firmly in Gemma mode, and says very plainly: “To be happy.”
“Just to really sit back and keep absorbing everything I’ve achieved, and how strong I’ve become,” she elaborates. “Because I’ve learned from my mistakes. You get more sensible as you get older. You definitely get more humbleness and gratitude.”
It’s almost time for her photoshoot, in support of Diva Forever and Ever, now. She finishes her tea and the stylists add the final touches to her hair and makeup, as she checks their work in a mirror. But she wouldn’t be Gemma Collins – the woman, the myth, the queen of reality TV – if she left me without one final GC line.
“That was all just the warm up. The next ten years will be incredible for me,” she grins. “It’s the real deal now baby.”
Diva Forever and Ever airs at 9PM on Tuesdays on ITVBe.