It's a pallid November afternoon somewhere off the M40 highway. You spent last night in a Premier Inn just outside Maidstone, UK. Now, you're standing under hot lights in a clammy studio, just desperately trying to be charming. You're surrounded by 30 women from all walks of life, all corners of the United Kingdom, and not a single one of them will go on a date with you.
Thirty lights once dazzling have now faded to black. Celine Dion's "All By Myself" starts blaring out of the studio speakers, and the women, the studio audience, and the 3 million or so people watching at home wave goodbye to you, the man who couldn't find love in a room full of people looking for it. Blackout.
"That was the last thing I ever expected to happen," says Ola. He's a 30-year-old fitness coach, who made a brief appearance on this season's Take Me Out, Britain's biggest dating show. "My friends had said, 'What will you do if you get a blackout?' and I'd been like, 'Oh come on, that's not gonna happen.' That sounds big-headed, but I don't think I got a fair round to be honest."
Ola seems like a nice guy. On the show, he didn't talk that much, focusing instead on demonstrating his unworldly upper body strength (see the video above). For whatever reason, the female contestants just weren't interested. "I wasn't annoyed, I was just shocked. I took it OK, like it's not the end of the world. I just wish I'd known because then I could have planned a way to style it out."
Take Me Out has, in a relatively short time, become a TV institution: a big family-friendly dating gameshow that seems almost from another era, with it's cheesy catchphrases and 1970s gender politics. If you are simply so middle-class that you haven't watched ITV in a decade, then here's how it works. Thirty women, dressed head to toe in River Island dresses you sense still have the labels on, stand behind lit-up podiums while some preening dude tries to peacock for them. If they're into him, they leave their light on; if not they switch it off. At the end, the man picks which of the women with their lights still on he finds most palatable and turns the lights of the unappealing contestants off. Blackouts like Ola's, where none of the thirty women are up for a date, are rare. More often, they find a match and are sent to the mystical isle of "Fernando's" for a date.
It seems like a simple enough process, but it takes months of planning. Long before host Paddy McGuinness threatens to "bring on the girls," a team of overworked researchers doggedly attempt to find women who are up for appearing.
Most of the women appear on the show after sending in applications, but some have to be found through scouting. "I don't want to generalize, but they get a lot of the same girl applying: false eyelashes and acrylic nails," says Becca, a runner on the 2012 series. "So they give a quota of girls they need to fill. They'd look at past seasons and be like, 'Right—we need a tattooed Burlesque dancer,' or like, 'We need an old woman.'"
It's a similar story with the men. While the number of applications is high, the show's researchers still spend a lot of time persuading people to go on the show unsolicited. Para-athlete Tony Mills was successfully approached to go on last years Take Me Out via social media. "I think they just wanted to see a para-athlete in there and see how the girls would react to me missing a limb," he says. "Apparently, they stalked me the year before, but they saw that I was in a relationship. I think once they realized I was single, they pounced."
When Becca needed specific-looking women, she would spend whole days trawling through a site called Star Now, a £4.99 [$7 USD] per month service where would-be celebs can upload images and their showreel. "It's basically a poor man's version of [casting database] Spotlight. I'd spend hours on that. It was a very strange time of life."
Once the show had been cast, Becca's job was to bring the girls from the hotel down the road to the studio each day, and she helped the lucky ones pack a miniature suitcase for "Fernando's" (on her series, it was in Tenerife). She became more like an in-house counsellor, and she got disciplined a couple of times for being overly involved with the contestants. "They told me I was interfering with their emotional lives too much. This one woman who had kids used to say, 'I can't handle this'—she was much older than the others, and she'd had a couple of shows where she put herself on the line and then got turned down. I think she just thought: I'm a mom, what am I doing here?She was really upset, so whenever I saw her, I'd just whisper, 'Go home! Get out—they can't keep you here.' She did actually leave half way through the series."
While the boys come and go, the girls stay on the show until they are picked, so they can end up staying in the hotel together for up to four weeks. Unsurprisingly, things sometimes get a bit heated. "There were fights, and there were lots of tears. Girls would get amazingly stressed about getting their lights turned out. What I found amazing is that people who'd obviously been quite unlucky in love would still choose to go on. If your self-esteem is already quite low, I always thought that was a strange thing to want to do," says Becca.
Not everyone was looking for love. One male contestant, Ben, went on the show to promote veganism, and he actually consulted with PETA about his lines on the show. The charity was actually responsible for the gem, "One date with me and I'll be the only piece of meat you want."
Most of the girls I speak to have the same explanation for how they ended up on the show. What starts as a joke progresses into a load of application forms, phone calls, and screen tests. With the completion of each stage comes the, "Well I might as well see it through" attitude. Until one day you're in a cab to Maidstone.
"I just didn't think I was the right kind of person," explains Lotte, a 24-year-old editorial assistant. "I applied, sort of for a laugh, but it ended up becoming reality."
When the realization hit that she'd be joining in week three, Lotte made a game plan and stuck to it. "By the first Monday, I was like, I want to fucking go to Fernando's. I don't care what happens, I am going. You get told that you need to leave your light on for an average of five times before you get picked. If there is a guy you fancy and you leave your light on, you can hope, but you probably won't get picked. There are 30 other girls, and it's all just completely shallow. If Paddy doesn't come over to you then you're automatically less memorable. So I started to think, OK shit, I need to keep my light on a bit more; I need to up these odds. I left my light on about five times, and then voila—I got the date."
Dating in 2016 can be such a colossal head fuck, and from the contestant testimonials, it seemed like Take Me Out was no less intimidating than the real-life version of trying to find a mate. In fact, in the six years the show has been on the air, there have only been a handful of success stories. In 2014, Adele from the original 30 girls got engaged to Dave, a guy she'd met on the show two years earlier. Series five's Gemma and Gavin recently had their first child.
The Cardiff para–athlete I spoke to, Tony, is still on-and-off dating a girl he met on the series. "We're still trying to make it work, but I'll be honest, its not easy." They didn't cross paths until after his episode aired, and she started messaging him—both contestants were part of that season's contestants' Facebook group, which is apparently quite a common launchpad for a blossoming Take Me Out relationship after the show has finished. "People know what they're doing when they put everyone together in a Facebook group," Tony assured me.
In fact, finding love in Fernando's seems to be basically impossible. Lotte was given a 5 AM call time and told to wear a bikini, shorts, and trainers. "They give nothing away," she explained. "You don't know if you're going to be doing water sports, hiking, horse riding, or nothing at all. That's the worst, not knowing." It turned out she would be Bob-diving with Ben, her amateur magician and incredibly eager date.
Lotte knew so little about her date that before he arrived, she admits she thought he was of Indian heritage. "I have really bad eyesight, but I didn't want to wear my glasses on the show. I didn't see him properly till he came over to me, and by then I was so distracted by doing the whole, 'Don't you dare turn my fucking light off' thing, that I didn't really pay attention to what was going on." After the show, they keep the pair totally separate until they're on the date, so there's really no time to get properly acquainted.
He kept trying to hold her hand, "It was kind of creepy. He kept rubbing his thumb on me. I realized then that he probably wasn't the sort of guy I thought he was." Luckily for Lotte, she didn't actually have to interact with him until they were on camera. "We were chatting, and then we actually got told to shut up, which for me was ideal because I was sitting in a boat in my bikini thinking: This is great, I don't have to talk to this weirdo."
It's not hard to draw a connection between Take Me Out's lights on and off conceit and Tinder's swipe-left or swipe-right way of matching potential partners. But the show itself isn't much of a dating service. Maybe a few of the contestants are looking for love, but people are mostly searching for fame, a free holiday, or trying to promote veganism.
"The producers kind of said, 'Don't sit here waiting for the man of your dreams because at the end of the day, it's just a game show,'" Lotte says. "I met a few girls who were looking for love, but I didn't really understand why anyone would go on national TV to find a genuine relationship."