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‘For 11 years I’ve kept it quiet’: Rylan on his breakdown, comeback – and the hidden story of X Factor | Television & radio

Rylan Clark, better known simply as Rylan, was actually born Ross Clark. The former X Factor contestant, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Radio 2 DJ, This Morning presenter, Gogglebox regular, podcaster and author couldn’t be more clear about the distinction. Rylan is OTT, supremely camp, larger than life – the man who hysterically wept a show’s worth of tears when Nicole Scherzinger put him through to the live finals of The X Factor in 2012. This is the Rylan whose dream was to be famous. And then there is Ross – quieter, super-smart, capable of trouncing politicians in debate and allergic to the idea of celebrity.

With such polarities, perhaps it was inevitable Clark would run into trouble. And sure enough he did. After finishing fifth on The X Factor, he became a TV fixture. He never stopped working. Then, three years ago, he had a breakdown from which he never expected to recover. But he has done – with style, and a huge amount of support from the public.

These days, there is still a distinction between Rylan and Ross. “You’re not going to see Rylan sitting there with no makeup on, with a beer in one hand and the other hand down his pants just to keep warm, watching the football. That’s what Ross does,” he says. But the two are getting closer. The pizazz of Rylan alongside the integrity of Ross makes for a formidable and foul-mouthed combination.

We meet at a central London hotel. Clark is dressed from head to toe in black – hair, beard, polo neck, trousers, shoes, the works. He could be a male model or a Doctor Who baddie. As a kid, he was an unconfident redhead, burdened with issues. I ask what he likes to be called: Rylan or Ross? “Whatever you prefer,” he says.

What does he prefer? “Baby!

Clark was the ultimate Marmite X Factor contestant. He had plenty of fans, and perhaps even more haters. In 2013, on Celebrity Big Brother, which he won, he had another tearful episode. “I’ve had worse press than Jimmy fucking Savile,” he claimed. “I even had death threats sent to my hotel and 24/7 security.” It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. Sure, he didn’t have the greatest voice, but the level of hatred directed at him was shocking. And that wasn’t the worst of it. It’s only today that I discover the full extent of what he went through on The X Factor.

On X Factor Live in 2012. Photograph: Ken McKay/Thames/Shutterstock

We are meeting to discuss a new Prime Video reality show, Hot Mess Summer. The concept is brutal and compelling: a bunch of spoilt, lazy narcissists are taken to the Greek island of Zante, thinking they are about to participate in a reality show for party animals. “They are all liabilities,” Clark says. “They are selfish, so self-centred … I’m trying to think of nice words that aren’t derogatory, but they were everything you don’t want on a night out.”

I try to help out. They’re arseholes, aren’t they? He smiles. “Yeah! They’re that arsehole on a night out. That’s exactly who they are.” When they get to Zante, they are told that rather than spending the summer drinking at the bar they’ll be working behind it. So far, so nasty. But it gets worse.

They are then shown videos in which their friends say why they have volunteered them for the show – because they ruin nights out, they’ve never done a day’s work, they don’t think of anyone but themselves, and on it goes. The contestants watch the videos open-mouthed, horrified by their friends’ betrayal. It’s a wonder that only one threatens to leave the show. But gradually Clark wins them over: he tells them the show could make them better people, that they will learn new skills and values, and best of all there is a pot of money to be won at the end. Ultimately, they all decide to stay.

What would have happened if they’d refused to take part? “The worry was that none of them would want to do it and from a duty-of-care point of view we would have stopped the production there and then. We would have booked eight flights home – thank you, everyone; sorry, guys, we’ve not got a show to make; let’s stay for a couple of days, lap up a bit of the beach and go home. But the risk paid off.”

And if the contestants had been seriously traumatised by the experience? “Oh my God, I’ve worked on reality shows for 12 years now. And from being a contestant myself I’ve seen the change in duty of care. It’s everyone’s priority now.”

Whenever Clark has been asked about his time on X Factor in the past, he has been generally positive about the support system that was in place. But he’s never told the full story. As he tells me now, he has never been in a position to.

Clark, who grew up in Essex, was 23 when the show started. He had been a bright child who went to one of the country’s best state schools, and left with a stash of GCSEs. He’s not sure how many exactly, he says – somewhere between 12 and 15. Despite his academic prowess, he was unhappy: bullied for his campness until he decided to fight back, and an eternal outsider. He didn’t bother with A-levels, and went off to Ibiza to perform in Take That and Westlife tribute bands.

And then came The X Factor. He says he knew what he was up to – they always want a joke act, so he hammed it up to the max. He looked as if he was having the time of his life, and he was to an extent. But there was also something else going on. He and fellow contestant Lucy Spraggan were portrayed as trouble-makers, with the press reporting unauthorised breakouts from the luxury London hotel where they were being housed. One night, as apparent punishment, they were exiled to a hotel away from the other contestants. In the next episode Spraggan was absent. We were told she was sick. She then left the show.

Last year Spraggan wrote a memoir in which she revealed what actually happened. That night a hotel porter broke into her room and raped her, after she had passed out following a drunken night out with Clark celebrating his birthday. The porter was later jailed after admitting the crime. In her book, Spraggan reveals how supportive Clark was. Although the production team called the police and an arrest was quickly made, she suggested they were “unprepared” to deal with what had happened.

I have also heard that Spraggan’s legal team believes Clark played a vital role in securing the conviction. It was Clark who preserved the scene, prevented others from entering the room before the police got there, and gave impressive evidence about what had happened, despite being the worse for wear.

When I mention this to Clark, he is surprised that I know about it. “This is so weird we’re having this conversation because for 11 years I’ve kept it all quiet.” He starts to dab his eyes. “I’m getting emotional. That was a really, really tough time. It was horrendous and I’ve still not spoken about it because it’s not my story to tell, even though I was part of it.”

In an interview with the Guardian’s Saturday magazine, last year, Spraggan told Joe Stone why she had finally decided to go public about the rape. “For years I was terrified of being known as the girl that that happened to. I was deeply, chronically ashamed. Now I understand that what happened wasn’t my decision – it was out of my hands. And in order for me to rebuild myself and move on, I needed to tell the truth.”

Clark and Spraggan in 2012, the year they became The X Factor’s ‘wild childs’. Photograph: Niki Nikolova/FilmMagic

“Lucy called me,” Clark recalls, “and said, ‘I’m going to put it in the book.’ I said, ‘I’ll support you if you want to do that. Whatever you want to do, we do that.’” Clark says he’s going to check in with Spraggan, after our interview, to make sure she’s happy with him talking about the attack.

It says a lot about your character, I tell him, that you acted so responsibly that day. “Thank you. As a 24-year-old – it was the night of my birthday – to wake up to your friend saying, ‘I was raped last night,’ while being on the biggest show in the country, while being followed by the press wherever you go … I don’t know how I did it. I don’t know what happened. Lucy calls me Jessica Fletcher because I came over all Angela Lansbury.”

In what way? “The first thing I did was say to one of the researchers, ‘Go and get the bosses,’ and they said, ‘They’re busy,’ and I was like, ‘Go and fucking get them!’ I think it’s the only time I’ve ever spoken to somebody like that.”

How did he preserve the crime scene? “I said, ‘You need to call the hotel and tell them you don’t want the room cleaned.’ And they were like, ‘What d’you mean?’ and I was, ‘Don’t … fucking … tell them … what’s happened. Just tell them you don’t want the room cleaned – you’re working in there. Say that.’ If someone goes in that room and it’s cleaned, we’re fucked: that was my first thought. I became like a crime detective and I don’t know why that was.” He laughs, still dabbing away the tears.

A few minutes later he was doing a recording session with Robbie Williams. “I knew I had to carry on. That Saturday Lucy was having a week off for ‘illness’ and they said to me, ‘If you want we’ll give you this Saturday off too,’ and I said, ‘I can’t because if we both take this Saturday off, the two “wild childs” of X Factor, she’s going to get shit and she can’t have that right now.’

“I went out and during that performance if you watch it back, halfway through I go, ‘This one’s for you, Spraggan.’ I knew she was watching back at the apartment. She then had to quit because she had to go for treatment, and I had to carry on.”

Does he think if something like this happened today, production teams would be better equipped to deal with it? “That’s a really difficult question because back then no one expected any of us to get raped on the show. There was a lot that could have been improved. I think everyone learned loads from those kind of mistakes, but I don’t think it was anyone’s fault other than the man who raped Lucy.”

Spraggan has said that moving her and Clark to another hotel made them more vulnerable. He nods. “I don’t think that should have happened. We didn’t have as much security as we were used to. Me and Lucy have had this conversation for years because we’re the only two who can talk to each other about it.”

A spokesperson for The X Factor says: “To our knowledge, the assault was an event without precedent in the UK television industry. While we believed throughout that we were doing our best to support Lucy in the aftermath of the ordeal, as Lucy thinks we could have done more, we must therefore recognise this. For everything Lucy has suffered, we are extremely sorry. Since then, we have done our very best to learn lessons from these events and improve our aftercare processes.”

Clark is still emotional – about what happened to Spraggan, their friendship and the public hostility towards him back then. “A lot of people were judging me when I was on The X Factor. Prick. Idiot. And I suppose from a selfish point of view all these years on, someone reading this, I’m like, ‘Fuck you, you bastard. You had no fucking idea. You. Had. No. Fucking. Idea. I had to get up on stage in front of 12 million people singing fucking Madonna while dressed as a drag queen while I’m dealing with that. I hope you feel ashamed of yourselves, you bastards.’”

The thing is, Clark did get his revenge on the trolls. And in the best possible way – by becoming a huge success. Even the way he became a success was surprising: it wasn’t by being outlandish, but by being kind and empathic. I’ve heard lots of nice things about you, I say. He smiles. “Oooh, fucking hell, that’s nice to hear.’ It’s quite unusual to hear this about someone in your world, I say. “I’ll be honest with you: I don’t think there’s much nasty shit I’ve done. I think I’ve always been nice to people and that showed when I came back from being ill. I didn’t lose any of my jobs. I could have lost my Radio 2 show. I’d had fucking six months off.” Loyalty pays both ways, he says. Clark points out that his former Big Brother runner is now the director of his management company.

With his then husband, Dan Clark-Neal, on This Morning. Photograph: S Meddle/ITV/Shutterstock

When it came, his breakdown was extreme. He attempted suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The catalyst was splitting from his husband, Dan Neal, in 2021. Years after being unfaithful to Neal, he fessed up. Neal couldn’t forgive him, and that was it. For a long time, Clark says, he questioned why he felt the need to tell Neal about it. “I couldn’t understand why I pressed the nuclear button on my seemingly perfect life. And it’s only now I’m better that I realise it was the ejector seat I needed. Now I just wish I’d pressed that escape button earlier.”

But for a long time he was just struggling to stay alive. “I got so ill to the point where I knew I couldn’t get any iller.” He says he simply couldn’t function. “I couldn’t speak. I had to learn to speak again, I had to learn to move again. It was like I’d had a stroke. I couldn’t understand anything. Nothing made sense to me. I couldn’t have the TV on and I couldn’t listen to music. All I could do was sit in silence. TV and music’s my job! I was fucked.”

Having survived his breakdown, he says it’s the best thing that could have happened to him. “It’s made me who I am now. My only regret is I had to put my friends and family through it, and they had to watch me turn to nothing. Horrendous.”

How did he come through it? “I don’t know. There wasn’t a lightbulb moment. It sounds silly but I think the turning point was the fact that I didn’t die. I wish I could give a better answer because if there was a turning point, I’d bottle it and dish it out free of charge.”

What has become clearer than ever is how much he struggled with the reality of fame. “I thought the celebrity was what I wanted. I wanted to be known. I didn’t want to queue. I didn’t want to be ignored. I wanted every fucker to know who I was, and then if I earned money out of it and got a job, great.” His sole dream was fame? “Yeah, and I got it and very soon realised, ‘No, it’s the job I wanted, not the fame.’ But then it was too late. If people want to see that as ungrateful, so be it.”

He mentions the Pet Shop Boys song Flamboyant. “If the boys knew me I would genuinely go to a court of law to say they wrote it about me. There’s a line that sticks with me every day and it’s, ‘Just crossing the street, well, it’s almost heroic.’ That’s how I feel a lot of the time. ‘I can’t go there, I can’t go there, I can’t go there.’ because I just get the fear a lot of the time.’

Then there’s dating. It’s a nightmare, he says. Clark has been thrown off dating apps because they think he’s catfishing. And most people who realise he is for real struggle to treat him normally. Has he met anybody who didn’t know who he was? “Yeah, I went to Barcelona a couple of years ago. I was like, ‘My name is Josh and I’m a family lawyer.’ Great night.” He grins. “Until a hen party walked in, went ‘Oh my God, Rylan!!’ and asked for a photo. Then the game was up.”

He has still got to work out how to make peace with fame. One way is to remind himself how much he’s loving his work – as well as the reality show, he’s just made a documentary about homophobia in football. Another is to accept the industry for what it is and stay true to himself. “It’s cut-throat. Cut-throat. You think people care about people? Not really.” He pauses. “But you know what? I earn a living from it and as long as I can sleep well at night knowing I haven’t fucked people over, I’m happy.”

Hot Mess Summer is on Prime Video from 7 February.

Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email jo@samaritans.org or jo@samaritans.ie. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

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