MEET ES­SEX QUEEN GEMMA COLLINS

Re­al­ity-TV star GEMMA COLLINS has built her rep­u­ta­tion on her witty, glitzy Es­sex bravado but, as she re­veals to Ju­dith Woods, be­neath that sparkling ve­neer hides a down-to-earth girl who just wants to find Mr Right

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - EDITOR’S LETTER - PHO­TO­GRAPHS ELIS­A­BETH HOFF

Over an hour late. Bare­foot. Wear­ing last night’s glitzy party dress at mid­day, span­gled Dolce & Gab­bana heels dan­gling from her man­i­cured fin­gers. Re­al­ity-show queen Gemma Collins is in the house, folks. She stands in the door­way with a com­i­cally sheep­ish ex­pres­sion that gives way to a broad grin, hugs ev­ery­one and asks for an ur­gent restora­tive cup of tea.

It is not how photo shoots usu­ally be­gin. But, truth­fully, we would have been dis­ap­pointed if re­al­ity TV’s least-likely trea­sure hadn’t made some sort of dra­matic en­trance. ‘I have not slept a wink!’ cries Gemma, 36, a com­pelling vi­sion of ul­tra-white teeth, cas­cad­ing blonde hair and a plung­ing ma­hogany cleav­age.

‘It never stops. Tonight I’m be­ing col­lected by a car and driven to Nor­wich for a per­sonal ap­pear­ance at a club. I go on stage at 1am and say “Hi”, the place hits the roof, then I spend two hours pos­ing for self­ies with 150 peo­ple. Then it’s the same thing in a dif­fer­ent club the night af­ter. Ev­ery­one wants a lit­tle piece of GC.’

Of course they do; the star of The Only Way is Es­sex (TOWIE), plus-size de­signer and curvy pin-up seized the me­dia by storm in 2017. She had al­ready ticked off the TV mile­stones to house­hold-name sta­tus: ap­pear­ances on Loose Women, Celebrity Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!. But last year, GC, as she’s known by diehard fans, was dubbed Queen of Memes on so­cial me­dia af­ter her im­age was af­fec­tion­ately copied, tweaked and shared thou­sands of times. One In­sta­gram ac­count, Gemma Collins Re­ac­tions, pairs com­ments with im­ages of her funny fa­cial ex­pres­sions.

Barely a day went by with­out tabloid sto­ries about her love life, her weight and her ex­tra­or­di­nary – and glo­ri­ously un­apolo­getic – fash­ion faux pas. Google ‘Gemma Collins and that dress’ and you’ll un­der­stand why her agent’s phone never stops ring­ing.

In 2016 Gemma ap­peared on Sky News with Kay Bur­ley de­fend­ing the rep­u­ta­tion of Es­sex girls. ‘It was just a bit of ban­ter say­ing we’re not all ma­te­ri­al­is­tic and easy, but ev­ery­one seemed to be tak­ing it so se­ri­ous,’ she gig­gles. Over on the BBC, she made head­lines in Oc­to­ber when she fell through a trap­door dur­ing a live broad­cast of the Ra­dio 1 Teen Awards. It was undig­ni­fied, calami­tous even, but Gemma proved to be a trouper and picked her­self up, lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally.

‘I was go­ing to sue, but you know what? It hap­pened. I didn’t die. I wasn’t paral­ysed,’ she says, beam­ing. ‘No point bear­ing a grudge, you gotta keep mov­ing for­ward, liv­ing your life

PEO­PLE THINK I’M SIP­PING CHAM­PAGNE ALL DAY BUT I’M IN MY PJS WATCH­ING EASTEN­DERS

– and my life is fab­u­lous, fab-u-lous! I don’t need any New Year Res­o­lu­tions; I’m just rock­ing it for all those nor­mal women out there who need a role model who hasn’t had a boob job, fillers or Bo­tox. Yeah, I got thick thighs, but I am own­ing them. Own-ing. Them.’

To be hon­est, 2018 is stack­ing up to be an­other bumper year for the un­stop­pable force of na­ture that is Gemma. This month she’s ap­pear­ing on the Chan­nel 4 re­al­ity se­ries Celebs Go Dat­ing and it’s fair to con­clude the re­sults will be ri­otous – and very real. Apart from be­ing ir­re­press­ibly bub­bly, Gemma’s USP re­sides in be­ing the ab­so­lute an­tithe­sis of air­brushed celebrity per­fec­tion. She might tweak the light­ing on her In­sta­gram pic­tures but, in per­son, she is en­tirely with­out fil­ters; she laughs, she cries, and is by turns out­ra­geous and as­tute. Early on in her ca­reer, an agent bluntly in­formed her that her nar­ra­tive arc would be based on ‘weight loss, weight gain and re­la­tion­ship woes’. And so it came to pass.

When Gemma joined TOWIE in 2011, she was play­ing her­self; a street-smart used-car sales­woman with a great line in pat­ter. Back then she was a size 16 and was vi­ciously trolled on­line. These days, she is a size 22 – and far more con­fi­dent. As far as her anony­mous crit­ics are con­cerned, she be­lieves suc­cess to be the best re­venge. ‘Yes, I’d like to lose a bit of weight for health rea­sons be­cause I’m near­ing 40 but I’m happy in my own skin,’ she says. ‘The rea­son why peo­ple like me and are in­ter­ested in me is be­cause fame hasn’t changed me. I’ve been of­fered gas­tric bands, li­po­suc­tion and a bum lift, but I haven’t had any­thing done, I’m just me.’

Gemma lives alone in a two-bed apart­ment in Brent­wood, Es­sex, where she is trans­form­ing the spare room into a dress­ing room; those ver­tig­i­nous blingy heels and metal­lic dresses need a home. But for all the show­biz razzmatazz, her feet are firmly on the ground; her best friend owns a nail shop, an­other works in IT. She pri­ori­tises them and her par­ents. ‘I’ve learnt my les­son about the peo­ple who want to hang out with you be­cause you are fa­mous and have money,’ she mut­ters. ‘I’m done with users.’

She’s just back from a hol­i­day in Tener­ife with her mum Joan and dad Alan, who clearly adore her. Joan suf­fers from rheuma­toid arthri­tis and strug­gles to walk. Alan, 70, runs an im­port busi­ness with Gemma’s brother Russell, who is 40. ‘My dad con­trols all my money. Se­ri­ously, I have to ask him if I want to up­grade my car. I’ve just sold my be­spoke £87,000 Range Rover be­cause it just felt too ma­te­ri­al­is­tic and I have noth­ing to prove. I’m fine with a BMW 6 Se­ries,’ she says.

‘When we went to Tener­ife I took out €250 from a cash­point and he kept ask­ing me what I was spend­ing it on. I bought a skirt and top for €60 eu­ros and he kept fuss­ing about whether I ac­tu­ally needed them. But I know he has my best in­ter­ests at heart.’

From the mo­ment Gemma could walk and talk it was clear she was a nat­u­ral per­former, and Joan, in par­tic­u­lar, was de­ter­mined she should re­alise her po­ten­tial. She at­tended dance classes and was driven to com­pe­ti­tions across the coun­try. ‘I re­mem­ber sit­ting in the exam room for my maths GCSE and think­ing, “I’m go­ing to be fa­mous, I don’t need maths. What I re­ally need is to go down Rom­ford High Street and buy new shoes,” says Gemma. ‘I was right, wasn’t I? Thank God for ac­coun­tants, that’s all I can say.’ She was en­rolled in the Sylvia Young Theatre School, but af­ter grad­u­a­tion found her­self work­ing in the mo­tor trade.

‘I am so glad I didn’t get fa­mous when I was young, I’m not sure how I would have coped,’ says Gemma. ‘Don’t get me wrong – it’s bril­liant and ex­cit­ing, but there’s a down­side, too; hav­ing hun­dreds of pap pho­tog­ra­phers de­scend­ing on me, push­ing and shov­ing so that I lose my bal­ance and look as though I’m stum­bling out of some club drunk when I’m not.

‘I suf­fer from anx­i­ety, too,’ she says. ‘It is get­ting bet­ter, but when I’m off duty and want­ing to have a quiet wine at a bar and kick back like ev­ery­body else, it’s re­ally hard to cope with all the at­ten­tion. Peo­ple don’t mean to be rude, but it can be so stress­ful when I need time out. I may be The One and Only GC, but I’m a hu­man be­ing, too.’

That is the Faus­tian pact of re­al­ity show celebri­ty­hood with its em­pha­sis on ap­proach­a­bil­ity and 24/7 so­cial me­dia ex­po­sure. We feel we know these peo­ple so well and they be­come such a part of our lives that nat­u­ral bound­aries and in­hi­bi­tions dis­ap­pear.

‘Every so often I need to go back home, sweep my floors and put a pile of wash­ing into the ma­chine,’ she says. ‘Peo­ple think I’m on a chaise longue sip­ping cham­pagne all day but I’m just Gemma in her PJs watch­ing EastEn­ders ➤

like the rest of the coun­try. Peo­ple see me in Pound­stretcher in Rom­ford and I know they’re think­ing, “She’s bloody loaded, what is she do­ing here?” But I love a bar­gain, me. If all this ended to­mor­row I’d be quite con­tent with the money I’ve made and I’d get a mar­ket stall for the ban­ter.’

Gemma is cer­tainly not short of a bob or two. Her Gemma Collins Col­lec­tion for curvy women is avail­able on­line and in her Brent­wood bou­tique. So­cial me­dia has em­braced the heart­warm­ing sto­ries of cus­tomers weep­ing be­cause her ritzy de­signs make them feel fem­i­nine for the first time in years. ‘It’s like ther­apy,’ con­cludes Gemma. ‘Doesn’t ev­ery­one de­serve to feel spe­cial? I fol­low my heart – it is re­ally mov­ing to watch the ef­fect a nice frock has on some­one.’

That thought­ful side is less in ev­i­dence when she’s play­ing the fame game. On 2016’s Celebrity Big Brother she proved to be end­lessly en­ter­tain­ing, de­spite – or per­haps be­cause of – her diva be­hav­iour. When given the choice be­tween a pro­fes­sional blow-dry for her only, ver­sus a day of hot wa­ter and elec­tric­ity for the whole house, she opted for the blow-dry.

On the short-lived div­ing show Splash!, she took to the high board in a swim­suit and se­quined pur­ple kaf­tan. Her tech­nique left a lot to be de­sired and it took its toll; after­wards she oblig­ingly re­vealed to the cam­eras her hor­ren­dously bruised cleav­age. That truth­ful­ness is part of her USP but there’s a more som­bre, vul­ner­a­ble nar­ra­tive be­neath the sur­face glam­our and end­less smil­ing self­ies.

She var­i­ously likens her­self to James Cor­den and Brid­get Jones. ‘I’m like the fe­male equiv­a­lent of James Cor­den – the fat, funny one who con­quered the US. There’s talk of me go­ing over there, which would be amaz­ing,’ says Gemma. ‘Peo­ple are in­ter­ested in me be­cause I’m a real-life Brid­get Jones. My life’s not per­fect – I hurt – but I make the best of it. I’ve got ca­reer suc­cess but can’t find love and that’s all I want. What use is all the money in the world if you have no­body to share it with?’

A short si­lence de­scends. It’s not easy for any woman, no mat­ter how re­lent­lessly sassy, to ad­mit there’s a yawn­ing gap in her life. ‘My only re­gret in life is all the bad boys I’ve ever met. I gave so much and re­ceived so lit­tle in re­turn. I have never been out with a nice guy – I made the mis­take of want­ing the buzz they brought and I’ve been out with too many men who treated me like a meal ticket and abused me phys­i­cally and emo­tion­ally,’ she says.

A case in point is when Gemma ap­peared on 2014’s I’m a Celebrity. She was tipped to win but left the jun­gle af­ter just three days and was mer­ci­lessly lam­pooned for ‘be­ing too hun­gry’ to con­tinue. It later tran­spired that the night be­fore en­ter­ing the show she was al­legedly beaten up by her then boyfriend, a con­victed drug dealer.

Gemma – whose au­to­bi­og­ra­phy Ba­si­cally… My Life as a Real Es­sex Girl was pub­lished in 2013 – had an abor­tion in her youth. Then in 2012 – when she was un­know­ingly four-and-a-half months preg­nant – she had a mis­car­riage and trau­mat­i­cally gave birth at home on the land­ing. Gemma, who was on the pill and in a steady re­la­tion­ship, was dev­as­tated and, while try­ing in vain to fight back the tears, spoke about it on tele­vi­sion, claim­ing she felt she was be­ing pun­ished for the ear­lier ter­mi­na­tion.

Now she is more philo­soph­i­cal, al­though she mur­murs she would feel ‘my life is cursed beyond be­lief’ if she re­mained child­less. Once again sin­gle, she ‘yearns’ to set­tle down and have a baby. ‘I want a part­ner who is go­ing to love me for me. I can be in­tim­i­dat­ing, be­cause I’ve got more money than many men, but there must be some­one out there.’ Fer­vent tabloid spec­u­la­tion sur­round­ing her on-off re­la­tion­ship with fel­low TOWIE star Arg ap­pears to be wish­ful think­ing. ‘He’s lovely: we get on so well and I know he’d make a bril­liant dad but I won’t have a baby just for a busi­ness op­por­tu­nity,’ she says. ‘I am dy­ing to meet some­one so I can buy a huge tra­di­tional Sil­ver Cross pram. I’ll only share my en­gage­ment and wed­ding pic­tures and baby pho­to­graphs be­cause it’s thanks to the pub­lic that I am where I am. I just need a bit of help to lo­cate Mr Right.’

Hence her en­thu­si­asm for Celebs Go Dat­ing. She has told the pro­ducer her non-ne­go­tiable cri­te­ria and is ready to go for it. ‘I want some­one who is se­ri­ous but funny, too, with his own busi­ness or do­ing well in life; I can’t have any­one hang­ing off my coat tails, those days are well over. I want 2018 to be the year GC finds love.’

And who could wish her any­thing but the best of luck?

Celebs Go Dat­ing will be­gin on E4 on 4 Fe­bru­ary. gem­ma­collinscol­lec­tion.com

DRESS, Scar­lett & Jo. SHOES, Next. EAR­RINGS, Co­lette by Co­lette Hay­man

Above, clock­wise from left, Gemma wear­ing ‘that dress’; on 2016’s Celebrity Big Brother; with fel­low TOWIE star James Ar­gent; on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! in 2014, and with her mum Joan

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