WITH his vibrant white veneers, immaculately groomed facial hair and a tan you can see from space, Rylan Clark is one of the biggest personalities on TV.
But the 35-year-old insists his huge persona is just an “armour”, which he built up after suffering horrific abuse when he was younger.
In an emotional new documentary called Rylan: Football, Homophobia and Me, the BBC Radio 2 presenter recalls difficult memories of growing up as a West Ham fan while being gay.
On a visit to London’s Stepney Green, where he grew up, Rylan recalls one particularly viscous attack in the playground that saw him rushed to hospital.
“I had my fair share of s**t thrown at me,” he says.
“I just remember, growing up, that even if I went and played football with all the lads, they’d be like ‘Gay boy’.
“It’s like, ‘What do you want me to f*****g do then?’ And actually, the long-term impact of bullying that I went through has spurred me on more, to be what I’ve become.”
Rylan also speaks to former West Ham footballer Rio Ferdinand about his regrets of using homophobic slurs, as well as the partner of Justin Fashanu – who killed himself after becoming Britain’s first gay footballer.
Coming out as gay
Rylan was just 15 when he came out as gay to his mum Linda, with whom he regularly appears on Celebrity Gogglebox.
“I had my friend’s mum tell my mum I was gay,” he recalls. “I heard my mum shout and then I heard my mum’s friend go, ‘No Linda, no!’
“I got scared and just ran away and went and sat in a field in the rain for three hours, thinking she was going to disown me.
“Turns out what my mum had actually said is, ‘Don’t tell me he’s got a girl pregnant!’ It was quite the drama.”
Describing Rylan as a teenager, his old neighbour Pat recalls: “I was in my late 20s and I used to have to sing all the words to Spice Girls and it was like, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing to me?’
“But it was actually quite fun. He loved Spice Girls. He loved music.”
Rylan adds: “That was… not looked upon as the right thing to do from the other kids, but I still did it anyway.”
It was his love of the Spice Girls and dancing that got him into trouble with some of the local thugs.
Visiting an adventure playground he’d often go to after school with his friends, the former X Factor star recalls a sickening attack that happened while he was on the rope swings.
He says: “There was this group of boys who weren’t our friends, and they weren’t very nice.
“I remember, just this hand coming on the back of my head, throwing me down to the floor from the platform, and just getting kicked in the head.
I remember, just this hand coming on the back of my head, throwing me down to the floor from the platform, and just getting kicked in the head
“And the next full memory I have is being in the back of an ambulance, and waking up right here, driving past my house on the way to the hospital.
“I remember saying, ‘I live there, that’s my house,’ because I didn’t know what was going on, and the doctor said, ‘Lay down, lay down, your head is bleeding.’
“My skull was fractured in a couple of places. I was told my head was repeatedly kicked and stamped on.
“I just got kicked in the head because I liked something else other than football.”
‘Glad it happened’
Rylan – whose real name is Ross – shot to fame after coming fifth on The X Factor in 2012, despite having been widely regarded as the “joke act” of the series.
Far from falling into obscurity, he went on to become one of the country’s best-loved presenters, hosting everything from This Morning to Strictly: It Takes Two.
In the documentary Rylan confesses to Dr Bruce Clark, a consultant psychiatrist, that he thinks his success is partly down to the bullying he endured throughout his teenage years.
“Actually, in a sick way, I’m almost glad it happened to me,” he admits. “Because it taught me to never make people feel like s**t.
Actually, in a sick way, I’m almost glad it happened to me… it taught me to never make people feel like s**t
“Part of my success is I always go out of my way to make people feel good. I sometimes worry too much about what people think about me.
“That’s probably a good thing and a bad thing that’s come out of that.”
He continues: “I created this character of Rylan, and the image it is.
“It’s very much my armour, this is all a look. It’s a work uniform, and if I take a hit it’s not really me taking the hit.”
‘I’m still angry at Justin Fashanu’
In the documentary Rylan speaks to the ex partner of Justin Fashanu, who became the first professional footballer to come out as gay in 1990.
Fashanu became the target of constant crowd abuse, and admitted he “struggled to get work” afterwards, retiring in the late 1990s.
His ex, Martin Clowes, tells Rylan: “Justin liked his flash car, he liked his clothes, he used to go partying and clubbing.
“He loved black and white, he was really flamboyant, and he would sit in the bath with his glass of wine and watch Match of the Day.
“He loved the limelight, he liked to be in the press, and he was very matter of fact and a good talker. But inside he found it really hard, and [coming out] wasn’t an easy thing to do.”
Justin loved the limelight, he liked to be in the press, and he was very matter of fact and a good talker. But inside he found it really hard, and [coming out] wasn’t an easy thing to do
Martin Clowes, ex-partner
Justin took his own life in 1998, aged 37, eight years after coming out.
“What happened to this day, I feel guilt and anger, angry at him,” Martin says.
“I just wish he’d given me a call and we could have talked it over. Even after 25 years, it’s still quite raw.”
These days there are very few openly gay active male footballers; Blackpool’s Jake Daniels is the only British player, having come out in May 2022.
Elsewhere in the documentary, Rio Ferdinand opens up to Rylan over his regrets about using homophobic language in the past.
In 2006 the ex-footballer was on the Chris Moyles Show and called the host a “f****t” when asked: “If you had to, who would you rather go out with, Smudger or Scholesy?”
At the time the BBC dismissed the incident as “banter”, and Rio notes Ofcom only received two complaints for the comment.
If you jump back in time and be in that changing room now, and see the language used back then, people would be getting cancelled left right and centre, but it was seen as normal
He says: “It was such a flippant comment, it didn’t even register in my mind. It was just the way of the changing room and how we were at the time, and you become part of that.
“It was brutal, it was raw. If you jump back in time and be in that changing room now, and see the language used back then, people would be getting cancelled left right and centre, but it was seen as normal.
“Someone lays on the floor for a bit and you go, ‘Oh, you f****t’. It was just normal, no one would’ve gone, ‘Oh woah, woah, woah, you can’t say that’.”
‘Not safe’ for footballers to come out
Rio says it was actually his sister, who is gay, who educated him on inclusive language.
He admitted he was very embarrassed when she heard the clip of him using the homophobic slur, recalling: “She said, ‘Is that you?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m embarrassed.’
“I’ll do anything I can to make her feel comfortable as possible and I’m willing to acknowledge I was part of a culture, and it was wrong. But society wasn’t where it is today.”
Rio addresses the fact there are no openly gay footballers in the Premier League, adding: “I don’t think football has put together a framework or infrastructure to make it safe for a footballer to come out.
“There’s a lot of uncontrollables, like fans, social media, different forums and it’s inevitable they’ll get hammered by people.”
Rylan: Homophobia, Football and Me airs tonight (February 13) at 10.30pm on TNT Sports 1 and is available to stream on Discovery+.
You’re Not Alone
EVERY 90 minutes in the UK a life is lost to suicide
It doesn’t discriminate, touching the lives of people in every corner of society – from the homeless and unemployed to builders and doctors, reality stars and footballers.
It’s the biggest killer of people under the age of 35, more deadly than cancer and car crashes.
And men are three times more likely to take their own life than women.
Yet it’s rarely spoken of, a taboo that threatens to continue its deadly rampage unless we all stop and take notice, now.
That is why The Sun launched the You’re Not Alone campaign.
The aim is that by sharing practical advice, raising awareness and breaking down the barriers people face when talking about their mental health, we can all do our bit to help save lives.
Let’s all vow to ask for help when we need it, and listen out for others… You’re Not Alone.
If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support: