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Big Brother changed my life... and I've never looked back. (Irish Independent 11th March 2004)
A former contestant on Channel 4's hit fly-on-the-wall show claims the programme ruined his life. But with auditions for the new series in Belfast this week, former Irish winner Brian Dowling tells Lisa Jewell that for him the reality was not a disappointment
Reality television stars have a short life span. Loved by the public and tabloid press one minute, most of them are yesterday's news within weeks and that's when the tales of woe come out.
Most recently Big Brother 2's Dean O'Loughlin (the morose Brummy chap) said being on the show made him feel like a misfit, ruined his music career and misrepresented his true personality.
But for Brian Dowling, winner of BB2 in 2001, it was a completely different experience. The 25-year-old TV presenter says: "People ask me if I'm sick of talking about Big Brother because it comes up every year. I know I'll always be asked about the programme and I'd never b!tch about it because it was an amazing experience and without it, I wouldn't be where I am today.
"Everyone who goes into it knows what it's about. The problem is that some people have high expectations of what they're going to get out of it and think they're going to be the next J-Lo. You have to work hard for a career in television."
Far from ruining his life, Big Brother gave the former Ryanair steward, originally from Rathangan, Co Kildare, his break into presenting shows such as SM:TV Live and Brian's Boyfriends.
Unlike other former housemates, Brian hasn't any quibbles with how the show was edited and what bits were chosen.
"When they showed me saying bitchy things, that's what I said in reality," he says. "They can't edit you to say bitchy things."
However, Big Brother winners are naturally less likely to complain than the losers but the fortunes of past winners have been mixed. The first champ, Craig Phillips, and BB3's Kate Lawler have both worked steadily in television, although Lawler's show RI:SE was recently axed. Last year's winner, Cameron Stout, has yet to make a splash on TV.
The critical time for contestants to make money is the week after their eviction as magazines and newspapers bid for their exclusive stories. Brian Dowling steered clear of telling all to the tabloids.
"There was a point where I could have cashed in by selling my story but that would have been a short-term thing." Instead, he disappeared from the public eye and took his time considering offers. He signed a deal with production company, Blaze, and became a presenter on children's show SM:TV Live, replacing popular duo, Ant and Dec.
"There was a lot of pressure and some people were waiting for me to slip up," he says. "Of course, I needed training as I'd never presented before. I'd come from Big Brother where I was totally myself and now I had to get used to looking into the cameras rather than forgetting they were there."
Brian, who lives in south London, found himself rubbing shoulders with pop divas and movie stars.
"I used to pinch myself that I had a job on Saturday mornings where Britney Spears was teaching me dance steps and I was sitting next to Beyoncé and Kylie."
His first dip into television had him hooked but he left the show after less than a year.
"My contract came up for renewal and though it was a great job, it wasn't what I really wanted to do. I could be myself to some extent on children's TV but it was restrained."
Being one of the first openly gay men on children's television didn't concern Brian.
"The tabloids made a big deal out of that but SM:TV never had an issue about my sexuality. My attitude is that I'm a TV presenter who just happens to be gay. I've always been honest about it and once it's out there, people accept it and move on."
Brian's sense of humour and naivety endeared him to viewers, prompting 4.2 million votes for him on eviction night. His fans couldn't care less that he was gay and the programme also acted as a catalyst for the then 23-year-old to come out to his family.
Two days before he entered the house, Brian told his parents and six sisters that he was gay.
"It was very difficult for me because I came from a small town but I had to tell them before the show started. I was scared my parents might freak out so it was a relief that they accepted it well. There were no more secrets and I think that being able to tell them was better than winning the £70,000."
He regularly goes back to Rathangan and says he isn't into London's showbiz scene.
"I was shocked by a recent newspaper article that made me out to be a party animal that wore Gucci all the time. I've been to fewer than 10 premieres in the past three years. My sisters really get the fringe benefits because I bring them backstage to see bands.
"I don't think I've changed as a person and I'm exactly the same with my friends and family. It's strangers who assume I think I'm someone special."
Brian, who provided the voiceover for reality show The Salon and is considering new projects on ITV, says he received plenty of after-show support from Endemol, the makers of Big Brother, and has no regrets about taking part.
He adds: "I'd recommend it to someone else but I'd advise them 'don't have a plan, don't expect to be a star, be yourself and have fun'. There was a bit of backbiting with the bunch of people I was in the house with but at least we bounced off each other and I still keep in touch with Narinder and Penny. The last series was very dull because they were all watching what they were saying and doing. What's the point unless you're going to enjoy yourself?"
The format of Big Brother is constantly changing. Variations of the show extend to last summer's Teen Big Brother and the forthcoming year-long German Big Brother. Instead of video submissions this year, the British show's makers are holding open auditions where reality-TV wannabes can impress producers with their outgoing personality and wit. Irish hopefuls had their chance at auditions in Belfast yesterday.
If they're one of the lucky 12 to be chosen, they have to endure nine weeks locked up with complete strangers whilst closed-circuit TV cameras capture every move, mood and utterance. Each bitchy comment and under-the-sheet fumbling is transmitted to homes around Britain and Ireland and ultimately determines who walks away with the £70,000 prize and, most importantly, the prospect of a long-term television career.
Despite his fond memories from Big Brother, Brian says he has no desire to take part in a show like Channel Five's Back to Reality. Twelve past-reality stars stayed in a house for three weeks; the 'celebs' included Ricardo from The Salon, Wife Swap's Lizzie and Big Brother's Jade and 'Nasty' Nick.
"I had a once-in-a-lifetime experience on Big Brother and I don't think it would ever be the same again," he says. "The most important change that came from doing the programme was the self-esteem it gave me. It's always nice to feel that people like you and that really, you're not such a bad person. It made me open about being gay and I lost a lot of my insecurities."
As I leave, I ask Brian what he has planned for tonight. "I'm going to buy a sofa for my apartment tonight," he replies.
That's one way of getting back to reality.