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I’m a Celeb: Why the last bastion of the has-been is still going strong 16 years later



John Barrowman (ITV)

John Barrowman (ITV)

John Barrowman (ITV)

On paper, I’m a Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here is a show in which minor, or former, celebrities degrade themselves on international TV in the name of entertainment.

It trades on the desperation of the has-been, the unbridled ambition of the wannabe, and the viewer’s voracious appetite for watching the hopefuls squirm and grimace and retch their way to a place in the public’s heart.

Once they’ve swallowed that kangaroo anus and been crowned King or Queen of the jungle, they are ready to reap the financial/career rewards with acting, presenting, or promotional work.

Despite following the same format for sixteen years – celebs land in the Australian outback, partake in a series of gruelling Bushtucker trials, starve a bit, bicker, bond, and get eliminated - the show remains a ratings winner, regularly pulling more than 10m viewers for key episodes, the magic number in tellyland, and is rivalled only by the BBC behemoth, Strictly Come Dancing.

Everyone’s a winner.

When series one landed in 2002, the definition of ‘celebrity’ was somewhat tighter than it is now. There were no reality TV stars as reality TV was in its infancy.  Tony Blackburn, the much loved BBC Radio 1 DJ, won.  The late Tara Palmer-Tomkinson and author Christine Hamilton were runners up.  Their fellow campmates were comedian Rhona Cameron, Nell McAndrew, Darren Day, Nigel Benn and Uri Geller.

Every year it’s like welcoming an old friend as the familiar cherub-faced Ant and Dec return (this year it’s the cherubic-faced Holly Willoughby and Dec) to taunt and encourage a rotating line-up of washed up 80s TV star (rumoured to be Noel Edmunds for this series), retired athlete (Harry Redknapp), popstar (Fleur East/James McVey), soap star (Rita Simons) etc.  The tropes are reliable.  The mix works. There’s nothing quite as hilarious as witnessing an old-school celebrity blankly greet a  modern day YouTuber or MIC alum, or as heart-warming as watching them bond across the perceived generational/social/cultural divide.

We, the viewers, like to see a level playing field.  We like to see them all, whatever their level of fame, reduced to bare skin, khakis, red socks, and mosquito bites, and there is no leveller like I’m a Celeb. Outside of the aforementioned Bushtuckers (let’s take a moment to remember Dean Gaffney’s terrifying yet hilarious screaming and Gillian McKeith’s very dramatic fainting episode), it’s the show’s ability to expose people’s bare bones that is a major part of its appeal.

The modern incarnation of ‘celebrity’ need not have any discernible talent, outside of their sparkling personality, accidental notoriety, or a connection – usually familial or sexual – to a ‘traditional’ celebrity.  It’s a complex world, that of the modern celeb.  And while reality TV stars are one group who tend to get a lot of flack for being included in the line-up, they’ve proven to be hugely successful. 

The past three winners have been reality TV stars who have made their names on other reality TV shows.  Vicky Pattinson was already beloved by Geordie Shore fans before she hit camp in 2015.  The following year saw Scarlett Moffatt of Gogglebox fame clinch the title, while last year’s winner, Georgia Toffola, had the entire viewership of Made in Chelsea behind her.

Arriving to camp with a hoarde of young fans, who are arguably more likely to actually vote, poised and ready to go arguably puts them at an advantage.  But it’s more than that –there is no hiding on I’m a Celebrity. Reality TV stars are used to just being themselves. They trade on being themselves.  It’s their schtick. 

An interesting departure this year is the distinct lack of any straight-up reality TV faces.  Emily Atak appeared on Dancing on Ice but she’s a successful actress with roles in The Inbetweeners and Dad’s Army under her belt.  Of course, one or two may be flown in at a later stage, but the original line-up boasts actors, singers, sports stars, and presenters.

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It’s a welcome departure given the most interesting journeys on the show, and it is indeed a journey, are often those of the older generation, the 70s/80s/90s stars who have projected a particular face to the public for three decades, or the politicians who have always bleated the party line, who are suddenly laid bare – for better (Jason Donovan) or for worse (John Lydon) – for all to see.

And that is why we’ll be tuning in when the new series kicks off on Virgin Media One on Sunday, November 18 (with our money on John Barrowman).

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