Take Liz out! Liz Jones fights her way through the hair extensions, fake tan and acrylic talons to experience the nation's favourite dating show
But will it be NO likey, NO lighty
Liz lines up with 'the flirty 30' to greet the first lad
When I arrive at ITV’s Maidstone Studios, it’s as if a fire has broken out. A large group of partly dressed girls, in Uggs or novelty slippers and rollers, are on the steps, in clusters, while a haze of smoke drifts above their heads. Oh no! My backstage interviews with the contestants and host of Saturday night’s successful primetime dating show Take Me Out will be cancelled! But it’s no wonder: all that hairspray, the set must be a tinderbox. But then I realise: the young women, almost all 30 of them, and a couple of anxious minders nearby with clipboards, are merely having a fag break.
I go inside. I pass through a door with a notice, ‘No boys allowed beyond this point’, and walk along a corridor, peeking in rooms littered with the detritus of the modern British girl: half-eaten sandwiches, magazines, bags. The smell is overpowering, as if the duty-free perfume store at Terminal Four has just exploded, but it’s the noise that knocks you sideways. The girls are ushered back inside, and six hairdryers in the make-up room are powered up – it’s as though a Boeing 747 is landing on my head. I remember this noise: my all-girls high school, circa 1974. So, the chatter hasn’t changed but, my God, more or less everything else has…
Liz meets host and master of matchmaking Paddy McGuinness
Take Me Out is the 21st-century version of Blind Date. The show has been running for just over two years, with viewing figures steadily increasing from an initial four million to nearly five and a half million, and I’m at the recording of its fourth series. The premise is this: 30 girls stand at lecterns, while one young man (known hereinafter as a ‘lad’) descends in a futuristic lift, like a Christian to a pack of lionesses (‘the flirty 30’).
As he reveals his ‘personality’, with the aid of a video of his home life with his mum and his mates, the girls can turn their lights off if they are no longer interested. If all the lights go off, what is known as a ‘blackout’, he leaves, ego seemingly barely dented, to the strains of Celine Dion singing ‘All /10/25/article-0-15AE9D61000005DC-791_306x423.jpg” width=”306″ height=”423″ alt=”The girls line up for the start of the show ” class=”blkBorder” />
The girls line up for the start of the show
Noelle waits in the wings
The confidence and optimism are staggering: each girl I speak to says, ‘Tonight is my night, I can feel it. He’s here!’ One particular girl, the most beautiful of the lot, a layer of hairspray shy of 6ft, has sprayed her skin so dark, dyed her hair so densely inky that at first I think she is a member of the Three Degrees. She tells me she is 23, although ‘I tell everyone I’m 21’, a model for magazines such as Nuts and Zoo, and that her name is Zoe. I write it down. ‘No!’ she shouts, peering at my notebook. ‘It is spelt Z-O-I-E-Y!’
Of course it is. No one here has a normal name, like Margaret or Barbara. I’m staggered when a gorgeous black girl tells me her name is Thiopia. ‘What happened’ I ask, aghast. ‘Did your parents have a thing against the letter E’ The huge, heavy-lashed eyes are unmoved.
Sam tries to impress the girls with his culinary skills, with a little help from Paddy
Anyway, back to ZOIEY! She tells me she comes from Bideford in Devon. ‘Really’ I say, thinking she must surely hail from somewhere far more exotic, like Tahiti, or Neptune. She tells me she is also a sports coach, a gymnast, and has not had a boyfriend for six months. Seriously Are the men in Devon blind ‘The guys there don’t appreciate me,’ she says, in what is surely the understatement of the decade. ‘They are a bit small. I am looking for someone with the same intellect, the same ambitions as me, a City boy, I suppose, not a farmer.’
It seems the more gorgeous the girl, the more likely she is to be passed over by the UK’s spotty male populace. Take Me Out’s publicist tells me that in the show they recorded the day before, the second most gorgeous of the 30, Malin, with stunning bone structure and a neat ponytail, was passed over by a lad for someone ‘really petite with red hair. The lads seem to like smaller girls, and bubbly ones, but not too bubbly.’
As I chat to more of the girls, a pattern emerges. They are so breathtakingly confident, hyper-groomed and ambitious, convinced life is going to give them exactly what they want, that most men are mere roadkill beneath those heels.
I meet Noelle, a stunning waitress from Cork, who tells me she is 24 tomorrow and hasn’t had a date in two years: she has copious hair extensions and patterned leggings she bought from Primark ‘for one euro!’ What sort of man is she looking for ‘I love the look of [Towie star] Joey Essex,’ she says dreamily. ‘Not too fashionable, tall and skinny is good.’ Has she always been so hyper-groomed ‘I used to be a goth!’ she shouts. ‘I’m still a feminist. The make-up is my security blanket.’
Samantha, 22, a petite Sandra Dee lookalike from Liverpool, says she has never had a boyfriend. ‘Shoes put me off,’ she says of the possible reason why. She owns her own beauty salon, and says she thinks her independence puts off men. ‘I am confident,’ she says. ‘I’ve been turned down twice on the show already, but we just laugh about it.’
Liz with, from left, Leah, Caroline, Samantha, Noelle and Zoiey
Kate gets some rest between takes
Hairstylist Daisy creates a do for Emily
Next I chat to Leah, a 22-year-old barbering student. She trained in musical theatre, but is learning to cut men’s hair as ‘something to fall back on’. She comes from Liverpool but wants ‘to find someone out of the area. The men at home are generous, but I haven’t found the right one.’ What turns her off in a man ‘If his mum buys all his stuff. I’m not into gold chains, or overconfidence.’
She, too, has the panstick make-up and drag-queen eyelashes, and I wonder if she looks like this every day. ‘Only on special occasions, just to feel better, and because all the other girls wear it. Some girls here are wearing far too much, but the lights in the studio are quite harsh.’
Samantha thinks the reason they all wear so much make-up is because ‘people take so many more photos now, so I make sure I look my best. I spend a lot on clothes, but I will swap outfits with my friends. I get my hair done once a week.’
I meet only one woman who is not in her early 20s: Caroline, a 40-year-old travel presenter from Bournemouth. She hasn’t had a boyfriend for a year, probably because she is after ‘a Jamie Redknapp lookalike’. She finds it hard to meet men as all her friends are married and no longer go to bars and clubs. Wouldn’t it be easier to try internet dating than go on a show like this, where the oldest lad all week has been 30 ‘I’ve tried that. The minute you say you want to meet up they disappear.’
Liz meets Samantha in hair and make-up
The rehearsal takes ages – no one will get to bed until 11pm, after a 12-hour day — and this is the point when presenter Paddy appears. It’s obvious all the girls fancy him: there is much fanning of faces with acrylic talons. The show’s researcher Marcus stands in as each lad, and the girls all rather sweetly keep their lights on for him. Whenever there is a break, the girls sit on stools behind their lecterns, resting their aching feet.
In a lull, I sit on the stairs with Paddy. I tell him I wonder the show hasn’t thought to turn the tables and have a panel of 30 boys all deciding on the lovability of just one woman. He laughs. ‘The boys would never turn off their lights, it just wouldn’t happen. A lad would go, “She’s breathing, so I’m keeping my light on!” Whereas the girls are really picky and ballsy, so confident.’ He says his job on the show is to ‘be on the side of the lad, sympathise with him, let him know I’m here with him, defend him’.
He says he used to watch Blind Date with his mum.
While that show had its occasional wedding, Take Me Out so far has managed one engagement, in series two, when Fabian de Fabiani (you see, they all have such strange names) realised he had made a mistake with his first choice and tracked down a woman he had rejected, Kayleigh. The budget for this programme seems quite small; I seem to remember the Blind Date couples were sent off to exotic, far-flung places. This lot get barely two days in Fernando, which turns out to be Tenerife. There has been scandal, too, when one lad was revealed to be a male escort, with a girlfriend at home, while a female contestant admitted she was a prostitute.
Catriona hangs out in the green room
But it’s clear that beneath the veneer of independence, these girls are all here to fall in love.
I find this the saddest part, given that the lads when we eventually see them are a pretty hopeless crew (in the last series, a sewage worker used his T-shirt as a hanky so the girls could glimpse his abs). I’d found it poignant, when we had all trooped on set for the dress rehearsal, where a grubby man in jeans and headphones coaches them on the hand-waving and high-fiving, that these women are so shiny and full of hope, when the odds are that any man they do end up with will let them down.
I tell each girl I chat to that they should ‘never trust a man, don’t marry him and don’t rely on him financially’ and they just stare at me, full of unshakable optimism, lashes fanning my indignant, disapproving face. The girls are so gorgeous, so vital, the ZOIEYs and the Samanthas and the Noelles, in their body-con dresses and Essex tans, it’s no wonder they are all on their own. I think they realise, in the back of their minds, beneath all that hair, that they will eventually have to settle.
The strangest thing about my day at Take Me Out is that there is no animosity among the girls, who share dressing rooms and underwear. There is a sort of love between them, as they bond over the two weeks in their cheap hotel nearby. Any man by comparison seems dull, doughy, pedestrian, terrified. The final word goes to my new friend Samantha, salon owner and goddess. She says she looks up to Angelina Jolie and Katie Price, and I wonder if she thinks she will still have time to look the way she does – the Juicy Couture tracksuit, the lash extensions – when she has children. Unlike the stars she loves, she might not have the money, the nannies… ‘Oh God, yes!’ she says. ‘I will still look like this. I’ll just get up, like, really, really early.’
Take Me Out is on ITV1 on Saturdays at 7pm