“For 11 years, I have kept this to myself”: Rylan opens up about his breakdown, return – and the untold tale of The X Factor.
Rylan Clark, also known as Rylan, was originally named Ross Clark. Despite being a former X Factor contestant, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Radio 2 DJ, This Morning presenter, regular on Gogglebox, podcaster, and author, Rylan is very clear about the distinction between his public persona and his personal self. Rylan is known for being over-the-top, extremely flamboyant, and larger than life. He famously broke down in tears when Nicole Scherzinger put him through to the live finals of The X Factor in 2012. This is the Rylan who always dreamed of being famous. On the other hand, there is Ross – a more reserved and highly intelligent individual who excels in debating and shies away from the idea of being a celebrity.
Given the opposing forces at play, it was likely that Clark would encounter problems. As predicted, he did. Following his fifth place finish on The X Factor, he became a regular presence on television. He remained constantly busy. However, three years ago, he suffered a mental breakdown that he believed he would never bounce back from. Yet, with grace and immense support from his fans, he has successfully overcome it.
Nowadays, there remains a clear difference between Rylan and Ross. According to Rylan, “You won’t catch me sitting without makeup, holding a beer and keeping warm with my hand down my pants while watching football like Ross does.” However, the two are becoming more similar. The charismatic Rylan combined with the sincerity of Ross results in a powerful and profane duo.
We gather at a hotel in the heart of London. Clark is fully clad in black, from his hair to his shoes. He could easily pass for a male model or a villain from Doctor Who. In his younger years, he was a timid redhead, struggling with personal problems. I inquire about his preferred name: Rylan or Ross? “Whichever you prefer,” he responds.
What is his preference? “Baby!”
Clark was a polarizing contestant on The X Factor, much like the divisive spread Marmite. While he had a strong fan base, he also faced a significant number of critics. During his time on Celebrity Big Brother, which he ultimately won, he had a particularly emotional moment. He expressed frustration with the negative media attention he received, comparing it to the controversial figure Jimmy Savile. He even received death threats and required around-the-clock security. This was not an exaggeration, as the level of animosity towards him was truly shocking. However, it was only recently that I learned the full extent of the mistreatment he endured during his time on The X Factor.
We are gathering to talk about a fresh Prime Video reality program called Hot Mess Summer. The idea is intense and captivating: a group of entitled, unproductive individuals are brought to the Greek island of Zante, believing they will be part of a show for partygoers. “They are all problematic,” Clark explains. “They are self-absorbed and incredibly selfish…I’m struggling to find kind words that aren’t negative, but they were everything one wouldn’t want on a night out.”
I attempt to be of assistance. They can be difficult, can’t they? He grins. “Yes, they’re the obnoxious ones on a night out. That’s exactly who they are.” Upon arriving in Zante, they are informed that instead of spending the summer partying at the bar, they will be working behind it. Things are not looking good. But it only gets worse.
The participants are shown video clips where their friends explain why they nominated them for the show – because they ruin social outings, they have never worked a day in their lives, they are self-centered, and so on. The contestants are shocked and dismayed by their friends’ actions. It is surprising that only one of them considers leaving the show. However, Clark gradually gains their trust by promising that the show can help them become better individuals, teaching them new abilities and principles, and offering a cash prize at the end. Eventually, all of them choose to remain on the show.
What could have occurred if they had declined to participate? The concern was that none of them would be willing to do so and, from a responsibility standpoint, we would have halted production immediately. We would have arranged for eight flights back home – thank you, everyone; apologies, gentlemen, but we do not have a show to produce; let’s spend a few days enjoying the beach before returning home. However, taking the risk ultimately proved successful.
What if the participants were significantly impacted by the ordeal? “I have been involved in reality TV for 12 years, and as a former contestant, I have witnessed the shift towards prioritizing care for individuals. It is now a top priority for everyone.”
When previously questioned about his experience on X Factor, Clark has consistently expressed satisfaction with the system of support that was provided. However, he has not disclosed the complete account. According to him, he has never had the opportunity to do so until now.
Clark, from Essex, was 23 years old at the beginning of the show. He had a successful academic background, attending one of the top state schools in the country and earning several GCSEs. He is unsure of the exact number, estimating between 12 and 15. Despite his intelligence, he experienced difficulties due to his perceived femininity and was often bullied. He eventually stood up for himself and became more confident, but still felt like an outsider. He chose not to pursue A-levels and instead went to Ibiza to perform in tribute bands for Take That and Westlife.
The X Factor was a turning point. The individual admits to being aware of the show’s intentions – they always want a comedic act, so he exaggerated his performance to the extreme. He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself, which was partly true. However, there was more to the story. The media portrayed him and fellow contestant Lucy Spraggan as troublemakers, citing unauthorized escapes from their luxurious London hotel accommodations. As a consequence, they were banished to a different hotel one evening. In the following episode, Spraggan was absent and it was announced that she was ill. She later withdrew from the competition.
Spraggan wrote a memoir last year, in which she disclosed the truth about a traumatic incident. On the night of Clark’s birthday celebration, a hotel porter entered her room and sexually assaulted her while she was unconscious from excessive alcohol consumption. The porter was ultimately imprisoned after confessing to the crime. In her memoir, Spraggan also shares how much Clark supported her during this difficult time. While the production team did contact the authorities and the perpetrator was apprehended promptly, she felt they were ill-equipped to handle the situation.
According to sources, Spraggan’s lawyers believe that Clark played a crucial part in ensuring a guilty verdict. Clark was responsible for preserving the crime scene, keeping others out until the authorities arrived, and providing compelling testimony despite being in a less than ideal state.
When I bring it up to Clark, he expresses surprise that I am aware of the situation. He finds it strange that we are discussing it now, since he has kept it to himself for 11 years. He begins to wipe away tears and becomes emotional. He admits that it was a difficult and painful experience, and he has refrained from sharing it because it is not his story to tell, even though he was involved.
During an interview with the Guardian’s Saturday magazine, Spraggan explained her decision to publicly discuss her experience of rape. She had previously been afraid of being known as “the girl that it happened to” and felt a deep sense of shame. However, she has since come to realize that the assault was not her fault and in order to heal and move forward, she needed to speak the truth.
Clark remembers Lucy reaching out to him and telling him she wanted to include the attack in her book. He assured her that he would support her decision and whatever she wanted to do. After our interview, Clark plans on checking in with Spraggan to ensure she is comfortable with him discussing the attack.
I complimented him on his responsible actions on that day, which speaks volumes about his character. He graciously replied, “Thank you. Being a 24-year-old and dealing with such a traumatic event – on the night of my birthday, no less – while being in the spotlight and constantly followed by the media … I don’t know how I managed it. My friend Lucy calls me Jessica Fletcher because I handled it like Angela Lansbury.”
How did you handle the situation? “I immediately asked one of the researchers to bring the bosses, but they replied that they were occupied. I then insisted, saying, ‘Go and get them now!’ I don’t think I’ve ever talked to someone in such a manner before.”
What steps did he take to maintain the integrity of the crime scene? “I instructed him, ‘You must contact the hotel and inform them that you do not want the room to be cleaned.’ They were confused and asked, ‘What do you mean?’ I replied, ‘Just don’t… mention… what happened. Just say you need to work in there and the room should not be cleaned.’ If anyone goes into that room and it’s been cleaned, we’re in trouble – that was my initial reaction. I suddenly became a detective and I don’t know why.” He chuckles while wiping away his tears.
Shortly after, he joined Robbie Williams for a recording session. “I knew I couldn’t give up. Lucy was taking a break for ‘illness’ that Saturday, and they offered to give me the day off as well. But I couldn’t accept because if we both took the day off, it would reflect poorly on the two ‘wild childs’ of X Factor, and Lucy couldn’t handle that at the moment.”
“I left and while during that show, if you were to watch it again, I said, ‘This one’s for you, Spraggan.’ I was aware that she was watching from her apartment. She eventually had to leave the show to receive treatment, while I had to continue.”
If a similar situation were to occur today, would production teams be better prepared to handle it? “That’s a challenging question because at that time, no one anticipated any of us being raped on the show. There were many areas that could have been improved. I believe everyone gained valuable lessons from those errors, but I don’t believe anyone can be blamed except for the man who raped Lucy.”
Spraggan stated that relocating herself and Clark to a different hotel left them susceptible. He agrees. “I believe that should not have occurred. Our level of security was not as extensive as we were accustomed to. Lucy and I have discussed this for years as we are the only ones able to communicate about it.”
The representative for The X Factor stated that the assault was an unprecedented event in the UK television industry. Although they believed they were providing adequate support to Lucy after the incident, she feels they could have done more. As a result, they acknowledge this and apologize for any suffering Lucy has endured. Since then, they have made efforts to learn from the situation and enhance their aftercare procedures.
Clark is still experiencing strong emotions regarding the events involving Spraggan, their friendship, and the negative reception he received from the public at that time. He expresses frustration towards the people who judged him during his time on The X Factor, calling them derogatory names and feeling resentful towards them. Looking back now, he still holds onto these feelings and wishes those who judged him could understand the pressure and challenges he faced during that time.
Clark successfully sought revenge on the trolls and achieved great success. Surprisingly, his approach was not to be outrageous, but to be kind and empathetic. When complimented on his character, he humbly acknowledges the praise and expresses gratitude. It is not often that one hears such positive things about individuals in Clark’s industry. He admits that he has always strived to treat others kindly and this was apparent when he returned from being ill. Despite the possibility of losing his job, he was able to maintain his position and even gained a new director for his management company, who was previously a runner on Big Brother. Clark values loyalty and recognizes that it goes both ways.
When it happened, he had a severe emotional breakdown. He tried to end his own life and was admitted to a mental health hospital. The reason for this was his separation from his spouse, Dan Neal, in 2021. Years after being unfaithful to Neal, he confessed. Neal was not able to forgive him and that was the end of their relationship. For a while, Clark questioned why he felt the urge to reveal this information to Neal. “I couldn’t understand why I sabotaged my seemingly perfect life. It’s only now that I’m in a better place that I realize it was my way of escaping. I just wish I had done it sooner.”
However, he faced a prolonged battle to survive. He states that he became extremely ill and reached a point where he knew his condition could not deteriorate any further. He was unable to carry out everyday tasks and had to relearn how to speak and move as if he had suffered a stroke. He struggled to comprehend anything and could not tolerate having the TV or music on, which were integral parts of his job. This experience left him in a difficult situation.
After surviving his mental collapse, he believes it was a blessing in disguise. It transformed him into the person he is today. He only wishes he didn’t have to put his loved ones through it and watch himself deteriorate. It was a terrible experience.
What was his experience? “I am unsure. There was no specific moment of realization. It may sound foolish, but I believe the turning point was simply the fact that I did not perish. I wish I could provide a more substantial answer, as if there was a defining moment, I would share it without cost.”
It has become increasingly evident that he had a hard time dealing with the realities of being famous. He initially believed that being a celebrity was what he desired, to be recognized and not overlooked. He wanted everyone to know his name and if it came with financial success and a job, even better. However, he soon realized that his true dream was the job itself, not the fame. Sadly, by then it was too late. If some view this as ungrateful, then so be it.
The person references the song “Flamboyant” by the Pet Shop Boys. They state that if the band knew them, they would believe the song was written about them. The line “Just crossing the street, well, it’s almost heroic” resonates with them and reflects their daily experience. They often feel scared to go certain places because they are constantly afraid.
According to Clark, dating is a difficult experience. He has encountered issues on dating apps where he has been mistaken for a fake profile. Additionally, when people do realize he is a real person, they often have a hard time treating him normally. Has he ever met someone who didn’t know his identity? “Yes, when I visited Barcelona a few years ago. I introduced myself as Josh, a family lawyer. It was a great night,” he recalls with a smile. “Until a bachelorette party walked in, recognized me as Rylan, and asked for a photo. That’s when my cover was blown.”
He still needs to figure out a way to come to terms with his fame. One approach is to remind himself of how much he enjoys his work – in addition to his reality show, he recently created a documentary about homophobia in soccer. Another option is to acknowledge the cut-throat nature of the industry and remain authentic to himself. “It’s ruthless. Ruthless. Do you think people truly care about others? Not really.” He takes a moment to reflect. “But you know what? I make a living from it and as long as I can sleep well at night knowing I haven’t harmed anyone, I’m content.”
The Prime Video streaming service will feature Hot Mess Summer starting February 7th.
There are resources available to provide information and assistance for those who have been affected by rape or sexual abuse. In the UK, support can be accessed through Rape Crisis by calling 0808 500 2222 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn can be contacted for support at 800-656-4673. In Australia, assistance is offered through 1800Respect (1800 737 732). For other international helplines, please visit ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html.
Samaritans can be reached in the UK and Ireland by calling 116 123 for free, emailing [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by calling or texting 988, chatting on 988lifeline.org, or texting HOME to 741741 to speak with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline can be contacted at 13 11 14. For a list of other international helplines, please visit befrienders.org.