‘It’ll make you laugh, cry or wince’ - Gok Wan on bringing his first live show
PUBLISHED: 17:02 20 October 2017 | UPDATED: 14:26 23 October 2017
From being a stylist in the fashion world, he became famous for making all shapes and sizes look great naked. Now he is bringing his debut live show to the region, full of stories, advice and lots of gossip.
In a parallel world Gok Wan is striding the stage reciting verse in Tudor costume.
“I wanted to do Shakespeare, Chekhov and Brecht and be out there performing at the Globe and the National, but over the years I realised it just wasn’t me,” he admits, recalling his dreams of being classical actor when he went to Central School of Speech and Drama.
Instead he found himself drawn to hair and make-up over drama prompting his entrée into the fashion industry and gaining him early work as a make-up artist, before turning his attention to his love of clothes as a fashion stylist.
That is the guise that brought him to public attention, principally thanks to the overwhelming success of his Channel 4 series, How To Look Good Naked, which ran for six series.
TV’s most touching makeover show he set out to help women look fantastic with their clothes on or off no matter what their body shape. But this was a make-over show that shunned humiliation. He never told participants to lose weight or have surgery; it was all about confidence and learning to wear stuff that was right for them.
The largely female viewers loved him for it. Full of his enthusiastic use of ‘gorgeous’ and tendency to talk about himself in the third person — ‘Gok’s here!’ — it turned him into a household name.
“It was really successful, incredible, just a great show,” he says. “I loved it and if Channel 4 said let’s do some more I would make it again in a heartbeat.”
To TV viewers it may have seemed this unlikely presenter had emerged from nowhere but in fact he had been plucked from the rarefied world of fashion and style.
There he had built up quite a pedigree: working with renowned photographers, styling fashion glossy magazine shoots and amassing an enviable celebrity client-base.
“I never dreamt as a child that the people I danced around my bedroom singing to and tried to emulate style-wise, I’d one day get to tell what to wear,” he says.
His breakthrough on TV led to follow-up shows; taking it out of the road live with Gok’s Clothes Roadshow; style on a budget with Get The Look For Less; and makeover and style advise to for those looking for love on Gok’s Style Secrets.
But he has also made a string of deeply personal programmes too. He explored his family’s roots and what it means to be an Anglo-Asian in his documentary Made in China. He has also filmed a moving documentary on child obesity, Too Fat Too Young, and explored the modern day issues teenagers face including sexuality, online-bullying and eating disorders in Gok’s Teens: The Naked Truth.
Gok was born in 1974, in Leicester, the son of a Chinese father, who came to the UK from Hong Kong, and a British mother who met whilst working in the same takeaway.
“My family is very, very close,” he said. “But it was unusual. We lived on a huge council estate and to be mixed race, and not even black-white mixed race, well, it was a huge deal. My parents went through a lot of prejudice.”
In his autobiography, Through Thick and Thin, he reveals how his mixed-race heritage was something that he ignored as a teenager. It wasn’t until he was 26 that he started telling people he is half-Chinese. And being fat and gay too meant he often used his sense of humour to deal with bullies.
“I was never attacked for being Chinese; I was attacked more for my sexuality and my size [he was 21 stone],” he has said.
Some of the issues will be addressed when he kicks off the tour of his first ever live show, Naked & Baring All, in Norwich later this month, before then bringing it to Bury St Edmunds.
“I describe the Naked & Baring All Tour as the truth behind the truth – all the stuff I haven’t talked about in the past,” he says. “The show will be full of surprises. In 2009 I wrote my autobiography I put it down and walked away for nearly a decade. Then, when I was asked if I wanted to do the stage show, I picked it up and read it back and realised that there was a lot about my life that I had not revealed and I felt it was time.”
“I haven’t discussed a lot of the stories with friends and family and actually some of it I haven’t discussed with myself before. They have been locked up in a file in my brain called memories which had been mislaid over the years.”
Though he is still planning it — “If I did my whole life I’d be on stage for a week. I work visually, at the moment I’ve got this massive spider graph with way too much stuff on it” — it will be funny, emotional, ridiculous and packed with anecdotes.
“Owen [Lewis, the show director] and I will pick stuff out that either makes him laugh, cry or wince and that’s the stuff we need. But how do you cover someone’s life in 90 minutes? At the moment I’m trying to hit four buzz points. Firstly it needs to be more honest than I’ve ever been. Secondly it needs to show a side of my personality that I have never given out on screen before - which is “who is the real me”. Thirdly it has to be inspiring - there is life after anorexia, the bullying and so on. And finally it has to be fun, it’s got to have all the humour in there, because you know, life is really funny.”
No Shakespeare then? “I have a skill at doing a different kind of performing on stage which is often centered round humour and cheekiness, which fits perfectly with panto and you see that on TV a bit,” he laughs.
He is a born performer. From a very young age, Gok, in his miniature tux, would be taken out to entertain the customers at their tables at his family restaurant.
And as you’d expect from someone who has rubbed shoulders in the fashion, music and TV worlds, there will be a few salacious stories too.
“Lots of gossip and lots of secrets but you’ll have to come along to find out,” he teases. “I have had a very colourful life – let’s put it that way!”
Gok may have made his name dressing famous people but, perhaps because of his own issues, his make-over style with the non-famous has always been closer to self-help. How people feel about themselves, as which has how fashionable their treads.
“When I was younger working as a stylist I always wanted to dress people. But I don’t really have those thoughts anymore,” he says. “I really enjoy makeovers. They are the things that I get a lot of buzz out of, dressing real people with real bodies and real self-confidence issues.
“For me it’s far more empowering than dressing a celebrity as they can afford any of the clothes they want, they have a body a trainer has given them and they eat nothing but dust for months on end.
“So for me it’s not as fulfilling and I’d much rather be with Barbara from Bolton - it’s great because you get to meet real people. All the stuff that comes out of a makeover is just gold. A lot of them are terrified though as it’s a really intimidating thing.
“Most people I dress are worried and afraid but it’s my job to show them it’s for the best. It’s also my job to show them how to use these new tools and how they find the confidence with them.”
Is that what he hopes people will take away from his show? “I hope audiences will have a lot of fun, and get a real sense of anything is possible in life.”
• Gok Wan: Naked and Baring All is at Norwich Playhouse on October 30-31, 7.30pm, £25, 01603 598598, norwichplayhouse.co.uk
• He will also be at The Apex in Bury St Edmunds on November 19, 8pm, £18 (£16 cons), £5 under-25s, 01284 758000, theapex.co.uk
How to be a stylist like Gok
The likes of Bryan Ferry, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Vanessa Mae, Damien Lewis and All Saints are amongst those who had the Gok treatment. But what makes a successful professional stylist? “I think taste comes naturally but styling is like any art form,” he says.
“It is entirely subjective. But you have to learn the technical side of styling - the relationship you have with PRs and designers, understanding how far you can push it with a client. But also your personal brand, accounts and how you do get repeat business, or a new client, stuff you don’t get taught at college. I had taste, and I think I’ve got taste, but had to learn the other stuff as well.”