WHEN Mark Wright packed his suitcase in 2017 and announced he was off to crack America, the nation let out a collective guffaw.
How on earth could a former reality star – from TOWIE, for goodness sake! – succeed in Hollywood, where so many well-established British TV presenters had already tried and failed?
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“No one ever said to my face that I could never do it,” he says. “But when I told people, they’d smile and laugh. You probably did, my brother probably did, everyone did. I’d do an interview and talk about going to America and they’d be like: ‘Oh… OK. Good luck with that.’ But I just knew.”
Sure enough, within weeks he’d won a prestigious presenting role on the award-winning entertainment news show Extra, and over the last two years has more than proved the doubters wrong (he never once doubted himself).
And so you could be forgiven for wondering why, just when his Stateside career was gaining momentum, he decided to give it all up to come home to the UK.
For Mark, the answer is quite simple: his wife Michelle Keegan. After nearly two years conducting a long-distance marriage, something had to give.
“Michelle was the reason I knew I would never move there forever,” he says. “She’s the best wife I could have dreamed of, the most important person in my life and the one who helped convince me to go to America in the first place. She always supported my decision and never once asked me to come home.
“When I told her, she cried with happiness. She was over the moon, but she didn’t want to tell me that before because she never wanted the decision to be based on her.”
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Mark insists, contrary to reports, that his relationship with actress Michelle was never under strain.
But the constant flying back and forth was beginning to take its toll, and as the months rolled on he became increasingly homesick.
“I didn’t want to do the travelling any more. I was travelling back every five weeks [and Michelle also regularly flew to LA]. Every month I was on a flight for 11 hours and it’s not healthy – I got my gold club card from British Airways the other day, and you have to fly a lot of miles to get that!
“I had the time of my life out there, it was incredible, but when I woke up too many days in a row missing home… Saturdays were a killer. I’d wake up at 8am and [with the time difference] all the football back home would be halfway through and I’d miss having a pint down the local.
“The simple things I used to take for granted became a huge part of what I missed the most. Even the stuff I used to moan about, like the weather!”
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been an easy decision. “I’ve been in a pickle since August,” he says.
“My mates laugh at me because I’m always in a pickle, but this has been a really big pickle and I suffer from indecisiveness at the best of times. I’d always wanted a job in America and it was the dream job.
“But since I quit and came home [in January], I can honestly say I’ve not regretted it once.
“America was something I had to do, though, while we were both still young – I couldn’t have done it if we had kids.”
And now he’s back here… “Michelle’s six months pregnant!” he jokes.
“Seriously, we will have kids one day, touch wood, if we can. Just not right now.
“She’s got another series of Our Girl and potentially another one of Brassic, and there are things I want to do this year as well, but maybe next year.
“Don’t take that as gospel, but it has to happen eventually – I’m 32 now and she’s coming up to 32, so it will have to happen within the next few years.”
When I told Michelle I was coming home, she cried with happiness
Having grown tired of the speculation about the state of their marriage, Mark and Michelle made a conscious effort to keep the relationship more under wraps.
They tend not to post about each other on social media, rarely appear at events together and try not to go out where they’re likely to be papped.
“When we used to give the public signs of our relationship – a piece of us – it allowed them to make up rumours that we were splitting up,” he says.
“So we hold things back now because we don’t want to give them too much to talk about. It’s made a difference.
“We’re not in the press every week with rumours about our relationship – we’ve completely pulled it back and made ourselves as a couple less exciting.”
Hang on, though. When you sell your wedding photos to Hello! (as Mark and Michelle did in 2015), does that not, to an extent, offer up your relationship as showbiz fodder? Do they now regret doing that? He pauses to consider this.
“Um… no,” he says eventually. “I think I would have still done that because it’s a nice thing to do. Everyone does it. We’re both in the public eye in our own right, but once the negativity started I just didn’t want to post as much. I didn’t want to share everything.”
Again, they’ve proved the doubters wrong. Living on separate continents for the best part of two years hasn’t affected them.
“We’re told that distance doesn’t work. Well, we’ve just proved it does. It didn’t do anything to us, we’re husband and wife and we love each other just the same. If anything, at certain points it’s made it more exciting. When we saw each other, when we cuddled at night, it felt like the first time again.
“And in many ways we had it easy. Some people are in the army and go to war, some people go to prison for 10 years and stay together. Look at soldiers in WW2 who didn’t see their wives for years. Me and Michelle were FaceTiming every day.”
While Mark is supremely confident about his own abilities, he also cares deeply about how he’s perceived and is eager to be liked. It means he occasionally wrestles over how to answer certain questions, frets about how what he’s just said might be interpreted, and seeks the reassurance of his publicist.
It’s a rather endearing trait and shows that, despite the swagger, there’s also vulnerability. He’s charming, chiselled and handsome (and getting better with age) and yet worries about “getting fat in the face”.
This need to be taken seriously is possibly a hangover from the early days when he found it tricky to shake off the reality TV tag.
People did change their opinions about me after that and while I don’t think I proved a point, it gave me credibility
“I will never forget TOWIE,” he says. “It put me where I am now and I’m talking to you now because of it. However, when you leave that show, you hit a brick wall: ‘It’s Mark Wright from TOWIE, he ain’t got the talent, he’s just lucky, he’s only got that job because of that.’ You come with a stigma.”
That negativity spurred him on. He wanted to make a stand and “do something to make people go ‘wow’”, which is how the move to America came about.
He “hounded” (his words) Extra for two months, having made a vow to himself that he wouldn’t come home without a job.
“People did change their opinions about me after that and while I don’t think I proved a point, it gave me credibility. People were saying: ‘OK, now we can take him seriously.’ I got that job – a big contract – based on merit, and that is the biggest thing that I take from the whole America thing. Not just in England but in LA, the entertainment capital of the world, I was given a hosting role on one of the biggest showbiz news shows based on my ability, not my profile.”
There is plenty he will miss about America, he says. The healthy lifestyle, the sunshine, his Extra “family” who he’s clearly grown very close to. But then there was the constant networking and relentless cheeriness, which he never really got used to. He longed for a dollop of British realism now and again.
“It’s not that it’s fake over there,” he says. “But you can’t escape people wanting to know who you are and what you do. I never once went to a club there and just danced and had fun. It’s like everyone is doing laps of the club. It’s not fun.
“And it’s not that they’re too ‘nice’ – they’re happy because the sun is out, the beach is right there – but I missed the British attitude of: ‘I’m having a s**t day, so are you, let’s have a beer and get over it.’”
He missed the swearing, too. “On my second day at Extra, Mario Lopez [Mark’s co-host] said something to me about my tight shirt and I went: ‘Ahh, shut up you c**t!’ – joking, like you would here. And he pulled my shoulder and said: ‘What did you just say? You don’t say that here. I’m gonna let you off because I know you, but that is frowned upon here.’
“I love my American friends, but they don’t banter like we do, they haven’t got the same type of humour.”
Mark certainly isn’t going to be short of work by coming back home. Tomorrow night sees the return of The Bachelor UK on Channel 5, the first series since 2012 and the first-ever hosted by Mark. If episode one is anything to go by, it’s going to be must-watch, water-cooler TV.
It’s brilliantly cast, slickly produced, hilarious and excruciating, and the shock twist is jaw-droppingly harsh. Over in America, the show is on its 23rd season and Mark is overjoyed to be associated with the brand.
“It’s humongous in America,” he says. “Basically everyone watches it, and so to be asked to host the British version, I was buzzing.”
Mark’s role is to drive the show and act as a support for the bachelor, ordinary guy Alex Marks, after two previous series experimented with celebrities Gavin Henson and Spencer Matthews. And forget the 17 girls vying for Alex’s attention – it looked like a bromance was brewing instead.
“I got on really well with Alex and I love the way bromances resonate on screen, whether it be Ant and Dec, or me and Dougie Poynter in the jungle, or me and Arg on TOWIE,” says Mark.
“Alex didn’t actually love having that power, and he needed a mate to talk to as he had a lot of decision-making to do. I didn’t just want to be the host, read out some lines and go home, I wanted to immerse myself in it. It was important to me to have that kind of a role.”
I hope that #MeToo doesn’t make men too scared to tell women they’ve got the hots for them
Being the host of a dating show, and someone who was based in Hollywood during the #MeToo years and the career-ending scandals of predators like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, Mark must surely have a view on the shifting landscape of sexual politics and gender roles?
“I think men are scared and women are scared,” he says. “It’s great that justice is being served on these men and it’s good that we’re making a noise about this, because it’s been going on too long. On the flip side…”
He stops and thinks carefully about what he’s going to say next.
“The amount it’s happening to men who aren’t guilty because it’s not true or the women aren’t telling the truth… Women are scared because their real stories aren’t going to be taken seriously, because of the people saying things that aren’t true. And men are scared, because even if you’re accused of this without being found guilty, you’re tarnished and it’s stuck with you forever. So in Hollywood right now everybody’s petrified because they don’t know when it’s their turn. Even if they’re not guilty.”
Does he think the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements will have an effect on the way men approach women?
“Oh, yeah, it makes men think twice about chatting a woman up, 100%. I definitely think it’s scaring men in that sense. But it’s also reminding men that they can’t do the things they thought they could. Men are being more careful in the way they approach women and that’s good. You can’t just walk up to a woman and say something crude or rude.
“I just hope it doesn’t scare men so much that if they like someone they don’t ever tell them they’ve got the hots for them because they’re not sure how to approach it. I can definitely see it’s starting to have that effect, but it’s needed to make men really step back. I think it’ll eventually level out again.”
Book you read?
It might sound a bit weird, but it was about serial killers. Michelle bought it for me.
Box set you watched?
I’m obsessed with Peaky Blinders.
Time you cried?
When I said goodbye to my Extra family in America.
Time you lost your temper?
Playing football on Monday night.
Movie you watched?
DM you sent?
To Michelle, saying I’ll call her in five.
Drunk night out?
My cousin Leah’s 40th.
Time you had a snog?
Mark’s long-term plan is to be primarily based in the UK but spend part of the year across the pond.
So six months here, six there? “Hmm, seven months here, three months there. Oh, hang on, that doesn’t make sense. Eight here and four there! That’s the dream.”
He’ll most likely do it. “Thanks. I think I will, too. I don’t say this arrogantly, I say this as humbly as I can: I’ll continue to work in America and I’ll still get big jobs there. If anything, going there and telling them I’m the host of The Bachelor UK attaches me to a great brand.”
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Mark’s changed a lot in the decade since TOWIE launched him as a love-to-hate Lothario and one of the country’s most talked-about reality stars. He says he’s more grateful these days.
“I’ve grown up,” he says. “I’m a married man now, I’m no longer the eligible bachelor. In my younger years as a single man, I was a cheeky chap, a bit of a lad. There’s no denying that.
“A bit like The Bachelor, who now wants what I’ve got – that happy ending. And look at me. It can happen to a cheeky chap.”
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