An interview with Gok Wan
“I think it’s great,” says Gok Wan of his new private number plate. “When I was younger, being Asian, private registration plates were very common. Cars are quite important to the Asian community, and to my dad in particular! When I got my first car, even though it was an old banger, an Austin Allegro back in the 90s, my dad bought me a registration plate which was L2 GOK. It was great and I loved it but when I went on television and became well known, then people would see me driving around with my registration plate on and I’d get followed into car parks. I’d come back after shopping and, although nothing malicious would happen, I’d have post-it notes all over the car and notes put under the windscreen wipers saying, ‘Can you give me a makeover?’, ‘Can you tell me what body shape I am?’ and ‘My mum loves you’, which was lovely but I took it off for that reason, just so I could have a small amount of anonymity.”
The loss of privacy and anonymity is a theme that is touched on in many of the interviews with Gok that one reads - especially those from relatively early in his fame journey. He doesn’t complain but there is just a hint that it all came as rather a shock.
Fortunately, the adjustment to being recognised pretty much everywhere seems to be well underway: so much so that Gok is happy to consider branding his car again with a personalised registration.
“When I saw this one, the ‘clothes’ one (CL07 HES), well obviously, it’s about my lifestyle and about my job and what I do. And, although it is personalised, maybe if people don’t read this interview or see this then they won’t know that it’s my registration plate! But it honestly doesn’t bother me that much. I think it’s funny and I think it’s clever with the seven being a ‘T’.”
That acceptance of all the attention, wanted and unwanted, is probably the only realistic strategy Gok could adopt. He has one of the most instantly recognisable faces on UK television. With or without a personal registration on his car, to see him is to immediately know who he is. Having presented his huge, overwhelmingly positive personality to the nation via a series of broadcast media projects, going unnoticed is not an option.
The first of those television outings to hit the big time was Channel 4’s How to Look Good Naked. In striking contrast to more judgemental and demeaning makeover shows, Gok Wan was all about showing women that what they had was already terrific. He wasn’t so much making over their style as making over their perception of themselves. The show could be unexpectedly moving and, somehow, for a show in a genre that can come across as superficial and contrived, it just felt sincere. The whole thing was an exercise in positivity and, to the frustration of involuntarily single straight men across the country, it seemed that most of the UK’s women fell in love with Gok Wan.
“I started off as a hair and makeup artist initially and then fell into the fashion thing. I originally trained at drama school. I set out to be an actor when I was younger and when that didn’t work out I did everything from recruitment consultancy, working in bars, restaurants, clubs, all the way through to being a waiter in a Soho restaurant. At that time my flatmate was a singer and through her I got to know what a glamour squad was: hair, makeup, styling. I just got a taste for it. I was very determined so I made some contacts and started in the industry that way.
“Television’s a wonderful platform. If you like different things and you know how to talk about them then you can give them a go, so whether it’s travel or food or interiors or music, television becomes a way of discussing your passions. That’s why it feels like I’ve got a lot of fingers in lots of pies but really no more than anyone else. It’s just that I have such a great platform to talk about it.”
Those disparate pies Gok mentions have included various advertising opportunities, TV shows on fashion and cookery, cookery books, and events and production business and DJing.
“The food thing is from my Dad. I was brought up in Chinese restaurants and takeaways in the Midlands, so I’ve always been around food. It’s a big passion for all my family - cooking and eating. My brother now works in food, all my uncles and aunties work in food still, so when Channel 4 asked me to make a cooking show and I wrote a couple of cook books it just felt very natural. It didn’t feel like diversifying away from anything else I’d done really. Of course, in its way it’s as creative as fashion.”
One might be forgiven for thinking that Gok Wan is all about the creative and has little to do with the mundane or the practical.
“No, it changes. With the events and production company my personality is quite equally split. Half of my brain is about the process of business. I love the logistics of business, the learning and the organisation. The other half of my brain is chaotic and crazy and hectic and that’s the creative side. So, by having an events and production company it allows me to do both: the creative, the devising, the making sure that we’re doing really good events, but then also the practical side of actually running a business. Every single day is really different, whether it’s dipping into an interview here or it’s going into a meeting there or it’s DJing this evening as I am doing, it’s nice to have lots of different hats that fit the same head.
“The DJing’s great. I love music, and I’ve always loved music but again, it’s a business, you know. It’s a passion that turned into a business.” Passion is something that still radiates from Gok Wan. There is no hint of jadedness or boredom.
“Everything I do still feels like it’s in its infancy apart from maybe the fashion and the television as I’ve done it for so long but that will continue forever because it’s my core business; it’s what I do. But then progressing and developing everything else: the music; the DJing; the cooking, obviously; the events company... I mean, that’s going to take up a lot of time because we just merged with another company so now we’re in the process of building it up and getting it very strong, getting our name out there. We’ve got some great events this year, so that’s going to take up a lot of time. And then a couple of other personal projects that I intend to do in the next couple of years.”
Some of his television work on cooking resonates powerfully with his heritage. As well as the Gok Cooks Chinese show he did for Channel 4, Gok has worked with his father, John, on screen in Made in China and in items for ITV’s This Morning. In the course of filming, Gok travelled to his father’s original home in Hong Kong. His enthusiasm was clear but equally clear was that Hong Kong wasn’t Gok’s natural environment.
Regtransfers roving editor/reporter, Angela, is Chinese so a brief comparison of family histories was inevitable.
“I was born here in England,” says Gok, “so I’m second generation. And my mum’s English actually, so I’m mixed race.”
Does Gok speak Cantonese?
“I don’t, no, no. My dad was always working in the restaurants and so, in the sense that they were always very busy, there just wasn’t the time so it didn’t really make sense to try and learn. Also, back in the 1970s, a lot of immigration was about fitting into the western community. That’s why a lot of Asian people changed their names to English names. My dad’s name, John - it’s not his real name, obviously. Everybody spoke English because it was a case of, ‘Right, we’ve got to fit in now and look as if we’re part of the community’. Because of that, my dad spoke English to us. He was learning to speak English at the same time. My mum kind of became the teacher for all of us. So we never did learn Cantonese, which is a real shame, but I understand why it had to happen that way.”
Gok’s childhood wasn’t the easiest. He’s written about that and spoken about it in numerous interviews so we don’t want to spend too much time dragging him over old ground, but those early years formed the Gok before us.
“It was tough and I have spoken about it a lot in the press. We were brought up on a council estate and we didn’t have very much money. There was a lot of segregation through ethnicity and physically how we looked. Growing up gay and stuff like that.”
If there is a recipe for uncomfortable youth then one would think that the young Gok had all the ingredients thrust upon him. He was tall, of mixed race, substantially overweight (21 stone at one point) and gay. He has said on the record that the hostility he encountered in those days was mostly aimed at his size and sexuality, not at his ethnicity. But both Gok and his big sister, Oilen, have also said that he didn’t really acknowledge his Chinese heritage when he was younger, that he “stopped myself from being Chinese”. This raises the question of whether or not Gok would actually have processed racial hostility for what it was. If he was in denial about his Asian component then we must consider the possibility that the denial extended to any racial hostility he may have encountered. Whatever the truth, it is clear that there were some difficult times.
“Yes, it was tough, but I’m here now! That’s a good thing and I’m very confident and very positive and actually I do recognise that all the struggles that I went through personally and that we went through as a family have all resulted in all of us being very strong, quite dominant characters now, so there’s been a plus side to it all.”
To round off the interview we remind Gok of an event he attended. One of our Regtransfers colleagues is active in whale conservation and was delighted to find Gok speaking at the event in 2014.
“Oh, yeah, I did do Whalefest! It was in Brighton. It was really interesting. A good friend of mine, Phil, who I’ve known for a long time now, does a huge amount for the wildlife community and also makes wildlife documentaries as a job. He asked me to get involved. It was a really, really interesting day. So much that was sad and shocking, but it felt very inspiring and very powerful. I’ve not worked with them since, for no particular reason. Actually I really don’t know why I’ve not worked for them since. It was a great session.
“I think that, regardless of whether you’re in the public eye or not, all of us have an obligation to do as much as we can for humanitarian rights and animal rights as well.”
Interview: Angela Banh
Story: Rick Cadger
Location photography: Graham Custance
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