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Dermot O'Leary: 'Fear is no stranger to me, it's a wonderful motivator'

He's TV's Mr Nice Guy, but Dermot O'Leary isn't short on the 'cool factor' either. He tells Hannah Stephenson why he'd never work with his wife and why X Factor contestants get more impressive

Viewers know him as the sharp-suited X Factor host, who asks Simon Cowell and co for their comments, and then deals with contestants' outpourings of emotions and lets them cry on his shoulder.

Today, Dermot O'Leary's dressed more casually, in cream chinos and a navy crew-neck sweater, but he's still every inch the clean-cut, fast-talking, confident guy from the telly.

We meet in his publisher's office to talk about his memoir, The Soundtrack To My Life, told through the songs that were playing at key moments in his life, from his childhood growing up in Colchester, Essex, to entering the realms of radio and TV and making the big time on The X Factor.

The track list ranges from Bruce Springsteen and The Smiths to The Rolling Stones and The Pogues, but there are also nods to Terry Wogan's The Floral Dance and Los del Rio's Macarena in his eclectic mix of recollections.

O'Leary says he's had lucky breaks, presenting his own show on BBC Radio 2, doing the Big Brother spin-off, Big Brother's Little Brother, and then getting the plum hosting role on The X Factor, but if you read the book, it's clear his huge ambition has played a big part in where he is today.

He's only 41 but has been in broadcasting since his 20s, firstly at BBC Radio Essex, then as a runner for several TV companies, before taking on low-profile presenting jobs to gain experience in front of the camera. Then, to his eternal shame, he was forced to go back on the dole when the next job didn't just land in his lap.

"I honestly never expected to be on television," he explains. "I wanted it, but it seemed so remote and also, I wanted to be on television for something rather than just being on telly.

"I would never have auditioned to be on Big Brother or any show like that. I wanted to have a trade. I thought I'd end up being a producer and would have been perfectly happy being a live TV or politics producer."

He has been thrown in at the deep end on numerous occasions, so fear is no stranger to him.

"I think fear's a wonderful motivator," he says, laughing. "I'm conscious not to paint myself as a working class hero but it's not like I have anything to fall back on. First time on live television is a pretty massive thing, and you only get one chance."

Today, things are very different. He lives in the celebrity enclave of London's Primrose Hill and reckons he'll never have to go on the dole again, but part of him still worries about the next job.

"It's a good fear to have. Obviously, things are going to have to go spectacularly wrong for me to go back on the dole, but I'm glad I experienced it."

He insists he's not competitive, as far as rival presenters on other talent shows are concerned.

"The only night of rivalry with Ant and Dec is the NTAs [National Television Awards, which he presents] and I know that's a fait accompli anyway.

"They are really good friends of mine.

"In this industry, which is far more welcoming and collaborative than people give it credit for, that sense of looking over your shoulder and paranoia is not me and is not good for your soul."

O'Leary likes to chat, which may come from his Irish heritage, he admits, and he does so intelligently, with a sense of purpose.

He didn't do much at school but retook his exams at sixth form college, went on to do a degree in media and television with politics at Middlesex University. He made ends meet through catering jobs at events, including bar work at the Royal Albert Hall when Sir Elton John was performing. But he always wanted to work in telly.

"I'm from the first era of proper mass media - The Morecambe & Wise Show Christmas special, the Mike Yarwood Christmas special, Dad's Army, which would have been on in my infancy, when TV was very much this communal thing."

He's been with film and TV producer Dee Koppang for 12 years and married for two. Together they own a production company and a restaurant in Brighton, but they wouldn't want to work together, he observes, smiling.

"We've a couple of joint ventures, but I don't think we could ever have a situation where she was directing me. It's husband-and-wife stuff, come on! I wouldn't go so far as to say she criticises me, but she's honest.

"If she thinks I've not been good on a show I'll get silence, but she doesn't go so far as to offer advice!" he adds, laughing. "But then I'd never tell her how to frame a shot."

For now, he's focusing on The X Factor, as sparks fly between the judges.

"There's far more ego on air than there is off air," he notes. "Off air, everyone gets on really well. It feels far more of a team ethos than you'd think. Mel B and Cheryl get on like a house on fire. That's not where the conflict comes from.

"The area of conflict is Simon and Cheryl, Cheryl and Louis, Mel B and everyone.

"Louis is the dirtiest judge in the world," he continues. "He nicks songs and leaks stories. He's really sharp.

"Simon is tough, fair, approachable. What Simon hates is a 'yes' man, and most people who work for him aren't like that."

And he has no fears for the future of the show.

"The talent pool regenerates. Someone who was eight when the show first went on air will now be 18 and starting to audition. It's incredible how auditionees have changed.

"When I first started [in 2007], people would turn up and say, 'Tell me who you want me to be'. The judges aren't interested in that. They want an artist to be original.

"Now, you've got kids who are 14, 15 and 16 turning up saying, 'Here's my YouTube stuff, here's my marketing, this is the way I see myself going into the future and I've pretty much written my first album'.

"The level of talent is incredible. I think the show will be around for years to come."

While he remains a workaholic, he's not really sure of his ultimate goal.

"The thing is, if someone had told me I'd be doing The X Factor the year before I got the gig, I would have thought they were crazy. I learned a long time ago that you can have goals, but you've got to live in the reality that those goals might get chucked out of the window at any minute.

"You have to roll with the punches."

He's interested in politics and in 2010 chaired Young Voters' Question Time - does he ever consider moving to weightier broadcasting?

"I hate the fact that entertainment is considered 'not weighty'. It's a brilliant format and in many ways it is subversive. I'm interested in politics and can come up with a million and one political ideas, but whether a commissioning editor buys into an entertainment presenter making them is an entirely different scenario."

Away from the cameras and microphones, he says he would like to start a family. Simon Cowell's taken the plunge into fatherhood - O'Leary clearly wants to follow suit.

"He beat me to it!" he jokes. "Yes, we definitely want a family, but it took us 10 years to get married, so we'll see what happens."

The Soundtrack To My Life by Dermot O'Leary, Hodder & Stoughton, £20

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