Chantelle Houghton: I've paid a high price for fame
She won viewers’ hearts by posing as a pop singer to win Celebrity Big Brother, but the cost of stardom for Chantelle Houghton has included a broken heart and eating disorders. The Essex girl talks to David Blake-Knox.
‘My weight loss was crazy. I was skeletal. I didn’t set out to lose so much weight.|I didn’t even realise that I had. It just sort of happened’reality bites: Chantelle and PrestonOH BROTHER: Pretending to be a pop starBIG WIN: Chantelle leaving the BB houseIDOL: Chantelle dates Jordan’s ex, Alex ReidOne cold January night in 2006, a motley collection of minor celebrities assembled in the Big Brother house at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire. For the most part, their careers had gone into freefall some years before. In fact, the cast list read like the line-up of suspects from one of Agatha Christie's less-successful whodunnits.
There was ‘Gorgeous’ George Galloway — the rogue MP whose political reputation had never fully recovered from his association with the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. There was Michael Barrymore, the family entertainer who was still trying to make a professional comeback after a young man had died at his home in suspicious circumstances.
The other housemates included a Welsh rapper called Maggot — probably best known for writing the lyrics to Your Wife's A Nutter — and the lead singer from a rock band whose last single had peaked at number 50 in the British charts. There was also one complete unknown: a 21-year-old woman from Essex called Chantelle Houghton.
Although this was billed as a ‘celebrity’ show, the nearest that Chantelle had come to fame until then was working as a Paris Hilton lookalike (under the name of Paris Travelodge). With characteristic bravura — and, perhaps, some cynicism — the Big Brother producers had asked her to impersonate a member of an imaginary girlband called Kandy Floss.
“They said that half of the housemates would be celebs,” she told me, when I met her in London a few weeks ago. “They said the other half would be ordinary girls and boys, like me. Then, just after I went into the house, I was called into the diary room. They said I would be the only one there who wasn't a real celeb. I had to pretend I was a pop star, who'd had a hit record.”
There are said to be celebrities who are famous simply for being famous, but there can't be many who have achieved fame for not being famous. Chantelle was one of those. When she walked out of the Big Brother house, she was the clear winner of the show. After three weeks of celebrity back-biting, exhibitionism and paranoia, she had come across as unassuming, somewhat naive, but refreshingly normal: what Tony Blair might have called a “people's celebrity”.
I had come to London as part of Grainne Seoige's new TV series Modern Life. We were looking at the media's preoccupation with female thinness, and the traumatic effect that this preoccupation appeared to have on young women throughout the world. Chantelle had recently announced that years of extreme dieting had caused her to become infertile. Like most of those with eating disorders, her issues with food had first surfaced when she was still a teenager.
“I've struggled with bulimia since I was 14,” she confided. “At that time, I didn't realise there was anything wrong with me. Bingeing and vomiting is what a lot of young girls do, isn't it? I didn't understand it was a problem until it had taken a hold on me.”
Five years ago, when Chantelle won Celebrity Big Brother, it seemed that she had fulfilled her primary goal in life. Apart from the cash prize, there was also the prospect of lucrative modelling and endorsement deals.
A few months later, she was nominated for a prestigious National Television Award, and was given the chance to present her first TV series. It looked as if Chantelle were poised to become a bona fide celebrity: ready, in her own words, to start “living the dream”.
But, as the song says, fame costs, and this was when she began to pay. While Chantelle was in the Big Brother house, she had met the man she was soon to marry. Preston was a rock musician, and, from the beginning, they seemed a most unlikely couple. In many ways, Chantelle conformed to the stereotype of an Essex girl: a dyed blonde, with too much fake tan, who apparently believed that Belgium was the capital of France.
Preston, on the other hand, was painfully hip. He had been educated at a leading English public school, and was the direct descendent of a British Prime Minister (Earl Grey, of the tea blend fame.) With self-conscious irony, he had called his band The Ordinary Boys. Within a few months of leaving Big Brother, Preston had broken off his prior engagement and married Chantelle. Each of them was paid £300,000 by OK! magazine for exclusive coverage of their glitzy wedding.
However, in retrospect, their union seems to have been doomed from the start. According to Chantelle, Preston disapproved of fake tan, lip gloss and hair extensions — so it came as no surprise when they separated within a year.
Chantelle had allowed her hair to revert to its natural shade of brown for her wedding. Since her divorce from Preston, she has kept it blonde. “Being brunette reminds me of the bad times,” she told me. “And, you know, it's true what they say — blondes do have more fun!”
In the years following her divorce, there didn't seem to be much fun in Chantelle's life. In fact, it acquired some of the features of a pretty dismal soap opera. It was true that she still appeared regularly on TV, and featured on the covers of all the celeb magazines that she used to read so avidly. But, usually, the stories concerned the various break-ups and crises that she was going through.
Her appearance had also been altered. She had breast implants, lip enhancement and dermal fillers. But, perhaps, the most visible sign of disturbance in her life was the dramatic fluctuation in her weight.
Her old eating disorder had re-surfaced soon after her divorce. “Once you become famous you come under a lot of pressure to stay slim. All the celeb magazines will be on to you if you start to get fat. It's not just celebrities who are under pressure to stay slim. It's every girl, really. But my weight loss was crazy. I was literally skeletal. I didn't set out to lose so much weight. I didn't even realise that I had. It just sort of happened.”
Chantelle looked healthy enough when we met her. But it now seems likely that she will only be able to conceive through IVF treatment. “It's tough, and I'm still getting my head around it,” she told Grainne.
Chantelle recognises that her disorder has not simply disappeared: “It's still there, but now I keep control of it. It's something that I live with. Who knows what will happen in the future? But, for now, I'm ok.”
Last year, Chantelle went back to the reality show that had kickstarted her TV career. Channel 4 billed its last season of the production as The Ultimate Big Brother.
All of the contestants had already appeared on the show, but its producers had a special surprise in store for Chantelle: one of the housemates was her former husband, Preston.
In a twist that seems gratuitously cruel, what would have been their fourth wedding anniversary took place while they were locked up in the house where they had first met. Chantelle spent most of that day weeping, and, apparently, in great emotional distress.
“It was sad and horrible,” she told us, “and I just wanted to get out of that house as quick as I could.” She didn't win on that occasion, but still finished higher-placed than her ex-husband.
Since her break-up with Preston, Chantelle's name has been linked with a number of other minor celebs. Curiously, several of these have been the former boyfriends, or husbands, of one of her favourite role models: Jordan, aka Katie Price.
At the moment, she is dating the cage-fighter and cross-dresser Alex Reid. Although they have only been together for a few months — and Reid is still legally married to Jordan — Chantelle claims that they are already exploring ways of having a child together.
“All girls dream of having a baby of their own, don't they?” she said. “So I still have hope. There's a lot of medical help out there.”
I asked Chantelle if she were busy at present. “My schedule is mad just now” she told me. “The next thing I'm doing on TV is Celebrity Come Dine With Me. I start next week. But I'm not supposed to tell anyone.”
I asked what she planned to cook for her guests. “I was thinking of spaghetti bolognese,” she said. “That's proper dinner party food, isn't it? And it should fill them up.”
“What about the dessert?”
“I might make Eton mess. That's easy to do. You just smash up some biscuits, and mix them with cream.”
“Who are the other celebrities?” I ask.
“I don't know yet. They're keeping that a surprise for the first day of filming.”
Sadly, this surprise proved to be all too predictable. A few days after I spoke to her, it was reported that Chantelle had withdrawn from the TV show. It appears that the producers had planned to include her ex-husband Preston as one of the guests at her dinner table.
This seemed another example of the double-edged pact that Chantelle made when she first entered the Big Brother house.
On the one hand, she has made a lot of money, and has achieved her ambition to become a celebrity of sorts. On the other, she has no obvious talent to exploit. Chantelle can't sing, act or dance. Although she has fronted a number of TV series, she has not been able to establish herself as a credible presenter.
It seems all that is left for her to sell is herself — her life, her story, her image: either through appearing in a succession of contrived ‘reality’ TV shows, or by providing more lurid headlines about her personal life.
The same month that she won Big Brother, Chantelle signed a book deal worth more than £250,000 to write her autobiography. She called her book Living the Dream, and the longer I was in her company, the more appropriate her choice of title appeared — though not in the way she intended.
Chantelle struck me as a likeable, but vulnerable young woman: a perpetual ingenue, in relentless pursuit of an unattainable ‘dream’, and still holding fast to the belief that being famous is enough to make her happy.
Before we left, we asked Chantelle if she thought that becoming a celebrity had been worth the cost.
She replied: “I can't answer that because I don't know what the price of fame is. Maybe, one day I'll find out.”
Grainne Seoige's Modern Life will be shown as part of RTE's autumn schedule