When I Grow Up I Want To Be…

“She picked that bloody stripper, Gavin from Kings Lynn. Not that I remember the details or anything”

Those were the words famous comedian Ed Byrne said with shock and an “I can’t fucking believe it” attitude when asked about his first appearance on TV. “I was one of the few people that didn’t get picked and it still hurts. It’s still very raw”.

That’s right. I was chosen ahead of famous Dubliner, comedian Ed Byrne, on the programme to watch on a Saturday night in the late 80s and 90s: Blind Date. Hosted by the late, great Cilla Black, Blind Date was watched by up to 16 million people every Saturday night. Ed was funny as hell even then. Both the audience and Cilla were in stitches as he used his smooth Irish charm in an attempt to win over Sally from Bournemouth.

I will return to Blind Date very soon. First allow me to back up a little. At school, when they sent everyone out on work experience, rather than going the traditional route like most to an office, bank, or insurance company, I chose to go to the gym. My obsession with bodybuilding, mixed with the fact that Madonna (my future wife) at the time, had a good-looking, muscular personal trainer working out with her whenever she went running, was enough for me to decide that I wanted to be personal trainer to the stars. I want to clarify now that Madonna has never been, nor ever will be my wife; but at 14/15 years old, I dreamt it just might happen one day.

There I am, 9 o’clock Monday morning. It’s 1989 and I’ve just arrived at the gym in Norwich for my first day of work experience. The owner, and retired bodybuilder Chris, is showing me around and then says, “let’s have a workout”. He sits me down on the leg press with 1x20kg plate per side and asks me to do 15 reps. No problem. The second I’d finished the set, he put on another plate each side. “15 reps, please”.

Now I’m working a little, my legs are getting a good pump. Set finished. He adds another plate on each side. We now have 60kg on both sides for a total of 120kg. Not a huge weight in itself, but after 30 reps previously with very little rest, I have to dig deep to finish the set.

I manage to get the last few reps before slumping out. I’m sweating profusely, my legs are blown up and feeling like jelly, and my heart is pounding like a jackhammer. I know I’ve come to the right place. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a really good-looking guy. Tall, lean, tanned, with a ponytail, wearing a leotard. Yes, it’s 1989 and step aerobics is the big new craze to hit the UK. I watch him take 30 or so women aged 25 to 55 through a workout to music on the steps, holding them all like warm putty in the palm of his hand. This is the point I say to myself, “that’s who I want to be”. Minus the ponytail. And the leotard. Although later in life, the leotard will play a role in another way. A different leotard, of course, not the one the step instructor was wearing.

In the year between A levels and going to university, I worked at a local sports centre in King’s Lynn as a fitness instructor with the aim of getting some experience in the industry. “Experience”, AKA: not getting the grades you need and having to wait a year before you can reapply for university. A few months into the job, I see it on the staff notice board. I don’t know who put it there or why, but I’m glad they did. My eyes light up as I read out loud the words, “auditions for Blind Date”.

Off I go to the Crown Hotel in Norwich for the first of three auditions. I find myself in a room full of egotistical wannabes desperate to get on TV. Satisfied I’m in the correct room, I proceed to bullshit my way through the first audition by telling the girl asking the questions that I’m a stripper.

“What’s your favourite costume and what was the most embarrassing thing ever to happen to you on a gig?” asked the interviewer from ITV. “Some girl pulled my G-string and it ripped. I’m left naked in the middle of the pub”, I lied. “Oh my god, what did you do?” she enquired. “What anyone would do, given the circumstances. I covered both my nipples and walked off the stage”, winking at the interviewer. “That ought to do it”, I whisper to myself.

I was quite pleased with how the bullshit flowed to be honest. In fairness, this wasn’t a complete lie. Literally just a few weeks previously I’d auditioned after seeing an advert for “Strippograms Wanted” in the local paper. For those unfamiliar with the term, a strippogram involves appearing at an event such as a birthday party, hen do, or something similar, dressed in a costume with the view to taking your clothes off as a special surprise to the unsuspecting birthday girl or hen, in exchange for a stack of cash. I was offered the job and ended up doing my first gig a few weeks later at a pub in Cambridge dressed as a policeman. Getting semi-naked dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” pumping out of my portable ghetto blaster. It’s 1993 and yes, the ghetto blaster is still cool (ish).

Back to ITV Studios on the South Bank and Blind Date. Sitting to my left is a Scotsman with the broadest Glaswegian accent I’ve ever heard and, on my right, a funny, smooth-talking Irish man with all the charm of your favourite leprechaun.

“Here’s a little poem from your favourite Dubliner Ed, I’m not feeling myself tonight so do you mind if I feel you instead”. The crowd erupts with laughter. Sally is in stitches and Cilla nearly wets herself. Ed’s opening gambit had scored big time with everyone in the studio, so I’m going to have to go all in to pull this one off. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know it included the words “Adonis, truncheon, and naked”. It appears to do the trick, as much to mine and Ed’s amazement, she picks me. I can see it clear as day even now: Ed’s face visibly shocked that she went for me. In this case, Sally clearly preferred the thought of a hunky stripper on her arm to a charming Irishman with an accent as smooth as blackstrap molasses.

The screen went back and there stands Sally with Cilla. I’d always said to myself that if I got picked, I’ll ask Cilla if I can pick the card, so I do. I pick one of the cards from the three and hand it back to Cilla. “A trip on a steam train to the Nene Valley railway in Peterborough”.

“I live there, Cilla”, I say. “What?” “I live about 40 minutes from there”, with a mixture of sarcasm and disappointment.

At the time I’m living with my parents on RAF Marham, near King’s Lynn in Norfolk. I thought they must have been winding me up. I’ve packed for a hot destination. Got my swim shorts, t-shirts, vests, flip-flops, even sun-cream, ready for a week in the Caribbean or somewhere equally exotic. When the letter arrived to say that I had made it onto the show, it said, “Please pack for both cold and hot destinations”. I realised that if I were picked, we would be leaving the very next morning after the show. The crowd are screaming and laughing. Cilla is in stiches. Sally is visibly disappointed, as am I, to be honest. We hold hands, walk off, turning back to wave to the audience and TV cameras as instructed.

Chatting to Sally, she seems like a nice girl. That night, we’re taken to Planet Hollywood for a fat juicy burger and chips, a few beers, and a chat about how the next day is going to go.  The chap who was assigned to look after us, a Scouser whose name escapes me, asks us questions about what clothes we had with us to wear. I say, “I’ve got a pair of cut-off denim shorts I was hoping to wear abroad in a sunny country. Shall I just wear them anyway?”

His eyes light up, as he knew he had a winner here. I’m confident, arrogant even, and prepared to do anything to show off. Perfect fodder for TV. He must have been chuckling to himself all night. It was after midnight before Sally and I go to bed. In separate beds, for the moment, at least. We have an early cab to Battersea helipad in West London tomorrow. Yep, we are travelling in style to the Nene Valley Railway, due to land at a luxury hotel in just a few hours time.

Picture the scene if you will. It’s a beautiful sunny morning with a splendid Georgian country manor house in the background. You can hear the whir of the helicopter blades as the camera pans up and meets a chopper about to land on the lawn of the hotel. You’d expect to see someone at least semi-famous ducking their head as they step out of the helicopter. Sally steps out, looking great. I’m next, wearing trainers, cut off denim shorts, a Nike sweatshirt with a tan cultivated from hours on the sunbed that would make David Dickinson proud.

“Welcome to the hotel”, said the manager as he briskly shook our hands.

“So, what we need Gavin and Sally, is just some general chat and banter on the train. Sally, you could ask Gavin if he would like to stoke your fire, you know, something like that”, the director chuckles, clearly amused by his own humour. The director, two cameramen, a guy holding a boom for sound, a girl with a clipboard, and a chap for lighting are all gathered around on the platform as the train stands stationary on the track, waiting to take Sally and I on a jolly little jaunt through the Cambridgeshire countryside.

“How about I take my top off so I’m just wearing my denim shorts?” As I said, perfect TV material. Prepared to make a complete dick of myself for free. I’m in nothing more than cut-off denim shorts (staple stripper costume) and a pair of trainers, doing press ups on the platform to pump up for the cameras, when miraculously a bottle of baby oil appears. I say miraculously, but it was planned to perfection. I’d brought some of my “kit” along with me on the off chance that I might need it. It was a calculated move that paid off handsomely, as within a few minutes I have Sally oiling me up and someone else spraying me with water for that glistening, “I’ve just stepped out of the gym hot, sweaty, and extremely sexy” look that you all know and probably hate. Pumped up and ready to rock, I think to myself, “this is it, I will probably be famous after this”. TV, magazines, and even Hollywood calling. OK, Hollywood was a stretch, but I really thought this could be my big break.

I’m on the train with the driver’s cap on, bare chest pumped up and “sweating”; shovelling coal into the train’s engine as Sally is tooting the horn. Casey Jones eat your heart out. It brings a smile to my face when I think back to it now. The director and his crew loved it. I’d gone through all those auditions, three of them, served them up my best bullshit to get on the show (although by now I WAS stripping) and they send me to bloody Peterborough for a trip on a steam train. They’d stitched me up good and proper.

A week later, I’m back at ITV’s studio on the South Bank to film what they call the “Mishmash”. This means Sally and I are asked questions about what we think of each other, how the date went, and so on. This section is shown when you go back on the live show with Cilla. How it’s supposed to work is that the interviewer asks a question and I have to answer, while including the question in the answer, so the viewer can understand the context.

“Tell me about Sally’s tattoo, Gav, and the fact she likes a drink and a cigarette”. I think Sally had smoked a few cigarettes and enjoyed a pint on the date. He’s goading me. Telling me she’d said some stuff about me that was “pretty cutting”, I take the bait hook, line, and sinker. What a sucker. The bastard.

“She’s got a huge tattoo on her arm, she drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney, she’s more of a bloke than I am… but don’t put that bit in, I can’t say that about her, can I? It’s a bit too much I think”.

Back on the South bank at ITV’s studio. It’s Saturday night and the follow-up is due to be filmed. I’m quite excited and a little nervous to see what Sally has said about me. I said a few cheeky remarks about Sally but asked them not to be shown. They wouldn’t stitch me up again, would they?

“The screen went back and instead of seeing a tall, bronzed Adonis, I saw a short, stocky midget in cowboy boots”, said Sally. The videotape continues to play. I’m sat on the sofa in front of a live audience of about 500 people. “I didn’t fancy Gav in the slightest, Cilla”. I try to speak but nothing comes out of my mouth. I’m lost for words for the first and only time in my life.

“Short, stocky midget in cowboy boots!” What?! “Respond Gav, quick. Before it’s too late”. My heart is racing, head scrambling but still nothing comes out of my mouth.

“I think you’re just a little naïve, Gavin”, Cilla said in a scornful tone. “Sally said she basically wouldn’t fancy you if you were pickled”. The audience cracks up and I feel like the entire room is focused and laughing directly at me. All 500 eyes burning into me, laughing, ridiculing and mocking the idiot sat on the sofa next to the ultracool Cilla Black, and Sally from Bournemouth.

Finally, my voice appeared, “well I think she still did, Cilla”. You think she still did? What? You think she still did? Is that all you could manage, Gav? Is that your best? I mean seriously. Where is the witty retort? Where is the comeback to put Sally down, shut Cilla up and have the audience back on my side?

Scornful remarks aside, Cilla started to warm to me again and said, “well Gavin, its clear that you and Sally weren’t a match made in heaven, but what about these thighs I keep hearing about?”.

“Sally tell me about these thighs…”

“Oh my god Cilla, he got out the helicopter wearing a pair of cut off denim shorts with these massive tanned thighs”, said Sally. I stand up. Time to redeem myself. “You want to see the thighs?” I say to the audience. Standing there strong, hands at the side of my body, palms up. The audience screams, “Yes!!!”

“No, no, no, I can’t hear you, I said, do you want to see the thighs?” They scream louder. In one swift motion I grab the waistband of the black trousers I’m wearing and with a fast ripping action forwards, I whip my Velcro trousers off and swing them around my head a few times before throwing them in to the crowd. Redeemed, in one second flat!

These were the Velcro trousers my mum had made for me just a few months ago at the start of my stripping career. Thanks Mum! I digress. Back to Blind Date. I sit back down on the sofa next to Cilla and Sally. The crowd is cheering still. “Good God, I might take him for myself”, said Cilla.

The show comes to an end and all the other contestants that were on earlier in the evening come out to sit on the sofa and wave to the crowd. I look down to my boxer shorts and see a little something poking its way through the fly. I smirk to myself. Whether Cilla saw this or not remains to be seen. She never said anything, and I guess we will never know. I’ve often thought about that moment over the last 25 years and it’s never failed to bring a smile to my face.

That was that. That was the time I went on Blind Date and beat Ed Byrne. So, Ed, you have mentioned me many times now, on the radio and TV in various interviews. I only have one thing to say to you: Get over it! You win some, you lose some. You went on to become a famous comedian and I didn’t. Them’s the breaks; chin up, sweetheart.

The UK Fantasy Boys

Three years later I’m due to graduate. I haven’t done any work at university apart from attending a couple of key lectures, but I did drink a lot of beer, eat far too many doner kebabs on the way home from nights out, and make some great friends. I also showed my face to the right lecturers at the right times, but now I have this damn dissertation to write. 10,000 words if I remember correctly.

“There must be a way to get out of it, surely”, I think to myself. My prayers are answered a few days later when I get a phone call from a friend called Mark Skipper.

You will recall that I started doing strippograms a few months before I went to uni. Well, my two best mates at the time, Mark Skipper and Tom Dyer, used to come along to my gigs with me. Mostly for fun, but also to meet the girls. It was a win-win for them and me. Anyway, as I left to go to uni, Mark took over my reign as the stripping king of Norfolk and, cutting a very long story short, he’d started working with a stripping troupe called “Obsession” that were based in Manchester. Now he’d come to the decision to form his own troupe consisting of him, myself, Tom Dyer, and Ben Wright; all boys from King’s Lynn. We were to be called “The UK Fantasy Boys”.

“Gav, how are you mate? Listen, we’ve got a 12-week tour of Europe coming up and we need 10 guys. I need to know ASAP if you can make it or not. We’ve got a big promoter in Europe who’s seen us perform and he reckons he can sell out some big shows. What do you think?” “Skip, it all sounds great, but I’ve got four weeks left at uni and a 10,000-word dissertation to start and finish! When exactly do we leave?”

“In 12 days’ time”. Fuck! I hadn’t really enjoyed uni. Didn’t feel like I fit in. I’d had happy times there for sure, but it just wasn’t me. I hadn’t been there for three years to jack my dissertation in at the last minute, but with a promise of 12 weeks gallivanting all over Europe with my best mates, stripping in front of huge crowds and all the trimmings that came with being semi-famous, I must admit, it was very enticing.

“When do you need to know by?” I ask. “By the end of today as I’ve got more guys than we need all wanting a spot”. “I’m in”. “That’s my man but what about your degree?” “Fuck it”.

It sounds amazing and there is no way I’m going to miss out on this. Now all I have to do is convince my parents that this is a good idea and ask my course tutor what my options are. To this day I can’t remember what I said to him, but I know it went down like a shit sandwich with Mum and Dad. My course tutor said that I would still graduate, but without honours. “You always have the option to come back and do your dissertation at another time”.

I would graduate with not a 1st, a 2nd, not even a Richard the 3rd. Just a bog-standard degree. Oh well. I was off to Europe in less than two weeks for three full months, to perform on stage in front of huge crowds and be paid handsomely for my troubles. I’ve convinced my tutor and my parents that I’ll be back to complete (or rather start) my dissertation sometime in the future, but secretly I know that is never going to happen. I guess they probably do too.

By now you might be wondering, what’s that got to do with this book? You might be saying, we know you’ve been on Blind Date, and you spent the next 16 years working in the stripping industry, travelling all over the UK and Europe, but how is that relevant for me and what’s it got to do with this book? How are you even qualified to write this book anyway? Good questions. Allow me to explain.

Everything I’ve ever done in my life, every experience, every person I’ve ever met, every single thing, has in some form contributed to the writing of this book. It’s the same for every single person on this planet. Think about where you are right now in your life. You made a series of decisions at some point that led to where you are now. It’s led you to what you have, and who you are as a person, both good and bad. Wise choices and poor. All these experiences have shaped your life thus far. Everything I’ve ever done has played a huge part in my life, and I’m grateful for every person, scenario and experience I’ve had on this journey.

I’d love to tell you more about the stories I’ve collected from having worked in this amusing and exciting industry for the best part of two decades, but that’s another book for another time, and to be honest, I’m not sure I would dare publish it. Now it’s time to get serious about the topic at hand.

You will recall that I graduated with some type of sports science degree in 1996. Although my main vocation in life was performing on stage most nights of the week, I realized that I’d probably have to get back into the ‘real’ world at some point. Throughout these years I was steadily adding more fitness qualifications and skills to my CV, with the view that I would enter that world sooner or later. I got qualified to teach aerobics, step aerobics, body pump, circuit training, boxercise, and spinning. Teaching regular classes each week. I was also doing some personal training with a few clients during the day. I sharpened the sword further by training with industry experts such as Paul Chek and Charles Poliquin and did as much reading as I could around nutrition and fitness.

In February 2008, I travelled to New York with a mate, Ben Wright (UK Fantasy Boys) to attend a fitness/training seminar with the late Mr. Poliquin (RIP) and this event was a huge catalyst for me. In June of the same year, aged 35, I made a bold move. I decided to hang up the G-String and put the baby oil down for good. I retired from stripping. I moved to London to work full-time in the personal training industry. I progressed on to different days, and healthier ways. I will admit it was 13 years later than I’d planned, but that’s life sometimes, isn’t it? You can make all the best intentions in the world, but sometimes life takes you somewhere entirely unexpected. That’s a good thing, in my opinion.

In the last 10 years in central London, I’ve coached hundreds of clients and delivered over 15,000 hours of one-to-one PT sessions. I’ve worked with, and coached, clients online from all over the world and invested over £100,000 in my own learning as a coach. I’ve contributed to various publications like Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Health, OK Magazine, Hello Magazine, and The Times newspaper.  I’ve been asked to speak at several events, Lunch and Learns, and various financial institutions in the City. I’ve taken 40 clients to Ibiza for three fitness retreats.

I’ve coached ladies and gents, 18 to 70 years old, from every background, religion, race, and social standing. From over 20 different countries, speaking nearly as many languages and all with various desires and goals. I like to think I’m reasonably qualified in this industry, but let’s not forget that more importantly perhaps, I was a professional male stripper for 16 years and I’ve been on “Blind Date” with Cilla Black, Ed Byrne the famous comedian, and Sally from Bournemouth. If you had any doubts as to whether I was qualified to write this book, I’m positive they have now been well and truly quashed. Onwards.

That is chapter 1 of my new book, “The GHG Method – A No Bullshit Approach To Losing Body Fat, Upgrading Your Mindset & Radically Changing Your Life”

If you liked this, maybe you’d enjoy the other 19 chapters too?

Go here to order my book and find out exactly how I help clients lose 20-30lbs and sometimes more, in just 12 weeks.

Gav Gillbrand