It’s now been 20 years since the first episode of Celebrity Big Brother aired, and a reality TV behemoth was born.
CBB would eventually run for 18 years and 22 series, becoming one of the UK’s most talked-about shows and paving the way for an endless stream of star-studded reality series including I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! and Strictly Come Dancing.
But in March 2001, when Chantelle and Preston’s romance, Kim Woodburn’s outbursts and the notorious “David’s dead” saga were barely a glimmer in the distance, Celebrity Big Brother actually got off to a fairly modest start.
The first series ran for just one week in aid of Comic Relief, with only six housemates taking part, none of whom received a fee.
Among those early celebrity guinea pigs was TV presenter – and, let’s face it, low-key national treasure – Vanessa Feltz.
Reflecting on CBB after 20 years, Vanessa admits she didn’t quite know what to expect when she received the phone call from Comic Relief co-founder Richard Curtis inviting her to join the line-up.
And she certainly didn’t anticipate the commotion the show would end up causing.
“I didn’t really think about it at all,” she tells HuffPost UK. “It was before anyone knew anything really about reality TV. There’d only ever been one series of non-celebrity Big Brother, and people weren’t so conversant with what any of it meant, or how the public would respond or anything.
“It just didn’t seem like much of a big deal at the time. How wrong I was!”
Vanessa says she didn’t really consider what she was letting herself in for – that is, until the day she was due to enter the Big Brother house, when things quickly began to sink in for her.
I’d just been through a horrible divorce, and it was all quite hairy really. So I did suddenly think, ‘Blimey what the hell is this? What am I doing this for?’.
“Before I actually got into the house, they insisted that they pick me up separately from my children, who were going to come and wave me off,” she recalls. “They had to be in separate cars, at separate times, and then they were kept far away, and I was kept sort of confined in a dressing room. It all just suddenly felt frighteningly real.
“They also sent somebody over to inspect my luggage to make sure I wasn’t smuggling in any contraband. I wouldn’t even know what contraband to smuggle in!”
She adds: “Also, I hadn’t ever left my kids before. I’d just been through a horrible divorce, and it was all quite hairy really. So I did suddenly think, ‘Blimey what the hell is this? What am I doing this for?’.”
Eventually, she and boxer Chris Eubank, TV personality Anthea Turner, Boyzone singer Keith Duffy, soap star Claire Sweeney and eventual winner Jack Dee made it into the house, which was situated in East London in those early years.
She was finally evicted after three nights, but it sounds like that was more than enough.
“It was ghastly, to be honest with you,” she admits.
“On the first day, you went in, the door slammed behind you and it was kind of a bit pantomime, but it was also slightly nerve-wracking and a bit intimidating.
“It was kind of weird, but it wasn’t deeply unsettling until it got to the bit of nominating – which had to happen on the first day, because we were there for such a short time. Basically, we went in through the door, made lunch, washed up and then pretty much the nominations happened.”
That initial round of nominations saw Chris Eubank and Anthea Turner facing the first public vote of the series after 24 hours in the house, something which Vanessa remembers the Blue Peter presenter did not take well.
Anthea Turner began crying, pretty pitifully. And it wasn’t at all funny – not at all funny.
She recalls: “Anthea Turner began crying, pretty pitifully. And it wasn’t at all funny – not at all funny.
“First of all, because we’d made a woman of however old she was in those days cry in public, which is hideous. But also there are cameras watching you doing it, which is even worse.
“Big Brother was something that I thought might be quite light-hearted, kind of like the Comic Relief documentaries you’d seen before… and suddenly, there was Anthea Turner sobbing. And so, it just suddenly went sour very, very fast.”
Following Anthea’s upset, Vanessa says several of the housemates made the decision they wouldn’t nominate anyone for the rest of the series.
“They were like, ‘if it’s going to make people cry I don’t want any part of it, I’d rather draw lots or something like that’,” Vanessa says.
“So I was summoned by Big Brother and told, ‘Vanessa, look, people absolutely have to nominate, so you have to make them, you have to explain that it’s part of the format and if they don’t the whole thing’s ruined’.
“So I trotted back, and said, “look, we really have got to nominate, and I know it’s not nice, but I’ve just been told it’ll all be ruined if we don’t, and it is for charity’. And it was all really distressing. And that was day one. It all just got worse from there, really.”
Chris Eubank eventually became the first housemate to be evicted, after which Vanessa and Jack Dee were swiftly put up for the next public vote.
“It had to be me!” she says. “You couldn’t nominate Anthea, could you? And then you couldn’t nominate Keith Duffy or Claire Sweeney because they weren’t really that well-known, and they were young and fragrant and innocent and lovely. She was trying to stand out from Brookside and he was trying to stand out from Boyzone.”
Shortly after this came Vanessa’s most notorious moment in the house – involving chalk, a leopard print dressing gown and some rather fruity language.
It’s a scene that’s been brought up countless times in the last two decades, but exactly what did go on?
“Not much really,” Vanessa explains. “We’d been given some chalk and a piece of blackboard or something for a task, and I was finding it pretty boring in there, and also pretty dreary.
“So when Big Brother said, ‘give the chalk back’, I just thought, ‘well, I won’t, I’ll just keep it’. And Big Brother said, ‘no, Vanessa, immediately hand back the chalk’, and I just suddenly thought, ‘there’s no such thing as Big Brother, it’s some kind of junior production assistant, so why should I? I don’t have to do what Big Brother tells me to do, this is absurd’, so I just said ‘oh fuck off’.”
Following this, Vanessa began writing words like “incarcerated”, “ambushed” and “restricted” on the table, to the apparent concern of her housemates (and, of course, the millions watching at home).
She says of the incident: “I don’t know what the hell was going through my mind. I think I was feeling upset about being evicted and worried that I’d be terribly unpopular when I came out.
“And then I started to think, ‘the earliest I can possibly leave here is tomorrow night’, which was about 36 hours in the future, and I thought, ‘well I’ve had enough and I’d really like to go home now, I’m sick of it’. And then all sorts happened, and I was told ‘if you do leave, you’ll be deeply unpopular’ and ‘you can’t go’, and then I was weeping and sobbing.”
“And then I snapped out of it because I’m a grown up. But I had a few hours where I felt thoroughly miserable, I must admit,” Vanessa reveals.
“It definitely wasn’t a nervous breakdown or anything like that,” she insists. “Because I was perfectly fine a few hours later, and perfectly fine when I came out the day after. I think nervous breakdowns normally last a little longer than three and a half poignant hours.
“But I did get quite low, I did get fed up. I wasn’t enjoying it… I’d just been through a divorce, I’d just lost my mum, I was in quite a vulnerable state. Probably these days they might have said, ‘you know, Vanessa, this isn’t a good year for you to do it’. But back then there was such naivety around that sort of thing that I just don’t think they even realised.
“I don’t think it was malicious, I just think they didn’t really know what the potential was – for Anthea to start crying, for me to start falling apart – particularly in a show that only lasted for seven days, didn’t involve any money and was for charity!”
To me, it was three hours of being a bit miserable and slightly tearful. For all we knew no one at all was watching.
Vanessa’s behaviour ended up generating a lot of conversation – and headlines – on the outside world, unbeknown to the woman herself who, along with her housemates, had no idea whether anyone at home was even watching them.
She reveals: “I was astounded when I came out and saw the level of reaction to it. To me, it was three hours of being a bit miserable and slightly tearful, but I didn’t know it was going to be translated into a massively big deal.
“There hadn’t yet been this given about reality TV, with everybody saying ‘ah yes, reality TV is taking over’. For all we knew no one at all was watching.”
Vanessa left the house on day four to what she describes as an “absolute furore”.
“I like to think that I was the absolute pioneer of that genre,” she jokes. “Because now you can’t see a single reality show without a celebrity crying, weeping, gnashing their teeth, revealing some kind of tragedy about their past or just generally their neuroses or some kind of sexual proclivity. It’s hard to remember now that it had never been done until I did it.
“So I take very proud of ownership of my pivotal role in broadcasting history in that regard, because without me cracking up, think of all the crack ups you would have been unable to see in the future – and how terrible your life would have been as a result.
“I’m still waiting to be made a dame of the British empire, I don’t know what the delay is, really.”
Celebrity Big Brother did follow Vanessa around long after that first series came to an end, not that she seemed to mind.
“It always gave me something to talk about at dinner parties.
“I was in Celebrity Big Brother for three nights – before that, I’d been doing The Vanessa Show five days a week for years, I’d been on The Big Breakfast every morning and doing Value For Money on the BBC.
“But as soon as Big Brother happened, every time I walked in anyway or came on any show as a guest, they’d always play the Big Brother signature tune. And I was on for three nights!
“I won Television Moment Of The Year that year – and it was one of those moments where at the time I had no idea whatsoever that it would even feature in the programme! I didn’t know, in inverted commas, ‘me cracking up’ was going to be the focus and content of an entire show, I had no idea at all, and I remain a little surprised even after all these years.”
“I certainly didn’t think that 20 years later I was still going to be asked about it!” she adds with a laugh. “But certainly for memorable moments, it’s endured! It really has.”
Vanessa remembers that reaction from the public was – perhaps surprisingly – mostly positive, with Channel 4 even assigning her a security guard for six weeks “not because people were trying to attack me, but because they were trying to come and kiss me and cuddle me and all that kind of thing”.
“I think I got 7000 letters from members of the public, and had to pay somebody to answer them,” Vanessa says. “They were really, really nice – they said things like ‘oh we’re so sorry you were so upset, why don’t you come and live in our back bedroom?’. Which is very unexpected and very kind. I might still come, if the bedroom’s still available.”
On the 20th anniversary of the very first Celebrity Big Brother, Vanessa maintains she has no regrets about her involvement in the show.
“I didn’t like it when I was in there, but it was three nights in total,” she explains. “So as soon as those three nights were up, I never regretted it.
“And I maintain to this very day, that if you don’t say it or do it, it won’t be on film. So don’t say and do it if you don’t want them to show it, and if they do show it, don’t blame anyone but yourself.”