Contender ready! Gladiators ready! With cult TV show Gladiators set to return to our screens in the autumn in a blockbuster reboot, ICE 36 sat down with one of its most beloved stars from the original to look back at the cultural phenomenon.
Read the full exclusive interview below with one of yesteryear's most popular Gladiator stars Jet!
How would you describe your experience on Gladiators?
Initially it was scary, until I got the idea of what it was like being a Gladiator when I got into the arena. I had seen the American version of the show and I thought ‘what am I getting myself into here.’ The female Gladiators on the US version were huge, fearsome and scary.
My fears started to ease when I realised that I could bring my own Gladiator identity to the show and have fun with the character of Jet. I knew that I would bring something different to the programme because I wasn’t a bodybuilder, my background was as a dancer and in athletics.
I really settled into the Jet persona. I quickly found out that I really excelled at some of the events on the programme.
I was on the show for four years before I hurt my neck and decided to step away from it. It was an awesome experience to be part of and I felt really looked after by everyone that was involved in making the show. The show was absolutely huge and I think it was really revolutionary in terms of light entertainment on television.
You mentioned your dancing and athletic background, is that how the producers found you?
I was headhunted by the producers. I got in one day and found a strange voicemail on my phone. At the time, I was working with different agents as a jobbing actor doing commercials and a bit of TV and theatre, which was something I’d done from the age of fourteen. The voicemail plays and the message says, “Hello it’s Andrew Norgate from LWT. Can you come in for a meeting about a show that we’re going to be launching.”
I went to their offices, and they played a clip from the American show and asked me if I wanted to be part of the UK version. They put the potential gladiators and contenders through our paces; we did an army assault course at Woolwich Barracks and some gym tests, which I did very well in. I was like a little character from Mario, just zooming about. He then called me back and said would you like to be on the show as Jet! I think they went with that name because I was so quick during the trial.
Despite doing well at the trials, at no stage did I think I was going to be chosen as a gladiator; I thought they wanted me to come on the show as a contender.
I think the producers Kenny Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe liked me. They both came from a dancing background as choreographers and new the discipline of what it took to be a top-level dancer in terms of fitness, discipline and nutrition. We hit it off straight away and they gave me the confidence that my dancing background coupled with my athletic and gymnastic ability enabled me to be a bit of a different type of gladiator.
If you think about the gladiatorial arena, it’s a gymnast’s playground!
Take us back to that first show and when you saw your character Jet’s outfit for the first time
Well, when I put my original costume on, I felt like Bridget Jones (laughs)! You know big pants and a really horrible itchy lining around your wristbands and lycra. It wasn’t right. I didn’t feel like the costume was very flattering so over the years I remodified the costume; I wanted my legs to look a bit longer and also wanted to have something which should off my curves – I thought that could be a good distraction for the battles!
I had a few issues with my body growing up, a little bit of body dysmorphia as a teenager and, like a lot of dancers, I didn’t like that I had turned into quite a curvy woman, but Gladiators celebrated a muscular, curvy female physique. I felt at home there. I didn’t feel like the big muscley girl in the corner of the dance studio.
The show was a bit of an evolution for me and my body.
What was it like to perform in such a huge arena with the cameras rolling?
It was the NIA in Birmingham and it was huge. When the show first stared, because it was unknown, they had to superimpose some of the crowd into blocks of seating and into the edit. We loved performing in front of massive audiences and soon enough as the show became extremely popular the arena was full of screaming fans.
It was like a cathedral. It was so huge.
Did you have a favourite event?
The Wall and Hang Tough were my favourites. I also liked Powerball because that was the only team game that we could play. That was a lot of fun. With the Wall, I particularly loved being on the lefthand side. I could climb 30 feet in 17 seconds – I virtually ran up it! I was always covered in cuts and bruises.
Can you tell us anything that we might not know about some of the Gladiators?
I can remember walking into the arena for one of the first or second shows and Wolf was sat on the sides of one of the huge Atlasphere event bases. He was tucking into a massive bowl of rice and chicken and he started to complain about being cast as the baddie on the show and that he didn’t want to be called Wolf.
I can remember saying to him that the role of Wolf was going to be so much fun, and he looked perfect for it. It still makes me laugh to think about it, he said: “I don’t want to be the baddie, I want to be the loved one!” Of course, in the end he loved the role, and he wasn’t a real baddie, he was like a pantomime baddie. He was one of the stars of the show.
That is funny. Wolf wanted to be loved!
He did. He embraced the character and, he was getting a lot of instructions from the producers as well to be a bit provocative and to challenge the other gladiators and contenders. It was like panto really.
Michael Van Wijk (Wolf) was lovely. He was the oldest gladiator and off the camera he was a lot of fun. I can remember once when we were sitting around between events and he decided to come down the Pyramid on his bum, well when he got to the bottom he sat there and went, “Oh! My back!” He had compressed a disk from fooling around. After that, apart from when we were training up on the events, we were virtually barred from using them, particularly the Eliminator. The producers were really worried we were going to get injured!
Can you share any funny stories with us from the arena?
(Laughs) There is one, but I can’t! I’m sworn to secrecy. I’ll have to save the gladiator’s modesty.
What was it like in the locker room?
We didn’t really hang out there. We went into what was known as the Pig Pen where we would watch the events and cheer on our mates. There was a lot of banter and fun, but also a lot of anxiety. The events happened so quickly and you would be waiting for hours to have your turn.
Who was the biggest diva behind the scenes?
Wolf! You would have probably expected me to say that. He was a really calm, centred guy, but as soon as series one had gone out and he realised that he was the big star of the show, he became a little bit of a diva. I think there were a few debates among some of the gladiators also about wanting more money if you competed in more events or were more popular than another gladiator. That didn’t go down particularly well with some of us.
Our attitude was, it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re working as part of a gladiator team. I can understand that if you’re competing in more events then, of course, you’re under a greater physical risk, so I get that. There were a lot of debates about that between us. I’m not sure if Wolf was behind those because he became the star of the show. I’m pretty sure he probably was because he was a businessman.
Special Referee John Anderson was a big part of the original show. What was he like behind the scenes?
He never switched off from ref mode (laughs). I think he had a little soft spot for me as I did for him. He had respect for me because he came from an Olympic reffing background and was used to working with elite-level athletes.
I think if you could prove yourself to him, not just by being good, but by being professional and sticking to the rules, he respected you.
There are three new refs in the new series. You have to have someone to make sure that there isn’t any foul play and to hold the standards. John was a man of integrity who ran the events by the book. I’m sure the new guys are going to be great but John was iconic. I absolutely adored him. As soon as we saw John in his black and white stripes walk into the arena, we knew it was time to perform. The games are on. The games are on.