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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Hamish MacBain and Claudia Marquis

Louis Theroux in the hot seat

From the very second that he walks into Queen’s Park’s Alice House on a Tuesday lunchtime, everything about Louis Theroux feels familiar. ‘How d’you do? I’m Louis,’ he says, in exactly the same way that I, and you, have seen him do countless times during his programmes (who else, I think at the time and long after, still says ‘How d’you do?’).

Our server approaches to take our order. ‘Is the romesco nice?’ Theroux asks. It’s pretty good, she says. ‘Only pretty good? What’s really good?’ he asks, with characteristic inquisitiveness, that inimitably wry smile starting to form. Well, the grilled cheese toastie, obviously, she enthuses. ‘Oh, that’s a classic, right?’ Our server nods. The grilled cheese toastie it is. It is perhaps an obvious first question, but how does one of the UK’s foremost interviewers feel about being interviewed? ‘Actually, I don’t mind it,’ he says, post-first bite of what does indeed look like a fine cheese toastie. ‘I have a slight tendency to overshare, so I have to be careful.’

Why? ‘Because I don’t want to bore people. I also don’t want people to feel, “Oh, there’s that f***ing guy again, why doesn’t he leave us alone?” I’m conscious of not giving people too much of myself. The truth is I have to slightly ration my self-revelation, otherwise I’d be out there just wangling on about any random shit that comes to mind.’

Tom Cruise would be a great guest: I would want to talk to him about Scientology

We are meeting, ostensibly at least, to discuss The Louis Theroux Podcast, which he has made with Spotify. First up in a series that also includes Nick Cave (‘They spoke for over three hours,’ a man from Spotify tells me later) is an interview with Shania Twain that is both moving (her life, for the uninitiated, has not been a bowl of roses) and very, very charming: seguing into a quite lovely discussion about her favourite swear words. ‘It’s a crowded marketplace, the podcast marketplace,’ he says. ‘I’m conscious of that. I do try and stay in touch with the idea that, yes, they’re supposed to be revealing and insightful and gentle and relaxed and curious, but they should also be funny and fun. It is revealing as well: what’s your tolerance for swearing? And then to hear her say “f***” a whole lot.’

Theroux’s first foray into podcasting came during lockdown when he was — does this sound familiar? — bored and drinking too much (‘It was, “Six o’clock, time to open the prosecco.” People would say, “But it’s Tuesday.” And?’). Those shows, the Grounded With… series, were made with the BBC, where pretty much all of his work in the past has appeared.

Louis Theroux photographed by Camille Vivier for ES Magazine. He wears a hat by Idea LTD and suit, shirt and tie by Dries Van Noten (ES Magazine)

There does seem to be something of an exodus over at the Beeb these days, I say. ‘I don’t like the idea of being part of an exodus,’ he counters. ‘And I do still think of myself as being part of the BBC. I still make my TV programmes for the BBC. I’ve got a great relationship with the BBC, but with respect to my podcasts, the ones I host, it made more sense to do them for Spotify.’ Is it the reach? Or maybe… the money? ‘I would say all of the above, really,’ he smiles. ‘I don’t think money is ever a reason to do something on its own. But with a business to think about, my production company, that factors into it. I have a team around me: basically my wife, my agent, then a couple of people. We talked about decisions and it felt like a way of generating a decent income, but also reaching a different kind of people and reaching maybe for a global audience. Streaming — Netflix, Spotify — they’re out there and we can’t pretend they’re not. I suppose this is me checking that out and seeing what it’s like.’

I don’t want people to feel, “Oh, there’s that f***ing guy again, why doesn’t he leave us alone?”

As you are doubtless aware, this Singapore-born, Catford-raised 53-year-old father of three is, in some ways, more well-known now than ever. Since his first Weird Weekends with some born-again Christians aired in 1998, we have witnessed him having all kinds of conversations — sometimes heated, sometimes funny, always compelling — with all kinds of people, famous and not famous.

We have watched him evolve from ‘a little bit of a prankster… asking cheeky questions, or just trying to generate small moments of comedy’ into the more probing, deeper diving profiler evident in his interviews with Stormzy last year (and Shania, and Nick Cave later this year). We’ve seen his style of documentary — Theroux made a programme about Joe Exotic of Tiger King fame way back in 2011 — become a staggeringly, globally popular Netflix genre in and of itself. We (or at least the under-15s in our life) have even seen him become a viral rap sensation via ‘Jiggle Jiggle’ — ‘My money don’t jiggle jiggle/It folds’ — based on lines from one of his old docs Amelia Dimoldenberg got him to re-rap during their Chicken Shop Date encounter.

Louis Theroux photographed by Camille Vivier for ES Magazine. He wears Bottega Veneta (Camille Vivier for ES Magazine)

Basically, in 2023, Theroux is more than likely to be as famous, if not more so, than most of his interview subjects. Is this a hindrance or a positive? ‘I’d like to think a positive. I don’t think Stormzy would have sat down with me if he hadn’t seen and enjoyed my programmes. He doesn’t give a lot of interviews. If there was a universe where I, as Louis Theroux, hadn’t had a career on television and I was trying to get an interview with Stormzy, I’m not sure how I would even begin.’

Sure. But how does it affect the actual process of interrogating someone? When you’ve got Stormzy opening with ‘I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time’ or Shania telling you she’s a huge fan of your work? ‘Well, when I’m speaking to someone who’s never seen one of my programmes — which believe it or not does happen — it’s a different dynamic. It’s a more clinical dynamic. In some ways, it feels like conventional journalism, which is great. Like more of a straightforward piece of journalism.’

As Theroux says this, I can’t help but think of the documentary in which he was thwarted by Martin Bashir in securing the big Michael Jackson interview and went rogue, desperately scrabbling around trying — and emphatically succeeding — in finding a story. Does he not miss that kind of hustle? ‘It was a fun one to make,’ he says. ‘It was also stressful and it wasn’t a way of working I was keen to repeat. So much of what I enjoy in programme making is the sense of being invited: being invited to spend two weeks in a prison, in a strange religious group, in a world where the rules are different, whether it’s gangsta rap or the porn industry. So when you’re trying to hustle and in the act of making the programme, you’re conscious that you’ve haven’t got all the things that you need. You’re slightly feeling you’re having to push at the door to get in. It’s not the part of it that I love.’

Louis Theroux photographed by Camille Vivier for ES Magazine. Jacket by Martine Rose, shirt by Paul Smith, Trousers from Our Legacy at, shoes by Horatio footwear (Camille Vivier for ES Magazine)

How did he feel when the stuff about Bashir’s unscrupulous methods in securing his Diana interview came out? ‘I try not to take pleasure in the misfortunes of other people. And I know he’s got some health things. I think he quite evidently behaved really badly. It’s not just the act of having done it. It’s also the fact that the people around him seemingly went along with it, then slightly covered it up. I can’t quite figure out what happened. But it wasn’t good.’

We are, I say, now living through something of a golden age for ‘bombshell’ interviews. Our interview unfortunately takes place a few days before the Phillip Schofield/Amol Rajan encounter. Theroux also says he hasn’t ‘seen any of the Prince Harry stuff’. But surely he must get jealous when someone nails a blockbuster? In the manner of, say, Emily Maitlis with Prince Andrew? ‘There might be a little bit of that. I think that would be normal, right? I think we tend as people to reduce human emotions to unitary states of being, like, “Oh, you’re jealous, or you’re happy, or you’re threatened, or you’re thrilled.” Actually, all these states can coexist. My main feeling with respect to that Prince Andrew interview was wow, that’s extraordinary. I couldn’t stop going around comparing my reaction with other people’s. All the quotable moments, either laughing or cringing. There was a lot of thinking, “Wow, what an extraordinary interview.” But some tiny part of me was also saying, “Would have been nice if it was me.”’

Louis Theroux photographed by Camille Vivier for ES Magazine wearing Celine (Camille Vivier for ES Magazine)

Would he have been able to get the same jaw-dropping results? ‘My impression from watching was that Prince Andrew went into that interview saying exactly what he wanted to say. I don’t think it takes anything away from Emily Maitlis to acknowledge that. He probably thought he’d nailed it.’

I wonder whether he has ever considered doing some harder-hitting, more Newsnight-type interviews. ‘Politicians are naturally averse to controversy or speaking in a way that’s likely to get them a bad headline. They’re sort of risk-averse.’ Would he fancy his chances of finally getting Boris to directly answer a question? Or unpicking Trump? ‘I think I’d prefer to go for Trump if I was given the choice. Trump would be a global phenomenon, a documentary the whole world would want to watch. Trump is a bigger story: more compelling, a more fascinating figure. How you would get to him, I don’t really know. I’ve often thought about that. If you could see how he affects the people in his orbit, maybe with respect to Melania, specifically. What’s behind that relationship? What level of exposure do they have to each other? To what extent is that relationship grounded in something real? It’s hard to know. There was a theory for a while that she was being kept hostage.’

Still on his dream interviewee list, he says, are ‘Dave Chappelle. Tom Cruise would be a great guest: I would want to talk to him about Scientology, having made my own documentary about it, find out how he relates to it. Beyoncé, clearly, Adele.’ Sadly for Theroux — well, sadly for all of us — last year he met Barry Humphries for the first time, in his Dame Edna Everage incarnation. ‘I’d always been a fan, obviously, and to meet him in the flesh and find he’s a nice guy and super funny… I was talking to people close to him, Barry was up for it. And then he died.’

Louis Theroux photographed by Camille Vivier for ES Magazine wearing Celine (Camille Vivier for ES Magazine)

Regarding the podcast, he does also say that he wants to guard against having ‘too many people who are old’, because he wants it to have multi-generational appeal. Is he hoping all those ‘Jiggle Jiggle’ fans whose first encounter with him was on TikTok will go back and discover his earlier work? ‘Well, based on attention experienced randomly and out and about, the constituency for “Jiggle Jiggle” is largely eight, nine, 10-year-old children. I don’t think they are going to naturally be in the audience for a documentary about serious mental health issues or prisons, or white-separatist gangs or crime in Milwaukee. But that being said, if they want to watch those programmes, then that’s up to their parents.’

The toastie is gone and it is now time to go. Theroux has a meeting, then another meeting, then an interview with ‘a pop star I’m speaking to on Friday, and we have to sit down and do a master interview. I wouldn’t say at this stage I’m anxious, but I’m conscious that’s something that I’ll need to get on top of, deal with. But I feel surprisingly relaxed. And that’s not good. I have to be anxious in the necessary proportions,’ he says. ‘So I’d better go and find something.’

The Louis Theroux Podcast’ is out now on Spotify

Photographer: Camille Vivier

Stylist: Jessica Skeete-Cross

Set Designer: Lyndon Ogbourne at The Wall Group

Grooming: Liz Taw at The Wall Group using UpCircle Beauty

Stylist’s assistant: Benjamin Carnall

Photographer’s assistants: Emma Ercolani and Kadaré Aliu

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