If you want to work in TV, whether behind the camera or in front of it, Debbie King’s story will provide plenty of food for thought. Debbie’s career has covered a whole range of TV roles including her main passion, presenting. We like to tell it how it really is on this site and Debbie certainly does that. It’s a tale of determination, hard work, disappointment, initiative and making your own luck.
It’s a fairly long article but it offers advice on so many different levels on the TV industry that we figured you should read all of it! Want to be a TV presenter? Want to produce and sell your own TV shows? Want to know how to get that first job? Want to know how to maintain an income even when the TV work dries up? It’s all here.
Over to Debbie:
Tell us how you got into TV in the first place?
In my 1st year at Newcastle Uni my flatmate Gemma asked me what I really wanted to do after graduation and after much consideration I told her I wanted to work in telly. I grew up in a very theatrical family and despite being academic and choosing to study History at uni, I still had a desire to be around TV cameras and microphones because this is what I had been used to seeing as a child.
So Gemma proceeded to place the Yellow pages in front of me (there was no internet back then!) and instructed me to find the nearest TV Company and go get myself some work experience.
Feeling slightly overwhelmed, I began to flick through the yellow pages hoping to find a TV company based near my halls of residence in Newcastle. Funnily enough there were 2. The BBC and Zenith North productions who made Biker Grove (remember – where Ant & Dec came from?).
Anyway I bombarded both companies with daily letters and phone calls and even rocked up to the BBC with a box of doughnuts and asked if I could have a job making tea. Eventually my pestering worked and I landed a job as a runner on the live broadcast of Children In Need. Something I was not expecting! I was given my own talk back and everything!
I also got some work experience on Biker Grove which was an eye opener. The 2 experiences made me realise I didn’t want to work in drama but desperately wanted to work in live TV.
What was your goal at that point?
My goal was to get as much experience in TV whilst I was at Uni so for the next 3 years I did exactly that. I even diverted my attentions slightly into Radio, when I helped set up the 1st ever Student Radio station in Newcastle, called NSR – which I also presented on.
The founder of NSR, Russ Williams, gave me a tip off. He told me that every Monday the Guardian newspaper had a TV Jobs section and that soon the company behind the hit channel 4 show, The Big Breakfast, would be advertising an amazing job for one special graduate to join their team.
Eventually the advert was printed and I sent off for the application form, which arrived a few days later – about 10 pages long! It asked for lots of ideas (a very clever way for the production company to get new ideas from fresh graduates I thought) – but nevertheless I filled out the form with as many amazing ideas as I could think of.
Badgering Big Breakfast!
I was shortlisted! What a feeling – I was invited down to London for an interview. Not wanting to be outshone by my fellow graduates I took it upon myself to write a song about the Big Breakfast (as you do) and record it in my mum’s lounge. I used the music to one of the songs that my grandfather had written for my mum in the 1970s which she went on to win Opportunity Knocks with.
The song was called “Ukelele Girl” but I changed the title to “The Big Big Breakfast Show.” I can remember every line, one of them being, “Turn on your Telly Feast your eyes on Kelly and you’ll see what this show has got. Ea-rly in the mor-ning, only Jonny Vaughan can ever stop that yawning”. Kelly was Kelly Brook – interestingly she was sacked a few weeks later for failing to be able to read the auto cue but as we know has since gone on to achieve great things.
So song in hand, I trekked down to London with my best outfit on and my portable stereo ready to blast it out to anyone who would listen.
Despite my lack of singing talents, the Producers were suitably impressed and I was put through to the next round of interviews which were to take place in about a month’s time.
This time however we had to devise an entire new channel and a flag ship show to go on it. I came up with a channel called Revival which would show re runs of old popular shows – not dissimilar to UK Gold or Dave. I was interviewed by a producer called Shed, who consequently went on to earn notoriety when he managed to get himself enrolled into a high school aged 30 something, and spend a term there without his real age being discovered!
Sadly that’s where my journey at The Big Breakfast was to end – (or so they thought) as I received a letter a week later saying that they had loved meeting me however they had decided not to give the Graduate place to anyone that year.
As you can imagine I was beyond distraught and refused to accept this decision. I immediately telephoned one of the producers and asked for an explanation as to why they had not selected anyone, and more specifically why I hadn’t been given the job. There was just no way I was going to take “No” for an answer. I had never failed at anything before in my entire life (with the exception of my driving test which I took 9 times) and I certainly was not going to fail at my first attempt to get a job in TV.
And I didn’t fail, because ten minutes later I managed to persuade the Producer to offer me an unpaid work placement that summer after my graduation with the provision that if I was suitably impressive they would offer me a paid job thereafter. I think that was the moment that my mum realised nothing would stop me from getting where I wanted to be.
So in the summer of 1999 after I graduated from Newcastle University with a BA Honours in History, I started an unpaid work placement at The Big Breakfast.
I was up at 5am every morning, travelled to the Big Breakfast, worked my socks off and was home at 7pm. I absolutely loved it. Within 2 weeks I was taken off the Big Breakfast and given the job of Production Secretary on a brand new show called A Family of My own. A week after that I was made Production Coordinator on the entire series. Don’t ask how I managed to go from knowing precisely zero about TV production to co ordinating an entire series, but I guess it was down to quick learning, hard work, tenacity and determination.
How did you go from production team to presenter?
I spent the next few years working in TV production as Production Co ordinator, Studio Manager, Researcher and Assistant Producer for many TV companies including Planet 24, Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel, Sky and ITV1’s This Morning.
I was always very keen to move in front of the camera and tried to get myself noticed hoping that someone would give me this opportunity.
It did eventually come when my boyfriend at the time, Nigel Mitchell, who was a presenter at Nickelodeon, told me about a new channel that was being set up by his agents. The channel was to be called Where It’s At and the agents were David and Cathy Rose. They agreed to audition me but told me I was more suitable for production then presenting. The channel was very hip and contemporary and I was more of an academic and not very trendy at all. Anyway I decided to accept the job hoping that I could convince them otherwise. My moment finally came when one day we were invited to send a presenter to interview Ken Livingstone (who was Mayor of London at the time) about his policy on young rough sleepers.
David and Cathy decided that it was such a serious interview none of their cool hip presenters had the right knowledge and attitude to interview the mayor, so they sent me.
Wow! My 1st on camera interview and it was with the mayor of London. Scared was not the word, so I spent the next 5 days preparing myself for the interview and learning Ken’s government white paper inside out and back to front. The interview went swimmingly – so much so that I managed to catch Ken out on a number of points which highlighted that clearly I knew more about his own policy on young rough sleepers than he did.
The next day I was called to the David’s office where I was told that I was to be given my own live current affairs show on the channel starting that week. I was then sent to Harley Street to get my very own presenters talk back made. This was definitely one of the most exciting and proudest moments of my life.
Which side of the camera do you prefer?
I prefer being in front of the camera then behind it, however I always have to do my own prep for any TV appearance. Without doing the ground work, the research and the preparation you can’t be a good presenter and I think my History degree has always helped me in doing the research. I would hate to present a show and be unprepared – I think my confidence on screen comes from the fact that I know I have the knowledge to fall back on.
How hard was it to maintain an income from presenting on camera?
My first presenting job Once on Where It’s At lasted for several months however sadly the channel closed down because the investors were based in the World Trade Centre and the tragedy of 9 / 11 meant the channel could not be sustained.
I spent the next few years hopping between presenting and production.
Despite my experience in front of the camera it was very hard to get work as a presenter and so I relied on going back into production now and again to earn my living.
What do you think was the biggest barrier to getting regular on-screen work?
There were many barriers in my way when trying to get regular work on screen. One was the sheer competition – presenting is so oversubscribed and so if you are not exactly what the casting directors are looking for then you will lose out to someone else. That’s why it helps to know people in the right places and to have an expertise.
The other huge barrier standing in my way of getting regular presenting work was my lack of fame. Producers tend to want to cast well known names and are scared to risk putting a new face on a major show just in case the public don’t warm to them. This is great for the ones that can get into the inner circle of presenting talent – but not so good for everyone else. So unless you were one of the chosen few regular telly faces or happen to be a Big Brother contestant, a Wag, a page 3 model or a singer from a famous talent show it was hard to break into the main stream presenting world.
However things changed for me after I went to live in Germany to present a phone in quiz show which was being filmed live from Munich for E4.
It was there that my colleagues Chuck Thomas, Simone Thorogood and I decided to pitch our own version of this phone in quiz show to a digital channel back in the UK, called Nation 217. Luckily for us David Brook, the creator of Nation 217 loved our idea and commissioned it.
We had about 4 weeks to create the set, music, graphics, games and pretty much everything else for our very own quiz show Bowling For Bucks. The show, which I hosted live 5 nights a week, was a big hit and we were very excited about what we had created. I also suffered with terrible bouts of tonsillitis due to the non stop talking I had to do on a nightly basis!
It was then that we were head hunted by an acquaintance of mine at Fremantle Media who asked us to come and make a similar quiz show for them which I would also present. So we left Nation 217 and headed to the big shiny offices of Fremantle Media (where they make the X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent.) What a buzz! We were given our own open plan offices and a huge production team and a few months later our creation, which was to become one of the most successful and famous quiz shows in the UK, Quizmania was born!
Initially Quizmania was broadcast on an obscure satellite channel called Information TV, however after a few months ITV1 came calling and a deal was made which meant that our beloved Quizmania would broadcast on ITV1 every week night.
This was the biggest thing that could have happened to myself, Chuck and Simone. I was suddenly broadcasting on ITV1 every night and the show became a cult hit.
During the next 2 years Quizmania became massive. It was sold to Poland, Australia and France and was even mentioned in an episode of Doctor Who!
Why did you set up your modelling business?
After nearly 5 years of working in the world of Quiz TV I decided to quit telly. I felt that I’d had enough of the late nights and wanted to take a different turn.
I was also just about to get married and knew that I wanted to start a family quite soon. (Ed’s Note: Debbie married ex-G4 frontsman, Jonathan Ansell, and they have indeed started that family!)
I came up with the idea of a modelling school whilst talking to my uncle David King, who is an international Theatre Producer. We were discussing the success of modelling schools in the USA where lots of his dancers are from. We discovered that there were not many (if any) places in the UK where models can learn and get experience in all areas of modelling such as catwalk, posing, confidence on set, how to move their body and how to get into the industry.
So from this discussion the London School of Modelling was created which is now one of the biggest modelling academies in the country and has just been the subject of a 5 part reality show for ITV2 called Models Misfits and Mayhem.
Tell us what your business is and how it works?
I created the school to show that that the world of professional modelling is not just about high fashion & catwalk. There is a galaxy of opportunity out there for all types of models: curvy, leggy, petite, plus size, mature, strangely beautiful or beautifully strange. Whatever your look, as long as you have model potential, the London School of Modelling experts can teach you how to look, act and think like a professional model. My school has attracted attention from top industry professionals and now has a constant stream of casting directors visiting, on the hunt for new modelling stars. I hand pick my best boot camp graduates and put them up for these modelling campaigns.
Over the past 2 and a half years my students have modelled for Heat Magazine, OK Magazine, Closer, Lipsy, QVC, The Sun, White Wedding Pages, Lonsdale, Boohoo.com, Football Punk, Sky One, Cosmo Girl and many more.
The school is open to students of any age, sex, size and shape and offers training and guidance from leading industry professionals. The 2 day Model Boot Camp covers everything that you might think an aspiring model needs to learn and more. Training includes:
Any advice for those wanting to get work as a presenter?
Find a niche – it wasn’t until I created a niche for myself in the form of my modelling school that I was given a chance to work on a mainstream TV show – which happened to be a show about my school. Until then being a generic presenter wasn’t enough.
Be tenacious, thick skinned and determined.
And any advice for those wanting to get work in production behind the camera?
Go buy a copy of the Yellow Pages!
Thank you, Debbie. That may sound like a very glamorous story of media success but make a note that Debbie had to bang hard on those doors and be very determined to achieve what she has. Take inspiration from her and go get ‘em!
Debbie in action from some of her early shows including that infamous interview with Ken Livingstone: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fKiSJw47P4&feature=related
More of Debbie’s work including her award-winning, Student Cooking, Market Kitchen and the Ivor Novello Awards: http://www.debbieking.co.uk/?node=2349
Debbie’s personal website: http://www.debbieking.co.uk
London School of Modelling website: http://www.londonschoolofmodelling.com