Life & Culture

Towie's Charlie King: fame, love and plastic surgery regrets

The reality TV star has had a turbulent time but, he tells Sandy Rashty, life is good now


Charlie King was once famed for his role on reality TV show The Only Way is Essex. A sensitive, self-described “Essex boy with a difference”, his fanbase grew as viewers followed his knotty love-life and friendships on the BAFTA-award -winning ITV series.

They lapped it up as he tried to kindle a relationship with show-favourite Gemma Collins, whom he described as having “chutzpah”. They followed his attempts to become “more of a man” by changing what he wore and how he spoke, in a bid to “fit in”. And, after a brief departure, they saw him return to the series as a gay man.

“It’s quite hard to watch back,” says King, more than a decade since he first appeared on the show, which thrust ordinary people into the spotlight and quickly made them famous.
“I was in an environment with good-looking people who knew who they were, but I didn’t know how I was meant to be. That’s why there were so many different versions of me on Towie. I was looking for an opportunity to find myself.”

He even hid his Jewish roots, after being bullied at his local all-boys Catholic school as a child. King, who grew up going to the Southend and District Reform Synagogue, recalls: “I have always been someone who felt a bit different. I never knew where I fitted in, so I kept my religion private.

“At school, word got out that I was Jewish and it was not pleasant. They would make comments about ‘money’ and my ‘nether region’. I didn’t want to talk about [my Judaism] at all on the show because I had been a target in the past.”

Now recognising his early identity struggles, the 37-year-old — who suffers from depression and body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) —uses his public persona to call for mental health awareness.

King first appeared on the show in 2011, after he met producers who were looking to film at The Nosherie, a bistro he then owned in Westcliff-On-Sea.

“I think they found me interesting because I was a young business owner in Essex, with a ‘glitz and glam’ lifestyle. I lived a good life with nice cars, a nice house, and a house in Marbella. I dressed nicely and took care of my appearance with a personal trainer, but I introduced myself as ‘an Essex boy with a difference’ because I was not about the tans and the nightlife, I was switched on and they needed to show that side of Essex. Before I came on, there were a lot of alpha-male characters.”

With his parents going through a divorce at the time, King used Towie as “an escape. I was building a nice rapport with people, travelling to London a lot, I was invited to cool things and got a bug for the celebrity lifestyle.”

Almost overnight, the cast were invited to club openings, celebrity events and became tabloid fodder. They were paid only £60 a day for filming early in the series, but their profile led to multiple opportunities including brand-endorsement and paid appearances at events.
As they were paid per episode, there was an incentive for them to develop a controversial scenario for viewers — from a love interest to an argument. “It was a bit of an animal. Because you are paid for days you film, it was in your interest to have a good storyline and be in everyone’s business. It meant your following would grow.”

King told producers that he was interested in dating Collins, because “I remember thinking she had a lot of Jewish qualities. She had chutzpah, things that I saw in my mum. She was very business-minded, family-orientated, liked her food and made sure that the people around her were having fun. I was open to seeing what it was all about.”

But the reality was far from what he expected.

“My Towie experience wasn’t pleasant,” says King, who went on to have an on-off friendship with Collins on the show. “There were times when I had to listen to spiteful or nasty things being said about me. For a while, I was always up against it with Gemma, but the viewers and producers liked it. It was a real-life soap opera.”

With social media on the rise, viewers would directly message the cast on Twitter and approach them in-person.

“You needed a thick skin, because people could be vile,” he says.

“Towie was a whirlwind position to be in; you go from being a regular person on the street, to having millions of people watching you on TV. The producers want you to be relatable, but there is nothing real about living in a goldfish bowl.

“We were regular people in a unique situation.

“We were so accessible; you would see us in a shopping centre or on the high-street.

“People would come up to us and tell us what they thought, and some were not the nicest.”
There was no support. “Nothing was managed by Towie, you were just left to get on with it. It brings you into a machine, spins you around, chews you up and spits you out. Afterwards, you are left thinking: ‘Now what?’

“There were a lot of perks from being on Towie, and I am thankful, but if you take rejection badly you might end up very disappointed or go down a different path.”

In 2015 he left the programme for good and has since lost touch with other cast members. Over the pandemic, he “needed to step away. I needed space to sort myself out.”

Using more social media over the period, he found that he was bombarded with “perfect” images. With more than 90,000 followers on Instagram, he was also approached by cosmetic companies offering him “Botox, fillers, even a hair transplant” in exchange for promotion to his followers.

But over the first lockdown King developed a fixation with his nose –—which he had previously broken
“We came to that standstill and our window to the world was through our phones; so the comparison angle came in. I thought I needed to fix my nose, that it was letting me down.”
King — who blames his BDD for his anxiety about his nose — paid for plastic surgery, after an appointment with a surgeon “validated that thought — they sell you the dream”. But he was disappointed with the result.

“I looked at coming out of Covid, as a ‘re-birth’. I didn’t need anything done but I was just in a low place. There needs to be an overhaul and proper checks. Since I’ve spoken out, I have had so many people saying their surgery had not gone to plan. It affects you psychologically.”

“It has been a real challenge, adds King, who addressed MPs on the Health and Social Care Committee in Parliament this year, saying he may not have had the surgery if there was better mental health support for people having cosmetic procedures.

He explains now: “Plastic surgery has been a very damaging journey for me, making me feel a sense of shame and embarrassment that I changed something that didn’t need it; or that I didn’t get a satisfactory result and it’s on my face.”

After the procedure, King locked himself in his London flat, refusing to see people.
His mum took him back to their Essex home, and helped him slowly rebuild his confidence.
Whilst juggling his work in social media, personal training and his ByCharlesKing clothing business, King now he hopes he can one day start his own family.

As a single gay man, he is working with the IAC: The Centre for Adoption organisation, looking at his options.

While he has not made any decisions, King says: “After my sister had children and I got into my thirties, I have felt that my life needs a stronger purpose. For me, there is nothing like the love of children, and being around to teach and educate them.”

He adds: “So many children do need loving homes and despite the ups and downs, I have that.”

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