Guess who used to boil fillet steak and who didn't own an oven for six years? As Celebrity MasterChef returns, we meet this year's most unlikely hopefuls

This doesn’t bode well. Keith Chegwin might be wearing chef’s whites but his account of the first time he cooked steak really doesn’t leave you begging for the recipe.

‘I boiled it first,’ he admits. ‘I’d only ever seen my mum cook cheap cuts, which she boiled, so I did the same with a fillet steak before putting it under the grill.’

Did he, by some miracle, discover a new taste sensation that he’ll trundle out for us on this year’s Celebrity MasterChef, changing the way we cook steak forever? ‘No,’ he says. ‘I learned a valuable lesson in life: never boil a nice fillet.’

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Arlene Phillips, Natalie Lowe, Yvette Fielding and Keith Chegwin are the latest celebs to take to the kitchen

Arlene Phillips, Natalie Lowe, Yvette Fielding and Keith Chegwin are the latest celebs to take to the kitchen

To be fair, he was a teenager then (incredibly, he and his twin brother were living in a London flat together at the age of 14 when they both started in showbiz), so we can’t completely dispel the notion of a Keith Chegwin cookery book to come. Given how much he rolls around laughing at the suggestion though, the odds aren’t high.

Whatever, Cheggers, 58, is one of the contestants on the new series, hosted as ever by John Torode and Gregg Wallace, and judging by the antics today when he joins some of his rivals for a photoshoot, he’s going firmly for the comedy approach. 

First he tells us he can’t possibly be in the same room as one of the other celebs, former Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding, because they have ‘history’. ‘I can’t stand her,’ he says. Only after she’s gone pale does he confess, ‘I’m joking.’

Most Haunted presenter Yvette Fielding says that she is determined to win 

Most Haunted presenter Yvette Fielding says that she is determined to win 

Were the MasterChef backroom people laughing, though, when he handed over the list of ingredients he needed to make his chosen dishes, as all contestants have to do? It seems not. ‘They looked at my list and said, “What are you going to make from all this?” I told them the truth: “I don’t know yet. Let’s just say I have an experimental approach to cooking.”’

Still, at least Cheggers actually possesses an oven. One of the other contestants he’s up against confesses she didn’t actually own one until very recently. Natalie Lowe, whose day job is being one of the professional dancers on Strictly, says she used to cook ‘all the time’ when she was living in her native Australia. 

But since moving to the UK six years ago she’s been living out of a suitcase, with no means to make even beans on toast. ‘I’ve been staying in hotels and with friends, or on tour. It’s only very recently that I’ve got an apartment – with an oven,’ she says proudly.

Keith Chegwin admits that the first time he attempted cooking a steak he boiled it

Keith Chegwin admits that the first time he attempted cooking a steak he boiled it

Frankly, we don’t fancy her chances either. While she’s the only celeb here today who manages to make chef’s whites look sexy (sorry Cheggers, but it’s true), Natalie – an Antipodean goddess – doesn’t have the air of a woman who actually eats, never mind cooks. This she disputes. ‘I love food,’ she says. 

‘It’s just that I love to be fit and healthy, and obviously I have to be in shape for my job. So when it comes to choosing whether to have bread or spinach, I’ll mostly choose spinach because it’s good for me. But when I’m cooking for friends, oh my goodness, then it’s a case of “Bring on the chocolate cake”, absolutely.’

Hmm. Next up in our motley collection of celeb wannabe chefs is Arlene Phillips, choreographer and ex-Strictly judge, who holds her hands up to the fact that her culinary experience is limited too. She admits that when other women of her generation (she’s 72) were slaving over stoves at home, she was off galavanting around the world in the 80s with Freddie Mercury, choreographing videos for the likes of the Village People, and being, she smiles, ‘much too wild to cook’. 

‘In my first marriage I did cook,’ she says. ‘But everything was very regimented. I did the same dishes – basic ones – every night. I did Spanish rice on a Tuesday night, lamb chops on a Wednesday, a roast on a Sunday – always roast chicken so I didn’t have to cope with Yorkshire puddings.’

The MasterChef judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace will be putting the celebs through their paces

The MasterChef judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace will be putting the celebs through their paces

The marriage ended, her career took off – and the constant travel involved released her from her oven. When she did settle down (one daughter, Alana, was born during her ‘wild’ years; the other, Abi, came later, when she’d got together with her partner Angus Ion), Angus was, she confesses, ‘a brilliant cook – and happy to do it all’. So she let him. ‘In fact, when I started to do MasterChef I felt like an intruder in my own kitchen. It caused a few problems – mostly because he’s always refused to label all the herb jars because he knows what’s in them from the smell. I couldn’t tell one from the other.’

While it sounds as if Cheggers has spent much of his time in front of the MasterChef cameras larking around (‘I didn’t practise anything. I did one dessert and they asked, “When was the last time you made this?” I said, “I’ve never made it,”’ he admits), Arlene’s competitive spirit came out and she practised furiously for weeks before filming started. ‘Oh, I’ve been taking it very seriously,’ she confesses. 

‘The annoying thing is that I approached it like I do a dance, because they’re similar, aren’t they. It’s all in the timings. I came a bit unstuck there because I know what I’m doing with dance. It’s hard to be in control in a kitchen. But I had the family help me by walking up and down asking me questions, like the judges do.’ Did she like being on the other side of the judging table, so to speak? ‘Ha!’ she laughs. ‘Well, I found it wasn’t so easy, and I found myself being pitifully grateful for any advice they could offer me.’

In terms of competitive zeal in today’s batch of celebs, it’s – surprisingly – the lovely Yvette Fielding, presenter of the Most Haunted series since her time on Blue Peter, who shows the most ruthlessness. ‘Yes, I want to win,’ she shrieks. 

Celebrity MasterChef kicks off on Thursday at 9pm on BBC1

Celebrity MasterChef kicks off on Thursday at 9pm on BBC1

‘You have to want to win, and say so. There’s no point pussyfooting around.’ Yvette has form when it comes to cooking on telly, although she doesn’t like to be reminded of it. ‘Well, we did cook on Blue Peter – I learned how to do a good kedgeree there – but there was quite a bit of cheating involved. I’d stand there supposedly rustling up all this food but there would actually be two people crouching down beside me under the table, passing up the finished dishes.’

She does admit she became a little frazzled during the MasterChef filming process when she was hurled into a proper restaurant environment. ‘To be honest, I’d watched the show before but assumed that bit was faked. I thought, “I know they say the proper chefs will be relying on my food, but that’s all just for the cameras. They won’t be really.” When I realised they actually were, I went to pieces. It was awful.’

There’s something of a panto feel about today’s photoshoot. Where else would you watch a bunch of mismatched celebs attack each other with baguettes and lark about with oversized whisks? The criticism of this year’s crop of contestants is that we’re not exactly top heavy with A-list celebs. Sarah Harding from Girls Aloud and actress Amanda Donohoe are two of the better known ones, but Craig Gazey and Tish Potter, anyone? (They were in Corrie and Holby City respectively.) Then there are the celebs that time forgot, like one-hit wonder Chesney Hawkes and Syd Little (the slimmer half of Little and Large).

Cheggers, of course, is a showbiz legend. His career took off in the 1980s with shows like The Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and he’s popped up on both Dancing On Ice and Celebrity Big Brother in more recent times. He broke ribs and fractured a shoulder on the former, which meant it wasn’t a huge success. And Big Brother? 

‘I’d always said no to that. Every year they offered it and every year I said no.’ What changed? ‘The money,’ he admits. ‘It went up so much I said, “I can’t turn this down.”’ So earlier this year he found himself living with Katie Price, whom he loved (‘she wanted to give me a horse. She hasn’t, though’), and Katie Hopkins, whom he loved less. ‘No, we haven’t kept in touch, no way. I thought she was cruel, awful to everyone.’

Yvette says she’d run a mile from most of the celeb shows, but did say yes to Come Dine With Me, and has fond memories of a drunken night at Catchphrase legend Roy Walker’s home, playing Catchphrase (what else?). 

Quite by chance she’s been mixing in very A-list circles, though, as she manages her son Will’s band, called White Eskimo. Will started messing about with songs while still at school with his best mate, a boy called Harry Styles. Yes, that Harry Styles, who back then was just a ‘regular cheeky chappy’.

Arlene and Natalie obviously have Strictly writ large on their CVs, but Arlene says she’s been mostly banned by her daughters from appearing on other contest shows. 

 You have to want to win, and say so. There’s no point pussyfooting around -Yvette Fielding 

‘When I’ve been offered them I’ve run them by the family but there’s always been some reason why it wasn’t a good idea. Abi in particular is against most of them. She said, “No Mum, you can’t go in the jungle, no way.” She wouldn’t let me do Come Dine With Me because it involved having people in our house. But when I said I’d been offered MasterChef she said, to my big surprise, “Oh yes, you must. You have to.” She’s a huge fan of the show. She also thought I’d learn lots – and she was right there. Since we started filming I’ve been like a woman possessed.’

Whose career will benefit most from their stint in the famous kitchen, though? That’s a difficult one. You could argue that Cheggers has already had his comeback moment when he came fourth on Big Brother – although he says that since he’s never been out of work, he’s never actually gone away. He’s cannier than you might think. 

Beneath all the Scouse bluster is a proper old-school trouper. He tells me that the recent explosion in reality TV shows such as TOWIE and Made In Chelsea – which have produced a crop of very different ‘celebs’ – has been great for people like him. ‘When the people who are organising after-dinner speakers need someone they know can entertain for a whole evening, where do they go? They come to people like me. I’ve been in situations where they’ve booked me and a reality telly person, then asked me to go on earlier because the other person – I won’t name names – just can’t hold the room.’

There was a moment when it seemed Cheggers – always at the cheesier end of the spectrum – was finished. Back in 1992 he confessed to a drink problem that had seen him consume two bottles of whisky a day. He talks openly about this, but says it was a huge decision to go public on the issue at the time. 

‘The press got wind I was in a clinic – for exhaustion,’ he recalls. ‘I had a moment where I thought, “Do I come clean?” and I decided, “Yes, I have to.” It was the best thing I did. From that moment people would come up to me and say, “Me too”. It was amazing how many people identified with, or knew someone who had, an issue.’

His marriage to fellow TV presenter Maggie Philbin was a casualty of his drinking, but he’s been happily married to Maria (‘my rock’) since 2000. He’s been sober for over 20 years now, and says his celeb status has actually helped. 

‘I went through the stage of saying I drank because of the showbiz lifestyle. I’d blame the job, my mum and dad, everyone but myself really. But there comes a time when you have to take responsibility. I think it was easier once it was out there, though. Partly because I stopped hanging around with certain people and putting myself in situations where there was booze around. Then there was the recognition thing. You may laugh, but I couldn’t exactly go buying whisky in Tesco, could I?’

He’ll be first in the queue if they bring out a range of boil-in-the-bag steaks, though. 

Celebrity MasterChef, Thursday, 9pm, BBC1.


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