Derrick Evans’s infectious smile and psychedelic leotards transfixed TV viewers in the 90s. Now he is hoping to do the same with his drag debut. He talks about his battles to get on screen – and the nation into shape
A woman answers the door in a psychedelic Lycra outfit. Mrs Motivator says that Mr Motivator is finishing his supper and he’ll just be a few minutes. She shows me into the lounge of their Manchester home and offers me a cup of tea. The room exudes positivity. There are lovely family photos, bright paintings and a trinket on the mantelpiece saying: “You’re pretty much my favourite person of all time in the history of forever.” Mr and Mrs Motivator are very much in love, and have been for the past 30 years.
Mr Motivator is, of course, the TV fitness instructor who rescued ITV’s breakfast television show GMTV when it was in the doldrums in the 1990s. He was famous for his psychedelic leotards, infectious smile, simple routines and even simpler catchphrase: “Here we go.” Mr Motivator, AKA Derrick Evans, lived up to his name. He got us moving and made us feel better about ourselves.
For eight years he was ever-present on TV, but in 2000 he disappeared from our screens. The BBC brought him back to keep the nation in shape in lockdown and last year he was on TV raising awareness of children who don’t have a bed to sleep in. This year he was presented with an MBE by Prince William. Now, about to turn 70, he is making his drag debut in ITV’s Queens for the Night, a one-off celebrity contest hosted by Lorraine Kelly. With the world going more pear-shaped by the day, there has never been a better time for Mr Motivator’s brand of can-do feelgoodism.
He makes his entrance. “Hi, Mr Motivator, lovely to meet you,” I say.
He gives me a stony look. “Derrick,” he says. “You’re in my home, you call me Derrick. I’m Derrick, I’m not Mr Motivator.”
He accepts my apologies.
He looks disapprovingly at my trainers. “We never wear shoes in the house,” he says.
“I’ll take them off,” I say.
“It’s too late now. You’ve done it.”
He accepts my apologies.
In one of his earliest TV appearances, Evans acted the role of a sergeant major taking a group of men through a fitness regime. It feels as if I’m meeting the sergeant major today. Perhaps it’s not surprising that he has something of the military about him. He has spent much of his life fighting – for custody of his children, for recognition and against racism.
I tell Evans that we have friends in common. He met the couple years ago on a cruise where he was working as a fitness instructor. They were going through a terrible family crisis. He helped them through it and is still close to the woman, although her husband died some years ago. The famous smile appears, and he talks warmly about them. “I kind of adopted them because they were struggling so much,” he says. He has also had his struggles. Last year he lost his 12-year-old granddaughter Hadassah to meningitis, and said those months “were the darkest of my life”.
These days he sees himself as more of a life coach than a fitness coach, and there’s nothing that gives him more pleasure than helping people make the most of their later years. Many have difficulties with mobility, he says – that is, until he motivates them. “Statistically from the last cruise, 80% of the people I met couldn’t stand up properly. After 11 days, 80% were standing up. The joy on their faces if I’ve shown them how to get out of that chair. It’s wonderful.”
What’s the secret of his success? “I think it’s the way I make people feel. There’s a lady called Maya Angelou, great poet, she’s dead now, and there’s one thing she said that I embrace: ‘People may forget what you said and what you did, but they’ll never forget how you make them feel.’ That is really who I am. I’ve never size-bashed anybody because if you love you when you look in the mirror, that’s the most important thing. To say that you must lose weight is rubbish, but if you want help I will help you to do it.”
Evans has had a remarkable life. Born in Jamaica, he was adopted at the age of three months. His teenage single mother met an older stranger who admired baby Derrick so much she offered to take him off her hands. His birth mother handed Derrick over. His adoptive parents, Popa and Auntie, believed in the school of tough love. Popa, a policeman, beat him with a long plaited leather strap when he erred. Sometimes he would beat him pre-emptively, to make sure he didn’t err.
At nine, he came to the UK and lived with Popa in Leicester. At 16, he got caught up in a botched robbery with a group of young men. They robbed a factory, nicked £2 in change and were caught. Evans got two years’ probation. It was the wakeup call he needed.
After that he kept out of trouble. Evans worked hard in any number of jobs – for the gas board, Green Shield stamps, supermarkets, in stock control. And he experienced multiple rejections, most of them racially motivated. “The first job I went for, I’d spoken to the guy on the phone beforehand. When I went in he looked at me and said: ‘Why didn’t you tell me you were black?’ I said: ‘Because you didn’t tell me you were white.’” He laughs, bitterly. “I said: ‘If that’s how we’re beginning, I don’t think I can work for you’ – and I walked out.”
At 19, he became a father to Carolyne, and married her mother, Doreen. The family moved to London, struggled, and for a year were supported by the Homeless Family Unit. When he and Doreen separated, he fought for custody of his young daughter and won. “After being given away at three months old, I didn’t want Carolyne to grow up without the knowledge of me being her dad.” The experiences of being a father and homeless shaped him, he says: he was determined to provide for his daughter. He became his own boss at the age of 27, and ran a chain of 17 costume jewellery shops in the West End in the early 1980s.
There was a second unhappy marriage, which produced his son, James. Evans says that his wife, now dead, was bipolar and that he was the victim of domestic abuse. There was another battle for custody, which he finally won. “Courts would not believe a man could be the victim.” Was the relationship violent? “Oh yeah. Everything. She tried to stab me. She boiled oil and poured it over me.” He says he flung open a cupboard door to make a barrier between him and the oil, but was still burnt.
Despite his business success, he was bored with work. One night in 1983, at Harrow leisure centre, he had an epiphany. He saw two young women leading a pop mobility fitness class. “I was transfixed. That was my lightbulb moment.” He started his own classes. Before long, he realised he was special. “There was something about me. People travelled 20 miles to come to my classes. The demand for me was incredible.”
Was it financially rewarding? “Yeah, I was making loads of money. And I was probably the most expensive personal trainer in the country. One woman would pay me at least two months upfront, £70 an hour. That was in the early 90s. I learned the more expensive you are, the more demand there is for you.” Celebrities soon heard about Derrick Evans. Before long he found himself training all the presenters on GMTV.
How did he end up starring on GMTV? “It’s such a long story,” he says. “I would have thought you’d have bought my book at least and read it. You’re a mean brute!”
He’s teasing. I think. “Are you giving me a bollocking?” I ask, to make sure.
“Yeah, I am. I’m old enough to give you one. I just want to know whether you’ve read it,” he asks fiercely. “Have you read it?”
I haven’t, I admit. I feel like a naughty schoolboy. “Yeah, well, that’s bad,” he says.
I have since read The Warm Up, a heady cocktail of memoir, self-help, self-love and riotous indiscretion. My favourite story is about when Shirley Bassey took a fancy to him and invited him over to dine with the great and the good. There was a seat saved for him next to Bassey, but none for Mrs Motivator, who had to sit at the bottom of the table. Offended on behalf of his wife, Evans decided to leave early. At this point, Bassey stood up and sang him a love song. “I cringed,” he writes, adding that was the last time he saw her.
Evans reluctantly tells me how he got his chance at GMTV. “One day I was sitting in reception at GMTV. This guy comes walking in with a large stomach, and I got up and prodded him in the belly. I said: ‘Excuse me mate. You need to look after that.’”
Hold on, I thought you never fat-shamed people? He nods. “I wouldn’t normally do it. I don’t know to this day why I did it.” It turned out he had prodded the GMTV boss, Peter McHugh. “So did I give up? No. Next day I brought in an exercise bike, went up to the fifth floor, pushed it into his office and ran away. The day after, I knocked on his office and said: ‘You need to use that bike.’ He said: ‘Why are you hounding me?’ I said: ‘Because you need to exercise.’ After a lot of persuasion he said: ‘Yeah, OK, I will do it.’ We started training, and he said: ‘You need to be on television.’”
Then came further rejection. “He said: ‘We’ve checked with the advertisers and they don’t really want a black man doing fitness. It had to be a white woman with two kids.’ They felt that was the right image.”
Blimey, it was that prescriptive? “Yes, it was.” That’s shocking, I say. “Tell me about it. But I wasn’t put off.”
He got his chance when the regular fitness presenter was away. He and GMTV never looked back. “When I joined GMTV they were bottom of the ratings. Channel 4 was beating them hands down. When I came, it went like this.” He points skywards. “Greg Dyke grabbed me in the lift and said: ‘You realise you’re the Roland Rat of GMTV.’ I thought that was a great compliment.” The puppet rodent was credited with saving GMTV’s predecessor, TV-am, in the 1980s.
Did you like the TV world? “No,” he says. “You don’t forge friendships in television. When you’re on TV, they’re all like: ‘Motivator, we love you’, but the moment you’re not on television, you don’t hear from them.” There is the odd exception, he says. “Lorraine Kelly is lovely. But most of the so-called stars have faded into oblivion,” he says, with evident satisfaction.
He mentions a presenter to whom he had been close who then shut him out of his life. “He used to be around my home every week. He was the main presenter on GMTV.” That’s Eamonn Holmes, isn’t it, I say. I’ve read that Holmes didn’t speak to him for years because he thought Evans had called him Fatty. Evans refuses to confirm or deny whether he is talking about Holmes. “I met him at Television Centre, and he said to me: ‘The reason I haven’t called you is because I heard you said something about my size in the papers. I said: ‘I don’t do that kind of thing. Come on, you’re a celebrity, you know you can’t believe half the things out there.’”
Ah yes, this is definitely Holmes, I say. “I’m not going to say who it is. He said: ‘OK, let bygones be bygones’ and he gave me his number and I’ve sent him text after text and he’s never responded. That’s television for you. They’re horrible.”
Evans says the problem is that so many people in positions of power lack respect for those who aren’t. “I was working at a company in Warwickshire two days ago. And I was taken down the corridor. Everyone was greeting me, and there was a cleaner coming out. I went up to her and grabbed her and said: ‘No one’s probably told you this, but you are the most important person in this company.’ I said: ‘Do you know why? Let me tell you. When you’re away on holiday, no one wants to do your job, but when the MD goes away, everybody wants to be the MD. So you’re the most important person.’”
He hadn’t finished motivating her yet. “The guys were around and I said: ‘Make sure you know her name and when her birthday is because she does the most important job in this company.’” Evans reminds me he is not in the business of naming and shaming. “I won’t name the company. Huge company, 22,000 employees. What I’m getting at is, I’ve been there and it’s very important that all of us reach down and pick someone up.”
He left GMTV in 2000 after a spat when, he says, the show cut back on production values. But there was another reason: his youngest child, Abigail, had developed breathing problems in Britain, so he and her mother, Mrs Motivator (Sandra Palmer, who appears with him in YouTube videos, and whom he calls Palmer), returned to Jamaica, where he set up an adventure park.
In 2009, he returned briefly to GMTV, but there was another spat. “A certain gentleman said: ‘I want you to do a video for me’ because my videos have sold millions. He said: ‘We’ll give you 12.5% of what Universal is giving us.’ I said: ‘Well then, you might as well get an ordinary fitness instructor – you don’t need me.’ He said: ‘If you don’t accept that deal you won’t work for GMTV again.’ So I said to him: ‘You know what you can do with that deal.’ As I walked out of the door he said to me: ‘You won’t survive without GMTV.’ I said: ‘Just watch me.’”
Evans pauses. “About six months later I walked into an agency and he was working there because he’d been sacked by GMTV.”
Evans has had enough. “Right, come on. We’ve got to the end of this.” He stands up. I ask about the drag show. He downloads a clip of himself gloriously glammed up in feathers and heels. “It was the most wonderful experience I’ve had in my life,” he says. Why? “Because there’s an old saying: ‘Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes, you don’t know what it’s like.’”
As I get up to leave, Evans says: “Thank you for showing me your belly!”
“You’re making me feel a bit self-conscious,” I say.
“Well, that may be because you have something to be self-conscious about,” he says.
“I do exercise,” I protest.
He looks sceptical. “Really? Regularly? What do you do?”
“When did you last play?”
“And the time before that?”
“The previous Sunday.”
“That’s not regular.”
“I also run.”
“Run or jog? I bet you jog.”
On that note, I say my goodbyes. The words of Maya Angelou are ringing in my ears.
Two weeks later, I’ve been thinking a lot about Mr Motivator. And my belly. I’m not sure that he meant to motivate me, but my running has improved. Perhaps I was jogging all along.
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