CHEMISTRY LESSONS: PROFILE

Chat-show queen RUBY WAX talks with James Rampton

It is hard to imagine Terry Wogan clambering on top of Pamela Anderson in the back of her limo to try out her favourite sexual position. But this is exactly what Ruby Wax does in her new series of celebrity interviews. As she leans on Anderson's celebrated chest, Wax turns to the camera and shrieks: "If I burst one of these, do you know how much I'm going be sued for?"

The chat show has moved on since the genial Irishman with the questionable hairdo would clasp celebs by the knee and ask them to tell him everything about their new film. We are now in the post-sofa era; irony has taken over from flattery. With the rise and rise of spoof interviews by Mrs Merton, Alan Partridge and Dennis Pennis, it is now almost impossible to get away with a primetime chat show that is little more than a PR-led plug of new product. "People in this country smell a rat very fast," Wax contends, "otherwise we'd still have Wogan."

Although she is now the undisputed chief of chat, Wax dismisses the idea that she is the "new Wogan". "I hope I'm not," she gulps. "I wouldn't want that job because you burn out listening to the guests plugging. What's good about our show is that we keep the energy up. And you couldn't keep up those positions I did with Pamela if you did it three times a week."

Her uncanny knack is to get people to do and say things they would never dream of doing and saying even in their own front rooms. Under Wax's prompting, Jean-Claude Van Damme leaps to her rescue and head-butts the inflatable plastic crocodile that is assaulting her. In her most famous interview, which gained close on 15 million viewers, Wax got the Duchess of York to talk about why she has separate drawers for different-coloured T-shirts and ended the meeting by shutting Fergie out of her own house. The woman's middle name is "chutzpah".

Wax has the unusual gift of empathising with people while simultaneously taking the rise out of them. She lulls stars into revealing their true colours. A half-hour interview with Imelda Marcos turned into three days, because the world's most famous shoe-owner took a shine to Wax - even after she had quizzed her about mass killings during her husband's regime.

Following the broadcast of her interview, Fergie "called and left three thank-you messages, because she had got sympathetic letters. People felt sorry for her situation, and she really cares what people think about her."

In the past, Wax had a bit of "reputation". Shouting and screaming were not unknown; one newspaper remarked on her "brash pushiness and inflated ego". But now she has mellowed. She has a refreshing lack of stuffiness which makes her guests - and viewers - warm to her; she admits to Sharon Stone that she prefers sex to be over quickly, "so I can get on with eating". Never one to stand on ceremony, Wax conducts our interview in the untidied bedroom of her elegant west London home without batting an eyelid.

The atmosphere Wax is aiming to create on her show is that of two pals having a good old gossip. That facilitates such revelations as Helen Mirren's headline-grabbing announcement last week that she wants to retire. "You know in a restaurant when you hit a good stride with someone and you get on the same wavelength?" Wax asks. "If they don't like me, it doesn't work. There has to be a chemistry. Just give me the inner landscape; I don't want the dirt. If you go for that, their eyes glaze over and they think they're on Oprah.

"I can get things out of people because they're walking. When they sit down the whole time, they begin to solidify and take themselves more seriously. I feel it myself; you're sitting there and start to doze off."

Interviewees are all shown tapes of previous Wax interviews so they know exactly what they're letting themselves in for. Nearly all play along gamely (only Dennis Hopper appeared to be "on another planet"). What we see is the distillation of at least three hours' chat. "We don't show you the boring stuff," Wax says. "We'll do another show with the boring stuff on Channel 5."

Research is key; Wax turned up for the Marcos interview in pounds 80,000 worth of Theo Fennell jewellery "so she knew I was one of her girls". "Ruby gives a lot in interviews," maintains Clive Tulloh, the producer of Ruby Wax Meets... "To prepare for Helen Mirren, we watched her do six different interviews with Terry Wogan. Then you can see the subjects where her eyes go dead and know not to ask her about them. Ruby really tries to connect with people. You don't feel that other interviewers always do."

In the future, Wax might do more world figures. "I'm interested in power when it corrupts, but not a lot of those people are available," she laments. Winnie Mandela has been approached, and Tulloh would like to see Wax interview Colonel Gaddafi.

"If you started doing despots on a comedy chat show, you would offend a lot of people," the producer concedes. "But I think despots deserve it. The best way of ridiculing anyone and showing up their pomposity is for Ruby to do them."

A new series of `Ruby Wax Meets...' starts with Sharon Stone on Mon, 10.10pm BBC1

EYE TEST

1953: Born in Chicago into what she has called a family of eccentrics. Her father, originally from Vienna, made sausage skins and her mother was an accountant

1970s: Studied psychology for a year at the University of California, Berkeley, before leaving to hitch-hike round Europe. Rejected by Rada, she was accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. On graduation, she spent five years at the RSC. There, Alan Rickman told her she should write down the funny things she said and David Suchet directed her first comedy shows

Early 1980s: Wrote scripts for Not the Nine O'Clock News, starred in and wrote Girls on Top with French and Saunders

Late 1980s and early 1990s: Appeared in various eponymous comedy shows, including: Don't Miss Wax, East Meets Wax, Ruby's Hit and Run, Ruby Takes a Trip, Wax Cracks Hollywood, Wax Cracks Cannes. Fronted five series of The Full Wax. Married TV producer Ed Bye, with whom she has three children

1995: Presented six-part series on health, Ruby's Health Quest

1996: First series of Ruby Wax Meets...

RUBY'S TOP FIVE INTERVIEW GEMS

1. To Imelda Marcos: "Where did all the billions go, honey?" 2. To Fergie about the notes reminding her what is in her drawers: "you couldn't open a drawer? What are you, too lazy to go over there and check?" 3. To Burt Reynolds: "Nice wig, baby, what about your love life?" 4. To Jean-Claude Van Damme's mother: "the birth must have been painful ... did he just kick-box his way out?" 5. On why she is interviewing Pamela Anderson again for the new series: "when we showed her last time, we got nine million viewers."

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