Ilford style: Any shape as long as it's short, darling

Once the butt of endless jokes, Essex may soon be Britain's most chic county. Harriet Walker on an unlikely fashion phenomenon

London, Milan, Paris... Ilford. That's in Essex, where last night in a marquee at Fairlop Waters Country Park a new pin was placed on the fashion map. At least, that's what the one million viewers of ITV's hit series The Only Way is Essex seem to think. The programme, which returned to our screens for a second series last Sunday, pulled in an audience of 1.1 million – 900,000 more than when it first aired last October.

The county known more for its white shoes and WAGs is also in the throes of its own Fashion Week – as well as enjoying something of a cultural renaissance. Essex hotspots Chelmsford and Clacton-on-Sea have seen visitor numbers shoot up, with Travelodge reporting booming demand for rooms.

In the past year, the county has given us The X-Factor winner Matt Cardle, queen of the jungle Stacey Solomon and Strictly Come Dancing winner Kara Tointon. Even fish and chips cook-turned-model Alexander Beck, who was on the Prada catwalk this season, hails from Essex.

Despite its detractors, the area does well when it come to populist sentiment – its sons and daughters have a mass appeal, to which television favourites such as Dermot O'Leary and Denise Van Outen are testament. They are humble but fun-loving, hailing from a county which unashamedly enjoys aspiration and the good life.

"I think Essex comes out of it quite well," says Grazia columnist Paul Flynn of the show. "It looks a whole lot less neurotic, competitive and elitist than neighbouring London."

The Only Way is Essex is a "modified reality" programme, which uses non-actors in improvised, semi-scripted scenarios, and has won not only notoriety but also genuine affection from viewers for its brash, overblown and rather stilted dramatis personae.

"Slightly obsessed with [The Only Way is Essex]," said a fan on Twitter on Sunday. "Second series better than ever. I've never seen so much make-up, fake tan, fake hair, fake nails..."

The show's stars have become tabloid darlings and it is they who are populating the prestigious front row seats at this week's event. Glamour model Amy Childs, self-proclaimed "Mr Essex" Mark Wright and his long-suffering on/off girlfriend Lauren Goodger have been thrust into the limelight. The earthy Nanny Pat, Wright's grandmother, has taken the role of fashion doyenne, forsaking her sausage plaits and spray tan for something more stylish.

When the series debuted on ITV2 last year, it kicked off a certain amount of fascination with the glamorous world of fake tans and "vajazzling" – a grooming process in which diamantes are glued to the pubic region – and spawned a whole new vernacular, in which the word "babes" is applied as a suffix of every utterance.

"It's particular, tribal, funny, and comes with its own recognisable sense of style, language and an instant hit cast-list," says Flynn. "That's the holy grail of TV. There's a mix of empathy, shame and simple heart-throb telegenics involved in reality TV, for which Essex scrubs up perfectly."

The format is loosely based around the US-derived formula for shows such as The Hills and Jersey Shore, both of which purport to follow the antics of "real" people, but which are heavily directed according to what is most entertaining. While the first season of TOWIE – as it is known to its fans on Twitter – was based around a group of glitzy Essex natives, the second has so far seen some more heavy-handed manipulation, including the introduction of a former girlfriend of Hugh Hefner.

Still, the show appears to have lost none of its allure. Dismissed as tasteless, naff and trashy, the show rather brings out the more humane side of a culture usually scorned. The usual amount of liberal Lutherans have come out to condemn the cash-splashing, heavy-drinking protagonists, but the programme speaks of a righteously light-hearted working-class sensibility.

That comes in harsh relief to some of the more middle class shows that tend to reflect the straitened circumstances in which we find ourselves.

"Lily Allen's shop opening on TV is a relentless cacophony of dread, because she and her sister give off the impression of wanting to appear sophisticated," says Flynn. "The opening of Minnie's in Essex on Sunday night looked like an absolute hoot by comparison, because they didn't."

The second series has come under fire for the micro-managing of its players' lives, constructing plot twists that take them more into the remit of acting. Purists have decried the series for focusing too heavily on the affluent areas Gants' Hill and Brentwood. But the legions of fans don't seem to care. "Even at its most over-produced, [TOWIE] gets those things right," says Flynn.

Born in Essex

Dick Turpin It is thought the notorious highwayman was born in Thackstead, Essex.

Joseph Lister The scientist was born in Upton, Essex and was the founder of antiseptic surgery.

Jilly Cooper The novelist was born in Hornchurch, Essex, though she grew up in Ilkley, West Yorkshire.

Alan Davies The star of Jonathan Creek and QI was born in Loughton and grew up in Chingford.

Dame Maggie Smith You'd never guess it from her cut-glass enunciation, but one of Britain's best actresses was born in Ilford, which was then (1934) part of Essex.

Denise Van Outen The actress, who began her career at 12 in Les Misérables, was born in Basildon.

Jamie Oliver The popular chef, who has taken it upon himself to reform the UK's schools and now the world's eating habits, was born and raised in Clavering, Essex.

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