A-listers stay away as sheen comes off Big Brother's return on Channel 5

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Sally Bercow likes being on TV. She knows it will upset the establishment, which is a big plus

The rumour mill spiralled into meltdown as the relaunch of Celebrity Big Brother approached: the troubled Hollywood star Charlie Sheen had been spotted at Heathrow and was surely heading for the Elstree house.

But when the contestants were finally unveiled, it appeared that Richard Desmond's chequebook had failed to lure the A-listers that the Channel 5 owner promised would drive 20 million viewers to the reality show's new home. After a day of high intrigue, with lawyers at Channel 5 HQ said to be poring over contractual demands and at least one late withdrawal, believed to be R&B star Bobby Brown, viewers were instead presented with Bobby Sabel. Bobby who? Sabel, it transpired, is a fashion model, who has graced Esquire magazine and appeared in "a number of high-profile advertising campaigns" including those for Cast Iron Denim and Sony.

Sabel was joined in the house by Lucien Laviscount, a teen actor said to have "boy-band appeal". He enjoyed a year on Coronation Street before graduating to the BBC school-set soap Waterloo Road. There was no Sarah Ferguson, said to be the subject of a £1m offer to take part. Instead we have Darryn Lyons, a mohican-wearing Australian paparazzo. And there are the usual stars fallen on hard times – Kerry Katona and Amy Childs, a product of The Only Way Is Essex, who has defected to CBB after being made an offer she couldn't refuse.

Sally Bercow, the wife of the Commons Speaker, John, is joining the housemates – against her husband's wishes. She has retained the services of the PR guru Max Clifford, who said: "Sally likes being on TV and she knows it will upset the establishment, which is a big plus. John didn't want her to do it. He hates the show. He thinks it's dreadful. But she didn't want him to be a Tory MP."

Accused by Tory MPs of using the Speaker's office to benefit financially, Bercow is being paid £150,000 for the show but will give £100,000 to the charity Ambitious about Autism. Her eldest child, Oliver, is autistic. She will keep £40,000, with Clifford's fee accounting for the rest. Mr Bercow has gone to India, where he "hopes to be as far away from it as possible".

Mrs Bercow, a failed Westminster Council Labour candidate, hopes to forge a new television career with Simon Cowell. "Simon will be meeting with her," said Mr Clifford, who represents both figures. "She says what she thinks and he identifies with that. There are projects they can work together on." Mr Clifford believes the Big Brother audience will respond to Mrs Bercow. "She's going to be honest," he said. "She was an alcoholic and she's prepared to talk about that."

William Hill said it expected £5m to be staked on the three-week series and made Amy Childs the 7/2 favourite. A luxury house has been created and the producers hope to see as much naked flesh as possible. But the rumour mill continues to spin that Sheen and Pamela Anderson may yet pay a fleeting visit to the house.

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