John Leslie: 'My behaviour was at times inappropriate'
For the first time since he was branded a rapist and lost his job and his reputation, John Leslie breaks his silence. He tells Will Storr about Ulrika, drugs and the Abi Titmuss 'home movie'
Thursday 23 February 2006
Blue Peter presenters don't have sex. They don't use cocaine. And they absolutely do not make home-sex movies of drunken girls. Most of all though, Blue Peter presenters also never indecently assault more than 30 women.
Everyone knows these cardinal rules of daytime television. But over the past four years John Leslie - a star both of the legendary children's show, and it's adult equivalent This Morning - has been accused of all these things and more. This relentless volley of scandals lead to a period of around 10 months when he was, at least as far as the red-top media was concerned, the most hated man in Britain.
I meet Leslie at a quiet corner table in a private members club in Notting Hill on behalf of Arena magazine. Drinking a cappuccino in a white shirt under a grey wool jumper, he looks well. Slim, energetic and confident, it's clear that the experience of being at the barrel end of one of the most comprehensive red-top-led executions hasn't destroyed him.
Now a property developer, this is the first time Leslie has spoken publicly about his downfall. Had we spoken a year ago he might not have sounded so chipper. When I ask if he has a name for his dark period, he says: "Yes, 'The Blip'. It's funny, last year I had a different word for it - 'The Trauma'. It was everything bad, it was everything nasty, it was everything negative."
And the stigma of "The Blip" remains to this day, despite Ulrika Jonsson never actually accusing Leslie of raping her and his being cleared of two charges of sexual assault. "That day, I thought that my trials and tribulations were over," he says. "I thought I'd be back on television the next week. But in many ways the worst was yet to come."
John Leslie Stott was born in Edinburgh in February 1965, the first son of a social worker and a biscuit salesman. Of slender build and tall, Leslie was a shy boy and a target for bullies. During his teens, he says he was too obsessed with football and music to think about women. So when he left school, his career as a DJ playing in nightclubs with names like Cinderella-Rockerfellas took off and he was bombarded by amorous women, he says he suddenly found himself in a thrilling but completely alien world, the subtleties and social codes of which he'd never learnt. And it was this condition of "sexual innocent abroad" that Leslie cites as the root cause of his future problems. "Between the ages of 15 and 18, I missed out on what every other normal guy goes through," says Leslie. "You know, the beginners' school of women, all the messy chat-up lines at the bar and all that. I didn't learn that intuitive idea of how to deal with them. The first experience I had of women was when they were queuing up at the DJ box. I was like 'Are you talking to me?'"
The period after Leslie moved to England saw him accelerate into a frenzy of ambitious activity, which ultimately led to his replacing Mark Curry on BBC's Blue Peter. Then, one night, he attended a Chesney Hawkes after-show party and met an aspiring actress called Catherine Zeta-Jones. Leslie and Jones dated for two years, to the fascination of the red-tops.
Can you still remember the night you first met Catherine?
Yes I can. She was stunning. The most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. There was nothing to compare to her. We talked and there was a lot of yin and yang and mutual attraction. Then I just said, "Would you like to go out for dinner?" and she said, "Call my agent." I was like, "Fuck off!"
Do your parents still think Catherine was "the one"?
Everybody thinks she was.
Do you still miss her?
I certainly miss being in love with somebody. That was part of the problem; the search for somebody to fall in love with. I think that's what the parties and the going out and my lifestyle was about - it was a search I was on.
By this stage, post-Catherine, you were starting to generate some heat. There were rumours...
There were a lot of people talking about me. But I was a lad about town, I had lots of attractive girls, I was earning lots.
Were you taking cocaine then?
No, only towards the end.
Honestly? It's rife in TV...
Not for my kind of TV. Not on This Morning. I was doing five days a week. I gave so much to the programme that come Friday I was knackered. But it was never every weekend. It was here, it was there...
So there were drugs and there was your sexual appetite, which is typically described as "voracious"...
The only difference between me and anyone else is that I had more opportunity than they did.
So you're not one of those Michael Douglas-style sex addicts?
No, definitely not. I get a bigger kick out of scoring a goal or playing the right record at the right time and having the crowd go "woof" than going out and pulling.
During this period, did anyone warn you about your behaviour?
I had a few warnings from friends. One person said, as you put it: "There's a bit of heat about you at the moment, just make sure everything's in order." I was like: "Yeah, everything's cool," because I hadn't realised I was doing anything wrong. While I actually wasn't.
A lot of the rumours concerned your behaviour around women. People were saying you were a bit...
Is that how you'd put it? "Clumsy" rather than "pushy"?
Yeah, I'd take clumsy. I hadn't learnt how to do it properly.
During this party period, didn't you ever think: "This might get me into trouble"?
I never had that moment. That's why I think it was a good thing that somebody came down with a massive stop. OK, so you can say it's quite a severe lesson to learn. But maybe it had to be that severe to make sure it never happened again. I believe that everything happens for a reason and I think that was someone upstairs saying, "Stop, finish, it's gone too far," and I think it possibly had. Who's to say it wouldn't have been me dragging somebody out of my pool?
On Thursday 24 October 2002, Leslie's life caught fire. A week earlier, fellow light-entertainment star Ulrika Jonsson appeared on a Channel 4 documentary called Ulrika Jonsson - The Truth About Men, part of the pre-publicity for her upcoming autobiography, Honest. In the programme, she spoke about a celebrity who had raped her. Following this, the popular press were in spasms of speculation about the attacker's identity.
Then, journalist Matthew Wright linked Leslie to the scandal on his Channel Five show, The Wright Stuff. Soon, the red-tops had rounded up 30 women who accused Leslie of a variety of sexual misdemeanours. This quickly led to the police making formal charges. Next, the News of the World exposed him as a cocaine user. The "blip" had begun...
Do you think Wright really made a mistake? Or was it deliberate?
The jury's out. Put it this way, I'm the only one who thinks it could be a mistake. I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. He caused a problem, obviously. But I've asked him man to man and he told me it was a mistake.
So, you're not the man who raped Ulrika in hotel in Swiss Cottage?
No. Without a shadow of a doubt.
Were you ever in a Swiss Cottage hotel room with her?
Yes, because that's where she was staying at the time. I went out with her for two or three months and was there one afternoon. I came up and brought flowers and then left because she was ill and had cancelled the date. But there was no sex.
But she said it was a famous TV presenter. That narrows it down.
There are three or four people who it could have been - basically all the people who were going around with her at that time. The problem with Ulrika is that at any point she could have come out and said, "John is not the guy." That would have stopped a whole lot of damage. But she didn't. She just sat on the fence and took the money. Whether you like me or hate me, that's not right.
And then ITV sacked you because you wouldn't deny it?
ITV sacked me because I hadn't answered an ultimatum. It faxed me a list of questions. It was everything, "What was this thing in the 'News of the World'? What's the story with Ulrika?" So I was meant to fax this thing back to ITV when I'm fighting the police and everything else? I'd been a loyal servant to that company for years and I just though it was pretty unfair.
The fact that the red-tops produced 30 women seemed damning
The way I judge the 30 women is that there were none before, there's been none since and they'd all been paid for what they said. I didn't even recognise half of them. However, saying all that, my behaviour with women at times was inappropriate. I was not respectful enough, was not sincere enough, was cold. I know all this sounds pig-headed but I think the majority of the women who I had met who went to the papers were those I hadn't called back and were pissed off.
Are you honestly saying that they were only upset because you didn't call them back?
No, I just said that - it was because I was not respectful enough, but I never harmed one of those girls. I've never harmed anyone. My behaviour was not right on occasions. I shouldn't have had those girls in situations where they would feel uncomfortable, which obviously some of them did.
What kind of situations?
I don't know. We're talking about women years ago who went to newspaper to make some money. I had a 10-month investigation by Scotland Yard and they found jack shit. So I can sit here and I can feel quite happy in feeling vindicated.
Were you in touch with Catherine through this?
Yes. She was very supportive. And I like Michael. He hates the British press as well.
Leslie's girlfriend at the time was a nurse called Abby Titmuss. During the trial "Abby" became "Abi", and a star in her own right, largely down to the leaking of a home video, filmed by Leslie, that showed her having sex with another woman.
What do you think of what Abi became?
Nobody was more surprised than me when she went off and did what she did. She took the chance, and you've got to admire her for it. I don't think Celebrity Love Island was a good idea. But up to that point she was playing a good set of cards.
Do you miss your old life?
The only thing I miss is the buzz of the job... If I wanted that lifestyle I could go and have it.
But you couldn't John, surely?
What else could the red-tops do to me now?
On 31 July 2003, two charges of indecent assault were dropped against Leslie when the police offered no evidence. "My worst year was after being cleared," confesses Leslie, "by miles. Probably my lowest moment was when I was going to top myself. I felt hounded. Every single day for 10 months, there were photographers outside my door. I'm convinced my phones were bugged. I'm convinced my bins had been gone through. I had cars chasing me. I had no job, no future and no life. My appearance had gone to pot and I was drinking. I was taking more drugs. But then I thought: 'Don't be so fucking stupid. You'll fight this thing.'"
And you're still feeling good?
Yes, better than ever. They haven't won and they'll never win. Whether I'm back on television or not, in my head that's not me winning. My family, my health, my friends, and my wellbeing are what's important. The only thing I've lost is a job.
The full version of this interview appears in the current issue of 'Arena' magazine, on sale today
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