Biggest oaf in Germany is a TV star

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Zlatko Trpkovski would have enjoyed playing A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged this week by the remaining inmates of a container home in Cologne under the precise instructions of their keepers. He might well have been cast as the ass.

Zlatko Trpkovski would have enjoyed playing A Midsummer Night's Dream, staged this week by the remaining inmates of a container home in Cologne under the precise instructions of their keepers. He might well have been cast as the ass.

But the unemployed car mechanic from Macedonia was ejected from the premises simply for being too dumb. "What is Shakesbier?" he had asked when the name of the bard cropped up in one of the televised discussions Germans have been glued to since March in growing disbelief.

The nine other people who had volunteered to spend 100 days and nights in front of the cameras of Big Brother laughed, and Germany chuckled with them. The downmarket television station RTL II had clearly not turned away any applicant just for being stupid, but in this department Zlatko still seemed a cut above the rest.

The rules of Big Brother - a show that originated in the Netherlands - state that every week the 10 residents cooped up together must nominate two people who should be kicked out. The viewers make the final selection. After the 100 days are over, there will be just one winner, collecting a prize of DM250,000 (£75,000).

Zlatko was one of the earliest losers. He had cut a ridiculous figure, failed to pair off with any member of the opposite sex, and was constantly an embarrassment. "Me, I'm not gay," he said emphatically when one flat mate confronted him with the word "heterosexual". The way he spoke was itself a joke: fragmented German delivered at a fast pace and submerged under a barely penetrable Schwabian accent.

But Zlatko is having the last laugh. While his six remaining erstwhile rivals sweat it out on the yellow sofas, never out of the cameras' range, the Macedonian oaf is touring television studios in his snazzy new suit. He is now Germany's biggest celebrity.

He has done the main chat shows, boosting the ratings of all but one, whose audience are mainly pensioners. But that's in the past. The hottest chat show now is Zlatko's World, which goes out on Saturday nights. Its ratings are outpacing even the smash hit of the year, Big Brother itself.

Zlatko is proving to be a Renaissance man. He can sing, too, it turns out, not very well, but well enough. His rap single "I miss you" - a self-parody - has just entered the German charts in its first week. At number one. It has sold half a million copies.

The star, introduced in his show as "The King of Germany", has had to make a few adjustments, of course. The shell suit has gone, and the marketing people have rendered his name more accessible for the German tongue. Millions of fans call him Sladdi. Hence the brand name of the country's trendiest new brew, "Sladdi's Shakesbier", which is just one item in the vast merchandising line-up. There are, naturally, Sladdi or Zlatko mugs, T-shirts, mouse-pads and so on.

With all this going on, Zlatko has no time for frivolities. Requests for a joint appearance with the porn star Dolly Buster were politely put on hold. But success has not gone to his head: he cannot afford to let that happen.

For Zlatko has the very un-German gift of not taking himself too seriously, and not minding that other people laugh at him. The sociologists, working hard to explain the Zlatko phenomenon, say he is a breath of fresh air in Germany's pretentious society. He has the courage to be himself.

And maybe he is a lot cleverer than everybody thinks. The star's little brother claims Zlatko is a deep thinker, and is merely putting on an act. The brother cannot comment on Shakespeare, but he swears he has heard Zlatko use the word "heterosexual" in the right context.

Can he be that smart? Is he treading in the hallowed footsteps of the great Guildo Horn, the last German entertainer to make his living by subjecting himself to ridicule? Horn set out two years ago to enter the Eurovision Song Contest with the worst song ever composed, and nearly won. The noble endeavour captured the nation's imagination. Fans flocked to his ghastly concerts, as Germans served up his example as concrete evidence that they did have a sense of humour.

Horn faded eventually out of the limelight, as must Zlatko surely do one day. With all the money he is making, the fans will eventually wake up to the fact that he is not a loser, and defect to another anti-hero.

But Zlatko will never be unemployed again. A company in his home town in southern Germany that interviewed him before Big Brother has been in touch to say he can have the job. So if all else fails Zlatko will deliver babies' nappies. Yes, the man is on a roll.