'You know what, mate?" said Jason Donovan to David Gest in his sagacious way, last Tuesday night, "I think you as a human being are going to be surprised about what people see in you. You never know what the future might hold for you. You might be very surprised in the next two weeks." The multi-millionaire American showbiz impresario might indeed be a little flummoxed to discover what he has become since the new series of I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here!
He is now easily the most talked-about element in the television show. Where two or three Britons gather by a watercooler, their talk is of Gest's oddball charm, his bracingly direct one-liners, his pop-world anecdotes, his laconic valour in the face of creepy-crawlies. And of course his face. When Donovan said "I think you as a human being ...", he unconsciously voiced a popular consensus that Mr Gest isn't entirely Homo sapiens. His face is certainly rather odd. Successive bouts of surgery have left him with a sad, exophthalmic, rather Oriental gaze, so that he resembles both Garfield the cat and a dispirited Samurai. His complexion is as pitted as a ploughed field. His exiguous, black-dyed hair springs up somewhere in the middle of his cranium. His eyebrows appear to have been drawn on or tattooed. When he became the fourth husband of Liza Minnelli, the only person who looked odder than the best man, Michael Jackson, was the bridegroom.
Critics have queued up to abuse him. "I wouldn't say David Gest is no oil painting," wrote Vanessa Feltz. "Actually, he looks as if a mad, vengeful artist has gone into a frenzy and squeezed random tubes of flesh-coloured paints at a crazed Humpty Dumpty." "The only creature on earth who makes Jackie Stallone look like a Benetton model," wrote another admirer. "A living warning of what can go wrong with a face transplant," remarked a third. Fleet Street's finest strove to evoke the full horror of Gest's unorthodoxy. But as they did, against all the odds, he began to grow on people.
His bushtucker trial was a turning point. To win star tokens to secure the jungle-dwellers' dinner, Gest had to stand in a kind of glass phone-box, opening 10 valves which sent jungle water - along with a horrible collection of serpents, water spiders and fanged predators - gushing all over him. As the water reached his neck, he calmly collected six tokens, and emerged with a spider the size of a wheelbrace on his head. Advised of its presence, Gest simply plucked it off like a skull cap and tossed it away, cool as a breeze.
Gradually the viewing nation and the callow Ant and Dec realised they had a genuinely loveable eccentric on their hands. Confronted by a pair of baby alligators nibbling his flesh, he enquired, "Weren't you at my wedding?" He revealed himself as a charming campfire anecdotalist, telling tales of schooldays with the King of Pop ("I used to go round to Michael Jackson's house and play with his snakes") and his professional encounters with Stevie Wonder. His recollections of marriage to Liza were alternately sweet and hilariously rude. By Thursday, the odds against Gest winning the show had shrunk from 33/1 to 4/1.
The lessons to be learnt from this swing are simple. One, Gest is a natural star because he's rich enough, and sufficiently connected to genuine celebrity, not to care what people think of him. Two, the British public simply loves an oddball. And three, they'll forgive anything - your ugliness and vanity, your dyed hair and American wackiness - provided you tell good stories.