Mo Gilligan on hard childhood with free school dinners and collecting benefits

Having a career in TV can mean that you’re king of the castle one day and bottom of the pile the next, but for comedian Mo Gilligan, the past few years have just seen his stock rise higher and higher.

When we catch up with The Masked Singer judge, he’s hugely excited to talk to us about his brand new gig.

He is hosting the UK version of That’s My Jam, a programme that’s based on the popular musical segments from US chat show The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Mo’s new series was filmed entirely in Hollywood and follows the original format, so we’ll see a similar mix of celebrities battling it out in singing rounds and taking part in trivia-based games, as well as musical performances.

It will also feature signature games from the original Stateside version including Launch The Mic, Air Guitar, Don’t Drop The Beat and Slay It, Don’t Spray It.

But while he’s clearly thrilled to be working with industry big guns such as US talk show king Jimmy Fallon, Mo is the first to admit that he has a “fear” about standing out in the States because of his accent.

The 34-year-old, who grew up in south-east London, tells us, “I have this fear, yeah, I don’t know why I have this fear. I have this weird fear of being successful in America one day and it goes well and something mad happens.”

He explains, “When you go to the US the one privilege you have, especially being a Black person there, is your accent. It can get you out of a lot of sticky situations.

“I went out by myself once on Hollywood Boulevard and some guy said to me, ‘You look like you got money, man.’

"He looked like a real bad man, like one of the Grand Theft Auto characters. I had Nike Air Jordans on and he was like, ‘Look at the homie with Nike Jordans on.’

"I have never been so British in my life. I was like, ‘Oh good evening, chaps,’ and these people were so baffled. They were like, ‘What you doing here, Harry Potter?’”

Despite his huge success in recent years, down-to-earth Mo has never forgotten his roots and clearly remembers the financial struggles his mother endured after splitting from his father when he was five.

The star says, “In the 90s, everyone was on benefits. I used to go and pick up my mum’s benefits from the post office.

"My mum was working and I got free school dinners. At primary school they had a tray and you put a piece of paper on it saying you had free school meals. Everyone was on benefits.”

However, despite his parents’ break-up, Mo has spoken in the past about the fact that he enjoys a good relationship with his dad, saying, “I think I’ve been very lucky. A lot of young Black boys don’t have a father in their lives.”

He has also talked about being the first person in his family to own a property, after splashing out on a huge house in London.

He said, “I bought a five-bedroom semi-detached house. I’m the first person in my family to buy a property so it’s a big deal. A lot of my family and friends will be coming over.”

Mo, who is recently single after splitting from his actress girlfriend of four years, Sophie Wise, can still remember how hard it was to make ends meet in his early stand-up career. He recalls a time when he barely broke even.

“Back in the day I travelled to a lot of comedy shows,” he says. “I had shows in random places like Kent and they would give me £100.

"You start adding it up and think, ‘How much is the train ticket? £20. So I have £80 left and I want food on the way home.’”

As a result of his early struggles, Mo is eager to help young Black people who are having problems finding their way in life.

But he’s keen to let them know that it’s not all about the money, but more about taking advantage of chances you’re given.

He tells us, “One time we went to a prison to talk to the young people. I was there to give a talk. It was nice to go and talk to them.

"Some of them ask mad questions like, ‘For The Big Narstie Show, how much do you get paid?’ I’m like, ‘It’s not about pay, it’s about opportunity.’”

Cash might not be his main motivation, but Mo is certainly feeling flush thanks to hosting events such as The Brit Awards, Channel 4 chat shows The Big Narstie Show and The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan, and more recently, the reboot of The Big Breakfast.

And in an effort to cement his status as a top-tier celebrity, the funnyman tells us that he invested in a fancy Peloton bike, which he hoped would help him imitate his idol, fitness fanatic popstar Beyoncé.

“I bought it in the pandemic. I thought at the time, ‘Channel 4 is paying alright, I need to get one of these bikes.’ I got the bike and the wait for it was insane, like 15 weeks,” he laughs.

“Anyway, I went on eBay and bought it. I was so gassed [excited] to the point I got dressed up to go on it. I wanted to be like Beyoncé and cycle.

“I’m in the gear with Nike pro-shorts on but I did not have the Peloton shoes that click on. I wanted the full experience, and I bought the shoes which took three to five days to deliver.”

But, as Mo explains, it didn’t quite go to plan, even when his footwear arrived.

He continues, “My shoes came and I was ready to do the Beyoncé ride. I love Beyoncé. I think she is the best artist of this decade. I have seen her three times.

"I was ready to join the beehive. But when I was ready to go the shoes were stuck in the bike. I thought everyone could see me as there is a camera watching you.

"So I got off and there was a class starting and I was stuck. I am ducking in my own house away from the camera and the video is not even live. I have not told this story before.”

Peloton problems aside, Mo says he also struggles trying to navigate the feisty cyclists in and around his home in Hackney.

“Cyclists in Hackney swear at the roadmen! They are not even scared any more, they just say, ‘Get out of the road.’ It is so intimidating. You think they are pumped up.

“I’m in the car listening to Capital Xtra Reloaded – no adverts, just pure bangers.

"I’m relaxed and have the heating on and these people have been in the cold cycling like the Tour de France and they come up and knock on the window, but you can’t jump up as the seatbelt has locked you!”

It’s fair to say Mo has a hectic schedule, so it’s good to hear that he makes time to relax at home with his beloved Cockapoo, Baffy, who he named after the Bafta he won in 2020 for The Lateish Show With Mo Gilligan.

Mo admits he sacrificed getting a Doberman to crush any tough-guy image fans may think he has, but says there’s still a part of him that would like one, just for the Instagram likes.

He says, “I do like Dobermans. I wanted to take a picture in black and white. There is this collar with spikes that Prada do.

"I was going to take a black and white picture of me in a leather jacket. It
would have been 30,000 [Instagram] likes minimum.”

He adds, “I wanted an intimidating dog, but you have got to get the dog that is right for you. When I walk my dog it does not look like we are meant to be together [laughs]!”

In terms of the age-old cat vs dog debate, there’s no question that Mo prefers the latter. To illustrate the point, he shares a very unfortunate incident with a cat he had growing up.

He says, “When we had a cat, my hair at the time was a skin fade [a haircut that involves the hair gradually increasing in length from the shortest hair at the nape of the neck to the longest hair at the crown].

"I went into my mum’s old house and it jumped out of the coat rack and one of its claws got stuck in my head. It was caught in my head!

“And cats bring in mad stuff like mice and birds, but dogs are very smart.”

That’s My Jam will be coming to BBC One soon


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