My Life in TV is a weekly feature interview with a member of the television industry. This week, Alex talked to X Factor NZ host Dominic Bowden. //
There is no denying Dominic Bowden has earned the title of New Zealand’s National Host. After early beginnings on kids TV show Squirt, he moved to hosting a three-hour late night live music show Space where he really “broke the back” of working in live TV. During a brief stint in Australia, he got a call about a little-known show called Pop Idol. From there, he became a true hosting juggernaut. Flitting between America and New Zealand, countless local talent and quiz shows were interspersed with US heavyweights like American Band and Dancing With the Stars. Luckily, taking a characteristically Dom Bowden-style pause from all that, he is back here with us filming the second season of X Factor NZ.
Dom stode in, proudly late, wearing a plain black tshirt, a Yankees cap, and (I’m almost 100% certain) one of those funny magnetic bracelets to help your balance. If it wasn’t – it was definitely a funky, funky bracelet. His bronzed charisma was palpable, his magnetism (bracelet or not) unavoidable. Even before the interview had started, it was clear that he was deeply passionate about his particular corner of the TV world. We chatted about last night’s X Factor episode – he was really looking forward to the six chair challenge – “it’s Shakespearean, it’s like the new Julius Caesar or something”.
It was refreshing to hear someone talk so passionately about their work, and he was not afraid to drop in more than a few fancy names throughout the course of the interview. I saw instantly why he has done so well overseas – Dom doesn’t really have the mindset of a “shoe-shuffler” New Zealander, as his Kills colleague might say.
Dom’s gigantic chalice of sparkling water arrived at the table, and I noted that he also had a huge Camelbak bottle with him. There’s got to be some comparison between his thirst for water being matched only by his thirst for hosting, surely. People had started slyly taking selfies around us, so I thought we better get started. He was cheery, he was bloody well hydrated, and he was ready to talk all things Dom.
When you were growing up, were you a big fan of TV?
I was a big entertainment fan in general. I was in the orchestra, choir, school band, jazz band and drama club. I liked the idea of performing. As far as watching TV itself I loved watching all things kids watched back in those days. I loved Top Town and Krypton Factor and all those old TV2 shows.
When did you decide that you wanted to be on TV?
I started working in commercials when I was at university to pay the bills. Well, not really the bills because I was staying at Mum and Dad’s – more the beers at Shadows. It was great money. I did the Tip Top commercial just after Rachel Hunter which was my big break, and that played for about six years. Every year I’d get this cheque for doing no work. That was brilliant.
I always thought I would be an actor, but I never expected it to be my career. After university, I started working on Xena as a production runner. I had done four years study and then was photocopying scripts and picking people up from the airport. It was soul destroying. I was just like “I can’t believe my parents have paid all this money and here I am photocopying.” Now I look back and I see the way it works.
I got an audition for this kid’s show called Squirt, they wanted an actor because it was all done live and with blue screens. I got that job, and moved to Dunedin. I lived in Dunedin for two years as a student pretty much – except I had money. I loved those 50 cent bourbons.
Was this the CGI penguin days of Squirt?
Yep, you know it. Everyone knows it. It’s the greatest television show ever made. It’s so funny because when I’d go out at night, people my age would come up and recognise me. I would be like “how the hell do you watch Squirt?” and they’d tell me they used to watch it when they got home from the clubs. All these kinds of people from the bars around here [K’rd] would come home at seven in the morning after not sleeping and watch this psychedelic dude with the talking penguin.
When did New Zealand Idol first enter the picture for you?
I got a call from someone saying, “do you want to do this show called Pop Idol? We don’t know what it is, but we think you’d be perfect.” That obviously blew up for us and changed everything for me. After that I was doing current affairs work for 20/20. I asked them if I could do an interview with Ryan Seacrest, as like a tongue-in-cheek comparison. Y’know, Seacrest drives a Bentley and I drive a Datsun. He gets paid $60 million and I get paid in Whitcoulls vouchers.
I went over there and hung out with him for a week. I met his agents and managers, who told me they would love to sign me. They sent me a phone book-sized contract from LA to NZ. I didn’t even read it, I just signed it and sent it straight back. God knows what I even agreed to.
A week later the offer came in from Fox for American Band. I went to LA and had the meeting with Simon Cowell, Simon Fuller and Nigel Lithgow. They are all talking about me while I’m sitting there like, “I don’t know, is he too tall?” Turns out I wasn’t.
What was it like hosting a primetime American show compared to NZ Idol?
Well, not only was it an American show but it was on the American Idol stage. So I had Ryan [Seacrest]’s dressing room, Ryan’s floor managers, Ryan’s cameraman. Anytime they asked me what I wanted to do, I would just ask “well what would Ryan do?” I went to a Christmas barbecue and it was me, Ryan, Ant and Dec. I just kept thinking “what am I doing here?” At the end of that, the GFC happened in the States and they couldn’t afford to make the show again.
I started working behind the camera on the X Factor US. I was actually up for the hosting job but I missed out. That’s when I found out that X Factor NZ was in the mix. I got Simon Cowell’s P.A. to put a good word in and I was able to leverage my way into X Factor pretty early on. That was the end of it really.
You have mentioned Ryan Seacrest quite a few times, are you aspiring to be him eventually?
Yeah, I’d just have to shrink about four foot. With live television the only way to really get better is to do it more and more, so I was able to witness Ryan’s progression as he got better. Not only on Idol but also on E! – he just got better and better the more he did it. I made that my game plan. He’s certainly the benchmark across the board, even from parlaying a hosting opportunity into producing and creating content. He’s the man.
Is there anyone else, if you were to hold an X Factor of hosts, who would get through to boot camp?
That’s a good question. There’s not a lot of people I look to and go “they’re really good in a live space”, because that’s mainly where I look. I like Dermot O’ Leary who hosts in the UK, Andy Cohen who hosts a show on Bravo called Watch What Happens. I like Jimmy Fallon. Craig Ferguson. Paul Henry.
You’re a big Paul Henry fan?
I love him. He’s got that unpredictability, but also an innate skill set which is just at such a high standard. I find that the more comfortable you get with live television, the more confident you are to go off the script. I really think what people really respond to on live TV are the mistakes – when things go wrong or when things seem like they weren’t supposed to happen.
Talking of that, I noticed during the big ‘F’ bomb the other week, that the camera immediately looked for a reaction from you – like you were the moral guardian of the show. Do you feel that sense of responsibility?
My reaction was “Dom is out of here!” It’s in my contract actually – no swearing. What I like about Natalia is that most people come on these shows and they’re very measured. Everything they say, you can see them putting it together in their head before they spit it out. I like that we’ve got someone who isn’t like that on the panel, especially when we get to live shows. I don’t know if the producers will like it, the unpredictable factor can be a little bit scary. But we’re going to be poking the bear and seeing what else we can make.
It will be interesting when the audiences get a say, I think Natalia will be really comfortable in saying “man, New Zealand, You got it wrong.” Hopefully without the F-bomb, but you know, nobody knows.
Have you been sitting down and having live viewing parties every week?
During the first week we were at one of our last judge’s retreat, so we all watched it together. We had pizzas and beers – it was hilarious. Every time each person would go on stage we’d cheer, that was pretty great. Just down at the RSA, in Titirangi. Very glamorous stuff. That’s what it’s like to work in TV, kids.
Are you watching a lot of other TV at the moment?
I watch a lot of international shows. I watch pretty much everything. There’s a new show that’s just started called Empire. I’ve watched the first four episodes of that. I’ve been watching a lot of The Honorable Wife, which is this Maggie Gyllenhaal show, that’s pretty good. I love Hulu. I’ve just been watching the Saturday Night Live 40th episode. Living in America has taught me to always stay in the conversation – I mostly watch things so I can follow the social commentary the next morning.
Do you think shows like X Factor similarly drive the cultural conversation? That’s got to be a big part of its success, right?
People love to celebrate and see their own people up on screen. I think we proved in the first season that we were capable of reaching the global standard, not only in the singing but also in the way the show was put together. I think X Factor really celebrates New Zealand, and it helps that people just love watching live TV. I’m looking forward to the live shows, I think it dramatically increases the watchability.
Plus there is so much more of me in there, which is what New Zealand really wants.
Watch Dom on The X Factor NZ on TV3 on Sunday at 7pm, and Monday and Tuesday at 7.30