In the middle of last decade, one man dominated our local music television. Then he disappeared. Elle Hunt tracks down Joel Defries, and talks to him about life as a Kiwi TV star, and what he’s been doing since.
Joel Defries was once a household name. Well: in some households, between 4pm and 7pm weekdays, from 2005 to 2007.
The host of Vodafone Select Live on C4, Defries was the cheeky British chappy of after-school music video TV, and the nation’s highest-profile fan of slim-fit cardigans. “Joel from C4” was a beloved figure among the Boost Mobile generation, as specific to a time in New Zealand pop culture as $10 Text, daily Bebo Luv, and Goodnight Nurse’s cover of ‘Milkshake’.
And then he was gone, the abruptness of his departure the more pronounced for his years of ubiquity. He’d hit the big time in Britain with a presenting gig on Blue Peter, the long-running children’s television programme. But that was September 2008 – and by 2011, he was off Blue Peter, too.
What happened to Joel from C4?
“I wanted to be, like, a star,” he says now, at a cafe close to Kings Cross station in London. He is wearing a bright orange sweater and has ordered a bright orange juice that sits untouched for long periods as he remembers his former life, his sentences piling up on each other and often left unfinished. “And it didn’t work out, and that was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Defries had been 18 when he moved with his parents from London to Auckland. His grandmother lived there – still does, aged 92 – and he’d visited her as a teenager. “At 14, New Zealand felt interesting. But when I went to live there I found it very difficult.”
He’d failed his driving test and found himself stranded at his parents’ house in the Waitakere Ranges. “I’m from London. To go from London to New Zealand was the wrong way to do shit. I got so depressed.”
Determined to make friends, he volunteered at Channel Z for 18 months before he was asked to audition for a presenting job. “It’s a tiny industry, so I was meeting everyone, and I was English, and I was insanely loud – I think people just remembered me.
“They gave me a chance. I feel like that might not happen now.”
Defries was not polished, but nor was C4. Every show was shot in the same white studio on a security camera. He wrote the script – insofar as there was one – with little input or oversight. “And that’s why I’ve been banned from ever interviewing P!nk again.”
He edited himself into an interview with Avril Lavigne to call her stupid; it is just about the only video of his time on C4 that can be found online today. (He uploaded it himself.) “It’s clearly fake because I’m being horrible.”
Defries’ hero at the time was the British comedian Simon Amstell, best known for his often excruciating celebrity interviews as host of Popworld. Did his ambition overreach his ability? He doesn’t balk. “Probably, yeah. There was a lot of trust and no resources, so I was doing everything myself.”
It went to his head. How could it not have? He was 19 years old and a “household name among young New Zealanders”, as his Wikipedia entry still says today. “I wasn’t even famous, let’s face it – I was in New Zealand, I was nobody. But I felt like I was somebody.”
Anything he wanted, he got for free – clothes, gig tickets, phones, games consoles. My friend still talks about the “huge crush” she had on him after calling in to win a Lily Allen CD, and how she went up to him at an airport. (“Was I rude to her?” Defries asks.)
He did get abuse, even then, before Twitter made it easy. “If I was doing that show now, I would be trolled to death – I was getting trolled as it was,” he says. A man once pulled over in his car just to call him a fag. “I was hugely polarising. I was over-confident, wearing cardigans.”
And he was overexposed, he says, presenting Live at Yours as well as Select Live and a Sunday morning show on The Edge – just as Paul Henry and Guy Williams were until recently, I say. “I don’t know who they are.”
What about Rose Matafeo? “I don’t know who any of these people are.”
Jane Yee’s got three kids now, he hears: “When I was there, we’d drive around in her car, she’d be smoking and her dog would be in the back.” And Clarke Gayford, well, he’s properly famous, isn’t he. “I’m so happy for him. He probably loves it.
“Clarke and I had a funny relationship. I think he found me really annoying. I liked him, he didn’t like me. I wanted Clarke to like me. I remember going: ‘why doesn’t he like me?’ I was probably trying too hard with him.”
Defries tried too hard a lot of the time, he thinks. “I wanted to be so funny the whole time, I might have come across a bit mean, and that’s one regret I have.
“I think people who knew me understood that I was actually just a little boy, trying to be an adult.”
Eventually the free stuff and fans were outweighed by the work of producing a three-hour show, five days a week. “Towards the end, I probably didn’t look like I was into it,” he says. “I’d make up a script on the spot, I’d take phone calls and just take the piss out of people – I wouldn’t even remember what song I was throwing to.”
On a visit back to London one Christmas, an agent signed him on the spot, promising to make him a star. His boss at C4 wanted him to stay, says Defries, but New Zealand had never come to feel like home. “At 21, I was adamant, like ‘nah, I’m done’.”
He moved back to London and joined Blue Peter at 23, puffed up on his years of national television experience. “I thought, ‘I am so shit hot’. Actually, I didn’t know how to do TV because I’d just been in a white studio.”
What C4 had lacked in resources, it made up for in agility: “If we wanted to do something, we did it the next day”.
Blue Peter was produced by a team of 50 and scrutinised by not only the Daily Mail but self-appointed caretakers of the show’s 60-year legacy. Defries assumes a pompous voice: “Like, ‘I saw Joel was wearing a hat indoors…’ Then there was the Blue Peter Appeal – everything was so, like, worthy.”
It was not a good fit. Defries thought some of the ideas stagnant; the showrunners found him arrogant, he thinks. He accepted their decision not to renew his contract – he hadn’t wanted to follow production up north to Greater Manchester, anyway. Besides: he had Strictly Come Dancing.
Out of the blue, he’d received a call from the BBC, signing him up for season 10. “It was a big contract, a big deal,” he says, with perhaps the slightest hint of regret. “That would have made me.” They dropped him at the last minute. They were apologetic, he says – they bought him lunch, told him they’d make it up to him. He spent a year and a half waiting on their call.
“I suppose the phrase flogging a dead horse has never been more apt,” he says. “I was getting furious at my agent, like, ‘why is this not happening? My life is disappearing’. It was really depressing.
“That’s the reality of TV – because no one says no, because no one wants to be the bad guy.”
One morning, when he was 26 years old, he woke up and he thought: “I’m so done with this.”
His media profile had shaped his sense of self in a way, he realised, that “was actually quite unhealthy”. “People will say ‘I’m on TV because I just love giving people information in a really exciting way’. No, you’re doing it because you like the attention. You become like a brand.
“People used to come up to me and want to talk to me – I’d be the guy from Blue Peter, I’d be the guy from C4. But suddenly that disappears, and I’m just a normal human being.”
He wanted a complete change of scene, some perspective. “So I went and worked with homeless people.” Defries took a low-paid job with a “mildly evil” social housing corporation, working with alcoholics, drug addicts and victims of abuse to help them out of temporary housing. On his first day in a hostel for homeless teenagers, one threw a condom at his head and called him a fucking idiot. “I was like, ‘fuck, man, this is real’.”
He thought he was going to change the world. After two years, his biggest achievement was getting a man who was scared to leave his house down to the local shop. Still, Defries found the work reassuring after the self-absorption of TV. It was a good circuit breaker – as was his son, now just one; who, days ago, slept through the night for the first time. (“Great time to be alive.”)
Since 2015 he has been working as a brand manager at a boutique vodka company; his Blue Peter credentials sometimes crop up in interviews. His workmate, sitting one stool away from us on the share table at the cafe, taps away on her Macbook, earphones in. If she’s curious about her colleague’s story of being New Zealand famous, she doesn’t show it.
“It feels so distant,” he says of his former life. “I wonder what it would be like to go back. I must go back – not to live, my god,” he adds hastily. “But I’d like to take my son there, and visit my grandmother.”
Not to mention the friends he made there, whom he’s lost touch with. “They’ve all changed so much, I don’t know if they’d want to see me – I don’t know if Clarke would see me. But I’d love to see them.”
This content, like all television coverage we do at The Spinoff, is brought to you thanks to the excellent folk at Lightbox. Do us and yourself a favour by clicking here to start a FREE 30 day trial of this truly wonderful service.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.