Gladiators plagued by steroids, booze, corruption and assault, says ex host Ulrika Jonsson

THERE is no doubt about it, at its peak it really was the greatest show to ever grace ITV’s screen.

With weekly viewing figures at 14million, a huge, intricate set, vast rigging and production crew, a cast of dancers, performers and a couple of average presenters, this was light entertainment on a scale previously unseen.

I am, of course, talking about Gladiators.

Without a shadow of a doubt, it was one of the greatest shows of all time — appealing to young and old, all shapes and sizes, and with enough catchphrases to make Cilla Black blush. And I was hugely privileged to be part of this magnificent spectacle.

But yesterday’s mugshot of our biggest and most frightening Gladiator, Shadow — aka Jefferson King — looking hollow-cheeked and well beyond his 59 years, on a charge of a drug-fuelled blackmailing plot, is a stark reminder that the show had its fair share of scandals.

Shadow was the most intimidating Gladiator. He may have been overwhelming in size, but he was underwhelming in conversation.

Every time I stuck my microphone near him for comment, he would only ever say two words: “Ultimate Challenge.”

He’d fix you with a stare that would make hell freeze over. But at least he was consistent.

I wasn’t surprised when he was sacked from the show in 1995 for snorting cocaine and testing positive for steroids.

I had left a safe, comfortable job, presenting the weather on TV-am in 1992 when I was asked to co-present what sounded like a bonkers idea for a new show for London Weekend Television, now ITV.

Dynamic directing and producing duo Nigel Lythgoe and Kenny Warwick explained it to me as muscly men and women in lycra fighting a duel with giant cotton buds, running gauntlets, racing to the top of a giant wall and wrestling each other to the ground while hanging from rings.

It sounded not only unbelievable, but astonishingly ridiculous. Naturally, I accepted their offer.

As the show was unprecedented in its first series, we struggled to get an audience to fill the then National Indoor Arena in Birmingham, where it was filmed.

The public had no idea what they were coming in to watch and it is hilarious to think that we had to constantly move the tiny crowd to fill the background on set.

Steroids

GLADIATORS regularly pulled in audiences of up to 14million in its 90s heyday, with almost 100,000 people applying to battle against the likes of Cobra, Jet, Wolf and Panther.

But while the Gladiators became household names, some got mired in headline-grabbing controversy.

After being fired from the show, FLAME – real name Kimbra Frazier – claimed she had found steroids in some Gladiators’ gym bags.

Then in May 1994, TV sleuth Roger Cook accused stars WOLF – Michael Van Wijk – and PANTHER – Helen O’Reilly – of steroid abuse.

Questions were even asked in the House of Commons.

Both Gladiators were later cleared after programme maker LWT forced them to take a drug test.

Another Gladiator, Aleks Georgijev – known as HAWK, below – admitted to Cook that he had taken the drug.

Aleks, who had by then left the show, recalled: “Roger phoned me saying he was doing something about young people and steroids.

"He asked me if I had ever taken steroids and I said I had, in the past. It transpired he was investigating steroid taking amongst Gladiators!”

Aleks later became a police officer.

Yet that series had such an impact that we turned away people and their giant foam fingers the following year.

I had never encountered body-builders and this was a unique glimpse into their world.

Eye-popping muscles like that come with an extraordinary vanity. The vast majority of them were so focused on themselves and their amazing bodies that their egos easily outsized anything an average person could imagine.

I have to admit that initially I was quite astounded by the arrogance of some of them. They saw themselves as more important than — dare I say it — even the show itself.

BED-HOPPING

But then, I got it. If you’ve worked all your life for that body and you have a chance to show it off on national TV, you would throw everything at it.

And they did. That first year in the Hyatt Regency hotel, which we more or less took over, there was a lot of bed-hopping, as there would be with a bunch of young, virile men and women with insane bodies.

Apparently, there were quite a few multiples of people enjoying a bit of rough and tumble under the covers, while I was up in my room writing the script and furiously trying to learn my lines.

The hotel struggled, but eventually learned to cope with their obsessive nocturnal and nutritional demands.

They had to prohibit the use of fake tan, because it would not come out of the sheets.

The hotel’s sunbed was always overbooked and the Gladiators would sneer at its lightweight gym — these guys were hardcore and it felt like their demands were endless.

By the second series, the Gladiators themselves had to have bodyguards because their success had become unmanageable.

It was hilarious seeing big, strong muscly men and women being guarded by “lesser” humans.

MASSIVE STARS

I didn’t think it was particularly funny that I was left to walk back to the hotel on my own at night, but they were the celebrities and I was merely their conduit.

These guys were massive stars and this was their shot at fame and, potentially, fortune.

Unfortunately, they didn’t own the rights to their Gladiator names and were always forced to give a cut of their earnings from personal appearances and so on to ITV. Some of them found this hugely frustrating and I utterly understand that.

When they tried to increase their pay, one Gladiator ranted and railed at the fee I commanded. But then I was an established name and they were not. That’s showbiz, I guess.

Booze

COBRA, aka Michael Willson, admitted hitting the bottle during filming.

He said booze almost wrecked his career.

Speaking as he prepared to star in a revival of the hit show, Michael said: “I drank a lot during Gladiators.

“We’d break from filming at 6pm and I’d down a bottle of red wine before we started again an hour or so later.

“I watched footage of myself doing the Swing Shot challenge. I have glazed eyes. The producer, Nigel Lythgoe, told me I was fat, not fit, and ordered me to clean up my act.”

All the Gladiators were friendly and, believe it or not, I didn’t find them attractive. I’d never been around bodies like that before.

I got on with the girls, even if I didn’t entirely comprehend their world. On my 30th birthday the female Gladiators got me a sex toy. I have kept it to this day.

But the scandals were never far away.

A couple of years into filming, there were rumours of steroid use and, by the mid-Nineties, the show’s producers started testing the cast. I was clear every time, for the record.

GENTLE GIANT

Then Warrior (Mike Ahearne) was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and jailed for 15 months in 1998.

Three years ago, he was caught with bags full of steroids and CS sprays, but no charges were brought over the haul. I always liked Mike. He was like a gentle giant who told the worst jokes.

Only recently, Cobra (Michael Wilson) talked about how he would occasionally be drunk while chasing contenders up The Wall on the show, and how his body is shot to pieces due to all the pressure he put on it.

He was Kent’s version of Norman Wisdom, relentlessly funny.

Corruption

WARRIOR, akaMichael Ahearne, became a household name when he was unveiled as one of the stars of Gladiators in 1992.

Appearing in the first six series, the 6ft 4in former rugby union player was taking home up to £100,000 a year.

But he became embroiled in controversy when it was revealed he had been part of a plot to foil the prosecution of Philip Glennon Jnr, who had been charged with attempted murder.

In 1998 he was sentenced to 15 months for corruption and perverting the course of justice.

After two decades out of the limelight Ahearne, 60, made headlines again in 2018 when he was given a six-month suspended sentence by Liverpool Crown Court for possessing CS spray, also known as tear gas.

Liverpool Magistrates’ Court heard how he was also the subject of a police raid at his home in the Wirral in January 2017, where officers found a stash of anabolic steroids inside a shopping bag.

No charges were brought over the drugs.

Wolf, aka Mike van Wijk, played the perfect pantomime villain. He was vain on account of becoming so popular and not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I found him sweet nonetheless.

And who could forget referee John “Gladiator Ready” Anderson? For a wee Scottish chap, he could be quite the disciplinarian.

His temper got the better of him when he got caught up in an episode of road rage with newsreader Sarah Heaney. He was found guilty of dangerous driving.

Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies, aka Amazon, sustained injuries from the show and was forced to have operations, claiming the health and safety standards were poor.

FIXING SCANDAL

Compared to today’s ’elf and safety, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Then my co-presenter, John Fashanu, got embroiled in a football match-fixing scandal and was forced to leave the show, although he was later acquitted.

John and I always got on. By his own admission, he saw himself as a businessman first, football player second and possibly a TV presenter (of sorts) last.

I was the focus of attention when I was unfaithful to my husband in 1995 with Gladiator Hunter, aka James Crossley.

Assault

IN 1996 ex-Gladiator PHOENIX, aka Sandy Young, was sentenced to 150 hours of community service for beating up her ex-husband over the custody of their son.

The kick-boxer and former Bodybuilding Miss UK broke her ex’s ankle in what was described in court as an act of “wanton violence and revenge”.

She had been dropped from the programme in late 1992, reportedly for being unable to meet fitness standards.

Sandy went on to became a florist.

Yes, I was as surprised as you that I could see past those humongous muscles and fall for the person behind it. But I did.

It wasn’t my finest hour, but happily it wasn’t a sackable offence. If anything, the publicity surrounding the affair may even have been deemed a positive by the producers.

What I do know is that in many respects we were like a giant, dysfunctional, maladjusted family. It was always an intense month of filming every year.

After I had been kicked in the head by Stan Collymore during the 1998 World Cup and returned to Birmingham for another season’s recording, someone blasted out Chumbawamba’s Tubthumping in the arena as I walked in.

GREAT FRIENDS

The lyrics are: “I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

Was I offended or hurt or insulted? No.

Humour was a way of getting us through the various madnesses that were part of the production.

For me, it was an awesome and formidable formative time career-wise, and I made some great friends.

I became close to Jet (Diane Youdale) and made my best friend for life, Rebel — Olympic Athlete Jennifer Stoute.

But perhaps the absolute winner was Ace (Warren Furman), who was always shy and polite.

He has now become a born-again Christian after all that madness.

Amen to that.

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