Words: Will Stroude
If you've not been watching the second series Channel 4's The Circle over the last few weeks, you've been missing out on some of the most gripping reality TV since Grace called Susie a moose on Big Brother.
The social media-inspired reality series, which sees contestants live in isolation for three weeks and communicate with other players via an online messenger system has provided plenty of gasp-inducing drama over the last few weeks, but also unexpectedly moving moments as players gradually began to open up to their new virtual friends.
After weeks of catfishing, tactical voting and tears, it was 31-year-old Irishman Paddy Smyth who walked away the winner (and £70,000 richer) after being voted top by his fellow players in last week's grand final.
Paddy, who is gay and lives with cerebral palsy, joined the competition as a late entrant, and despite playing as himself, initially made the decision not to disclose his disability to fellow players - something which only lasted a few days after he likened it to going 'back in the closet'.
We caught up with Paddy after his win, where he told us what The Circle has taught him about sharing every part of yourself with others, his experiences on the gay scene as a man with a visible disability, and how he's planning to spend all that prize money (spoiler: it involves bedazzled crutches)...
It must have been a mad couple of days - how are you readjusting to the real world, and is it all starting to sink in?
It’s been a whirlwind weekend. This is the first day I’m actually taking it in. I came home to Ireland, there was a big party and was surrounded by people, but this is the first day I’ve really been on my own and been like ‘Oh my God, I actually won!’
What’s surprised you most about the last few weeks?
I never realised you could make such deep connections with people you’ve never met. It was such a journey and I made the most unlikely bond with Tim, who’s become one of my favourite people, and Georgina, obviously, who was there for me in terms of my disability. I never thought I’d make it through the first blocking level, let alone win the show. I think it’s good to show other people who maybe have disabilities or difficulties that they can do that as well.
Initially you were playing as yourself but without telling other players about your disability. Did you ever consider being open about it from the beginning?
My process was that I’d never had the opportunity to hide my vulnerability. In real life when you see me, you see the crutches and the disability, and everyone just kind of goes ‘you’re that disabled gay guy.’ I wanted to see what it was like without it - would people like me for me? But what I found is I actually found it more difficult because I was hiding such a big aspect of myself. Obviously it doesn’t define me but it is a big aspect of my life.
At one point you described it as feeling like being in the closet again in some ways. Did it take you back to a time in your life when you weren’t as confident with your identity?
That’s the only way I can describe it. It felt like I was coming out as gay again: that moment of not knowing if people will accept you for who you are. I didn’t think I’d get that emotional but it really made me face insecurities around it that I didn’t even realise [I had].
There's been more than once instance on 'The Circle' of LGBTQ players actually going back in the closet as they think it might improve their popularity. Is that something you ever considered doing, and do you think it’s sad that they might still feel they need to do that?
Yeah I felt it was sad. And for me, I didn’t want to hide my sexuality and my disability. Being gay in this day and age, you shouldn’t be nervous to tell people what sexuality you are. I think [you should] be open and say ‘I am what I am, if you like me, great’. Obviously a lot of people decided not to do it, which is sad in this day and age, but, you know, I put it out there, and I won! And if people are sitting at home and they’re worried about their sexuality maybe that will give them hope.
And of course Tim winning the people’s vote as well showed that two out and proud gay men could win over both players and the public.
I think that’s a great sentiment to take away - that two out and proud gay men did it.
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Have you encountered stigma on the gay scene when it comes to dating, friendships or relationships because of your cerebral palsy?
Yeah 100%. Being disabled, I’m not what people would see as 'picture-perfect attractive', and in the gay world it’s a lot about image. If you don’t fit into that ideal... I’ve found it difficult to date. I was dealing with trying to come to terms with my sexuality and my disability and that was tough. It can be difficult for a disabled gay person on that scene to feel attractive sometimes.
There still seems to be a big lack of public understanding around cerebral palsy but this year Netflix released LGBTQ comedy series Special which put the condition front and centre. How important is it to have a show like that which explores the intersection of disability and sexuality?
Yeah, he was me! I think that’s the next movement for us isn’t it? Closing the gap between disability and sexuality. I think that society has in some ways allowed people to think that disabled people need to be 'looked after'. You don’t look at them as a sexual being - they might be ‘lovely’ or ‘inspirational’ but they’re not ‘sexy’. And that’s something I want to change. Why can’t I be the two? Why can’t I be inspirational *and* sexy?!
It still seems to be taboo to talk about disability in an open and honest way or to ask questions.
It’s ignorance. [People] feel bad even asking them, but if you ask them, let’s talk about it! What are the things that worry people? Let’s talk about them together, Because [otherwise] it’ll never change. That’s my big thing: why can’t I be sexual and inspirational? I think that’s a good message for young people with disabilities.
We did see you flirting up a bit of a storm with Jack when you first entered The Circle-
-I love a guy with tattoos! [laughs]
It was good to see your priorities were sorted right from the off! Is he someone you’re hoping to keep in touch with?
Oh 100%. He actually texted me the other day. We had great craic, I’ll definitely keep in touch with him. He’s a good laugh. It was just a harmless bit of flirting - he didn’t say no to it! [laughs]
Of course, I have to ask about ‘Sammie’ and the Circle of Trust. Did you ever have an inkling Sammi night not be who they appeared to be?
[laughs] I literally never thought Sammie was a catfish - I always thought Tim was going to be the catfish! When I saw Sammie at that dinner I was in shock. I felt a bit disconnected even though I knew we made this connection. The Circle of Trust really changed the game for me and Georgina and James/Sammie, and I know he kind of took us under his wing. Even though he was a catfish he had my back, which was good. I think without him I definitely wouldn’t have got to the final. We played the game, it’s a gameshow!
Are you going to be treating yourself with the prize money?
I definitely want to bedazzle my crutches! Like, encrust then some way. Then I want to give some money to my mum. For me, this was a really tough year, my dad passed this year. And then I don’t know what I’ll do with it, maybe a holiday. And maybe use the money as a springboard to do more disabled activism, TV and presenting work and try and get a different voice out there.