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Graham Norton named Attitude’s Person of the Year – as Drag Race UK judge leads our list of 101 trailblazers

Exclusive After 25 years at the top, at the age of 60, the Drag Race UK judge and Wheel of Fortune host is busier — and happier — than ever. Here, he reflects on finding love in his 50s plus hanging out with Cher, Dolly and Madonna...

By Jamie Tabberer

Graham Norton crouching in a yellow suit (Images: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)
Graham Norton (Images: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

‘That’s so Graham Norton,’ I note of the lining of TV legend Norton’s coat: a bookcase print that may or may not be Ted Baker. A nod, perhaps, to the popular TV presenter’s later-life side hustle as a best-selling novelist: his fourth book, Forever Home, dropped in 2022, and he is currently working on a fifth.

The 60-year-old has just arrived unchaperoned at his Attitude shoot, bicycle helmet still on, where he warmly greets the team with all the life force of someone who’s just cycled across a city in freezing cold weather and loved it. I’m immediately struck by his whimsical sense of style — fabulous 3D flower knitwear? Check — evident throughout his years of broadcasting. His taste in statement tailoring is a throughline from the So Graham Norton sofa 25 years ago to the Drag Race UK runway today. 

“During Covid, I was trying to squeeze myself into them!” he laughs of his 90s ensembles, often worn with a perma tan and spiky gelled hair. “I always thought young gay kids watching on television would be like: ‘Oh, good God — is that my future? I have to wear shiny suits?!’” He’s not wrong. Growing up in the 90s, this writer saw Norton as an older brother figure who made gay adulthood look sophisticated, cosmopolitan and, above all, fun. “It was a performance level of me, but it was me — I didn’t have an option!” he remembers of that outrageous early era, which included a stint as roving reporter on the famously sex-positive Eurotrash. “That’s who I was, and am.”

Graham – Attitude’s Person of the Year, and leader of this year’s Attitude 101, empowered by Bentley – initially fought against the name of his Channel 4 show, before realising it made him the “arbiter” of whatever was “so” Graham Norton. It was like his self-titled debut album, I observe, his mission statement. “It was!” he agrees. “I fought back about things. I was bolshy. I look back and think, ‘Where did that confidence come from?’ I think I knew you get one shot — like Hamilton! — and everyone wants their break. But actually, getting it puts this pressure on. Because if you fuck it up, you’re further back down the ladder than before. Before your break, you’re just pure potential.”

This was a time when David Beckham got a national drubbing for wearing a sarong, and Stephen Gately was semi-smoked out of the closet by the tabloids. (Norton would go on to interview the late Boyzone star for Attitude — more on that later.) And yet, to my TV-obsessed young brain, Middle England not only ‘tolerated’ but embraced Norton’s brand of gay: silly, gossipy, a hint of sexy — remember those tank tops? — plus heaps of Irish charm. I, at least subconsciously, emulated him at school in the hope it would render my campness and flamboyance likeable. “I meet young people… some of them not even young anymore,” he says, gesturing towards me, “and they go: ‘You really helped me have a conversation with my parents.’ I get that. If you’re sat on the sofa, and your mum and dad find my nonsense funny, they’re not as far away as you thought.”

Graham on the cover of Attitude, standing up straight in a yellow suit
The Drag Race UK judge graces the latest cover of Attitude (Image: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

Wise words. And so to Graham’s latest era: from reviving much-loved game show Wheel of Fortune on ITV to being the statesman-like figurehead of the BBC, where he’s served as Eurovision commentator since 2009, and on which The Graham Norton Show has lived happily since 2007. Not to mention his status as spiritual defender of the LGBTQ+ community. Did you see that viral video of him defending trans people at a 2021 Cheltenham Literature Festival panel talk?

“I’m 60; I’ve been doing this a long time,” he reflects. “There are moments when I’ll think, ‘Actually, I’m quite good at this.’” He’s talking about his work but could just as easily be talking about life in general. Here, the star revisits the amazing moments that have defined him. Or not, as the case may be, such as the time he was stabbed and left for dead in a random street attack in London in 1989. “It’s interesting on one level, but not when it’s repeated ad nauseum!” he says of the tale, which makes headlines about once a year as if brand-new information. Hilariously dismissive of a near-death experience? That’s so Graham Norton…

Do you intend to keep judging Drag Race UK indefinitely?

‘Indefinitely’ makes it sound like me and Ru will be skeletons behind the desk! I’m still enjoying it, and they’re still asking me to do it. You know, it was interesting when the show started here. I adored the American version, and you didn’t know what it was going to be like here. Can UK queens really come up with all those looks?! But I’ve been so impressed with them. In lots of ways, I prefer the UK version. I think it has informed the sorts of queens they’re casting in America. This new season, I think the casting has been influenced by the UK.

A black and shite portrait image of Graham in a black suit
“You have to be young and hungry to get into drag” says Graham (Image: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

Do you have a drag alter ego?

No, I don’t. When I started stand-up, I did Mother Teresa of Calcutta. 

I was trying to find pictures. It’s like they’ve been scrubbed from the internet.

They haven’t — there just was no internet! There are some pictures in my book So Me.

You did La Cage aux Folles, but why hasn’t there been more drag in your career?

Because it’s hard work. Lugging those cases… Look at Ru. Look at Paul O’Grady. As soon as they’re out of drag, they’re out of it. Ru’s in drag the minimum amount of time he needs to be. I think I’ve left it a bit late. You need to be young and hungry to get into drag.

Has staying at the top been a challenge? Is it something you consciously work at daily when equally talented peers have faded away?

I try to make the shows as good as they can be. There have been moments in my career where I should have disappeared. After Channel 4, I attempted the US. It didn’t really work. I came back to the BBC, and the shows I was doing weren’t really working. What saved me then was my business partner, Graham Stuart. We own this production company together. It was his work ethic, really. He was trying to get work for the production company. He wanted to keep it afloat. Otherwise, I probably would have drifted away and been a presenter for hire. Or maybe found another hit? But, you know, there aren’t many hits. I’m lucky the chat show’s been going all these years.

Graham Norton crouching with arm outstretched in a black suit
“I’ve never liked what I see in the mirror” says Graham (Image: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

How do you approach writing?

Normally, when I start the novels, when the idea’s fresh in my mind, I get very enthusiastic and plough on. I do 25,000 words quite easily. Then it’s: ‘This is hard work, isn’t it?!’ Then you stop, because I give myself a year to do it. You plug away. Then [the] deadline’s looming, and it is serious work. I’m 45,000 words in now and deliver at the end of April. 

I’m fascinated to hear about your time in the San Francisco hippy commune…

San Francisco, in general, in the early 80s — it was a strange time. I was literally fresh off the boat. It was Pride on the day I arrived. I remember watching Grace Jones on the back of a truck! People were wearing these armbands with AIDS [information] on them. I was like: ‘Oh yeah, I vaguely remember reading something about that in the Cork Examiner.’ The commune was great because they were older people. They were good at being — I suppose it’s half hippie, half an American thing — very positive. Embracing the possible. I grew up in an Ireland where pursuing your dreams was a moronic thing to do; you seemed like the village idiot. Whereas over there, I wanted to be an actor, and they were like, ‘Why aren’t you an actor?’ I couldn’t really answer. It was because of them I had the confidence to come back to London and apply to drama school.

Moving on, you’re an example of someone who has got better-looking with age. 

Stop it.

Is that something you’re aware of? What’s it like?

I’ve never liked what I see in the mirror, and still don’t. So, I don’t know what to say. Silver fox? I’m a fox that got mange. I don’t mind the way I look. I take care of myself. Obviously, I wish there were fewer lines on my face, more hair on my head. But there are things you can do about that, and I haven’t done those things.

A side profile of Graham in a black suit
“40 was hard. I had no idea how to be 40. Now it seems like child’s play!” (Image: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

Do you wish you’d got the beard sooner?

Isn’t it funny how I thought I couldn’t have a beard, because your face almost becomes public property. “That’s what Graham Norton looks like.” People tend not to do dramatic things to themselves.

They want to stay recognisable.

They stay the same. Sir Simon Cowell. If I was going to do something radical with plastic surgery or hair plugs, I’d have done it by now. I’ve gotten through the temptation years.

Are you enjoying your sixties?

I am. 40 was hard. I had no idea how to be 40. Now it seems like child’s play! Once I got through that, 50 was more 40. I thought, ‘There’s bound to be a bump in the road at 60.’ There’s no way round it: it’s old. But oddly, no.

How are you enjoying married life?

It’s good! I feel like I’ve turned on my tribe. You know when people in relationships, or who are married, want it for you? You just want me to do it to validate the choice you made! But I am enjoying it. I was older, so I went into it with my eyes wide open. You know the pitfalls of relationships, the dangers. But I met someone who I was willing to take a bet on.

Graham sitting in a corner against a purple backdrop in a yellow suit
“I don’t get starstruck often” (Image: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

Can you tell us about interviewing Dolly Parton?

She was great. I don’t get starstruck often, but I just adore her. We did this Channel 4 programme Graham Goes to Dollywood, and I went to Tennessee. We got to hang out! She invited me into her Winnebago. It was just lovely. Especially there, on her home turf. 

What about Madonna?

For a long time, we didn’t get her, then finally it happened. It was Madonna Day. It was a big deal. She was on for the film W.E. The next time was Madame X. After the show, I went to a weird Q&A with her at Alexandra Palace. There were some approved questions — they gave them to me, thank you very much, I went out and asked them. Well, that was about 15 minutes. We were there for an hour! We couldn’t just say: “Thank you, good night!” People had flown in from all over the world. It turned into bedlam. Fabulous chaos. The audience were asking all sorts of questions. She was signing people’s bodies. She would only sign people if they already had a Madame X tattoo. Madame X, I think, had only come out that day. People did have Madame X tattoos already!

Where’s yours?

I know. “Call yourself a fan?!” 

A full body shot of Graham in an overcoat, in black and white
“If you’re not comfortable coming out, then my God, it can be weaponised against you” (Image: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

What about Cher?

Did I give Cher an Attitude Award in 2013? I did. I got to see her a little bit backstage. She arrived, wasn’t having the dinner. Someone came and said: “Cher wants to see you.” Again, I got to hang out with her. She was feeling a bit ill, bless her! But I remember that night a lot. John Bercow gave the longest, dumbest speech about Alan Turing.

We should have given it to Tia Kofi!

I know. That would have been brief!

Speaking of Attitude memories — didn’t you once interview Boyzone’s Stephen Gately for us?

I did. God, I remember that. It’s so strange when you remember that he isn’t alive anymore, which seems inconceivable. But also, how vulnerable he was in that moment, when he decided to come out. He didn’t really decide to come out. It was a press thing. You like to think the world’s changed. And yet, last year, with Phillip Schofield and Huw Edwards… the world hasn’t changed that much. If your relationship with your own sexuality is such that you’re not comfortable coming out, then my God, it can be weaponised against you. It still seems there’s a feeding frenzy in the press. It’s interesting to look back at Stephen because that could still happen. […] What’s scary now about doing any interview — it used to be just print, now it’s TV and radio as well — is the way—

—a line can get plucked out and go viral?

Yes. Things can be rephrased and taken out of context. Suddenly, you’re saying it, sure, but you hadn’t really said that, because you said another thing before. It’s damaging for all of us. It’s not you; it’s not me, but like, I know that on the TV show the way clips will be used online, they’ll often be a kind of clickbait. […] Jennifer Lawrence is a case in point. She’s told stories on our show that we’ve asked her to tell because we’ve heard her tell them on another show, but it’s on our show she gets in trouble. [In 2016, Jennifer apologised for comments made on The Graham Norton Show that revealed she accidentally knocked a sacred rock from its resting place after using it for “butt itching”.] I don’t know what to tell her.

It wasn’t triggering, but it was an eyeroll. It’s like: ‘Shut the fuck up about this happening!’ I see that headline being repeated over and over again. I mostly think: ‘Oh. Shut. Up.’ I got stabbed once! I should be like Saint Sebastian with things sticking out of me! Also, the way things are reported, it’s as if I stood on the town hall steps with a long proclamation: “Hear ye, hear ye!” 

Graham crouching in a yellow suit
“I’m wildly aware of the fact that my opinion is no more valid or more insightful than anyone else’s” (Image: Attitude/Tom J. Johnson)

When that October 2022 video of you discussing trans issues at the Cheltenham Literature Festival went viral and resulted in you quitting Twitter…

It didn’t. It contributed to it. Taylor Swift fans asking for tickets was also a factor!

How do you feel when you look back on that? Do you feel proud?

I don’t. Because what I was trying to say was about celebrities involving themselves. There’s a thing — and I’ve fallen foul of it, and here I am, talking to Attitude magazine — it’s so seductive, because when you speak, your voice is artificially amplified. You see it a lot, where people think that because their voice is louder, what they’re saying is more important. I’m wildly aware of the fact that my opinion is no more valid or more insightful than anyone else’s. And I’m equally aware that my opinion becomes platformed. But it had to be said. I was like: ‘Shut it down.’ I wanted to remove myself from it, so people can discuss stuff that matters with people who have something far more valuable and informed to say than I.

It’s amazing you have that modesty.

But even me trying to do that didn’t work.

It did! It completely re-engaged me in the conversation.

Oh, good. Yeah. I think things are getting better. I see things in America, the whole drag debate — the heat’s kind of gone out of it. Even those loony right-wing politicians are going: ‘We’re not fooling anyone…’ Even the dumbest voter is going: ‘I really don’t think this is the thing we need to be worried about!’ Hopefully that’ll happen here.

I have some straight, cisgender friends who are hinting at being gender critical. Do you have advice on how to deal with that?

I don’t know how you deal with it. What’s important is not to shut down those friendships based on it. I think it’s really important that you find some common ground. I’ve seen it in my generation. A friend of mine has really fallen out badly with another friend over this. It’s important to keep talking. We’re better than that. I think. I hope. We can get past it.

Have you connected with Olly Alexander about representing the UK at Eurovision in 2024?

I haven’t, but I sent him a note saying congratulations. We used to message each other on Twitter — but I’m not on there anymore, so that avenue of correspondence is gone. But good luck to him!

You have two new TV shows this year — Wheel of Fortune and LOL: Last One Laughing — as well as your chat show, radio, Drag Race, Eurovision. Do you ever feel overworked?

I feel overexposed… In that, suddenly, all these things are happening at once. It’s like: ‘Will that fucker ever get off my TV?’ I’m always nervous saying yes to new jobs. No matter how strong the format, you just don’t know what the experience will be like, if you’ll enjoy working with new people, the contestants — there are a lot of unknowns. Happily — and sort of amazingly — I loved my Wheel of Fortune experience. The team were on it, and the players were brilliantly cast and got ridiculously into the game play.

What was your most memorable moment of filming?

It’s all fun and games till they are stood at the mini wheel and the reality of fifty grand hits them. In that moment I could see the difference that the money could make to them and their families. It was great that we had so many big winners and brilliant that not one player went home with nothing. And the really good thing is my memory is so bad I can now sit on the sofa every Saturday and play along because I can’t remember a single answer. 

Wheel of Fortune is on Saturdays at 6pm on ITV1 and ITVX. This feature appears in issue 357 of Attitude magazine, available to order online here, and alongside 15 years of back issues on the free Attitude app.

Attitude 101, empowered by Bentley is our list of the year’s 101 most influential LGBTQ+ people.

The 10 categories, each featuring 10 individuals, are Media & Broadcast, Film, TV, and Music supported by LA Tourism, Science, Technology, Engineering, & Mathematics (STEM), Third Sector & Community, Financial & Legal, Fashion, Art & Design, Sport, Travel, Business, and The Future supported by Clifford Chance.

Andrew Scott on the cover of Attitude issue 358
Andrew Scott on the cover of Attitude issue 357 (Image: Ramon Christian/Attitude)