The Circle viewers fall for Paddy Smyth, an Irish reality TV star with a difference

Irish disability campaigner Paddy Smyth has gone viral on Channel 4's The Circle

Irish man Paddy Smyth is still very much in the running for The Circle’s cash prize for the most popular contestant

Irish man Paddy Smyth is still very much in the running for The Circle’s cash prize for the most popular contestant

 

Via the lens of reality TV, “the real you” is often a somewhat slippery concept, especially when producers can fashion entire personas and plotlines in the cutting room.

Mindful of the all-powerful encroachment of social media in our lives, the producers of Channel 4’s series The Circle have taken this idea to an entirely different level with a new format.

Players are known to each other via their social media profiles; some of which are genuine, some of which aren’t. The contestants are holed up separately in different fancy flats, communicating exclusively via The Circle, a nifty voice-activated system.

The Circle provides a space “where you can be who you want to be”, but humans can often be tricky like that when afforded the shield of anonymity. There’s a £100,000 bounty on offer for the most “popular” contestant, so everyone, it would seem, has a tactic to hand. Some pounce on the opportunity for Machiavellian manipulation; others outsmart their fellow players with an entirely fake profile.

The line between the real and the online self is foggy. Emboldened by the lack of face-to-face contact, others again flirt shamelessly and break out the aubergine emoji like it’s about to be taken away from them for good.

And then there’s Irishman Paddy Smyth who, it would appear, went on to the show for an entirely different reason.

Smyth may already be familiar to Irish TV fans as a contestant initially on First Dates Ireland, and as a presenter on RTÉ fashion series The Fitting Room. Others may know Smyth, who has cerebral palsy, as a disability campaigner who has won a sizeable online following (using the hashtag #mydisabledlife).

Like Love Island’s Irish contestants Greg O’Shea and Maura Higgins, he was a latecomer into the series, but made an impression right away. Viewers immediately fell for his modus operandi: he wasn’t there for the hundred grand, but rather to see what life is like when people don’t immediately register one’s physical disability.

In touching scenes, Smyth opened up to fellow contestant Georgina about having cerebral palsy, and later uploaded a picture of himself using his “copper and glam” crutches. It appeared to be, literally, a game-changing moment as his fellow contestants responded with (virtual) open arms. “I love you for you,” was the general comeback.

“I’m disabled, glam and queer… I feel like a f**king weight has been lifted!” Smyth later admitted.

Twitter users were similarly supportive of him, noting that he had broken open the conversation and lifted the stigma of living with disability. And in a game where contestants often resort to their worst, most conniving selves to get ahead, Smyth’s honesty was a bit of a palate cleanser.

Using social media to carry a message of self-acceptance and open-mindedness is nothing new, yet watching these raw and compelling moments unfold in real time appears to have hit a nerve with viewers.

As of last night, Paddy was still very much in the running for the cash prize, although a run-in with fan favourite Tim could very well see him slip from grace as the remaining contestants inch towards the final.

Yet Paddy’s the latest in a glittering firmament of Irish contestants who have stormed reality TV. This summer saw the aforementioned Greg O’Shea and Maura Higgins become the breakout stars on ITV’s Love Island.

O’Shea sailed through to the final as part of a late-onset couple with firm fan favourite Amber Gill, who seemed well into his gallantry and lovely Irish accent (in reality TV, an Irish accent appears to be catnip).

As for Maura: well, the Longford beauty was credited with carrying the series on her perfectly tanned shoulders. Professing to be on Love Island for love (not in it for the Likes, swear), the grid girl’s enthusiasm for coupling up and plain talking-downs pretty much shook up the summer TV schedule.

Moving forward, this new cluster of Irish reality players have no shortage of Irish celebrity inspo in that regard, and several before them have been able to parlay a reality stint into a lucrative career move.

As one of reality TV’s prototypical stars, Dubliner Anna Nolan was a runner-up on the first series of Big Brother in 2000 and began working in television, effectively paving the way for others such as Jade Goody to do the same. She currently works as a producer for Coco Television, and has also stood in for Marian Finucane on her RTÉ radio show.

It’s thought that Kildare-born Big Brother winner Brian Dowling earned almost €2.8 million for a string of presenting jobs after winning the series in 2001, including a reported €850,000 pay cheque for his two years as the face of Big Brother on Channel 5.

Laura Whitmore already had a strong TV career under way, but the Wicklow native announced a €600,000 profit at her media firm the year she was voted out as the sixth contestant in the 2016 series on Strictly Come Dancing (the figure rose to €775,369 in 2018).

Vogue Williams first came to prominence on RTÉ’s Fade Street. She recently splashed out £1 million on a London pad with her husband Spencer Matthews, so it’s tempting to conclude that appearances on The Jump and Bear Grylls: Mission Survive have worked for her.

In the topsy-turvy world of reality TV, today’s odds-on favourite could be tomorrow’s homeward-bound evictee. How this will all play out for Paddy Smyth remains anyone’s guess. Yet with one viral moment under his belt, and a heart-warming one at that, his future could be very interesting indeed.

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