Since winning the BBC New Comedy Award in 2005 at the tender age of 22, Tom Allen has established himself as one of TV's most beloved comics, fronting everything from the Bake Off: The Professionals to The Apprentice: You're Fired! with a caustic wit and disarming warmth.
Through that age-old medicine of laughter, Tom, now 37, has had both gay and straight viewers lapping up a formerly eccentric kid from south London who used to dress in Victorian clothing "in a bit to distract" people from the fact he was gay.
But after years of using his eccentricity and wit as something of a shield, Allen, who's set to host the 2020 Virgin Atlantic Attitude Awards, powered by Jaguar on YouTube on World AIDS Day (1 December), is set to peel back the armour in a brand new book which sheds more light on his early years growing up in Bromley, south London.
Tom Allen opens up about his sexuality and new book 'No Shame' in the Attitude December issue, out now (Photography: Joseph Sinclair)
No Shame - out 12 November - is a joyous account of Tom’s journey towards embracing his queerness, as he learns to revel in his peculiarities, while peeling back the layers of middle England’s daft oddness.
“It’s about feeling less alone. A friend of mine read it and said, ‘It’s about coming to terms with your sexuality, but also coming to terms with being an eccentric.’ I think at some point everybody feels like an outsider, in one way or another. And I suppose it’s just how we respond to that. Turns out I responded to it in quite an odd way.”
His mum was quite proud of the posh son she had somehow birthed. “We don’t know where we got him from,” she would tell friends as they jeered Tom on to speak in his faux Oxbridge accent. “My mum and dad always loved this kind of eccentricity,” he says.
“And laughter was a big way to enjoy it, and to celebrate being different, and any feeling of outsider-ness that my mum or dad felt.
Tom wears suit shirt and bow tie, all by Richard James, watch by Cartier (Photography: Joseph Sinclair)
"I knew from an early age that I spoke differently. I was always interested in different things. I was always very snooty, and snobby, which is strange in a four-year-old. To be like, ‘No, I don’t want the table to be laid like this.’”
School, as perhaps to be expected, had its own challenges.
“I’d be bullied by the girls because they didn’t want to be my friend because I was a boy,” Tom recounts of that dreaded 40 minutes when children are left to their own devices on the square tarmac of the playground. “Boys would just seem to be playing football immediately. If there was a stone around, they’d be kicking it. And I’d be like, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that. I’ve got to tidy up the coat pegs. And I’ve got to fold my PE kit.’”
In true Tom fashion, he would make friends with the dinner ladies, or his friends’ mums when he went round their houses for tea. “I didn’t want to go and play. I was, like, ‘No, I’m fine. But tell me about the kitchen renovations you’re getting done.’”
Tom wears suit by Walker Slater, shirt by Eton, tie by Liberty London, pocket square by Paul Smith (Photography: Joseph Sinclair)
He adds: "Without having to define it, being funny was a way of making the world OK, and actually making any kind of scenario or person who felt threatening seem less so.”
While plenty of cultural weight is put upon the journey to sexual acceptance and coming out, Tom inimitable character added a second layer of 'otherness' even after he'd found his tribe.
“I’m aware that we often have quite simplistic narratives,” he says. “My experience of being a queer person is that we reach out for role models and for guidance. I think when I was growing [up], culturally, they would be quite simplistic storylines. And I always felt like I didn’t fit in with that. I’m not living the life of Nathan in Queer As Folk, which was a brilliant thing when it came out.
He adds: "I’ve found that actually in my 30s, I’ve got a lot more comfortable with myself, and so that’s been a time that I’ve felt like I’ve been much more silly, much more carefree.
"I’ve gone out and stayed out all night, and gone, ‘Oh, this is fun.’ Which is probably what I should have been doing when I was 15, but when I was 15, I was like, ‘No, I’ve got to concentrate on my GCSE history.’”
The road towards owning an unconventional identity can be bumpy, but the destination is always a happy place.
“I think that often it’s easy to make it all into a streamlined narrative, and actually, I think it doesn’t have to be like that,” Tom says.
“It’s complicated, and there’s different parts to it, and it’s all valid. When I came out, somebody said to me, ‘Well, we’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time.’ And I thought, that’s kind of true, isn’t it? We should all try and just have a nice time, and enjoy it as much as we can.”