A confession; Mario Falcone is a delight to interview – modest and more thoughtful than he gets credit for. I felt (a bit) guilty for assuming that might not be the case. It turns out not everything one sees on reality TV shows reflects reality.
Falcone, for those struggling, is one of the stars of ITV2’s The Only Way Is Essex, a programme which in just two years has become a phenomenon.
Following the real lives of a group of friends in the town of Brentwood, it has introduced us to the concept of “augmented reality”, put words like “reem” and “vajazzle” in the lexicon and made household names of its cast.
Were further proof needed of the programme’s impact, the 24-year-old is appearing in the Pavilion Theatre, Worthing’s annual panto, a sure barometer of pop culture influence.
He will play The Wizard Of Oz’s wizard in what will be his acting debut (unless you count a stage appearance, aged 11, singing Ricky Martin’s Livin’ The Vida Loca). “I’m a little nervous but it’s all good fun.”
The suave – even cocky – Falcone nervous? I’m surprised. But as he points out, the Falcone we see on screen is an exaggerated version of himself, an Essex-via-Italy tailor with a taste for the high life.
It represents “probably only 10%” of what he’s really like.
“Everyone has a role they have to fulfil and mine’s to be a bit flash and arrogant. I’m completely opposite to that in real life.
“I have a godson I see every week; I love kids – having my own is the thing I’m most looking forward to in life. I’m a family man.”
So how much of what we see on TV is real? “Oh, it’s all real,” he says. “The scenes are all based on issues we’ve actually been having. It’s just the locations and situations that are set up by producers. Everything you see is a real storyline but they choose how to bring them out.”
He points to his often tempestuous relationship with girlfriend Lucy Mecklenburg, a boutique owner. “When I need to talk about things with Lucy we’ll do it on-camera rather than off because that’s what we’re contracted to do.”
Doesn’t it put a lot of pressure on them as a couple? “It has its ups and downs, yeah. When you have good times on camera you can watch them back – if we ever have kids we’ll show them – but when we have to deal with horrible stuff we also have to deal with the opinions of millions on Twitter and in the media.”
He regrets certain things being played out on camera – “Seeing Lucy cry and knowing it was down to me wasn’t my proudest moment” – but generally thinks the show is a positive thing.
“We lead very nice lives because of it. We live in nice places, go to nice restaurants, have good holidays. We enjoy our lives.”
The show has close to 200,000 fans on its Facebook page – an army of devotees. Falcone think its appeal lies in its accessibility.
While there are other “augmented reality” shows – America’s The Hills was the first and Made In Chelsea a TOWIE successor – theirs is a show that ordinary people can relate to, he says.
“The Hills and Made In Chelsea are about people who have a lot of money. It’s a very niche market. TOWIE appeals to a wide audience because people can relate to our storylines, the friendships and relationships, because they’ve been through similar.”
While he has enjoyed success as a tailor and still does it as a hobby – “I don’t really trust anyone else to make things properly” – TOWIE has given him a lifestyle he’d only dreamed of. Has the success changed him?
“I think it’s made me more humble. It’s made me appreciate things more. I’m more generous than I used to be. Partly because I can afford to be but mainly because I feel so lucky to be in the situation I’m in and it’s nice to be able to share that with others.”
Being in the limelight certainly hasn’t made him any less aware of his appearance. “I’ve always been vain!” he laughs.
“I had two sisters growing up and was always into making sure my hair was done and I had nice clothes.
“If anything, I’m more lazy now. I’d never have stepped out of the house in a tracksuit before, now I’ll go to the cinema with the boys in a onesie.
“I don’t care. I’m with the girl of my dreams and I don’t have to care what other girls think of me. She loves me regardless.”
The on-again/off-again relationship viewers have seen played out on screen is now very much on-again, despite the pair having broken off their engagement.
“I see myself marrying Lucy and having kids with her in the future,” says Falcone, who at one time boasted to tabloids of having slept with hundreds of women.
“We’re looking at houses next year, maybe we’ll even build one. If I could build one it would be amazing, huge – that’s where my 10% of flashness will come out!”
The couple will spend Christmas together, splitting their time between their two families. Falcone can’t wait for the break. He will get a rare few days off after filming the TOWIE Christmas special.
“I’ve had such a good year with TOWIE but it’s been hectic. I’m looking forward to spending time with my family more than anything else. My schedule’s so busy, I hardly get to see anyone. I used to see my dad three times a week.”
He’s in panto until January. I wonder which of the TOWIE lot are coming to see it?
“I think a few of them – Little Chris, Ricky, Arg and Joe have all said they’ll come – and Lucy of course. They’ll love it. My part’s got a real twist to it and the show’s a lot like the film.”
He took the role for the fans, he says. “Most of the time we see them in nightclubs and so on, whereas doing panto, you get to meet the younger fans, which is really nice.”
Can he see himself moving into acting more seriously? “I love TOWIE so it’s not something I’ve really considered but never say never. I take each day as it comes.
“At the moment I’m just enjoying my work, enjoying my life with Lucy – who could ask for more?”
Mario Falcone appears in The Wizard Of Oz at Worthing’s Pavilion Theatre until Sunday, January 6. To book, call 01903 206206 or visit www.worthingtheatres.co.uk