Sunday, 6 July 2008

Corrosive influence

"Irony, schmirony," spat Skelton, before draining the last of his protein drink. For a man who typically keeps his emotions close to his 50-inch chest, this was to be the beginning of quite an outpouring of rage.

Simon Skelton is a man who feels wronged by the world. And he's just about had all he can take.

We'd agreed to meet at his gym, the Buns o' Steel in downtown Redditch. An unassuming exterior hides a veritable powerhouse of activity. Entering through its portals, I was struck by the almost academic, monastic air of its inhabitants, committed as they were to a lifetime of self-improvement.

And there was Skelton, bench-pressing 100k in rep sets of 25 at a time.

For many years Skelton has been a mysterious, mythical figure. The subject of many a pub-quiz question - "Who first played Mr Muscle in the TV adverts for the oven-cleaner of the same name?" - for ten years he's been out of the public gaze. Perhaps the time has come for his story to be told.

"It all started when the advertising agency put out a casting call for a typical nine-stone weakling," starts Skelton, after vigorously towelling himself dry. "They thought it would be fun for a product named 'Mr Muscle' to be fronted by some puny guy. I was the typical facial recipient for kicked beach sand at that time, so I fitted straight in."

The early years were a whirlwind of ad shoots and public appearances. "I'm not proud of everything that happened," he admits. "But there was a pretence to be kept up. We had to make sure I couldn't bulk up, so I took to hanging around with jockeys and supermodels for diet tips. And let me tell you, when you've spent a weekend locked in a Travel Lodge hotel room with only Andrex toilet paper to eat, you've reached the bottom."

Skelton tried to convince the powers-that-be to take the character in another direction. "I told them, oven cleaner purchasers don't need irony, but they wouldn't listen. So I decided to do something about it myself."

Before too long Skelton was arranging clandestine meetings with shady suppliers. "It was at that time I was mainlining Met-RX, slipping away from my minders whenever I could to work a few routines with dumbbells."

But his operators were getting suspicious. The break point had to come. But even Skelton was unprepared for the viciousness that followed. "The midnight raid is etched on my memory. Masked goons from the ad company broke into my place and confiscated all my stuff. The Mens Health back issues first. Then the Bullworker." His eyes brim with tears at the memory. "Have you ever tried unblocking your sink after it's had whey protein poured down it? I ask you."

By now he was persona-non-grata. The word went round that they were going to recast the role. In desperation, he crashed the audition, determined to show that his new, buff, body was just what they needed. "But they'd bottled it, and given the part to some weedy bloke straight from Central Casting."

He tried suing: "I was willing to go all the way to the House of Lords - this was flagrant discrimination. But my lawyers told me no-one with 20-inch biceps and rippling abs was going to get sympathy in the courtroom."

So now Simon Skelton cuts a lonely, if somewhat large, figure. In a world where there's a place for everyone, this gentle giant just wants acceptance.

"I had my 20 minutes," he concludes. "But then they wiped me off with a lint-free cloth afterwards."

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