Inspired by seeing comic heroes in Blackpool, and with a big break in the resort, Paul Zerdin has gone on to be crowned the winner of the world’s biggest talent show.
Tonight he’s back in the resort, making a homecoming gig, and paying tribute to the support he’s had in town during his career.
A comedy ventriloquist who’s made countless appearances on UK TV, without ever breaking through into mainstream popularity, Paul was announced the winner of America’s Got Talent (AGT) in September - gaining the support of a TV audience of millions.
But it was back in Blackpool that he gained much of the experience he now credits with his success.
“I love Blackpool. The first time I went was with friends, after my first panto season in Somerset, just for a weekend [to visit],” he said.
“I remember seeing Brian Conley on North Pier and then a show at the Grand. It was 1993 and I was about 21 or 22.
“These people are friends of mine now but they were heroes, it’s a small world.”
Paul recalls early resort performances in 1996 at the former Butlin’s Hotel – now the Metropole next to North Pier – at the same time he was appearing on ITV’s The Big Big Talent Show, which he went on to win.
Through the contacts forged in the contest he was booked for the Prince’s Trust Gala Show in Manchester in 1997, where he met TV choreographer Dougie Squires – a ‘very good friend’ of Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s now-managing director Amanda Thompson, who was looking for an act to headline the Paradise Rooms.
Paul quickly signed on the dotted line, and took the Monday and Tuesday slot, with Brian Conley midweek and Roy Walker at the weekends.
“They then asked me back the following year, for the full week, in a full production show with singers and dancers, called the Paul Zerdin Show.
“I’m so very grateful to the lovely Amanda Thompson.
“It was a 16-week season, two shows a day and six days a week. I made fantastic friends there, who I’m friends with now – I owe a lot to Blackpool.”
Paul met his ex-wife Joanne Conway at the Pleasure Beach, when she was a dancer in Hot Ice, and says he was ‘blown away by the production values’ in the likes of Eclipse and Mystique.
“I was offered seasons at the Grand and Opera House, but I remember thinking I was with the best,” he added.
But never mind what Paul owes the resort – his stage friend Baby, who featured alongside Sam and granddad Albert during his AGT appearances, could even lay claim to being a Sandgrown’un, having been created during his 1998 Blackpool season.
“Albert and the Baby were introduced in Blackpool,” he reveals. “It was opening night and I didn’t have enough material for an extra spot which Amanda told me she wanted me to do.
“I tried to get out of it, and she said ‘No, you have to come up with another five to 10 minutes’.
“I had bought the Baby puppet but not used it, so I called a comedian friend and we wrote it over the phone - and that’s how Baby was born.
“You can totally claim him as Blackpudlian and he’s come on leaps and bounds. He’s nearly 20 years old and still looks eight months.”
Tonight’s Blackpool show will be his first visit to the resort since 2009, when he made one of several Royal Variety Performance appearances, in the show broadcast from the Opera House.
“I’m excited to be back in ‘Blackers’ and coming to Viva, which I hear is a fantastic venue,” the Londoner said.
“The 2009 Royal Variety Performance was probably my last Blackpool show, and without being big headed, was probably my best TV appearance.
“It was easy.
“I felt so at home doing it at the Opera House, after having done the Delfont gala shows there, I felt at home on the stage and at home in Blackpool.
“There were local friends out there rooting for me in the audience.”
Paul’s still coming down from the experience of AGT, which saw him headline three shows at Planet Hollywood Las Vegas – ‘a box ticked’ - last month with his winner’s show.
And he’s spent much of the past few weeks in meetings, interviews and PR, for the new series of AGT starting – it goes again as soon as the show ends, in talks for potential TV shows including a comedy chat show and a sitcom, as well as planning tours in both America and the UK.
There have been 5am starts with days of back-to-back interviews, and 25 interviews in just two hours, going out across the USA.
“It has been a bit full on, good but full on,” he said of the experience. “It’s all a bit exhausting.
“I couldn’t wait to be on the plane, not so much for getting home, but for having 10 hours where no one can get to you.”
Having appeared on the Royal Variety Performance in the UK on a few occasions – most recently the Blackpool broadcast – Paul felt entering Britain’s Got Talent ‘would be cheating’, and decided it was worth going for the biggest show in the world.
“If you can crack there, you can do the world,” he said.
“My plan was to sneak over, which was at the beginning of April for the audition and sneak back, with no one any the wiser; it was literally my mum, dad and girlfriend who knew.
“But then it went so well, and I ended up going back and forwards all summer.
“In the UK, I had got as far as I could. I had been developing TV ideas with broadcasters and wasn’t getting any further with them.
“I’ve had TV [appearances] over the years, for 25 years, guest spots on the Royal Variety, but never made the break, to have my own show and that’s frustrating.
“So I thought, let’s try America.”
Paul secured the ‘golden buzzer’ vote from judge actor and comedian Marlon Wayans - winning praise for his risqué humour and innuendo, as well as support from ex-Spice Girl Mel B.
With plenty of experience behind him, Paul had plenty in reserve to make it through countless rounds of auditions and live televised heats.
“I thought long and hard about what to do in each round,” he said. “It wasn’t calculated, but I had to hold something back to be able to top each step as I went along.
“When I got to the quarter finals, I was aware I had to save something for the semis, and the same then for the finale.
“I would have been happy to get to the final once it reached that stage, but it just couldn’t have gone any better.”
Paul credits his 25-year experience of working on cruise ships, with many American audiences, with helping him pitch the act, with Sam, Baby and Albert.
But he says ‘the bottom line’ is that ‘everyone loves a puppet’.
“It’s more about them than me,” he added. “Performing live at Radio City in New York to a TV audience of millions, I gave myself a talking to and said ‘don’t mess it up’, with the years of experience I had, I could use it to my advantage.”
And there’s already been a boost in interest in Paul on this side of the Atlantic.
“It’s kicked my bum into gear and reminded people I’m still here, and that’s really nice.
“Doors have opened which were shut before.
“It’s a funny old business, but I’m not bitter, just excited to move up a gear.
“It would be easy to just up sticks to America now.
“I have worked hard for a long time in this country to make a name for myself and wouldn’t want to throw that away by doing that though.
“But I have to capitalise on the exposure I have had in America, and you only get a small window to do it, as people forget quickly – and it’s a big place too.
“I want to make the most of the opportunity, but the success has filtered back and given my career at home a kick up the bum as well.”
While it may sound very glamorous, the year’s not been without challenges.
Paul’s had to keep his diary clear of gigs to allow for travelling forward and back to the States, and despite his new global fame there are bills to pay, so there’s no rest and a panto run in Plymouth looms - although that’s a good thing for Paul, as it will see him firmly settled in one place for several weeks.
“I haven’t earned any money all year,” he said. “Financially, it’s been my worst year with cancelling gigs to keep myself available for AGT, it’s been four or five months with virtually no work.
“You’re not paid for AGT and I have some serious debts to clear at the end of the year, so I’m grateful for work.”
But it’s not all about Paul - how have his travelling companions Sam, Baby and Albert taken to global fame?
“Sam and co have changed,” he admits. “I met Terry Fator, a ventriloquist who won AGT series two, and he has become a friend, but Sam’s wanting to leave me for him.
“Baby’s still trying to find a decent looking woman to breast feed him, and Grandad doesn’t know where he is but likes the women he’s met in Vegas.
“I’ve told them to stick with me though…” he adds before cutting off, to remind me: “They are puppets you know?”
Paul Zerdin, Viva, Church Street, Blackpool, 8pm tonight. Tickets cost from £10 on (01253) 297297.