Interview: Scott Mills on Radio 1, his Uganda documentary and covering Eurovision

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a pink background.

His “The Scott Mills Show” is broadcast on BBC Radio 1, a station that reaches more than 11m listeners each week. He regularly presents The National Lottery. His BBC 3 documentary “The World’s Worst Place to be Gay?” won the 2011 Stonewall Award for Broadcast of the Year. He’s provided commentary for the Eurovision Song Contest semi-finals. He’s interviewed Lady Gaga three times. Laurence Watts meets the multitalented Scott Mills.

Scott Mills is something of a legend. At the tender age of 16 he became the youngest presenter on commercial radio, when he was given his own slot on local radio station Power FM.

“My mum has all these weird stories about how I used to go over to the stereo when I was 3 and turn it on,” he tells me. “Obviously, I don’t remember, but she assures me I did. When I was 7 or 8 I listened to the radio a lot. I was a bit of a bedroom geek, never really leaving it except to go to school. I idolised Radio 1 because I grew up in Southampton and we didn’t have any local radio back then. Radio 1 was exciting because it came from London and was transmitted all over the UK. I was really shy as a kid; I still can be a little bit. Radio has always been a great way for me to speak to loads of people without actually having to meet them.”

After his stint at Power FM, Scott moved on to GWR. Later he worked for Manchester’s Piccadilly Key 103. His next move, this time to Heart 106.2, brought him to London.

“I remember moving to London just to be in the London market,” he says. “I was 23 when I went to Heart, playing songs from the 60s, 70s and late 80s. People love Heart, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t really for me. It’s different now, but back then you had to be in the London market if you wanted to be noticed by the big players.”

Given he’d always idolised Radio 1, I ask him how it felt when they finally offered him a job. It wasn’t as straightforward a proposition as you might imagine.

“I was at the Sony Awards one year when I met a guy from Radio 1 called Simon. We got talking and he said I should do a demo for them. I was like: “I’d love to!” There was only one problem: Simon had been absolutely p**sed when he’d said it. Afterwards, whenever I tried to call him, I could never get through. I was sure he wouldn’t even remember our conversation.”

“Eventually I heard back from them. They did want me to do a demo! I ended up doing demos for about two years before I joined. I kept sending them in. It was borderline stalking. First they said: “No.” Then they softened to: “Yeah it’s alright, but you’re not quite what we’re looking for.” Finally, I went into their studios to do a one. I was so scared I ended up being rubbish. About a year later they rang me up asked if I’d do yet another demo for them. I was like, “Really? I think I’m done with it.” But I did and then they asked me to meet them for lunch. I thought they were going to tell me I was sh*t again, but they offered me a job! The early breakfast show! I remember ringing my mum and telling her: “I’ve got a job with Radio 1!””

After presenting the Early Breakfast Show for four years, Mills’ made his way up the Radio 1 ladder, eventually arriving at his afternoon drive-time slot in 2004. He hadn’t been at Radio 1 long when he was offered his first TV appearance.

“I never really thought I’d be on television,” he admits. “ I mean, people looking at me? No thanks. But within two weeks of joining Radio 1, the producer of Top of The Pops rang me and said: “Would you do it next week?” I think it was because I was young and had spiky hair. Whatever the reason, my first ever TV appearance was presenting Top of The Pops. I did about five or six of them before they realised I was no good. They’d thrown me in at the deep end and I really wasn’t ready for it. Afterwards I did a lot of digital TV and built up some experience. Being on TV is great, but Radio will always be first love.”

His move to Radio 1 brought other changes, too. Its personality-driven formula meant that for the first time Scott was encouraged to personalise his broadcasts.

“In commercial radio you have a format,” he explains. “No one really knows who radio DJs are anymore because they’re not allowed to say anything. I worked in commercial radio for ten years and at the end of it no one knew anything about me. They just want you to play loads of music and not take any risks because they’ve got advertisers to please. As such, none of your life is on air. When you get to Radio 1 they say: “Right, you need to be yourself.” So when I arrived my life started to become a bit of an issue. I’m a very private person, so even if I were straight I wouldn’t talk about my girlfriend doing this, that or the other. Even so, things became a little more difficult.”

Scott came out in an April 2001 interview he did with The Guardian, three years after joining Radio 1. We laugh when I congratulate him on not having given an exclusive to The News of The World or The Daily Mail. I ask him how the interview came about.

“The Guardian came to me and said: “Do you want to do it?” And I just thought, why not? You want to nip it in the bud early because if you hide it or lie about it, you end up making a big deal out of it. Then when you do come out, the press turn it into a big story and you’re forever described “gay DJ, Scott.” I’ve seen that happen to other people.”

I quote a line from the Guardian interview where he said: “I’m certainly not going to turn into some gay ambassador all of a sudden, because that’s not me. I’m not a campaigner.” Ten years on, and in light of his recent BBC 3 documentary, I ask him to put that comment into context.

“I think I was just scared of being an ambassador or a campaigner,” he says. “I still don’t think I am, really. I get a lot of stick from gay organisations asking why I don’t talk about being gay more, on air. That’s just not my personality. The Uganda documentary came about when I went to meet Danny Cohen, who at the time was BBC3 controller. He wanted me to do it. I went away, did some research and agreed to do it because it was something I was genuinely interested in.”

“The World’s Worst Place To Be Gay?” has since been broadcast around the world. In the UK it aired on the BBC and in America on Logo. The documentary highlighted the plight of gay Ugandans at a time when Uganda’s parliament was considering a bill allowing gay men and women to be executed. In November the documentary won Mills a Stonewall Award for Broadcast of The Year.

“To win an award for something that’s not really my skill is fantastic,” says Scott. “Out of all the things I’ve done in my career, I’ve never had such a response from viewers or listeners for anything else. People stop me in the street and say: “I saw your Africa show.” Although it was really heartbreaking to make and at times quite a harrowing experience, if they asked me to do it again I would definitely say yes.”

As a final topic, I want to discuss Scott’s involvement in that gayest of television extravaganzas: Eurovision. How did he land the semi-finals’ presenter job and will he do it again next year?

“Well, last year I did the UK results,” he tells me, “which was awesome. I got to go on TV and say, “Hello Oslo, this is London calling,” with 120m people watching! This year the producer asked me if I wanted to do commentary for the semi-finals. I was like: “Hell, yeah!” Unfortunately Radio 1 wouldn’t let me have the time off, so I went to Dusseldorf the weekend before, saw the dress rehearsals and then flew back to London. When I did the semi-final shows on the Tuesday and Thursday, I was sat in Television Centre watching it live on a monitor. It was so much fun though. Basically it’s just bitching about Eurovision, which everyone does at home anyway, only I get to do it on TV! Eurovision really is the gay world cup.”

“Two weeks ago I went to see the guys responsible for the show and thankfully they want me to do it again. I was like: “Yes! I’m going to Azerbaijan.” Hopefully, I’ll be out there for the whole week this time. If I’m lucky, Graham Norton will be just a little bit ill on finals night and I’ll get to do that as well! I love Graham, but that would just be amazing!”