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  1. The Culture Interview
29 December 2022

“It was a caprice of the algorithm”: Louis Theroux on becoming a Gen Z icon

An old documentary clip of the 52-year-old broadcaster rapping made him an unexpected TikTok sensation.

By William Turvill

Louis Theroux broke into the British consciousness at the turn of the century as a geeky documentarian who conducted awkward interviews with minor celebrities and peculiar characters. In his early years, Theroux embedded himself with UFO hunters, far-right Americans, TV evangelists, rappers, porn stars, conspiracy theorists and swingers; he asked Ann Widdecombe if she was a virgin; he stayed over at Jimmy Savile’s house before confronting him with rumours that he was a paedophile. 

These documentaries feel dated today. Theroux has a clear charisma and is charming as a presenter. But it wouldn’t have been surprising if these early series, Weird Weekends and When Louis Met…, had proved his heyday. Instead, he is now arguably more relevant to British culture than ever before. 

In 2022 the BBC released two Theroux series. In the first, he revisited some of the fringe groups that helped make his name – adding to each episode a contemporary twist. In Louis Theroux’s Forbidden America, he showed how the far right of US politics has proliferated online; he highlighted a #MeToo scandal in the pornography industry; and he investigated criminality in Florida’s rap community. Theroux’s latest series, Louis Theroux Interviews…, features in-depth interviews with bona fide A-listers, including Stormzy, Judi Dench and Katherine Ryan. To cap it all, 2022 was also the year that Theroux became an unlikely TikTok sensation. The 52-year-old “went viral” after an old documentary clip of him rapping the words “my money don’t jiggle jiggle, it folds” was shared widely by its Gen Z users.

For me, the growing relevance of Theroux was brought home by Stormzy, the 29-year-old grime artist who starred in the first episode of the Louis Theroux Interviews… this winter. “I’ve wanted to meet you for so long,” Stormzy gushed as Theroux entered his dressing room. Stormzy, midway through a stadium tour and preparing to perform to 16,000 fans on the night he met Theroux in Glasgow, appeared genuinely star-struck. When I interviewed Theroux over Zoom to speak about his new series, I asked him if he believed Stormzy was trying to flatter him, or whether he really was as much of a fan as he made out. “Oh,” Theroux responded, sounding slightly put out by the question. “Well. I hope so. I’ve no reason to believe otherwise. He’s definitely watched a lot of my old programmes.”

Theroux said that his interview with Stormzy had come about after the musician’s representatives approached him. Stormzy later invited Theroux to appear in one of his music videos. Theroux said he became aware of Stormzy’s interest in him in 2017 when the rapper was photographed in a Louis Theroux T-shirt. “I thought, that’s extraordinary!” he said. “And then another part of me is thinking, like: ‘Of course. Why isn’t everyone wearing a Louis Theroux T-shirt?’ That sort of grandiosity seeps in.” Theroux, who was nasally and suffering from a cold when I spoke to him, didn’t specify whether he was joking. But he did later bemoan how some of his “tongue-in-cheek” humour does not always translate on video calls. “It’s hard with Zoom,” he said. “Irony sometimes doesn’t make the leap.”

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Theroux was raised in London by an English mother and an American father, Paul Theroux, the travel writer and novelist. His brother, Marcel, is a novelist and broadcaster, and his cousin, Justin, is a Hollywood actor and filmmaker. Theroux attended Westminster School at the same time as Nick Clegg and Helena Bonham Carter before reading modern history at Magdalen College, Oxford. Upon graduating, he moved to the United States. He started his career in local newspapers in San Jose, California, and later moved to New York City where he landed his first break in television as a correspondent for TV Nation, a satirical news programme run by the filmmaker Michael Moore. 

From there, Theroux attracted the attention of the BBC, which commissioned Weird Weekends, When Louis Met… and then documentaries on neo-Nazis, paedophiles, crystal meth, scientology and dementia. To many, Theroux came to be best known for his documentary on Jimmy Savile, released in 2000, after the former BBC presenter was later outed as a paedophile following his death in 2011. Some critics argued that Theroux could have done more to expose Savile. Theroux, for his part, believes he did more to challenge Savile than any other journalist.

In recent years, Theroux has built up a cult following. As well as T-shirts and other memorabilia, some mega-fans boast of having Louis Theroux tattoos. Nothing could prepare him, though, for the influx of attention after his “jiggle jiggle” rap was picked up by the mysterious algorithms of TikTok. Theroux told me he was inundated by messages from “old friends – people in LA and New York and Boston or around the UK – saying: ‘Oh my God, my son or my daughter or my wife in her spin class is endlessly listening to your rap!’ And the New York Times covered it and put it on the cover. Which for me, as a reader of the New York Times going back 20 years or so, that was kind of an anointing. It was the apotheosis of my media profile. I enjoyed it. I just tried not to take it too seriously, because in the end it was a caprice of the algorithm.”

Theroux and his wife, Nancy, have three sons, two in their teens. Not all, he told me, were thrilled to see their father become a TikTok star. “I think part of the job of a dad is to be slightly irrelevant, to sort of accept that your role is to make them cringe – and it turns out I’m pretty good at that,” he said. “My 16-year-old was fine with it. He was like: ‘Oh, it’s going viral. Whatever. Who cares.’ My seven-year-old was really thrilled and would sort of, I think, boast about it, and learned the rap and would do it at the drop of a hat. And the 14-year-old, I think, viewed it with immense disdain and took the view that basically I’d done a big shit in the middle of his favourite platform.” Theroux said all is forgiven now and that his sons were “surprisingly OK” with him featuring in a Stormzy music video. 

Families issues aside, I suspect there must be some downsides to becoming a TikTok celebrity. I asked Theroux if he was concerned that his 15 minutes of TikTok fame had overshadowed the rest of his career. “Well, there’s a factual sense in which that’s true,” he said. “There are many people, maybe tens of millions of people, who will know that rap and not have seen When Louis Met… The Hamiltons and have no clue that I’m a British documentary presenter and journalist. And that’s fine.” Theroux said his TikTok profile had provided younger people with a “gateway” to his documentary work and that he had found the experience to have been 99.9-100 per cent positive.

If nothing else, he said, it has made the experience of being interviewed by journalists like me slightly more enjoyable. I asked Theroux if he, an interviewer, enjoys playing the role of an interviewee. “I don’t dislike it,” he said. “You can probably hear from my voice I’m a bit ill. But I woke up this morning – I’ve got a few hours of interviews, I’m going to do them by Zoom – and I thought, well, that should be fine. I didn’t have any feeling of dread about it.”

He added: “To speak to people such as yourself – intelligent interlocutors, if I may characterise you in that way – people who are sensitive viewers – that’s good. And I’m curious also. It feels like it’s a finger in the wind. Two years ago, three years ago, it would have been questions about Jimmy Savile. And now it’s questions about ‘my money don’t jiggle jiggle’. So that sounds like an improvement.”

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