Puppet party: Paul Zerdin is on tour in UK from Sunday
“I had a breakdown,” reveals Paul, 49, for the first time. âI was so depressed. It has become too much for me. I played in Vegas, I met heroes like the magician David Copperfield. It should have been the time of my life, but it was the opposite.
Londoner Paul didn’t expect to win the 2015 American talent show series, created by Simon Cowell, but he seized the opportunity with both hands.
âIt was a very tense and stressful time and it went completely crazy,â he says. âI felt like David Frost, commuting between the US and UK on a spring tour, and attending meetings in New York and on dates in Canada as well. I was also trying to find a house in Vegas with my girlfriend, now my ex-girlfriendâ¦ â
As part of his AGT victory, Paul took home $ 1 million and signed a three-year contract with Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino for a three-night weekly residency. In fact, there have only been 100 shows.
Hard times: Zerdin at the opening of his show in Vegas
âHeadlining in Vegas, that’s what you dream of when you’re just starting out,â he says. âIt’s the mark of success. But things were complicated. For starters, they brought the show forward three weeks, so I was in a hot sweat on opening night. There were a lot of celebrities and pros who are a tough audience to work with. In a really quiet moment, I’m on stage and I hear an English accent shout “I love you Paul!” I said, ‘I thought I told you to stay in the trunk!’
âIt was a good laugh, but for the rest of the show all I could hear was someone saying ‘Get off, you’re garbage! “It was Nigel Havers, one of my best friends, who had come especially to heckle me!
I was always a little weird when I was a kid. I just liked to show myself off. I used to dress in my mom’s clothes and pretend to be Margaret Thatcher!
This friendly sabotage and the legions of fans proved to be the two strengths of this difficult residence. âIt took me two months to learn how to work with a Vegas audience,â he says. âThey were so difficult because they were such a mishmash – there were drunks, or people who had been coerced, or people who had just lost all their vacation money who were depressed and drunkâ¦
âBut the die-hard America’s Got Talent fans were great. I met after each show. It was like a treadmill – photo, quick chat, then rehearsal. It’s like a machine. But I felt loved. And I tried so hard. I rewrote material every night, I did press and promotional stuff every night also to get the show noticedâ¦ â
Jet lag was not a problem, he said. âI could deal with that – I’m really good when I’m tired. I would fly, unpack my suitcase backstage and take the stage. I was coping with sleeping pills and adrenaline.
Corporate shenanigans were another story. Despite the three-year contract, the hotel canceled the show after six months. âThere was an exit clause in the contract. But they cut my salary after the first month, even though we still got good homes, ârecalls Paul. âMy team was working on two shows simultaneously and the other show wasn’t attracting anyoneâ¦ We were doing a lot better but they ended me. It was such a fuck.
“I was still paying for the place I rented in Vegas for months afterwards.”
With Simon Cowell, the man who made him famous
Paul, back on the road in the UK this month, continued to perform hit shows in the US until lockdown. He’s been a home star since winning the ITVs The great show of great talents in 1996.
Zerdin is his real name, his paternal grandparents fled to England after the Russian Revolution. Her parents were both actors; his father was also a music producer and his mother a Radio 2 presenter.
Paul was ten years old when a family friend made him a puppet theater. He began to put on his own shows and the hobby quickly turned into an obsession.
âThen I was given a book on ventriloquism written by the legendary Ray Alanâ – a famous TV ventriloquist – and before long I was spending half an hour a day in front of the mirror practicing speaking without move the lips.
âI was always a little weird when I was a kid. I just liked to show myself off. I used to dress in my mom’s clothes and pretend to be Margaret Thatcher! I was given a box of magic tricks for Christmas and when my parents had dinner I would do card tricks.
Zerdin made a career out of his quirk
âWe had a serving hatch between the kitchen and the dining room, and I did these little puppet shows. I think it comes from watching Sesame Street and loving the Muppets. Ray Alan and Lord Charles were the first ventriloquist I have ever seen, and he blew me away. I remember thinking this was the way to have a puppet but still be in the vision so I could still be the star!“
At 17, Paul got a part-time job at the Magic store at Davenports in central London. He began to develop his own magic skills and became a children’s entertainer, making his television debut in 1990 on the BBC1 children’s sitcom Tricky Business. In 1991 he performed as a ventriloquist on Hangar 17 television and began working in summer camps and labor clubs to hone his skills.
His next TV hiatus was on GMTV’s morning show Rise And Shine, where he first showed off his puppet character Sam.
Winning Jonathan Ross’ The Big Big Talent Show has propelled him to numerous UK TV shows including Tonight At The London Palladium, You Bet, The Generation Game and A Royal Gala for The Prince’s Trust. In 2000, he made his debut outside of Edinburgh.
âI would have cut my teeth doing the Comedy Store and Jugglers by then,â he says. âI’ve always wanted to entertain all audiences. This kind of comedy was a rebellion against the mainstream and now it’s mainstream, but I could still do both.
Zerdin is ready for “bigger” and “more” … For now, he begins a UK tour
Lately he’s been working with radio-controlled dolls âthat move without me being in the room – that freaks people out,â he laughs.
Paul warmed up for his new tour with dates at the Horseshoe Bar in Blackpool Pleasure Beach. âIt was a long drive from Surrey, but it was so good to get back to work. I absolutely loved being on stage – it was my first shows since they closed Pantoland at the Palladium. But we’ll be back with that over Christmas, along with Julian Clary and Gary Wilmott – we’re like the new Crazy Gang!
He pauses and says, âBut now I want to do more. I want bigger, I want more. I want a Netflix special! I want the O2! I want to sell the Wembley Arena! I’m feeling lucky. I have already done so much. I think I’ve come a long way for a guy with a puppet … “
Paul Zerdin Hands Free Tour will be in cinemas across the UK from September 19th. Find tickets here