Few are doing it like Adrian Chiles. It’s a common refrain in certain online circles where the British columnist is something of a cult figure. Twice a week, Chiles writes a column for the Guardian in which he exhibits a particular genius for reveling in the banal. These columns reliably go viral. Headlines such as “I thought it was weird to have a favourite spoon. Then I realised I wasn’t alone” and “We can go to the moon—so why can’t we stop my glasses sliding down my nose?” are pasted all over social media with captions like “He never misses.” And he never does. He is, to many, the godfather of British journalism: the nation’s only truly good columnist.
Last week Chiles-mania rose to new levels when Chiles was informed of the existence of a man who looks somewhat like him on OnlyFans.* The man, named Mike, reportedly makes his living doing things like dribbling butter on himself while reading out football scores in an impression of Chiles’s signature Birmingham accent. “The bare bones of it are as follows: a bloke in Leeds who looks a bit like me is earning money on the internet as my naked lookalike,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t blame you if at this point you, as I did, stopped reading. Trust me, it gets worse.” (On the contrary, you definitely want to read this in full.)
The column soared online, like so many before it. And I decided I finally had to meet Chiles. He very kindly granted me an audience with the king in London’s Soho neighborhood to discuss his popularity and what on Earth he makes of his doppelgänger. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Imogen West-Knights: OK, I’ve got to ask you about the OnlyFans.
Adrian Chiles: You know as much as I do. It suddenly appeared in the Sunday Sport, but I didn’t find out about it until about six days later. Somebody sent it to me—they’d seen it on the Facebook page of somebody else. So, I thought, “Hang on. It’s got to be a fake.” It might still have been made up, but it’s so peculiar you couldn’t possibly have made it up. It’s absolutely mad.
Do you know if your OnlyFans double responded to your column in any way?
I haven’t got a clue. I mean, I hope the bloke’s all right. If he doesn’t exist, that’s not a bad thing either. I wonder what he must think? Suddenly he’s in the pages of the Guardian.
What’s the strangest interaction you’ve had with someone about the column?
What my wife always says gets strange is that somebody will come and start talking to me about the column, and I end up asking them questions. They get more than they bargained for. They end up sort of backing away a bit. But then, some of the columns have been about very strange subjects. I mean, not least this last one about this person on OnlyFans.
Your columns have this cult appeal. People really love them. Has that surprised you?
Well, it does surprise me, but I’m always thinking people are half taking the piss, just because it can be so pooterish. They’re sort of about nothing. When people on Twitter say I’m “the greatest writer in the English language,” obviously it’s either a complete piss take or lightly ironic.
But look, I used to do a lot of television, big programs. And if somebody stopped me in the street and said, “I saw you on the telly last night,” well, that’s nice, but it’s a big team effort, and 10 million people are going to watch a football match, whoever’s presenting it. But if somebody stops me in the street and says, “I like your Guardian column,” I just want to kiss them, because you start off with a blank page, if you can get anything down, but anyone actually reads to the end of, and then tells you they like it, I just think, “Thank you. Thank you so much.” I say, “You don’t know how much that means.”
Where did it all start with your column? How did it come about?
Well, I just got asked to do it. I had written the odd bit for the Guardian. I think Kira, who’s the features editor, called me about four years ago now and said, “Do you want to do a column?” I can’t remember what the original brief was, but what it’s turned into is that you can write about anything. It’s just the hardest thing to do. If I just had to write about tables, I would find a table-related story every week, but it’s almost a paralysis of choice. Anyone can write one column, but to keep on doing it week after week after week? If I was mugged, before I hit the ground, I’d be thinking, “I’ve got 1,000 words on this for next week.” Seriously. It just becomes desperate. I wake up with a dread feeling on a Wednesday when I’ve got to file it. What am I going to write?
It’s funny to me to hear that they come from a place of dread, because they seem so light-hearted.
I’m getting to feeling joy by the end of them, when I realize I’ve pulled it off for another week, which always feels like a miracle. And it’s a real privilege to do it. I mean, I got a wife out of it. I wrote a column about bending over and how it’s a lot of effort the older you get, and Kath [Katharine Viner, the editor in chief of the Guardian] thought it was really funny, so she asked me to come in for a chat. And that was that. Not long after, we ended up getting married. I might write something stupid, and it could get me a divorce as well as a marriage—who knows? I think I’m clinging on so far.
Do you have a running list of things you could write about?
What it comes down to, as soon as I have just a flicker of an idea, I make a note on my phone. It’s literally something like, “Fucking hell, how much are those cargo bikes you see around?” I test-drive it in the sense that I might say to Kath, for example, “You know those bikes? Do you know how much they are? Four grand.” And she goes “What?!” That tells me there might be something there.
They do a great job of putting good headlines on the columns.
I often think they’re terrible, but I’m wrong, because they seem to do the job. If it was me, I’d write them more obliquely and a bit clever-clever, but that’s not what headlines are for. People don’t think, “That’s an intriguing headline. I’d better read that.” It’s more like “That’s what that’s about. I’ll read it.” They know what they’re doing, so I just bow to their greater wisdom.
What is the sign, to you, that a column idea has legs?
It comes down to a sort of a few reactions I get from talking to people about a topic. One of them is “Oh, really?” Another is “I’ve always wondered that.” And a third is “I’ve never thought of it like that.” If I’ve got one of those, then right, off I go.
And then what’s the process when it comes to the actual writing?
I leave it until the last minute all the time. It gives you a certain energy. It would make my life so much easier if I just started it earlier; then the process of writing gives you more ideas, but then the writing of it can expand according to the time you allow for it. Then you’re overthinking everything, and suddenly, you’ve spent half the afternoon on the first paragraph. You’re much better off with a big blank page, and the editor is going, “What the fuck are you playing at? I needed this an hour ago.” Then, suddenly, it comes.
I noticed, when you emailed me about where to meet today, you said you were getting your hair cut, and then you said, “Why do hairdressers always have daft names?” Do you feel like having the column ideas to come up with has put this new lens on the world for you?
Yeah, you’re right. That must have been done before, daft hairdresser names. But they are quite good, generally quite funny. My wife’s favorite one is in Hackney, and it’s called It’ll Grow Back, which I think is brilliant.
Do you have a favorite column, one that you remember fondly?
It’s probably the more serious ones. There’s one I wrote about just buying stuff. Just buying stuff we just don’t need. Even on the left, even on the center left, they’ll talk about, “We’ve got to drive demand. We’ve got to drive consumer confidence.” Why? So consumers can go out and buy more and buy more, buy more stuff, and we’re overwhelmed with stuff. You drive out of any town, they’ll be big warehouses—big yellow storage—where people have to get extra space they’ve got to rent to put the stuff they can’t even fit in their own homes. It seems incompatible with the environmental issue. The thing is, don’t buy some stuff. Stop buying stuff. We don’t need stuff—you know what I mean? I don’t comply with that, because I buy stuff.
My favorite one’s the one about the urinal in your house.
It’s interesting because that was no secret. I’d written about that before. There’d even been a picture of it somewhere before, but then suddenly that flew for some reason. There’s not a nice word for a urinal either. The firm of builders who put it in were mostly Polish, and I heard them talking about it, and they called it a pissoir. I went, “Well, that’s not a nice name either.” It’s no more disgusting than any toilet, and it’s much better for blokes. If I was a woman and I was with a bloke, I’d want the bloke to have one so he isn’t spattering the seat.
OK, humor me. How much would you have to be paid to see Mike’s OnlyFans in action? Is there a price?
I wouldn’t like to see it in action. I’d like to meet him. But I’d be amazed if, one way or another, somebody’s not exaggerating something about him.
Correction, March 20, 2023: Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that Adrian Chiles learned of his OnlyFans doppelgänger this week. It was last week.