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The ‘curse’ of Gladiators who suffered jail, ill health and marriage failure

It was one of the “must watch” TV shows of the 1990s – but fame came with a price for some of its stars.

Anyone of a certain age will remember settling down on a Saturday night to watch Birmingham-made Gladiators.

Along with Blind Date and Catchphrase, the ITV show was a family favourite, attracting millions of viewers who tuned in for their weekly fix of lycra, muscles and toned torsos.

The programme ran from 1992 until 2000 and made stars of its super-fit cast, who were seen running around in leotards every Saturday night for nearly a decade.

For most of its eight year run it was filmed at Birmingham’s National Indoor Arena, with the cast and crew staying at the Hyatt Regency hotel.

The cast – the ‘Gladiators’ – took on super-fit members of the public in such gripping games like The Wall, Hang Tough, Duel and the notoriously difficult Travelator.

The cast of Gladiators, which was filmed in Birmingham

Thanks to the show, the Gladiators became household names and found fame and fortune. But appearing on it didn’t guarantee life-long success and can sometimes be a curse.

Its presenter, Ulrika Jonsson, revealed on Friday how the Birmingham-based show was a hotbed of scandal.

She spoke out after it was revealed that former Gladiator, Shadow, had been back in court again and admitted a blackmail charge, BirminghamLive looks at the curse of the show and how its stars have fared over the years.

Shadow

Of all the Gladiators, Shadow has had the biggest fall from grace.

Real name Jefferson King, he was axed from the show in 1995 after testing positive for steroids. But he’d had a long history of drug abuse – becoming addicted to crack aged just 14 in his native New York, and then caught snorting coke.

Shadow, aka Jefferson King, as he looked in 1993
Shadow, aka Jefferson King, as he looked in 1993

But he got clean and moved to England where he met his wife before being recruited for Gladiators for the original 1992 series.

This week King, now aged 59, was back in court in London after admitting his part in a blackmail plot where he demanded £1,000 from a mum for the safe return of her son who was allegedly being held hostage by a gang.

After he was convicted, police released a picture of him as he looks now – which shows him looking old and gaunt.

It was not his first brush with the law. In the late 1990s he ended up in prison on numerous occasions as his drug habit spiralled.

Shock police mugshot of former Gladiator star Shadow in April 2021 as he admits blackmail
Shock police mugshot of former Gladiator star Shadow in April 2021 as he admits blackmail

In 2015, Jefferson spoke out about his troubles, revealing he’d spent eight years in and out of prison for drugs ­offences and shoplifting ­after stealing and begging to feed his habit.

He candidly admitted that being fired from the ITV show had ruined his life, saying: “I felt like a leper after Gladiators. I was on the ­biggest programme there was – ­bigger than Blind Date and Noel’s House Party. People were rushing home to see Gladiators on a Saturday night.

“Then after I was fired… people saw me differently. It felt like I’d had a life and then all of a sudden I didn’t.”

Phoenix

Sandy Young is from Dudley and came to the show through her champion bodybuilding background.

She only appeared in the first series of the programme,, but went on to appear in the Wembley live shows.

Phoenix - Sandy Young - after her court appearance
Phoenix – Sandy Young – after her court appearance

In 1996 she was sentenced at Worcester crown court to 150 hours of community service for attacking her ex husband during a custody disagreement over their son.

Now aged 55, she is a mum of two and works as a florist in the West Midlands.

Cobra

Former boxer Michael Wilson took to the arena as Gladiator Cobra – famed for regularly doing the splits and his high kicks.

But post-Gladiators, his life has been blighted by injury and poor health and now, aged 57, he shuns the spotlight.

Michael Wilson, aka Cobra, as he looked on Gladiators and how he is now
Michael Wilson, aka Cobra, as he looked on Gladiators and how he is now

He was seriously ill last year, suffering from pneumonia, pleurisy and a ruptured bicep. he also suffered severe acut pancreatitis – a cripplingly painful condition where your pancreas swells up – and needs two new hips.

He said recently: “I’m only half a Gladiator now. It’s been touch and go. I don’t feel like I’m kicking the bucket at the minute, but it will only take another cold or cough and I’m in trouble. It goes to show – you never know what’s round the corner.”

Jet

Serious injury was also the downfall of Jet, real name Diane Youdale.

She was forced to hang up her leotard and leave the show after hurting her back in series four.

Diane Youdale (Jet) as she looks now
Diane Youdale (Jet) as she looks now

Now aged 51, Diane has retrained and has several strings to her bow. She presents Look North and Inside Out shows on BBC Tees and was also a regular on Big Brother’s sister show, Big Brother’s Bit on the Side.

She is also a psychotherapist, pilates instructor, fitness and well being coach.

Panther

Injury also put paid to the Gladiators career of Helen O’Reilly.

Panther fought her way through five seasons of the show, but sustained a serious neck and back injury after falling headfirst during the Tilt event.

Panther (Helen O'Reilly) as she looks now
Panther (Helen O’Reilly) as she looks now

Now aged 56, after leaving she continued to pursue her passion for fitness, setting up Panther’s Gym in Uxbridge with her husband.

Helen has largely shunned the spotlight since the cameras stopped rolling, only picking up one credit for compilation programme When Gameshows Go Horribly Wrong.

Ulrika Jonsson

The Swedish-born blonde bombshell was presenter of the show and has stayed in the public eye – not always for good reasons.

Ulrika Jonsson, appearing on Loose Women in 2020
Ulrika Jonsson, appearing on Loose Women in 2020

After Gladiators finished she went on to present other shows, but became more famous for her personal life.

Married three times, she has four children by four different men.

She also dated former England football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and Aston Villa player Stan Collymore.

She has also published a novel, and appeared on Masterchef, Dancing on Ice and Celebrity Big Brother. She also appeared on First Dates Hotel in 2019.

She told The Sun about the scandals at the show, while filming in Birmingham.

She said: “That first year in the Hyatt Regency hotel, which we more or less took over, there was a lot of bed-hopping, as there would be with a bunch of young, virile men and women with insane bodies.

“Apparently, there were quite a few multiples of people enjoying a bit of rough and tumble under the covers, while I was up in my room writing the script and furiously trying to learn my lines.”

And the Gladiators who enjoyed a happy ever after…

Ace

Warren Furman has turned his back on the world of showbiz and has found God.

While on Gladiators, he got engaged to Katie Price – when she was called Jordan – but that relationship didn’t last.

Ace, as he looked as a Gladiator and as he is now
Ace, as he looked as a Gladiator and as he is now

These days he is a devoted Christian and evangelist and has even tried to convert Katie Price to religion.

He now goes into schools to spread the word of the Lord by using the real story of the Gladiators and how Jesus helped to close the gladiator ring.

Hunter

James Crossley was the show’s heart-throb and its youngest – being just 19 when he was recruited. At one time he even dated its host, Ulrika Jonsson.

When the show ended, James made a string of public appearances cashing in on his TV fame – including, bizarrely, promoting Ginster pasties in Newcastle’s Metro Centre.

James Crossley - Hunter - as he looked then and now
James Crossley – Hunter – as he looked then and now

He has kept up his fitness and three years ago bodybuilder James, now 47, broke a world record for breaking Dinnie Stones in Scotland, but that has now been eclipsed.

His most recent TV appearance was on The Circle, pretending to be NHS nurse Gemma.

Rhino

Real name Mark Smith, now aged 51, he has enjoyed Hollywood success on the back of his Gladiator fame.

He has appeared in blockbusters such as Batman Begins, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Ben Affleck’s political thriller Argo.

Rhino - Mark Smith - as he looks now
Rhino – Mark Smith – as he looks now

As well as this, he has dabbled in voice work, acting as Office McHorn in 2016 film Zootopia.

The dad-of-three currently lives in Acton, London, and still has an interest in bodybuilding.

Lightning

Former gymnast Kim Betts, now aged 49 and from Burntwood in Staffordshire, was the only female cast member to appear in every series.

She also made history when she carried on appearing in the show even after having her son.

But when the show ended, so did Kim’s appearances in the public eye.

Lightning (Kim Betts) as she looks now
Lightning (Kim Betts) as she looks now

The former gymnast and bodybuilder is now a successful businesswoman, running a variety of companies including a beauty parlour and fishery.

The mum-of-two also boasts 16 years of property development experience and lives on a farm with her husband and children.

Wolf

The oldest of the Gladiators at the time, Michael Van Wijk is now 68 years old.

After the show ended, Michael became a regular on the Kiwi Cage Fighting scene and used to compete nationally in Jiu Jitsu championships.

Wolf, as he looked in 2019
Wolf, as he looked in 2019

He is a twice silver medallist competing against fighters half of his age for the New Zealand title. He appeared on the Lorraine show in 2019 and said he’d love the show to return.

He told Lorraine: “I would love to do it, I wish the producers would bring it back. You would get all the baby-boomers from the past watching it and you would get a new generation coming up as well.”

Amazon

The most famous of all the cast, Sharron Davies remains a household name for her swimming and TV Olympics commentary work.

Since retiring from swimming, she has worked as a TV presenter, providing commentary for all the recent Olympic games.

Sharron Davies, who played Amazon
Sharron Davies, who played Amazon

Now aged 58, the three times married star has two children.

She has also taken part in Dancing On Ice and the Island with Bear Grylls.

She earned a name for herself during lockdown when she helped keep the nation’s fitness levels up with her kitchen counter-top exercises.

John Fashanu

After a career playing football for England and clubs including Aston Villa and Wimbledon, John joined Gladiators as the co-host.

John Fashanu, on Celebrity SAS Who Dares Wins in 2019
John Fashanu, on Celebrity SAS Who Dares Wins in 2019

After it finished he went on to be runner-up in the 2003 edition of I’m a Celebrity, presented his own reality TV show Fash’s Football Challenge which saw him manage an amatuer football team, and hosted the Nigerian version of Deal or No Deal.

Despite having huge success in the game, in 2007 The Times named him 22nd out of the 50 worst footballers to have played in the Premier League.

His personal life hit the headlines in the late 1990s when his younger brother Justin Fashanu came out as gay and John disowned him.

After the suicide, John spoke of his regret for abandoning his brother.

Now aged 58, John has four children and has reportedly been married three times.



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