Future contestants on The Chase should be warned – when it comes to pop culture questions, you won't stand a chance against Jenny "The Vixen" Ryan.
During the Covid restrictions in the UK, when the programme couldn't be filmed for six months, the quizzing genius spent her time stuck at home immersing herself in films, TV shows and podcasts, so she's going to be clued up when it comes to shooting upcoming episodes.
"I got through a lot of box sets and I have pretty much completed Netflix, so I'm ready for the pop culture questions," says Jenny, speaking to the Weekly from her home in Bolton, near Manchester, England. "The way I learn is through consuming media so, in a way, lockdown was good for me."
As useful as it was to have plenty of time to study, she was delighted to be back on set filming new episodes, including a Christmas special.
An aficionado of television, being able to work in the medium and at the same time indulge in her passion for quizzing is a dream come true for Jenny, 38. It was her beloved granddad, Kevin Ryan, who fostered her love of general knowledge.
"He cared for me before I went to school, and taught me to read and write, do maths and use a typewriter. But the most important thing he taught me was how to quiz. We'd watch quiz shows together and he'd also read the paper with me. If there was an article about a place, like Nigeria, he'd say, 'Can we find it on an atlas? What's the capital city?' The research skills I have in quizzing come from my granddad."
Kevin died when Jenny was 10, so he never got to see her turn her quizzing prowess into a career. "But I know he is watching me and would be super-proud – and so envious of my job!"
Jenny's first TV appearance was on University Challenge, while she was at Leeds University studying law.
"When I walked into the studio, I could see that the other contestants were overwhelmed, but I felt at home. It felt like being on TV was my destiny, but for ages, it seemed like it was just out of reach."
After university, in between a series of "weird and wonderful" temp jobs such as being a receptionist for a cosmetic surgeon and a radiator salesperson, Jenny was a question writer on programmes like QI and The Weakest Link, while also appearing as a game- show contestant.
She competed in Are You an Egghead?, where the prize was to join the team on the show Eggheads. Jenny was knocked out by a quizzer called Anne Hegerty, who also failed to get the Eggheads job, but went on to become one of the original experts on The Chase.
Six years ago, Anne – aka The Governess – suggested Jenny when the show's producers were looking for someone new to join her, Mark Labbett (The Beast), Shaun Wallace (The Destroyer) and Paul Sinha (The Sinnerman).
"The others knew me from the quiz circuit, but it was Anne who really pushed for me," says Jenny. "She knew I would be almost as fierce an opponent as she is."
Delighted as she was to land the job, it was more than a little daunting to walk out on set that first day. "I kept thinking about how many millions of people watch the show, and I didn't want to make a fool of myself.
"But part of the skill set of what we do is to forget that you are on TV. You've got to know when to tune out and go into the quiz zone, especially for the final chase. It took me at least the first series to be able to do that."
Host Bradley Walsh helps to relax everyone and is great to work with, says Jenny. "It's funny when he is reading the final chase questions at speed and you can almost see a micro expression on his face when something comes up, and he's thinking, 'She's not going to get this, ha ha.' And when I answer, his jaw drops. One of my favourite bits of being a chaser is surprising Brad."
Brad's a lot cleverer than he lets on, confides Jenny. "He plays up the Everyman, slightly dim character and we tease him about that. He's actually very smart."
Away from work, she spends quite a lot of time with Paul, including going to his stand-up comedy performances. "I count him as one of my best friends, and I was lucky to be at his wedding last year. He made me sing at the reception – with very little notice!"
Jenny's singing talent led to her competing on the celebrity version of The X Factor last year. She earned a standing ovation for her rendition of Queen song Somebody to Love at the audition, but didn't get through to the live shows. Viewers kicked up such a fuss that judge Nicole Scherzinger put Jenny through. She came third.
"It was pretty brutal, but actually it was one of the best things that could have happened," reveals Jenny.
"My biggest fear was rejection, and I was rejected on the biggest possible stage, but I survived. To have that happen and then have a second chance – and show them how wrong they were for not putting me through in the first place – gave me a lot of confidence."
Her appearances on The X Factor made her a lot easier to spot in public. "I've been able to go a little bit incognito because when I wear my hair down and a different pair of glasses I don't really look like The Vixen. But since X Factor, I get recognised a lot more. I've got used to it now, but I'm glad that recognition came at a slower pace."
Becoming a household name not only in the UK but around the world is still quite mind-blowing, admits Jenny.
"Is it one third of people in New Zealand who watch The Chase? That's amazing. You realise that you do become a part of people's everyday life. The show means a lot to a lot of people, and that's quite humbling. I feel privileged to be in this position."
'You have been caught!'
The chasers go all out to try to stop the contestants winning, but does Jenny ever feel guilty about beating good teams?
"We get a lot of contestants who are deserving, but we don't give away money to people for being nice – you have to be an excellent quizzer, or else catch us on a particularly bad day, and we don't have many of those."
There have been times when she feels sorry for teams who do well but still lose.
"The worst incident was when I played a team of four, including a young man called Charlie, who was a University Challenge quizzer and answered most of the questions. They got 24 or 25, which is a winning score most of the time.
"I thought they had me beaten, but I had one of those magical two-minute rounds where I knew everything, and was on fire. I still feel a bit guilty about that."