The singular star of “River Monsters” on Animal Planet takes us beneath the surface to reveal why he swims against the current to pursue his passion.
It’s not the kind of jungle where you’d expect to find him. It’s Midtown Manhattan and Jeremy Wade, star of Animal Planet’s No. 1 show, “River Monsters,” is staying at the posh London Hotel. For the next 10 days he’s doing media interviews, attending ad sales dinners, meeting a child through the Make a Wish Foundation and visiting with TV executives who are all abuzz over the show’s upcoming season, a cable series with 1.7 million viewers who tune in every week to see what creature Jeremy will reel in next.
You’d think “River Monsters” would be a guy’s show, yet 40 percent of the audience is female — a surprising number given that it’s a fishing show. There’s even a “Jeremy Wade Is Sexy” fan page on Facebook, something his friends enjoy teasing him about. “Apparently women like to be taken to these unfamiliar places,” Jeremy says. “I suppose they see me as a safe guide on the journey.”
On the other hand, perhaps women see the 56-year-old, never-married Englishman with piercing blue eyes and shock of white hair as a good catch. His fans should know that landing the “River Monsters” star might be more of a challenge than they’d expect. Jeremy is devoted to a life of freedom that includes 25 years of mostly solo travel in Africa, South America, Thailand, China and India. In fact, he says, he needs his single lifestyle to feel “properly alive.”
Martin Wade, his five-years-younger brother, says via a telephone interview from England that although Jeremy is “arguably attractive,” women can’t seem to get their heads around the fact that he’s not the type to tolerate domestic doldrums. “He wasn’t going to change so he could settle down,” Martin says. “I think he probably did break some hearts along the way, but the reality is, he’s often busy, he’s away and that lifestyle doesn’t suit women very well. At the end of the day he’s always off to find another fish.”
“I’ve lived a very nonstandard life,” Jeremy says. “On close acquaintance, people realize how disjointed it is from normal life. It’s all about being accepted for who I am,” he says. “That goes for anybody, doesn’t it? To be accepted for who you are.”
This isn’t to say that Jeremy didn’t give conventional life a decent shot. After returning from his first dangerous trip to the Congo, he was dumped by his girlfriend, who called him a “waster,” and he accepted a job as a copywriter for an advertising agency — a job that ended abruptly, three and a half years later, when he had the chance to return to Africa.
“I could see where my life was going and it didn’t look particularly interesting,” Jeremy says. “I’d prefer to be in some remote part of the world with not much in my pockets and not know what I’m going to be doing the next day.”
If there was any residual hope from family and friends of Jeremy buckling down to a nine-to-five job with a mortgage, wife and kids, it ended there. Unencumbered by marital obligations, he alone would pay the price for following his dreams. When he quit the copywriting job, he never looked back, determined to live life on his terms, not someone else’s — even when his second trip to the Congo ended up worse than the first.
“That trip was a disaster,” Jeremy says. “The water was like mud, there were no fish and we were stranded up river on a log raft with a drunken skipper.” It got worse. Government officials interrogated him; he lived on blackened fish corpses, slept in filthy, bedbug-infested rooms, caught malaria and nearly died.
His brother, who traveled with Jeremy on that trip to the Congo, says he was terrified he would have to leave Jeremy’s body behind. “It was a horrible trip — ridiculous,” Martin says. Still, Martin wasn’t surprised when his big brother announced he was going back to the Congo — again. “I don’t have any worries about Jeremy being able to look after himself,” he says. “Jeremy just gets on with it. It’s just the way he is.”
So it went. Long before Jeremy Wade ever became a television star, he would finance his fishing adventures by writing articles for fishing magazines. In between trips, he’d work part time making deliveries, working construction jobs, even washing dishes; he’d last just long enough to save up enough money to go somewhere else — often with barely enough change in his pocket to get back home. “There were various trips when I didn’t achieve anything apart from wasting time and money,” Jeremy says about his often-demoralizing adventures. “I suppose the way I was living didn’t make a lot of sense.”
Martin says Jeremy’s unconventional lifestyle includes distaste for material things, so much so that Jeremy never cared what he looked like or where he lived. “He’d wear some shockingly old clothes,” Martin says. “Nowadays, he has a fairly acceptable income and is prepared to divert some of it into living a bit like most ordinary people. Before that, all was sacrificed. I used to visit him in the places he lived in London, and I have to say, he really pushed the boundaries.”
His parents were concerned as well, wondering why their first-born son, whose test scores in school were the highest in its history, and who earned a zoology degree and teaching credentials, was living like a pauper and bumming around the world “doing research” instead of making something of himself.
“After a while, they just sort of accepted that that’s the way I was,” Jeremy says. “They took a certain pride in the fact that I was going to places and doing things other people weren’t. But at the same time, they were concerned because what I was doing wasn’t feeding into any kind of respectability, for want of a better word.”
Martin agrees. Although their parents were impressed with Jeremy’s exotic tales, they worried about what he would do long term. “Up until my dad died, that was one of his lasting concerns: ‘Oh dear, I do hope Jeremy is going to be okay,’” Martin recalls.
In fact, both the first and second seasons of “River Monsters” drew upon the research Jeremy had done over decades. “I suppose any achievement is proportional to the degree of difficulty, to the degree of danger you have to go through,” Jeremy says about his eventual success.
Difficult it was. Aside from nearly dying in the Congo from malaria, Jeremy was detained in Thailand as a suspected spy; spent months tromping through thigh-high mud swarming with insects; was smacked so severely in the chest by a giant arapaima fish in the Amazon that it bruised his heart, and experienced a range of tropical diseases. His father died when Jeremy was in a remote location in Brazil. He got the news from Martin on a two-way radio some five days later when he returned to camp. “I had to tell him when he was out in the middle of nowhere,” Martin says. “It struck Jeremy very hard. I could hear this crack in him — it was quite disturbing.”
Later, when their mother was ill, Jeremy became her primary caretaker, living with her in England for five years until she died. “I think he realized there comes a time when you need to tell people how you feel about them and acknowledge that they are important to you,” Martin says. “That’s an element that before then, Jeremy had tucked away.”
Although Jeremy continued to write fishing articles, he saw the potential of TV but didn’t know how to make something happen. That changed when a photo showing him posing with a giant arapaima he’d caught in the Amazon appeared in a British newspaper. The picture caught the eye of a producer and the result was “Jungle Hooks,” shot in 2002, which included the unscripted crash of a single-engine airplane in the Amazon jungle.
Follow-up proposals landed in circular files. Jeremy says even “Jungle Hooks” wouldn’t have been made if had it not been for self-funded research and help from friends. Then, a friend proposed the “River Monsters” concept to Icon Films, which in turn, pitched the project to Animal Planet. The cable network gave the green light to the show, with the first season airing in 2009. “I was never thinking in terms of a series that goes on for four seasons or more,” Jeremy says. “I was just thinking purely in terms of maybe a one-off program here and there.”
Despite the pleasant surprise of a steady paycheck from Animal Planet, Jeremy’s penchant for living lean remains. “He won’t accept the way we are pushed in the direction of being consumers and exhorted to spend money and accumulate things,” his brother Martin says. “He just doesn’t believe in that.”
Andie Clare, the series producer for “River Monsters” says Jeremy’s lean living philosophy comes from his commitment to the environment. “He has a certain amount of fame now and he still lives very simply,” she says. “He drives an old car and thinks everyone should drive their car until it falls to pieces.”
Even now, Jeremy lives in a couple of spare rooms in the home of a friend who lives in Bristol, England. “The last time I saw it, it was the same mess it usually is, with tackle spread all over the place,” Martin says. However, he notes that Jeremy’s life has changed to a certain degree with the purchase of a home, in a rural area outside of Bristol, now in the process of completion. “He’s quite excited about it,” Martin says. “It’s interesting to see this in Jeremy — looking forward to a space that he can call his own.”
These days his travel adventures are a bit more comfortable and include a film crew and a director who keep an eye out for opportunities for entertaining footage — like slathering Jeremy with fish entrails or putting him in a tank with enormous hungry eels or in a swimming pool with piranhas. “I can see the reason for it,” Jeremy says. “I can see that if this works it’s going to be something people will remember.”
Jeremy’s revenge likely comes when the crew is waiting for him to catch something. “Fishing is the most boring spectator sport imaginable,” Jeremy says. “I’m there in this blissful, meditative state whereas everyone that’s watching is getting bitten by insects, getting impatient and wondering when something is going to happen.”
Jeremy says that as long as his life continues to deliver opportunities for new adventures, along with experiences that offer exaggerated highs and lows, he’ll be satisfied. “There’s always something different, something bigger, something more interesting, more challenging,” Jeremy says. “You do get addicted to that kind of life — opening yourself up and being vulnerable to the forces of nature and whatever else is out there.”
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2012 Singular Communications, LLC.
The Fisher King: Jeremy Wade
Video with Jeremy Wade produced by journalist and filmmaker Zac Assemakis for Dumpling Productions. Jeremy talks about travel, adventure and tales about some of the biggest, scariest river monsters he’s ever caught.