Image credit: Laura Norton

‘Being a soldier, you naturally become charitable’: In conversation with SAS star Billy Billingham

Mark ‘Billy’ Billingham is a decorated former sergeant major in the SAS who came to public prominence as an instructor on the Channel 4 reality series SAS: Who Dares Wins. The show is a strenuous test of contestants’ mental and physical abilities in unforgiving challenges meant to replicate the selection process for the UK Special Forces. He has been awarded an MBE and the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery for his military service.

Ahead of an upcoming national tour and two new series of SAS in the UK and US, we spoke about his struggles coming to terms with his increased public profile, his involvement in charity work in Haiti, and what he wants audiences at his shows to take away from his life experiences.

Charlie Bowden: Many will know you from SAS, which you joined in 2016. The show has gone on to achieve a lot of success since then. How did you find navigating the elevated platform the show gave you, especially since you’re not able to talk much about your time in the SAS?

Billy Billingham: It’s been an interesting journey, to be honest. When you’re first on the show, you worry about how you present yourself and make sure you’re not saying anything that you shouldn’t be saying. It takes time to get used to having cameras pushed in your face. But after your first time on TV, it soon settles down and you realise it’s not about you. It’s about giving knowledge based on your life’s experiences, not just to the people on the show, but all the people that are watching it as well. 

In the early days, I forgot that people actually watched the show and wanted to come up to me in the street. Once – I think I’d done two series – I was in New York in a tiny airport with hardly anyone around. There was a guy staring at me and I confronted him about it, and he said, “I’m sorry, you look like a guy on this TV show, SAS.” I’m very grateful to be in that position, but it was hard to get my head around it. I’d been a celebrity bodyguard before the show, so I was used to people doing it for my clients, but now they were doing it to me. 

It was awkward at first, but I started to embrace it. I love having a platform. 70% of mine and my wife’s lives are focused on charity now, so it’s wonderful to be in a position where people follow and support our work.

CB: On SAS, you’re there to mentor the contestants and push them to reach their potential, but is there anything that you’ve learned from filming the show?

BB: From the beginning, I learned that the show was not about four special forces guys. We’re just the ones who keep the train moving on the track to get the best out of people, and to get the right sort of content for entertainment. We have nothing to do with that, though.

When we do the program, it’s filmed 24/7, and we have no idea where it’s going to go. We don’t know what the narrative is going to be. We only see the students in front of us. When they go back to their dorm, we have no idea what’s going on.

I learned from that environment to just be yourself; don’t try and be an actor. What you see of me on TV is the real me. I’m not playing for the cameras – I’m truly passionate about getting the best out of these people, whether they’re celebrities or not. It doesn’t matter to us. They’ve come for a reason, and often that reason is that they’ve lost direction in their life. For celebrities particularly, they’ve got their fans telling them all these things they think they want to hear. It’s not genuine.

It’s a great pleasure for me to be able to peel – and I always say peel, not break – people back to who they really are. It’s a great opportunity for them to stop shouldering the trauma and burdens of their life.

CB: Do you find that there’s much difference doing SAS with celebrities compared to civilians, or is it broadly a similar experience?

BB: The thing about our show is that there’s a bar set and everybody is treated the same. For example, the women carry the same weight, run the same distance, get spoken to the same as the men, because that’s how the military is. Everybody gets treated equally, civilian or celebrity.

I do believe we’re a bit less aggressive with celebrity recruits to start with. We give them the benefit of the doubt, because they’ve been part of this world of fame and fortune, but it soon reverts back to normal.

There is a slight difference, but certainly not on the results we expect. We don’t care whether you’re a gold medalist, or a politician, or whatever you’ve been. It’s our course, and we have expectations, and we will drive you according to those expectations.

CB: You’re also on the American adaptation of SAS, Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test. Do you find that there’s a difference in how Brits and Americans handle the challenges?

BB: There is. Americans are just as tough, but the difference is that the British version has now been running for nine series. People have watched it, they’ve grown with it, and now they can train for it, because there’s only so many things we can do. People come into it a lot more prepared these days. In the US it’s still relatively new, so people are still turning up thinking that it’s gonna be an easy ride. It’s a complete shock to them. To be fair to them, once they realise how real the challenges are, they’re in it and they give their best.

A lot of them fall by the wayside quicker than the Brits do, but I think as time goes on, the same thing will happen in the US as with the UK. Right now though, we have to back off a bit sometimes. We can’t be too aggressive. There’s a fine line between getting their best out of them and going too far, and we’re always aware of that.

We were worried initially about how the public might receive it because in America, the celebrities are like gods. People treat celebrities differently from everybody else, and if they see their favourite celebrity being pushed into a corner, they don’t like it and they can turn against you. However, since the show has gone out, the public are all behind it and the celebrities have taken to it really well. We’ve just finished our second season, which is coming out really soon.

CB: Your wife Julie runs the charity REBUILD Globally which helps provide education and job training for people in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. You released a travel collection with her fashion business Deux Mains which supports people in Haiti. What made you decide to get involved?

BB: Being a soldier, I’ve been all around the globe. I’ve seen conflict, I’ve seen natural disasters, I’ve seen people suffer. You naturally become a charitable person. In the past, I’d boxed and run for charity, but I’d never really followed all the way through. I didn’t mind raising money, but someone else always took the money and used it to help people. I wanted to get involved more directly.

When the 2010 Haiti earthquake happened, I was a partner in a security business in Iraq. What grabbed us when we saw the news was the sheer number of people who died – 250,000. We went out to Haiti 10 days after it happened. We started building portacabin-style hospitals, and getting the local people involved to take their minds off the terrible situation. We ended up staying longer than we planned and built a school with the support of Sean Penn. I met my wife there and we got talking, and we began to wonder what charity really means.

Charity, of course, is about giving, and when disaster strikes, you give yourself. You get in there, help people, get bodies out, because there’s a time limit on saving lives. After the initial devastation, you give experience, knowledge, food, water, whatever’s needed to help rebuild what was lost.

Then, there comes a time when the only thing you should be giving is dignity for the people suffering. They wanted a chance to stand on their own two feet. They didn’t need our commiserations, they needed work.

What is the turnkey solution to ending poverty after a disaster? Three things: education, job training, and employment. So that’s what we set out to do. My wife set it all up. Through REBUILD Globally, we got Haitian kids off the street and into school. We’ve been running that for 13 years now. If they stay in the whole four-year school program, they go into a work experience program we set up for them. We thought, what happens after they get through that?

My wife started a for-profit fashion business with a lot of the women. We built a factory and they began making all sorts of accessories. Later on I decided to do a collection with them. As a soldier, I was always packing and unpacking my stuff, so I figured that the best thing for me to make would be men’s travel accessories. We designed a man bag based on the claymore bag, which you use in the military in hostile environments.

The design came from what was practical for me when I travelled as a soldier. Everything’s in one place. We looked at the travel bags that top brands like Versace sell and replicated the quality but with a better design. The kids who lost their parents in that earthquake are now the artisans who make the bags in the factory. Although the business is for-profit, everything goes back to Haiti and getting more Haitian people into work, giving them back their dignity.

CB: You’re going on tour across the UK in October and November. What can audiences expect from the show?

BB: Everyone can take something different from it. I don’t throw statistics and quotes at people. I take them on a journey, and it’s my journey from being a young kid that went rogue, being thrown out of school, being stabbed, generally getting in trouble. I’m not proud of a lot of the things I talk about, but they’re worth sharing, especially to younger audience members. Everyone’s been down that road. Getting things wrong is part of growing up.

I want to show people that you have to believe in yourself and not be afraid to go for goals. There are so many goals I haven’t reached, but by trying for them, I’ve opened up a new world. I never intended to be a bodyguard, I never intended to be on TV, but I went down those avenues when they offered themselves and I’ve enjoyed them. My mantra is ‘always a little further’. We can always do that little bit more by not being afraid to get knocked back.

CB: Looking beyond the tour, do you have any big future ambitions?

BB: I’m always aiming for something ridiculous. I want to break the world record for parachute jumping. My wife thinks I’ll never do it, but I’m always aiming for it. Will I get there? I don’t know.

I’ve gotten back into parachuting and I set that goal for myself so I can keep at it, because there will come a day where I won’t be able to do it. That day isn’t marked out for us. You never know what’s going to come. You have to keep pushing forward and enjoy what you’re doing.

CB: Given your wealth of experience, do you have any advice for our student readers going into the real world?

BB: Education is paramount for the youth of today; you have to get education, but that is ultimately just a foundation. It’s not a substitute for experience.

Travelling is probably the best thing you can do in your life. Go out there and meet people. Be respectful of people who’ve been out there before you and pick their brains to learn from their experiences. Don’t take their word for gospel, though, go out and experience what they’re saying for yourself.

Never think you have all the answers. Even as a sergeant major in the SAS, when I had done hundreds of operations, I always asked the new guy for his ideas. I could’ve just done it my way without asking anyone’s opinion, but that’s not how you learn. That’s not how I’ve gotten to where I am today.

The second season of Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test premieres on Monday 25 September. The fifth series of Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins premieres on Tuesday 26 September. Tickets for Billy’s tour are available to purchase now.

This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.