Jay Flynn went from sleeper on a bench to internet sensation
Jay, 40, went from sleeping rough on a London bench for two years to becoming an internet sensation during lockdown after hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed his pub quizzes online.
After raising £1.3million for charity, he received an MBE from the Duke of Cambridge at Windsor Castle last December.
Now he’s going from fan laptops to the big screen with a movie, due out next year, telling his amazing story.
A great champion of the homeless himself, when Jay saw these photos of the future king quietly doing his part on the streets of London, he was surprised.
He hadn’t realized that William was following in the footsteps of his mother, Diana, Princess of Wales, who was patron of the Centrepoint homeless charity.
“I didn’t realize how important it was for homelessness,” says Jay. “Now I know this is such an emotional issue for him that I would love to find a way to work with him in any
way, shape or form that I can. I think there’s a way to have him as a cameo, recreating his role as a Big Issue salesman, or even in the background of the shot!
Jay hasn’t contacted the Palace directly, but he has a plan. “I’ll tell the team, this is what you have to do. Go ahead, make it happen. We’ll see,” he laughs.
Jay Flynn awarded MBE for raising £1.3m for charity
Talkative, unassuming and somewhat nerdy, Jay is a natural quiz master. It collects information.
Shortly after our Zoom chat started, he was briefly distracted as a train passed his home in Darwen, Lancashire.
“It’s a completely different color than normal,” he explains. “I love my trains.”
The past two years have been a whirlwind. Jay made a name for himself when the nation was ordered to stay at home in March 2020.
The former pub owner set up a Facebook quiz for friends and family but was unable to change his privacy settings which meant anyone could take part – and they did.
“I now know how these stupid people who create an event that says ‘I’m having a house party – do you want to come?’ to see 12,000 people turn up,” he laughs. “By the time the first quiz came, over half a million people were interested.”
He was asked to host more, which he streamed live on YouTube. Celebrities such as Dame Judi Dench, Stephen Fry, Jonathan Ross and Gary Barlow have signed up to become co-hosts.
In April 2020, Jay had set a Guinness World Record for “most viewers of a quiz broadcast live on YouTube” with 182,513 viewers tuning in. It racked up 20 million online views within a year. Two book deals followed. It was a strange time.
Why does he think he did so well? “Honestly, I don’t know,” he admits. “For a lot of people it’s part of their routine…the only thing I can say is that I don’t take myself seriously.”
Today he still leads quizzes and is the Thursday quiz master on the Zoe Ball Breakfast Show on BBC Radio 2.
But fame hasn’t changed him, he says. He credits his wife, Sarah, and their son, Jack, five, for keeping him grounded, as well as his friends who teasingly call him ‘a celebrity is here’ when he meets them at the pub.
“I’m not suddenly walking around like I’m Elon Musk because I’m never going to mess with the Sunday Times rich list and it’s not something I ever wanted to do,” Jay says.
“Having gone two and a half years without money, it doesn’t get me out of bed in the morning. As long as I have a roof over my head and can support my wife and child, that’s all I care about.
Jay thanks his wife and son for keeping him grounded
These modest ambitions are understandable given how Jay’s life spiraled out of control 15 years ago. He was in his mid-twenties and became engaged when he split from his then-fiancée.
With nowhere to live, he surfs on a couch at a friend’s house while working as a driver. But he had trouble sleeping and lost his job after too many late starts. So he worked in pubs, but his mental health deteriorated as he struggled with grief and homelessness.
“Having not dealt with the relationship breakdown, I was trying to be optimistic and hide that I was broken,” he says. “I lost faith in everyone around me and all of a sudden I couldn’t trust the people who would naturally try to help me.”
Discussions about mental health were still largely taboo in 2007. No one really would miss me,” says Jay.
As he contemplated suicide, he called the Samaritans, who kept him on the phone until the police arrived. He attempted suicide twice more, the first time washing down painkillers with alcohol.
“It just gave me a stomach ache and used up the last money I had,” he says. His failed attempts made him feel worse, but ultimately marked a turning point.
“They took me across the bottom and out the other side,” he says. Determined to survive, he chose the second bench at Embankment station and slept there every night, rising at 7 a.m. and returning at nightfall. It existed like this for two long years.
“You now live at Number Three, Riverside View, Victoria Embankment – this is your home, keep living,” he told himself. “Your day job is to walk up to 16 hours a day to see what change you can find.”
He kept one of his few possessions, a portable radio, for company and survived on 15p packets of custards and Swiss rolls.
Sometimes he was lucky. Once, on Park Lane, he found £40 worth of banknotes “floating in the street”. And when he found pounds instead of pennies, he ate sausages and chips from a kebab shop on Tottenham Court Road.
Why did he return to the same bench every night? “It was my house, simple as that,” he says. “It was safety and shelter, as silly as that sounds…I tried everything I could to fit in and not come across as homeless.”
Jay had to survive on 15p pastry creams
The Embankment primarily provided a peaceful location by the River Thames.
“I’ve only been harassed once and it was a group of German tourists queuing to get on a tour boat,” he says. “I overslept, it was noon and they were throwing small stones at me to wake me up.”
Despite everything he’s been through, Jay has never touched drugs or alcohol.
“Drinking never crossed my mind,” he says. I remember finding a bottle of gin and 200 cigarettes in a Duty Free bag and leaving them on a train. Now, there’s no way I’m giving away a bottle of gin!
The next turning point came the night an outreach worker from homeless charity The Connection in St Martin ran into Jay while he was sleeping and left him a card inviting him to visit their night centre.
It took him a few days to work up the courage to go, but when he did he was provided with clean clothes and showers. He credits the humanity and decency he was afforded there with shaping who he has become today.
“I was a shell of a person, I had no personality anymore because our personalities are built through our interactions with people and what we do in our daily lives,” he says.
“I’m a quiet, shy person who doesn’t really want to be out there, but I’m also the most empathetic, loving person who will do anything for anyone.”
With the help of The Connection, Jay took part in football and art sessions before finding accommodation and a job as a team manager for Sainsbury’s. He moved to Wigan and met his wife Sarah in March 2013. They moved to Darwen together six months later.
His old life may be behind him, but a constant “why me” nibbles at Jay’s thoughts. “I don’t believe in myself,” he admits.
He grew up in Wimbledon Park, south London, with his mother, younger sister, grandmother and grandfather, Christopher, who died when Jay was 16.
“It broke me because he was my father figure,” he says. “He hadn’t fully trained me to be a man, and then I had to find my own way in the world.”
A former child actor who appeared in Casualty and The Bill, Jay rejected the idea of playing himself in the film made by the production company behind A Street Cat Named Bob. He likes British actors Rafe Spall, Will Poulter or Matthew Lewis from Harry Potter for the role.
Flynn will release a new film detailing his life
“I wouldn’t want a big A-list name that’s just about money and doesn’t care about me or where I’m from,” he says. “I want someone who will come and do him justice.”
He’s set for a replay of intense fame, but with a bit of trepidation. Mean trolls forced him off social media after accusing him of selling out. One person suggested he only got his MBE because Boris Johnson held one of his quizzes.
“Everything I do is for others,” he says. “That’s what really hurts.”
He has no intention of hosting TV quizzes. An ambassador for The Connection, he is more interested in finding a solution to end the streets and help people understand “that every homeless person is different”.
His story helped but there is still work to be done, he stresses. “A lot of people say I changed their perception of homelessness because of how I ended up like that. It can happen to anyone.”