"At best you'll end up in prison, at worst you'll end up in a factory." Despite his teachers' low expectations Shaun Wallace rose above the discrimination to become a barrister with a famous TV quiz career.
Wallace is a ‘chaser’ on TVNZ's hit show from the UK The Chase each evening where four hopeful contestants try to answer a series of quick-fire questions to walk off with a heap of cash.
But there's a catch, they have to first outrun one of these chasers: The Governess, The Vixen, The Sinnerman, The Beast or The Dark Destroyer.
Wallace is the Dark Destroyer. He’s also a successful criminal defence barrister and one of the world’s leading quizzers.
He's in New Zealand quizzing around the country to chat about his autobiography Chasing the Dream and his rise from humble beginnings as the son of Jamaican immigrants in 1960s London.
He says he first displayed a passion for learning as a young boy.
“As a little boy I had an interest in most things because I wanted to expand my mind, because education is the key for me, and that’s why I spend a lot of time outside The Chase and outside of court going into schools particularly to young individuals to stress the importance of education.
“My eldest sister Sandra I owe her a great deal, she was my first heroine actually, she encouraged me to read and write and my dad, although not a literate man, he gave me the gift of reading newspapers, watching the news, I was very aware of the world around me, very fascinated with the world around me.”
His first passion was English history.
“By the age of nine I knew all the kings and queens of England in order of years they reigned from 1066 right down to our present queen.”
Wallace’s parents managed to buy their own home, a source of pride for the family, he says when signs in rental properties would say ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’.
“The one thing about that collective West Indian spirit, those people who didn’t own their own home, we used to rent them out to our fellow members of the community because they had it difficult trying to find accommodation for themselves.”
Wallace was driven from a young age, and says he always wanted to be a lawyer.
“The first letter I wrote was as an 11-year-old boy was to the Bar Council and they told me what I needed to do, to get those qualifications and I kept that letter as a means of inspiring me to chase my own dreams and ambitions.
“And when I showed that to my careers teacher at the age of 15, when you embark upon your first set of common exams she turned round and said to me ‘Shaun at best you’re going to end up in prison at worst you’re going to end up in factory’ and she was right about me ending up in prison, but she forgot to say that after having seen my clients I can go home again.”
It wasn’t all plain sailing for Wallace however, despite an acquisitive mind, he struggled in examinations.
“I never had the technique …. it’s all well and good having a so called photographic memory, a sponge for a memory, but if you can’t put that down in structured way, under the pressure of time, you’re never going to get anywhere.”
Wallace failed O level English (which is taken at age 16) five times, he says.
After a period of drifting, he decided at age 18 he needed to change his approach.
“When all my friends were going off to university, and I didn’t know where I wanted to be, the safety net of the comfortableness of being in the school had gone, and I didn’t know where my future was going to lie and seeing all my friends go off to university and polytechnic really was the spur and I had to deconstruct the whole way I approached exams.”
Wallace was finally called to the bar in 1984
“One of the proudest moments I had was when both my mum and my dad were there when I got called to the bar.”
Although his parents divorced when he was 15, they remained focussed on their children, he says.
“I didn’t ask to come into the world, I certainly didn’t choose my parents, but I’m glad I had the parents I had, and if I had the choice I’d choose them again.”
Wallace’s love of Chelsea FC, his calmness under pressure and sponge-like brain, all came to a head in 2004 when he won the Mastermind quiz show answering questions about English football.
“I was the first black person to apply in the 32-year history of the show, so I knew it was going to be a daunting task, and the only thing I was confident in was my own ability.
“I like to think that I shattered a myth: that black people, black and ethnic minorities, are more than just sports people, more than just musicians we are just as clever as our white counterparts.”
Mastermind made Wallace a quiz star and he has since balanced his legal and TV careers.
So how does he keep up-to-date for The Chase?
“I normally try and keep myself contemporary, and to be aware of the world around me, I read newspapers to be aware of the latest trends, the latest films out, who’s doing what, the latest number 1 song.
“The one thing I don’t revise is stuff I already know, because I already know it, the only thing I’m interested in is learning new stuff.”