HQ Trivia’s Sharon Carpenter talks the quiz app phenomenon, ‘Black Mirror’ comparisons and embracing the trolls

If you think it would be tough being a live TV presenter then imagine what it’s like to be the host of a live quiz app, beamed twice daily into the palms of thousands of smartphone users across the country. This is the rather strange situation that Sharon Carpenter – a British-born, NYC-based host and journalist – has found herself in since the beginning of the year, when she landed the role of full-time host for HQ Trivia‘s UK launch.

Known to few this side of the pond prior (previous credits include stints for BBC America, BET and a bit-part cameo on Empire), Carpenter’s latest – and most high-profile – gig sees her come face-to-face with her newfound celebrity status on a daily basis, as the app’s players (known affectionately as “HQties”) voice their every thought and feeling in a running chat stream below Carpenter’s floating torso.

At times, HQ can feel quite dystopian, and its Black Mirror-esque feel has been well-noted. Part social experiment, part Hunger Games fight to the death, it sees players testing their wits, smarts and general useless knowledge in order to win a share of a cash prize. It’s fun, frustrating and dangerously addictive.

While the US version has its own “quiz daddy” Scott Rogowsky (imagine some mad scientist equipped a pearly-teethed humanoid with a sense of humour and unnatural ability to make seamless puns), the UK has Carpenter, every bit a cult figure in her own right and a lot more human.

Charming, thick-skinned, ever so slightly awkward and often an envoy for some so-bad-they’re-funny dad-jokes, Shazza probably couldn’t be more British. She recently spoke to NME about all things HQ, her virtual stardom and why it’s important to embrace your own mistakes.

How did the HQ hosting role come about?

Basically I was a guest host for the US game as a fill-in host for Scott [Rogowsky], first coming on board in October. There were probably around 2,000 players for the first game I hosted. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this is really cool. I have the opportunity to interact with this huge number of live players’. Now in the US they’ve surpassed 2 million players, which is incredible. We’ve seen it take off in a way that was unimaginable.

Then how did you become the full-time UK host?

Rus [Yusupov], one of the founders, asked me if I’d be interested and of course I was super super excited about that – to have the opportunity to work with HQ on a regular basis but also, of course, to present to my people, who I grew up with, to ask about trivia that’s part of the culture that’s ingrained in me. I also love that my family members get to see me in action, that’s been cool.

The first couple of test games were embraced by the UK audiences and they wanted more. And we gave them more and we’ve seen it rapidly growing in a similar way to the way it has been in the US.

You say the growth has been unimaginable – did anyone actually foresee this? Did you know it was going to get this huge or were there humble expectations at first?

For me personally, I had no idea it would grow so quickly. I was sort of going along for the ride and having a really fun experience so to see it catapult into this major phenomenon where everybody is playing the game, everybody knows about it, if they haven’t played it yet their brother’s playing it, their sister’s playing it, their boyfriends, girlfriends, their mums, daughters – it’s something that sort of transcends age. Everyone is playing, from kids to parents to grandparents to the cool kids and everyone is really enjoying the experience.

People get FOMO, a fear of missing out. Everyone is playing this live game and if you don’t join right now you are gonna miss out and have to wait for the next one.

Why do you think it has become such a phenomenon?

For one, there is nothing out there like this. Every show is different, you never know what’s gonna happen and people enjoy the live experience. It’s like live television, you never know what could possibly happen and we’re bringing that to your smartphones.

People also love to test their knowledge and challenge themselves. They want to see how far they can get and if they can win. Once they win, they wanna see if they can do it again because it’s no easy feat.

There’s the interactivity too. Our players are not just audience members, they’re players and the stars of the show. If you think about it, every individual move makes an impact on the results of the game.

I think there’s an ease of playing too. We can be everywhere you go.

Where’s the strangest place people have played HQ?

There are people who have sent me pictures of themselves playing on the Eurostar. People play at basketball games. People play with wifi at 30,000 feet in the air on planes. In the snow too. People are playing in the bathroom or on the toilet, which might be a little too much information.

You mention interactivity – the chat is a huge part of HQ too. In a world where most apps make users less sociable, this one actually brings people together – like a virtual pub quiz.

Yeah, the chat is a big part of it. People use it to talk about how they feel about the questions and many other things too. I speak directly to our players as they’re playing, talk about what they are talking about and give them shout-outs.

Do you read a lot of the chat? Internet commentators have a bad rep and some of the comments can be – mind the pun – quite savage.

I get a good idea of what’s going on in the chat. I may not get to read every comment because they do go by quite quickly.

But the chat is monitored quite closely so if people go overboard they will get kicked out. As with people commenting anywhere on the internet, there are moments when it can get quite savage.

There’s often running jokes about you mispronouncing words, like Eric Cantona as “Eric Can-toner”.

Yes, that’s what’s great about it. At first I thought to myself, ‘Did I really pronounce that thing wrong and everyone is going at me for it?’. But then it becomes something we can have fun with. I’m not ashamed to take it head on and make fun of myself. At the end of the day we’re all human and when you’re speaking live to an audience for fifteen minutes, mistakes do happen. My approach is to take it head on and not take myself too seriously and to have fun with the mistakes. We are all human and you have to not be afraid to make fun of yourself.

Some of our writers like to make fun of it too. If I mispronounce something, don’t be surprised to see a question with that word in it during the show.

Prior to HQ, you were probably better known in America than in the UK. Have you been back to the UK since your HQ stardom?

Not since I started hosting this year, but I will be back soon. My family is still over there so I do go back a few times a year. It will be really interesting to see what it’s like when I come back. This is the first time that I’ve consistently built up a UK audience.

Do you anticipate getting stopped in the street by fans?

I would not be surprised as it’s happened [in America]. A lot of people know me over here for various different things. I was also once stopped in the UK, but I’m not sure where they recognised me from. It was actually an embarrassing experience – I was trying to get into a club that had reached capacity and my friend was talking to one of the bouncers. These girls come up and say, ‘Don’t you know who she is? She’s that Sharon Carpenter!’. I was a little embarrassed. Like okay, I’m standing outside a club and I can’t get in right now and these people are recognising me.

Was it successful in getting you into the club, at least?

No, unfortunately. The bouncers said they would if they could and that we’d have to wait around for a bit. But it was too cold so we moved on. This was maybe two years ago.

Have you ever played HQ yourself?

I have. Actually, I played it before I came on and guest hosted.

Did you win?

I never won, no. I think the furthest I got was Q8. It’s not that easy.

How are the questions decided upon. Is there a big office debate over whether certain ones are too difficult or too easy?

There’s definitely discussion over whether something is a Q4 question or a Q5 question. We have a team of writers and fact-checkers very hard at work coming up with the questions and making sure everything is in its right place. I’ll go through the questions normally an hour or so before the show and make sure everything is familiar and then if I have any tweaks, we will have a discussion with the writers. It’s definitely a group effort.

People have compared HQ to Black Mirror, especially the ‘Fifteen Million Merits’ episode.

I know that people compare it to Black Mirror all the time, which is interesting, but I haven’t seen that particular episode. I think one of the downsides of being so busy is I don’t get to see these TV shows that people are talking about. I did get to see the one episode where people were being scored for every little activity in life [‘Nosedive’] and I thought it was fantastic. I’ll have to go and watch that [‘Fifteen Million Merits’].

In the US, the likes of Jimmy Kimmel, Ryan Seacrest and even Bert from Sesame Street have guest hosted HQ games. Who would you like to guest host the UK version?

You know who I’d love to see? Ali G. Let’s try and make that happen. I know Sacha Baron Cohen hasn’t done anything as Ali G for a while but I want to see a comeback. I think he’d be fantastic. I’d be dying laughing that’s for sure.

Fans weren’t very convinced by Charlie O’Connor, one of the UK hosts that stands in for you sometimes. [Charlie, a comedian living in America, was labelled ‘Slenderman’ by some]. Do you think he was unfairly treated?

I think that people like familiarity. I think it can be jarring when you’re used to something being one way and it ends up being a different way. Charlie’s done a great job. He’s funny but people are very used to seeing me so when they see someone different it can be a bit of a shock to the system, but I think once they get familiar with Charlie, and if we have anyone else come on board, once they get familiar they will be much more comfortable. I hope that people are kind to him when I’m not around. He brings his own humour and something special.

You talked earlier about having a long-running interest in trivia. What were your favourite TV quiz shows growing up?

I loved Family Fortunes. My parents used to watch Mastermind a lot and it would be on in the background, but it was a little difficult for me. My Mastermind specialist subject would probably be something to do with pop culture and entertainment.

You’ve given shout outs to NME a few times on HQ. What’s your taste in music like and what have you been listening to recently?

My taste in music is eclectic but probably the music that’s had the biggest impact on my life is hip hop. My brother’s actually a hip-hop DJ [called Jazz T].

At the moment, I really like Migos and trap music. I love Dua Lipa too. I interviewed her recently. She’s so good and super talented.