Kathryn Thomas: I don't do anything that doesn't involve a bit of craic
Operation Transformation presenter and bootcamp businesswoman Kathryn Thomas takes fitness very seriously… as long as there's room for wine. Here, she talks wellness and weddings plans, and reveals her secret celeb crush to our reporter.
Five minutes into my interview with broadcaster Kathryn Thomas (38) and I'm belly laughing. She has that effect. It's unintentional, but Thomas is such a rare force of nature that the only way she could have remained in obscurity is if someone locked her in a cave and even then, I'm inclined to believe she'd have some MacGyver-style escape plan.
At six, when most young girls were asking for Barbie dolls for Christmas, she was pleading with her parents for a toolbox. "I'm an excellent tiler and very good at DIY. I'm handy to have around," she tells me. I have no doubt. When most 19-year-olds were navigating college applications and entry-level employment, Thomas was pounding down the doors of independent TV production companies.
She hasn't so much achieved the TV dream as crushed it, blazing a remarkable career trajectory for such a young woman. Her confidence is palpable, her conversation both bantering and impatient. Even when she graced our screens at 19, she had a self-assurance usually worn by TV veterans. But, she is relatable, our conversation swinging between her recent engagement to businessman and restaurateur Padraig McLoughlin, her fear there may be a Champagne shortage due to her six-week long celebrations, her enthusiasm for her Pure Results bootcamps, and her love of the outdoors.
It is the combination of rigorous determination and personal passion that has made her one of Ireland's top TV presenters - unique qualities that have helped her shine through despite her rocky start. Her first audition for RTE's Rapid with co-presenter Jason Sherlock was nothing short of a disaster.
"I was standing on a football pitch in UCD in the freezing cold about to interview the head of the UCD sports department when my nose started running. I was so anxious I didn't know what to do so I just let it run down my face until the interviewee stopped the camera to request a tissue.
"When I finished blowing my nose, I started the interview once more only to be interrupted again because the microphone was upside down," she groans recalling the awkward moment. Needless to say she was astonished to discover she'd got the job. "I did ask them why and they said, despite the terrible audition, there was some talent that shone through."
Rapid ran for three years, and in that time Thomas became known for her devil-may-care abandon - the extreme sports girl to Jason's more low-key presenting style; it was a winning combination.
"I was hired to jump out of planes and bungee jump, I was the guinea pig so to speak." If Rapid helped discover her love for high-octane, extreme sports, then her next job as presenter of RTE's travel programme No Frontiers gave her the ticket to ride.
She was just 21 when she started, and 31 when she hung up her proverbial hiking boots. "I had a glorious 10 years discovering the world, the more remote the better. It didn't feel like a job at first, it was often just me and a camera person, a budget of €500 and the world at my feet."
The show struck an extraordinary chord with viewers. Geared very much for the independent traveller, Thomas honed the ability to bring real-life experiences into people's living rooms. What we weren't privy to, however, was what Thomas refers to as her "hairiest" moment in the depths of the Papa New Guinean jungle.
Her desire to meet a remote cannibal tribe met with near-death when, after trekking for four days through the jungle she was crossing a river. The camera crew were on the other side filming her when she heard a blood-curdling scream and saw a tribesman dressed in a loin cloth, covered in blood running at her with a machete.
"In that moment you often think you'll do something brave or wise but I just froze with fear and ducked my head down thinking he was going to take it off. I still remember feeling his spit on my face he was so close to me."
Unbeknownst to the crew and the adventure travel company they'd paired with, tribal conflict was huge in the area and tensions were high. "We had no idea we were trespassing on tribal land. It took a lot of negotiation and we eventually had to turn back."
Thomas also contracted malaria on that trip, but still considers it her favourite one. Two near-death experiences rolled into one - could that really be a choice adventure? "I know," she laughs. "It sure was memorable. But it was also an amazing trip, we got to spend time with another tribe, visit these remote places that no white person had ever been to.
"I remember watching it with my grandmother when I got back and how amazed she was by this country and feeling a responsibility in bringing that to her little sitting room in Ireland."
There's an unflappability about Thomas that makes it easy to understand how she made a career from throwing herself out of planes. She doesn't scare easily. In fact, she relishes anything that pushes her to the edge of uncertainty, anything that gives her "a good adrenaline rush" (her idea of downtime is a good hike up a steep mountain with her two dogs).
"I don't like being in a comfort zone and I'm a 'no routine' addict. No Frontiers was perfect for my personality as it constantly challenged me. Presenting Operation Transformation is equally fantastic as my office is the outdoors."
So, is there anything that scares her? "Ill heath. I'm so active and love the outdoors that the very thought of not being able to exercise scares the hell out of me."
Our conversation segues naturally into the topic of fitness, something Thomas is so passionate about that it led her to set up her company Pure Results two years ago, which she runs with her sister Linda. Inspired by bootcamps and wellness holidays she had experienced around the world, she was eager to start something at home that combined her love of travel, people, and fitness. Pure Results is a weight-loss, detox and confidence-building retreat based in Parknasilla resort, Co Kerry.
"There's great power in a group of people coming together who are uncertain or anxious and don't know where to start. They want to lose weight, start over and gain confidence," she explains. The seven-day bootcamp focuses on the three pillars of health: nutrition, mental and physical wellness, combining nutritional workshops with hikes, runs, dynamic exercises classes, cooking demonstrations, motivational wellness talks and spa treatments. Each participant gets a one-to-one consultation with the on-site nutritionist and a post-programme follow up.
"After taking part in other wellness boot camps around the world I realised that the one thing that was missing was the educational part and the follow up," notes Kathryn. "Implementing everything once you get home is where people fall down."
It's not just about losing weight, she tells me, the programme has a 100pc success rate when it comes to weight-loss, but for Kathryn it's an all-encompassing programme.
"It's about finding that light-switch moment. It's about gaining confidence and creating healthy habits that go with losing weight. Our bodies are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, you can push yourself to 100pc capability and we can push you that 10pc more."
That sounds a lot like the kind of motivational motto we need this time of year and perhaps, the underlying premise to her success. She's still trying to figure out how to be in this business and make money, but success is not measured in bank balances she claims.
"Creating positive results for people, that's what keeps me going," she says, musing on her Pure Results success. "People come to my camps for all sorts of reasons: some want to lose weight, some are getting married, going through a divorce, breast cancer, grief, and you go on that journey with them and you're part of that light-switch moment for them when they leave enlightened and more confident and ready to make changes.
"I'm able to show them that I've lived in a world where you push outside your comfort zone and you're rewarded for it even if it might scare the bejaysus out of you."
If ever you needed a motivational push, Thomas's 'let's do this' moxie is likely to get you over the line. A few minutes watching her present RTÉ's Operation Transformation and you get the picture: gutsy, sparky, reassuring, persuasive.
When she auditioned to host of the Irish version of The Voice, the Dutch broadcasting company who owned the franchise told her that no female had ever secured the anchor role. It infuriated her so much she wore an orange dress to the audition in the hopes of winning the Dutch vote. "I don't know whether it was my talent or the subliminal message that won it for me," she laughs.
The youngest of four children, she grew up in Carlow and admits she spent most of her time up a tree or somewhere she shouldn't have been, the 'tomboy' of the family despite having two brothers. Attending King's Hospital School gave her ample opportunity to explore a huge range of sports, finding her niche with football, hockey and running. She still runs, but prefers a combination of different exercises. Is that the key to getting in shape, I ask her?
"I think the key is finding something you love to do. I don't think anyone who starts running enjoys it but they grow to love it. Whether it's Zumba, hill walking, swimming, weights, squash, there are so many options and it's important to find that thing that you love to do as it'll keep you coming back."
Her own fitness regime has had some meddlesome interference of late, in the shape of her engagement. "I have well and truly fallen off the wagon," she trills delightedly.
She met Padraig four years ago over a pint of Guinness in O'Donoghues pub, on Dublin's Baggot Street. It was "a light bulb moment". Padraig, who co-owns Catch 22 and Union 8 restaurants with Paul Dooley, is as much a fitness fanatic as Kathryn, having completed 14 marathons in the few years since he started running. "We eat so much food, we have to work out," she says with that bellowing laugh.
Apart from holidays, eating out is what she spends most of her money on. Dylan McGrath's Taste and Luna in Dublin are regular haunts and when she's out, nothing is off limits. Being in the public eye brings a certain dollop of unfriendly attention but this doesn't seem to shake her. Social media shaming and bitching, the toxic glue that holds together celebrity culture, hasn't grazed her one bit. "I started in TV very young and learnt very fast that it wasn't about what you looked like but about how you delivered. I don't so much feel the pressure as a TV presenter but more so as a woman. I have my 'fat' days but I try to remind myself not to be too hard on me.
"As women we tend to look after everyone else and put ourselves last. We have one body and it works so hard for us that I always try to think, what does it need? How can I mind and nourish it… while consuming wine by the barrel load on a Friday night," she adds with a raucous laugh.
Humour is never far away with Thomas, which makes it hard to believe her friends and fiancé consider her 'up-tight'. "I like to think I'm laid back but I'm not. Padraig is much more measured than me. I'm always looking for a challenge which keeps me on high alert."
Her next challenge, it would seem, involves tiaras, wedding gowns and seating plans. Not so. There are no dates, no venues, "no plans" (and, predictably, no tiaras), so far. You're more likely to find her and Padraig exchanging vows at the top of Kilimanjaro than the local church. "I have a love affair with Greece so I might have a big fat Greek wedding."
I hazard a guess that getting married is probably not top of Thomas's bucket list. It features, but is likely to be usurped for shark diving in Micronesia. "Yes, I definitely want to do that. Madagascar is also on the list as is having a family, and up near the top would be meeting David Attenborough," she says, sighing for effect. "I saw him on The Graham Norton Show the other night and I couldn't take my eyes off him. He's 92 and still curious, still travelling. I definitely have a bit of a crush," she chirps.
I'm impressed there are still some bucket entries left considering how far she has gone both globally and personally. Rapid, No Frontiers, Operation Transformation, The Voice, Pure Results and everything in between have all provided her with experiences she will never forget, but the one she considers her biggest triumph is Operation Transformation, which has just started its 10th series.
"I'm so proud to be a part of a show that has changed the landscape so to speak, from tackling obesity to changing people's lives for the better."
She admits live TV is one of the most terrifying and exciting things she's done. Predictably, she'd love to do more. But right now, she's busy planning the year's bootcamps, which kick-off monthly. Anyone who has come in contact with Thomas will likely know that, while the bootcamps are not a holiday, with her at the helm, there's likely to be an air of excitement and, let's face it, divilment. "I don't do anything that doesn't involve a bit of craic," delivered with that good-time flavour and just a hint of comic intention. Where do I sign up?
For more information see pureresultsbootcamp.com. 'Operation Transformation' airs on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 8.30pm on RTÉ One
Photos by Naomi Gaffey