'Grafting is in my blood' - Darren Kennedy
His new RTÉ series sees Darren Kennedy go from the red carpet to the dole queue to help young people find jobs. Here, he tells how growing up in north Dublin taught him the value of hard work. Photography by Mark Nixon
Sitting in the glaring spring sunshine in Dublin recently, Darren Kennedy suddenly becomes concerned. "I don't have any SPF on," he says glancing at the sky. He duly clambers for a pair of expensive-looking sunglasses. "Specsavers!" he proudly responds when asked how much they set him back. "Everyone assumes they're designer."
Indeed, for a man whose style is celebrated - and who advises readers on their fashion dilemmas in Weekend - 33-year-old Darren is adamant that he doesn't spend a fortune on clothing. "I wear whatever I like and I genuinely don't care what label it is. There are some brands that attract me, but I've never been someone to go out and buy a pair of shoes for 900 quid.
"I know the value of money too well. If I had €900 in my back pocket, I'd much rather spend that money on experiences - travel, seeing different places and meeting different people. I was in New York recently and the only material thing I bought there was a pair of $20 sunglasses. People assume I'm in the shops 24/7 but I'm absolutely not."
Dubliner Darren grew up in the northside suburb of Santry, and says he had a normal, happy and grounded childhood. "But always had to work hard for what I wanted in life," he adds. "You want something - you have to work for it, that's how I was brought up. I remember saying to my mam when I was 13 that I wanted a pair of Levi's 501s. She told me that she'd love to get me a pair but that there was no way she could afford them so if I really wanted to have them I'd have go out and work. So that's what I did.
"I got a job and bought those jeans. I had a paper-round when I was 10 but my first proper job was when I was 13 washing cars in the Maxol on the Old Airport Road. And I've never stopped working since. Throughout school and throughout college I never thought twice about earning my own money and paying my own way."
It's an upbringing that prompted him to approach RTÉ about a series, The Unemployables, along with co-presenter and friend, Jennifer Maguire. With the help of industry experts, the six-part show documents Darren and Jennifer's efforts to motivate and encourage people on the dole to get a job. The participants are also given style makeovers, tutored on confidence-building and trained in the likes of CV-writing and communication skills.
"We're not saying we're employment experts, because we're not," Darren admits. "But we draw on the various skills of others to give the best possible support. We help people realise their potential. There was one guy who felt very down. He'd never had a job and only had a Junior Cert. He never even had an interview. But I got to know him better and lo-and-behold I discovered that he did gymnastics for 10 years. What does that say about someone? That says they're dedicated, physically fit, tenacious, focused - so that's what we built on.
"Another girl had done charity work with disabled kids during the summer, but she needed someone to tell her that that's not only relevant, it's a really valuable thing to bring to a table. Drawing those snippets out is very much what we're trying to achieve."
Darren, who has an older brother, Jeff, and a younger sister, Andrea, is also quick to add: "I would never judge someone for claiming the dole. But growing up I was surrounded by hard-working, working-class people. Everyone went to work, like both my parents did. They had three kids to raise, clothe and feed. Even my granny worked three jobs. That's in my blood - my family are grafters. So I can't really understand the mind-frame where you'd choose not to work if you can.
"There are people we spoke to for the show who come from a culture of claiming. Their families claim as many allowances as they're able to and they see no reason why they'd do any different."
He also reveals that he and Jennifer have been trying to work together for some time. "I first met Jennifer on a charity cycle to Electric Picnic. The first time we had a taste of what it would be like to work together was for my documentary Like A Virgin, where she spoke on camera. After that we knew we really had to make something happen. We went out one night for dinner and cocktails, and got creative, brain-storming and getting our ideas on paper. That's how the concept for The Unemployables sprung up."
It's certainly a departure from the type of show viewers more readily associate Darren with - namely the likes of RTÉ's Trending, which focused on fashion and aired late last year.
"People are quick to put you in a bracket," he responds. "But I'm a free spirit - I've worked with the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5, I write for the Telegraph, I recently hosted with E! Online, and I've just launched my own style channel on YouTube. And I love the variety and the challenges that that all presents. As long as I can do the projects that I'm passionate about, I'm happy with whatever medium affords me that platform."
He says he may expand The Unemployables format into other territories, but that he still loves working for RTÉ: "Home is home. When I do stuff in the US, no one here gets to see it. My mam and dad still get excited when I work for RTÉ. And I cut my teeth out in Montrose on radio with my entertainment slots.
"When I started out in my own career I had no idea how I was going to get there. I remember telling my parents when I was 15 or 16 that I'd like to work in media and specifically in TV, but Santry was a very different place to RTÉ. My dad worked in the airport; my mam worked in a factory and then in a shop. We were worlds apart from television, fashion and awards ceremonies. But I believe in the power of giving it a go," he explains.
Yet despite those more modest beginnings, these days his life must surely be a whirlwind of parties and celebrities? "Things might seem incredibly exciting for me, but nine times out of 10 I won't even have a glass of champagne at a high-profile event because if I'm working then I don't drink on the job," he says.
"It's busy, it's hectic, it's working very long hours sometimes seven days a week. Is it glamorous? No. Could I be down a mine digging for coal? Yes - so I won't complain. I feel very lucky to be doing what I'm doing."
The Unemployables begins on RTÉ2 on Thursday at 9pm
Grooming: Diana Krudu for Lancôme Paris at Brown Thomas
Darren Kennedy's top tips for job interviews
Be proud of where you're from: If you're not proud of where you're from, how do you expect anyone else to have faith in you? Don't feel embarrassed about your area or your address - that's actually you stereotyping the type of people who live there.
You've only got one shot in life: Make the most of what you have, manage the cards you've been dealt and forge ahead regardless. Don't focus on the negatives - everyone has something unique they can bring to the table.
Learn along the way: You don't have to be an expert from the outset, but you need to be willing to give something a go and be willing to learn as much as you can.
Take any job that's available: Dreams are important, but they take time to achieve. See every experience as another string to your bow and recognise that there's no magic wand when it comes to securing your dream job.
Stay in the loop: There may be a brief period in your life where you can't work because of illness or childcare considerations. But use that time wisely; stay up-to-date on the direction your industry's moving in, upskilling via an online course if necessary.