Wednesday 26 July 2017

'In the end I wanted to leave because it was getting too competitive - I was just there for the craic' - Katherine Lynch on RTE's Dancing with the Stars

Best known for bawdy characters and loud outfits, her turn on Dancing with the Stars showed a hidden softness to Katherine Lynch. Here, our reporter meets a woman newly confident in embracing her emotions, as well as in her own skin
Katherine Lynch wears: Peach top, €239; trousers €239, both Hugo Boss at Brown Thomas. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Katherine Lynch wears: Peach top, €239; trousers €239, both Hugo Boss at Brown Thomas. Photo: Naomi Gaffey
Katherine Lynch with partner Kai Widdrington on Dancing with the Stars. Photo: Kieran O'Brien
Colourful: Katherine in character as Bernie Walsh
Andrew Lynch

Andrew Lynch

Katherine Lynch is ready for her close-up. Quite a few close-ups, in fact. Looking around her makeshift dressing room I count 21 outfits and a dozen pairs of shoes, most of which she has been busy trying on for the last three-and- a-half hours.

Rain is pelting against the windows of an elegant Dún Laoghaire seafront hotel, but Lynch's natural warmth and vivacity makes the dull day feel considerably more cheerful.

"I do feel fantastic about myself these days," she says later, after changing into her "civvies" (in reality, a red halterneck dress as glamorous as anything taken away by the stylist). "In the past I've done photoshoots where they say to me, 'Oh, Katherine, just do something funny.' Now I can actually wear these clothes and feel like a sexy b***h."

Lynch's new physique is not exactly a State secret. It has happened in full public view, as appearances on RTÉ's Celebrity Operation Transformation and Dancing with the Stars helped her to drop three dress sizes in six months. Even more importantly, the comic actress best known for bawdy creations such as Sheila Sheikh ("the scumbag with the bumbag") feels that her audience now has a much better idea of who she really is.

Katherine Lynch with partner Kai Widdrington on Dancing with the Stars.
Photo: Kieran O'Brien
Katherine Lynch with partner Kai Widdrington on Dancing with the Stars. Photo: Kieran O'Brien

"Before those shows, I was always pigeonholed as the 'rude, lewd and crude' comedian. Today I think people are able to see me as an all-round person. Sometimes the cameras would film me being really emotional and I'd ask them not to use it, but the public reaction afterwards was so positive that I realised there was no need to hide anything.

"I don't see any contradiction between the two sides of myself - I just see the full humanity. I like that girl who has the balls to gatecrash The Rose of Tralee or chase after Cristiano Ronaldo. I also like the one who writes poetry in private and can be a bit fragile. Basically, I'm a very open person and I roll it out like dice."

In case this all sounds a bit self-centred, it should be noted that Katherine Lynch is anything but a diva. The Leitrim woman greets everyone with a hearty "Howya", insists on buying her own refreshments and tries in vain to find a shared relation when she hears my surname. ("You definitely have the same colouring as my father," she insists.)

Lynch is primarily here today to promote Rock Against Homelessness, a charity event organised by Independent News & Media - owners of the Irish Independent - taking place at Dublin's Olympia Theatre next Friday. She will be sharing MC duties with Al Porter on a bill that includes The Boomtown Rats, Ham Sandwich, Finbar Furey, The Blizzards, Delorentos, Paul Cleary and many others. Proceeds from the gig go to Focus Ireland.

Celebrities who promote good causes can sometimes sound phoney, but Lynch's spirited comments on rough sleepers leave no doubt that this is a subject genuinely close to her own heart. "I live in Temple Bar, smack bang beside the underbelly of Dublin," she points out. "So I see the problem every day. I know a lot of homeless people by name and sometimes I would even give out to them, saying, 'Why are you back on the drink?' or 'Why are you shooting up again?'

"When I first moved there, I would always give the homeless a few euro and every spare blanket I had. But recently I think we've all become a bit apathetic because there are just so many of them. In 20 years' time, we'll feel really ashamed of how we ignored these people - we'll ask why we didn't bang down the Government's doors and ask them to do something. I mean, if you saw a little dog that couldn't look after itself, you'd find it a kennel."

Colourful: Katherine in character as Bernie Walsh
Colourful: Katherine in character as Bernie Walsh

Not surprisingly, Lynch was a big supporter of the Home Sweet Home campaign which occupied Apollo House for four weeks over the Christmas season. She describes it as "like a piece of public theatre, exactly what you need to highlight what's going on". She also speaks enthusiastically about her support for the legalisation of drugs and the provision of injection centres around Dublin. "We need to stop treating the homeless like vermin," she declares.

This instinctive sympathy for the under- dog, Lynch points out, is also reflected in her work. She loves to portray women who have been marginalised by Irish society due to their class, lifestyle or sexuality. As a grandniece of the much-loved but famously contrary poet Patrick Kavanagh, she suggests that her rebellious spirit may be partly genetic.

"Kavanagh's book of collected poems is like my bible. He died before I was born but he's my connection to a bigger thing, whatever that might be. Even though he could be cranky like myself, because he couldn't stand mediocrity, he had an amazing empathy for the human spirit. But Kavanagh also felt like an outsider. John Montague [a fellow Irish poet who died last December] was a good friend of mine and he told me about travelling with him in France. Kavanagh had been invited to make a public speech but looked so dishevelled when he arrived that they asked him to leave. He went away in tears. That's why I believe you can never judge someone on the street, because you have no idea where they've come from or what they've gone through."

This time last year, Lynch was in less than perfect shape herself. She recalls the "incredible stress" of making her television sketch shows, walking around in uncomfortable costumes and high heels for 10 hours in order to get five minutes of usable footage. "I'd be living off crisps and Coke during the day and then going for a burger late at night. I really hate fat-shaming and if you'd asked me, I would have said I didn't care about being overweight. But then, I could have been watching a black and white television all my life and thought I didn't care - until I saw a colour one."

Lynch signed up for Celebrity Operation Transformation because she wanted to live longer for the people she loves. "I also thought I was more likely to succeed if there was an audience looking at me. But to be quite honest, I couldn't have done it if I wasn't getting paid."

In the end she was one of COT's biggest success stories, losing 13-and-a-half pounds from her starting weight of 13-and-a-half stone. Along the way, there were tears on camera, community runs at home in Leitrim and a bizarre episode which saw her strutting into a swimming pool while wearing red high heels. "That was my little act of defiance - I was determined to keep a little bit of glam."

Her new healthy eating regime seems to be fully intact. She spends this interview tucking into a beetroot salad and drinking sparkling water, politely refusing the waiter's suggestion that she might like a glass of wine as well. "I'm having one later, you see," she explains. Without this initial boost to her confidence, Lynch says, she would never have gone on Dancing with the Stars. "I refused five times because I literally don't know my left foot from my right. But in the end, it turned out to be the most enjoyable three months of my entire life."

When it came to choosing a professional dancing partner, she had just one rule. "I said, 'Please don't give me a gay man, because we'll only end up in The George bar knocking back red vino.' So they paired me with Kai Widdrington - straight-as-a-die Kai. He was really kind to me and we genuinely became great pals."

Lynch made it to week nine of the contest, turning in highly entertaining performances of the foxtrot, cha-cha and quickstep along the way. She also shed another stone, for good measure.

"By the end, though, I wanted to leave because it was getting too competitive backstage. I was just there for the craic, really - there was a glitterball to be won but what can you actually do with that? For me, the memories and the friendships are far more important."

As the proud daughter of a Kerryman and regular visitor to that county, Lynch is happy to see GAA star Aidan O'Mahony win the DWTS final a few days after our conversation. "That's just how we are, tribal… up the Kingdom!" she emails me.

As for the widespread criticism that DWTS' public votes may have been influenced by factors other than dancing ability, Lynch can only agree. "Thalia Heffernan and Des Bishop shouldn't have gone out so early, but then they don't have parishes behind them. I do."

The parish in question is Mohill, official population: 928. Some creative spirits might feel stifled by life in such a close-knit community, but Lynch speaks of it in almost rapturous terms. "Whenever I go back, they say, 'Oh, you never forget us, Katherine.' How could I forget a place that brought me up so lovingly? Like Hillary Clinton said, it takes a village to raise a child, and everyone dies famous in a small town. Mohill also feels like an underdog and it's surviving really well. But it's heartbreaking to see the death of our other small towns. What are we going to do without them? I'd love to see more non-nationals going there; I think we'd be kinder to them - a few African hurlers would be mighty to see."

As a child, Lynch was encouraged to act by her father, who wrote comic dramas that she rehearsed in their kitchen and then performed at the GAA festival Scór na nÓg. "I remember I had one line, 'Come out with your hands up', that I delivered as, 'Come up with your hands out.' When the place erupted in laughter, I realised just how exciting that could be."

At school she was a punk who "bullied the bullies" and had no interest in academia. "I got on with all the teachers; I just hated school itself. I've always responded to individuals, not institutions - for example, I love Mary Lou McDonald but don't particularly like Sinn Féin. On the day I got my Leaving Cert, I stood outside on the steps of my school and tore it up, saying, 'I will never use this in my life.' And I never have."

Despite Lynch's childhood thespian experiences, she spent her early 20s working as a hairdresser, a reflexologist and an antiques shop manager. Her breakthrough came when she won the Alternative Miss Ireland competition in 1998 as the tampon-strewn Miss Tampy Lilette, which led to a regular show in Panti Bliss's bar GUBU. "The gay community really took me to their heart and I had a brilliant, decadent time. There was a big division in those days: we really thought, 'We're cooler than you'. A lot of people assumed I was lesbian myself, which just showed how feckin' ignorant they were. But that was fine - I've picked up more straight men in gay bars than anywhere else."

Television made Lynch a household name, showcasing her naughty-but-nice alter egos in programmes such as Working Girls, Single Ladies and the spoof chat show Wagon's Den. Despite selling out national tours and topping the DVD charts in Christmas 2009, however, her scatological humour divided opinion and she became a critical punching bag. "I got famous just as Twitter was starting up and people were suddenly able to talk directly to celebrities. Some of them thought I could take a few digs, but I couldn't. They really upset me.

"In my opinion, that kind of trolling has been the downfall of comedy. It's the reason why people are so politically correct now, to the point of inverted racism or homophobia. A brilliant sitcom like Only Fools and Horses would never be allowed on television today because it's just not PC enough."

Lynch is speaking from bitter personal experience, since her favourite role of all is Traveller woman Singin' Bernie Walsh (above right; sample hit: Friends in Hiaces). She was particularly irked by claims that the character might be offensive to a community she has regularly socialised with since her childhood. "I never got any flak from Travellers themselves, only settled people. I've been on the cover of Travellers' Voice magazine and I recently did a gig in Limerick with the Traveller comedian Martin Beanz. Bernie Walsh is not a stereo- type; she's a proud, independent woman and the critics who can't see that must have seriously boring lives." As these comments suggest, behind Lynch's extroverted image, there is a sensitive soul who detests snobbery and can be easily hurt. The death of her father in 2010 left her in "awful grief" and resulted in a lengthy career break. "I had got up on stage two days after the funeral and felt like a liar, completely lost. I used to believe in that old showbiz saying 'The show must go on' but now I think it's a load of crap. I'm no good at pretending to be fine when I'm really not."

She eventually channelled those emotions into Settling Dust, a non-comedy album of her own original songs and trad covers (including Patrick Kavanagh's Raglan Road) that she describes as "the greatest therapy you can imagine".

Now that Lynch's profile is higher than ever, she plans to become extremely busy again. She will soon walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route to raise money for the Irish Hospice Foundation; she's been offered a leading role in a stage musical (she asks me not to reveal the title yet) and is writing a new one-woman show that will bring her different talents together.

"I don't want to be known as just a comedian anymore," she says. "My role model would be Bette Midler, somebody who can act, sing, tell jokes - do a bit of everything."

Time is getting on and Lynch has an appointment to see Beauty and the Beast in town. With a new boyfriend in her life, she is looking to the future with excitement and confidence. To quote another great Irish poet, however, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" Lynch laughs and points out at the Irish Sea.

"If I was to get on a ferry now and travel a few hours in that direction, nobody would have a clue who I am. I don't give a damn about being famous. I have a small place in the South of France and I'd happily go there to work in a coffee shop if I had to.

"I don't live with fear anymore; I live with courage. It's a nice place to be. But it took me a long time to get here."

Rock Against Homelessness takes place at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin on April 7 at 8pm. Tickets are priced at €30 from ticketmaster.ie

Photography: Naomi Gaffey, naomigaffey.ie

Styling: Brian Conway, briconstyle.com

Hair: Aisling Hamill, hairbyaislinghamill.com

Make-up: Yvonne Maher, yvonnemaher.com

Shot on location at Haddington House, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, (01) 280 1810, haddingtonhouse.ie

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