The many lives of Brian: Brian Dowling on fame and homophobia
Brian Dowling tells Barry Egan about fame, homophobia, why he should be the next President of Ireland, and how his husband Arthur 'makes me a better me'
As is so often the case with modern Wildean wags like Brian Dowling, those in his company are led to consider something they had not previously given much thought to, but which is, suddenly, and unquestionably, true: namely, Brian Dowling - who won Channel 4's reality show Big Brother in 2001 and Ultimate Big Brother in 2010 and presented Big Brother and Celebrity Big Brother when it was brought back by Channel 5 until 2013 - suddenly pipes up to ponder what might have been imponderable until he said it. And a vaguely kitsch light went on in my head...
"Bearing in mind Donald Trump, the President-elect of the United States of America, is most famous for his reality show The Apprentice maybe I should run for President of Ireland?"
I had dinner with Brian and hissing tabloid queen Jordan at an awards ceremony in 2011. He was charming incarnate - she not so. Bit of a cow, actually.
Five years later, I'm not sure whether Ms Price has changed but over tea and biscuits at The Westin, Brian Dowling is pretty much the same, if not more likeable, and captivating, company.
At the end of our long tete-a-tete, I had mentioned in passing that I would love to get his six younger sisters' view on him for this article, before giving the TV star my email address. I expected that would be the last I would hear of it. That night, however, my email inbox beeped with the following...
Michelle: "Our hairdresser, our beautician, our dietician, our fashion guru, our counsellor but most importantly our go-to person, who is always at the end of the phone when we need him. The best bro' ever."
Valerie: "I'm honoured to call him my 'big brother'. He's honest, caring, strong and a true friend."
Tracey: "Growing up with a brother like Brian we were never short of laughs, 31 years later we are still laughing."
Paula: "One in a million, my brother Brian."
Aoife: "Brian my mother, my father, my brother. He is always there when you need him. But when you don't need him he is still there sticking his nose in. There is always plenty of laughter when he is around. Brian my BIG brother is one in a million."
Tara: "I am truly honoured to have Brian as my big brother, nothing ever fazes him, he is always there to dish out the advice and give his opinion whether you want it or not. I think that's what makes him special."
Then a joint email from his mother and father, Rosie and Geard: "We are both so proud and ecstatic to see Brian, our only son, living the life he wants, and all the success he has had hasn't changed or fazed him one little bit. What you see with Brian is what you get. Any mother and father just wants their child to be happy, healthy and living their dreams and Brian is certainly doing that in his own unique way."
The former Ryanair "trolley dolly" is in flying form today. Indeed Brian always appears to be in flying form. A smile or a quip never seems far from his lips. Here to talk up his role as The Genie in The Cheerios Panto Aladdin at the Tivoli Theatre, Brian is dressed immaculately in a Hugo Boss blue suit that is as sharp as his Rathangan, Co Kildare, wit. He has a history of some great one-liners, of course. Refer, if you will, to Big Brother 2 in 2001...
Narinder: "I wonder if anyone famous is watching and thinking I fancy Narinder."
Brian: "Stevie Wonder."
Or, even more beautifully bitchy, Ultimate Big Brother in 2010. Nadia Conceicao Almada: "I'm such a lazy, fat bitch."
Brian: "Don't be so hard on yourself... you're not lazy." (When I read this first online, it just said Nadia, and I was thinking it was his co-star in the panto, Ms Forde.)
Dowling's waggishness is at its funniest perhaps when he turns it on himself. Asked what's the biggest misconception people have about him, he replies: "Being honest, when I meet people or stop for a chat with someone they always say to me that I'm a lot nicer and way more approachable than they ever thought. So clearly this makes me think that people think I'm a bit of a knob and arrogant," he says, before adding: "This couldn't be further from the truth as I'm pretty laid-back and can be quite shy. Now people may be surprised to hear that but it's the truth. That's the side of the job I feel most uncomfortable with, the attention."
What is the difference between the Brian Dowling the public knows and the Brian Dowling that his husband Arthur Gourounlian knows?
"Well," he says, "I'd like to think my husband Arthur knows the real me. The good, the bad and the ugly. Let's be honest: this man has seen me naked. When people see you on telly they see the best of you and a more groomed and glamorous you. Arthur sees me at my best but also at the worst. Whether I'm having a day where I'm feeling like shit or someone on Twitter has been saying how vile I am he still loves me, supports me and let's me be me. Simply - Arthur makes me a better me."
That wasn't always the case. In 2005, they broke up and Brian bared his tortured soul to The Mirror - 'Big Brother Brian tells of depression at love split' - in what the red-top described as him revealing in the story how "he was plunged into depression by his relationship heartache".
"It's still very raw. I've been on the heartbreak diet and I've lost about 10lb," he confessed to The Mirror. "When I listen to sad songs on the radio I start crying and I want him back."
I ask Brian to look back on that time and explain why they broke up. "We were together the first time for four years when we broke up and both still very young and living in London. I think at that stage in my life I was spoiled by my life and loving the rewards of working in telly and still enjoying being the winner of Big Brother. I was out most nights of the week walking red carpets and loving life. At that stage in my life I wouldn't have taken any relationship seriously and why should Arthur have put up with it?
"He wanted a boyfriend who he could do things with, and go places with. Arthur was a very successful dancer at the time who was also very independent but wanted respect for himself and our relationship. We parted ways but clearly it was meant to be as five years later we reunited..."
They were married in June, 2015, at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Enniskerry at what was described as the first gay celebrity marriage since same-sex marriage was made legal in Ireland. Everyone from Tess Daly and husband Vernon Kay, to Kimberley Walsh and Louis Walsh attended.
So, why did he and Arthur get back together? What was going through his heart when they finally reunited? "I'd never really emotionally moved on from Arthur," Brian theorises, "and we had always remained friends throughout the years we weren't a couple. We had both dated other people but clearly no one where we both thought: 'This is it'."
Brian and Arthur went for dinner in July or August 2011. On the surface, it seemed like a normal catch-up dinner, he recalls, drinks with a friend. "But this one seemed different - more intimate and almost romantic." It started with numerous compliments to longer stares..."
After their catch-up repast, Arthur asked Brian out on a date. "And I remember saying to him: "A date? Why would you ask me for a date?' It was just so weird him asking me on an official date after all those years. But it felt very natural and safe with Arthur," Brian adds, "and before we knew it we were back together and happier than ever."
Do they want to have kids?
"Since we've been married there has been more pressure put on us to have kids. This of course is a very personal decision. I've always managed to keep my private life private and this is something I'd definitely want to continue doing. I'm one of seven and an uncle to five nieces and two nephews," he says referring to Chloe who is 15; Shannon, 14, Sean, turning 10 in January; Leah, six; Sadhbh and Sophie, both five; and Rian who is three. (I'm sure he could have got testimonials from all of them on their doting uncle to me by email if I had asked.)
"So I've always been around kids. I've been honest in interviews lately saying of course we would be interested in having kids and have had many conversations about it and it's something if we proceed with would be in the very near future. If this was the case we would keep it very private until baby or babies arrived into the world safe and healthy."
In terms of how they relate to each other, Brian says "God, I'd like to think Arthur and I have great chemistry and a real good balance. Arthur is so positive and has an amazing outlook on life. He is so patient, tolerant and forgiving of people. I can be a bit more impatient and spoiled. I blame my mum. She spoiled me rotten."
What is Brian Dowling like? What goes on in his head late at night when he thinks about life?
"I'd like to think Brian Dowling is a well balanced and well adjusted young man," he replies.
"Very loving, a great listener, good at giving advice but not so good at taking it and loves nothing more than a night out with friends knocking back some cocktails and laughing so loud it hurts.
"Laughing is something I try to do lots of and encourage others to do the same. I try not to think about life too much or take it too seriously as at present I'm living a very blessed life and am very appreciative of that. I have been very, very lucky. And seriously late at night all I think about is food and what I'm going to eat the following day."
On a scale of 1 to 10, how actually homophobic is Ireland?
"In my own personal opinion as an openly gay Irish man I've never found Ireland that homophobic," he says, "but then again this is my personal opinion and my life. But in saying all that I've met lots of gay people, both men and women, who have experienced dreadful homophobic abuse. This doesn't just happen in Ireland, it happens all over the world and needs to stop. It's ridiculous that in 2016 people can be judged for who they love. And let's remember Ireland was the first country to approve same-sex marriage by popular vote. This was simply amazing and proved Ireland has come a long, long way!"
He remembers his earliest childhood memory at the age of four as a page boy for his Uncle Thomas's wedding. Young Brian flat-out, "100pc refused to walk down the aisle with the flower girl Claire. I have no idea why I refused to hold hands with Claire and walk down the aisle with her but maybe this was an early sign of things to come. I remember my Aunt Maura stepping in and offering me money to hold hands with Claire and walk down the aisle. This was a bribe I said yes to and was now two pounds richer."
Born on June 13, 1978, Brian Patrick Robert Dowling is a TV star of note in England. He is forever popping up as the host of this or that. He is the most famous gay Irish man on the telly over there after Graham Norton.
Brian says he is "not sure" that he had "a big realisation moment" about his sexuality. "It's like it was a very natural moment for me.
"I suppose I always knew I didn't fancy girls but it wasn't a big deal. So I didn't have to pretend to like them and get girlfriends to cover up some big dark secret.
''I was always confident and secure in my sexuality. I never felt I had to pretend to be someone I wasn't. I was never treated differently or judged because of it."
And what about this year's panto?
"I'm so looking forward to making my big return to panto. I always have a fab time working with Alan and Karl" - Alan Hughes and Karl Broderick, the husband-and-husband team behind the show - "as they let me do my own thing and trust me with the part they have given me. And let's be honest," he smiles, a wicked glint in his eyes suddenly, "it's the best panto in Dublin!"
And in time President Dowling will make Aras an Uachtarain the best panto in Dublin too.
Brian Dowling will play the role of The Genie in The Cheerios Panto Aladdin at the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin, from December 13-January 15. Nadia Forde takes the starring role alongside panto legend Alan Hughes. (01) 416-9557, www.panto.ie), tickets from €15
WHAT'S ON: PANTOS AND CHRISTMAS SHOWS
The Gaiety Panto traditionally kicks off the season and it opens today with Robin Hood and his Merry Men, until January 8. Ph 0818 719 388, gaietytheatre.ie. Tickets from €19.50.
The Ark in Temple Bar will stage a playful adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic A Christmas Carol. Starring Bryan Burroughs and Love/Hate's Ian-Lloyd Anderson, the 45-minute production features just these two actors who re-tell the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge using just their physical and vocal skills, and with the aid of numerous hats, scarves, and lights. December 2-January 6. Ph 01 6707788, ark.ie. Tickets €12, conc €9, schools €5, recommended for age seven years plus).
Al Porter (above) stars in The Ugly Sisters and Yer Wan at The Olympia, December 16-January 18. Ph 0818 719 330, olympia.ie. Tickets from €34.
Angelina Jolie gave the classic tale new life with her recent movie Maleficent, now Draiocht in Blanchardstown will stage a version of Sleeping Beauty The Panto, produced by Coolmine Panto Group. (January 6-22). Ph 01 8852622, draiocht.ie, Tickets €20, €17 conc.
Anyone who grew up in the 1980s will enjoy a trip down memory lane at Bosco's Magical Christmas with Hansel and Gretel, at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght. This production by the Lambert Puppet Theatre features large puppets and colourful sets, and of course a star turn from everyone's favourite redhead (above). Duration is one hour, and suitability is age three plus. December 29, 12pm and 3pm. Ph 01 4627477, civictheatre.ie. Tickets €10, €35 for a family of four). The same production takes place at The Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, on December 18 at 2pm and 4pm. Ph 01 2312929, paviliontheatre.ie, Tickets €8, €30 family.
It's not a panto, but Mary Poppins is as much Christmas entertainment as anything that requires us to shout "he's behind you". The Pavilion in Dun Laoghaire will host a screening of Julie Andrews's classic on December 3 at 1.30pm. Tickets €7.50, €6.50 conc, child €5, family €20. For something of a more recent vintage, the Elf will screen on December 17 at 2pm. paviliontheatre.ie
The Mill Theatre in Dundrum will stage Jack and The Beanstalk, written and directed by Geoff O'Keeffe, from December 7-31. Ph 01 2969340, milltheatre.ie, Tickets adults €15, children under 12 €12, family of four €50.
For something a little less jazz hands, The Abbey Theatre is staging the epic Russian drama Anna Karenina. This is a new version of Leo Tolstoy's work by Marina Carr, directed by one of Irish theatre's brightest stars, Wayne Jordan. December 7-January 28. Ph 01 8787222, abbeytheatre.ie. Tickets €13-€45, conc €13-€25.
Bachelor's Walk alumnus Simon Delaney is the narrator in the National Concert Hall's version of The Snowman where an orchestra will accompany a screening of Raymond Briggs's classic (above) on the big screen. December 16-18. There are numerous performances daily. nch.ie. Tickets from €17.
The National Concert Hall also stages A Christmas Festival on Tuesday from 8pm. The Rathfarnham Concert Band and guest choirs will perform traditional music from the screen and stage. Tickets €15, concession €10. nch.ie
Ballet Ireland is touring The Nutcracker. Tchaikovsky's classic story begins on Christmas Eve and the unfolding tale of magic and wonderment will be enjoyed by all ages. For dates and locations visit balletireland.ie.
Big is one of the classic 1980s movies and among Tom Hanks's best. This year the Bord Gais Energy Theatre stages the European premiere of Big The Musical. December 8-January 7. Ph 01 6777999, bordgaisenergytheatre.ie. Tickets €15-€65. The Bord Gais Energy Theatre also hosts a production of The Snowman from December 11-18 and productions of Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty from Moscow City Ballet in January.
Limerick Panto Society returns to the Lime Tree Theatre in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick for the fifth year in a row. This year the production is Snow White. December 28-January 8. Ph 061 953400, limetreetheatre.ie.
The University Concert Hall in Limerick is staging Beauty and the Beast which, in light of the new Disney version due out in March, is set to be the story of the season. December 19-January 8. Ph 061 331549, uch.ie. Tickets from €15.
In Cork, the Cork Opera House and New Ireland Assurance Panto presents Cinderella (December 1-January 22). Ph 021 4270022, corkoperahouse.ie. Tickets from €25. The Everyman hosts Red Riding Hood (December 10-January 8). Ph 021 4501673, everymancork.com. Tickets from €26, It will also host the Everyman Sunday Songbook, which features traditional Christmas numbers and the songs of Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Bob Hope, among others, on December 11 at 7.30pm. Tickets €25.
The Renmore pantomime society in Galway performs Little Red Riding Hood at the Town Hall Theatre. December 30-January 15. Ph 091 569777, tht.ie.
The Helix Panto Christmas 2016 has already begun: Aladdin (above ) runs until January 22. A sensory friendly performance will be presented on December 8 at 6.30pm. Ph 01 7007000, helix.ie. Tickets from €19.50.
Sunday Indo Living