Jo Jordan sprang to prominence as one of the stars of the hit reality TV show 'Dublin Housewives', appearing on our screens like some elemental force of nature. Living in a mansion and with a selection of high-powered cars to use, she appears to have it made. But, as Barry Egan finds out, there was grinding poverty and heartbreak before all the glitz and glamour
'It's the big gates opposite Ben Dunne's house," Jo Jordan says by way of directions to her house in Co Dublin. The 6ft beauty in Christian Louboutin heels – and leather trousers seemingly sprayed on – opens the gates with a wave. I don't recognise her immediately as the feisty auburnhaired beauty from TV3's Dublin Housewives. Her hair is now her natural colour of browny brunette. "I get less beeps on the M50," she says referring to male admirers, "so I am going back in the spring." There are two top-of-the-range cars in the driveway. Her "day-time car" is a sleek gold CLS Mercedes. The one for the 'night-time' is a silver CLR. Jo also drives a black Bentley.
Which one does she take to go grocery shopping in? "The gold one," she says with a laugh. "But I've often been seen outside Lidl in my Bentley."
She puts the kettle on and gives me a tour of the house. The living room is enormous. Jo leads me up the marble stairs, which are like something out of a Jackie Collins' novel set in Beverly Hills, to a big bathroom that has a steam room and a Jacuzzi. We pass her nine-year-old son Josh's room, then a large bedroom at the front of the house with some gym equipment and some clothes and shoes on the floor. This is a certain Lisa Murphy's boudoir. (She has been living here with Jo for three months since her engagement to Gerald Kean ended.)
Jo's own bedroom is right at the top of the house and is certainly grand. She jumps on the bed and kicks her legs up. The bed seems about 15ft long and could easily contain a football team, if Jo was inclined. She is perfectly happy at the moment in that regard, it turns out.
"Yes, I have a vibrator," says Jo, who is now single, and laughs uproariously. She also has more than 300 pairs of shoes in her closet and as many designer dresses. The house, like Jo, bears the considerable stamp of wealth.
"I'm wealthy but I have worked all my life," she says as we walk back down into the huge, expensively designed kitchen. But it really is far, far from fancy gaffs with steam rooms that Jo was reared.
Born Jo Brogan on February 25, 1973, she spent her early childhood in Kilbarrack. "It was The Snapper land," she chuckles, referring to Roddy Doyle's novel about working- class Dublin. "Roddy Doyle was my sister's school teacher at Greendale Comprehensive, in Kilbarrack." Jo went to Ballymun Comprehensive.
Jo's mother, Linda Ranns, who was born in Toulouse in France and brought up in the Ladbroke Grove area of London, met Dubliner Peter Brogan in Portobello Market in London one day. She was 15 and he 19. They got married a year later and moved to Dublin. The marriage went through a bumpy patch. One day, Linda packed her bags and moved back to London with the six kids. youngest Jo and Linda, Gloria, Michelle, Sonya and Paul. "There was a lot of problems in the marriage," Jo, who was seven at the time of the emotional move to England, recalls. "Dad eventually came over and got us all. I remember missing Dad so much. That was very, very hard."
They all moved in with granny Ann Ranns in a one-bedroomed flat in Ladbroke Grove, where they stayed for two years, with Pete visiting as much as he could. Granny Ann looked after them. She was a widow. "Her husband was killed in a hit-and-run by bank-robbers," Jo says of her late grandfather. She adds that granny Ann provided a good home for them all.
When Pete and his wife and family returned to Dublin in 1982, they had nowhere to go. Jo remembers that grim time when her father lived in a hostel in the inner city for a time (Hating the place, he went and stayed with a relative in Rathfarnham), while all of them lived nearby in another hostel for homeless women and their children. "It was tough. There was nine months of it – with rats running and there was a soup kitchen. I was nine."
There were certainly no Jacuzzis in the hostel.
Jo can't contain herself at the black comedy of it all, looking back. "As Eddie Murphy says, to have a Jacuzzi you need to fart in the bath," she chuckles. "We didn't even have a bath. I was number six on the water list after everybody else," she recalls.
"The place stank of piss. Smelly rooms. It was awful. There was a woman in the soup kitchens and she'd give you coddle with margarine. I can't stand margarine to this day. They were force-feeding me a coddle one day. It was nine months of hell."
The Brogan family were eventually offered a place on the 15th floor of a complex in Ballymun. "There was shit all over the lift. Mam stopped the lift and we went back to the hostel."
Then they were offered a lovely ground-floor three-bedroomed flat in Sillogue Avenue in Ballymun. It was in a bad way, but there was a big playground at the back of it, which clinched it for Jo and her sisters. "We had a good feeling about it. And that was the one thing about our family, we were always great home-makers. Put us in a Tayto bag and we'd make a home out of it," she says. Her father even built her own small bedroom in the alcove. It was life at the opposite end of the economic spectrum to that which she knows now. Jo has memories of being a 10-year-old in the snow, spending four hours on her hands and knees looking for a £50 note that her father had given her to pay the electricity bill and the rent.
"It was the first time I saw my father cry," she says.
There were also blissful times. She used to climb up lamp-posts to put ropes over to make swings when she was a kid. "I was like a monkey I could get up the lamp-post so fast. I heard they are doing a Celebrity Jungle Get Me Out Of Here-type show in Africa for charity. I'd love to do it. That would be my dream. I love the jungle. I want to meet my Tarzan."
She has a heart of pure gold, with a personality equal parts Mae West and Bet Lynch in the Rovers Return. She makes the maddest things sound hilarious. She remembers as a young teen, dressing up one evening as a robber with a black mask over her face, getting a fake gun and climbing in the window of her sister's bedroom to surprise her thus: "Put your hands in the air, you f***er!"
"When she saw the gun, she pissed her pants. I couldn't stop laughing. I am a messer. I am a laugher. My parents killed me when they got home because when I ran out the door my sister called the police thinking it was a real criminal. She used to have a stammer. She hasn't had it since, with the shock of me pointing the toy gun at her."
Jo had a shock of a different sort when she was 15 and a half. She lost her virginity in a nightclub in Fleet Street and became pregnant. "It was being bold at the back of a club. I was stupid."
There was nothing else to do in Ballymun back then, she says, except for drugs, drinking and sex. Jo has never once used drugs or touched a drop of alcohol. "He was the image of Marti Pellow out of Wet Wet Wet. That was the only reason he got a hold of me. Two seconds it lasted. But I fell pregnant from that," she says.
"I didn't have sex after that until I was 19. I never trusted a man again. You couldn't even go to the doctor for the pill in those days. You had to get your parents' consent."
She had Gavin – now 22 – up for adoption. But as soon as she saw him in the hospital, she couldn't go through with it."
This Jo is undeniably a rare specimen of human life and joie de vivre. Asked if she is religious, she replies: "I am an emergency Catholic. When something goes wrong, I'm like, 'God, f***ing help me!'
"I was always oozing confidence. Nothing would get me down. I was as strong as an ox. I got that probably from Ballymun. Ballymum has given me the university of life. The things I've seen in Ballymun, either you look at it and you learn from it or you look at it and you do it. I learned from it. I go over there three times a week. I have been in nicer flats in Ballymun than I have been in penthouses in the Four Seasons," she says.
Despite her joie de vivre, Jo was single for three years. I ask her why.
"Because I had a partner and he was taken from me in tragic circumstances. He was a guard. He was killed on duty. I was absolutely devastated. He just went to work one night and never came home. He was killed in 2000." She got married in 2007.
Her co-star in Dublin Housewives, Virginia Macari, reckons that Irish women see Jo "as a kind of inspiration of how to move on in life. She lights up the room when she walks in. I love her feistiness and her go-getting attitude, plus she is the craic to hang out with ... "
"Jo Jo wears her heart on sleeve," Lisa Murphy, her other co-star in Dublin Housewives, says. "We could not be more opposite if we tried. She says it is as it is. She is an amazing mum and has two beautiful sons."
Jo has been living here in this mansion with big gates – it is a rent-to-buy property – for the last seven months. "There is no bollocks about me. I am a real woman. When I moved in here , I did all my own decorating. I painted. I am my own woman," she says.
When Jo heard about TV3's new girly reality TV show with a twist in November 2011, she told one of the producers, John Norton, that she would provide "the sadness and the madness and the badness".
She was more than true to her word on the show.
"But in the new season of Dublin Housewives it will be happiness and successfulness," she promises, disappearing into another room only to reappear seconds later with a brand new vacuum-cleaner, with which she starts cleaning. In Louboutins. You couldn't make Jo Jordan up.
So, do she and Lisa have loads of men back here?
"I haven't brought one man back here. I have been accused of being with so many men. I wish the accusations were true. No – there is no cooking going on in my kitchen," she says. Jo adds that she used to ask her sisters about sex education when she was a teenager. "We'd have the girly chats and we'd be very open minded," she remembers.
What the nation wants to know most is: what is it like to live with Lisa Murphy. "It's like Monica and Rachel from Friends."
And who is who?
"I'm the Monica," Jo says, "she's the Rachel. Lisa loves her clothes and her style. She loves jumping into her jim-jams. She's kids mad. She enjoys learning things. I am just Mrs Perfect. I am the cleanaholic. Everything has to be spotless. But having said that, when I wake up every morning Lisa has the dishwasher on. And when she wants to, she's a blackbelt on the hoover!"
They are clearly a good fit. Indeed, Jo and Lisa are launching their own upmarket make-up range – Lady Jo Li – in the New Year and will have it, hopefully, on sale in Arnotts in Dublin city centre and online. I feel like I have spent the last three hours in the pages of a completely bonkers but compelling novel about a housewife from a tough background who made a go of her life.
Still in her Louboutins, Jo drops me very kindly into town in the silver sports car she reserves for the night-time. She promises to ring me before midnight for another chat. When I can't get her all evening on either the landline or mobile, I text her famous housemate instead and ask her to get Madame Jo Jo to ring me.
"She is painting!" Lisa texts back at midnight from the house of fun in Castleknock. "She is Monica! You would not believe what this mad woman gets up to."
Oh, I would.
The new series of 'Dublin Housewives' begins at 9.30pm on TV3 on January 7.