One of the lads
She's one of the most controversial women on Irish TV, but radio is different, as Jennifer Maguire has discovered as co-host of 2FM's new breakfast show. Keeping up with the immediacy of it is 'knackering', she tells Sarah Caden, as she explains how she'd never heard of 'Morning Ireland' until recently, how her parents wish she could be more like Kathryn Thomas, and how, despite being a 'cranky bitch', her summer wedding is still on.
Published 30/03/2014 | 02:30
'If my dad likes an episode of Republic of Telly, then I know we've done something wrong," says Jennifer Maguire with a laugh. She then tells a story about how her very proud parents had her aunt around one evening, and delightedly switched on the television for a family appreciation of their Jennifer.
"They were, like, 'Oh, Jen's on the telly, put it on,' and the minute it came on, I was, like, 'How big is your cock?' or something. They were mortified.
"So I tell them," Jennifer continues, "'Don't put it on for your friends or your older sister.' Sometimes, I don't even tell them when it's on."
While we talk, Jennifer is approached by exactly the kind of people to whom RTE Two's Republic of Telly makes complete sense and isn't remotely mortifying.
A brother and sister, in their mid-teens, approach, and the boy asks if Jennifer will pose for a picture with the girl.
Jennifer feigns indignation that he doesn't want a picture, too, but he reassures her that it's just that he doesn't like photos and it's not her.
"You're cool," he reassures Jennifer's mock-offence. "Really," he says to his sister, "don't I think she's cool?" When Jennifer sits down again, she says, "Well, that's them. That's the Republic of Telly fan."
She says that the age bracket of her fan base has broadened a bit lately, thanks to the success of her Eighties-parents sketch with Bernard O'Shea on Republic of Telly, and the online hit that was the houseproud woman threatening her with a knife on her candid-camera series, The Fear. But, fundamentally, Jennifer Maguire has young fans. She's not for your granny or even, possibly, your mammy, but she's a perfect fit for a generation that doesn't bat an eye at a woman telling knob jokes on the telly, or calling someone a prick, or being ballsy.
Her mammy, obviously, would rather she did less of all of the above, but the ability to not only get away with this, but build a growing career on it, is Jennifer Maguire's unique achievement in Irish broadcasting.
She's the anti-lovely girl, perhaps, and definitely the only female RTE presenter I've ever met who has cursed, adjectivally, in an interview.
We're talking over coffee in the RTE canteen, after Jennifer has finished the day's Breakfast Republic on 2FM. She's having the adrenaline comedown that is part of getting up before dawn, revving yourself up at 7am to perform for two hours, and then switching that off again, before some people have even started work.
She's keeping herself lively with coffee, and then she's due over in the RTE television building, where she'll work on Republic of Telly for the rest of the day.
"Lau," she says of her English-Italian fiance, whom she will marry in July, "says that people don't really know the real me. Because I literally laugh all day at work, and then I come home and I'm a cranky bitch."
When we meet, Jennifer is three weeks in to Breakfast Republic, which she co-hosts with her Republic of Telly colleague, Bernard O'Shea, and Keith Walsh, who previously worked on Phantom FM. The show was devised to replace the axed 2FM breakfast show with Hector O hEochagain, and, in its first week, the show attracted some negative reviews criticising what was seen as the reliance on the aforementioned knob jokes and innuendo humour. Jennifer, though, thinks that judgement should be withheld for a while yet, as they find their feet and their format, and their fan base.
"Radio is so different to telly because you're so much more exposed," Jennifer says. "In telly, you can't really tell the reaction of the audience immediately, but, in radio, you do. Like, a lot of our material is the stuff that comes in on emails and Twitter, and texts, and some of it is so hilarious. You say something, and the instant reaction is amazing.
"You become so much more aware, too," she says. "You're reading papers every day – well, maybe more looking online, and at websites and stuff, because it's quicker than a paper – and you're sussing out what's going on, and what people are talking about. I'm probably more aware of the world, and that's knackering in itself.
"Keith asked me had I ever heard of Morning Ireland," she says, laughing at herself, "and I was, like, 'No.' I mean, I lived in the UK for years, and I never listened to it, or I wasn't up that early. That was my excuse. I fucking know what it is now, though, I tell you.
"You know, the show isn't perfect, and it's not there yet, but we're working really hard on it," says Jennifer, whose media career started eight years ago on the UK version of The Apprentice.
She didn't get into that with an eye to working in media, she says, but, she admits, as a little girl, all she wanted was to be an actress. The daughter of a guard and a housewife with a passion for amateur dramatics, Jennifer is the youngest of six Maguire siblings, brought up in Dublin's Baldoyle.
The eldest will be 50 this year, and Jennifer is 34 next month, with an eight-year gap between her and the next youngest sibling. She was the baby by a long chalk and she was a messer, Jennifer says, who clashed with her father endlessly when she was young.
"Maybe it's a show-off thing in me, or maybe it's that I was never really good in school, but I was always a messer, always up for a laugh," she says. "I didn't enjoy school. I didn't feel like I fit in.
"The only thing I liked was the school musicals, which were a bit of an escape for me. I enjoy learning more now, and I'd love to go back and study psychology, but it didn't click with me then. Maybe I was just too much of a messer and a little shit."
Her place in the family makes sense of Jennifer Maguire, to some extent. Youngest siblings in big families are always that bit more edgy than their peers, and often that bit more bold, too, because they need to be in order to keep up at home.
Jennifer Maguire's unique selling point is that she's brazen – don't forget that she asked Michael O'Leary how it felt to be the "biggest prick in Ireland" – and that she's not so much a female foil to the men that she works with, but their equal in willingness to shock.
"None of it fazes me," she says of the interviews where she insults her subjects, or of the red-carpet encounters where she plays the opposite of the fawning fashionista.
"When I'm doing it, I think back to where I started, in town, on the street, in the pissing rain, selling hair promotions. I think back to that and then it's no bother."
When Jennifer Maguire finished school, she didn't know what she wanted beyond the seemingly impossible dream of being an actress.
"I started a six-month secretarial course after I finished school and, after six months, some fella came in with a job in a cabling company, and I was, like, 'Take me! Out of here!' Then, I was there and I was reading Brian Keenan's book about being held hostage, and I just thought, 'Life's too short for this shit. I'm going to New York, see you!'''
Jennifer went to New York for a while, where she stayed with her emigrant siblings, and worked for a while, before coming home when her visa ran out. She started selling hair promotions – packages of salon treatments – on Grafton Street, and that was a turning point for her.
"That was me," she says, "up to people in the street, 'Excuse me . . .' and, basically, I'm still fucking doing that. And I still use what I learnt then in what I do now. And I was good at it.
After a while, Jennifer decided to move to the UK with her work and her selling talent, settling first in Cardiff and then in Bristol, where she met now fiance, Lau Zamparelli, an English-Italian actor.
"My dad was so sceptical," she recalls of her father's attitude to her job. "I used to have to show him my cheques, and it was an incredible confidence boost to be 19 and earning £500 a week.
"And then I made management very quickly, and got my own sales team together, and I loved being good at something for a change. Thank God I was good at it," she adds. "From the beginning, I was always able to save, and made good money, but there were days that I'd be standing on the street in the snow and, if I'm having a hard day now, I think that I could still be doing that.
"Getting up at five in the morning now is nothing compared to that. I'd get up at half three for the opportunity I have now."
Jennifer is adamant that her interest in appearing on The Apprentice had nothing to do with wanting to work in television, though it cannot be denied that it quite perfectly combined her business acumen with her ambition to perform.
Also, while it was, without doubt, a springboard into the career she has now, Jennifer has never made any bones out of the fact that The Apprentice wasn't her happiest experience. "I was a huge fan of the show and I wanted to do something different. Eight years ago, though," she says, "I was a baby, and I hadn't a fucking clue. I could talk the talk, though. I went for it and I nearly fucking died when I was on it. It was the scariest thing ever. I felt like a complete fish out of water.
"I felt like a bit of a fucking Paddy," Jennifer explains. "It's like when you go to London and you could be from D4, but you are still, suddenly, a Paddy. I struggled a bit and maybe my defence mechanism was to just block everything out."
Further, she didn't get on with Alan Sugar. "He didn't like me and I didn't fucking like him," she says. "He was a cold little man."
Jennifer didn't win the show, but she did, ultimately, get a job and a career out of her appearance on it. After The Apprentice, she decided to come back to Ireland and start up her own business, Bella the Makeover Studio, which styled customers for their own private, professional photo shoots, and also did weddings and parties.
She had seen the idea work in the UK, and thought that she could be a big fish in a smaller pond over here and went for it. The move led to a brief break-up with Lau, but it also led, very quickly, to a spot on Failte Towers, a celebrity reality-TV show, where she ran a hotel with the likes of Brian Dowling, Bibi Baskin, Don Baker and Derry Clarke. It was great fun compared to The Apprentice, she says, and it led to more jobs in TV, which led, in 2010, to Republic of Telly. "Also," she adds, "when I won a task on Failte Towers, I got to spend the night in Castle Leslie [in County Monaghan] in The Mauve Room. And, in July, that will be my bridal suite."
Jennifer loves Republic of Telly, where she has made her mark as the host who's willing to stick their neck out and say the unsayable for laughs. In particular, her sit-down interviews have made for some of the show's more memorable moments.
There was the Michael O'Leary interview and, early on, she asked Grainne Seoige if she cringed when watching some of the acts on the All Ireland Talent Show.
"Yeah, I didn't know how that was going to go," she says of Grainne Seoige, "and it went the wrong way on me. I was a little bit scared. She's a force to be reckoned with. She was very cross with me afterwards. She might still be cross. But that was five years ago, when people didn't know the show and they thought I was just being nasty for the sake of it."
Michael O'Leary, she adds, was fine about it. "Afterwards, he shook my hand and said, 'No one's ever called me that before.' But I still dread that he'll be there when I check in some time."
They don't go out to wound people, Jennifer says, but they fairly go for it with the likes of reality-TV stars on the red carpet, and other minor celebs.
"If it's one of those Towie people or whatever," she says, "who don't necessarily deserve a roasting, but maybe have never had one before, we'll go for it, because we think it's hilarious. And if they get it, and they laugh with us, those bits are the best." Does the fact that she's surrounded by men change how Jennifer behaves, I wonder. "Well, yeah," she laughs. "It's a cockfest, I tell you. I have a really good writer on Republic of Telly," she explains, "Derek Dillon, and he never gets enough credit for what he does, and I'd be a prick if I didn't give him credit for his lines. But he's bold, too, and we egg each other on, definitely. In fact, he wanted me to say something way worse to Michael O'Leary. Starts with a 'c' and ends with a 't'. I made a call on that one – which I'm delighted I did."
To a great extent, the TV gig is acting, Jennifer says, which is what she has always wanted to do. The radio, though, demands something different, and she's still finding her way through that, to an extent.
Not least, she's getting used to going to bed early and getting up at an ungodly hour. She bemoans the loss of her evening glass of wine and says that it's no joke for Lau, who gets her at her tiredest every day.
It requires effort to make sure that Jennifer is not neglecting him ahead of their summer wedding, she admits, but the wedding is most certainly not off, as was reported recently.
"We go for a walk in Powerscourt, and we're that sad couple that trains together at the gym. He caught these kids trying to take a picture of me all sweaty in my shit gym gear the other night," she laughs, less bothered about the idea of the photo, and of it going online, than another female TV presenter might be.
That's her area, after all, the realm of making light and laughter of ordinary life. It's a mystery to her parents, perhaps, and maybe even her older siblings, but that's OK with Jennifer Maguire.
"They're very proud, but very mortified," she says of her parents with a laugh, before reciting their pleas. "'Why did you have to say that? Can you stop talking about people's dicks and calling people pricks? Can you not be more like Kathryn Thomas?''' Not any time soon, would be a safe bet.
Catch Jennifer Maguire on 2FM's 'Breakfast Republic' from 7am to 9am, Monday-Friday, on 2FM, and on 'Republic of Telly', 9.30pm, Mondays on RTE Two.
For all Jennifer Maguire bookings and enquiries, contact Harris PR, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography by Barry McCall. Styling by Liadan Hynes
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