'Calling in to Alan Hughes and Karl and seeing them watching Corrie normalised gay relationships for me'- Darren Kennedy
He's done what countless others dream of doing: turned himself into a high-profile brand. But, says Darren kennedy, the key to his success is having passion to match his ambition.
Darren Kennedy has found his "ikigai". It's not often that Japanese philosophical concepts come up in my interviews, but hey, there's a first time for everything. Over a lovely lunch at Bibi's Café in his stomping ground of Dublin 8, the 32-year-old "Japanophile" explains that he has found his "reason for being".
"Ikigai is where you are encouraged to find your true purpose and meaning in life," he says. "It's when you find the crossover between what you love, what you're good at, what you'd make money from and what the world needs."
Everyone, according to the Japanese, has an ikigai, but finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Darren has had a varied and interesting career and emotional trajectory to get to where he is today - style guru, TV presenter, Weekend columnist, social media sensation and one of the country's most recognisable faces, who was this week nominated for IFTA's Gala TV Rising Star award.
There's a depth to what he does, though - it's not all about encouraging people to buy clothes and promote brands, as is the case with so many of the bloggers, YouTubers and self-proclaimed 'influencers' in the public eye. For Darren, his ikigai is helping people to transform their lives and empower themselves to make positive changes, and it fulfils the philosophy's criteria as he's passionate about what he does, he can make a living from it and people need what he has to offer.
"It's taken me a long time to realise that this is my purpose in life," he admits. "I adore it, and it's what gets me excited and out of bed in the morning, and it's what drives my brand and makes me effective at what I do. Some people may say that fashion is frivolous but it's only one element of what I do. It's about really listening to people and encouraging them to realise that they're entitled to take the time to focus on themselves and their happiness. Most people will tell you what they can't do and what they've failed at, rather than focusing on what they're good at."
He may have great charm - and an infectious exuberance when you meet him in person - but Darren is also very practical about the realities of building and expanding a brand. His ultimate aim is to build an international lifestyle brand that spans print and broadcast and social media. He says that his background in business, plus learning from great mentors, have contributed to where he is today. "Practicality is at the core of my being," he says, "fused with creative outlets and wanting to push myself and develop myself further."
And that drive has paid dividends: aside from his extensive work on Irish TV, Darren's brand has been strengthened internationally by appearing on ITV2's Xtra Factor, Celebrity Big Brother's Bit On The Side and BBC's BAFTA Film Awards: Red Carpet. He was resident style presenter on ITV's This Morning, where he met US presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, whom he describes as "phenomenal." He was also host at the UK launch of the new Hugo Boss scent, Man of Today, alongside Hollywood actor Gerard Butler, as well as hosting for GQ, Lancôme, BAFTA, the VIP Style Awards and the red carpet at the Irish Film and Television Awards.
He is currently filming for E4, and he has also presented live on US networks FOX, ABC, Oxygen, The CW and E! UK to a combined audience over of 160 million. As well as this week's IFTA nod, he is also nominated for InStyle magazine's Project 13 Best Male Style Blogger award.
When you have so many demands on your time, people will try to pull you in different directions, so you also have to be able to say no to things, he says. It's all about building connections and aligning himself with the right people and brands that share his vision. Darren is also not afraid to put in the ground work, and spends at least two days a week in the UK.
He does a lot of work both there and at home for Specsavers, and will host the forthcoming Spectacle Wearer of The Year award ceremony. His second edit for the high-street opticians brand, 'Darren Kennedy Recommends', is out today, and the ethos of helping people look great while facilitating them to see better affordably is one that appeals to him. As a spectacle-wearer himself, he understands the importance of fusing form with function, as glasses become such a part of a person's identity.
Darren's own sense of identity is shaped by his closeness to his family. Born to Valerie and Michael, he grew up with an older brother and younger sister in Santry on Dublin's northside. He had a really happy childhood, but his teenage years were more difficult. For a start, he didn't feel he fitted into his passionately GAA school, as he preferred cycling and kickboxing and was an under-16 hockey champion.
He was also struggling with his sexuality as it began to dawn on him that he might be gay, but kept his feelings to himself and tried to keep under the radar. He dated girls, but even so, he was picked on and bullied by other boys. It's something that incenses him as an adult because he knows how bullying can devastate a young person who feels different or unsure of themselves. "It makes my blood boil because it can lead to tragedy. It's already hard enough when you're trying to figure things out around your sexuality and are worried about how people will react. I have no problem with people throwing me a dig, I can handle that, but it was things like having eggs thrown at me and being called a 'fag' that upset me. You're left wondering how these people know what you are before you even know yourself for sure? It was really tough and it got really dark at one stage, but thankfully I came through it."
Always an animal-lover, Darren's dogs, Freeway and Rascal, and his menagerie of fish and birds were a great comfort to him, because, as he points out, they "didn't care who or what I was." There was a lot of homophobia and hostility in society around being gay at that time, so while Darren had a very loving and supportive family, he was reluctant to discuss the matter at home initially for fear that it might worry his parents. "I never wanted to break or interrupt the family happiness, so I kept a lot of things to myself," he admits.
One of his early mentors was TV3's Alan Hughes, who lived around the corner from him with his now-husband Karl Broderick. As he harboured ambitions of working in TV, Darren's mother advised him to call around to chat to Alan, who was working on Ireland AM. The teenager found the presenter extremely kind and generous with his advice, and the connection led to him working as a runner on the breakfast show while he was at college.
More than that, it was also the first time Darren had seen a gay relationship in real life, which proved to be helpful. "I didn't realise it at the time, but I guess calling in to Alan and Karl and seeing them sitting there watching Corrie with a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit really normalised it for me."
At 16, Darren began to come out to people in phases, and when he finally told his family, as he predicted, his parents were worried for his happiness. "Dad gave me a hug but Mam got upset initially," he recalls. "I'm very close to her and I think she worried that because I wouldn't be able to get married and have kids, as was the case back then, I wouldn't be happy. She was projecting what she thought would make me happy, but then she came around and Dad maybe went through a tougher time. They were worried because they hadn't had any interaction with gay people or the gay lifestyle up to then, but fast-forward a year and they were in The George with me dancing to Jimmy Somerville."
Darren believes that while agencies like BeLonG To do amazing work around LGBT young people, achieving marriage equality last year was a massive leap forward, but there is still a lot more work to be done, he says. "The referendum result was amazing, but it still but doesn't take away from the fact that there are young boys and girls struggling right now all over the country to come to terms with who they are," he points out. "The bottom line is that you're still going against the grain when you're gay. I've been there and I've lived it and my message to young people is that it really does get so much better - you will flourish and come into your own as you get older."
Darren met his long-term partner Aidan in his last year of college. He first spotted him while out celebrating his 21st birthday in The George, and then they met a while later when a girl fainted, and he and Aidan both carried her outside. They started dating a few months later, and went to see the movie About A Boy on their first date, and after three months, they moved to Paris together.
Aidan works in HR and is also a writer, and they live with their beloved dog Harry. They're together 12 years, so does he think they will get married and are they interested in having children? "I don't know because I never thought growing up gay that I would be able to get married, so will we one day, who knows?" he laughs. "Watch this space! At the moment, I have four small nephews and nieces and Aidan has a nephew and niece, and while we adore spending a lot of time with them, we love handing them back, too. Harry is our little hairy baby for the time being!"
On the career front, Darren did a degree in international business and languages at DIT, during which he spent a year in Bordeaux. Then he did an IBEC graduate programme course and got a job in Paris with Tourism Ireland. After stints with marketing at Google Ireland and the French Tourism Board, he had an evening show on Dublin City FM and still really wanted to move into TV. He got his break when he was offered a job as researcher on The Holiday Programme by Philip Kampff of Vision Independent Productions, who remains one of his mentors.
This led to him working on programmes like Showhouse and Operation Transformation (OT), and while he was working in production and research, Darren harboured ambitions of becoming a presenter. He also did some entertainment reporting on RTÉ Two, and devised the online content for OT. Doing it that way was invaluable, he explains, as it meant that he had a thorough knowledge of the processes involved on both sides of the camera. This ultimately enabled him to develop formats for himself, including Trending and The Unemployables, which he devised with Jennifer Zamparelli. His ikigai was also being honed while doing the style makeovers with the OT participants.
What would he say to the detractors who say that OT is an entertainment programme rather than one that genuinely helps people? "How does it not help people?" he asks.
"If it creates a conversation around being healthy and taking care of yourself, I don't care whether it's an entertainment lifestyle show or not. That is doing a service. They are affecting change on a national level, with thousands of people coming out for the organised walks and supermarkets rowing in and supporting it."
At 6ft 1in and weighing 12st 2lbs, Darren is very much into wellness and fitness, and goes to the gym five times per week where he mainly does weights and cardio. He admits that he wasn't always at ease with his own body, however.
"I've had my demons," he admits, "and it was all linked with coming to terms with who I was and my sexuality and appearance. I would have called myself fat, even though when I say it to my mam, she would say I was never fat. I was definitely overweight though, and was probably about 14-and-a-half stone at my heaviest."
There was a time when Darren's eating practices were unhealthy. This coincided with being in first year of college and being able to extricate himself from the regularity of home-cooked meals and watchful parental eyes. He got it into his head that meat was fattening, and began existing on two bowls of cereal per day and half a sandwich, while doing excessive amounts of exercise. He was delighted when people noticed he was losing weight, before he ultimately woke up to the fact that what he was doing wasn't healthy. Looking back, he said he definitely ate in a disordered fashion for three or four months, but nobody knew because he was great at hiding it.
"I was never bulimic because I couldn't throw up my food," he explains. "I remember trying to make myself vomit once, but I couldn't manage it. Without being light-hearted about a serious subject, I think that was my body saying, 'No, we like food too much,' because I had always had a massive appetite. I still do, but I try to make the right choices now. I don't always succeed as I love chocolate and ice-cream, but it's about having balance."
While he is keen to look well, he says he doesn't get hung up on weight now. He has his own suit range with Louis Copeland and has 40 suits all tailored to him, and when they start to get tight, he knows he's putting on weight and remedies it. "For me it's about how I feel in my own skin," he says.
The collaborations with the likes of Louis Copeland and Specsavers are the result of years of hard work in combining his talents, connections and passions into building 'brand Darren Kennedy'. Going from one TV programme to the next was fulfilling and great fun, but as hours were long and contracts always short-term, Darren had realised that he needed some more control over his career. He really loved aesthetics and adored interiors, gardens, and in particular, clothes, so he applied and was accepted to study at leading fashion and design college, Central Saint Martins, in London. When he returned home, he set up HelpMyStyle, which started off as a personal style and consultancy service.
He reconfigured it as an online magazine when he realised that his blog was gaining a lot of traction, and also worked as stylist on The Gerry Ryan Show. "Gerry loved fashion and he was another great mentor to me," he says. "It was heartbreaking when he died, and he has never been replaced and never will be."
Darren says that compared with the more linear career paths of previous years, the digital age we live in now affords people far more flexibility to explore different avenues, and entrepreneurship is in vogue. So in a world brimming with stylists and bloggers, how does he make his brand stand out?
"For me, it has never about been about money, because I think if that's your driving force, you are chasing something that will never fulfil you," he says. "I can link everything I do back to my purpose. I think I'm very real and open and I like to have fun, but I'm also authentic. I like authenticity in other people too and can quickly sniff it out, and if I can't find that, I don't place value in it. I only work with people who are the right fit for me and my brand, and I like creating relationships that are going to grow."
And what advice would he give to the thousands of young people out there who want to become a brand themselves?
Darren says you shouldn't be afraid of taking risks and failing while building up your brand, and adds that he encountered huge amounts of rejection when he was starting off. He put all of the rejection letters he received into a folder, but instead of being disheartened, his philosophy was that each 'no' was bringing him a step closer to where he wanted to be. "I still occasionally get a 'no' now," he says, "but if I'm not getting them, I'm not working hard enough and getting myself out there. It's about having resilience and knowing that just sometimes you're just not the person for that particular job."
Available exclusively at all 50 Specsavers Ireland stores nationwide, the 'Darren Kennedy Recommends' autumn collection consists of six male and six female frames, retailing from €89 to €189. See specsavers.ie
Photography Aaron Hurley