Now she's a fashion designer: Vintage Dawn O'porter
Tanya Sweeney catches up with author, tv star and now, fashion designer, Dawn O'Porter
Most people will admit that their twenties were a time for sexual experimentation, partying and adventuring. Yet few managed to draw a line quite so neatly under the decade as Dawn O'Porter did.
Before she turned 30, the TV presenter/journalist - who at that stage was just plain Dawn Porter - had racked up a reputation as being a sort of pre-Lena Dunham truth teller. She had carved out a niche on BBC3 making frank and personal documentaries about sex, childbirth, lesbianism, dating and body image. At her own 30th birthday party, a friend had brought along a pal who had admired her from afar. His name was Chris O'Dowd, and he'd become the man O'Porter would eventually marry.
"I feel like my 20s are so defined," reflects O'Porter, now 35. "My 20s were about freedom of expression, being wild, meetings loads of boys and partying… and then on your 30th birthday, you meet the guy you spend the rest of your life with and that's that."
She's certainly not lying about either the freedom of expression or the being wild bit. In her 2006 book, Diaries Of An Internet Lover, O'Porter writes about being 'inveigled' into a threesome with a couple in a hotel room. As part of her documentary series on BBC3, she tried on lesbianism for size. As part of another documentary The Free Lovers, she met with members of the 60s-style Zegg commune in Germany, stripped off, got covered in oil and lay down with them for a memorable on-camera experience. As with many female journalists, the line between personal self-discovery and professional curiosity was gossamer thin. And, now that she's due to become a mother, O'Porter is glad she has thes experiences to look back on.
"I was fearless and wanting to have amazing life experiences," she says. "It spurred me on to be a bit bonkers in the work I was doing. But now I'm 35, I genuinely do prefer to sit and home and write books with my cat on my lap. I do love, though, that when I'm sitting at a dinner party now and someone mentions polygamy, I'll be like, 'oh, I lived with polygamists for 10 days'. I have all these amazing stories. It was the kind of thing you could do at that age, being young, free and single.
Still, O'Porter feels "a little talked out about myself by now". As she promotes her new vintage clothing website and line, BOB, PRs have intimated that O'Porter would rather not discuss her current pregnancy with journalists (she is due to give birth in the new year). It's a curious turn for someone who has mined so much of her personal experience in her writing. But in a way, it's wholly understandable: the press is already packed with lazy stories about O'Porter that reduce her to the status of either (a) one half of an 'It' couple or (b) a celebrity mum-in-waiting. In reality, there's so much more to her than just that.
Concurrent with writing her young adult novels, presenting a Channel 4 show on vintage fashion called This Old Thing and penning a book on same, O'Porter has been working on the BOB project for two years.
"I trawl everywhere… I go to auctions and flea markets in the US," she explains when asked how she sources the site's vintage ware. "A friend of my auntie's wanted to sell me some amazing '60s stuff, and I'm always asking my friends if they have stylish mums or grannies."
As with everyone, there've been a few sartorial cul-de-sacs down the years: "I'd try really hard (to be stylish) and get it wrong, but hey, I made the effort," she laughs. "I was never really comfortable in my skin and that had a lot to do with clothes: I never really nailed it. I didn't like to follow trends, so when I found vintage… oh wow, the relief."
For BOB, Dawn also created her own line of retro-inspired dresses: "I needed to learn a lot about how clothes were made and styling. Through This Old Thing and learning how to dress others, I learned a lot. Now was the right time to make BOB a success - I've always wanted to have lots of stuff on the go. I want the sort of life for myself where all I do is write books, read book and make dresses."
I do wonder if this keen sense of industriousness stems from a time in O'Porter's life - right after she met O'Dowd - where she sustained a fallow period in her professional career.
"Oh, 100pc," she affirms. "There's a part of me that won't let myself get into that position again. The way I see if, if I don't do this (BOB), I'm making myself vulnerable again."
Right now, it's safe to assume that O'Porter and her A-list husband lead a financially charmed life… but it hasn't always been plain sailing. In 2010, one of O'Porter's documentary series was decommissioned, sending her headlong into a confidence crisis. With her writing work drying up too, O'Porter spent two years unemployed, despondent and living a very modest life in Los Angeles. Her creativity was stymied by the ongoing panic about her finances.
"In the TV world, you're so disposable, and I always felt disposable," she recalls. "I had to rely on someone else giving me work, and that's why writing and BOB have been so important to me. I'm creating my success and I'm now in control of it."
In a striking blog post for Amanda de Cadanet's site, O'Porter wrote in 2012 how she couldn't afford her rent, and was constantly overdrawn. Still, it was a weird time: thanks to her new boyfriend's O'Dowd's appearance in Bridesmaids, the couple were flown first class to LA from London. O'Porter stood on the red carpet for the premiere in a borrowed dress and pair of shoes, and couldn't afford to get her hair styled.
"Chris and I had only been together a year and we weren't particularly co-dependent so I felt very much on my own," she reflects. "I'd had a very fruitful 20s, so it was a shock to hit 30 and feel like it had all ended. Looking back, I wasted a couple of years wallowing. I could have kicked into action quicker, gotten off my arse and started writing, but there are times when rejection gets the better of you and you feel you can't pick yourself up from it. I remember too - and this is what I was most angry about - I was really not fun as a person. People would ask how I was and I was like, 'not great. I think my career's over'. Because of that negativity, if I'd tried to get BOB off the ground during that period, it would never have worked. I didn't have the self-encouragement."
But that was then, and this is now. With several fingers in many pies, there are parallels to be drawn between O'Porter and her good friend, the equally multi-faceted Amy Huberman.
"She's such a great girl," she enthuses. "She's very determined not to live in Brian's (O'Driscoll, her husband) shadow and she wants to be her own person. She's everything but a WAG… and what we love about her the most is that she's hilarious."
Certainly, penury must seem further away than ever now that O'Porter last week signed a 'six-figure' deal with HarperCollins to write adult fiction. Yet with the sort of confessional memoir writing that O'Porter built her early career on making a seismic impact in the publishing world, does she ever feel tempted to pen her own tome of personal non-fiction? "I'm not sure I could commit to the promise that I used to make, 'you're getting all of me'," she admits. "Maybe it'll happen down the line, but at this stage in my life I'm becoming oddly more private."
All that's left to do, then, is get down to the serious business of making dresses. Oh, and babies, of course.
For more on Dawn's clothing line, see BOBbyDOP.com