TV3 star Elaine Crowley: 'At my thinnest, I was the most insecure I'd ever been'
It's Elaine Crowley's 39th birthday. The Midday presenter and producer has just come off air on TV3, having been surprised live on television by the panel with a huge birthday cake and a video of well-wishes from the show's most frequent contributors.
Usually a bit of a tough cookie, the surprise moved Elaine to tears on camera - something she's still mortified about nearly an hour later when we sit down to chat.
"I can't believe I cried on air, that's not like me at all!" she says several times, confirming that public displays of emotion aren't a frequent occurrence in the Cork woman's daily life.
We're here to discuss Celebrity Operation Transformation; Elaine is one of five famous faces taking part in the spin-off of one of RTÉ's most popular shows. She seems a little daunted at the prospect, having had her first weigh-in with the OT team a couple of days previously.
"According to them, I'm quite fat and I'm sure they'll give me hell and throw me over the coals and all that," she says. "But I'm doing this to try and become more healthy."
While weight loss is a goal on the show - which will also feature broadcaster Brenda Donohue, comedians Karl Spain and Katherine Lynch, and socialite Gerald Kean - Elaine has undertaken this mission with her future health in mind. Next year's milestone birthday looms large, it seems.
"Look, I'm getting on a bit!" she says with the trademark straightforwardness viewers of her daily show have come to love. "I'm pushing on, and starting to worry about my health. Too many people close to me are getting diagnoses in their 30s and 40s. Life sharpens up when people around you get sick, or when you lose someone. The whole weight-loss thing becomes less about how you look, and more about keeping the aul body ticking over for another while at least."
An old back injury recently reared its head, another cause for concern for Elaine. "I haven't been able to exercise much of late because of it. I damaged my back a few years ago and it's been niggling at me for a while. My physio told me to get an MRI scan and I didn't, and then a couple of weeks ago I threw it out altogether, it went wallop and I was a week off work, which was awful. When I couldn't walk, I was very freaked out. I thought I'd need crutches, and that was sobering."
Though Elaine is comfortable with her curves, they come with a cost to her health. "I want to strengthen my core. It may come to the point in the future if this doesn't work that I'll have to get a breast reduction, because my back is simply struggling to carry the weight around all the time.
"I hate general anaesthetic - I've had a benign tumour removed under local, that's how much I hate them. But it might come to that, so this is my effort to see if I can get stronger, fitter and more able before it does."
A single lady in the prime of her life with a fantastic job, most women would envy Elaine's busy lifestyle and hourglass figure. But throughout her life, she admits that she never felt remotely attractive.
"Up until the last couple of years, I always thought I was an ugly, fat whale," she says candidly. "I don't know what's changed. I guess I've tackled my demons. I've had some cognitive behavioural therapy and I've got a handle on my depression, because if you don't love yourself, how can you expect anyone else to love you? I've cut out a lot of toxic relationships in my life since then."
Seeing a psychiatrist was a big step for Elaine, who has spoken previously about being "born melancholy". "I didn't like myself for an awful long time, I could only see the negativity. I was surrounding myself with negative and superficial people and on top of that I was very sensitive - a bit too sensitive, really. People think that if you're on television, you've buckets of confidence. But the truth is, a lot of people on television have none at all and are looking for validation from others."
Body conscious from a young age, Elaine has always been highly aware of her shape. "I was an early developer. My first bra at the age of 12 was a 34B, and I have always been conscious of my bum and my hips. Even when I was competing in sports in Cork as a young teen and had to wear cycling shorts, I'd be trying to hide my bum. I got an awful fright when I realised I wasn't going to grow up to look like the models in the magazines, because I thought that's how everyone grew up."
And as she matured and her weight fluctuated, Elaine's bottom half stayed the same. "My waist is quite small and I can carry weight quite well, but the booty is never going anywhere. I like my shape now, but I didn't for ages because it wasn't the stylish thing. When I was in my early 20s, the Kate Moss look was in, heroin chic, and a completely different body shape was fashionable. That's what was sexy, and I wasn't it. Even what's skinny now wasn't skinny enough then!
"My friends that I lived with survived on a cup of Rice Krispies a day and were as bony - but that was what was considered stunning and attractive, and what every man was after. They wore jeans that wouldn't fit on my big toe. I was quite slim then, but I always felt like a whale."
These days though, having a big bum like Jennifer Lopez or the Kardashians is the height of sexy, so perhaps Elaine feels validated? "Look, I'm never going to be naturally thin, I'm not built that way. I'm tall, I'm quite muscular and I'm strong, and that's great."
Is she happy? "Actually, I'm quite delighted with life!" she laughs. "This is the best I've ever felt about myself, and I wouldn't be able to do what I'm doing now if I felt otherwise, to be honest. Even looking back, I never would have been able to present a daily show and be on camera every day back then. At my physically thinnest in my memory, which was about 11st, I was the most insecure I've been.
"But look, I think I have the inside of myself sorted now head wise and confidence wise, but the outside could do with a bit of sorting out too, so here we are."
During her stint on Celebrity Operation Transformation Elaine says she won't agonise over pounds lost, but does hope to see a change in how well her clothes fit. "I ignore the scales and go completely and utterly by dress size. The scales upset me greatly, they always have, and I think they upset everyone. So I go by what I like to fit in to clothes wise. I don't know how many stones or pounds I want to lose, but I want to get in to a size 12-14. Ultimately, that's what I'd like."
People might be surprised to hear Elaine wears a larger size than that now. "I've gone from a large 12 to a 16 throughout my life, yo-yoing all the time. But I've never been smaller than that as an adult. I was a size 10 on my confirmation day; because I couldn't fit in to any kids' clothes, I was distraught."
In the gym, she favours weight lifting over cardio - "nobody with a big bosom likes running!" - and gets a lot of satisfaction from working out. But one thing she wants to change is the fact that she's a woman of extremes.
"With me, there is no middle ground, but I'm like that with everything. Either I'm really saintly, really very good, or I'm really bad with food and exercise. I'll exercise every day or not at all, or I stuff my face all day or don't eat at all. It has crossed my mind, will I just have three shakes a day forever and that be it, and just not bother with food to try and get a handle on this? But that's hugely unhealthy, of course. I'm just a very all-or-nothing kind of person, maybe because I'm a Leo!"
She admits to having very bad eating habits, compounded by her busy schedule. "Yesterday I didn't eat anything at all until 9pm, I was just running around drinking coffee all day. I didn't even think to eat, and that's ridiculous."
- Read more: Elaine Crowley: 'Maybe a schoolgirl looks at me and sees you don't have to be skinny to successful'
A self-professed nightmare in the kitchen, she relies on takeaways and meals on the run to get her through. She never has breakfast, going on air at 11.30am every morning on an empty stomach. "I might have a lunch in the TV3 canteen, a toasted wrap or whatever the veggie option is, because I've gone off meat quite a lot. For dinner though, it's ring, ring, ring to the delivery man! I just can't cook, so I order pizza or Thai food. I'm not a snacker at all, but I would sit down and eat a huge takeaway and that might be all I eat all day, late at night. I've tried the healthy meal delivery services, but they just didn't work for me."
And when it comes to alcohol intake - a problem area for many people watching their weight - Elaine is all or nothing there, too. "I don't drink at all at home and don't have it in the house, but if I go out, I'm out, and it's a struggle to get me home. I drink all the wine! Again, there's no happy medium." In fact, Elaine admits that since she was first approached about Celebrity Operation Transformation, she seems to have gained a couple of stone. "Or at least that's what their scales say! But look, that's what I do. I think: 'Right, I'm going on a diet so I'm going to eat myself silly beforehand!' I see it as an excuse."
Given that she's happy with her size and already has a good awareness of her eating habits, at the end of a gruelling month on the show, does Elaine really expect to emerge, well, transformed?
"I'm hoping this experience will bring a bit of balance. Realistically speaking, I'm not going to lose a whole load of weight in a month, but I'm hoping this will really point me in the right direction towards lasting change."
'Celebrity Operation Transformation' starts Wednesday, September 7 at 9.35pm on RTÉ One