Yvonne Connolly: 'I don't believe in the sanctity of marriage'
Published 18/07/2016 | 02:30
Her face appears to be lit up with the lingering memory of the precise moment when intimacy between two people first escalated into something reciprocal and magic.
It's not yet 8.30am, and Yvonne Connolly is bursting forth with gusto about true love and lust unleashed, or at least recalling the precise moment when she knew John Conroy was The One. It was an erotic epiphany, with a touch of Mills & Boon.
"One winter's night in Dublin, early in our relationship, the heating was broken," she says. "It was Baltic. I came out of the bathroom, freezing, and he was sprawled out on my side of the bed. He looked at me and told me he was warming it up for me."
"And . . . I fell head over heels in love."
So, you were wearing heels when you came out of the bathroom?
"What good Irish Catholic girl doesn't wear heels coming out of the bathroom?" Yvonne replies, joking, as she conjures up an image of photographer Helmut Newton's work at its most risque.
Happily, the love and the desire wasn't fleeting between them, because four years later, she and John are still together, stronger than ever.
On May 5 this year, he posted a picture of Yvonne on Twitter with these words underneath it: "Such a beautiful, classy, understated person, who always puts everyone else first. Proud to call her my partner. X"
Yvonne says she cried when she read the tweet. L'amour-scented tears or not, don't expect a trip up the aisle. It is not on Yvonne's to-do list. She has done that, and bought the T-shirt, and all of that.
Does she not believe in the sanctity of marriage?
"I'm not sure about the sanctity of marriage," she says, "but I do believe in the sentiment of it, and I can see why two people want to commit to each other, especially if they plan on having children. John and I love the bones of each other, but neither of us feels the need to get married. If his feelings for me change, I don't want any vows, guilt, financial commitments - or anything else for that matter - to keep us together." (As Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker in 1997, "The repertoire of denouements is fairly limited: marriage, splitsville, murder, and mutual annihilation.")
Do you think John looks like fellow out-of-kilter-beardy Roy Keane, in a certain light, in the bedroom?
"They both have that look that you wouldn't want to mess with them."
Who would you go to bed with first - Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton?
"Hillary. Donald is the devil."
Who has better hair?
"Hillary. Even if I liked Donald," she laughs, "I couldn't get past the hair."
Appearing on Celebrity MasterChef Ireland on RTE in the summer of 2013, Yvonne couldn't get, it seemed, past herself. Or perhaps past the image she had built up of herself over the years as the perfect wife of a Boyzone singer. She believed the public would think that she looked . . . maybe not old, but maybe not young any more. Yvonne caught sight of herself on one of the TV monitors and, for a millisecond, she froze in fear.
"In day-to-day life, I'm image-confident. I feel fit and healthy. I feel more feminine than ever," she says now. "I had embraced lines and wrinkles and everything else that comes with age. But when I went back to work, and started doing TV and press, that was the first time it bothered me."
"I caught a glimpse of myself on a monitor and felt other people would not like what I saw, although I was OK with it." Yvonne adds that Maia Dunphy, who was also on Celebrity MasterChef, told her to get over it.
"She said no one expected me to look like I did when I was a model. She pointed out my age and that I wasn't being hired for my looks, and that I should relax and just be myself." So Yvonne did. (And she has been doing it ever since, whenever she pops up on our TV screens.)
Why did you feel other people would not like what they saw?
"Simply because of the pressure of being on television. It's perceived that everybody, women in particular, should look great."
Yvonne is here today in her new role as the brand ambassador for Seven Seas Perfect7. "For me, looking and feeling my best always starts from the inside," she says. "It is about listening to my body and granting it what it needs - a balanced, healthy diet and active lifestyle, supported by Perfect7, a unique blend of oils, vitamins and minerals, which leaves me feeling energised and looking my true age."
True age? Have you lied before about your age? It's a woman's prerogative!
"No!" she laughs. "I actually love being older now - a little wiser, too. Less pressure. I always wanted to look like someone else when I was I was young. Hence the tattoos, ear piercings and constant hair dyeing," says the blonde bombshell. "I would get very bored with my image."
I think I can say without fear of contradiction that Yvonne Connolly, in 2016, is happy in her skin. She does personal self-disclosure almost as well as she does dishes on The Seven O'Clock Show on TV3. She talks about loss and alienation and pain and her truth with an honesty that is both refreshing and real.
Yvonne's mission statement is to feel the fear and do it anyway. It is light-years away from Carrie Bradshaw's self-description as "the frightening woman whose fear ate her sanity". Needless to say, Yvonne is far more likely to be eating salad and fish in one of her locals in Malahide with beau John and the kids, than chowing down on her own sanity. With a spirit to match her style, Yvonne Connolly has come to epitomise the modern Irish woman.
She is not exactly an emotionally withholding 42-year-old. She finds it hard - if not impossible - to hold back on stuff, on life, on her truth, on the lessons she has learned. The most painful episode of her life, she says, was not the very public break-up of her marriage, but the death of her father. As the breakfast coffees arrive, I ask Yvonne if pain ultimately empowered her.
"No - I think it made me more sensitive. Reflecting on the death of my father, on the grief and the pain, left me emotionally more sensitive and mindful of my relationships and how fragile life is. It taught me to cherish the people I love, and the time I spend with them."
"It's important to feel all experiences, whether painful or joyful," she says.
"I've learned how important it is to keep moving forward. I feel that the key to life is adaptation. Believing in yourself is so important. I sometimes struggle with this, but I am lucky enough to have wonderful people in my life who don't put up with it for minute."
Why do you sometimes struggle with it?
"Because I'm human. Like most people, I doubt myself sometimes."
How often does that doubt manifest itself?
"It rarely does. Sometimes, when I am committing to jobs, I worry. Then I remind myself of what Richard Branson said, 'If you're given an amazing opportunity, say yes, and figure out how to do it after'."
"At times," she continues, "when I feel overwhelmed and worry about my work-life balance, my friends and family are always there to mentally or physically support me. Or sometimes, quite rightly, they simply tell me to cop on. I've grown to appreciate family, friends and loved ones more than ever. I'm surrounded by people who motivate me and who I want to make proud, especially my children," she says referring to Jack, Missy and Ali, by her ex-husband, Ronan Keating.
"I love my relationship with them - although falling into the situation of becoming 'best friends' and not parent/child can sometimes be a hazard. My son is 17, and has a summer job, and so coming down hard on him can be difficult at times. My daughter Missy is 15, and has her Junior Cert year behind her. Not having to repeat 'go and study' one more time is a relief. My daughter Ali is 10. If I could stop time and keep her that age, I would."
Equally, if it had been within Yvonne's power to stop time, to stop cancer, and keep her dad forever at 63 years of age - the age he was when he died, on November 25, 2007 - she would have. Michael Connolly passed away at 5pm on that day.
"They turned the machines off in intensive care in St Vincent's. He had Hodgkin's lymphoma cancer, on and off, for 18 months. At one stage, he was terminal, and was prepared for this," Yvonne says, meaning death.
"He was later given the all-clear, much to our joy and his relief. Such a confusing time, yet it felt like a miracle and we celebrated."
Approximately a month later, however, a symptom reared its particularly ugly head. After further tests were carried out, Yvonne was informed that "not only was the cancer back - or the previous tests gave a 'false' diagnosis" - but there was nothing they could do. Michael had, possibly, only weeks to live.
"Looking my father in the eye in a hospital room on my own and telling him this, was by far the hardest thing I've ever had to do. His month's mind fell on Christmas Day," she says.
How did you deal with his death?
"At the time, I dealt with it normally - whatever that is," she says. "Because I had to come to terms with it twice, and because I was there to say goodbye when they turned the machines off, I had time to 'accept' it. I can't imagine how hard a sudden death is on a family. Time helps with grief, but not with the feelings of not having that anchor and support . . . the loss of strength, in a way."
What was your last conversation with your father about?
"It was about golf. I had played a round of golf with him while he had cancer but when he was still active and feeling OK."
The round of golf took place at the Heritage Golf Club in Killenard, Co Laois, where Michael and his wife Ann had just bought a house, before he was diagnosed.
"Dad was delighted with himself, as he was playing well, even though he was battling cancer. We went back to the house afterwards, to spend time with my mum in the house they had just bought, with a view to starting the next chapter of their lives together.
"There was actually a house closer to [The Heritage] hotel that was their first choice, but it didn't work out. My mother bought that house last month, and is moving in at the moment," adds Yvonne, "which makes me extremely happy. She has had her own business, an antique shop, from the time I was 12. She is an amazing woman and an inspiration to me."
Yvonne is honest enough to admit that she has lived a relatively charmed life. Her father's death, however, was to shape her painfully and profoundly, more than she knew at the time. "I was extremely close to my dad. He held me on a pedestal, and I had him up on a pedestal as well. We had a really cool relationship. He was sick for a long time. I knew when he died that I would miss him like crazy, but I thought that would be the extent of it; that I would just miss him being around."
Yvonne underestimated how his death would effect her mentally - "or how my personality would change. He was my anchor. I didn't realise it until he was gone".
How did his death change your personality?
"I lost a lot of my confidence. I didn't realise how it would knock my confidence. Even if you are old, in your late 30s or 40s, you still feel a little bit bulletproof when your parents have your back. I lost a lot of confidence knowing that he was no longer in the background for me, no matter what happened in life. He was always the person to pick up the phone to me.
"When something happened, I was on the phone to him - even if it was just to talk out loud. Even if you are married, it is still a different kind of relationship: it is unconditional love. Even if you have a husband or wife who you have no problems with and are completely in love with, there is still something about a parent's love that, when it is not there, and is gone, it does affect you.
"I was prepared. I knew. But the process of going through it and watching him pass away peacefully was . . . I think I probably didn't grieve because I was so prepared for it, because we were told. We got to say goodbye. I think that's why I didn't grieve properly, because I thought: 'I'm at peace with this. I know he is going to go, now he's gone, I loved him, and it is time to pick up the pieces now'."
How long did it take you to pick up the pieces?
"Well, I kind of didn't. I was this kind of strong girl who knew her father was sick, knew he was going to pass away and loved him deeply, but he was gone. Although I missed him, life goes on. It puts family life on hold for a long time. I didn't really grieve as much as the rest of my family. It didn't hit me for a long time."
Have you grieved?
"I have. But, you know, it is nearly nine years now and I still miss him. I know this sounds so selfish, but I miss him as a person, I miss what he gave me."
What was that?
There is a long pause. "I have found that in other ways. But you never get that back."
Because he is never coming back?
"Yeah. . ." Yvonne says haltingly, tears suddenly flowing down her face.
"That all got very sad, there. I don't talk about it too much. I probably shouldn't have brought it up. Can we talk about something more light-hearted now?"
Tell me about your sex life.
"I knew you would say something funny."
What do you cry out when you have an orgasm?
"Oh my goodness!" she shouts, with tears of laughter this time. "Oh my god, Barry, stop that!" she hoots.
"That's not what I cry out when I'm having an orgasm: 'Oh my god, Barry, stop that!'"
She wipes away the tears of laughter, and then her expression becomes serious once more. "You know, in terms of counselling and mental health, it is something that I would like to give to people as a present. Counselling is something everybody should have, and not just when they need it. Before they need it.
"I'm talking about grief. But not just [counselling] for grief, but for any kind of separation or any problems in a relationship, or any kind of mental-health problems people have. I don't think we look after our mental health in this country, and I think there is still such a stigma to reaching out and wanting help and being able to feel OK to say that."
If you break your leg, you go to hospital, I say. If you break something inside your mind, you are expected to heal it on your own.
"Absolutely. There are certain American companies in Ireland, and if you have any kind of mental-health issues in those companies, it is looked after, the same way if you had come in and said, 'I have to go into hospital for an operation'.
"You are encouraged to go back to work. You are provided with counsellors. If that happened in an Irish company, it would be like they would elbow you out the door. So for men and women in this country, I wish there was less of a stigma. I wish that people would have the opportunity to have counselling before things get too bad, and be able to talk.
"Unfortunately, counselling is expensive. So sometimes it ends up being your best friend that you talk to. But I think we should encourage each other to talk more openly about being . . . real . . . not keeping up the pretence that our lives are perfect until they are not perfect. We should talk about it before things get bad. But, yeah, it is something I joke about with my friends and family - that some Christmas I am just going to give them all counselling vouchers."
Yuletide prezzies of sessions with psychologists notwithstanding, Yvonne has a highly developed spiritual side.
When she went to boarding school in Rathfarmham's Loreto Abbey, she went to Mass every morning before school and took her Catholic faith very seriously. "I often read the Bible before bed, and staying on at Loreto Abbey to become a nun crossed my mind."
Sister Yvonne has a certain ring to it. I could imagine her taking her rosary beads to some village in a far-flung, deep, dark jungle and treating the untreatable.
How do you think you would have worked out as a nun?
"I would never have lasted as a nun. I had too much living to do. Strangely enough, my granny," Yvonne says, referring to the late Marion Farrell, "had been a novice and left before she became a nun. But I loved Loreto."
Indeed, Yvonne sobbed on graduation night, when she had to leave "all my friends who had become family".
Asked does she go to Mass every Sunday in Malahide, where she lives with her three children, Yvonne says, "I did when the kids were younger. I'm guilty of taking advantage of religion. As a parent, I think it is important when you are bringing up kids and instilling values and morals.
"I suppose it is used as a tool by schools, too. In some ways, it brings such positivity, yet it is responsible for so much that's going wrong in the world, too. Ultimately, it's people using religion as a reason to hate."
Yvonne adds, without specifying why, that her faith "has weakened" over the years, but she adds that she hasn't lost it. Nor her sense of humour. "There's a chance that Donald Trump could be the next president of America," she laughs, "and you're asking me if I think God exists!"
"My father did not have the same faith as me, and to get a rise out of me, often said: 'You go into that box and that's it'."
Do you believe that when you go into your coffin that will be it?
"I'd like to think not. I'm not completely hopeless. The alternative is so sad and final. I try to convince myself there's more."
Did you have to convince yourself there's 'more', when you saw a semi-naked John Conroy lying on your side of the bed, on the cold night in Dublin when you first fell in love?
Yvonne Connolly practically falls on the floor with laughter, "You know I don't kiss and tell!"
Yvonne Connolly is the brand ambassador for Seven Seas Perfect7. Seven Seas Perfect7 Woman contains zinc, which contributes to the maintenance of normal skin and nails, Biotin for healthy hair, and Vitamins B2, A and C for healthy skin. Perfect7 is available from leading pharmacies and supermarkets nationwide. RSP is €10.99 for a one-month supply
See seven-seas.com to find out more
Ology, 5 Bisset's Strand, Malahide, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 845-5905, or see facebook.com/ologystore/
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Sophie White
Assisted by Hannah Walsh
Hair by Daire Lalor; make-up by Michelle Field, both for Callan & Co - The Experience, 1 St Mary's Road, Ballsbridge, D4, tel: (01) 668-0060, or see callanandco.ie
Photographed at The Seafood Bar & Funky Fish Cocktail Club, 35 Dawson St, D2, tel: (01) 531-2260, or see theseafoodbar.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine