Aisling O'Loughlin on the break-up with the father of her three sons - and their fiery relationship
Aisling O'Loughlin walks into the Radisson St. Helen's, and all heads turn to take in the cool, elegant blonde in the soft grey jacket. There's an air of quiet confidence about her, which she attributes to the freeing up of her voice, now that she's self-employed after 14 years with TV3.
She's also starting 2017 off as a single woman, as her six-year relationship with photographer Nic MacInnes has ended. "2017 seems to be a year of fresh starts for me," she muses, as she settles into the sofa for a chat. "It started on a clean slate and I get to fill in the lines, because I'm now in charge and it's time to stand up and be a woman."
Throughout the conversation, Aisling refers to the expectation imposed on a young woman to be a "good girl" who "toes the line". She feels there's a momentum growing where women are rising up against the patriarchal restrictions imposed on them and finding their own voices.
"The system favours nice girls and acquiescent girls and those who look a certain way, but when you talk back and chop off your hair or decide not to play by the rules, you're a nasty girl," she says. "There's a sense now that Mna na hEireann and the women of the world are rising up and saying, 'We're not what you think we are. We are very different'."
Aisling met Nic six years ago at a fashion show. They got talking, and Nic already had an advantage as Aisling is a total francophile. "Nic rocked up on his bike, and had that whole French fabulousness thing going on and nice shiny hair," she recalls. "And I'm a sucker for French men."
The relationship progressed at "breakneck speed" and Aisling got pregnant. She and Nic are now the delighted parents of three boys, Patrick (five), Louis (three) and Joseph (eight months). Nic also has two older boys, Luke (13) and Oisin (12), from his previous relationship with designer Caiomhe Keane of Que-Va (a label Aisling often wears). Like any good French film, everyone is on good terms through a slightly complicated situation.
"Becoming a mum was amazing and challenging and none of the children were planned," Aisling admits. "If I had lived in the 1950s I'd be deemed a naughty girl and would have been in a Magdalene laundry scrubbing somebody's clothes. The thing is that Nic could brush past me and I'd get pregnant. So that's why we don't live together any more because I'm done having babies!"
She's joking, of course, but while the babies weren't planned, she's thrilled it all happened in such a spontaneous way.
"I could have been waiting forever for my happy ever after," she says. "I might have thought I had to get all my ducks in a row before I had a baby, the way good girls are supposed to, with marriage, a house and then a baby. Joseph was actually conceived in Italy at Lisa Cannon's wedding. It was one last, 'Hmmm, you actually look all right', through the mist after too much champagne. I know it sounds ridiculous, but hey, I fly by the seat of my pants."
While they always seemed like a cool couple, Aisling surprisingly admits that she never thought that she and Nic would stay together, even from the very beginning. "It was always coming as I knew from the get-go that I was with 'trouble on a motorbike'." she laughs. "It was just a matter of when as Nic is the type of guy you should probably go for in your twenties. There was one big bust-up and the relationship just kind of came to its natural conclusion. I think we were both quite happy not to persist as it was time to wrap it up, and we've still remained good pals."
As has been well-documented, Nic was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia - a cancer of the blood - at the beginning of 2014. Aisling had just given birth to their second son, Louis, and the doctor wasn't happy with how Nic looked during a routine check-up on the new baby's health. Happily, after treatment, Nic made a full recovery. How did dealing with the illness affect their relationship?
"Nic and I have always had a fiery relationship, even throughout the cancer," Aisling smiles. "We joked our way through it with black humour, so it would be like, 'Oh, are you still alive?'" We fought as normal, so while everyone thought I was Florence Nightingale and was squeezing my hand and asking how Nic was, I'd reply, "Fine! Still alive!"
That last comment is delivered through comically gritted teeth, because Aisling is very funny and witty. Even though she has been through a lot in recent years, she has kept her sense of humour through it all. "It has all been so wild and none of it was conventional, but I don't regret any of it," she says. "We were never going to be that 'happy ever after' couple. I don't think I believe in that story anyway, and the idea of walking down the aisle and beaming. Maybe I'm too cynical, or maybe I think there's more to life than that."
When asked what Nic's good points are, Aisling replies that he's very spontaneous, adventurous and he's also very kind. She sees him all the time because he comes around and takes care of the boys in the afternoon while she works, and it's all very amicable. "Nic is beautiful with his kids, both ours and his older boys," she says. "He always puts them first. Nic, his boys and his ex, Caiomhe, will all be in my life forever, and thankfully we like each other and all want peace so nobody is fighting. It was the nature of our relationship that Nic and I weren't that hurt when it came to an end. We were just relieved really, and we're both very happy now."
Motherhood also brought about a profound change in how Aisling viewed her body. She had always thought her boobs were too small, her arms too fat and her legs too short - but her perspective changed when she saw how amazing it was making babies.
"I judged myself as harshly as society judges women, and I saw that was all wrong," she says. "I felt such gratitude and love for my body in all its imperfections, and I was no longer breaking myself up into bits to be fixed."
Aisling grew up in a cosmopolitan neighbourhood in Shannon, Co Clare, as the youngest of Alice and Padraig's four girls. They were all very close and she had a really happy childhood. She is more like her dad Padraig in being feisty and direct, as her mum Alice is more temperate and relaxed.
Alice worries sometimes about Aisling drawing disapproval by being too outspoken, but the 38-year-old has thought long and hard about being a woman with a platform.
"I love my parents to pieces, but I've got to live my life and they've got to live theirs," she says, adding that her mum might have preferred her to be an accountant like two of her sisters.
"There are times when even I think I should just go into the shadows and shut up, but then you think, wait a second, women have shut up and been nice girls for millennia now. So when you get an opportunity or a platform, maybe you should have an opinion that's not a 'nice girl opinion' every now and again."
Aisling's career guidance teacher at school steered her in the direction of journalism. She studied it at DCU for four years, but hilariously thought she had been accepted to UCD. "Talk about wet behind the ears," she says. "I came to Dublin and rocked up to the college on the bus, and then went 'Eh? What's DCU?'" she laughs. "I had never heard of it, and I was like, 'Why am I in Ballymun?'"
Nonetheless, once she got over the shock of not being out in Belfield, Aisling threw herself into the course and enjoyed it. After graduation, she did an internship with Clare FM, wrote for the Limerick Evening Echo, and applied for TV3 when her dad cut an ad out of the paper. She did a screen test for the news department, and was taken in on a freelance basis in 2002, filling in for Grainne Seoige.
She was a bit overawed and didn't feel comfortable doing TV at first, but after a psychological tweak, she got over feeling daunted. "I only wish I'd got over it faster, but I think that comes with age," she says. "I've always been confident in some respects, like I'd be flamboyant dresser, and have always been attracted to colour and print and like pushing it out a bit and expressing myself."
Aisling found freelancing tough, and was made staff after a few years. "I have the ultimate respect for journalists doing hard news, because my heart was in my mouth most of the time," she says. "I was standing out in the cold a lot reporting, and then I was made weekend news anchor."
When the idea for Xpose was first mooted, Aisling surprised her bosses by applying for it. She was successful and says her main motivation was getting in from the cold! "That's why I can never be too cross with TV3," she says. "They always gave me opportunities and chances, even when I was a nervous Betty."
The show launched in April 2007 with Lorraine Keane, Sybil Mulcahy, Lisa Cannon and Karen Koster. It was great fun and she enjoyed it. Lorraine was the show's anchor while the other girls were reporters. "Lorraine then left and Karen became the head bottle-washer and we were like the other Pussycat Dolls," she says. "Then they started to dilute it, so we were all given a nanosecond of airtime presenting it as the years progressed."
Aisling was delighted when it was announced at a TV3 launch that she and Sybil would be hosting a show called Life, but then it didn't materialise. She was disappointed as she felt it would have suited her, being less frothy than Xpose and less rigid than news. She would have liked to be able to express her own vivacious personality a bit more on screen.
"I would have been happy to hand over the Xpose baton because I felt I couldn't keep talking about make up and wanted to do something a bit more serious," she says. "I didn't want to do gushing interviews with celebrities any more, so I was definitely ready for a change."
However, it was while she was on maternity leave with baby Joseph that Aisling discovered that herself, Lisa Cannon and Peter O'Riordan were no longer part of the Xpose line-up. It was announced at the station's autumn launch that they would be replaced by Ruth O'Neill and Cassie Stokes. Did Aisling have any warning and did it come as a shock to her?
"No, I found out just before the launch," she says. "I was offered another gig with the same wages, more or less, but it was going to be a fill-in gig, working on different shows. I knew I didn't want that as it was too wishy-washy and indefinite and I didn't want to be floating around. I had finally come to a point in my career where I wasn't nervous, and I felt like I had way more to offer than when I was starting out as you can't beat experience. I was in a different place and I needed to be calling the shots more in my life, so I said I'd cash in my chips, asked for voluntary redundancy and decided to become my own boss."
Media speculation was rife at the time that Aisling was taking legal action against TV3, so was there any truth to this story? "No," she says, firmly. "That isn't true, but because I was in the middle of my maternity leave and up to my eyeballs in poo and up during the night, I thought it would be fair enough if my solicitor dealt with it all."
Even though she was hoping to move on, Aisling says she was hurt by being dropped. "I was shocked," she nods. "I really didn't expect it, but TV can be a cruel place so I wasn't naive to it. Nor did I expect to be working in TV for the rest of my life because that, for women, can be tough."
While Aisling said very little about the manner of her departure at the time, she felt goaded into responding to a TV3 report in November that the average viewing figures on Xpose had jumped by 38pc to 58,000 since Cassie and Ruth had taken over the show. Posting on her Instagram account, Aisling said the release from TV3 was "nothing short of breathtaking", and she wanted to "set the record straight for the sake of decency and fair reporting". "The average audience for Xpose was certainly not 42,100 and a 4.7pc share when I worked for the show," she wrote. "That would have been a bad day at the office."
What made Aisling decide to go public with her response? "It added insult to injury," she explains. "I put nearly 10 years of my life into the show and gave it my best while juggling kids, and when I saw the release, I thought, 'What am I supposed to do now?' I slept on it so it wasn't a rash decision, but I just thought that the figures had gone out, they were skewed and didn't reflect the truth. I was coming out the worst of it and I didn't think that was fair. There are certain points where you either squeak or you say something, and I couldn't be that person who said nothing - that good girl."
Aisling was famously the only one of the TV3 stable who went to Lorraine Keane's book launch. There was no order made to stay away, she says, but a general feeling among staff that it would be better not to attend as it was widely believed that Lorraine's book would slag TV3 off (it didn't).
"I hate toeing the line and when somebody tells me what to do, I just bristle," says Aisling.
They seemed like such a tight bunch, so is she still in contact with the other girls on the show? "Yes, and unfortunately it has become a bit awkward and I wish it wasn't," she says. "I understand though, because they're in the system and I'm outside it, shooting my mouth off."
While shuffling around in the middle of the night with babies, Aisling decided that her next move would to be to launch her own website, Exquisite.ie. While it's her baby, Aisling has the benefit of being able to tap into Nic's huge bank of images. The website covers fashion, culture, beauty, news and weddings and is aimed at both women and men - she was surprised when analytics revealed that 55pc of her readers are male. It's a fantastic read, which is no surprise given Aisling's sharp, intelligent and warm outlook.
"I think there's a perception in the media that women are an awful bunch of thicks, talking about make up non-stop and saying, "Where did you get your shoes?," she says. "It's cringey because while we like a bit of that all right and we will admire each other, we usually move pretty lively on to something more in-depth.
"There are many, many elements to women - we're nuanced and we like all sorts of things - and I want to tap into that and bring strong voices on board that are not necessarily mainstream, including the momtrepreneurs writing strong blogs. I also want to big-up amazing designers that we don't hear of around the country, because there is so much going on in Ireland."
Whether voluntary redundancy has provided a cushion to launch the website, the pressure is building now to monetise it but Aisling is up for the challenge. "I'm enjoying the freedom because I was sort of institutionalised at TV3 even though I liked my job," she says. "This new move is exhilarating and scary as hell - but I'm at a point in life where I trust and like myself. I'm finally liking my flawed self and it's a nice place to be."