Why Xposé's newest star Cassie Stokes had to go to Canada to realise she was gay
When Cassie Stokes left Ireland for Canada four years ago, she always dreamed of returning as one of the 'Xpose' girls, says Sarah Caden. That dream endured, while so much else in Cassie's life altered in her time away.
Now back in Ireland, and working on 'Xpose', she talks about coming out, setting a good example for girls who are as confused as she once was, and finally feeling able to hold a girlfriend's hand in Dublin.
Any returning emigrant will tell you that coming home to Ireland is never exactly as they imagined. It's a bit like reuniting with an ex. They've changed. You've changed. Sometimes the changes mean you just don't fit any more. And sometimes those changes make things better.
Cassie Stokes, who returned to Ireland less than two months ago, after four years away, says she's "madly in love" with her native Dublin. She's walking around with a grin on her face all the time, she says, in her accent that has a strong Canadian twang mixed into its south Co Dublin softness. That mid-Atlantic quality, says Cassie, got her a lot of voice-over work in Canada, where she lived until very recently, before returning, via London, to Dublin and her "dream job" on TV3's Xpose.
When she left Ireland, four years ago, Cassie had a fantasy about returning to a job presenting the teatime entertainment show. "I thought if I got back before I was 30," says Cassie, now aged 28, "I'd have a chance."
She went away imagining how it would be to return home as the new Xpose girl, but, back then, Cassie Stokes didn't imagine that she'd come home and be the gay new Xpose girl.
She went away. She changed. But Ireland changed too, Cassie believes, and if she is, for now, something of a poster girl for young gay Irish women, then that's fine too. She didn't see it coming, but it feels good.
"You know," says Cassie, "I have come so far from being the person who left here a few years ago. And I think you have to go through that kind of big change to really appreciate that you're celebrating it. And just talking about it, openly talking about being gay, is celebrating. I saw myself on the front of one of the magazines last week, and I really realised how far I've come and how proud I am of that."
We're sitting in the sunshine outside the Union Cafe in Dublin's Mount Merrion, directly opposite the playground in Deerpark. Cassie lives nearby. Cassie has almost always lived nearby. "This is my stomping ground," she says, gesturing expansively and laughing.
Cassie's parents came from nearby - Taney and Churchtown - and she spent her early years around there. When she was about three years old, she, her parents and her younger sister Alex emigrated to Canada. When Cassie was "10 or 11", she and Alex returned to Dublin with their mother, after their parents separated. Their dad stayed in Canada, where they visited for two months every summer, before he moved to the US and, ultimately, back to Ireland.
"We just suddenly left Canada; it was quick," Cassie recalls of moving back to Ireland as a kid. "Now, people say that it was a big upheaval, but when you're that age, you just go with what's happening. We spent summers with my dad, and that was amazing.
"The older I grow, the more I see that it was all for the best. I'm not thrilled that they're divorced, but I totally see the positives and how it wasn't a disaster. We still have family dinners together; it's all OK. Now, I see them as very separate people and," she laughs, "I sometimes think, 'How did you guys ever work together?'".
When Cassie, her mum and sister came back to Dublin, they moved in next door to her maternal grandparents. Her mum has a very close, very large family, and they were utterly embraced by them.
On paper, Cassie's sounds like a fragmented childhood, but in fact it felt very solid. Dublin was very familiar to her because they always visited from Canada during school holidays, and her grandparents' house, next door in Taney Road, had been the family home for generations. Cassie felt more settled, she says, than her story of emigration and separation might suggest.
Cassie and Alex went to the well-heeled Mount Anville secondary school and, to a great extent, her post-school path would have seemed fairly well mapped-out for her. For the most part, 'Mounties' go to UCD or Trinity, and they pair off with nice boys from nice, rugby-playing schools; but Cassie didn't feel that any of that was a fit for her.
She didn't hate that path, or turn up her nose at it, but it didn't fit. After school, Cassie did a couple of business courses that didn't take, and then someone suggested she might look at Ballyfermot College.
"Actually, it was another former Mount Anville girl!" says Cassie, after joking that Mount Anville girls aren't generally told that the Ballyfermot area exists.
She did a presenting course first, Cassie explains, and then the well-regarded communications course. She knew she had found her niche and, while still in college, she got work in TV3, where her mother also worked.
Cassie did a bit of everything in TV3 during and after college. She did some production work, some promotion work, she did voice-overs and presented FYI, the news show on 3e. She was also "the girl who read out the tweets" on Tonight With Vincent Browne.
"I'm sure a lot of people remember the TV3 'top 20s'," Cassie says, putting on a showbizzy, jazz-hands voice, before letting out a throaty laugh. "I can really perk up when I want to. That was my first voice-over work and that led to all kinds of voice-over work when I went back to Canada."
Cassie was 24 when she decided to leave Dublin and TV3 for Canada. Everyone said she was mad, Cassie recalls, because TV3 was a proper job, and who leaves a proper job?
"But I was only 24," she says. "I wanted to try somewhere else. I wanted to try out a city where nobody knew me. And Canada was where I had been happy, where I'd had that happy family life, so maybe I wanted to revisit that."
There was more to it than that, however, as Cassie sees more clearly in retrospect.
"Sometimes you live up to who everyone thinks you are," says Cassie. "Not in a bad way; but I knew that I wanted to go and explore and figure things out in some way."
This was not, consciously at least, about her sexuality, Cassie says. Or so she thought then.
"In retrospect," she says, "I imagine that I'll look back and think, 'Yeah, that's what I was doing: I was gay and I didn't realise and I needed to go away to figure it out. Because here, I didn't know how to be anyone but the person I was expected to be, or I had been up to then."
Before she left Ireland at the age of 24, Cassie had only gone out with guys. She explains with a laugh how she had never consciously speculated about her sexuality.
"You know how Irish women always talk about other women?" she asks with a laugh. "Like, 'Isn't she gorgeous or amazing or has an amazing figure?' Well, I thought the same, so I just thought that was how women thought about other women. Really. And then I got to Canada and I realised, no, that's not what that is. That's something different."
Cassie recognises the last four years as a time of massive personal change, but she acknowledges that Ireland was on something of a twin track in that time. She sees now that in Ireland, in order for her to explore her sexuality four years ago, she would have had to go out of her way, out of her social circle, to do so. It would have taken an effort that she didn't necessarily feel able to make. In Canada, however, away from the familiar, it was easier.
"I suppose in Canada, people are a bit more open, and so there were more opportunities," Cassie says. "Ireland was already beginning to change in that way, but the opportunities presented themselves a bit more in Canada. People are a bit more fluid with their sexuality over there. So people aren't saying they're gay if they're with a girl, they're just with a girl.
"In the beginning I thought I was more fluid, and I came out to my family as bisexual," Cassie continues. "But the more I progressed and the more I grew, I realised that I wasn't fluid, I was gay."
This didn't require a second coming out to her family, Cassie jokes. The initial coming out had been a surprise for them, but they were fully supportive, and it opened up the conversation between them.
"They were great and so accepting," she says, "because they saw me struggle, too. I wasn't coming home all shouting, 'Here I am; get used to it!' I was getting used to it, too, and I was nervous about it, and even when I'd come back home with my girlfriend, I'd feel uneasy.
"Like, we talked about earlier, it was that thing of coming back to the place where people knew me as straight Cassie, the old me, and I felt uncomfortable about how they would see me now. I wouldn't hold [my girlfriend] Kathleen's hand in the street, and I was uneasy. She said I was a different person when we came to Ireland."
Cassie and Kathleen split up before Christmas, purely because Cassie decided to leave Canada for London. Long-distance wasn't going to work, Cassie says, even if the decision was heartbreaking. In London, she got work in a digital production company, with an eye to gaining valuable digital experience for her CV, and then she received a personal tweet from TV3. "I was out with friends for a bite to eat and a drink after work, and I got this tweet asking would I be interested in covering Karen Koster's maternity leave on Xpose," Cassie recalls. She didn't have a moment's hesitation. In Canada, she had done some reporting for Entertainment Tonight Canada, and she was sure TV3 was aware of that, but Xpose remained the dream job, no matter what else had changed since she left Ireland.
"Well," she says, "the Xpose girls always seemed to be having such a great time, and it's the top presenting job in TV3 and has only got better and bigger since I've been away. And they always seemed so busy, and I love busy!"
Certainly, Cassie has been busy in the short weeks that she has been back in Ireland when I meet her. She's had "three red carpets and Cannes [Film Festival] for a day," as well as nipping around town to various openings and events. She loves the non-stop pace and the high speed of it all and, as I point out, since Xpose became baby central, it's a bonus to be child-free and available at a moment's notice.
"Yeah, they've told me to stay away from the water out there in case I get pregnant," Cassie laughs, "but I've told them it will take a bit more planning than that."
Cassie's stint on Xpose is due to last until October, when Karen Koster will return, and Ruth O'Neill, former entertainment reporter at E!, has come on board to cover Aisling O'Loughlin's maternity leave. Given her very obvious delight in being home in Dublin, though, one wonders if Cassie will find something else to keep her here come autumn.
"I'm just walking around with a smile on my face the whole time," she says. "My friends are laughing at me, but I feel so relaxed here, so happy."
She is happy, too, with the extent to which the publicity around her arrival on Xpose centred on her sexuality.
"You know, I never had anyone to look up to when I was younger," she says. "I don't know if that would have changed things, or if I'd have come out earlier, but there was no one I could relate to, and if being public about this means that there's one person who can relate to me - great.
"I think when you are in the public eye and you have that opportunity to be an example, then I don't understand why you wouldn't go for it.
"I mean, I get it when it's an older person, and everyone to their own, but at my age, it's something I have to do to give back to me as that uncomfortable person who didn't know who she was. So if that makes me a spokesperson, then, fine."
Just before the May bank holiday weekend, Cassie recalls, she got a call from her ex, Kathleen, asking if she'd like to go for brunch. "We always loved going for brunch, so I was, like, 'Yeah, ha ha, of course I would.' And she said great, because she was coming to Dublin to surprise me.
"I never felt so comfortable walking around Dublin, holding her hand, not worrying about what anyone might think, because, let's face it, everyone knows by this stage. And that was so nice. I'm so in love with Dublin since I've been back.
"And, you know, I'm not that different than when I went away. I'm still me, I'm still the person I was. I'm still Cassie."
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Hair by Paul Davey, assisted by Fiona Power, for Davey Davey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1400, or see daveydavey.com
Make-up by Jennifer Brown for Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Photographed at Kelly's Hotel, The Bar With No Name, and l'Gueuleton, 35-37 South Great George's St, D2, tel: (01) 648-0010, or see kellysdublin.com