Weather girl Jean Byrne reveals her style secrets
We sat open-mouthed while Boyzone bared their chests on the 'Late Late' in 1993, had goosebumps with 'Riverdance' in 1994, and then, on Christmas Day 2009, TV history was made again. Viewers plump with turkey and mince pies turned on their tellies to a vision in silver as Jean Byrne donned a shiny, lamé frock to deliver the festive forecast. Whatever you thought of it, there's no denying that it was an iconic TV moment. . .Words by Chrissie Russell, pictures by James Horan
Published 30/07/2011 | 05:00
'I swore no-one would ever get me to wear this again," comes a muffled voice from behind a folding screen. I'm sitting in a bright photo studio, about the size of a large living room, waiting on a leather sofa, while Ireland's most famous weather woman strips on and off behind a flimsy screen.
Unsurprisingly, there were several photographers who volunteered to cover this shoot but it's snapper for the day, James Horan, who grins broadly as Jean Byrne emerges from the makeshift changing room tugging at the hem of that slinky, silver Joanne Hynes dress worn on Christmas Day, 2009.
James is certainly happy, but Jean less so. She would prefer to be photographed from the waist up as she hasn't brought the Prada boots with her that go with the dress. In fact, she's not even sure why she brought the dress. "It's never been one of my favourites," she says, stepping on set, looking uncomfortable. "And I just think it's been over-exposed now."
The make-up artist's red lipstick is declined in favour of the model's own crimson lippy, and each outfit is meticulously accessorised -- the red Edel Ramberg hat goes with the black Joanne Hynes top, the spiky Merle O'Grady ring and bracelet complement the copper dress, and the two pairs of Louboutins go perfectly with the Hervé Léger dresses, but emphatically NOT with the silver frock.
None of this is demanded in a diva fashion, mind. Jean is polite, softly spoken and reserved. So much for my wacky preconceptions based on years of watching her deliver weather forecasts in a playful, husky voice and out-there clothes -- she's actually quite serious.
Oddly, for someone who has spent 15 years in front of the camera at the helm of RTE's prime-time weather reports, she even seems to be a bit shy.
James asks her to scream, but all that comes out is a restrained, musical "Ah". He demonstrates how she could fling an arm over her head in an insouciant model pose, but she looks awkward attempting it.
At one point, his suggestion to pick up a fire extinguisher and pretend to use it results in Jean pretending to hose the rear studio wall. "That was great," says James perplexed. "Although, um, next time can you do it facing the camera?"
A quick online search will throw up a host of salivating examples of how the weather woman has sent temperatures soaring across the nation.
"Did you see Jean tonight? Red dress, gold jewellery -- hot, hot, hot," enthuses one appreciative viewer on Boards.ie. "She's a hot thing," agrees another.
On the Jean Byrne Appreciation Society, now boasting more than 1,200 Facebook members, men and women of all ages and walks of life are falling over themselves to pay tribute to the forecaster.
Andrew Hamilton, who set up the site, says it's Jean's rebellious side that people love. He says: "I'm not that into fashion, but she's a free spirit on the national broadcaster, that is a breath of air."
Heidi from Dublin, also a Facebook fan, adds: "She's confident and comfortable in her look. She's a national treasure."
I wonder would they be surprised by her today, asking if she needs to hold her tummy in, or worrying about whether she's giving the photographer what he's looking for.
"Would all your other models be jumping around by now?" she asks James at one point. He assures her they wouldn't be, but she looks concerned.
The awkwardness is partly because this is fairly unfamiliar territory for Jean. She rarely does interviews, being loath to suffer the same 'over-exposure' as her silver dress. She doesn't like being recognised, shuns the celebrity circuit -- we'll never see her falling out of Lillie's at 4am -- and hates talking about her personal life.
The attention, she says, is completely bewildering, but, reluctantly, she confesses to checking out the Facebook Appreciation Society. "I'd be lying if I said I hadn't," she says coyly. "It's lovely and I'm so grateful that anyone would do that."
But she's less appreciative of the pervy fan mail she gets from time to time. "I've had a few letters from men who wanted me to wear the silver dress just for them," she shudders.
"They've been pretty lurid, anything 'ugh' like that goes straight in the bin and out of my head."
Do any suitors have a chance? She clams up. "The only thing I'll say is that I'm not looking," she says.
My enquiries about her age are met with similar polite but definite silence.
"I hate saying no, but I made the decision years ago that I wouldn't talk about my private life," she explains. "A lot of people do things because they like having their faces out there, but I don't need it and I don't want it.
"I do the six o'clock news and the nine o'clock news, which are very high profile, so I'm in a different position to someone who needs the publicity. I know my anonymity is almost gone, but I don't want to make it worse."
Jean is, however, taking part in 'Stars Go Racing' on RTE One, in which she learns to compete in horse racing against five other Irish personalities.
Teamed with Kildare trainer Willie McCreery, Jean, who rode as a child and took up lessons again two years ago, has been mucking out at 7am and caring for the massive stallions raced at Ireland's meetings. It was the serious side of the programme that appealed to her.
She says: "I'm not that keen on entertainment for the sake of it, or where it's at your expense. I'd never do 'Big Brother' or 'I'm A Celebrity', but this appealed because it was different -- there's no voting off and I learned a new skill."
Even talking fashion she sometimes falters in fear of giving too much away. The pieces she's brought for the shoot are all high-quality "investment buys".
Prices are not up for discussion, but as any catwalk junkie knows, Monsieur Léger's signature bandage dresses don't come cheap (around €700), Louboutins are more than €500 (and never reduced), while the intergalactic cobalt-blue Balmain sequinned dress from autumn/winter 2009 could easily fetch more than €1,000.
"I didn't pay full price for the Hervé Légers," says Jean quickly, stepping out from behind the screen in a fabulous coral number. "I was on holiday in Paris and they were reduced."
She looks fabulous in the Balmain too. "I think Christophe Decarnin is fantastic," she says, standing pressed against the studio's stark, white brick wall. "He's fun and a little bit rock and roll. When I wore this to the Style Awards, some of the comments I got were a bit negative; people said sequins belonged in the 1980s, but that just showed they didn't know what they were talking about."
Her designer fetish is fed online, in Brown Thomas or on holidays abroad. "My biggest expenditure is definitely on clothes," she admits.
"It's not as premeditated as deciding to give up a holiday to buy a dress, but that's probably how it ends up. If I really want something, I'll do what I need to do to get it." Before people start ringing in to complain, she's quick to make it clear that the designer shoes and catwalk creations come out of her own pocket.
"RTE has paid for a couple of things, but it's a small allowance, relatively speaking," she says emphatically. "It's nice to get, but it would buy about two or three jackets a year. So if people say, 'Look at what she's wearing, is that what my taxpayers' money is going on?', well, no, the vast majority of clothes are ones I've bought myself."
The shoot lasts three hours, but it's hard to chat because Jean's focus is on the task at hand, posing for photos, getting make-up applied and making sure outfits are on correctly.
We're both tense leaving the studio, but once ensconced on a comfy sofa in a coffee shop, cup of tea in hand, I find myself sitting opposite a very different woman.
She's very spiritual and meditates regularly and practises Reiki. When she was growing up in Tarbert, Co Kerry, with her brother and sister, who now live in Surrey, working in finance and teaching, she loved reading books about the occult and the afterlife.
Her dad, a civil servant, and her mum have both passed away, but it was from her mum that she learned to dress to suit her shape and appreciate clothes.
At boarding school she was studious but mischievous, and during her first degree in medicine at UCD she often ditched her serious fellow medics to party with the Arts crowd.
She buckled down for her next qualification in mathematical science at Trinity, which ultimately led to her position at Met Eireann. When screen tests came around for RTE, she fancied the challenge. "I knew it would broaden my skills; that's why I did it, not because I wanted to be famous."
"I take my work really seriously. I think some people think I spend ages choosing my outfit, when actually I spend ages examining the forecast, graphics, writing the script and then, five minutes before I'm due to go on-air, I get dressed.
"There have been times, like with the slitted dress, that I had no time to change and went on in what I was wearing." She pauses and smiles. "With hindsight, I can see it did look like I was wearing nothing under it, the nude lining just didn't come across on TV when I watched it back."
I'm curious to know if, when watching TV, she kicks back in dirty tracksuit bottoms? "No, I never wear tracksuit bottoms." She looks ever so slightly scandalised. "I don't think they do anything for anyone. I imagine they're comfortable, but I'd be happier in a leather legging."
And she always wears heels; wedges are as big a concession as she allows.
Her favourite fashionistas are well- groomed ladies such as Daphne Guinness and, wait for it, Lady Gaga. But she prefers Gaga in her 'Bad Romance' Alexander McQueen garb than her ripped fishnets and Kermit the Frog get-up.
As we wrap up the interview, I ask if she worries about female presenters having a shorter shelf-life than men?
"Why spoil your present worrying about the future? What will come, will come," she replies.
Jean appears in 'Stars Go Racing' on RTE One next Wednesday at 8.30pm
Horan, Collins PR