Starting Over: The Second Coming of Yvonne Keating
She has felt, she says, liberated since the break-up of her 13-year marriage to pop star Ronan and has never been happier. In a remarkable encounter at her home in Malahide, Yvonne Keating talks exclusively to Barry Egan about getting therapy in LA, learning to trust again, and her new career in TV. She also explains how she deals with seeing her kids with Ronan’s new partner, Storm, how vulnerability is her new strength and how she feels for both Caroline Wozniacki and Rory McIlroy, following their recent and very public split. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Nikki Cummins
Published 23/06/2014 | 02:30
It’s 8am, and I’m outside Yvonne Keating’s stately pile in Abington. I’m 30 minutes early because of a distinct lack of traffic at this hour on the roads from Dublin city to Malahide. I text ahead and apologise, offering her a vanilla latte from Starbucks as a peace gesture for my untimeliness.
She texts: “I’d love a coffee. The front door is open. Make yourself comfy in the room on your left. I won’t be ready until 8.30!”
I text back: “Door open? Make myself comfy? You will be ready at 8.30? This sounds a bit dodge!”
All the kids — Jack, 15, Missy, 13, and Ali, 8 — have gone to school when I walk in through the doors, so there is not a sound in the house, apart from Sandy, the shih tzu, who followed me in from the main gates.
Yvonne is nowhere to be seen. As per her instructions, I wait in the giant living room on the left. There is a large black Yamaha piano in the corner and some very chic sofas. On the state-of-the-art CD player, Ray LaMontagne is singing the words: “Love can be a liar/And justice can be a thief/And freedom can be an empty cup/From which everybody want to drink.”
I look out the window into the garden and see a rugby ball in the hedge that someone has kicked there. I have an absent-minded tinkle on the piano to fill up time while Yvonne gets ready upstairs. At 8.40am, she arrives in loose cream trousers and a blue sailor-y top, followed by Sandy, the shih tzu.
Picking up the vanilla latte and taking a sip, Yvonne points out the back window, where her other dog, this one a big, Bernese Mountain Dog named Yogi, is asleep. She apologises for the state of the house — there is still half-eaten chocolate cake and the odd dirty plate or two in or near the sink — because, she says, of daughter Ali’s Holy Communion party at the weekend.
There were 50 people at the party, among them Yvonne’s ex-husband, Ronan, and girlfriend, Storm Uechtritz. “The house,” Yvonne harrumphs, unnecessarily, exaggerating, “is a complete mess.”
For a year or so, it was maybe Yvonne Keating who was a complete mess: internally, psychologically, perhaps even physically. Her mind and body were reeling enormously from the hurt of the break-up of her 13-year marriage to Ronan Keating.
She was not in a very good place. In fact, she told me almost exactly a year ago, in a pretty revealing interview for LIFE magazine, that, after the break-up, she was “on the floor” with the emotional wounds and inner torment flooding her body.
I ask her now — how does she look back on the woman who was on the floor with pain, but got up again?
“You know, whatever grief you’re going through — whether you’ve lost a marriage or physically lost someone to death — time is the only thing, really, that heals that,” Yvonne says. “You know, you can get therapy, you can have great friends. I have to say I couldn’t have done it without my friends and family. They were my therapist. They were my support; and still are to this day.”
You also said to LIFE last year that you had a very disobedient heart, which refused to listen to logic. Is your heart more obedient now because of the past?
“I don’t really judge my heart any more,” she says. “That’s why I feel a real sense of freedom at the moment. I’ve absolutely given myself a break since we spoke last summer. The last time, I was determined that everything had to go in a box and had to be put away, and had to be categorised. I’m just a lot easier on myself now. I feel like a totally different person now and all that stuff is in the past.”
It is very early in the morning to be having this sort of conversation. But Yvonne’s 2012 split from the Boyzone star — and the intimate details that came out as a result — were the talk of many a dinner party and school-gate gossip up and down Ireland for over a year. It is also possible that the Mail might have run out of things to splash on Saturdays with, had it not been for the end of Ro and Yvo’s fairytale marriage.
I say to Yvonne that she said to me before that the “biggest low was: one day my life was perfect and I was married to the man of my dreams, and I was totally in love — and then, the next minute, I wasn’t.”
I ask Yvonne if she can she try to put that comment in context now, a year later.
“I suppose it was the suddenness of it.”
Was it really that sudden? You just realised that everything had gone for you?
“Yeah. Yeah. One minute . . .” she says, breaking off, “I was at that point where I was going to be married for the rest of my life.
“I never, for a second, thought I was not going to be married for ever,” Yvonne, who is brave as she is beautiful, says, opening up.
“My parents were sure I’d be married for ever. Everyone around me was. I had a happy marriage. Everything was great. Our marriage had changed a little bit, but it was still . . .” she breaks off again. “We were the envy of, not necessarily the public, because they only saw a snapshot of it, but, you know, our friends and family who knew us really well. They were like, Wow, you guys are so rock solid.’”
And were you as happy as you seemed? “I was,” she says, “obviously, he wasn’t. But I was, yeah!” she laughs. “And, obviously, he wasn’t!”
Were you ever the same again after the sudden realisation that you were no longer in love with the man of your dreams?
“In the marriage?”
As a person.
“No,” she answers immediately, “I totally changed after that.
“I was blissfully happy,” she continues. “I had a vision, I suppose, like any little girl, from being a kid. Doesn’t everyone? I had my life mapped out. Hopes and dreams, really. My hope and dream was to get a good education, get a good job, find a good man, and live a happy life. Who doesn’t want that? That’s what my hopes and dreams were. So, yeah, that changed . . .”
Were you seeking the unattainable?
“That’s what a dream is. You don’t dream of crap. You dream of perfection.”
How do you look back on that woman who was seeking perfection?
“You have made a good point. Maybe I was looking for perfect and there is no such thing as perfect. But, at the time, it did seem a realistic thing in my life!” she laughs, “Because I was in the middle of it! So it seemed to be all going swimmingly well!”
At the risk of sounding like a psychobabble guru, the only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing. Yvonne learned lots from her past.
“Now I don’t look as far ahead,” she says. “I don’t think about being with the same person for the rest of my life. I don’t think about a perfect picture.
“In a relationship, I don’t find myself thinking about next year, or in 10 years time, or getting married, or commitment or anything like that,” says Yvonne, who has been in a relationship with cinematographer John Conroy since 2012.
Didn’t what happened give you an opportunity to be liberated and free yourself up into a new life, a new you, which you wouldn’t have otherwise?
“Absolutely,” she says. “This is real Oprah stuff, but I am going to say something that is even worse! I do feel like a phoenix in a sense — that I have risen again. And not from the worst situation in the world.
“People go through far worse things, and more serious health issues, that are not in anyone’s control. So I am not saying it was the worst thing in the world,” she says of the very public split with Ronan.
“But I do feel like I have come out of this — and I am at that stage where I see it as just a real freeing,” she says. “I feel much freer in my life now. I don’t give myself such a hard time. I don’t try and be as strong as I used to be. I don’t judge my heart. I don’t judge my head. I really go with the flow these days.
“That might change, too, but that’s where I am at, at the moment,” she says, drinking her vanilla latte.
It’s not that long ago. Yvonne only found out about her husband’s affair with Francine Cornell in May 2010. Their marriage was over in November 2011. She and Ronan officially announced it was over in the spring of 2012.
Everything has changed with Yvonne — nothing is as it was before with her. It was a painful journey at first. But she has slowly rebuilt her self-esteem and refocused her life’s priorities. She is no longer at a crossroads. She isn’t stuck in the past, nor even in the future. Yvonne says she is very much in the here and now.
“Exactly, and that makes any relationship stronger, I think,” she says.
Her revelations last summer in that LIFE magazine interview included, “The day I met my husband’s lover [Francine Cornell] changed my life — I never blamed her” and “Ronan’s affair nearly destroyed me, but I am still here.” Asked does she feel stronger as a consequence of what she went through, Yvonne answers: “That Nietzsche line of What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is my favourite cliche of all time. Everyone who knows me knows I say that all the time.
“In actual fact,” she says, “when I spoke to you a year ago, I believed that totally and I was much, much stronger than I am now. In fact, since then, I am not half as strong. But I don’t consider strong’ a strength any more.”
Vulnerability is a better strength, in other words?
“Absolutely. I used to think you had to be strong, you had to be strong. And now,” she says, “I actually think, You know what? Life is so much easier when you’re vulnerable and you’re not trying to be all things to everybody and be the perfect person. Actually, life is so much more fun! Why didn’t I learn this years ago?” she laughs.
“It is actually liberating to not try and get things right all the time, and to be able to put your hand up and say: I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing’ or I haven’t got the answer to that’ or I don’t know how to sort this problem out’, and to be OK with that.”
Yvonne admits that she and Ronan went for couples’ therapy in Los Angeles three years ago to try and help them deal with their problems. “I do highly, highly recommend therapy for people,” she says.
I rib her that to go to therapy in the bullshit capital of the world, LA, seems like a contradiction in terms.
She cracks up with laughter. “I know. This is brilliant! They say in Hollywood that if you don’t have a therapist, you must be crazy. Everyone has a therapist. Are you crazy because you don’t have a therapist?’”
Why don’t you go to a therapist in Gardiner Street or Malahide? Why did you have to go all the way to Los Angeles?
“Because I was in LA for three months and it was a time in life when we really needed it, and geography didn’t really matter,” she explains. “I needed help.”
That said, what Yvonne learned from her and Ronan’s emergency shrink sessions in La La Land was that “sometimes, friends are the best therapists, because therapists listen a lot, which is really frustrating; you want them to give you answers. You’re, like, Tell me what to do!’ They enable you to fix yourself.”
What did you think needed fixing in you?
“I had no idea. It was a really difficult time in my life. And I wanted to change that difficult time in my life. I wanted to go back to the dream. I wanted things to be perfect. We,” she says, meaning she and Ronan trying to save their marriage after the revelations of Ronan’s dalliance with Boyzone-tour dancer, Francine, “wanted to make the therapist to make it all better.”
Yvonne says her heart goes out to Caroline Wozniacki after her recent, very public split from Rory McIlroy — calling off the engagement days after the wedding invites went out. “I admire him for having the balls to not go through with it,” Yvonne says.
“That was a really difficult thing he did. So I really do admire him. I know a lot of people are going, Ohhh!’ But whatever.
“He [McIlroy] made a decision that wasn’t easy, but, having said that, I really feel for her as well,” Yvonne adds. “But I feel for her as any woman going through that. It’s awful for any young girl to be kind of nearly ditched at the altar, in a sense.
“But everyone is going, It’s played out on the public stage.’ In actual fact — I can’t speak for her, but I remember when I went through that — at that time, I didn’t care if two people were watching or two million were watching. You’ve lost someone you loved. Your life . . .” she says and stops. “Without trying to sound dramatic, my life had been destroyed at the time.
“I know everyone was going, Oh, the humiliation! Oh, everyone is watching! There’s paparazzi outside the gates! It’s in the papers every day!’ In actual fact, that was so far down my list of worries or concerns.”
I ask her what was the top of the list.
“That my marriage was over. And my kids. So this whole humiliation and things been played out publicly’ thing, I’d say, for Caroline Wozniacki, she is just heartbroken.
“Eventually, the public humiliation does have an effect. It is embarrassing and all that kind of thing — and I’m sure it is for her, too — but, at the time, you are more just trying to mend a broken heart, really,” she says.
Asked how she mended the heart Ronan broke on her, Yvonne admits that she had “to live every day and go through it. You learn something more every day about the relationship.”
I ask Yvonne if what happened with Ronan makes it difficult for her to trust again.
She shakes her head. “No. No . . .”
“I don’t look at men and go [groans] Oh, you’re all like that.’ I absolutely don’t at all, because woman can do it as well,” she says, referring to infidelity. “So I am not cynical like that. Do I trust again? Mmmm. I suppose I don’t, but I don’t get hung up on it. I kind of think: if I was in a relationship and someone cheated on me, well, that is going to happen whether . . . you know, I can’t do anything about that. So all you can try and do is enjoy the relationship for what is it.
“If someone cheats or someone comes out and puts their hand up and says, Look, this is not for me any more.’ I would definitely admit I am more prepared for that.
“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them,” the French author, Andre Gide, once said.
“My biggest fear,” Yvonne Keating has the admirable honesty to admit, “is not someone saying, Oh, God, I’ve had an affair.’ My biggest fear is somebody being in a relationship with me where they don’t want to be.” Again, she is honest enough to confess that, “If I have brought anything negative from what happened, it’s that I’m really, really conscious of being in a relationship where there’s no ties and there’s no commitment.
“So, if someone doesn’t want to be with me, it’s just so easy for them to put their hand up and say, You know what? This really isn’t working out. We’ve had a great time but . . .’ I don’t want them to go [groans], Oh, Jesus, we’re married. We’ve two kids together.’”
Is that what you felt at the end with Ronan? Why didn’t he just tell you that he wasn’t happy in the marriage?
“Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I think there was too much for him to lose.” Pause. “Listen, like Rory McIlroy, it is not easy to do that. It is not easy to break something and hurt somebody. So, I suppose, some people, when they are in that situation, go, I’ll just say nothing.’
“I don’t think I’ll ever put myself in a situation again where I am in a relationship where it’s not easy for someone to go.”
But you are not holding back a part of you, in your present relationship, to protect yourself against getting hurt?
“No. In fact,” she says, “I am probably going to have the best relationships of my life because I am willing to be vulnerable, and saying to someone, If you want to go — just go.’ I’m not heartless. My heart is probably bigger than it’s ever been. It would hurt me, but I have broken my walls down. I am not as strong as I used to be. My only bit of armour left is that protective bit where I am saying to someone, It is OK, I’ll get over it. Go if you have to go.’ And, in fact, I’m probably having the best relationship I ever had,” she says of her partner John Conroy.
Yvonne is no longer obligated to anyone but herself and her kids. It is almost as if Yvonne Keating has empowered herself by her pain, though she winces when I say that she is a survivor.
“Survivors are the incredible people who have gone through the recession and survived with their families great hardships — losing their jobs and their homes. Not what I went through,” she says. “It’s a marriage break-up.
“No one has died. I haven’t been put out on the streets. I have been able to feed my kids. It’s heart-wrenching out there what people are going through.”
She says she will never get married again. “I don’t want to be in any relationship where I have any other commitment other than two people wanting to be together.”
Yvonne looks great again after coming out the other side of all the trauma.
“There are far easier ways — maybe more expensive — but easier ways [than surviving a marriage collapse in the public eye],” Yvonne laughs. “But I don’t care as much, anyway. You know, I have turned 40. OK, yes, if I had a magic wand, I would look 21. We all would. Considering I don’t have a magic wand, I am really comfortable in my own skin.
“I suppose I don’t beat myself up about decisions I make. I don’t beat myself up about the way I look, about wrinkles, about anything like that. I know I look worse than I did when I was 20, but I actually feel sexier or more attractive. I can walk into a room and feel more confident, which, I suppose, when you feel more confident, you feel more attractive. But I know I don’t look half as good as I used to. Yet I feel far more attractive. I count the wrinkles and go, Who actually cares?’”
And did you actually care before?
“Yeah,” she says,” because you are trying to live up to this idea, and you are in the papers and you are, I suppose, a pop star’s wife. You are meant to look amazing. So then, if I saw a picture and I didn’t look amazing, I’ll go, Oh, God.’ Whereas, now, I look at pictures of me and I go, I am human. I’m 40. I’m happy. It is not the end of the world.’ I am generally happier.
“I’m not trying to say that things in my life aren’t difficult and I’m going around with a smile on my face from ear to ear. In general, I am happier than I’ve ever been. In general, I’m having more fun. But, of course, things are difficult,” Yvonne says, meaning, sometimes, she has bad days like the rest of the human race.
“It is not easy. But I’m probably in the best place I’ve ever been in my life,” she adds.
Yvonne, who has lived for four years in this 6,000 sq ft mansion, is currently in the final stages of selling it. It was put on the market for €2.45m.
She is trying to find a new house, but she underestimated “how stressful that would be. I can’t find anything in this market!” she says, before adding that her attachment “isn’t to this house or Abington. My attachment is to Malahide. My kids go to school here. I put my roots down here. I have built up a sense of community in Malahide. So I don’t want to leave Malahide. My kids would go crazy if I left Malahide.”
The reason I am sitting in the Elle Decoration-perfect living room of Yvonne’s house at this hour is that she is promoting RTE One’s The Family Project, Yvonne’s episode of which goes out tomorrow night at 8pm.
In it, Yvonne is a mentor to a woman in Kilkenny. “For me,” Yvonne explains, “this programme is a lot about education. She didn’t finish her Leaving. She wants to go back to education. She is concerned about her children’s education and she wants more for her kids.” When Yvonne first read the proposal on paper, she was immediately interested in meeting the woman, “but I am not hugely ambitious when it comes to my career. My kids come first. So I don’t say yes to everything.
“Yet, when I read it, I thought I could really see the struggle this woman is going through. I was really interested in helping, but then I was really cautious of turning up on her doorstep, all glamorous, with a magic wand. They said, You are going to be her mentor.’ I said, How am I going to help her?’
“I thought to myself, First of all, I’m just going to listen to her.’ Because I’m sure, if she’s finding things tough, I know that when I’ve opened up to people, the problem has been halved. I thought she would probably appreciate someone just listening. And not just me — a TV show. And to know that people will come and help her with suggestions and comments. In actual fact, when I went down to her, I thought her situation was going to be a lot worse. I thought she was going to be totally helpless. In reality, she is an amazing woman.”
Yvonne adds that the reason she knows the woman’s situation is not helpless is the fact that “she is an absolutely committed mother. I said to her, You know, you’re fine.’ She is worried about sibling rivalry in the house. The two kids have two different dads. I said to her, It is not easy.’ I am not talking about money or anything else, but the politics of the modern family, as opposed to the traditional mum, dad and two kids.
“It’s not easy. I have never tried to claim that myself and Ronan still . . .” she stops herself for the billionth time this morning in Malahide. “I read an article at the weekend saying how, Oh, we reunited for Ali’s Communion.’ It makes it sound all so easy. It’s not. And it would be unjust of me to imply that it is all so easy to all the other estranged couples out there.
“You know, women and men who want to pull their hair out with the frustrations of dealing with an estranged wife or your children going off to live with someone who you don’t necessarily even get on with.
“What I find difficult at the moment is your kids going off to spend time with their father — which is brilliant for them and they absolutely love it — but you have got to, kind of, let go of them, because they are with somebody else,” she says, meaning Ronan’s girlfriend of 19 months, Storm Uechtritz. “And it is not your best friend and it is not your mother.”
But isn’t that part of the new vulnerability you’re embracing?
“Yeah, but I still do struggle with that. And I’m sure Ronan struggles with it, too,” Yvonne says, meaning the time his kids spend with Yvonne’s boyfriend of two years, John Conroy. “The only bit of advice I could give this woman was to tell her she was being too hard on herself. I used to be like that. People will have to watch The Family Project to see why I’m saying that.
“Her issues and concerns were no different than any other family in Ireland,” says Yvonne, who, last year, was one of the contestants on RTE’s Celebrity MasterChef, as well as doing some cooking on UTV’s This Morning “a few times”.
Is her own family project over? Would she like more kids? “I do get broody when I see babies, but I am 40 and have three gorgeous kids who deserve all my love and focus, so the answer is no.”
The Family Project’ is on tomorrow night, 8pm, on RTE One
Sunday Indo Life Magazine