The Life of Ryan
As his new girlfriend is revealed and he prepares to launch a book about his life, SUSAN DALY profiles the man who came to epitomise Celtic Tiger Ireland
Published 15/10/2008 | 15:21
It takes a lot to knock Gerry Ryan off his mid-morning patter. On his Monday show, Ryan tackled his usual review of the papers knowing that his own picture would be splashed across several of them. A Sunday newspaper had claimed the previous day that the 2fm superstar DJ was in a new relationship with former South African ambassador Melanie Verwoerd.
Ryan could not ignore the blanket coverage. “I'm in a lot of the newspapers this morning,” he said. “Modesty forbids me from commenting.” A goodnatured statement, but the message was loud and clear. The Ryan line was closed. It has become a habit for the motormouth of Montrose to keep his own counsel. His split last March from Morah, his wife of 26 years, was accompanied by a brief statement which spoke of the couple's “regret” and desire for privacy.
There is no story here, he seems to be saying. This is just another middle-aged man thrown back into the dating pool after a failed marriage. In reality, Gerry Ryan is a very media-savvy man. It is no accident that he has managed to hold on to his morning radio show years after many of his contemporaries have been shuffled around radio's house of cards. The format could do with a shake-up, but one constant remains: the G Ryan brand. It has been growing for 20 years.
“Plenty of G Ryan across The Star this morning . . . if you're interested,” came Ryan's second reference to himself in his Monday review. He's based his career on the belief that we are interested. Penguin Ireland have hedged a very large bet — a €100,000 fee to Ryan — that the Irish public will be interested enough in G Ryan to make his new book a Christmas bestseller.
The book is not an autobiography, insists Ryan and his publishers. It will be Ryan's opinion on sex, business, politics, fame and everything in between.
One of Ryan's greatest talents is to riff on anything he pleases. “I've never heard Gerry tell a joke,” says Ryan's longtime friend and RTE colleague Dave Fanning, “but he is quite simply the funniest man to have in company. He could talk about how you eat your steak and make it hilarious.”
Robbie Fox, owner of Renards nightclub and another of Ryan's close pals, says that Gerry is “one of life's great spoofers — and I mean that in a good way”. Fox once asked Ryan to launch an event for him at the last minute, even though Ryan had no idea what it was about. “He just stood up and gave this great speech. He always sounds like he knows what he's talking about even when he doesn't.”
But it would be coy of Ryan to insist he has made a €600,000- a-year career simply from being able to argue a point. If that were the case, he might as well have stayed with his initial vocation as a lawyer. His listenership feel they share a bond with Ryan because he has let them into his world. He slurps coffee down the microphone, relates anecdotes and drops his weekend plans — a film premiere in London, say — into the conversation.
Long before blogs and Bridget Jones, Gerry Ryan had no hesitation about making saucy references to “Mrs Ryan” in a show that aired to hundreds of thousands of people. True, Ryan has been reticent about giving interviews about his family outside of the show, but such was the frequency of these mentions on air that Morah once got her revenge by ringing in as “Norah” to complain about her husband leaving his underpants on the floor.
If publicity is not to Ryan's liking these days, it's worth remembering how he made his name after appearing on a Late Late Show survival-style feature in the early 1980s. It was claimed that he had killed a lamb to eat during the making of the show. He denied the story but the nickname “Lambo” stuck. In a way, he became Ireland's first reality TV star.
When he was appointed to the morning slot on 2fm in 1988, his taste for controversy took flight. “I remember when Bill O'Donovan said he was thinking of putting Gerry on in the morning and I thought it wouldn't work, that his humour was too surreal,” recalls Dave Fanning. “But then you'd have Gerry interviewing the commander of Ireland's first submarine for an hour, and then you'd realise Ireland doesn't have a submarine. Or the guy who was supposed to be buried underground in a container for a few weeks and instead he was just talking to Gerry from the studio next door. He's more serious now, but back then that was outrageous stuff and brilliant.”
As his star rose, so too did his reputation as a bon vivant. Just as he charted the small obsessions of the nation on his show, the life of Ryan came to reflect the great changes in the country's fortunes.
He had the background to be upwardly mobile. This Is Your Life broadcaster Eamon Andrews was Ryan's godfather and his mother's family had been involved in showbusiness and theatre. He learned to shoot with the Haughey children on the Kinsealy estate and was generally primed for a life of privilege.
While creating his image as the Howard Stern-lite of 2fm, he also became part of a salubrious social circle. In 2000, he and Morah made Social and Personal magazine's Top 100 Party People list. To this day he counts the likes of Bono and his wife Ali Hewson, Michael Flatley, Harry Crosbie and Gerald Kean as friends. Many of them were on the guest list when Morah organised his 50th birthday party at top restaurant Shanahan's on the Green in June 2006.
Robbie Fox argues that many of Ryan's celebrity friendships go back to a time when Dublin was “a village”. “Everyone who is at the top of the entertainment industry now would have all gone to the Pink Elephant back then. You’d have the Dubliners, the U2 guys, captains of industry, young musicians trying to make it, all hanging out together. I knew Gerry's brothers from that time, too. His brother Michael used to DJ at the club.”
He adds: “That was a long time ago though, and I wouldn't say Gerry is exactly a club man now.” With Ryan's separation, he has moved closer to town with a rented bachelor pad in Ballsbridge. It is near work — but also in the neighbourhood of the exclusive Four Seasons hotel where he has been spotted socialising. He is already on the list for the private members' club at Harry Crosbie's new venue on the grounds of the old Point Theatre.
Ryan’s appeal to his listeners has always been that of the everyman, the champion of the underdog. But the home and lifestyle he and Morah made for themselves in leafy Castle Avenue in Clontarf put them firmly in the monied middleclass.
A recent extension to the listed property was masterminded by TV architect Duncan Stewart. Devoted to their children — and Ryan is described by Fox as a “terrific dad” — the family has made an annual pilgrimage to Disneyland for years, long before the Celtic Tiger made long-haul holidays a must-have for the typical Irish family.
Ryan's taste for the finer things in life has been facilitated by his generous pay packets from RTE. A great whiskey connoisseur, his tipple of choice is 15-year-old Jameson. Presenting Ryan Confidential on RTE One, he revels in swirling goblets of wine and sucking on fat cigars with his celebrity guests. The impression is of an old boys' club, a sense that Ryan is less an interviewer than a fellow personality trading anecdotes and experiences of life as a celeb.
This bypasses the fact that all previous attempts to make Gerry Ryan a TV personality have ended in disappointment. In the first episode of the new series, conversing with celebrity chef Marco Pierre White, Ryan seemed happy enough to relate his feelings about his marriage ending in a bid to make White speak about his own recent split from his wife. To suggestions he has therapy to help him cope with his new life as a singleton, he says: “How did this happen?
How am I not at home with my wife and children? How did I get here?”
The Ryan line, it seems, is open when he wants it to be.
From apprentice solicitor to wizard of the airwaves
1956: Born in Dublin to Vincent, a dentist, and Maureen, a theatre worker. Schooled at St Paul’s in Raheny, he graduates with a law degree from Trinity College and begins work as an apprentice solicitor.
1979: RTE starts up a pop station (originally Radio 2, now 2fm) to fight off the pirates who are raking in vast amounts of illegal advertising revenue. The new station is flung together with what Ryan recalls as “very, very indecent haste”.
Almost 600 hopefuls, almost all of them from the pirates, apply for 60 new jobs. The selection process is haphazard. Ex-insurance man Marty Whelan sends in 17 demo tapes before getting the call.
Ryan turns up for a job interview on a tip-off from a friend who has told him the standard is so unsophisticated that a basic grasp of English should see him through. “I didn't have a script,” he recalls. “I read the sleeve notes on the back of a Glen Campbell album.”
1987: Ryan makes the break from a Radio 2 nightshift disc jockey to a national celebrity when he becomes the centre of the “Lambo” controversy, memorably advising a colleague on air: “If there’s any blood coming out of that lamb, I’d advise you to drink it.”
Radio One's flagship programme, The Gay Byrne Show, abandons a bunch of city slickers in a remote Connemara valley with just an SAS survival manual for guidance. Ryan emerges as their natural leader and later tells how the team clubbed a lamb on to the dinner menu with a large rock in a sock.
Disturbed by the animal’s cruel fate, the Dail deputy Tony Gregory tables a question to the Minister for Justice. The minister makes inquiries, and tells the nation that the unfortunate animal has not, in fact, been clubbed to death, but has been shot by a farmer at the group’s request.
Ryan’s lamb-clubbing tale is exposed as less than true, but it is the making of him.
1988: With Radio 2 in a ratings slump, station bosses pluck Ryan from his late-night slot and give him a morning show with a brief to listen to the listeners.
Bringing a knockabout style to the morning slot, he singlehandedly works the miracle that the station needs. Within a matter of months, his audience in the allimportant Dublin area has soared by 50pc.
One disc jockey, displaced by the reshuffle and dismayed by the instant success of Ryan’s new format, protests that: “The lunatics have taken over the asylum.”
1989: Minister for Communications Ray Burke unveils plans to transform the pop station 2fm into an “education and public information” service offering instruction in “continental languages, the Irish language, the rural and farming sectors, business and trade union affairs and social welfare”.
Ryan leads the attack on the minister, inciting his listeners on air to “give it to him between the eyes”. In the face of a campaign fronted by Ryan, the minister abandons his scheme.
1994: Presents the Eurovision Song Contest with Cynthia Ni Mhurchu. Ireland wins, as was then mandatory.
2004: Gerry Ryan is named as the biggest earner in Irish broadcasting, with an income of more than €600,000 for the year 2002, pushing Pat Kenny into second place.
2006: He speaks of the “beautiful, deep, emotional, theatrical, spectacular and incandescent spirit” of his mother, Maureen, at a funeral ceremony attended by Bono, Colin Farrell and a host of RTE personalities.
2007: Signs a new contract with RTE which will pay him €3m over five years. 2008: Announces through solicitors that he and his wife Morah will separate after 26 years of marriage
Paula Hopkins on the new love of Gerry's life
In January of this year, I was travelling with Melanie Verwoerd through Kenya’s Great Rift Valley to report on the plight of the thousands displaced by bloody unrest.
Melanie was there to assess the refugee situation for UNICEF. With pitched battles breaking out on the road ahead of us, we turned the 4x4 around and distanced ourselves from the fighting. As we neared a sign that read “You are now at the Equator”, she asked the driver to stop, jumped out of the car and said: “I must ring Gerry...”
Within minutes, she was doing an off-thecuff report live on his radio show.
Melanie (41) grew up in the early 1970s in an idyllic setting, in the Jacaranda-strewn city of Pretoria in the heartland of South Africa, among the Afrikaner community from whom sprung the policy of apartheid.
Petite, with hazel eyes and an infectious smile, Melanie’s South African accent occasionally has an Irish tinge: She has spent the last seven years living here with her two beautiful children: daughter Wilme (18) and Wian, her 15-year-old son. Among her closest Irish friends are broadcasters Marian Finucane and Aonghus McAnally.
Melanie served as the South African ambassador to Ireland from 2001 to 2005 – a period that saw trade from South Africa increase by 60pc. Last year, she was appointed executive director of UNICEF Ireland – the first time a major Irish-based NGO has appointed a foreign national as a chief executive.
If the Afrikaner grandmother she idolised was part of South Africa’s old history, then Melanie and her former husband Wilhelm Verwoerd were very much to the fore in forging the new history of South Africa.
They met in the late 1980s at the University of Stellenbosch – an academic enclave for the staunchly conservative. Melanie was later to complete a Masters degree in feminist theology there.
Her fiance’s grandfather, Hendrik, was the principal architect of apartheid who – in the 1960s – built on the foundations laid by DF Malan. He was assassinated in the parliament in 1966 but he left a legacy that even today still endures.
In the late Eighties, Melanie followed Wilhelm to England, where he was on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University.
There, she met with numerous exiled South Africans who told her of their experiences. “That was the first time that I realised what was going on in the country,” she recalls. “They were sitting down and talking to us about a country we had no clue of.”
The Oxford experience had a deep impact on Melanie. The couple returned home in 1990, shortly after the ban on the African National Congress (ANC) was lifted and Nelson Mandela released from prison. They wrote to Mandela, expressing a wish to contribute to the process of a new South Africa, later meeting him in Stellenbosch.
“I remember Wilhelm telling Mandela how sorry he was for what his grandfather had done,” says Melanie. “But this amazing man brushed aside Wilhelm’s sense of guilt, exhorting us all to look to the future.”
Melanie and Wilhelm joined the ANC, and were at once ostracised by most of their fellow Afrikaners. “When the press leaked the fact that there was a Verwoerd in the ANC camp, all hell broke loose. Wilhelm’s parents were livid; they closed ranks and refused to see us.”
In 1994, aged 27, Melanie Verwoerd became the youngest woman to be elected to South Africa’s first democratic parliament. “Seeing Mandela sitting there where people like Hendrik had sat was almost surreal.”
She agrees that South Africa still has significant problems – poverty, HIV-AIDS and crime – adding “there are enormous challenges on the socio-economic front. It will take time to deal with that; it will be another couple of generations. But I see my children going back some day”.
In her seven years in Ireland, she has seen significant changes, especially in the area of immigration.
“I don’t always detect a clear vision about where we are heading. I think one needs to decide whether people are just here as ‘economic units’, or whether Ireland is going to change in the future and these people are going to perceive themselves as Irish, and be part of a multicultural, multi-ethnic Ireland.”