Monday 16 September 2019

Shades of light, dark and hot pink

Author and illustrator Aoife Dooley has had the kind of life that would break many but her incredible drive, sense of humour and sheer guts has seen her prevail

Illustrator and author Aoife Dooley
Illustrator and author Aoife Dooley

Sophie White

There is often a tendency to confuse the artist with their work, and graphic designer, illustrator and, lately, stand-up comedian, Aoife Dooley is no exception. The 26-year-old Dublin-native is constantly analysed for similarities with her main character, the comic creation Your One Nikita. And while the two share certain biographical traits - both hail from North Dublin and have a way with words - Nikita's hilarious hot pink world of hun buns, bags of cans and spicebags belies the darker shades of her creator's life.

While Dooley may not be a household name just yet, she has amassed a huge following online in just a few short years. As a baby, Dooley lived just off the Ballymun Road with her mum and nana before her mum, a flower arranger, married her electrician stepfather, who Dooley sees very much as her real dad. The family moved to Coolock and Dooley's half-sister was born.

After her degree in DIT, Dooley started out as a designer, though she always had an interest in comedy. Your One Nikita was a marriage of these two passions and what started as one particular type of Dublin girl (she loves her tan and her hoop earrings "three eurdo, Penneys") soon became a whole cast of characters.

Dooley has had an amazing few years since her naggin-stashin' and much beloved 'hun' first exploded on social media; Nikita now has 50,000 Facebook followers. Success came fast with her debut book How To Be Massive, YouTube videos, merchandise and now another book, How To Deal With Poxes.

"People thought I was doing so well, because I was telling them I was doing so well," Dooley tells me in her low-key way that is a striking contrast to her confident performances on Snapchat and in comedy clubs around the capital that have led to her being named as a semi-finalist of Irish Comedian of the Year just months after her first gig. "People were sending me lovely messages saying 'you helped me so much'. And I wasn't even helping myself," she continues reflecting on the last five years that have been marred with personal struggles.

There is an adage in comedy often attributed to Steve Allen that declares: tragedy plus time equals comedy, however while Dooley is a wildly funny person, she is uncynical and it is impossible to imagine her mining the deeply personal losses she has suffered for laughs.

Also as Dooley speaks about the loss of her mother in 2012, one feels it is far from a distant memory but a persistent one, all too close and brutal. She speaks quietly and carefully of the terrifying night when her mother, who was 45 and had lived with a rare heart condition, suddenly took ill. "She was active and that's why we didn't realise how sick she was but she had the heart of a 90-year-old woman.

"People say it gets better with time, but it doesn't get better with time, you just learn how to live again. You're never the same person you were. You learn a new way to live."

Her account is visceral, replete with the kind of particular details that are cemented in traumatic circumstances. "She was falling asleep in a chair and I took her cup of tea off her, then I went upstairs because I had to finish an essay. To this day I'm like 'why?' It means nothing now. It was the stupidest thing that means shit."

Dooley's last words to her mother were "Night, Mam love you". "We always said it... I was about 300 words off finishing (the essay) and then I went down to my mam's room and my dad was leaning over her. I thought he was saying goodnight but she had stopped breathing. He was going 'Grainne, Grainne'. I just froze."

The next few minutes were chaotic for the then 21-year-old as she tried to process what was happening and called an ambulance. The emergency services arrived and Dooley's stepfather travelled in the ambulance, leaving Dooley to follow with her younger sister. "I was locking up the house. My sister had literally just turned 15 and she goes 'I think mam's dead' and I said 'I think so too'."

At the hospital Dooley struggled to comprehend the loss. "I couldn't cope with it, it was too much. I kept going out for cigarettes and every time one of my aunties arrived I had to explain to them that she was dead. It was the most horrific thing."

From the painful clarity of that night, Dooley was then submerged in a fog and barely remembers the funeral. "I did the eulogy though, I stood up and spoke and I was really glad I done that. That's why I think I'm OK doing comedy, because if I can do that, I can do anything," Dooley laughs lightly though the experience is clearly etched on her psyche and undoubtedly both shattered and shaped her life.

Before her mother's death, Dooley then in her second year at DIT, was floundering. "I came home upset and she asked 'what do you want?' and I said, 'I want to be the best'. 'Well do that then!' she said. So ever since that's been my mantra."

Dooley threw herself into her work but now sees how desperately she was trying to hide from her gnawing grief. "I was trying to keep myself busy but it became a different thing where I was trying to convince other people that I was OK.

"I was doing really well... but I kept getting night terrors and I couldn't sleep so I started smoking weed every night, and then during the day, and I got hooked. People say you don't get addicted but you definitely do, you end up relying on it.

"It suppressed my dreams but it suppressed my feelings as well. For about three years I didn't cry, it was just always in my system. It dulled everything. I didn't feel anything. Even if I wanted to cry and tried to force myself, I just couldn't. I was really in a bad place, I was so down."

Relations became strained between Dooley, her (step)dad and her half sister as each confronted their pain in the wake of the loss, and Dooley began spending more and more time living at her nana's house.

"Around that time it felt like everything just exploded. I'd been bullied real bad in school, to the extent where I thought about throwing myself down the stairs when I was seven. I thought 'if I really hurt myself, I'll be out of school for a while'. All that came back and I was an absolute mess. The only thing that was keeping me going was my work."

As she became more and more into drugs, Dooley feared her work was suffering but more dire was her mental state which was unravelling.

"I noticed my work getting sloppy, I don't know if other people did but I did. And then it led to other things like cocaine and ecstasy, and then I just went really low... I stopped brushing my teeth, I didn't wear make-up, I was depressed. I just didn't give a shit about myself. I put on so much weight, about three stone. I was a shadow of my old self."

The bullying at primary school continued into her late teens, cruel embarrassments at sleepovers escalated to a harrowing experience at 17 when she lost her virginity at a party.

"I got really drunk and I didn't really want to do it, I felt like I had to do it and that was really humiliating because everyone was watching in the window and I didn't know. And then I went out and everyone was laughing and I remember getting sick. It was horrible. It was absolutely horrible." Absolutely horrible and yet as Dooley comments it was an incident that was all too pervasive and often went unchecked back then.

"Years ago, if you went to a disco and a boy grabbed your boob or put his hand up your top, you wouldn't say anything. It was kind of a normal thing to do, even though it wasn't. That's why now I'm like 'that was really f*cked up'."

Dooley met her boyfriend Karl at 19 and they've been together ever since. He has supported her through the highs and many lows. They're incredibly united, however - at times - they've both been down together.

"We've had it really bad... it's just been one thing after the other and that's why we ended up smoking, we both couldn't afford counselling. It's too expensive, I was on a waiting list for maybe a year… I eventually did find someone I could afford... People don't talk about this enough, but I think that's why we ended up doing what we were doing because we didn't have anyone to talk to and there was no help there. I suppose that's why so many people end up the way they do with drink and drugs, because that suppresses things, but it only suppresses things for so long. Then it comes up again and you end up losing it.

"People seem like they're fine and they're not. That's why I do what I do in my work. I do funny stuff but I talk about stuff like that. If I'm gonna use my platform, I'm gonna use it for something good. I know it's helped because people have messaged me which is a really nice feeling... knowing I've helped someone helps me."

Dooley credits finding and meeting her biological father as another factor in the remarkable turnaround she's made in the last year. "It turned out he was a raging alcoholic, drinks three bottles of wine a day… He talked to me like I was his lad mate instead of his daughter, telling me weird stuff. He's messed up, he's lived alone so long that he doesn't know how to talk to people.

"I just never want to be like him. I was going down that road and I just stopped. I wasn't mad on drink but smoking and doing other bits and pieces when I was out and drinking. I was like 'this is bad, I never want to be like him'. So I distanced myself."

Dooley has connected with her aunt and some cousins on her father's side describing how they share the same sense of humour, but sadly in another devastating shock, her biological father died just a few days after we spoke, less than a year after they'd first met in person.

Dooley bravely announced the news on her social media channels, inspiring a swell of support from the fans who have turned to Dooley's work during their own tough times. This show of solidarity was in stark contrast to a message she received in the wake of her mother's death.

"Two days after my mam died, I got a message on Facebook saying, 'Your mam looks great in a coffin' and I punched a hole through my kitchen wall and I'm not that kind of person at all. I've never been that angry in my life."

After the success of Nikita, Dooley has had more online hate to contend with. A newspaper profile on the talented illustrator provoked criticism. "There were people saying I was putting down working-class people and I was like 'what are you talking about?' The gas thing was it was middle-class people telling me that I was putting down working-class people, and I know because I looked up where they were from, any way, they didn't think I was working-class because I could use a f*cking computer. It's so ironic like. That pissed me off." A stand out page in How To Deal With Poxes depicts an internet commenter crouched over a laptop, the caption reads "Oh look someone's doin' well for themselves… better be a prick".

Now Dooley has far more fans than trolls liking and sharing and devoted to the fiercely funny and whip smart cartoons. "You're obviously doing something right if people love and hate what you're doing… someone has to hate what you're doing for you to be successful," she says.

Dooley's response to the online hate is resolute: "if you're hiding like that (behind a computer) you're insecure and a coward". Given what Dooley has weathered in her first 26 years, it stands to reason that she quite literally can't be bothered with such small minded pettiness. And further to that, she simply doesn't have the time. She's in demand, with a packed schedule of comedy gigs, publicity for her latest book and fans crying out for more of her brilliant YouTube sketches. And perhaps Nikita will be on our TVs soon, if Dooley, herself, doesn't beat her to it, of course.

At one stage, Dooley picks up a pen to draw a graph of her mood during an average day. The resulting peaks when she's happy are accompanied by as many lows, but her optimism is unwavering. "I've so much good going on, so I'd be stupid to mess it up. Hopefully I'll get to do more books and more comedy gigs and just grow."

How To Deal With Poxes (On A Daily Basis), €10.99 (Gill Books) is available now in all bookshops

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