Tara Stewart: 'I have imposter syndrome'
IT girl, DJ and rising RTÉ star Tara Stewart tells Tanya Sweeney about opening for Cher in Dublin last month, the axing of digital radio at the national broadcaster and discovering fast fashion's dark side
RTÉ has hardly been impervious to outside criticism down the years, but one accusation that surfaces time and time again is the broadcaster's apparent aversion to new blood and fresh voices. Whether it's a flavour of the month bagging a dozen gigs across TV and radio over a year, or an old familiar face resurfacing, it's often been famously tricky to push through as an untested entity.
Tara Stewart arrived into RTÉ almost four years ago, and has been a familiar, if low-key, presence in Radio Building since. Born in Alice Springs in Australia, the half-Irish, half-Malaysian presenter has always made herself ready to offer a spare set of hands at the pump. After starting out on digital station 2XM, Tara made her mark contributing items across several 2FM shows, eventually filling the presenters' seats for holidays or maternity leave with a quiet surety. She became known for a solid and reliable work ethic, notably sleeping in the station overnight during the Beast From The East in 2018.
"I don't really like to say how hard I worked, but yeah, I worked really, really hard," Tara admits. "I went for such a long time not getting things in my career, and now I'm getting it, I'm not used to it yet. It's like when you start seeing someone for the first time - you literally can't get it out of your brain."
When 2FM's infamous schedule shuffle was underway earlier this year, Tara landed her own weeknight show. It was a presenting slot originally earmarked for Jenny Greene. On it, Tara plays a mix of chart, R&B and hip-hop, often lending a platform to Ireland's new groundswell of Irish rap artists. When she heard the 'Tara Stewart' sting on her first night, she says she allowed herself a little cry.
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Throughout our interview, she oscillates between wondering who the hell let her into the building in the first place, and acknowledging that she put the hard yards in to deserve her big break.
Encouraged by radio DJs Dara Quilty and Steve K, Tara sent a demo to 2FM's then director of sound and music, Mark McCabe, around five years ago. McCabe in turn passed it to Adam Fogarty in 2XM, who took her on and trained her up.
"It's really weird - only now do I feel like I deserve it," Tara admits. "I feel like I have this imposter syndrome going through life, like 'are you sure?'
"When I found out [about getting the slot] I wasn't able to say anything for three months, and I didn't want to jinx it by telling anyone, in case they changed their minds," she adds.
It had famously been a period of upheaval for the station; Greene left 2FM of her own volition amid the shake-up, only to be lured back by station boss Dan Healy three months later. Lottie Ryan, originally earmarked for a regular on-air show herself, was overlooked, while Eoghan McDermott was moved to the breakfast slot with newcomer Doireann Garrihy. As the dust was kicked up, Tara kept her head down.
On recent revelations about RTÉ's ongoing financial challenges, Tara won't be drawn.
"I literally have no idea what's happening," she says. "I just do the show and just try to make it the best I can. But I do hope I can do this forever. In terms of what's happening in RTÉ, I'm sad about [the closure of] digital [radio stations] because without that platform, I literally wouldn't be here by now."
Tara certainly makes a refreshing change from what some might consider a 'typical' RTÉ hire. With her trademark hair streaks and statement vintage wardrobe, Tara swears like a sailor and could talk until next Christmas about up-and-coming Irish hip-hop and rap. And, in her RTÉ podcast Dirty Laundry, she explores Ireland's sustainable fashion scene, interviewing everyone from Roz Purcell to designer Roland Mouret. In a lucky break for RTÉ, its newest hire is already well ahead of the zeitgeist.
"I'm not saying I represent the future of Ireland, but I think it's a good representation of the future, and Ireland is getting a lot more diverse," Tara observes. "Someone once texted in to say, 'get that colonial voice off the air'. For the record mate, I have an Irish passport.
"I've gone through so many feelings thinking I should change and conform and maybe chill out the way I dress and not wear certain things," Tara admits. "The biggest thing for me is clothes - it's probably the first thing you notice about me. I did think I should pare it back and not be so myself, but then I reckoned, 'why would I want to be successful if I'm not even being myself?' Besides, it's not like I'm mad or crazy kooky or anything. I'm just happy that the bosses I've had in RTÉ have been real believers of mine."
Stalwarts like Dave Fanning and Larry Gogan have also been on hand to offer advice: "Larry is the nicest guy ever, and he'd help you with anything you need," Tara smiles.
She curates her own radio show, cherry-picking rock, indie, pop and Latino before playing Irish rap in her Stewart's Rap Hour segment. As an established club DJ, she prefers to spin hip-hop, R&B and old-skool house, and will start a regular club night with her boyfriend Mango (rapper Karl Mangan, who is half of Mango x MathMan) at the relocated Bernard Shaw pub in Phibsborough. She's also a regular on the corporate/press event circuit as a DJ.
"[Mango and I] will DJ together at the Bernard Shaw, and we'll get some rappers and singers to do some tracks and jump on to the mike," she reveals. "I'm calling the night Katci, which means 'party' in Tamil [her mother's native language]. I'm just hoping it will be good craic."
"With clubs, you really do have to read the room and react to it on the spot," she explains. "I do love it, but it can be very stressful. Genuinely, I just want people to like the music."
Opening as a DJ for Cher last month in Dublin's 3Arena, Tara admits she could barely enjoy her stint on stage until it was over.
"I mean, I definitely enjoyed it, but being actually on the 3Arena stage, I looked up and just thought, 'what the f***, who on earth let me up here?'" she laughs. "It was nerve-racking to have all those eyes on me - funnily, I speak to more people during my RTÉ show, but at least I don't ever see them."
As was the case with RTÉ's digital platforms, Tara got her first big breaks as a DJ in venues that have since closed. Much has been said about Ireland losing its creative soul and artistic hubs in the midst of much commercial redevelopment, and Tara laments the changes too.
"I do think [Irish nightlife] is dying," she surmises. "So many people cut their teeth in the Bernard Shaw [formerly on Richmond Street], and I DJed in Hangar on St Andrew's Lane, which was a great spot for DJs to start off. It's sad - all the places being turned into hotels is like an ongoing joke. Ireland is so much about art and poetry and music and these are the reasons tourists come here. Here [in Farrier & Draper, where our photoshoot is held], I had my 21st birthday here, when it was Lost Society. It's crazy to think it's so glam and gorgeous, and they let people put on these grimy club nights."
Still, she notes, all is not lost: "One friend of mine has started a club night for young drag queens, and that's what's great - people are trying to find solutions to the problem themselves."
Originally, Tara left her native Australia to move to London, in a bid to pursue a music career as a teenager. As a child, she played seven instruments at the behest of her parents (her dad is from Belfast and her mum is Malaysian-Indian), starting with the flute and moving to saxophone, accordion, mandolin, drums, piano and guitar.
Music was originally the career goal; Tara studied classical jazz, wrote her own music and started bands, and nearly signed to Sony music in Australia when she was 14 years old (the executive championing her left the industry, and that was, alas, the end of that). "I'm really happy it didn't happen now," she reflects. "I don't enjoy playing music like that anymore."
Despite it all, Tara admits that she was "really shy and uncomfortable to be around". She attended acting school in Sydney, during her summers off from school, ostensibly to build her confidence.
"I absolutely hated it, and have so much respect for actors because of it," she notes. "All this reading fake letters and pretending to cry - I mean, cringe."
There came a time when she fell out of love with writing and performing music, and she decided to take a step back, much to the protestations of her parents. Working in the family Irish-Indian bar/restaurant, she soon decided to try her hand at travelling to London. She stopped in Dublin along the way and was so taken with the city that she decided to move here instead.
Her love of hip-hop singled her out on the Irish DJ circuit pretty quickly.
"I wish I'd spent more time working on it and that I hadn't put myself out there [to perform] so quickly," Tara reflects. "Girls get tainted with that brush early on [about not being able to DJ well].
"For some reason, guys like to come up and take a look at what you're doing on the decks, she adds. "It's great that there are so many cool female DJs coming up, but I do remember once DJing and the equipment didn't work. I knew the issue was a dodgy cable at the time, but I pulled in Mango to see if he knew what could be done. The sound guy came, and I kept telling him the issue, and the guy kept talking to Mango and didn't acknowledge me for one moment. That really pissed me off."
Still, she and Mango bounce off their mutual love of music: "When we started going out together, we shared a Spotify playlist and I was always so stressed putting a song on there because I wanted to be cool."
DJing at certain gigs has brought its own rewards: working for fashion brands, Tara was delighted to be gifted with several free outfits. She began collaborating with fashion giants on sponsored Instagram posts. And then one day, thanks in part to her friends who started the Sustainable Fashion Dublin project, she started thinking about the work practices of the fast-fashion industry.
"When I was growing up I mostly wore vintage, because in my town we had a surf shop and they never carried my size," Tara explains. "High street stuff was never on my radar because of the sizing, and even then, I couldn't even really afford it. Then I started DJing for these brands and I was delighted because they were pretty inclusive, and carried clothes up to a size 24."
"I just got into this vortex - I'm not saying I was blindingly led there, but at the start of the year I started to learn more about sustainable fashion," she adds. "I didn't really know about the dark side of it. I didn't realise the severity of it. I was so happy I was getting all these free clothes, but it wasn't right."
She cut ties with one brand, and returned her pay cheque in the middle of their collaboration.
"I got an email from one of them saying they wanted to renew my contact," she recalls. "I was so anxious - I couldn't even think of posting [on Instagram] and basically contributing to the problem. I told them I couldn't do it while their work practices were like this. They mentioned their recycled range, and I told them that people still weren't being treated properly while those clothes were made, and that I couldn't work with them until they revised their practices.
"They were really not happy," she continues. "They were all, 'you still owe us four posts', so I told them if they gave me their bank details, I'd transfer the money back to them. I just couldn't bring myself to do the posts."
It was a ballsy move by anyone's yardstick: many of these fashion brands sponsor high-profile festivals, meaning that Tara would likely have been offered several high-profile international events off the back of the collaboration.
"I really did worry that I was shooting myself in the foot, but I just knew I was doing the right thing," Tara notes. "I've lost those gigs, but funnily enough I'm busier now than I was even then. The universe works in weird ways.
"We as consumers can change things if we use our voice," she adds. "I'm not trying to say I'm some sort of Mother Teresa, but looks at what happens in Ireland when we take to the streets and use our voices."
For now, Tara is happy to spread the message about sustainable and eco fashion on the Dirty Laundry podcast, which started on November 12, during RTÉ's Climate Change week.
"It's been one of the best experiences already," Tara enthuses. "We're already looking at season two, and in terms of guests, I want to aim high. The fact that so many people already had podcasts made me not want to do it, but then when you think about it, there are literally thousands of TV shows out there - it's just a question of finding the one thing you're into."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Tara's name has recently been linked to several TV pitches in RTÉ. "I wouldn't rule it out," she shrugs. "I'd love to [do TV] one day but it would definitely have to be the right thing. But right now, the way things are, I'm lucky. I don't get too much negative feedback. I don't get too much hate or trolling.
"The odd occasion I have in the past, maybe two or three times, and it makes me feel so sh*t and I question everything I'm doing," she adds. "I don't think people on Twitter realise that people actually see these comments. I'm lucky I don't get a lot, but I think if I was to get that kind of attention, I don't know how I'd deal with it. But I'm very career driven and I think about longevity, so I'm up for things to pursue if I want that security.
"One of my big goals was to get this [radio] show, and I want to pursue more international gigs in the future," she adds. "At this stage, after such a long time of not getting the things I wanted in my career, I'm all about giving everything a go."
Tara Stewart is on 2FM at 8pm Sunday to Thursday.
'Dirty Laundry with Tara Stewart' is available on iTunes and on rte.ie