Alison Curtis - Queen of the airwaves
Canadian DJ Alison Curtis intended staying here for just six months, but a Future King of Spain caught her eye. She discusses losing her parents and the birth of her daughter with our reporter
If losing both parents as a teenager has taught Alison Curtis anything, it's to not take things for granted. In the chatty Today FM DJ's case, it has made her strong, resilient and thankful for her health, relationships and friendships. There are times, of course, when she feels the loss of her parents acutely, such as when her daughter Joan was born in 2011 and she couldn't help imagining what they would have been like as grandparents.
Alison, 40, grew up in Kingston, Ontario and she and her twin sister Karen were only 14 when their civil servant dad Robert passed away from liver damage, having contracted hepatitis from contaminated shellfish before his daughters were born.
"Dad was 49 when he died but he looked about 20 years older because he was ill for years," Alison recalls. "So many people came to tell us how amazing and kind he was. Mum relied on him so much for things like bank accounts and money and we relied on each other a lot when he passed."
After school, Alison moved to Toronto to study anthropology and history, but seven months into it her mum Joan, after whom her daughter is named, passed away aged 57 having suffered a stroke. Doctors thought a combination of smoking and being on the pill when younger contributed to it, but Alison thinks she also died of a broken heart as she was very lonely after their dad had passed.
The DJ says that while she loved her mum dearly, their relationship wasn't always easy.
"She was feisty and our relationship was difficult as she and I may have been too similar," she admits. "Unfortunately, Mum suffered badly from anxiety and Karen and I are very lucky because we're both very happy and didn't inherit her tendency to anxiety. Losing Dad was horrible but we were naive and thought we wouldn't have to deal with that kind of loss again for a long time, so it was a shock when Mum died. Karen is fantastic and she and I are insanely close because we're each other's only remaining immediate family."
Looking back, Alison doesn't remember much about her life between the ages of 19 and 23 and describes that awful, grief-stricken period as "living in a cloud" and "just paddling along". "My sister and I almost became parents to each other and then, financially, we were like husband and wife because the family home had been sold and we shared a cottage," she says. "I was a stress-head and that was the way I dealt with grief, whereas she partied.
"We didn't always agree with each other's way of coping with our loss."
While she's a vital part of the Irish music and radio scene here and has commanded a cult following since her pirate radio days, Alison ended up in Dublin because she lived with two Irish students after college and they invited her here to visit. She had so much fun, she applied for a working visa, only intending to stay for six months. She began temping in Today FM to cover former chief executive Willie O'Reilly's PA Denise's maternity leave in 1999 and loved the atmosphere of radio.
She "bugged" Willie to give her work on radio and went on to work on The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show until 2008. She became part of the creative team and ultimately became the show's producer after three years. At the same time, she presented an evening show on the well-known, but not yet legal, pirate station Phantom FM.
"By May 2003 I bothered Willie O'Reilly into giving me my own show, saying it was ridiculous that no women were hosting shows on Today FM," she says. "That was The Last Splash, which lasted over eight years - I called time on it when I was pregnant. During that time it grew from 4,000 listeners to a peak of 41,000 and earned me four Meteor Music Award nominations for best national DJ. I kept losing out to guys named Ray!"
Alison now produces and presents Saturday Breakfast at the station and loves it.
"I'd say that 99pc of the things I learned about radio were from Ian Dempsey," she says. "He's a truly amazing broadcaster and I like to think that Saturday Breakfast is the little sister of his show. It aims to be entirely for, and about, the listeners, and I provide a countrywide look at what's happening on that particular weekend to give people ideas for things to do. I love talking to people and I genuinely have a strong interest and get involved in what they are doing."
One of the things that kept Alison in Ireland was meeting her husband, Anton Hegarty, known as Tony, back in 2002. Given her music credentials, it's no surprise that they met at hip music venue Whelan's on Wexford Street. Tony was a member of the band The Future Kings of Spain and had been invited to perform at an event held by Phantom FM.
"We only picked bands that had hot guys in them, as you do," laughs Alison. "Tony is a bassist and I used to joke that nobody likes the bassist, but I certainly did. We were inseparable after that. We got married in Canada but had the proper ceremony here. We celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary this year."
Tony now has a regular job with DHL and plays music as a passion. What attracted her to the man that she describes as a "big hairy bear"? "He's so soft-spoken, gentle, kind and a remarkable person," she smiles. "Everyone who knows him loves him and our daughter Joan is crazy about him."
When it came to having children, Alison was never 100pc sure that she wanted a family as she worried about whether she would be a good parent.
"We thought we would try anyway and then we went on holiday, had a few beverages, and when we came back I peed on a stick and that was it," she says. "I know a lot of people find the 'one try' kind of thing annoying but that's how it happened."
While the conception was easy and Alison had a really good pregnancy, everything came crashing down when she developed pre-eclampsia, which was discovered at a routine appointment at the Rotunda at 37 weeks.
"I was immediately admitted and got so nervous and started shaking because I wasn't prepared mentally," she says. "I was in the hospital for about two hours when I had an abruption and my uterus separated because my blood pressure was so high. I was really lucky that I was in hospital that day because if I hadn't been I would have survived but the baby would not have, which doesn't even bear thinking about. Joan arrived by emergency Caesarean section in about eight minutes and we were the talk of the ward. I was in high dependency for a few days and I can't thank the Rotunda enough as they treated me so well.
"With pre-eclampsia, it's really serious because your liver and kidneys start failing," she explains. "One of the signs is that you're really itchy, which is what happened to me the week before, but I thought it was in my head and I ignored it as I was always a hypochondriac. Thankfully, the two of us are perfectly healthy, but it scared me for sure and it was very traumatic. I probably would have had another child if I hadn't had such a bad scare."
Little Joan is feisty, chatty and a "pure Dub". She has just started school and is loving it. She has a great sense of humour and understands that she was named after her grandmother, and that she and Grandpa Robert are no longer on earth.
"She's a really special little girl and I try to be magical with her the way our dad was with us - I tell her stories about Karen and me growing up," says Alison.
While she is very happy with how her life has panned out, she misses her twin, of course, as Karen is a social worker living in Toronto. They try to see each other twice a year and when Joan was born, Karen came over for a month. She became one of the little girl's mentors - a secular equivalent to godparents - during her humanist naming ceremony.
When it comes to the thorny issue of the lack of women on air, Alison strongly believes it should be addressed. "For years, it was mainly men who were being brought into stations and groomed for radio, but maybe that's changing now," she says, hopefully. "For eight years, I was one of the only female hosts on radio. A lot of people considered me the 'indie girl' for a long time and I think there's an open spot for that role on air now."
Alison was actually on air when the announcement about Ray D'Arcy leaving Today FM to go to RTE came through. The morning afterwards, she took the helm of D'Arcy's old slot and gamely sailed the ship until the position went to Anton Savage. She admits to being shocked at D'Arcy's move.
"Ray had been a part of the listeners' lives for 15 years, so being the person to fill in for that duration was tough," she admits. "We got a great reaction, though, and people liked that a woman was put in that hot seat for a while. While we were all shocked that Ray left, I think Anton is kind of reflective of a new Irish society and there are a lot of positive things happening around the station now.
"I love my show and am really proud of it as it's doing really well. It has struck a chord with listeners and I hope it continues that way."
Saturday Breakfast with Alison Curtis, Today FM, 8-11am.
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