'I played the first song and I just started crying' - RTE's newest star on break-ups, body positivity and how to build a career
Tara Stewart arrived from Australia knowing no one. Now, 10 years later, she has landed her own show on 2FM. She talks to Liadan Hynes about break-ups, love, body positivity and how to build a career
When she played the first song on her new RTE radio show, Tara Stewart on 2FM, the 28-year-old presenter, to her own surprise, found herself in tears. "I played the first song and I just started crying," Tara says. "I was by myself, and I had two-and-a-half minutes to compose myself before the first song was over. When I heard the Tara Stewart branding, I was like 'oh my God'. I composed myself, did my opening link, and I didn't f**k it up at all. I was just very emotional and overwhelmed."
It's understandable. Since arriving in Ireland almost a decade ago, aged 20 and knowing no one, Stewart has worked hard to get where she is now.
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Typically, she's modest about the stripes she has so clearly earned. In person, Tara, who speaks in gentle tones with a gorgeous lilting Australian accent, has the manner of someone who is thoughtful and conscientious; carefully considering each question, modestly demurring when it comes to her own professional credentials.
Tara, whose father is from Belfast, and mother is Malaysian Indian, grew up in Alice Springs. Her father is a lawyer, who originally ran his own law firm, before opening a combined Irish bar/Indian restaurant. Her mother, a psychologist, then worked as a chef in the restaurant. The family lived in an apartment behind the business. An only child, Tara describes herself as a painfully shy youngster.
"Deep down, I'm a very shy person. So much so that when I was a kid, my parents sent me to acting school because I was quite uncomfortable to be around, I was so shy. I hated being like that, so I just always pushed myself. I used to get so cripplingly nervous. So every summer for a couple of years, we used to go to Sydney and I would go to an acting school called Nida [National Institute of Dramatic Arts]." Former alumni of the main school include Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett. "I never wanted to be an actor," Tara smiles now. "As much as I appreciated it, I was so uncomfortable acting."
Growing up in a bar for most of her life also helped her to come out of her shell, she says. "So that whole time when I moved to Dublin, I just really put myself out there."
Tara initially set her sights on London, with the intention of being a musician. She stopped in Dublin along the way, ended up liking it, and has stayed ever since.
"It was really scary. Everyone at home was moving to Melbourne and Adelaide, and I didn't want to do that. It sounds so bad; I just didn't want to see anyone from school, I wanted a fresh start," she says.
Her boyfriend of a couple of years followed two months later. That did not work out; when he arrived in Dublin, it transpired he had been seeing someone else in the two months since she left Australia. After a short time of living together, a painful break-up ensued.
"I forgave him; all girls go through this when they have a shitty relationship, that makes you learn your lesson. As soon as he arrived, he was in the worst mood, and just didn't want to be here at all. And so I realised, and he probably realised, that he didn't actually want to be with me any more.
"I think he was maybe trying to make me break up with him. But I was just so self-conscious. I was 20. I was like, 'I don't want to be by myself'."
In the end, they had a huge fight, and he left. That was in early 2011.
Her parents told her if she wanted to come home she could, but she should try and stick it out until the end of the year. "And so I did, and it was the best thing I ever did; I'm so happy I didn't run home. It was tough. I remember eating a lot of tubs of hummus in bed. A lot," she laughs. "And I'm pretty sure I watched all the seasons of Sex and the City 10 million times over. I went home to Australia at Christmas, and as soon as I arrived, I just knew I didn't want to be there, which was great. I had started to feel better in Dublin."
As a child, Tara's parents had encouraged her musical abilities; she played several instruments and studied classical and jazz music. Back in Ireland, she performed at festivals and at open mic nights with Gavin James and Dermot Kennedy. At the same time, she was working in hospitality, as a waitress.
Tara wrote her own songs, sang, played guitar, synth and flute. Music though, was never really a passion, she says now.
"To be honest, I didn't enjoy writing music any more. Genuinely, I just never thought I was a good songwriter. And I think I know good music, because I genuinely love music. But I was just never into the songs I was writing."
She was 24, and as luck would have it, at the same time that it was dawning that she was done with being a musician, she spotted a tweet from a local radio station looking for presenters. Having done some radio work before she left Australia, she replied and began getting work. Eventually, she got her own show, Pop Tarts, on digital channel RTE 2XM.
She's not quite sure if this is where she first met her boyfriend, rapper Karl Mangan, aka Mango Dassler, but he was one of her guests on the show. "I don't know if I got him in because I fancied him, or I thought he was cool," she laughs, of the man with whom she now lives.
"I genuinely can't remember, I'd say it was an excuse just to chat to him. We did match on Tinder before, but then I deleted him, stupidly, I don't know why I did that."
Working in the same industry is a bonus she says; the pair advise each other. "We understand each other's schedules, and the hustle and work that we need to put into things. We bounce stuff off each other."
It was Mango who encouraged her into making the leap; giving up the day job so she could focus on the night job, so to speak, when she was fired from her last job in hospitality two years ago. According to her boss, she wasn't passionate enough about hospitality.
Anyone who has tried to balance the bill-paying work with work they love, and has eventually faced down the fear when it gets too much to balance both, and given up the more reliable work, will recognise the situation in which Tara then found herself.
"At the time, I was not making enough money in radio at all, and I wasn't making enough in dj-ing, I'd just started. When I was fired, I didn't know what to do. I remember I was walking down Grafton Street bawling my eyes out. Mango came, and was like 'it's going to be okay, to be honest I think this is going to be one of the best things that has ever happened to you'. I was like 'this isn't a TED Talk. This isn't, 'I got fired from my job and then this happened'," she recalls with a laugh. "But weirdly enough, then it did throw something into the universe. I think because I was more available for radio, then my radio bosses were like 'okay then'. I went to them and said 'guys, I am up for anything, I'll do any shifts you want'."
She worked on Christmas Day, offered herself for maternity coverage, and during last year's snowstorm, slept in a studio in RTE, covering for those who could not make it in. "I scraped by for a long, long time. Luckily enough, the work started building up."
Fashion is one of her passions, Tara's style jumps off her Instagram feed, and recently, she was included by Vogue in an article featuring five faces bringing a fresh approach to festival style. She wore a vintage maxi skirt that had been remade by @ragorderdublin into a crop top and mini skirt. Her style had in its own way been turning into a further line of work and income, with brands approaching her to create sponsored content for her social media platforms.
"I love expressing myself in clothes and in fashion," says Tara, who has always been a vintage shopper. Of late, as her interest in sustainability around clothes grows, she has turned down sponsored content work with fashion brands, going so far as to pay back one fast fashion brand for posts she felt she could not go ahead with.
As a teenager, Tara says she struggled with her body image. "Most of my life I've really struggled with my body. I've always been curvy. I struggled with eating as well. I wouldn't say I had an eating disorder, I would never ever say that."
She was convinced to attend a modelling casting, something she didn't really have any interest in.
"I was there with all these other girls and I literally just felt disgusting. I did the casting, and I felt so humiliated afterwards. Like, of course, they're not going to go for me, why would I even put myself in that position.
"I remember the skinniest I ever was was when I was 18 or 19. I think I was just fed up with thinking I was fat, I just was like, 'I'm so sick of my body, then I just gave myself this mad diet, ended up losing loads of weight, and I was really, really thin." As a result, she developed anaemia. "I ended up fainting loads, because I had no iron, because I wasn't eating."
Fainting in work was a wake-up call. "That was like, 'what am I doing?' I still wasn't happy with my body until, honestly, I haven't been happy with my body until I was 25, 26. It's taken me a really long time. Sometimes still I look at myself and I don't like it. But the majority of the time I love my body now. When I was a teenager, there wasn't a thing about body positivity. You'd never see a curvy girl or a plus-size girl. But now I do see more."
More recently, she was asked to do a casting for a modelling job for a clothing company, not something she typically does. When she got the call to say she had not got the job, she was dreadfully upset; Mango woke up to her crying, she recalls. "Rejection is hard. And I've gotten used to it over the years, but I think it was because it was for my body. That really got me. I felt shit for like two weeks. But that's why I never want to do something where people look at my body in that way. I always want to be in control of that side of myself."
Tara is modest about where she is now in her career, but she made moves that are a potential roadmap for women, who in general can tend to be slow to push themselves in the workplace. She called a meeting with her bosses, saying now, matter-of-factly, that "it's good for them to know where you want to go". She's careful in what she says around this, there has been nonsensical coverage implying she hassled her employers to get where she is, not something ever likely to have been written about a man displaying career ambition.
During the run-up to the recent line-up changes at 2FM, she was anxious about what would happen to the work niche she had built up, she admits.
When the new line-up was announced though, Tara had been given the evening slot, 7-10pm, Sunday to Thursday, previously held by her good friend Louise McSharry.
When we meet, you get the impression of someone still settling in to the fact that they have, in a sense, made it; proved themselves. After months of working 12-hour days, she says she's slowly getting used to being able to slow down a little, enjoy the stability of her own show, and the regular hours that offers, get back to the yoga she loves.
"I'm not saying that I've been at this such a long time, I'm not saying I deserved this timewise," she says modestly. "But I think I set myself up. I love that show."
And though she may not say it herself, she more than deserves it.
'Tara Stewart on RTE 2FM', Sunday-Thursday, 7pm-10pm
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