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Strife of Brian: Big Brother and beyond

It's the first real blast of winter in London, the temperature having plummeted overnight, but, despite the fading light, Brian Dowling isn't planning on removing his shades just yet.

"I wear them everywhere - indoors even", he giggles. "People slag me but I'm not taking them off - they hide a multitude of sins!"

And as with much of Dowling's patter, you get the feeling that in wearing them he's ever-so-slightly sending himself up. After all, gone are the days when London tabloids had a bounty on a picture of him kissing his then-boyfriend - an investment banker with JP Morgan. And the moment when Ryanair - for whom he worked as an air steward - briefly renamed itself Brianair now seems like a distant memory.

Lately, he's more intent on working the "substance over style" angle. In a Hillary-Clinton-decides-not-to-wear-make-up-type moment of empowerment, he's not even blow-drying his hair.

"People see me with stubble or not looking entirely done up and they're like 'what's wrong with you'", he says. "And I tell them, 'I'm a man!' All that (grooming) left me exhausted."

Which is not to say he isn't still the hardest working diva in show business, juggling an endless variety of side projects and presenting gigs, slowly building his profile into something more stable and lasting. His latest project is Sitting On A Fortune - TV3's new game show - for which he's shown himself to be a charismatic and witty host.

TV3 have high hopes for the Sitting On A Fortune format. On a set dominated by oversized chairs, a contestant from each two-person team take turns to sprint to the games area to solve a puzzle. But all the time they're away from their chair, their rivals' prize pot increases.

"It was incredible", he says of the programme. "It's been by far the most rewarding presenting job I've done so far. Nobody told me 'No!' or 'Stop!' - I felt had the freedom to be my real self on camera."

Which is fitting since that, after all, is exactly how he first arrived into the popular consciousness. He seems like he's been around forever, but in fact it was only 2001 when he was plucked from the obscurity of Rathangan, Co Kildare, where his nickname growing up was Bambi, to win Big Brother. It made him a huge media star yet not everyone in the gay community appreciated Dowling's brand of camp.

"What was funny was that the gay press weren't always 100pc supportive", he remembers.

"They'd prefer to have a shirtless, straight hunk with a six pack on their cover than someone like me." He describes having a pint of beer thrown over him at a club in London. "The guy said to me 'you're a bad representation of gays' and he threw beer on me. I was thinking 'who is this guy?' And also: what kind of queen drinks beer? The calories!"

Now 36, he says his focus these days is more on his personal life than on career. "When I was in my 20s, I believed success was appearing in magazines. I was going out and getting pissed every night of the week." He lives with his boyfriend, Armenian former model and dancer Arthur Gournounlian in south London. They met when Dowling was a children's television presenter on SMTV, but broke up for a few years, before reuniting. "It was my fault to be honest" he sighs. "At SMTV I was in teen mags and encouraged to be single. I f***ed (the relationship) up. That was really embarrassing but I'm glad we got a second chance."

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The only thing that would bring him back to Ireland full-time is a presenting job on a daily programme, he says, but for the moment he's working on a new pilot for a game show, which, by the sounds of it, might be aimed at a different demographic to Brian's outing on TV3: "We have three mothers who can win prizes for their three sons", he explains. "Some of the questions are pretty x-rated. One of them, to the mothers, was: 'Do you spit or swallow?'" So: Spitting On A Fortune, perhaps? Even Bambi might blush at that one.

'Sitting on A Fortune' airs next Saturday on TV3 at 7.10pm, just before 'The X Factor'.

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