Tuesday 20 February 2018

Chatty woman... Tommy Tiernan's wife Yvonne steps into the spotlight

After a decade of managing comedian husband Tommy, Yvonne Tiernan is (reluctantly) stepping into the spotlight to host a new type of deep-delving women's chat show. Here, she tells why we all need time On The Couch

Yvonne Tiernan On The Couch
Yvonne Tiernan On The Couch
Maia Dunphy joins Yvonne Tiernan for interview series On The Couch
Yvonne and Tommy Tiernan on their wedding day in Monaghan in 2009
Yvonne Tiernan, host of The Couch
Yvonne Tiernan interviews Jo Malone for On The Couch

Claire O'Mahony

At one point during our interview, Yvonne Tiernan asks: "Am I your worst interviewee ever?" She's actually one of the best by virtue of being open, engaging and ballsy (the latter by her own admission).

Yvonne's question is more related to the fact that she's talkative (very), making it sometimes hard to interrupt her flow - not that you'd necessarily want to. Her nickname growing up was Mouth McMahon.

She's great at getting stories out of people which is how she's ended up as the presenter of On The Couch, a new series on RTÉ Player which sees her interviewing a number of well-known women about intimate issues.

With six episodes, each with a theme from 'mums and dads' to 'love and wisdom', On The Couch is a departure from anything we've seen on Irish screens - Yvonne acknowledges that the format was influenced by hit US show The Conversation and Channel 4's Shrink Rap. The latter was hosted by clinical psychologist Pamela Stephenson who held on-screen therapy sessions with celebrities such as Stephen Fry.

The Pamela Stephenson comparison is particularly interesting as both women are married to comedians - Pamela to Billy Connolly and Yvonne to Tommy Tiernan - and both have an interest in the workings of the mind. Yvonne is one year into a psychology degree, which was put on hold after her youngest son was born prematurely.

On The Couch is an exclusive for RTÉ Player, which suits Yvonne who says she would be apprehensive about going straight to television. "I'm a newbie, a rookie," she says. "I like that Tommy is the famous one in the family. It's not like: 'Here I am and I want to present all the TV shows.' I'm doing this interview because I love the show and because you have to let people know. This is the bit I struggled with, about putting myself out there a little bit."

Rathfarnham-born and Galway-based, Yvonne is mum to Isobel (8), Louis (7) and three-year-old Theo. A singer with The Black Berries, she ran the Chieftan's Irish management office and performed with them as a lead vocalist many times, including at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. She was also in Irish tribute band Abbaesque. Today, she is the director of Mabinóg Ltd the company which produces Tommy's DVDs, and worked as his manager for the past 10 years. Away from work, Yvonne is a recent convert to running, an Emmerdale watcher and a horse lover.

Her natural curiosity about people has found its ideal outlet in On The Couch. "Even if I go down to the school yard and see the other mums, it's all my own insecurities or my inner dialogue," Yvonne says. "I'd look at other women and think: 'She has that sussed; she always has her hair blow-dried; she seemed to get through that loss very well; look at her, she's just had the baby and she's at the school yard.' I always feel that by talking to them, I'll learn something from them.

"It does sound very American but I do think that you can learn something from anyone you sit down and talk to. We're all doing and feeling the same stuff but because of our make-up and history and environment or whatever, we all react, behave, treat things differently. I've learnt enormous amounts from talking to those women, and I still do."

Yvonne says that women communicate with each other in a special way. They share experiences, they share battle stories and prove to be a huge support to each other - and she wants to reflect those kinds of conversations in the programme.

She had been in touch with Eddie Doyle, a commissioning editor at RTÉ, numerous times about projects involving Tommy and they would talk regularly. She told Eddie that RTÉ needed to do a series on how women talk and he asked her why didn't she do it.

"I'd had Theo at that stage. He was born at 32 weeks, so that was kind of a difficult time," she says. "I was over 14st and suffering from a bit of post natal depression and just went 'I couldn't possibly'. Then I spent about six months with it going 'Go on'…"

"When I meet people, or end up sitting with people, they end up telling me stuff and I tell them stuff. I'm very open so I thought: 'Let's try it.' So I tried it and everything kept happening."

Everything happening meant that Yvonne ended up with an impressive list of interviewees, all of whom readily agreed to sit on the couch and bare their souls: TV presenter Maia Dunphy; Sammy Leslie of Castle Leslie; model agent Celia Holman Lee; Scottish singer Eddi Reader from Fairground Attraction; perfumer Jo Malone; writer and actress Sharon Horgan and broadcaster Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh.

Yvonne had no relationship with Jo Malone beyond loving her perfumes, but she fired off an email to her office, including a picture of her substantial collection of Jo Malone fragrances. "I had been reading about her struggle with breast cancer, selling the business and her family story is so extraordinary," Yvonne says. "She was supporting her family since she was 11 because her dad was a gambler and drinker and her mum had a breakdown. How did she do it? That's just fascinating."

With just a small budget at her disposal, the interviews were recorded in photographer Breffni Ryan's home in Dublin - the set is all about the great lighting and New England décor. Only the director and a skeleton crew were allowed on set, which Yvonne felt was important if her interviewees were to talk about personal matters.

No topics were off limits (although Jo Malone will never reveal how much she sold her company for).

All her interviewees, Yvonne says, captivated her. Celia Holman Lee is "incredibly good looking and poised and graceful and elegant". Sammy Leslie she describes as "brave and strong and very kind, very smart". Eddi Reader is her girl crush and she got so overwhelmed meeting her, she had a cry. "You can even see in the interview, I'm just staring, lovingly at her." Bláthnaid is "very kind and very warm and very, very funny".

She had watched Maia Dunphy on TV and thought she was a force to be reckoned it. There was also some common ground - Maia is married to comedian Johnny Vegas. "That woman is so smart," Yvonne says. "She's not afraid to say what she thinks. She's so brave. She's married to a comedian, who's… I hate using that word controversial; it's my least favourite word because I think it's ridiculous. Johnny and Tommy would be both very successful, well-respected comedians so I was interested in what that was like for her and she was interested in what that was like for me."

What does Tommy think of the series? "His opinion means the most to me out of anyone, which is difficult as he's not the target, he's not a woman. But I showed him the promo and he said: 'It's amazing, RTÉ would be mad not to do something with it. You're really great, it's really watchable, it looks great.' I nearly cried. The great thing about Tommy is he's not someone who will say 'You're amazing' when you're not. He's very honest so I trust him. He's given me the advice that ultimately matters the most."

Together since 2003, Yvonne and Tommy married in Monaghan in 2009 and celebrated with a lavish reception in Castle Leslie. She retired as Tommy's manager last December to focus on the series, but also to give them a break from the work relationship. "He's on the road sometimes four days a week, sometimes he's gone for two and a half weeks, so when he would come home a lot of the conversations we would have would be about work," she says. "I'm home all the time with the kids which is really important with Tommy away so much. That's the thing about the interview series; it was three days' filming over two years, that's how much I was away. It's great."

Downtime at Tiernans' might be spent watching films, a glass of red for Yvonne, a whiskey for her husband. In the last six months, she's also started running and did an 8K run in Galway in August, on her wedding anniversary, cheered on by Tommy and the children. They opened champagne and had chips at home to celebrate - the best wedding anniversary ever, she says.

She was diagnosed coeliac aged 39, and her three pregnancies were all difficult. Theo was premature. "It was a very difficult thing to go through but I did get him home two and a half weeks later so he was home at 34 and a half weeks, which was kind of unheard of. He did very well. I was surrounded by people who had babies who seemed to not be as well as him. Some went on to have complications so I feel very lucky." Theo now, she says is "terribly, terribly smart and very cute and very funny and very tall".

An animal lover who spent her childhood in the local stables - and whose mum would do extra jobs to pay for riding lessons - she finally got her first horse, Ginger, at the age of 41. She was devastated when the mare had to be put down recently after three years of illness. "It's one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."

There have been more difficult times over the last while, such as the loss of her father who died last year after five years in a nursing home, having suffered a stroke. Yvonne found singing was the best outlet for her grief.

"I used to sing the Eddi Reader song 'I Felt A Soul Run Through Me'. It was about being away when something awful happened. My father had the stroke and for five years, every time I sang it I thought about him. I was in Galway when he had the stroke, and pregnant and I had to drive up in the middle of the night with Tommy. So that song was always very much about him but then every other song that I had sung over the years, the meaning changed because there were so many songs about loss and love. Suddenly everything felt different... the loss and the pain was coming out through the songs."

Now, she's pouring her energies into On The Couch and its accompanying website, thecouch.ie, which features behind-the-scenes stuff, podcasts and a lifestyle blog. There's also an online store where she's selling some of her own, never-worn clothes. "I swear to God I've made about €400 online and I've put it back into either buying the odd piece for The Couch or paying for something for the website," she says.

Ultimately her hope for On The Couch is that it will be commissioned.

"Much as it terrifies me to be so publicly out there, I really think that when you watch it, it is made for TV. It's where it belongs. I think women aged 25-65 would be interested in watching it, and a few sneaky men too."

Yvonne would love to earn her living from interviewing people. "If people like the style of the way I sit and talk with someone and they feel they're getting something different out of it and RTÉ or someone wants to hire me to do it, then I would love that," she says. "I've always worked so I was finishing up with Tommy's stuff and this was happening, I was thinking 'I'm 43, what to do?'... To do what you love doing and get paid for it, I'd really love that."

Episode 1 of 'On The Couch' 'Beauty' broadcasts on October 12 on RTÉ Player

Irish Independent

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