Sunday 18 March 2018

LA woman... the return of Ruth O'Neill

Ruth O'Neill wears: Top, American Apparel. Skirt, Topshop. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Caroll.
Ruth O'Neill wears: Top, American Apparel. Skirt, Topshop. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Caroll.
Ruth O'Neill
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

Knowing no one, and with barely any TV experience, Ruth O'Neill booked a one-way flight to LA at the tender age of 22. It's now five years on, she's back home, and she tells Liadan Hynes about landing the much coveted dream job at E! as an entertainment reporter, how dating in LA is like living in a bad episode of 'Sex and the City', and how her decision to give it all up is probably the best one she will ever make. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes.

'There wasn't really much of a plan. I mean, there was no plan. I knew no one; I'd never even visited the city. I'd no idea what it even looked like." Looking back now at her naive younger self, heading out to LA five years ago to pursue the dream of a career in television, Ruth O'Neill chortles. The TV presenter with the infectious, throaty laugh has just returned from LA, having handed in her notice on her dream job as a reporter for E!, America's biggest entertainment channel, to come home to family, friends, and hopefully some sort of work-life balance.

Top; shorts, both Topshop. Boots, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Top; shorts, both Topshop. Boots, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Ruth was just 22 when she headed off on her own to LA, with two suitcases and a one-way ticket. Things were going relatively well at home. Recently out of college, having studied commerce in UCD, she had placed as a runner-up that summer in Xpose's televised competition to find a new presenter to replace Lorraine Keane. She was making a name for herself as a model, and when the TV3 competition ended, she landed work as an intern at the station.

Before Xpose, Ruth had done a few commercials - most famously starring with Johnny Logan in a McDonalds ad - and some acting and presenting in UCD.

"So when I did Xpose, I got to the final, and I knew, 'this is definitely what I want to do'," she recalls. "I got such a buzz off it." After the competition, Ben Frow (TV3's then director of programming) offered her an internship, a chance to experience all aspects of TV production. She interned at TV3 for two or three months, but by that stage, the country was in the throes of recession, and jobs in television, whether in front of or behind the camera, were almost non-existent.

Every year, after Christmas, Ruth and her family holiday in Palm Springs, Florida, and that year, the time out afforded her just the perspective that she needed. On returning home to Dublin, she decided to take her chances, and move to LA to pursue a career in television. Luckily, she had a US passport already. Her family were living in New York when Ruth was born, as her father worked as a trader on Wall Street for a short time in the 1980s.

"I had no friends, no job, no contacts, little or no experience," she recalls of her decision to go to America in 2010. "I'd never lived away from home," she laughs. "But I think you need that young fearlessness. My parents say, 'If we had known half the things about LA, about the way it is, we wouldn't have allowed you to go'."

In person, Ruth, who grew up in Castleknock, Dublin, is pure California girl, all honey and golden tones, long blonde hair and tawny skin, with shades of Britney, the cute years. Since her stint in LA she appears longer, leaner -a fact she attributes to an obsession with vinyasa flow yoga.

Jumpsuit, Topshop. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Caroll.
Jumpsuit, Topshop. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Caroll.

She arrives for our interview wearing blue jeans, a white vest and a light-brown suede jacket that has long fringing hanging from each arm. It's the kind of garment that would look faintly ridiculous on most Irish people. Ruth, however, looks like she might have stepped off the set of Charlie's Angels, or some other West Coast-based 70s TV show.

On landing in LA, she quickly found a room with complete strangers - through Craigslist. "Just off Sunset, bang in the middle of Hollywood," she says. "I had to buy a car, learn how to drive on the other side of the road, get a bank account, set up all my bills."

As daunting as this now sounds, at the time, Ruth took it in her stride. "I was just up for the adventure," she explains. "And I kind of hope I always keep that. It seems like the older people get, the more scared they get about going for things."

The seemingly insurmountable task of breaking LA is the kind of thing that requires the energy, enthusiasm and possible naivete of a 22-year-old, she agrees. "I just started asking everyone I know, 'I want to work in TV, any aspect, d'you know anyone who's hiring anyone?' I was out almost every single night. Some nights it was like, 'Who am I hanging out with here?' The parties you were invited to were nuts.

"So then I met a guy on a boat one day," she smiles, rolling her eyes in acknowledgment at how random it sounds. "He was like, 'Oh, I work in production. I do these things for MTV or whatever'. And I said, 'Yeah, I'll do anything'."

This chance meeting landed her work as a freelance production assistant, essentially a dogsbody, putting in longer hours than anyone else on set. "You're doing anything they need you to do. You're there at five in the morning. I did that for the first year. For MTV, VH1, Apple Commercial, all different things. I was just happy to be working," she says.

Top, American Apparel. Skirt, Topshop. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Top, American Apparel. Skirt, Topshop. Shoes, River Island. Photo: Kip Carroll.

Eventually, she began to look at making the move from production to journalism, the original aim. She had gone over to the US with the vague plan that, having not studied journalism, she would apply for internships.

"And I found out when I got there that you can't intern anywhere in America unless you're in college. Because you intern for college points towards your course."

A chance meeting on a job with someone who had a friend working in ABC News led to an interview. "That's the thing - in America, people are so helpful," she explains. "There's such a networking thing. No one is threatened. It's like, 'Oh my god, that's great you're ambitious. I want to help you be successful'. So this girl who I'd never met, apart from over email, completely helped me."

She landed a job first as production assistant, later graduating to associate producer. "I think I almost cried afterwards, it was so tough," she says of the interview. As it happens, it was nothing compared to what was to come. The hours and work environment were relentless. "I'm sure that was the hardest job I'll ever work. It was so tough. Your schedule changed every week and you didn't get your schedule until the week before. So you'd be working nights, and then they'd put you on a day. So you were always tired. It was so aggressive in there. So fast-paced. People screaming at each other all the time. Everyone sleep-deprived. My boss was so tough."

Around the same time, she landed a job as entertainment correspondent for the RTE 2 show Juice, a job which turned out to be a welcome relief from the intense world of hard news.

Top, River Island. Shorts, Ruth's own. Photo: Kip Carroll.
Top, River Island. Shorts, Ruth's own. Photo: Kip Carroll.

"I did live reports about entertainment news; I did red carpets and interviewed celebrities. In ABC, you ended up knowing so much about politics and current affairs and crime. It was all so serious. People were always screaming at each other. I was having so much fun doing the stuff for RTE 2; I thought, 'I want to move into entertainment'."

Breaking into entertainment in the entertainment capital of the world is notoriously difficult. Getting a job with E!, the world's most popular entertainment channel, home to the Kardashians, is the holy grail. "With E!, everyone wants to work there," Ruth explains. "There are loads of entertainment shows over there. And some are probably bigger in America, but E! is global. Every young person who works in entertainment wants to work there. I wrote a list of my top ten entertainment companies that I wanted to work in. E! was number one. Even the interview process took so long. I got a response in August. I didn't interview until November. I didn't get a second interview until February the year after."

She landed a job as an entertainment reporter for E! news, investigating and reporting on celebrity news stories, covering events, interviewing celebrities, and pitching ideas for fashion and lifestyle segments, a process she describes as rigorously thorough.

Working for E! meant the kind of access most entertainment reporters can only dream of: one-to-ones with A-listers - Kate Hudson was her favourite - celebrity parties, gigs, backstage. "The access is amazing. At E! I could get into any party, go to any gig," Ruth says, recalling some of the high points; "Covering the Teen Vogue party up in this mansion in the hills. A private Coldplay gig you couldn't even buy tickets to, and I was seven rows from the front. Going to Coachella; I was able to get into all the parties."

However, with the relentless pace of work, and the after-hours spent doing the socialising that her new job required, any semblance of work-life balance soon began to take a hit. "In America, they're work-obsessed. If there's one thing living in LA did, it kicked a work ethic into me," she says emphatically. "I've come to realise that in Europe, and especially in Ireland, there's a way better work-life balance. In America, it's all about work. Buying the bigger house. Getting the next car. Getting ahead. But then, I can't be surprised by that because LA is the biggest market for TV. That's where everyone in the world goes who wants to work in TV. It couldn't get more competitive."

Americans are known for a stringent approach when it comes to taking holidays, and particularly so in LA, the most competitive of work environments. "I could barely get seven days off to come home for Christmas. I remember I'd call my parents and my mum was like, 'You're obsessed with your career'. My dad kept saying, 'There's more to life, there's more to life'. But when you're in that bubble, and you're in that environment . . . In LA, the first question you get asked anywhere you go is, 'What do you do?' It's not like, 'Where are you from?' And then you see by their reaction if they're still interested in talking to you," she laughs.

Between working back-breaking hours, and the nature of LA itself - transient, shallow, aggressively ambitious - having much of a life outside of work was always something of a challenge. In LA, people tend to move on fairly quickly, and the nature of Ruth's working environment meant that relationships were often superficial.

"I decided, I work in this fake industry, but I want my relationships to be real, and if I'm dating someone, for that to be real, otherwise I'll go insane. But especially when I started working at E!, my work and my professional life started merging. The people that you're meeting and the parties that you're going to, it becomes hard to separate the two of them. And to meet people. I used to always say, 'Rule number one in LA: trust no one'. Because you don't know where you stand with anyone."

Now she's home, Ruth says her mum keeps asking her if she's much more relaxed now she's back in Dublin, and Ruth does admit that it's lovely to be around people who know her, and around whom she doesn't have to watch what she says. Not having the outlet of friends and family was tough - "especially when you've had a bad day and you come home and you think the world's caving in. And everyone's asleep, because of the time difference.

Ruth O Neill
Ruth O Neill

"LA is so mentally challenging," she adds. "As much as people put emphasis on looks and the whole working-out thing, it's more about your mental strength. Especially in entertainment, because you're working with so many personalities. So many egos. I think when you go to LA, it brings out people's true characters. You really know what your morals and your values are, because you're faced with so many things that put them into question.

"I've seen LA suck people in and spit them right out. It's an easy place to get seduced by the whole partying scene and the whole Hollywood scene. You have to really know who you are to live there. Your work is so competitive as well. So you're almost always watching over your back. You've got to keep up with the pace of everything."

When friends came to visit, "most of them were like, 'I don't know how you live here'," she bursts out laughing. "But I had such a blast as well. Sometimes you're like, 'Is this really my life?'"

Ruth has a naturally sunny nature; she's quick to laugh and doesn't seem given to any sort of neurosis that would have left her vulnerable to LA's brutal social mores. But she attributes a yoga habit - adopted after she was the victim of a hit-and-run in LA - as providing a much needed sense of sanctuary.

"Someone crashed into my car. I think I called my parents. It was in the middle of the night." She re-enacts her hysterical sobbing. "'Someone hit my car, I can't move my neck!' What are your parents going to do, halfway across the world?"

At first, she couldn't move her neck, and there was concern that she had fractured it. It turned out to be bad whiplash, and yoga was recommended. "It helped and then I got obsessed with it. It changed my body. I sleep much better when I do it; I think more clearly. It's amazing. And it was the one place where everyone was nice," she laughs. "There's so much anxiety in LA. I don't know if its insecurity, but everyone's under so much pressure. The yoga studio was the one place people didn't seem stressed out."

She says the pressure and obsession isn't so much about being skinny, as it is a fanaticism about healthy living, and youth. That you work out is a given. "People think in LA it must be glamorous, but it's more that vanity is through fitness, and what you eat, and juices and all that kind of thing.

"Like, everyone looks good," she says emphatically. "The girl that used to do my hair looked like a supermodel. It's hard to know what age people are. It's like, 'Is he 45, or is he 30? I don't know'. But it's an obsession over there. That's the thing - it's hard to meet people with a lot of depth. There are so many good-looking people, even when you're dating it becomes: 'OK, I don't care if he's good-looking. Is he smart, is he funny?'"

In her five years in LA, Ruth had one boyfriend, and he was Irish. The possibility of hitting 30 and still living in LA seems to have focused her mind. "I think with LA, you should go young. And leave young. Because I think that LA has this weird Neverland feel to it. It's like no one grows up. They say people have Peter Pan syndrome there. No one gets married, and no one's really in relationships. Everyone's looking for something better. And that's why it's so hard to date there as well. I swear, dating in LA is like being stuck in a bad episode of Sex and the City - on repeat, and you can't change the channel."

You meet people out and about, she says, but after a while the first-date scenario gets tiring, and you long for people who experienced a similar upbringing. "I was like, 'I don't want to talk about how many sisters I have, or what my dad did. Here's the Cliff Notes'."

Much as Ruth enjoyed her time in LA, it has changed her outlook on success. Having seen people living the so-called dream up close, her idea of 'having it all' has altered.

"I used to think success was being a top producer, or agent, or presenter. Then you look at people who look like they have everything - you know, they're an executive producer, they've the house in Beverly Hills, they've the nice car - but they're still kind of miserable. Because they don't have a full life. People here in Ireland have full lives. They have families. They go on holidays. They enjoy themselves."

Ireland was a very different country when Ruth left here in 2010. But she finds the place that she has returned to much more promising. "It was a bit grim," she recalls of Ireland in 2010. "That's another reason why I was like, 'I'll go somewhere else where it hasn't been hit as bad'. I remember it was quite depressing. But it just seems like it's changed. It's just great to see all the new shops. And people are in better form. People seem a lot more positive."

For now, she's taking a breather, enjoying being home, having meetings, looking at opportunities, and considering her next career move.

Staying in LA indefinitely was never really on the cards. "If I'd left in the third year, I would have regretted it. You're just getting into the swing of things, and I would have been like 'What if?' But I think when you've done five years, you kind of know. I just didn't see my future there. I didn't see myself marrying an American guy, having kids there. You just never know where you stand with people there."

The notion of coming home crept up on her over the last year. Being away from her family became increasingly difficult. Not to mention her close group of girlfriends, which includes fellow TV presenter Rachel Wyse. "It was so hard every time I came home for Christmas. Tears at the airport with my parents, thinking I'd never see them again. I stayed close with my best friends. No matter where you go in the world, you cannot replace your best friends."

People warned her that she'd miss the lifestyle of LA once she moved home, but while she agrees that she had an amazing time in her five years, she thoroughly enjoys being back. Leaving the perfect job was OK in the end, she muses.

"You go to so many of them, that sometimes it loses its shininess," she explains of the endless round of parties, gigs and events. "I think it's probably the best decision I'll ever make," she continues. "I mean, I spent most of my 20s there. Having an absolute ball. But it's like, 'Do I leave now when I'm 27? Or do I try to come back to Dublin when I'm 35, and all my friends are married and have kids?'"

LA is much harder for women in their 30s, she adds. "I think I left at the right time. A friend said to me before I left: 'Is there anything else on a bucket list you want to do before you leave?' I was like, 'No. I went to all the sick parties, I went to all the gigs, interviewed loads of celebrities'."

Will she miss anything about LA? "Yeah, I mean the lifestyle is amazing. But it's aggressive too. I think people look at your Instagram and think . . . you know. No one's life is as dreamy as their Instagram looks."

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