The extreme highs and lows of Deirdre O'Kane: 'I don't know what my salary is from one year to the next...I'm on Irish telly money'
With her national tour in full swing Deirdre O'Kane spoke to Donal Lynch about grief, loneliness, love and feeling manic
It's every interviewer's worst nightmare. Not the walk out - those can be fabulous colour after all - but its evil cousin, the 'walk along'. As in 'walk along beside me and we'll do the interview on the street'. It's an approach that works best for embattled politicians on the brink of resignation, TV news gotchas and other interviews where it's generally understood that the subject is being flayed on the move.
But Deirdre O'Kane is almost certainly too lovely to flay, and it isn't technically her fault that she has to hurry from hair and makeup and our photoshoot straight away to another appointment, without any actual interview. Her schedule seems to be more packed than Madonna's: corporate work, editing and recording crowd the hours and days ahead and no time was set aside for our sit down: Our only other foreseeable option is talking to her on the phone as she takes a train tomorrow, she tells me, shrugging, so I dutifully comply, decide to pretend in my head that she is Madonna and hover beside her as she makes her way to Merrion Square, throwing quotes over her shoulder.
It's been a momentous year she tells me over the ambient noise of the traffic; a mixture of professional triumph, niggling controversy and personal pain. Aside from Dancing With The Stars, which we'll come to, she turned 50 ("I told the whole world, finally") and dealt with the loss of her father, John. It was this last event which defined the year for her. "I had just landed in Sri Lanka in August when I got the news," she tells me. "I turned right back around and came back. It was so sudden, but as these things go, it was as good as it could be. I was prepared, but it doesn't take away the strangeness of the finality. He had been sick for a while and my heart was in my boots all summer. We had time to talk and he was very lucid. I was incredibly calm when it happened because he was ready. We're a close family, I know he was proud of me."
And there was much to be proud of. In the last few years her star has seemed to hover at times on the precipice of an international breakthrough - particularly after her star turn in Noble, a biopic about the life of children's rights campaigner Christina Noble. On TV she has been quietly ubiquitous, whether as the narrator on Gogglebox and Inside James's - a documentary series about St James's Hospital, as one of the best contributors to QI, or as the real star of Dancing With The Stars. The latter show, more than any other, caused her a summer of people coming up to her in public. They complimented her legs, her moves, her winning affability and one Irish outlet summed up the general feeling when it proclaimed her the 'People's champion of the show'. The minor controversy that erupted after RTE sharply refuted her allegations of sexism on DWTS fizzled out quickly, and it's a subject she is leery of even now. She was also part of a group of Irish comics who came together in the spring for Comic Relief, a Paddy's Night show in aid of homeless people, which was a huge success - she called on "my oldest and dearest friend" in comedy, Dara O Briain, to get involved. It's all made for a relentless autumn schedule, where time is ever more scarce, and she runs from pillar to post.
Later I treat her to lunch, which seems a bargain for a merciful 30 minutes of stationary chat. She grew up in Louth where she wasn't, she says, an especially funny child - "but that might be because the rest of family were funny and I didn't feel anything special by comparison". Comedy never entered her head during the long years in boarding school but she yearned to be an actress. After her Leaving Cert, she never lived at home again but moved to Dublin where she began to make her way in the world. Filmmaker Steve Bradley, her then-boyfriend and now-husband, was asked to attend Cat Laughs in 1996 and make a documentary about the burgeoning Kilkenny Comedy Festival. O'Kane tagged along. She was supposed to be helping out, but ended up watching a lot of the acts. "I had no awareness of stand-up comedy. None. I'd really never seen any in my life. I was the only one - me and The Nualas. And Tara Flynn. We were it really. I knew straight away that I had a talent for it. I had done a lot of comic acting. I think we all know what we can do and what are our limitations. For instance, I wouldn't work in an office or check emails."
Despite emerging as the brightest female star in a bunch of new comics in the mid 90s (Dara O Briain and Des Bishop were contemporaries, who made their breakouts around the same time) and getting to the finals of the BBC New Comedy Awards, her career, almost from the start, has been a judicious mix of stand-up, presenting and acting. "I'm a comic, an actor, a presenter, a voiceover artist," she tells me. "I've made peace with the fact that I'm all of those things," she says, modestly. "I've broken the mould. Talent doesn't get ignored here. There's no insanely talented undiscovered people. Talent shines. Unless you're a difficult personality, there's nothing to get in the way."
She progressed from the festival circuit to headlining and selling out venues on her own. But once she reached this level, she returned to acting, winning roles in 2003's Intermission and Chris O'Dowd's comic tour de force, Moone Boy. She tells me that she was too cynical about the business to ever have expectations of making it overseas, but Noble brought her closest. "If you want to work full time you have to make it internationally. It's less than 1pc of working actors. I know the business too well to expect Noble to have done that, I've learned you just put your back into it and hope for the best. After that, honestly you have no control. Noble did help me though; I was on lists I wasn't on before."
She's been notably outspoken about sexism - she recently posited female stars wearing black to highlight it - so I wonder how she feels about the slew of #MeToo situations we've seen recently in comedy and whether those who have come back, including Louis CK, have done so too soon?
"There's a scale of what they did," she begins. "So I'd be careful about putting them all in the same category. They can come back if the audience is happy to have them back. It's the public's decision whether they want to be back in the same room as the person or not. I think we can trust the Irish public on this."
What about comedians taking on social causes? Recently we've seen Amy Schumer speak out on gun control and Brett Kavanaugh and closer to home the likes of The Rubberbandits talking about the housing crisis. Does she sense there's any part of the public that would prefer if they stuck to comedy? "Comedians are social commentators, we're not politicians though, there needs to be a comic twist," she explains. "What's different is that with social media everything you say is analysed and judged and comedians have to be so careful. I used to be so open and now I have to be guarded. To be fair, the press have been mostly kind to me. My approach is when someone takes something you said out of context and it blows up into something, then starve it and say nothing more."
Despite the apparently ferocious schedule, she says she takes nothing for granted. "The hardest moment is always: where is the next job? For any freelancer that is the question. I don't know what my salary is from one year to the next. There is no money in this unless you're in the top 0.1pc. I'm not on American telly money, or even on English telly money. I'm on Irish telly money. I was never, ever money motivated but children make you more money motivated - they need it more than I do - that smartens you up."
She has two kids, Holly (13) and Daniel (10), and she says that these are the prime years of parenting. "I like the ages they're at now because they're rap people and the chats are great. I'm definitely better with kids at this age than at the toddler age," she explains. "They think I'm unbearable, no child thinks their parent is cool." She sometimes rues the time apart that touring inflicts on them. "It can be lonely back in my hotel room if it's Sunday morning when I'm not with my kids. But listen, I couldn't do 9-5 either. Hotel rooms are overrated though, no matter how nice they are, I'm over them."
She has never been to therapy but says she suffers from extreme emotional highs and lows, a consequence of the pressure to perform. "I've had grey clouds hanging around but I've never been one of the severe cases. But I would say my highs are very high and my lows are very low. The highs are not like other people's: making people laugh for an hour and a half, you're very pumped after it and it takes a couple of hours to come down. And then when I'm not onstage and I've been dying for a month off, three weeks into that month I'm dying for an adrenaline rush. When I was younger, I'd stay up all night, I was wild, but these days I'll just have one drink."
She says that Steve soaks up a lot of these mood swings. The secret to their long marriage is friendship, love and the shared passion of their kids, she says. "I've been married for far too long - don't make that your headline," she adds, winkingly. "And, to be honest with you, that is down to luck. I met a good man, and it's been the best piece of luck in my life. I've had a nice career but I've been very lucky in love. We're a good fit, we're in the same industry, which helps. I bounce nearly everything off him, much to his horror. Having a mutual vested interest like children adds a lot. I know there are times when I'm horrendous to live with, when I'm manic about shows, off the charts like.
"I'm sure that's not an easy energy to live with but I try to be very mindful of what each person is going through. It's so easy to take the person you're living with for granted. But I'm very glad he's still there with me."
Her tour, which is ongoing, she calls her "baby", and between her TV work and her stage work, she hopes there will be "a nice surprise". "You never know what's coming up, the last year has been an adventure, and I'm sure next year won't be much different. It all comes down to you and continuing to work hard and remaining a die-hard optimist and not getting hardened.
"And that," she says, finishing her soup, "is actually a very tough balance to strike."
Deirdre O'Kane plays Wexford's Spiegeltent this Thursday - tickets from ticketmaster and more tour dates from www.deirdreokane.net/tour
Hair and makeup by Brown Sugar - Dublin's hairdresser and expert salon, phone (01) 616 9967 or see www.brownsugar.ie
Lady Lolz Three of the best female Irish comics
* Emma Doran
Doran's deadpan drollness and bulletins, from the front line of teenage motherhood, have made her one of the hottest young stars of Irish comedy, picking up ad and TV work all over the shop and supporting Deirdre O'Kane (who also named her one of Ireland's best young comics) on the latter's new tour. She's been performing stand-up for several years now, has made a few chat show appearances and she brilliantly and wickedly subverts the weary martyr aspects of the Irish mammy persona.
* Joanne McNally
The categorisation of McNally, another Republic of Telly alumnus, into anything female is perhaps unnecessarily condescending as she's just plain funny, regardless of gender. Who else but she could conceive of Louis Walsh as the personification of her eating disorder and weave depression and disillusionment into consistent comedy gold? Also serves up bite-sized dollops of hilarity on Twitter.
* Eleanor Tiernan
Tiernan, a cousin of Tommy, describes her style of comedy as 'Free range, organic, no added preservatives. Deadpan. I'm aiming for opium but it's probably low-grade heroin'. A sometime columnist for the London Times, she's been in everything from Irish Pictorial Weekly to the (sadly departed Savage Eye). Her current show features some jaw-dropping strategies for Irish people to ingratiate themselves to horrific English public school types after Brexit ruins everything.
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