RTE's new doctor promises dose of reality
The host of 'Operation Transformation' tells Donal Lynch that her 'bedside manner' is very different from Dr Eva's
'THERE are no whips and chains at the bottom of my bag . . . I'm not a cartoon character," insists Dr Ciara Kelly, within minutes of sitting down to talk about her new role on the new series of the wildly popular Operation Transformation.
"Whatever happens I'm not going be Dr Simon Cowell."
The music mogul might be the example she cites but the persona that the 42-year-old is really running from is her predecessor on the popular show – Dr Eva Orsmond
Dr Eva caused public outrage and a slew of complaints last year when she told 23-year-old Charlotte O'Connell to "cop on" and stop crying after weighing in half-a-pound shy of her target.
"You're not going to see things like that from me," Ciara says, while also contrasting her day job as a "working GP" with Dr Eva's expertise, which is "in a niche of her own". (Dr Eva runs weight loss clinics)
Earlier this year Dr Eva apologised for the tone she had taken on the RTE show and admitted that her children had been asked at school if she is as abrasive at home as she appeared on air.
But Dr Eva also implied that she had been put under pressure to play up "a Dr Evil type" – something the producers of the programme denied. Does Dr Ciara feel she will be able to be more compassionate and still make compelling television?
"I think these people who appear on the show are very vulnerable people. You can make them feel small very easily. No one has told me I have to behave a certain way. I believe you can get somewhere with someone without beating up on them. So far it has never suggested that there will be pressure to behave in a certain way. I always tend to be myself anyway."
And herself, as I soon find out, has a side that can deploy tough love or even no love when necessary.
The Irish are "too fat", she tells me bluntly. The regional hospitals here are rubbish, she adds. "I wouldn't go into any of those peripheral hospitals," she says.
"If you get sick you don't want to be in any of those places. People don't know how bad they are. Get on a bus or a bike. You want to be in a centre of excellence. I'd go to London."
When asked who would be her favourite famous person to perform a transformation on, she instantly says: "Brian Cowen . . . I'd love to get my hands on him."
What about Health Minister James Reilly, who has recently stated his ambition to lose weight and get fitter? Surely he'd be perfect? I spot a small twitch flicker around her eye. "It would be harder to suppress my inner turmoil in that case," she replies.
"I think I'd let him stay just as he is. That would be good enough for him."
Married with four children, Ciara graduated from UCD in 1997 and did her postgraduate training at Trinity College. She is a partner in a family GP practice in Greystones and juggles her day job with media work (she has written for the Sunday Independent and is due to appear on George Hook's radio show).
Her knowledge of the commitment involved in weight loss came from personal experience, she tells me.
"I had four pregnancies. After the first one I was a little bit heavier, after the second a little heavier again, after the third even heavier again and after the fourth one I was three stones heavier than I am now.
"I saw myself in a photograph and I thought 'enough is enough'. I'd never thought of myself as a fat person but I knew that had to change."
Dieting and exercise were the dull but necessary keys, she says, and encouragement was also a key ingredient. "My husband was more Dr Ciara than Dr Eva. He never said anything to me (about my weight) but I think he's happy with the way I am now."
While a photograph was her own spur toward change, Ciara says that health rather than looks should be the incentive for transformation.
"Excess weight affects joints, your heart, your fertility and your risks of cancer. There is a level of denial around these knock-on effects. If I say to people in my surgery, 'the reason your knee is hurting is because you're two stone overweight', they sometimes glaze over. I want to get people a little more active, eat a little healthier and stop smoking. Two-thirds of ill health – no exaggeration – would be cured overnight if you could wave that magic wand."
Still, she's aiming less for "miraculous changes" on the show, she says, and more "building blocks that people can use for the rest of their lives".
"If you look at last year's leaders – one of them has become a personal trainer, one of them is a life coach, one of them is running marathons. You only really go on this show if you're kind of desperate. Their knees hurt, they're out of breath walking up their stairs, they can't play with their kids. One woman said she can't close the bar in Funderland and she was made to get off a ride."
She was "really impressed" by the show's participants when she saw them earlier this week in Santry.
"They said brutally honest, humiliating things, which the whole country will see, and the thing I've heard over and over again is 'I've lost my way'.''
But how does this overwhelming emphasis on health and self-esteem – she says she doesn't care if the Operation Transformation leaders "even brush their hair" – tally with her own practice, in which she offers Botox to everyone from women in their 20s to men who, she says, are trying to seek an edge in a competitive jobs market?
"It's a small part of what we do," she adds. "I have lot of patients who've had work done. I'd like to point out I inject Botox as opposed to I take Botox.
"It's a transient effect. It's like colouring your hair."
When George Hook asks her how she's going to make him look better, she tells him his "rugged good looks" are fine as they are. And James Reilly can sleep easy.