Saturday 18 August 2018

Vivienne Connolly: 'I'm a strong person but very soft underneath'

Vivienne Connolly returns as scheming man-eater Ingrid in 'Fair City' next week. She tells our reporter about acting, ageing and life after divorce

Vivienne Connolly: 'Time is the most valuable thing you have. Spend it with the people you love.' Photo: David Conachy
Vivienne Connolly: 'Time is the most valuable thing you have. Spend it with the people you love.' Photo: David Conachy
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

The bitch is back. Strong woman- cum-manipulative man-eater Ingrid Gleeson is about to return to Fair City after a five-year absence. The long-running RTE soap rang Vivienne Connolly in April to ask about her availability and interest in revising the role. The phone call came on the day of her son Ben Junior's Confirmation - his grandfather is Ben Dunne. "And it was funny because Katie," Vivienne says referring to her other child by ex-husband, supermarket heir Mark Dunne, "had only said a couple of weeks before that she'd love it if I was back on Fair City as she was so young the last time and wasn't allowed to watch it."

"I was on Fair City in 2011 and 2012," says Vivienne. "I come back for a while to stir things up. I can't say much more than that at the moment! You'll have to tune in," she laughs.

How did Ingrid acquire the reputation as a wicked, scheming hussy?

"I think because she was having a relationship with another guy, and then came back and took Louie, her ex, back from Carol, broke up their marriage at the altar - and headed back to America with him. That will probably do it every time!"

Acting came to her initially. In 1997, Vivienne, who was then one of Ireland's foremost models, was working on The Late Late Show fashion awards.

"The cameraman on the show, Tim Lawless, was friends with Brendan O'Carroll, and Brendan was doing a play called The Course and he was looking for someone to play a certain role and Tim suggested me for it."

Vivienne auditioned for the part and got it. "We played in The Olympia for six weeks and then in the Everyman in Cork. It was great fun."

Despite this, Vivienne left acting "for a while" (actually a decade) as she was making more money modelling. She took it up again in 2009, training with The Irish Film Academy with Rachel Sarah Murphy and then intensive training with Terry McMahon and David Scott. It was in November, 2010, in Oedipus at Dublin's Smock Alley, that Vivienne's performance as another strong woman - Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes, who along with her husband King Laius, binds their child's ankles and sends him off to the wilderness to perish - caught the eye of Fair City producer Brigie de Courcy, who was in the audience. "She asked me to audition, which I did, and was lucky enough to get the part of Ingrid."

Asked to describe her character, Vivienne says: "Ingrid is all about her family and kids. She will go to any lengths for her kids, she is a no-nonsense kind of person but I think she has a vulnerable side."

And you?

"Me? I am like her in that I will do anything for my kids," she replies. "I'm a strong person with a great sense of fun. I'm loyal and honest and always seeking new adventures.

"I'm a strong person, but I'm very soft underneath. My dad always said my bladder was too close to my eyes, because I cry so easily."

To the best of my memory, the 1913 author of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, Marcel Proust, has never been officially referenced on Fair City in its 28 years on the national airwaves. Be that as it may, Vivienne Connolly's memory is positively Proustian. She can remember going to her granny's house in Limerick, at four years of age, for Christmas.

Her granny's name was Anne but people affectionately called her Bunny. She was, "a fab lady, who never drank or smoked. She was an amazing cook." That Christmas, in Limerick, the cooking was extra special, as was the festive atmosphere around the house. All her cousins were there too - Olivia, Cornelia, Darren, Gillian and Shane - "and I made everyone kneel in front of the crib on Christmas morning and pray and say happy birthday to Jesus before we opened our presents. I remember wanting to acknowledge the meaning of the day,'' smiles Vivienne before laughing.

"Or, maybe, I was praying Santa had brought me the right presents."

Growing up in a four-bedroomed house on two-and-a-half acres in Kilmeaney, Co Carlow, Vivienne Lee Connolly was born on November 23, 1972, the middle child in a family of five (between older siblings Derek and Lorna, and younger siblings Carl and sister Elaine). She went to school at St Leo's Convent nearby. The daughter of Liz and John, who ran a dry cleaners and drapery shop in Carlow town, she describes her childhood as "very happy, very carefree, fun, loving".

"It was a very close-knit family, which gives you strength." Vivienne was very close to her aunts and uncles, Bernadette and Gerard Bourke, Teresa Lenihan, Anne Walsh et al. "They spent time with us and played games which I think gives a child self-esteem and self-worth - to know that these people enjoy spending their time with you, as your time is the most precious gift you can give to anyone," she says.

"They would all play rounders and charades with us - the boys against the girls. There was good, healthy competition and a few obligatory rows thrown in, generally over the rules. It was always fun and we enjoyed winding each other up, and even the people who didn't want to play at the start ended up joining in and enjoying it." Her parents have been married for what seems like forever. Vivienne's high-profile marriage to Mark Dunne ended in 2010. They went for their first date in The Barge Pub in Ranelagh, Dublin, in 2000 and were married on December 3, 2005, in Ashford Castle. They were legally separated in April 2011.

Did the break-up feel almost extra painful on some levels because Vivienne expected and wanted to have the same long marriage as her mum and dad?

"Yes it did, because I never expected to be in that situation and obviously the hardest part was its effect on the kids. As I said, my family are quite traditional, so it was tough on everyone."

Vivienne previously told me: "And without being selfish, that was one of the things I couldn't get past for a long time: I felt very selfish. I kept saying to my sisters - 'How can I do this to my kids? Take their father away? Take that whole unit away?' That's the one thing I always miss, the family unit, because I had it."

I ask her how she dealt with that emotionally? "You just have to go with what feels right at the time, trust your guts and do your best. Sometimes you just have to learn on the job and that's what I did. I thought it was better to bring Ben and Katie up with two happy parents rather than in an unhappy environment where they were never going to flourish.

"People kept saying me 'you're so brave'. My response was, there is a very fine line between brave and stupid. I just did what I had to do and it was the hardest thing I've every been through. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone," she says.

"But I wouldn't recommend staying in an unhappy marriage to anyone either. Myself and Mark have two very strong personalities, I think that's one of the reasons it didn't work out."

Why, in hindsight, does Vivienne think they broke up?

"Neither of us was happy and it just wasn't working anymore. I would rather leave it at that. Mark deserves his privacy and so do the kids. Myself and Mark get on great now, thank God. He is a great father to Ben and Katie and they were our priority through all of this."

She says that being a mother to Ben and Katie - born on April 22, 2004, and August 22, 2006, respectively - is "the best and most satisfying job in the world. It can also be one of the toughest. It has made me realise what life is all about, there is nothing more precious than your children. It has made me value my time a lot more as you see just how quickly it goes by," Vivienne says, adding that Ben started secondary school last Thursday.

"Like how did that happen so fast? It's amazing watching them growing into young men and women. It makes you more appreciative and grateful, especially when you hear others aren't so lucky. It has definitely made me more patient, because you have to be, and probably taught me not to sweat about the small stuff. I always say to Katie, if something is stressing her to delay the worry. And it works."

How does Vivienne look back on the somewhat precocious Carlow girl, who once said to her parents at the kitchen table: "I can't believe I'm nine years old and haven't been out of the country yet."

What possessed her to come out with something like that? "You know, its funny because I remember saying that so clearly and I remember how serious I was, how much I meant it," Vivienne says, 35 years later.

"I think it was a natural urge inside me to see the world. I was curious and wanted to see everything, and when I started travelling I didn't stop and I'm not done yet. I think it's so true that travelling broadens your mind. It just completely enriches your life and you gain experience that you can pass onto your children."

Asked what it has taught her, Vivienne says "to really listen to my own kids and know that there is a lot of meaning in what they say and it can be quite revealing of their future personalities, because children shoot from the hip. They are honest - out of the mouth of babes and all that. Ben and Katie already love travelling and are very good at navigating airports and cities and other cultures which can only be a positive thing."

One of Vivienne Connolly's favourite books is Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Spend a bit of time in her company and it kind of shows. Prone to much philosophical self-analysis, Vivienne believes that life is "a great teacher" and "all of our experiences form who we are. Life has taught me that sometimes, or even often, things are not within your control... that the stuff that you worry about is usually not the stuff that actually happens to you; things come out of the blue and bite you on the ass, but I do believe, what's meant for you won't go by you, and that there is a bigger picture.

"It has taught me that time is the most valuable thing you have and spend it the best way you can with the people you love. Don't have regrets, they are a waste of time. Stop procrastinating and just do it!" she says, and then, without missing a beat: "Worrying never changes the result. So don't do it."

Does ageing worry her?

"My age has never bothered me," she says. "Ageing isn't easy for anyone, but it's inevitable. So my approach is just to embrace it and if you are having a tough day, just remind yourself how lucky you are to be here - a lot of sick kids and adults who didn't make it to this age would have given anything for the chance to grow old. It's the circle of life. Just make the most of it all."

As such, Vivienne has been using up her air miles with the abandon of the nine-year-old child who admonished her parents for never having been out of the country. She went to Australia in January for five weeks. "It was something I have been trying to do for a long time as I have two good friends living over there, but it wasn't easy to get that block of time together and I was nervous at the thought of leaving the kids for so long, but I took the bull by the horns and decided it wasn't going to happen unless I made it happen. So I booked my ticket in November on my birthday - a birthday present to me! - and I had one of those moments when you press the button on your computer of 'Oh my God, I am really doing this!'" she laughs.

"Obviously, I had discussed the possibility with Mark and he was more than happy to have the kids for that time," adds Vivienne, who has also travelled to Marrakech, Rome, New York and Paris over the last couple of years, and most recently, the Algarve, where she has a second home. "I'm heading back to the Algarve next week for Gail Kaneswaran's wedding."

Apropos of all this consciousness-expanding travelling and accumulation of truth about the world from her own life experiences, former top model Vivienne is currently setting up her website.

She will be blogging about fashion, beauty, travel and lifestyle. "There is also a parenting section and I will answer any questions people have, from single parenting to advice on separations. There are a lot of people out there who feel they are alone and I want them to know that they are not. There are a lot of girls blogging and covering fashion and beauty for the younger age group but there is a definite gap when it comes to women in their 40s," she says, "also we can work through navigating the dating scene".

I ask her if there is any romance in her life? "Not at the moment," she says. "I need to get back in the dating scene."

Clearly not overly keen to dwell on the subject of her love life, Vivienne changes tack. "I think life is short so I like to make the most of it. I love seeing other people happy and I love surprising people, like I did earlier this year, when I took my mum to Paris for her birthday, because she had never been before," Vivienne says.

"She loved it. We did all the touristy bits for the first few days because I knew my sisters were flying in on the Friday."

Vivienne and her mother were enjoying lunch by the Eiffel Tower. She had planned it so that her mother's back was turned, so she couldn't see her two other daughters, Lorna and Elaine "come up behind her and frighten the life out of her. We were all in tears."

As the men on Fair City will be when Ingrid Gleeson returns next week.

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