Wednesday 26 June 2019

'Are you coming on to say you're gay?' - what Miriam O'Callaghan asked Leo Varadkar before THAT interview

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar in RTE studios with Miriam O'Callaghan after he came publicly as gay on the show. Maxpix/Julien Behal
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar in RTE studios with Miriam O'Callaghan after he came publicly as gay on the show. Maxpix/Julien Behal
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar in RTE studios on Sunday

Lise Hand

Leo wavered at the brink.

A usually breezy interviewee, the Health Minister was displaying the uncharacteristic hesitancy of someone picking their way across uncertain terrain. His words were punctuated with nervous laughter and pauses.

It was just over 12 minutes into what Miriam O'Callaghan had announced would be an interview about the person rather than the politician. "We're going to put his public role aside, and find out a little bit more about the man himself," she had said at the start of the show.

Miriam had guided him gradually to the brink and calmly invited him to take the leap into the headlines and the history books. "You are 36 today, you are by all accounts very eligible, but you haven't settled down yet, have you?" she asked.

Read more here: Varadkar on track to be first gay Taoiseach 

Few enough listeners would've known where this question was leading. But Leo did, and dawdled a while, replying that he had put his career first but more recently had "made time for relationships with other people".

Leo Varadkar
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar
Minister for Health Leo Varadkar leaving RTE Radio studios this morning after his interview with Miriam O'Callaghan Pic: El Keegan
18/01/2015. Pictured is Minister for Health Leo Varadkar in the RTE radio studios where he told Miriam O'Callaghan he was a "gay man" and it was "no secret". Photo: El Keegan

Miriam prodded him gently. "And what kind of a relationship would you be looking for?" she prompted. Leo took a deep breath, and jumped. "I am a gay man," he stated. "It's not a secret."

Well, not any more it isn't. Cue the clatter of forkfuls of rashers hitting plates in kitchens around Ireland.

The minister had arrived in RTE with a small number of staff, including his special adviser, Nick Miller. "Leo was definitely nervous when he sat down in the studio," said one observer. "It's a big step for anyone to take, let alone a senior member of the Cabinet."

But Leo's decision to come out as Ireland's first acknowledged gay government minister hadn't been an impulsive one. He had been mulling over it for some time, and several months ago, Miller had approached Miriam's producer Alan Torney to discuss the possibility of Leo doing a personal interview. For over a year, Miriam had been keen to land a chat with one of the more intriguing individuals in Irish politics, and the show had put in several requests.

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Naturally, Miriam was delighted, but she had no inkling of any motive on the part of the minister. "I thought it might be about his Indian heritage, I wasn't sure," she told the Irish Independent.

"I didn't know for a fact that Leo Varadkar was gay. I had heard the rumours but that's all it was."

They had settled on a Sunday before Christmas, but then the heartbreaking story broke concerning a clinically dead pregnant woman being kept alive in a Midlands Hospital, and the interview was cancelled. A new date was arranged for the New Year, but then the A&E trolley crisis erupted, and it was postponed again by the minister's office.

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar
'So it is no bad thing at this point in time that Varadkar is now in the mix. He has seen first hand what sporting organisations can achieve, and what they are really about'
Health Minister Leo Varadkar (centre) with Leinster rugby star Kevin McLaughlin and RTE weather presenter Nuala Carey at the launch of ‘On the Dry’, aimed at encouraging people who have given up drink for January to pass on the proceeds to the Irish Heart Foundation. Photo: Photocall
Taoiseach Enda Kenny T.D., left, and Leo Varadkar T.D

"A number of human dramas played out around the country which were priorities," said an insider. "When you're going public by putting your heart on your sleeve, the timing can't be seen as insensitive".

Read more here: Profile: A young gun with his eye on the top job 

By Christmas, rumours were rife among the political media that Leo was going to publicly come out as gay on a radio or TV show. Marian Finucane's Saturday programme was mooted as a likely option, or the 'Late Late Show'.

But Miriam, the queen of empathy, was the interviewer of choice for this intensely private man to open up about his sexuality.

However, even before she realised this momentous declaration was in the offing, the 'Prime Time' presenter was determined to secure what she knew would be an interesting interview. Despite his sky-high public profile, Leo remained largely an enigma to the electorate.

Towards the end of last week, when the interview still hadn't been confirmed for yesterday's show, the broadcaster seized the moment on Thursday evening when the Health Minister was in RTE doing a 'Prime Time' interview on hospital waiting lists.

Read more here: Self-congratulations of liberals won't pass gay marriage vote 

"After I finished talking to him, he was leaving the studio while I was still to do an item," said Miriam.

"But I followed him and I said, 'Look, I gather you are keen to do a personal piece with me'.

He said 'Yes, I am,' and I said 'Well, what about this Sunday?'" she recalled. Leo had that he was "happy" to do the interview on Sunday - unless something happened to derail it again.

Aware by now of the swirling rumours, Miriam took a chance. "I took a deep breath and I said, 'Can I ask you something that is perhaps inappropriate?' He just looked at me, and this was taking place at the side of the 'Prime Time' studio, and David McCullagh was still on air.

I asked him, 'Are you coming on to say you are gay?' and he said: 'Yes, I am Miriam' and that was that," she revealed.

Read more here: Leo's sexuality is irrelevant to the debate on marriage 

Sources close to Leo said that while other shows were considered, the interview went to Miriam as they have a rapport and he feels comfortable with her.

And feeling comfortable was key. No matter how much he had psyched himself up in advance, no matter how much support and encouragement he received beforehand from his family, friends and colleagues, it still took tremendous guts and gumption to open up about such an immensely personal subject.

But to a rare political beast like Leo Varadkar who embraces honesty rather than evades it, the only thing worse than talking about something, was not talking about it. Thus he did so, with remarkable frankness and dignity in an interview conducted with great sensitivity. "It was clear that he was hugely relieved at the end of it, and afterwards he was absolutely delighted with the reaction and support he was getting on Twitter and so on," said the studio insider.

Read more here: Full transcript of Leo Varadkar’s interview with Miriam O’Callaghan 

Then a lighter-of-heart Leo left RTE and got on with his day off.

He went for a run. And it being Sunday, he headed to the Lennox Cafe in the city centre for brunch. In the evening, he called to his sister's house for a birthday dinner - but no celebratory beer, as he's off it for Dry January.

A normal sort of afternoon, really. And the world didn't end.

Irish Independent

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