Dawn of a new era
In the last year, TV presenter Dawn O'Porter has had a baby, launched a fashion business, and started her latest book. She tells Liadan Hynes how she's more productive since becoming a mum, and about the instant attraction between her and husband Chris O'Dowd
'I just felt like I'd been reduced to being a womb," says Dawn O'Porter with a laugh. She's describing an interview she once gave which ran with the cover line 'Chris makes me broody', years before Dawn and her husband, Irish actor Chris O'Dowd, actually went on to have their first baby, Art, now eight months old.
The 36-year-old is, as it happens, so much more than the sum of her reproductive parts. A novelist, columnist, and maker of TV documentaries, most recently she has added fashion designer and business owner to the list with her online vintage-clothing store, vintage-inspired clothes line BOB by DOP, both launched last year, and now, a pop-up store in London. The shop, in Soho, is where I meet Dawn. In person she's just like her TV self; warm, engaging, and charming company.
Dawn features in this week's Angela Scanlon's Close Encounters, spending 24 hours in the company of the Irish TV presenter for her RTE2 documentary this summer. At the time of filming, Dawn and Chris were living in New York. She was working on a book, and struggling slightly with it. Now, she shrugs that off, admitting it was, unsurprisingly, just the pressure of trying to do too much so soon after having had a baby. In the past year or so, Dawn has starred in a Channel 4 documentary, This Old Thing, and released a complementary book, launched her vintage-clothing website, her own vintage-inspired collection, several pop-up stores, and worked on her next book.
O'Porter is probably most well-known for the documentaries she spent most of her 20s making. They explored everything from attitudes to women's bodies, which involved size-12 Dawn starving herself down to a size zero, to nudity, which saw her drive naked around London on an open-top bus.
In her late 20s, she ended up in LA for work and her career hit a wall. Her show failed to get recommissioned for a second series, the TV work dried up, and her confidence took a dive.
"I do remember hitting an all time low when I wrote a big article about bum-bags for the Daily Mail. And I thought, 'ok, I've peaked'," she bursts out laughing. "Or like, downwardly peaked. I was just down. I didn't want to come home, because I was happy over there. And also it was a bit of pride. So I stayed there and became broker and broker."
Around this time, Dawn met husband Chris O'Dowd, at her 30th birthday party in LA. The attraction between the two was instant, he had actually chased her on Facebook previous to the meeting, she acknowledges with a laugh. "I just fancied him. He's just a gorgeous guy. I feel absolutely adored by him." She hadn't seen his Channel 4 show The IT Crowd, and says this lack of interest in each other's career was important to the couple.
"It wasn't like we got together and both watched each other's back catalogue of work. We didn't have that relationship where it was, 'oh, I have to be your biggest fan all of a sudden'. Which I'm relieved by. And he's relieved by. We got together purely because we fancied each other. It had nothing to do with the industry. And then a year later, Bridemaids happened. I think we got together just at the right time. I can't imagine going out with someone who was really famous. Dating someone famous must be so weird. But I didn't really."
Dealing with Hollywood, where worth is measured mostly in terms of job success, at a time when her own career had stalled, was something of a challenge. "I thought, when people say to you 'what do you do?', I've got nothing to say. I should have said, 'Oh, I've made all these really great documentaries and I've written books.' But because my confidence was low I would just go, 'No, I don't do anything'," she recalls now. "I just thought, 'Am I basically a wag?' I haven't felt unconfident in my life in that respect for so long. And the only significance of it now is I wouldn't let it happen again. I work harder. I would never get complacent."
She had what she now describes as a "defining moment" when, out of the blue, a publisher, a fan of her columns, called and suggested she write a novel for teenagers. With that, Dawn says, "everything changed."
The novel was Paper Airplanes, the first of a four-part series (Goose is the second, with two still to come) based around the friendship of Renée and Flo, two 15-year-olds in Guernsey, where Dawn herself grew up. It's a beautifully written book. Renee is a roguish brunette, who lost her mother to cancer. Her grief is portrayed with heart-breaking accuracy. Dawn's own mother, Carol, died when she was just seven, also of cancer. "My teenage years were so emotive that I thought I might as well write about what I knew." Writing it was a cathartic process, she continues. "It was quite therapeutic. I realised I'd never really gone into the depths of my emotions about losing my mum. It made me realise how sad it was." Having written Paper Airplanes, she says, she "definitely felt a lot looser, more relaxed and freer as a person."
With regard to her father, he lives in Scotland. "My dad is the best guy ever. We're great, great friends. I've never lived with him but we're very close. He's coming to Ireland for Christmas actually." Dawn and Chris are spending Christmas in Ireland.
The couple married in 2012. Afterwards, Dawn changed her name from Porter, to O'Porter. "It started off as a bit of a joke," she smiles, "and then I just liked it."
Much as she knew that either way in Chris she had found 'the one', she reflects that with marriage came a certain sense of peace. "I think you just stop saying 'if' and you just say 'when'," she says in a definite manner. "There are no questions anymore. I do feel a lot more settled and secure. I just, I'm happy to use his credit card," she roars with laughter. "Is that a terrible thing to say? But you know, there's just stuff like you feel like you're a real unit. I felt like that anyway, and I don't think people need to get married to feel that way but definitely for me I just felt, 'uuuuhhh, that's relaxing'."
In the last year, Dawn became a mum herself, to son Art O'Porter. Having your own children can bring up all sorts of grief from the past, but in Dawn's case, it didn't result in an onslaught of unresolved feeling over her own mother.
"Not really, not like I thought it probably would. It was 30 years ago. There's nothing sad. You just move on. I mean it's sad that my mum won't meet my kid but then my aunty who brought me up is granty. They're granty and gruncle."
Dawn is remarkably open and honest, it's one of the things that makes her such enjoyable company. "I'm really honest, because I don't know what everyone's afraid of. People say, 'oh you can't say' and I'm like, 'why the fuck not? Who're you afraid of?'" she says emphatically.
But she admits to self-imposed censorship when it comes to speaking about her son in interviews. "As a woman in the public eye, I regret every time I talk about my kid. Because it becomes all about it. And here I am sitting in my shop with my business, and my books. I just feel like how much does a woman have to do before the main important thing is her job. So I usually don't talk about Art, and if I do it's quite cagey. But then I feel sad."
Ultimately though, Dawn's innate desire to be as honest as possible about the realities of her life overcomes this attempt at circumspection to a degree. "Being a working mum is really hard. And this year I've had enormous support from Chris, and I've managed to do all the things that I've got to do, and I feel very, very lucky. I feel that I have a bit of a responsibility, being in the public eye, to spread positivity about being a working mum. To say that since I had Art I've achieved more than I ever had before, and I've also spent an awful lot of time with him. My guilt isn't 'is Art ok?', I just miss him when I'm at work. But you just think I want to be able to talk about the reality of being a working mum without feeling that I've been reduced to being a mum.
"I mean I've had the busiest year of my life and been incredibly productive. I launched my business at seven-months pregnant. Chris and I have kind of split the childcare and made it work."
The couple live a somewhat peripatetic life for now, moving between LA, New York and London. Surprisingly though, life in general is more relaxing these days, despite the dual career and the new baby. This is largely due to a new-found ability to say 'no' when life is becoming too stressful.
"I do get overwhelmed by it all. And sometimes you just have to step away. I've had to do that a few times this year and it's just so the right thing to do. My priorities now are my baby, my books, and my business."
She's not closing the door on television work but, for now, the type of programmes Dawn makes just don't seem possible. "What you start to realise is that the things that you really care about are just being sacrificed all the time. I'm signed up to write four novels in the next four years. So, I'm doing bits of TV work and I love it, but a long-running series just can't happen right now. But you know I'd never say never on it. I hope one day I have a big glossy TV show. But if BOB's really successful I don't know if I will ever want to do that again. Now I'm in a very happy, confident place," she smiles softly. "I feel like all my projects are going very well, if someone wants to say I've got shit hair on Twitter it doesn't even touch the sides."
For the record, she has great hair.
Dawn O'Porter appears in 'Angela Scanlon's Close Encounters' at 10pm this Tuesday on RTÉ2.
The BOB pop-up store is open at 8 Newburgh St, London W1F 7RJ until January.
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