Wednesday 21 February 2018

Elaine Crowley gives us a lesson in being human, says Brendan O'Connor

Elaine Crowley has been disarmingly honest about her battle with weight, loneliness and depression. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Elaine Crowley has been disarmingly honest about her battle with weight, loneliness and depression. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

You could do worse than look to Elaine Crowley as a role model for your daughters.

This will seem odd, particularly in this space, but bear with me. There is something going on that I feel we should note. And in its own way, it's as important as all the political noise that we are consumed with this week, and that we'll forget about it in a few weeks as we move onto the next drama.

Elaine Crowley, for those of you who don't know her, is a presenter on TV3, and is currently taking part in RTE's Celebrity Operation Transformation. And Elaine, it has to be said, is having something of a moment with the Irish people.

Putting celebrities into Operation Transformation has proved a genius move, because it has taken any notion of victimhood or unfairness out of the show. There can be no suggestion that these are vulnerable people forced to strip down to their jocks as some kind of freak show for our entertainment. These are celebrities, in that Irish way, so the power relationship is equal. They choose to be there, they want the attention on some level, and they know the game.

And perhaps it is because they know the game that the first show was so affecting, and felt so real. Of course, the reality varied. Gerald Kean spent the first week of his weight-loss programme denying himself the hotel buffet in Miami and his "dinner with friends" - where he was abstemious about dessert - involved, naturally, Bill Cullen and Jackie Lavin.

But there were other moments in there, such as Katherine Lynch's admission that, after her father's death, her grief had thrown her off kilter for years. It was a telling moment about Irish women's relationships with their dads, and it was a kickback against a culture that tells us that we must move on quickly after bereavement, and that to not move on is to wallow and indulge.

But it was, in many ways, Elaine Crowley who dropped a real bomb into proceedings. She used a word that still has the power to make people flinch. It is a word that is perhaps a bigger taboo than talking about being fat or talking about mental illness, both things which Elaine has done in recent years.

What she said on TV the other night was that she is on her own, and that sometimes it is lonely.

There's something about dropping the L word, isn't there? Unless you are old, you are not supposed to be lonely these days. Our whole culture is built around connectedness and sharing and manically 'friending' each other.

And while loads of people are still presumably lonely in the middle of all that, no one really admits it. Maybe because it might be seen as weak.

Elaine Crowley said it in a matter-of-fact way. She has friends, a successful career, all that; but sometimes, when she goes home and there is no one else there, it is lonely.

Indeed, Elaine has said that sometimes it is this loneliness that causes her to eat too much. She told Niamh Horan in this paper: "I eat when I feel lonely".

She talked too about how this became a vicious cycle. She would go home and order a takeaway meal for two to fill that void of loneliness, and that eating would in turn make her feel fatter, and thus she would sometimes avoid going out or seeing friends.

She has talked in the past, too, about isolation. Elaine suffers from depression and has been diagnosed also, it seems, with dysphoria, a general sense of dissatisfaction. I remember former Sunday Independent journalist Brighid McLaughlin used to talk about people who were born one or two gin-and-tonics behind in life. That's what dysphoria sounds like.

At the worst of her depression, Elaine would isolate herself, because she didn't want to infect other people. It is a common thing with depressives that we probably don't talk about enough. We are great for telling depressives to talk to their friends and break the stigma and all that, and we talk about them being isolated sometimes.

But the truth is that many depressives isolate themselves, and that, too, becomes a vicious cycle. You need people, but you can't bear to be around them, because you feel like a burden, so it gets worse.

Elaine Crowley also talked in VIP magazine last week about another aspect of her loneliness, the fact that she never had children. She said that she has regrets in hindsight, and that: "If I had been in a relationship and kids had been an option, I would have had them, but I haven't even been in a long-term relationship and I wouldn't do it by myself."

And yes, there's that, too. She has never had a long-term relationship.

If all of this sounds like Elaine Crowley is a victim, then I am not conveying her well. Because she says none of these things with a sense of victimhood.

About the children thing, she goes on to say: "I probably beat myself up over it and there's enough regrets in life to be regretting that." None of what she says ever seeks to elicit sympathy. She is matter-of-fact about it.

The loneliness admission on TV the other night, she didn't dwell on either. She just says these things, it seems, because they are true, and she accepts that part of her role as a public person who deals in people telling their stories is that she tells her own.

And maybe she just thinks that this is what it is being human, and why wouldn't she talk about it?

And there is something magnificent about Elaine Crowley, with all this baggage - the depression, the loneliness, the weight, the regrets - that she is somehow not a victim.

Because she flies in the face of the culture we live in, where even privileged celebrities claim victimhood at every turn.

Male celebrities, who are big enough and rich enough not to care, moan about online insults. Calvin Harris, who gets a quarter of a million for playing a few records of an evening, is still presenting himself as a victim after breaking up with Taylor Swift a year ago.

A massive Hollywood star like Jennifer Lawrence, one of the highest-paid actors in the world, strikes a blow for oppressed women everywhere by complaining she gets paid less than the male star on a movie. As if her experience is in any way relevant to most women facing a glass ceiling in work. Everyone wants a piece of victimhood these days, because in a strange way, it is the new privilege, the new untouchability.

Elaine Crowley does not seem to seek the protective cloak of victimhood, though she has a lot to be a victim about. Instead of taking exception when she's asked in an interview about not having children, as many of the poor put-upon celebrities do these days, she talks about it matter-of-factly, and goes on to discuss the broader issue of the difficulties women face in advancing their careers while having children.

Elaine Crowley has been referred to, and has even referred to herself, as an Irish Bridget Jones. But in fact, there is much, much more to her than this.

In an age of victimhood, she is talking frankly and plainly and without self-pity about the issues that concern our culture, from body image and self-esteem through mental health to feminism and the choices faced by women. She has heart without sentimentality, and she has balls but with a sense of humour.

Keep an eye on her over the next few weeks.

You could come across worse role models for your daughters.

Gene Kerrigan is on leave. He returns next week.

Sunday Independent

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