'I'm 21 stone at age 21' - Kayleigh on weight problems, and attack by bullies that left her with only partial sight
She's overcome health problems and an attack by bullies that left her with only partial sight, now singer Kayleigh Cullinan is using the same positive approach to tackle her weight. Our reporter meets Celebrity Operation Transformation's youngest leader
The words 'beach body' are a universal source of dread - conjuring up images of celebrities with impossibly trim and toned bodies frolicking in barely-there bikinis that few normal people can hope to match. However, it's achieving a beach body that Kayleigh Cullinan has set her sights on.
"You'll never see me in a tight dress - and a swimsuit would never happen," the singer says. "Next year, hopefully, myself and my boyfriend are going to go on holidays and my goal is to be in a swimsuit, and be confident in a swimsuit."
At 21st 0.5lbs, Cullinan admits that, though she has tried to shrug off any misgivings about her weight, it's something that has increasingly affected her confidence. "Before when I didn't have as much weight on I wasn't as worried about how I looked. But now, it's 'Ugh, can't wear this, I can't wear that'. It's bringing me down a good bit, so I'm very excited to get going."
The path to her bathing-suit body is as one of the leaders on RTÉ's Celebrity Operation Transformation. Cullinan and her fellow leaders - X Factor singer Mary Byrne, chef Gary O'Hanlon, social media influencer James Patrice and Sunday Independent beauty expert Triona McCarthy - will begin their diet and fitness plan this Monday. You can follow their progress online for the next month, and in four TV specials in September.
When Cullinan got the word from the production company that she would be one of the leaders on the second series of the fitness show spin-off, her reaction was one of immediate delight.
"I can't describe it. I'm so excited to be given the opportunity but also, it's something that I'm passionate about and it's something that has bugged me for so long - so I'm really looking forward to it."
She has battled with her weight for years, not helped by a thyroid problem in her teens, and admits to yo-yo dieting and undertaking every eating plan out there, including LighterLife, Slimming World, Celebrity Slim, Atkins and Weight Watchers. The Jason Vale Juice Master diet was the only one that she found any success with, losing 1.5 stone in a month. But she found the regime of four juices a day and no food unsustainable.
"I'm a foodie person and that's kind of where I went wrong with a load of the diets," she explains. "A lot of them are shakes with very minimal food, or one meal and a shake or a bar. Also, I didn't have a whole lot of motivation for dieting at the time."
She's determined that she's going to be a Celebrity Operation Transformation success story and sees the show as just the beginning point. "The show, 100pc, will not be me losing weight and then it all going back on again. That is not the plan. It's definitely a kick-start and I want to start on the show and carry on until I reach my goal."
It arguably takes a certain amount of bravery to share your weight loss endeavours with the TV-watching nation but it's not the biggest battle that Cullinan has ever faced. Aged 14, she was the victim of a street attack by school bullies where her retina became detached, resulting in 12 eye surgeries and a long recovery period. She now has 10pc vision in that eye and she also believes that the attack's aftermath, where she had to lie face down for 23 hours a day for weeks on end, contributed to her now-resolved thyroid problem.
"I'm hopefully being discharged from the Eye and Ear Hospital in a couple of weeks' time - and this is major for me because it's been my home for the past five or six years," she says. "I haven't gained any more sight, I haven't lost any more sight, it's kind of just there and it's not giving me any trouble."
The attack impacted upon her life deeply but she feels no real emotion anymore towards her attacker. "I think the problem for me all the time is that I haven't got an apology. I think that's what makes me go 'Do you know what, you could be a little bit remorseful?' She wouldn't even have to say 'it's me and I'm sorry'. Just something to my house that literally just said the words 'I'm sorry' and I'd know straight away who it's from," she says.
"Teenagers now are finding it so hard to cope with things, so adding an attack, bullying and the recovery process was major. It nearly killed me but I'm still here, I'm still fighting."
If the Kimmage woman appears familiar it's because Celebrity Operation Transformation isn't her first time on screens. She made it quarter finals of The Voice of Ireland in 2015 and wowed the judging panel. Although Bressie didn't recognise her when she sang Whitney Houston's How Will I Know, the two already had a connection. Her mother, Kathy (a music promoter who manages Cullinan) drove Bressie's tour bus and when Cullinan was going in for her operations, the musician and The Voice judge would often ask after her, sending her T-shirts and poster, and as she got better, inviting her to gigs. "When I did The Voice, he didn't realise it was me because he'd never heard me sing," she explains. "I had a great time on The Voice and we're still friends - I only saw him the day before yesterday. He's a great guy and he's very relatable to a lot of people. What he's doing for younger and older people in terms of mental health is incredible. He's a great mentor."
Cullinan too does her bit for mental health. She's an ambassador for Cycle Against Suicide, an initiative which aims to raise awareness of the help and support available for anyone battling depression, self-harm, at risk of suicide or those bereaved by suicide. Last year she performed in front of 5,000 people at the Cycle Against Suicide congress in Dublin's RDS and this year she cycled half the route across the country. Another one of her goals is to do the full cycle next year. "Suicide is something really close to my heart. Only last year on my birthday, we lost a very dear friend of ours. Myself and my younger sister have dealt really hard with the side effects of losing somebody to suicide and it's something that I'm very passionate about." Both sisters have tattoos on their arms that read HOPE, which stands for Hold On Pain Eases, which they both got on Suicide Awareness Day. "We made a promise to be strong to each other. It's kind of a personal thing, but we love it."
Although she's not hard-core dieting in advance of the show, neither is she tempted to go on binges before knuckling down to a healthy eating regime. "Our weight is already out there so I think we have to maintain before the show," she says. "I am definitely a little bit more relaxed than usual but I'm also thinking that if I put on a heap of weight now, I'll be just losing the weight I've put on. I haven't changed anything drastically."
She has, however, stopped drinking Coke in favour of green tea "which is a little bit depressing" after being shocked on discovering her favourite drink's sugar content. "I realised I was using it as a crutch and it was more of a habit than anything."
She's not perturbed by media images of thin women and believes that celebrities like Beyoncé and Kylie Jenner are increasingly making more realistic figures the norm, albeit while still not being representative of the average female. What does annoy her, however, is the lack of fashionable clothes options available for curvier women. "I don't understand why they can't make clothes bigger. It's almost that if they make clothes bigger that they have to accept that it's okay to be that size," she says. "It is frustrating that you can't get clothes without looking like an old woman when you're 22 or 20. It's as if you're over size 16, you shouldn't dress in nice clothes."
Younger sisters Danielle and Rhonette are enthusiastic about her becoming a leader and are getting behind her in various ways, including the necessary tidying of bedrooms in advance of the Operation Transformation TV cameras. "They've seen me yo-yo diet, they've seen me struggle with weight so I think they're excited to see me actually do it because I think they realise this time I'm not messing around," she says. "For me, it's not a competition - we're all on our own personal journeys, so they're all up for doing their own healthy eating and coming along with me for workouts."
Despite her upbeat attitude, she does confess to being nervous about saying yes to the show. "My weight is something that I've dealt with for an awful long time and struggled with, so for everyone to be watching you, that's a huge amount of pressure. And I also know that the five of us are very much in the same boat in the sense that we have to lose weight, we don't have a choice. If we don't lose weight it will be: 'Oh, she must have snuck something in or had a cookie'. But for me it's got to the stage where it doesn't matter, I'm just looking forward to it."
Her boyfriend James is also proving to be a pillar of strength. They've been together for five months now and she says he's been thrown in a little at the deep end by all of this.
"He lives in Cavan, works in Aldi and leads a really quiet life. We're not very long together and suddenly it's 'will you do an interview? You might be on the telly'. He's really healthy, he plays football twice a week and he runs cross country." They met online. She explains: "We weren't sure whether we were going to say that and we were going to say we met in a bar or whatever but realistically we're proud of each other and where we met. He's been a really great support. Already he's like 'I saw this today and I might cook this when I come down.' So it's really nice to have someone who's pushing you on."
The TV show isn't the only thing keeping her occupied over the coming weeks. September also sees Cullinan release an album called Made a Wish, which she has been working on for three years. She describes it as being a classical/contemporary crossover, not unlike Il Divo, and not the kind of music you'd expect a 21-year-old to make.
Music has been her solace for many years. "I've said it time and time again, that if I didn't have music, I wouldn't be here. It's very clichéd to say it but music saved me 100pc. Having something to put all my negativity in definitely turned out to be positive. It was my backbone throughout everything I was going through," she says.
She already has a buddy on Celebrity Operation Transformation. Mary Byrne is managed by her mother Kathy and Cullinan has worked as Byrne's backing vocalist, with their friendship developing from there. "We've been shopping together and we've gone to restaurants together and we both really know what it is to be plus size women. I know I'm really looking forward to having her on the journey with me as well," she says.
"I think this year is a great bunch of people and we're all looking forward to getting stuck in and losing weight but we're also looking forward to having the craic as well."
Her schedule is busy and any downtime is spent with her two-year-old godson Joshua, her 13-month-old cousin Molly, who has Down Syndrome ("she is lighting up our lives at the moment") and her Yorkie dog Teddy, who according to his owner doesn't know if he's a dog or a child any more because her boyfriend has spoiled him so much. What's clearly apparent about Cullinan is that she has a glass-half-full attitude. "I don't do negativity any more," she says. "The first year after I was attacked, I was a very negative person. I didn't want to be around anybody, I didn't want to socialise with anybody and I kind of just retreated myself. But then I found music and found out that everyone in the world doesn't want to hurt you, so I'm an extremely positive person."
For more see rte.ie/ot
Photography: Frank McGrath
Make-up: Rhona Callinan
Hair: Julia McDonnell
With thanks to: The Address at Dublin 1, Amiens Street, Dublin 1. (01) 836 3136; theaddressatdublin1