'I just want to live my life happily'
She was voted off Failte Towers last week, but young Donna McCaul also raised thousands for Aware, the charity close to her heart. The singer has found happiness with another woman after a childhood in Athlone marked by sadness, loss and panic attacks. Barry Egan met her
It is a fine state of affairs when you start fancying 20-year-old lesbians in The Shelbourne bar. But Walkinstown singer-songwriter Lauren White has a smile that beams brighter than a full moon. Not surprisingly, her girlfriend looks at her moonily all evening. I don't blame her. They haven't seen each other for almost two weeks. Primarily because the aforementioned girlfriend is Donna McCaul who, with her younger brother Joe, has been bringing joie de vivre to the nation in Failte Towers, RTE's new hit celebrity show.
Donna has a certain out-of-kilter Dolores O'Riordan look to her, coupled with the most piercing azure eyes. Miss McCaul also has an endearing culchie vernacular (she uses words like "ye" and puts "like" and "stuff like that" at the end of sentences) and never appears to stop smiling.
"She's the smiley one," Lauren concurs. "She's bubbly and the room lights up when she walks in, because everybody sticks to her."
"That's because I'm a little messer, like," Donna agrees, "and they think, 'Oh, here's the little mad one'."
Fair play to The Little Mad One, though. Through her "12 or 13 days including the two days training", Donna raised over €30,000 for Aware. Asked was there any personal reason why she picked that charity, she hedges at first, saying that she "doesn't want to get too much into... because of people close to us who would get upset." She eventually becomes more candid.
"Yeah, we did lose a few people close to us due to suicide and stuff like that," she says. "Aware is for depression but it also has groups for suicidal people as well." She claims that she never suffered from depression herself. "Thank God, because it is an awful thing to have," she says, drinking her glass of rose champagne in the bar of the hotel on Wednesday night -- her first proper drink, she says, since getting out of the show last night; Lauren is on the whiskey and red lemonade.
"I know a lot of people who do suffer from it. It is not a very nice thing for their family," she continues. "But what can you say to them when they are really down and when anything you do seems not to help? At the minute in Ireland, there are 500 people who take their own lives every year. So it is obvious that there is not enough help for them."
In a bid to lighten the mood, I ask her how often she thought she was cracking up inside Failte Towers. "Oh, a few times," she laughs. "We all had it really tough in the house, like. I cried a good few times. It was once on TV when I really broke down. That was because it was so stressful. People don't realise how stressful it was. Everyone was breaking down. I saw a complete and utter difference in Evelyn Cusack."
"She was a completely different woman the day she left," Donna claims. "When she walked in, she was all happy with rosy cheeks. In the end, she was literally blocking everything out, like a zombie. She was on the verge of having a complete and utter breakdown."
Even allowing for exaggeration, Donna's success on Failte Towers perhaps shows just how un-homophobic Ireland is: that an openly gay woman went so far in a show where the Irish public's votes decided who stayed and who was booted out says possibly more about the reality of Ireland 2008 than anything on the so-called reality TV show.
"I suppose they must have been pro-gay, or they wouldn't have voted for me. I know it has not only to do with me and Joe, because we were in there for a charity. They were probably voting for the charity as well," Donna says.
In her groundbreaking book Sexual Personae, American feminist and lesbian Camille Paglia was vilified for her political incorrectness by labelling lesbians as miserable. Tonight in the Shelbourne Donna and Lauren are anything but. They both laugh out loud when I ask Donna who did she dislike the most in the hotel. "Nobody. There were a few who ... look, I loved everyone," she says.
She never felt the inclination to give Michelle Heaton a slap at various points?
"No, actually," Donna claims, "I got on really well with Michelle. And before I went in, there were people saying to me, 'Watch out for her'."
Did you fancy her?
"Did I fancy her? No!" Donna laughs as Lauren tells her: "You'd better be careful!"
"Michelle is a very pretty girl but she is not my type. And even if I wasn't in a relationship, I still wouldn't be attracted to her. But she is a good-looking girl." For some reason, my mind is drawn to the show's sparky judge Bibi Baskin. I am thinking of that famous time when Gerry Ryan, during a radio discussion on whether people would like to be buried or cremated when they die, asked a caller where would he like to be buried. Answer: "Up to me balls in Bibi Baskin!"
I wonder would Donna like to be buried in Ms Baskin.
"Would I fancy Bibi?" Donna shrieks. "She's a good-looking woman."
Lauren interrupts: "A very good-looking woman, I tell you, for her age."
As the haughty habitues of the Shelbourne look askance, Donna and Lauren are both busily chewing gum, practically in unison, "because we just had a Chinese. We're minting away!" Donna laughs. I could just imagine the two of them having a 'rainbow baby' or 'gayby' one day. "Yeah, I would definitely like to have children one day," Donna says. Lauren didn't get to watch her girlfriend on the show every night. She was away in Portugal with family. Donna, she says, was supposed to go away with her "but then the show came up". Lauren says she felt it "very hard" to be apart from Donna during the run of the show. They have lived together since Stephens Day last year. "I was a Christmas present!" Lauren recalls with a giggle. " I arrived on her door with my bags and said, 'I'm here! I'm moving in!'"
In a relationship a year now, Donna and Lauren met in a club in Dublin and, says Donna, one thing led to another at a house party in Crumlin. "We sang songs together that night to each other," Lauren says. "Because she sings and writes songs, we had something in common."
"We were seeing each other a week or two before we decided to give it a go in a relationship," Donna says.
"And we haven't looked back," Lauren says.
From time to time, Donna perhaps does look back on her life. She hasn't always had an easy time of it. Born May 30th 1984, she grew up in Athlone, obviously in conflict with her sexuality. "It is more open here in Dublin about gay people than it would be in Athlone." She was going on 22 when she came out as a lesbian. Once she told her mother and her friends the decision wasn't, she says, difficult. Her mother Helen is, she says, "very comfortable" with her being gay. "The way she looks at it is if I'm happy in life, that's all that matters to her," Donna says. "She's happy if that's what makes me happy. I just want to live my life happily."
Her father Gerry lives in England. She hasn't been in contact, she says, for a long time. She doesn't think he even knows about Failte Towers. Her father has been gone 19 years. "I would have been about four going on five. He wasn't around for much of her life, she recalls. How it affected her psychologically to grow up without a father is a question she has obviously considered at some length. "It affected me to a big extent," she says referring to his leaving, "and it did the others. But the thing was it hit me for some reason harder because maybe I was the middle child."
In what ways, did it hit her the hardest?
"Growing up I would have had problems and difficult kinds of illnesses and panic attacks and stuff like that which I went to see someone about. It all boiled down to ... him and absence in the family."
And when she worked through that issue, did the panic attacks stop?
"Completely stopped. But it took a long time, because in school I became very claustrophobic. I didn't want to do anything. I didn't want to go out. I didn't want to go into town with my friends. I was just into myself. I just decided, 'This isn't working. I'm just pulling myself down and I'm not going to get anywhere in life.' I said I was going to go and do something with my life today. Then I took the opportunity to do You're A Star and that's what got me out of it."
She had her first panic attack when she was seven years old. Her father left, she says, when she was four. She says she "kind of" realised at that age that he was gone. She adds that she fully realised "that there is no dad there" a few years later. She explains that her mother -- "a very quiet woman, but strong to raise six children on her own and go through what she went through" -- did a fantastic job in difficult circumstances to say the least.
Donna tells how touched she was recently when a young boy came up to her in a shopping centre and told her how her coming out publicly had helped him with his homosexuality. "I am 13. I'm gay but I don't know how to tell my parents," he told Donna. She told him not to feel pressurised into coming out and that he would know when the time was right to tell his parents. Donna then gave the young kid her number.
She recalls singing at a similar age at Our Ladys Bower Secondary in Athlone where she studied music with Miss Sexton. "I just wanted to sing." Then she won a competition called Teen Popstars when she was 18 and put out an album of covers from Rosemount Studios in Moate.
"I just released it around the midlands. Years later, Donna and her sibling Joe won You're A Star and "then we went on to do Eurovision. It was all really great fun," she remembers. "I have gone solo and he's gone solo. We have both had phonecalls, offers, following the show -- TV work etc. There is a lot of feedback now about myself and Joe saying that the future is looking bright," she smiles.
"A lot of people have come to like us from just being on the show. That was a really good thing. Yeah, hopefully now, things will go well for us. Since I was child, I always wanted to sing."
Don Baker has asked her to do a concert with him at the Helix on September 18. "I'm going to do that," she says with Lauren beaming beside her -- the two of them clearly in love.
"And I am going to get an album together and I'll probably do a bit of TV work. You just have to keep going. We were knocked back bigtime when we didn't get through the semi finals of Eurovision. And we kept going. And that's what I'm going to do."
In the meantime, love's young dream -- sapphic or otherwise -- are off to find a television they can sit in front of to watch a certain reality TV show. In truth, Donna and Lauren's love is more real than anything that came out of Failte Towers that night.
'Failte Towers' is on RTE 1 tonight at 9.30pm