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We've a crazy connection to drink here, it's almost con sidered part of our souls

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Andrea Smith with Frances Black.

Andrea Smith with Frances Black.

Andrea Smith with Frances Black.

'I WAS excited going into the show, as I thought it would be a bit of a laugh and would raise the profile of my charity, but I was shocked at how competitive it was. I wasn't expecting that, to be honest, and I found the early starts and late nights tough and exhausting."

I'm having tea in the Radisson Blu hotel in Golden Lane with popular singer Frances Black, who is discussing her recent stint on the TV3 programme, Celebrity Apprentice, where celebrities like Amanda Brunker, Mikey Graham, Maclean Burke and Edele Lynch battled against one another to win money for their respective charities.

When the series kicked off, the warm and funny Frances immediately clashed with the outspoken Amanda, but as the days progressed, they appeared to become good friends. Second-placed Amanda attracted a lot of criticism for her competitiveness and outspokenness, although she made the show very watchable and entertaining, so what did Frances think of her performance?

"There were certain clangers that Amanda dropped in the show, no doubt about that, but I think people didn't get to see the nice side to her," she says. "She'll kill me for saying this, but there's a vulnerable side to Amanda, and I felt privileged that she allowed me to see it. I think she's a kind person, and she's very, very, very honest in what she says and what she feels.

"Sometimes she opens her mouth before she thinks, and as she would say herself, she has no filter. She came out with some beauts, but I found that a bit refreshing. There is nothing like a bit of honesty. There were times when I thought, 'Oh my God, I can't believe that she just said that', but all you could do is laugh. I really like her."

 

UNDERESTIMATED

Frances came third in the show, which was ultimately won by B*witched singer Edele Lynch. However, she felt that she might be perceived as unthreatening going in, and it would be fair to say that her amazing ability to sell and persuade people to give her a good deal came as a surprise to her teammates and to many viewers.

"I was very aware going in that I might be dismissed as the 'oul one' and that people might not be aware of my strengths, but they got there in the end," she smiles. "I had to fight to be heard at first, and I definitely think I was underestimated, but I have a lot of experience in charity work, organising events and asking people for help. So I pulled on all my strengths! I've kept in contact with all of the others since the programme ended, as I felt I was the mammy of the group and they were me babies. I loved them all."

As mentioned, Frances came third, and was delighted to win €10,000 for her charity, The Rise Foundation (www.therisefoundation.ie), which helps families who are struggling with loved ones in addiction, plus €25,000 worth of newspaper advertising. Rise offers family programmes, one-to-one counselling and an aftercare programme.

Going on the show was perfect timing. The charity had run into difficulties earlier that year, and also lost its premises around that time, when the building it was in was declared unfit by fire safety officers. It doesn't receive government funding and is financed through fundraising, philanthropy and occasional grants. Frances pays tribute to the help received from the Iris O'Brien Foundation, founded by businessman Denis O'Brien, which assists projects in Ireland and internationally. She also won a Social Entrepreneurs Award in 2010, and one of her staff members was funded for a year through the Vodafone World of Difference Award.

"We suffered a huge financial crisis early last year and had to let two of our admin staff go, which was devastating," Frances says. "I found that very difficult, as they had helped us to build up the organisation, but the reality was that we couldn't afford to pay them any longer. I needed to put the money into providing and expanding our services. Then we lost our premises and were really struggling, but thankfully it all flipped after a few months because we got low-cost rooms in the Carmelite Centre in Dublin, and also got rooms for our services in Portlaoise and Swords. We're starting new programmes for family members at the end of January and are hoping to open services in Kilkenny, Meath and Newry this year, and my challenge is to make it all work."

Frances' battle with drink and prescription drug addiction has been well-documented, and indeed it's a subject that has come to slightly embarrass her. Not the addiction itself or talking about her own experience, as she is always happy to do that if it will help even one person, but rather the fear that people may feel she never stops talking about it.

Her dilemma is a common one among those in the public eye – anyone who has ever been publicly open about a personal issue can expect it to be addressed in every single interview that follows after that. "I'm sick of talking about it," she laughs, adding that she worries her fans will be bored hearing the story over and over again.

For anyone who has been living under a rock, Frances became addicted to alcohol as a young mother in her 20s, following the break-up of her early first marriage. When she realised she had a problem, she got help to become sober, but relapsed in 2002, when she became addicted to sleeping tablets.

"I had a very bad impression of myself from a very young age, and always had this image of myself as a failure," she says.

"Even when my first album went to number one and stayed there for 10 weeks! Although I stopped drinking in 1988, I think I still had the mentality of an addict, and carried all of the resentments and anger that goes along with the disease of addiction."

 

PASSIONATE

After attending rehab in Talbot Grove in Castleisland, Co Kerry, Frances decided to use the money left by her late, beloved mother Patty to fund going back to college to train as an addiction counsellor. Receiving her diploma in addiction in 2006 was, she says, "better than any of the awards I got for my albums".

Frances began working as a part-time counsellor, and started Rise in 2008, when she saw how little help was available to support the families of addicts. She and her husband, Brian Allen, whom she describes as her "rock", both run it and are very passionate about it.

"Addiction doesn't just destroy the person, it destroys relationships, self-worth and the family unit," she says. "Seeing family members getting the help they need gives me a buzz, and I get a lot of fulfilment from the work."

More of a buzz than your music career, I ask, of the singer who was twice the winner of the IRMA award for Best Irish Female? Who was a member of Arcady, part of a duo with Kieran Goss, and first came to international prominence through the A Woman's Heart album and tours.

"No, it's 50/50," she says. "When I started Rise, I was so consumed that my music took a back seat for a couple of years, but in 2012 I realised how much I missed it and wanted to start recording and touring again. Music industry careers are traditionally short-lived, but I've had 25 years from it and I still love it.

I released an album called Stronger last year, and it's an album of covers of songs that I really loved, by people like James Taylor and Carole King.

I'll be performing at the Temple Bar TradFest this month, which is always brilliant, and I can't wait to get out there on stage. It's going to be an amazing festival with people like Carlos Nunez, Frankie Gavin & De Dannan, Altan, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Eleanor McEvoy, and Seth Lakeman all performing."

Frances grew up on Charlemont Street in Dublin as the youngest of the late Kevin and Patty Black's five children. Her sister, Mary Black, has announced that she is going to be retiring from singing at the end of this year, so what does Frances think of that and would she consider doing the same?

"The music industry will really miss Mary, and I can't even imagine her retiring, because I think she'll miss it too much," she says. "I have no plans of retiring, at the moment anyway, as I'll continue to sing for as long as people want to come to hear me."

Frances has two children in their early 30s, Eoghan and Aoife Scott. Eoghan plays with her in the band and is also an amazing and very talented musician. He married his wife, Emma Quearney, on Rathlin Island in June 2012, and is also studying psychology as a mature student in DCU.

The award-winning Aoife is currently making a real name for herself on the folk/trad scene. She is a member of the band, The Outside Track, and has toured all over the world in the past year, including India, Germany, Australia, and the UK. She is currently writing material for her own debut album.

"I would be quite critical, but I think the songs she is writing are great," says Frances. "She is so passionate about the music, and is not looking for fame. She just loves to do music, and is getting to see the world with it."

Having seen the damage wrought by addiction, what does Frances think of the fact that we are so fond of drink in this country. Half of us seemed to celebrate the recent festive period by embarking on the 12 Pubs of Christmas, and when Barack Obama and the Queen of England came to visit, the images that were beamed around the world were of the two visitors pulling pints or visiting the Guinness Storehouse.

 

BROKEN

"I get saddened by our culture and our unhealthy relationship with alcohol," she says. "I think we have a really crazy connection to drink as a nation, where it's almost considered part of our souls. When Obama mentioned in College Green that he had enjoyed a pint of Guinness, the whole crowd went crazy, and I thought, 'Hang on a second. I'm sitting in front of people on a daily basis whose hearts are broken because of alcohol.' While I'm not anti-alcohol by any means, I'd love if we stopped putting drink up on a pedestal and celebrated things differently."

So given that she eschews alcohol, and having famously suffered with low self-esteem in the past, how does Frances feel these days? "I'm definitely much healthier now, mentally," she says. "I keep things simple, enjoy the moments and don't think I'm as negative. I used to always feel that I had to apologise for myself, but I don't feel inadequate any more. I've probably never been happier in my life, and am living a life that is beyond my wildest dreams, so why would I jeopardise that happiness? I felt that I needed to give something back, and wanted to guide others in being able to empower themselves, as I I have done myself, so that is why Rise fulfils me so much."

Frances Black will perform in St. Michan's Church at 8pm on Thursday January 23rd as part of the Temple Bar TradFest 2014, which runs from January 22-26 in over 40 venues, including over 200 free events. www.templebartrad.com


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