Tuesday 14 August 2018

Amanda Byram: 'I gave up drinking...and found a husband'

For years, Amanda Byram was, in her words, the ‘champion for single people’. But going through a ‘dark patch’ and making her peace with being alone was what prepared her for finally finding the real thing with her new husband. As she launches an activewear range, she chats to our reporter about life, love and leggings

Amanda wears: Aphrodite jacket, €90; NYX leggings, €75
Amanda wears: Aphrodite jacket, €90; NYX leggings, €75
Athena top, €59; Clio leggings, €59
Maia crop bra top, €54; NYX leggings, €75
Juno hoody jacket, €90; NYX leggings, €75. Trainers throughout, Amanda's own
Amanda Byram
Amanda Byram and Nicky Byrne hosting RTE’s Dancing With The Stars. Picture: KOBPIX
Amanda Byram during the Final of RTE’s Dancing with the stars.

Julia Molony

Amanda Byram strides into her local branch of Le Pain Quotidien in south-west London - ponytail swinging, skin gleaming, 1,000-watt-smile in place. She is kitted out head-to-toe in (what else?) her own, new Body by Byram athleisure-wear range.

She looks, it must be said, fantastic - lithe and toned, a feline cast to her strong features. Folding her long legs under the table, she orders peppermint tea, and launches into the chat as if we're old friends. This is a woman who has mastered the art of leaning in.

Athena top, €59; Clio leggings, €59
Athena top, €59; Clio leggings, €59

At 44, Amanda is the embodiment of a whole slew of #lifestylegoals. She is sporty-fit, looks easily 10 years younger than she is, and is married to a handsome television producer with whom she shares an elegant home in this very gentrified corner of London. With more than 20 years of success as a television presenter across at least three territories under her belt, she's now about to embark on a whole new venture.

All going well, this new venture should shore up her career against the limitations of her industry, which, historically, has not favoured the prospects of women over 50. Or, as she says herself, "TV is what I love and what I do. And it's what I know best. But I can't be guaranteed that it's going to be there forever, either. Who knows, in five years' time, will I still be hosting? Will I want to even still host?"

Perhaps because she's a celebrity and not a garment-industry professional, people assume that her involvement with Body by Byram is some kind of endorsement deal. But Amanda's heart and soul are stitched into the very seams of the brand. It was her idea; she sketched the original designs and marshalled them with painstaking care through every stage of the process - finding the manufacturer; rocking up to Arnotts and Pamela Scott and Selfridges with her products in hand. Oh, and she's invested a big chunk of her own money to make it happen.

She first came up with the concept about six or seven years ago. "I used to wear my activewear all the time. It's all I ever lived in," she says. "My ex used to get a little bit pissed off, because he'd say, 'You're never dressed in anything but your gym gear'. I realised that I'm really, really comfortable in it. And also that if I put it on in the morning, I feel like I'm ready to go for a run at some point. If I'm in my jeans and pair of heels, I've got to get changed. I thought, 'Wouldn't it be amazing to create a range that you can go to lunch or the cinema or for dinner in, or pick up your kids at the school gate and feel like you're actually really stylish, but at the same time you can turn around and go do something active afterwards?'"

Amanda Byram and husband Julian Okines at The Pride of Ireland Awards 2016
Amanda Byram and husband Julian Okines at The Pride of Ireland Awards 2016

She tried to get things moving at the time, but was advised there wasn't the market for it. Fast forward half a decade, and she's diversified into being a health and fitness spokesperson and has a level-three personal trainer qualification. So it seemed like the right time to revisit her big plan.

It's been, she says, both an adventure and a labour of love. "I've lived in activewear for so many years... and I'm obsessed with the fitness industry," she says. But clothes designing and manufacturing is something that she's had to learn from scratch. "That feeling of being out of your depth isn't something I had felt for a very long time," she explains, "because I do what I do and I've been doing it for so long... I mean, there's apprehension before a TV show, and that's normal. There's a little bit of anxiety or nerves before a show, but this was way out of my depth on so many levels."

Growing up in Dublin, the half-Irish, half-Iranian Byram was always an independent spirit; a "gypsy" at heart. This was something that was nurtured by her supportive family, and her father, from whom she learned, "I don't have to do what everybody else is doing. It made me feel free to do what I wanted to do".

Her pragmatic side also comes, most likely, from her father, a mortgage administration manager who has been influential in advising his kids financially. "And mum," she says "is the emotional strength. She's a rock. We're like best friends. We're a very close family. My sister and I are very close. Although we had our sibling rivalry in the early days, we're really tight."

Maia crop bra top, €54; NYX leggings, €75
Maia crop bra top, €54; NYX leggings, €75

Byram started her career as a model in Ireland before landing a gig presenting Ireland AM. From there, she moved to The Big Breakfast on Channel 4, and then broke America as the host of the controversial plastic surgery makeover show The Swan. She spent eight years living in LA until Hollywood wore her out. She moved back to London, where she's been ever since.

Amanda's default positivity escapes seeming glib or hollow, probably because she's open about the years of uncertainty, self-questioning and doubt she's been through too. Yes, she's a fitness pin-up, but only because she spent the best part of two decades struggling with poor body image herself, addicted to yo-yo dieting and obsessed with being thin. Last year, she married her Mr Right, Julian Okines, but only after an awful lot of turmoil and heartache, and years of soul-searching, which culminated in the quiet acceptance that, if needs be, she would be just fine by herself.

"I was the champion for single people for so long," she says. "I was single and happy. Everyone was always saying, 'Oh, you're getting to an age now... and not getting married and not having kids. I was, like, actually happy being single. There were moments when I definitely was not happy being single, but I had to make peace with the fact that I may never find the love of my life. I may never have children, I may never get married. That was the hardest part. That was the hardest part of turning 40, actually. Because I was single, and you just kind of see into this deep abyss of 40 and go..." - she acts out hollering into the void - "...is there anybody out there?"

In her late 30s, she'd called off a wedding to handsome Australian rugby player Craig McMullen at the 11th hour. At an age when mounting pressure to settle down often causes women to make a frantic grab for the nearest man as if he's the last remaining seat in a game of musical chairs, Amanda had the strength of character not to conform.

It was, she admits, "one of the hardest things I ever did. The wedding was planned. It was in full motion. The venue, the food, the dress, the flowers. People were coming from Australia, from LA, from Dublin. We were getting married in France, and it was ready to go. But a month before, I just went, 'Something just doesn't feel right'. He was an amazing guy. Still is. Gorgeous, wanted to be a dad, really intelligent, spoke fluent French... on paper, it looked perfect."

She confided her feelings to her parents. "They are always the first people I go to, and they said, 'If it doesn't feel right, just put the brakes on for a bit'."

Juno hoody jacket, €90; NYX leggings, €75. Trainers throughout, Amanda's own
Juno hoody jacket, €90; NYX leggings, €75. Trainers throughout, Amanda's own

As difficult as it was, in retrospect Amanda feels proud that she had the guts to stick to her guns. It would have been, she sees now, so much easier just to submit to the pressure and go with the flow. "One of my friends actually said that to me: 'Maybe just do it and get divorced down the line if you're not happy'." The temptation to just bury her feelings and carry on was strong because "we care more about what other people think than what we think ourselves. We're people pleasers".

But she held her nerve and the wedding was postponed. To his great credit, her fiance handled it with immense good grace. "He was like, 'I get it, you're not in the right frame of mind; maybe you're depressed; whatever is going on with you, let's postpone.' So we stayed together for about six months afterwards, but it was just miserable. Once I knew I'd cancelled, I..." she trails off, finishing the sentence with a mime of long gasping breaths of air.

"Since that happened, it's absolutely incredible the amount of women I have spoken to who have said, 'I wish I'd done the same. I was so caught up in the wedding, I wasn't thinking about the marriage'."

Amanda Byram and Nicky Byrne hosting RTE’s Dancing With The Stars. Picture: KOBPIX
Amanda Byram and Nicky Byrne hosting RTE’s Dancing With The Stars. Picture: KOBPIX

If she ever had cause to doubt her choice, that was all dispelled pretty much as soon as she clapped eyes on Julian. "When I met Julian, it was literally, 'Oh! I see now. I get it, I get it, I get it. This is actually it'. He always says that it was love at first sight. It was definitely something at first sight... But I had got to a place where I was so comfortable. Genuinely I felt that it was OK to be alone.

"I'd done all the self-help. I'd gone into myself, I'd gone through the dark patch, and I'd come through. And I think that's one of the reasons why it worked so well. I wasn't looking at him as a prospective partner, or a mate, or a father to my children, or a husband. I was looking at him as a handsome guy who was really cool. And if it didn't work out, I was OK about it. I feel blessed that I had that chance to get to that place."

On top of that, she was feeling more clear-headed than she'd been in years, thanks to having given up drinking not long before. Most of their early courtship was conducted stone-cold sober, which sounds like a terribly grown-up way to date.

Parting ways with alcohol had been a gradual decision. "I had been single for about a year, I think. And I was going to stuff and getting drunk, just for the sake of going to stuff and getting drunk, because I didn't want to be home alone and single."

So she did dry January, which then turned into dry February. "Initially, it was hard. There were some events that I went to and felt so uncomfortable," she says.

But when her 40th birthday rolled around, "I was like, 'All bets are off. It's my 40th'. And I had dinner parties with different friends in different countries, and got drunk at every one of them, and it was fine. Really enjoyed it. And then I went, 'You know what, I'm going to go on the dry until Christmas'. At Christmas, I went to my friends' engagement party and got so drunk I threw up everywhere, and I thought, 'I'm done, done, done, done, done'."

A few short months later, she met her husband on a photo shoot. In one of their first conversations, she mentioned to him that she'd been off the booze, and he said, "Oh, I've quit booze as well".

She's since discovered that he'd made the decision about two weeks prior to when they met. "It was his birthday. He'd been single for years, loved to go out, loved to drink, big drinker on weekends. And he woke up on the morning of his birthday, really hungover and said, 'I'm done. I'm so done. Universe, send me the woman of my dreams, someone who is on my wavelength and who doesn't want to do this any more'.

"We went on our first date the next day, and that was the only time I've ever been drunk with him. We had a glass of wine and then another glass of wine. We were walking along the Thames and it was all lovely, and then we went for dinner, and I was so drunk I don't even remember getting home. So it was bad. After the first date, we went, 'We don't really drink. Why are we doing this?' After that, dating sober seemed easier.

Her husband was delivered to her, she believes, by the beneficence of the universe. She'd put in her request some time earlier. "My friend Fearne Cotton is massively into cosmic ordering," she explains, "which I am now [into] as well. She has this cosmic order board. It's a chalkboard in her house, and when you go there, you've got to write on the board, and you have to be super specific."

Some time before meeting Julian, Amanda wrote down her request to the universe on the board. She still has a picture of it on her phone. "I would like to find a dark, handsome man," it says, "who would be proud of me, and who will want to travel the world with me."

"It's so bizarre," she says now, eyes widening. "But it's something that Julian says over and over... it was about a year into our relationship that it twigged with me, because I thought, 'It's quite unusual for a guy to repeatedly say how proud he is of someone'. And then I was like" - she takes a sharp intake of breath - "'Oh my God!'"

Body By Byram is available in Pamela Scott stores nationwide and in Arnotts, Dublin. Prices start at €39

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