Aoibhin Garrihy: 'I'm not the kind of person who likes to be boxed-in'
She says the hip-swaying and shedding of inhibitions haven't come naturally, but Aoibhin Garrihy has proved herself the star of RTE's dance show, says our reporter. Her old-Hollywood looks and Doris Day charm are a breath of fresh air, but Aoibhin isn't sure she has the killer instinct for showbiz.
When I meet Aoibhin, she is sitting in front of a roaring open fire in the lounge of the Westbury Hotel, with a large coffee in front of her and undeniably sleepy eyes.
The night before was Sunday, Dancing With The Stars night. She had been in the studio from 7am, had gone into the final-three line-up for the very first time, and then had to stay on set to film the companion show, Can't Stop Dancing, until midnight. Aoibhin concedes that it was a long day, but she's simply glad to have dodged elimination.
"My 92-year-old grandad was in the audience," she says, "with his notebook, making sure they didn't add up the votes incorrectly. It might have killed him if I'd been knocked out. Imagine how awful that would have been!"
So, at the time of writing, Aoibhin is still in with a chance of winning Dancing With the Stars. She would seem, with her apparently effortless grace and charm, to be a contender, but we all know that there's no predicting the outcome on a show such as this.
Something has happened during Aoibhin's 'journey' on the dancing competition. To begin with, she was an also-ran, the girl who used to be on Fair City, who ticked the 'former soapstar' box in the line-up of celebrities. By week two, though, it became clear that there was something about Aoibhin. It wasn't just her clean-cut blonde good looks, with their old-Hollywood, Doris Day vibe. It was that she seemed like the real deal - a real dancer, a proper star.
It is, perhaps, the fact that Aoibhin wears her charisma lightly that is so appealing. Out there on the dance floor, where there's "nowhere to hide" as she puts it, faking it is all too obvious. And so is naked ambition - too obvious, too unsettling and not something that radiates from Aoibhin. Instead, funnily, she is ambivalent about her ambition, cautious about celebrity.
"The world now is all about the fame, and even on Dancing With The Stars, when they speak to us, they say, 'OK, celebs, over here . . .' and I cringe. There are no celebs in Ireland really, unless you're Bono, but aside from that, it's ridiculous. It's too small a place; we're just professionals. Unless you're a global superstar, you're not a celebrity."
There is the sense that Aoibhin is too normal or too nice to be in show business, while at the same time seeming so suited to it. In fact, when people tell her that they too want to be actors, her advice to them is always the same: unless you can't live without it, don't do it.
The thing is, though, that I can't really tell if Aoibhin can't live without it. She has that special something, I think, that's become obvious on Dancing With The Stars, if not the killer instinct.
"The thing about me and acting it that I love it when I'm in it. I love doing it, but the industry is . . . ," she stalls and shrugs. "Ugh, I don't know, I'm not gone on it. I'm not the kind of person who likes to schmooze. You know, to get on, you have to be around a lot and I'm not great at that. I do my work and go back to Clare and walk the dogs and get away from it. There's a clique there and I'm not part of it. I'm not able to be on all the time; performing when you're not performing."
Does Aoibhin think this has worked to her detriment, professionally?
"I'd say so, probably," she replies. "You have to be prepared to really immerse yourself in it. Like, watching Ruth Negga on the Oscars - she was three years ahead of me in college, and as undergraduates we all looked to her as the hero. She immersed herself in it and she had a hunger for it and she wanted it. That's what it takes."
Aoibhin laughs heartily when I describe her as a "good girl". By her own admission, though, she is a conscientious, diligent, can-do sort of person, always ready for a challenge, always ready to do her best. She's sort of a school-prefect type, but with a sprinkling of showbiz stardust, a combination that is more winning than her natural modesty will admit.
"And I want to win [the contest], of course I do," she says. "It sneaks up on you the longer you're in, but you have to keep it in perspective: it's only a show, it's only a glitter ball [prize]. And a few days after it's over, I'll be in Kathmandu, heading for Everest."
I met Aoibhin Garrihy once before, interviewing her as a young newcomer to Fair City almost seven years ago. The Castleknock native wasn't long out of studying drama in Trinity College, and she was thrilled with landing such a high-profile big job. She was warm and friendly and open about her background in both Like, watching Ruth Negga on the Oscars - she was three years ahead of me in college, and as undergraduates we all looked to her as the hero. She immersed herself in it and she had a hunger for it and she wanted it. That's what it takes.
Dublin and Co Clare. Both of her parents hail from that county, and her father was and remains involved in a family boat-cruises business there with his brothers. She was in a relatively new relationship with Spanish Point hotelier John Burke and she was dividing her time between the capital and Co Clare.
Fast-forward seven years and, all has changed, but not changed, either. These days, Aoibhin is highly involved, with her father and two sisters, Doireann and Ailbhe, in running the other family business, Dublin Bay Cruises. She left Fair City after three years playing Neasa Dillon, when "it felt like the character and I were becoming one and the same", and, last September, she and John Burke were married. She's older and wiser, you might say, even if she doesn't look it.
Aoibhin's life remains very much split between Clare and Dublin, though; that's one thing that is unaltered, even by marriage.
"The nature of my job is that it often comes in fits and starts, and I love that. And in terms of me and John, it means that we can see a lot of each other for months when I don't have anything on and I can be in Clare, or then I'm working and we barely see each other at all. My dad calls it a very contemporary marriage," Aoibhin says with a laugh.
John is very tied, obviously, to the Armada Hotel in Clare, a family business he began running when his father became ill and subsequently died. But work for Aoibhin, as an actress, remains in Dublin.
"Our home in is Ennis," she explains, "but when I'm working, it's back to Mam and Dad and the full fridge in Dublin. And doing Dancing With The Stars, it's lovely to come home and have the hot-water bottle in the bed and all those lovely things. At the moment, I can't imagine having it any other way. The drive up and down to Ennis doesn't bother me a bit, but we'll see in the future."
Her departure from Fair City, Aoibhin says, was partly to do with John and having more time for their relationship, but she also had itchy feet, professionally.
"I'm not the kind of person who likes to be boxed-in," Aoibhin explains. "You know: 'That's who you are and that's what you do and that's that'. And John's like that, too. We like projects and we like challenges, and we like to try all kinds of different things."
Leaving the RTE soap, which was a regular, relatively reliable job with a decent profile - a covetable position for any actor - was an interesting experience for Aoibhin. She won't say that it was a wake-up call, because she's not given to negativity, but there were moments when she wondered where things were going to go for her.
"Things probably didn't happen as quickly as I'd hoped," says Aoibhin. "It wasn't quite naivete. I suppose I knew that acting isn't a bed of roses, but you hope that you will be the one to break the mould."
Jobs that she loved followed, including bringing the Gate production of Pride And Prejudice to Hong Kong, travelling to the States with The Importance Of Being Earnest, and working on The Fall. However, "not one to wait for the phone to ring", Aoibhin also set up a children's stage school, Actors and Reactors School of Speech and Drama, in Ennis.
When Aoibhin was studying drama in Trinity, her mother always told her to get "the teaching bit" done, for something to fall back on. Aoibhin thought her ridiculously overcautious, but followed her advice anyway, and was grateful indeed when she decided to set up the stage school.
"I've no interest in that whole 'being the star' thing," Aoibhin says. "There will always be the ones who are born to do it and there will always be the parents who think their child is the next Beyonce, but it's not about that for me. I'm more interested in the child who lacks confidence coming in, but within a year has found their voice."
Only barely back from her honeymoon, after marrying John in Co Clare last September, Aoibhin had agreed to do panto in Limerick over Christmas when she got the call to appear in Dancing With The Stars. She didn't hesitate to say yes, even though she couldn't actually dance. Also, Aoibhin was upfront about the fact that she would have inhibitions to shed if she was to do it well.
"I think we Irish are not really in our bodies like the rest of the world," Aoibhin says. "We don't really like all the hip-moving and we don't feel sexy enough to be dancers. I know that's a generalisation, but my parents are just back from Cuba, and they said everyone just dances in the street there; they just don't have inhibitions like us.
"I don't know," she continues, "it's just not me. I'm not touchy-feely. I'm not flirtatious. Some of the professional dancers, they just walk around oozing sex appeal, and I don't feel like that at all. "
Aoibhin explains, laughing, that she videos all of her daily rehearsals with her dance partner, Vitali Kozmin, and watches them at night, taking notes of what she wants to improve. Vitali appreciates her dedication, she says, as a fellow perfectionist, but sometimes, if she's watching the clips with only seconds to go before taking to the floor for the live show, he tells her to just relax.
"He's right, of course," Aoibhin concedes. "The nights that nerves got the better of me were nights that I was overthinking it."
The day we meet, Aoibhin is facing into a week of dancing to Beyonce's Crazy in Love. "Lots of booty-shaking and twerking," she says, laughing heartily at the amusing unlikeliness of it all.
The Sunday after we meet, Aoibhin dazzles the dancing judges with her moves to Beyonce's hit song. She not only scores 29 out of a possible 30 points with the judges, but she proves to herself that she's well able for all the "booty-shaking and twerking," she told me she was nervous of.
John was a little surprised by Aoibhin's openness to the dancing contest, she says, but his own love of a challenge helped him to understand. He keeps her stocked with vitamins and good food, she says, when she's in Ennis or he's in Dublin, but then, he has the Everest challenge in focus, too.
He's the one who is training to ascend to the peak, after all, while Aoibhin is 'only' going to base camp once her sequined-dancing-gown days are done.
When Aoibhin first met John, she reckons their first date was postponed by his training to ascend Mont Blanc. That was more than seven years ago, and John has really taken to climbing since. A few years ago, he and Aoibhin climbed to Mount Everest base camp for the first time, though she had reservations about him attempting the peak until recently.
"It was a bit of a relationship test," she says with a laugh, recalling that 12-day climb. "We didn't shower for two weeks, and I had altitude sickness. I was losing the plot and there were some serious disagreements between us along the way."
Last year, John ascended Ama Dablam in the Himalayas, and the Sherpas with whom he climbed came to visit the newlyweds in Clare at Christmas, and they managed to convince Aoibhin that her new husband was fit for Everest.
"I can't bear the idea of saying goodbye to him at the airport and then off he goes to Everest and he'll be gone for two-and-a half-months, and me not knowing a lot of the time if he's OK or not."
So she doesn't like it and she'll worry, but she's letting him go and even throwing herself partly into the endeavour, too. Before then, though, there's twerking to be done, and Aoibhin will approach both enterprises with equal enthusiasm and pluck.
And, who knows, she might just be climbing that mountain with her prize glitter ball.
The semi-final of 'Dancing With The Stars' is on RTE1 tonight at 6.30pm; the final is on next Sunday, March 26
Swimsuit; skirt, both River Island
Contents and Page 13
Dress, Cari's Closet.
Shoes, River Island. Earrings, Oscar de la Renta, Loulerie
Shorts, River Island.
Earrings, Oscar de la Renta, Loulerie
Page 12 and This page
Playsuit, River Island.
Earrings, Oscar de la Renta, Loulerie
Swimsuit, Michael Kors, Brown Thomas.
Skirt, River Island.
Earrings, Oscar de la Renta, Loulerie
Rings throughout, Aoibhin's own
Cari's Closet, 11 New St, Malahide, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 845-7593, or see cariscloset.ie
Loulerie, 14B Chatham St, D2, tel: (01) 672-4024, or see loulerie.com
Photogprahy by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Emily Callan
Make-up by Paula Callan, Callan & Co - The Experience, 1 St Mary's Rd, Ballsbridge, D4, tel: (01) 668-0060, or see callanandco.ie
Hair by Claudia Walsh, Davey Davey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1400, or see daveydavey.com
Photographed at Bagots Hutton, 6 Ormond Quay Upper, D7, tel: (01) 878-8118, or see bagotshutton.com
Building on the success of the South William St location, Giovanni Viscardi and Brian Deery are creating a new destination for Dubliners. The beautifully finished Bagots Hutton, which opened earlier this year, includes a 120-seater restaurant. Bagots Hutton is split into three areas: a cafe bar at the entrance, which opens from 8am; a fine-dining area occupying the entire basement; and a first-floor mezzanine, with a main bar and stage for live entertainment. With this open-plan design, all areas have a distinctive feeling and mood.
Enjoy the Bagots Hutton early Neighbourhood Menu with a complimentary glass of wine from 5pm. €22.50 for two courses/€25.50 for three courses, see bagotshutton.com
Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes