Bressie: 'I still deal with anxiety every day'
Niall 'Bressie' Breslin can be described in several ways. He's a mental health advocate, a former Leinster rugby player, a pop star and front man, a songwriter, a reality television talent show judge, a triathlete, and at 6ft 5in tall, undeniably a heartthrob.
But spend even 10 minutes in the man from Westmeath's company, and you'll find that despite all the very showbiz titles that surround him, he's a very ordinary bloke.
We're eating steak at South William Street's BEAR, which is co-owned by fellow Leinster boy Jamie Heaslip, and chewing the fat about RTÉ's The Voice of Ireland, on which he's back for a fourth season in the judge's twirly red chair.
"The Voice works because it's a family show. People sit down and eat their dinner on a Sunday and then relax in front of the telly, and that's the audience - not the guys who attack me on Twitter about doing it. I still enjoy it, still get a lot of craic out of it. And it's not hard work."
This year, Bressie and fellow original judge Kian Egan are joined by two musical glamourpusses, The Saturdays singer Una Healy and Rachel Stevens of S Club 7 fame. "Una's cool, she settled straight in, but it's tougher for Rachel. Anyone who's not Irish will have that initial culture shock. But Rachel is a complete lady, very easy to get on with."
Did he have a crush on the lad's mag favourite as a strapping youth in Mullingar, I venture? "I didn't realise Rachel was the sexiest woman alive in FHM, of all time! I had all the girls on my wall back then, but in S Club 7, Rachel wasn't the one I fancied the most - it was the little blonde one, Hannah. Rachel is a quintessential beauty, petite and gorgeous, but Hannah had it all for me." I'm sure Rachel will be delighted to hear it.
Bressie faces constant criticism of the show, but he's adamant that the personalities of the famous judges are essential, especially in the early stages. "Some people would say it's all about the judges, what about the singers? But the singers aren't in a position to hold a show yet. By the battles and the live shows, it's much more about them, but in the beginning it can't be - people wouldn't connect with them."
This is the first year that the BBC version of the show is on the same time, albeit on a Saturday night. "There are constant comparisons, but their budget is enormous. I think we really hold our own for the budget that we have."
But why don't the Irish judges sing every week like their British counterparts, including Rita Ora and Tom Jones? "We didn't sing last year because Dolores O'Riordan didn't want to, and I was delighted! I've no problem singing, but not for the sake of it."
It was through singing that Bressie first became famous, as the lead singer and guitarist of The Blizzards. When they disbanded after their sophomore offering, he went out on his own as a soloist, something that he's not keen to repeat. Yet we haven't heard much of his dulcet tones lately.
"I was giving up until I was hungry, and I'm getting there again now - and when I'm hungry, I'm very focussed. Solo stuff? Never again, I hated it. It doesn't work for me. I'm a garage band guy, I like going into a rehearsal room. I like working stuff out with other people. Song writing can be really egocentric, you don't want anyone messing with your stuff, but then someone can come along and make it better.
"I've made no secret of the fact that I want to get back with The Blizzards, but it has to be the right time. They need to be hungry too. It wouldn't work with three or four of us, it needs to be all the lads. We're all from the same town, we never felt that we were a two-album band. I feel like writing another record, not going to rush it, worry about labels or radio play. I'm just going to write it and see what people think."
In the meantime though, his projects are varied. As well as The Voice, he's working on his mental health blog 'My 1000 Hours', and the associated 5K run in Dublin's Phoenix Park. "My 1000 Hours has become my main focus because people have been interested in it," he explains. "And I don't want it to lose any momentum. This conversation on mental health has come up before and gone away, but now it seems like people are starting to properly talk, and not only talking but also seeking help, which is so important."
So why him, and why now? "It was on my mind for a couple of years, and I felt it was the right time.
"This project is not just about physical health - I've never advocated that physical health can cure mental health problems, but it's one of the things that might help along with medication and therapy, and it works for me. I always feel that when people are very touchy about talking about these things, it's more damaging. It stigmatises depression, where we're just trying to normalise the conversation around it."
For Bressie, online outrage is often directed at him and his endeavours via Twitter. But it was a tweet by friend and colleague Eoghan McDermott from Bressie's account that caused trouble in December.
The "joke" post announced that Bressie was experimenting with his sexuality, and many took offence to the lads apparently making fun of coming out of the closet. "The minute that tweet went up, I knew it was immature, and I said so. But then people started questioning my commitment to mental health because of it. It wasn't offensive language, all I could do was apologise even though it was Eoghan who posted it! We need to understand what's offensive and what's not - being addicted to being offended is so unhealthy."
It was personal experience with anxiety and depression that led Bressie towards advocating for mental health. "As a teenager, it was general anxiety, but when I went to college, I started experiencing depression. Then recently, I was on sleeping pills for five years. I was waking up and taking another one.
''Prescription drugs are hardcore and very hard to get off, but because they're legal, you can abuse them. The message around medication, is get a good GP and psychiatrist."
Bressie is now medication free, but anxiety is still omnipresent. "I still deal with anxiety every day. It's just part of my life and I've accepted that. I let it happen, I tell myself it will pass and it does. Every night going to bed, I have to get my breathing straight and calm myself down. It's part of my routine, so it doesn't freak me out anymore.
"I believe it gives me an edge. Nothing will ever be difficult as what I have had to deal with. My mum copped it when I was younger - we're very close. She always says she knew I wasn't wired the same way as others."
Does life in the public eye affect his anxiety? "Not anymore, because I have coping strategies. I know how to switch off and go away. I understand its part of my job. The hardest part is people thinking they know you, and have some sort of ownership over you. I can handle comments, people being nasty in general, but judging others is one of the worst things we can do for our own mental health. Be aware of it, and stop yourself doing it. I still do it, we all do, but you can stop yourself."
One thing that the general public appear to be very interested in is Bressie's relationship with model Roz Purcell. The couple went to extremes to keep their relationship out of the public domain for almost a year before admitting they were together.
"We didn't know what it was, if it was going to last, and didn't want the added pressure of people's opinions, especially if it went tits up! Plus, it's nobody's business. Now, people know, and if they want to write about it, that's fine. If things go wrong career-wise, we might need to get married and sell the wedding to a magazine!" he jokes. I point out that the presence of his famous friend Niall Horan of One Directon, who also hails from Mullingar, might help secure a lucrative magazine deal. "Sure I'll make him my best man, so!" he laughs.
Does it bother Bressie not to be the most famous Niall from his hometown? "No, because nobody refers to me as Niall," he deadpans. "Niall's greatest achievement is being so unbelievably famous and staying so level-headed. It's incredible. Not one of those lads have turned into a Justin Bieber. They're well managed, and have good people around them."
Always a man with a plan, what's next for the ambitious Bressie? "In TV, I want to make documentaries that I'm passionate about, and that highlight potential solutions. There are so many that go, 'Here you go, this is f*cked, the end.' I'm passionate about mental health and music, so I want to look at places we can make a real difference."
I was right, he is a man of many talents. When it comes to Bressie, don't write him off - just watch this space.
A life in brief
Born: Niall Breslin in Dublin, 1980. Raised in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.
Family: Parents Enda and Mandy, and four siblings - Ronan, Laura, Julie and Andrea.
Relationship Status: In a long-term relationship with model and foodie Rozanna Purcell (left). Lives with Roz and her sister Rachel in Dublin.
Likes: Iron man competitions, working out, making documentaries, singing and writing music.
Dislikes: Judgemental people.