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Cheerful soundtrack to Dermot O'Leary's happy life

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Dermot O'Leary

Dermot O'Leary

CHEERY: Dermot O’Leary, opposite page, still gets a little nervous, even now, before the start of an X-Facator live show. Above, Dermot, right, with, from left, Tulisa Contostavlos, Louis Walsh, and Nicole Scherzinger at the launch in London of X-Factor 2012. Photo: Ian West/PA

CHEERY: Dermot O’Leary, opposite page, still gets a little nervous, even now, before the start of an X-Facator live show. Above, Dermot, right, with, from left, Tulisa Contostavlos, Louis Walsh, and Nicole Scherzinger at the launch in London of X-Factor 2012. Photo: Ian West/PA

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Dermot O'Leary

Can Dermot O'Leary be for real? He seems possessed of a sunny equanimity so unshakable it's almost Mormon. At 8.30am he's as chipper as morning radio, despite having been on the go since before seven, after a bad night's sleep. "I'm not worried or anything," he assures me, of the insomnia. "But you know when you have that thing where you wake up and just think about really stupid inane things at 2 in the morning. It's so frustrating."

He's written a memoir of sorts. The Soundtrack to My Life is a jaunt through his history, in which he describes memories and landmarks via the songs that hold meaning for him. It's the cheeriest autobiography I've ever read. The only thing in it that passes as struggle was the time he was out of work for three months in the late nineties and had to go on the dole, which he describes as the most "embarrassing, introspective and self-doubting time" of his life. But even that worked out for the best in the end. "I was quite hand to mouth. . . but it really did teach me that you've just got to graft. And I've got no pride. I've worked in catering probably for as long as I've worked in television." He's always believed in the value of effort. "A lot of TV isn't hard work in the grand scheme of things but you know, the hours are long and it's a pretty intensive job."

Other than the stint of unemployment, things seem to have been pretty much all sunshine and roses for Britain's most mild-mannered television star. Now 41, he had a happy, uncomplicated childhood with loving parents in rural Essex. They were the only Irish family in the village, which he says was in some ways a bit "weird". Or at least, not the typical second generation experience, in that they felt very Irish but were a bit cut off from other people who were too.

"It wasn't like we came home every night, shut the door and went, 'right, now we can get the green out.' There wasn't any of that. It was just more the cultural reference points you have," he says. He even seems to have emerged from a Catholic upbringing "relatively unscathed". He must be one of the last practising Catholics working within London media's Soho square mile - and so is always asked about it in interviews. Can it be true that he's really absorbed all the good stuff, without any of the guilt or hang-ups about sex?

"I don't suppose it can ever be true, a terrible sense of guilt pervades," he says with mock-solemnity. "The more you learn about history the more you realise that there are scores of people who think like you think, and many of them have become saints. So you don't necessarily think that anything you are doing is that bad. A lot of it is down to my parents. It was always used as a moral compass rather than easy certainty. I think those are the important things."

He's flexi-Catholic, basically. He lived with his now wife, Dee Koppang, who is 35, for years before they were married. And presumably there's no qualms about contraception, because he says despite the fact that both he and Dee want children eventually, they are in no rush. Earlier this year, he mentioned that he thought he'd be a dad before Simon Cowell, so it's obviously on his mind.

They recently got two cats. "I think I'm quite a good cat father - this is the dry run," he says. "We are privileged and lucky at the moment because we don't have them (kids), in many ways. And so we are living life relatively without compromise. I look at my friends and I know they're hard work, and I know my friends look permanently tired. And I know that for all the wonderful things they get out of it, it does change your life. It's never a step you can go back from. And also, you know what, my wife's very busy and she's relatively young and I'm 50pc of this equation, so if she's not ready, we're not ready."

When Dermot O'Leary was a teenager, he developed a crush on a girl called Shaleen Aves and asked her out, according to his friends, 156 times. A few years later, when he'd graduated from university despite having failed most of his GCSE's the first time around, he wrote to over 300 television production companies before one of them offered him a job. He's like a boxing dummy, the knock-backs don't make a dent in him. In fact, he says he actively enjoys them, because they only stiffen his resolve to keep going. This must have been slightly annoying for Shaleen, but has proved a boon to his career in television.

"I'm probably more of a stick than a carrot person . . . It's just what worked for me. Someone telling me I can't do something is probably the biggest motivating factor of me doing it. That said, now I'm in my 40s, my motivation comes from different areas. I don't need someone telling me 'you're shit' every week to go out and do a good job."

O'Leary's parents were not well off, but were self-starting and upwardly mobile. Both he and his elder sister are high achievers, she's now a Doctor of Criminology. "There's always a sense of learning, I'm from that kind of background. My father's family in particular, like a lot of Irish families, were incredibly well read - and a lot of them were self-educated, whether that was history or literature."

His wife is Norwegian, and he thinks there are "a lot of similarities. It's a country of about four and a half million people, who have been subjugated over a long period of time. In Norway's case it was the Swedes and the Danes. So you hold onto your own history and your own literature a lot more I suppose. I realised quite early on that hard work was going to go farther than some sort of natural academic talent."

Dee works as a television producer and they now run a production company together, as well as a restaurant, Fishy Fishy in Brighton. They had another one in Poole but it closed last year. They are very much the high-powered media couple, but sound like they live quite separate lives. In the book, he says the reason it took him ten years to propose to her was because they are both so busy working and travelling. "It's a bit of a lame excuse, isn't it." he admits. "We're both very independent people. We both have a very close circle of friends, but we're not in each other's pockets. And as a couple, we're not in each other's pockets either."

Recently though there's been a shift towards the domestic, mostly because of the cats. "I know it sounds odd, because they're cats, but they've kind of weirdly solidified things a little bit. They're two living things that need feeding and you can't help but feel a certain responsibility towards them, like you are their mum and dad. I know that's going to sound weird. . ." They operate as a "tag team. If one of us is at home the other one can go out. Dee goes away quite a lot with work, I go away quite a lot with work, and it works." They work together in parallel rather than tandem, keeping a healthy distance because "couples rarely get on that well when they work together that closely. But you know, she respects my advice, I respect hers."

He seems pretty good at disciplined thinking. Even writing his first book didn't ruffle him. "I always feel you can't really play with fear". As much as possible, he exists in his own little bubble, even choosing to ignore, quite often, the impact of being well known. "I still get weirded out by people recognising me because I immediately think I know them . . . and then within five to ten seconds I go, no of course not, you know me from the television."

He likes doing live TV because it's a medium which doesn't allow for too much self-analysis. "You always irritate yourself when you watch yourself back. Immediately I'm going, who is this idiot? What's he doing on television? . . . As a rule, I try not to watch myself back. You're never as good as you think you are, you're never as bad as you think you are, but always somewhere in between." Live TV, he says, enforces a healthy discipline. "You can't worry about what you've done, you have to concentrate on what's coming up."

He writes in The Soundtrack to My Life that when he first started doing live TV, he got physically sick every morning before going on-air. He still gets a little bit nervous even now at the start of the X-Factor live show. "Quite often on X-Factor I can't get to sleep after the show. The first Saturday of the series, I couldn't get to sleep and it was probably our longest ever show, two and a half hours. And that level of adrenaline afterwards. You have a couple of glasses of red wine and some dinner maybe, and you relax and try and stare at the wall, watch a bit of television and then try and get to sleep because you've got a show the next day."

There are lot of people who would crack up under that pressure. "I suppose it's just what becomes your normality," he says with a shrug. "It's my job. That job becomes your normality."

  • 'The Soundtrack to My Life' is out now published by Hodder & Stoughton.

Sunday Independent