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Darren Kennedy's journey: 'Therapy is the most amazing thing'

With his new BBC show about to launch, Darren Kennedy speaks to Donal Lynch about learning curves, dating, therapy, doing drugs, and the time he was told he was too gay for RTE

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Darren wears: Suit, Canali; shirt, Kenzo; bracelet, Louis Vuitton, all Brown Thomas. Glasses, Darren Kennedy for Specsavers. Photo: Patrick McHugh

Darren wears: Suit, Canali; shirt, Kenzo; bracelet, Louis Vuitton, all Brown Thomas. Glasses, Darren Kennedy for Specsavers. Photo: Patrick McHugh

Polo shirt, Gucci; trousers, Canali, both Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island. Socks, Darren’s own. Photo: Patrick McHugh

Polo shirt, Gucci; trousers, Canali, both Brown Thomas. Shoes, River Island. Socks, Darren’s own. Photo: Patrick McHugh

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Darren wears: Suit, Canali; shirt, Kenzo; bracelet, Louis Vuitton, all Brown Thomas. Glasses, Darren Kennedy for Specsavers. Photo: Patrick McHugh

Walking through Dublin city centre with Darren Kennedy, you feel like you’re in an Irish episode of Queer Eye. Quare Eye, you might call it. For the straight guy — we bump into Craig Doyle, who immediately gets a full skin and haircare audit. For the gay guy — Darren marches me down to a pharmacy on Grafton Street and buys me a selection from his own range, which he then demonstrates right there on the street (“work it from the roots right through to the tips”). And for everyone in between (“I honestly can’t remember who he is,” he confesses through clenched teeth, as another fan waves to him across the restaurant).

He’s like a high-fashion version of the saints who do the soup runs for the homeless — a little chat, followed by some practical help and a kindly pep talk. “I think it really does make a difference for people,” he says. “It’s about having the confidence to look your best.”

And, in his own way, he has mucked in with the homelessness crisis, too. He recalls passing a man begging in a doorway, whom he felt sure was in need of some clothes. Darren arrived the next day with a huge bag of his own cast-offs for the man. “But when I saw him the next time, he wasn’t wearing any of them,” he recalls. “He probably sold them.”

Maybe appearing head-to-toe in Prada, or whatever, wouldn’t really work for the begging business model, I muse. People might draw the conclusion that the beggar didn’t need money. “Do you know what, you could have a point,” Darren replies. “But I did something on face value to try and help him.”

Helping people look better is what Daz does. His new BBC show is called You Are What You Wear, and it’s a makeover show. “When it was commissioned, I jumped up and down and I screamed,” he says. “You never know if these things are going to work out — it was a happy moment. It’s hosted by Rylan Clark-Neal. There is a cast of five stylists, and we are all completely different. The people taking part come into their dream apartments and walk around seeing mannequins with clothes they could actually wear; like, if they are plus-sized, there are plus sized mannequins. Then they come down into this room called a mirror room, and most of these people don’t like looking in the mirror, and that’s where they explain where they’re at.”

Prime-time BBC is another quantum leap in Darren’s career. But don’t think that means he’s not still hustling his tush off. Right before the end of our conversation, we run through hopes and dreams for the future but, much more importantly, the promo list: his own skin and haircare line, Kennedy & Co; Specsavers; his voluminous TV work. America is “really going to grow in the next few years,” he tells me. His business has expanded into the Middle East. He’s changing the world, one fashion overhaul at a time.

It seems like a forgone conclusion now that we have a Darren Kennedy telling us what to wear. If we didn’t have him, we would have to make him up. But while other countries seemed primed for their own versions of Queer Eye, Ireland was always a little more resistant to male primping. If Irish women were “only a couple of generations out of the bog”, as Paul Costelloe once said, Irish men never truly left it.

To combat this, Darren has become a sort of UN inspector of Irish fashion crimes. “I found something quite interesting recently. A large multinational jeans manufacturer — I won’t say which one — still produces boot-cut jeans just for the Irish market,” he says, aghast. “We are the only territory in the world they do that for. I think that says it all, really. You still see the odd person wearing them. It’s horrendous, but it’s always been a bit like that. If you owned a moisturiser back in the day, it was like you were gay, or you had notions. Eh, sorry, did I ask your opinion? It’s not your fucking face.”

He talks about our fashion dysfunctions with a charming, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God wistfulness. Growing up, stranded in the obscurity of North Dublin — his house backed on to DCU — he had his own share of denim disasters. “My brother was older and cool, and I’d steal his clothes. My friends would be all in tracksuits, and I’d rock down in a pair of Levis 501s, his purple paisley shirt and doused in his Fahrenheit Dior. I had an outfit of quadruple denim, topped off with a denim flatcap, which I wore with pride. I was kind of like all four girls from B*Witched, but rolled into one person. And I thought I was da bomb.”

Everyone in school seemed to know Darren was gay before he did. “I would have never told anyone at home what was being said [in school] because I was fearful about outing myself to them [his family]. And I would wonder, ‘How the hell are they [the boys in school] so certain when I’m not even sure?’. Although... I did go to Spain and came back with a really great tan and my hair dyed blond — that might have been a bit of a giveaway.”

At school, this was the source of a lot of bullying. “Being gay was really tough when I was young. I went to a really GAA-oriented school. The all-boys thing killed me — in a mixed school, I would have been fine. There were a lot of taunts. I didn’t want to do transition year; I wanted to finish school and get the hell out of there. But what’s funny is that the same people who bullied me now come up to me and ask me for selfies for their girlfriends. Nine times out of 10, I don’t remember them.”

He wished he was straight in those years, he tells me. “Of course I did. If there had been a pill [to change his sexuality] I would have been first in line to take it. People say, ‘Oh your gift becomes your burden’ but it’s hard to have that perspective when you feel you’re carrying the burden. But now I think that would have been terrible — what a loss it would be.”

Telly — Queer as Folk, Sex and the City, Eurotrash — provided a glimpse of the sparkling world beyond Santry, and Darren experimented with drugs. “I dabbled when I was about 15 and took acid. It blew my mind. I saw everything — Batman, Robin, you name it. But it made me so out of my mind that I decided after that, ‘I never want to do that again’.”

Everything changed when Alan Hughes moved in around the corner. “I remember preparing what I was going to say: ‘Hi, I’m Darren, I live in number one and I want to work in TV, can I talk to you?’ We slowly built up a friendship. They [Alan and his now husband Karl] were totally normal. People did know there was a gay couple in the area, but I wouldn’t have been in tune with that.

“He helped me get my first start in TV. I worked as a runner in Ireland AM. I’d drive out with Alan, I’d meet him at the corner of the road at 5.15am, and I’d work as a runner until the show came off.” Hughes and his husband Karl Broderick counselled the young Darren on his next moves in media but, while he waited to find his footing, he worked a variety of other jobs.

These days he’s a big follower of the Japanese philosophy of ikigai, which says that you should do “what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what the world needs and what you can get paid for”. Even before he’d heard of it, he was applying these tenets to his own career. “I knew I had to make a living because nobody was going to support me, so I’d applied for a job in Google when they’d just come here. I was employee number 40. I set up Google TV and interviewed the founders, Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin]. I got a job as PR manager for the French tourist board. I’d also started a radio show at the time on Dublin City FM, and I never looked back.”

At the peak of Celtic Tiger-era property prices,

Darren bought an apartment in Portobello with his then-boyfriend. “Of course the prices crashed then, but it didn’t really seem to matter, because I was still happy to live there. Someone once told me only buy a place if you’d be happy living there for 20 years, and I’m still there and I love it.”

He was a reporter on the late Gerry Ryan’s radio show and also worked on the first two seasons of Operation Transformation. “Shows like that are a beast. They rinse you of your life. They are all-consuming and you don’t get benefits; you’re working seven days a week, no overtime, you don’t get a pension, and at the end of it you get a pat on the head and you have to find another job.”

After Operation Transformation, Darren launched his own personal styling business, which he only closed down two years ago, and continued to climb the greasy pole of showbiz. “I got so many knock-backs when I applied for TV presenter roles. I learned to cope with rejection, but I didn’t mind it because I had this feeling that every time I get rejected, I’m one step closer.”

He found the media world to be cut-throat and his sexuality, which would become a sort of calling card, was initially a disadvantage. “People have tried to stab me in the back. But I try not to give time or space in my life to people who have tried to get at me. Sometimes it’s been harder to ignore, though. It once got back to me that they didn’t want me because I was too gay. It was an RTE show. I won’t say which one.”

When he made a video in support of the passing of the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum “all hell broke loose” at the broadcaster, which was obliged to remain impartial (he escaped censure because he wasn’t technically an RTE employee). Gay Daddy, his documentary which explored issues around gay parenthood, also “ruffled a few feathers” at the national broadcaster, he says. But it didn’t hold him back. Over the following years, he appeared everywhere from the Baftas red carpet to Celebrity Big Brother’s Bit On the Side, and hosted for everyone from GQ to Lancome.

He was in a relationship from his early 20s until his mid-30s. There was no acrimony when they broke up, he says. “There was no drama, really. I got into a couple of shorter relationships after that, but after a while I said, ‘Actually, do you know what? I’m happier just taking a step back and doing my own thing’. I think it’s crazy that most of my adult life I was in a relationship.”

Being single again, at 35, came as something as a shock to him. “People dated differently, apps and all that; it was terrifying. The things people were sending me — I was like, ‘Aghhhhh, that can’t be the opening gambit’.”

What, like dick pics?

“Yeah, and worse. I remember once, I don’t know how, I got sent a vagina pic. It was dark and moody looking, I thought it was a mountain. I turned it because it was sent portrait and the lips were at the top. So, yeah, that was a learning curve.”

He says he felt “lonely and lost and directionless on many levels. I had to do a lot of work on myself, but it’s all been very positive.”

Therapy was part of that, he adds. “I still go; I think it’s brilliant and I would recommend it to anyone. We’ll spend money on clothes, hair, yoga, Pilates, but why won’t we spend the money on fixing what’s going on inside?

“Sometimes it takes so long to come to the most obvious conclusions. There are things nobody could have told me, I had to find them out myself. [Therapy] is the most incredible thing I’ve done in the last few years. Finding the right therapist can be hard; it’s like dating. I went to one woman, whom I kind of resented, so that wasn’t good. But the woman I got eventually was amazing. A lot of the stuff I dealt with was feeling like I didn’t deserve what I achieved. I had guilt and shame, and I’d feel it in the strangest places, like LA. It goes back to some of the stuff I went through when I was younger, being in the closet, all

that stuff.”

He says he still wants kids. “I still do want children, but it ebbs and flows. I’ve got

five nieces and a new nephew. Most of my friends are from my schooldays, although

not from school, and they’re getting married and having kids, and I did look around

and think, ‘Where do I fit into all this?’”

His ambition is boundless, and his career continues to climb, but he says that

personal stuff will be the last piece in the puzzle. “I want Kennedy & Co to be a

global brand. We’ve gone into the Middle East this week, into a chain that’s bigger

than Tesco globally. I live between here and London, and spend more and more time

in the States. I’ll always have a foothold here. I want a partner to build a life together.

But whether that happens or not, I feel good about myself, and that, in the end, is the most important thing.”


Darren Kennedy stars in the new weekly series, ‘You Are What You Wear’ which hits screens on BBC One, Thursday March 26, at 8pm on BBC One

See kennedycogrooming.com. Kennedy & Co is on sale from amazon.co.uk


Walking through Dublin city centre with Darren Kennedy, you feel like you’re in an Irish episode of Queer Eye. Quare Eye, you might call it. For the straight guy — we bump into Craig Doyle, who immediately gets a full skin and haircare audit. For the gay guy — Darren marches me down to a pharmacy on Grafton Street and buys me a selection from his own range, which he then demonstrates right there on the street (“work it from the roots right through to the tips”). And for everyone in between (“I honestly can’t remember who he is,” he confesses through clenched teeth, as another fan waves to him across the restaurant).

He’s like a high-fashion version of the saints who do the soup runs for the homeless — a little chat, followed by some practical help and a kindly pep talk. “I think it really does make a difference for people,” he says. “It’s about having the confidence to look your best.”

And, in his own way, he has mucked in with the homelessness crisis, too. He recalls passing a man begging in a doorway, whom he felt sure was in need of some clothes. Darren arrived the next day with a huge bag of his own cast-offs for the man. “But when I saw him the next time, he wasn’t wearing any of them,” he recalls. “He probably sold them.”

Maybe appearing head-to-toe in Prada, or whatever, wouldn’t really work for the begging business model, I muse. People might draw the conclusion that the beggar didn’t need money. “Do you know what, you could have a point,” Darren replies. “But I did something on face value to try and help him.”

Helping people look better is what Daz does. His new BBC show is called You Are What You Wear, and it’s a makeover show. “When it was commissioned, I jumped up and down and I screamed,” he says. “You never know if these things are going to work out — it was a happy moment. It’s hosted by Rylan Clark-Neal. There is a cast of five stylists, and we are all completely different. The people taking part come into their dream apartments and walk around seeing mannequins with clothes they could actually wear; like, if they are plus-sized, there are plus sized mannequins. Then they come down into this room called a mirror room, and most of these people don’t like looking in the mirror, and that’s where they explain where they’re at.”

Prime-time BBC is another quantum leap in Darren’s career. But don’t think that means he’s not still hustling his tush off. Right before the end of our conversation, we run through hopes and dreams for the future but, much more importantly, the promo list: his own skin and haircare line, Kennedy & Co; Specsavers; his voluminous TV work. America is “really going to grow in the next few years,” he tells me. His business has expanded into the Middle East. He’s changing the world, one fashion overhaul at a time.

It seems like a forgone conclusion now that we have a Darren Kennedy telling us what to wear. If we didn’t have him, we would have to make him up. But while other countries seemed primed for their own versions of Queer Eye, Ireland was always a little more resistant to male primping. If Irish women were “only a couple of generations out of the bog”, as Paul Costelloe once said, Irish men never truly left it.

To combat this, Darren has become a sort of UN inspector of Irish fashion crimes. “I found something quite interesting recently. A large multinational jeans manufacturer — I won’t say which one — still produces boot-cut jeans just for the Irish market,” he says, aghast. “We are the only territory in the world they do that for. I think that says it all, really. You still see the odd person wearing them. It’s horrendous, but it’s always been a bit like that. If you owned a moisturiser back in the day, it was like you were gay, or you had notions. Eh, sorry, did I ask your opinion? It’s not your fucking face.”

He talks about our fashion dysfunctions with a charming, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God wistfulness. Growing up, stranded in the obscurity of North Dublin — his house backed on to DCU — he had his own share of denim disasters. “My brother was older and cool, and I’d steal his clothes. My friends would be all in tracksuits, and I’d rock down in a pair of Levis 501s, his purple paisley shirt and doused in his Fahrenheit Dior. I had an outfit of quadruple denim, topped off with a denim flatcap, which I wore with pride. I was kind of like all four girls from B*Witched, but rolled into one person. And I thought I was da bomb.”

Everyone in school seemed to know Darren was gay before he did. “I would have never told anyone at home what was being said [in school] because I was fearful about outing myself to them [his family]. And I would wonder, ‘How the hell are they [the boys in school] so certain when I’m not even sure?’. Although... I did go to Spain and came back with a really great tan and my hair dyed blond — that might have been a bit of a giveaway.”

At school, this was the source of a lot of bullying. “Being gay was really tough when I was young. I went to a really GAA-oriented school. The all-boys thing killed me — in a mixed school, I would have been fine. There were a lot of taunts. I didn’t want to do transition year; I wanted to finish school and get the hell out of there. But what’s funny is that the same people who bullied me now come up to me and ask me for selfies for their girlfriends. Nine times out of 10, I don’t remember them.”

He wished he was straight in those years, he tells me. “Of course I did. If there had been a pill [to change his sexuality] I would have been first in line to take it. People say, ‘Oh your gift becomes your burden’ but it’s hard to have that perspective when you feel you’re carrying the burden. But now I think that would have been terrible — what a loss it would be.”

Telly — Queer as Folk, Sex and the City, Eurotrash — provided a glimpse of the sparkling world beyond Santry, and Darren experimented with drugs. “I dabbled when I was about 15 and took acid. It blew my mind. I saw everything — Batman, Robin, you name it. But it made me so out of my mind that I decided after that, ‘I never want to do that again’.”

Everything changed when Alan Hughes moved in around the corner. “I remember preparing what I was going to say: ‘Hi, I’m Darren, I live in number one and I want to work in TV, can I talk to you?’ We slowly built up a friendship. They [Alan and his now husband Karl] were totally normal. People did know there was a gay couple in the area, but I wouldn’t have been in tune with that.

“He helped me get my first start in TV. I worked as a runner in Ireland AM. I’d drive out with Alan, I’d meet him at the corner of the road at 5.15am, and I’d work as a runner until the show came off.” Hughes and his husband Karl Broderick counselled the young Darren on his next moves in media but, while he waited to find his footing, he worked a variety of other jobs.

These days he’s a big follower of the Japanese philosophy of ikigai, which says that you should do “what you’re good at, what you enjoy, what the world needs and what you can get paid for”. Even before he’d heard of it, he was applying these tenets to his own career. “I knew I had to make a living because nobody was going to support me, so I’d applied for a job in Google when they’d just come here. I was employee number 40. I set up Google TV and interviewed the founders, Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin]. I got a job as PR manager for the French tourist board. I’d also started a radio show at the time on Dublin City FM, and I never looked back.”

At the peak of Celtic Tiger-era property prices,

Darren bought an apartment in Portobello with his then-boyfriend. “Of course the prices crashed then, but it didn’t really seem to matter, because I was still happy to live there. Someone once told me only buy a place if you’d be happy living there for 20 years, and I’m still there and I love it.”

He was a reporter on the late Gerry Ryan’s radio show and also worked on the first two seasons of Operation Transformation. “Shows like that are a beast. They rinse you of your life. They are all-consuming and you don’t get benefits; you’re working seven days a week, no overtime, you don’t get a pension, and at the end of it you get a pat on the head and you have to find another job.”

After Operation Transformation, Darren launched his own personal styling business, which he only closed down two years ago, and continued to climb the greasy pole of showbiz. “I got so many knock-backs when I applied for TV presenter roles. I learned to cope with rejection, but I didn’t mind it because I had this feeling that every time I get rejected, I’m one step closer.”

He found the media world to be cut-throat and his sexuality, which would become a sort of calling card, was initially a disadvantage. “People have tried to stab me in the back. But I try not to give time or space in my life to people who have tried to get at me. Sometimes it’s been harder to ignore, though. It once got back to me that they didn’t want me because I was too gay. It was an RTE show. I won’t say which one.”

When he made a video in support of the passing of the 2015 Marriage Equality Referendum “all hell broke loose” at the broadcaster, which was obliged to remain impartial (he escaped censure because he wasn’t technically an RTE employee). Gay Daddy, his documentary which explored issues around gay parenthood, also “ruffled a few feathers” at the national broadcaster, he says. But it didn’t hold him back. Over the following years, he appeared everywhere from the Baftas red carpet to Celebrity Big Brother’s Bit On the Side, and hosted for everyone from GQ to Lancome.

He was in a relationship from his early 20s until his mid-30s. There was no acrimony when they broke up, he says. “There was no drama, really. I got into a couple of shorter relationships after that, but after a while I said, ‘Actually, do you know what? I’m happier just taking a step back and doing my own thing’. I think it’s crazy that most of my adult life I was in a relationship.”

Being single again, at 35, came as something as a shock to him. “People dated differently, apps and all that; it was terrifying. The things people were sending me — I was like, ‘Aghhhhh, that can’t be the opening gambit’.”

What, like dick pics?

“Yeah, and worse. I remember once, I don’t know how, I got sent a vagina pic. It was dark and moody looking, I thought it was a mountain. I turned it because it was sent portrait and the lips were at the top. So, yeah, that was a learning curve.”

He says he felt “lonely and lost and directionless on many levels. I had to do a lot of work on myself, but it’s all been very positive.”

Therapy was part of that, he adds. “I still go; I think it’s brilliant and I would recommend it to anyone. We’ll spend money on clothes, hair, yoga, Pilates, but why won’t we spend the money on fixing what’s going on inside?

“Sometimes it takes so long to come to the most obvious conclusions. There are things nobody could have told me, I had to find them out myself. [Therapy] is the most incredible thing I’ve done in the last few years. Finding the right therapist can be hard; it’s like dating. I went to one woman, whom I kind of resented, so that wasn’t good. But the woman I got eventually was amazing. A lot of the stuff I dealt with was feeling like I didn’t deserve what I achieved. I had guilt and shame, and I’d feel it in the strangest places, like LA. It goes back to some of the stuff I went through when I was younger, being in the closet, all

that stuff.”

He says he still wants kids. “I still do want children, but it ebbs and flows. I’ve got five nieces and a new nephew. Most of my friends are from my schooldays, although not from school, and they’re getting married and having kids, and I did look around and think, ‘Where do I fit into all this?’”

His ambition is boundless, and his career continues to climb, but he says that personal stuff will be the last piece in the puzzle. “I want Kennedy & Co to be a global brand. We’ve gone into the Middle East this week, into a chain that’s bigger than Tesco globally. I live between here and London, and spend more and more time in the States. I’ll always have a foothold here. I want a partner to build a life together.

But whether that happens or not, I feel good about myself, and that, in the end, is the most important thing.”

Darren Kennedy stars in the new weekly series, ‘You Are What You Wear’ which hits screens on BBC One, Thursday March 26, at 8pm on BBC One

See kennedycogrooming.com. Kennedy & Co is on sale from amazon.co.uk


Styling by Chloe Brennan

Photography by Patrick McHugh

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