'No matter what you do, someone, somewhere, will always judge you' - Mairead Ronan on love, family and why she'll always pick radio over TV
Mairead Ronan admits that going on Dancing with the Stars is the scariest thing she has ever done... and the most enjoyable. Here, she tells Maggie Armstrong how she went from "invisible" mum to dancing queen - as fellow mothers around the country cheered her on to victory
Maternity is not the most public of postings.
A low-profile, largely domestic gig: mums, particularly mums of three, don't often undertake intense training regimes, make for the spotlight, reach for the stars - unless, that is, their name is Mairead Ronan.
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It is September 2018 and the TV presenter - of such shows as Ireland's Fittest Family and Celebrity Bainisteoir - is driving out of her road in Glasnevin when her mobile rings. A producer she knows from years back, when she worked as a runner, is on the phone. Larry Bass is asking her to be a celebrity contestant in Dancing with the Stars. Ronan's baby girl is six weeks old. She has another baby girl who is two, and a son who is 11. Immediately she declines.
Later, she puts her children to bed and mentions the call to her husband, who says, "You're going to do it, obviously?" The next day, she has a three-hour coffee with her friend, the camogie player and ex-DWTS finalist Anna Geary. Ronan is convinced.
Fast-forward 10 months and meet the 2019 champion and uncrowned queen of can-do - an embodiment of courage, who beat the odds and made many people cry. Ronan had never danced before. On television, she had always been part of a panel, a contributor, never the centre of attention. She had never won anything. Her confidence, she says, was "floored".
What went down for the dancing queen? And how is it that the competition outsider, a tired mum with a job she describes as "a bit of everything", became the winner?
Quick wit and relatability, plus a well-hidden yet redoubtable determination, is my best guess when we meet. The 39-year-old Finglas girl is sitting in a photography studio overlooking Wicklow Street, wearing a purple wrap dress. It is a hot summer's day and people below are shopping and drinking beer, a busker is playing Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah.
My eyes are drawn, as if by laser beam, to her famous dancing feet. She wears a very beautiful pair of Chanel espadrilles (a present her husband gave her when she was pregnant last summer) and has pearl-coloured toenails, and - she points this out - streaky fake tan. She is pleased the photographer is going to Photoshop this. I like her already.
Ronan undertook a crash course in waltzing, tangoing and dancing the Charleston, and felt pure terror before going on stage with her pro dancing partner, John Nolan.
"The night before the first dance, I was lying in bed thinking, 'Sh*t, what have I done?' There was no escape now. I felt so trapped and nervous. I needed sleep; I couldn't sleep. I was wondering, 'What's the first step?' I've never had those feelings before of complete panic.
"It's the scariest thing I've ever done, but it's also the most enjoyable thing I've ever done. It did wonders for me.
"My confidence was on the floor. I had had two kids back to back. I had never got my body back. I was breastfeeding. I didn't feel in any way fit or glamorous. You can feel a bit invisible when you are 38 and you're a mom and you don't have a 'job' job… I wasn't really working on anything."
Ronan had left Today FM after 15 years, having joined as a runner carrying teas and prizes. She got her first job as a researcher and contributor on The Ray D'Arcy Show and moved on to produce The Ian Dempsey Breakfast Show. She wasn't sure why she had been invited on DWTS, she says, running through some of the other contestants, actress Clelia Murphy, model Holly Carpenter, country singer Cliona Hagan.
"Which box did I tick? I figured I was the mumsy one. The invisible one."
She could wear a sparkly dress, but she had no background in performance, aside from playing piano in the mini orchestra at school. "My musical background probably helped with timing: I knew musical beats."
Why does Mairead think she won the show? "Mums. Mums voted for me," she says, and a quick trawl of her very busy Twitter account shows a groundswell indeed. "You are my hero," wrote Debbie Thornton. "That's a multi-tasking mama if ever I saw one," wrote Catherine Crowley. "Look at all the things you can do," said Deirdre O'Kane.
Coming up to the final, the exclamation marks and dancing girl emojis multiply: "Omg you're amazing. On fire gurl," wrote Pamela Blake. "I thought the jive was great but the Viennese Waltz was breathtaking… Serious leg envy here too," from Sharon McGourty. "Is she a bird, is she a plane, she's supermum" - that from her influential friend Ian Dempsey. "Do it for the mammys," wrote Philomena Downey. "Tears in my eyes. U did it for all the mammies," wrote Bernie O'Sullivan.
There was also Jane, with no followers and no picture, who offered, "Give it up Mairead. Go home and mind your New Born."
Ronan rolls her eyes, but betrays little hurt or even annoyance, remembering this comment. "No matter what you do, someone, somewhere, will always judge you."
This celebrity dancer certainly has a firm head on two strong shoulders. She describes Twitter as "a little bit rude". She has 80k followers, but her online life causes her very little mental disturbance, which is some claim in the age of the influencer and the troll.
"Why invite that meanness into your living room? Instagram is the nicer space now; we'll see where that goes." (For anyone interested in social media fame, her Instagram numbers doubled during DWTS from 20 to 40k.)
It's a far cry from Finglas, where Ronan - then Farrell - was told at school that she would never get a job in radio. Her parents also told her she would never get a job in radio because they knew no one in the industry. Her mother, Maureen, worked in catering, and her father, Robert, worked for Smurfit printworks, while her two glamorous older sisters, Olga and Simone, had jobs in Dublin Airport.
Ronan began a degree in HR and "hated" it, so left to work in Arnotts and applied to study media at Ballyfermot College. She got experience as a runner on MTV and Today FM, which led to a full-time job on The Ray D'Arcy Show.
Her 20s were weighed down by the break-up of her marriage - she had married her first husband at 24 and they separated four years later when her son, Dara, was one.
"We have a really good relationship," she says, clipped. And this shows that it's possible to survive the worst and create a harmonious modern family? "It's not easy, but it is possible. It involves work, and it involves everyone behaving like adults. Emotions have to be parked and little people have to be put first. That's it in a nutshell. If you do that, you can achieve a good relationship."
Being a reality star was not part of her plan. When she was first invited on the RTÉ show The Panel, she thought the producers had made a mistake with her name. The guests were Mairead and four male comedians, and Mairead had never been on television before. "It was so scary," she says. She recalls telling Dara Ó Briain that his hands looked like bunches of bananas, and the crowd laughing. Afterwards, she "got booked lots and lots" until the show's final episode.
This summer she is shooting Ireland's Fittest Family until September, and, she says, hinting at her rise in profile of late, "a couple of things I can't talk about".
But, she says, "Radio is always my favourite. TV is so structured."
She explains why she likes radio so much like this: "Us chatting now, if you printed every single thing I said, it would be just so boring and would go on so many pages. Whereas radio is the only space where everything you say goes out."
Had Ronan ever thought she would become a "personality" in public life? She shakes her head. "The sad thing for me is that my mum died thinking that I was really quiet. My dad said to me during Dancing with the Stars, 'If your mum could see you now, she'd be shocked.' She thought that people might walk all over me, that I might be a bit of a doormat."
Maureen had cancer on and off for 15 years, and died the night before Mairead's 21st birthday. "She was incredibly brave. When they told her [the cancer had returned], she said, 'I'm not taking any treatment. I've done it twice. I'm going to take pain relief and ride it out.' She knew it had her and there was no escaping it." With tears in her eyes, Ronan describes her mother as "a gorgeous, brave, strong woman".
"I came from a happy home. My mam always told me, 'You're gorgeous, you're beautiful.' I thought, 'Get yourself some glasses!'"
Ronan said on a podcast (The Cringe Binge) that growing up, she "knew I wasn't very pretty and I was fine with that".
"I am very ordinary," she says. "I'm not very tall - I don't have any striking features. I grew up around a lot of pretty girls, and I had acne; I had braces. I never take a tan, and tanning in the 1990s was the big thing. I'm kind of blue, my skin colour. But I'm happy in my ordinary state. I think I'm very real."
One of her favourite films is the Amy Schumer movie I Feel Pretty - where Schumer's character gets a knock on the head and realises she is incredibly attractive.
As a freelance presenter, how does she feel about the generous salaries her contemporaries at RTÉ receive? The latest published is that Ray D'Arcy is on €450,000 per year, while Ryan Tubridy is on €495,000. There are three women among the top 10 earners, not that it should be a feminist matter.
"I don't ever feel comfortable commenting on someone else's salary," says Ronan, but she goes on to say: "The only way to look at it is, what advertising revenue are they bringing in? And, well, if someone's negotiating a salary for themselves, high five to them - that's their business. It's not their fault that they get it," she smiles.
She herself is not a skilled negotiator, she says. "I remember going for a pay rise once. I said, 'I really have to get a pay rise, I haven't had a pay rise in years. I know I'm doing a good job.' My boss said to me, 'You've got to look at it this way: what can Mairead Farrell do for Mairead Farrell to get more money?' He said, 'You could write articles, do a bit of telly, work behind the scenes in TV.' I said to myself, 'This guy is a genius.'"
She managed to monetise her interest in hair two years ago, as co-owner of a brush company, Faro.ie, with her friend Debbie Lawless. Her pitch is, of course, friendly and relatable. "Irish women love getting a blow-dry. Blow-dries are ridiculously expensive in Dublin." So Ronan designed a set of brushes, for "unruly, wiry hair" like her own, and put them on the market.
Ronan met her now husband, Tipperary man Louis Ronan, at a Ray D'Arcy singles event she was presenting, and they got married in 2015. His father, also Louis, is a very successful businessman and cousin of developer Johnny Ronan. Louis Ronan Jr has a food-testing business.
"I didn't think I'd find someone so perfect for me," she says. "I never thought I would be this happy with someone, feel this loved, this love for someone, and this support. Louis is so supportive. When I was doing Dancing with the Stars, he took care of everything at home. I didn't darken SuperValu's door for three-and-a-half months - he did all of the shopping, all of the meals, I never had to worry if there was something for Dara's lunch tomorrow because I knew he had taken care of it."
She pauses, saying this, to point out that mothers usually take this load anyway. The couple have a very busy home now with Dara (11), Eliza (three) and Bonnie (10 months) and while there are plenty of social invites, she says they prefer to keep a low profile. "I don't go to all the parties, all the awards, all the charity lunches. I'm not out there all the time. When I am out there, I'm working. Louis respects what I do; I respect what he does and he doesn't want to walk a red carpet, so he's private."
Has she danced since DWTS? Not since the final, she says, shaking her head sadly.
The busker is playing Hallelujah again, a sign that we must go. We chat about the relief of house moving as she gathers up her things. The family have been busy moving into their freshly renovated Clontarf home, built in 1932. Ronan rented for eight years and waited just as long for a south-facing kitchen.
"Of course, it's not perfect all the time," she says. "If you want to look at perfect stuff, go on Instagram. People will only ever put up the good stuff, including me."
Ordinary, real - but forever the champion.