Thalia Heffernan and Ryan McShane's romance defies reality TV curse
Model Thalia Heffernan and dancer Ryan McShane's romance has defied the 'Reality TV curse' and is going strong as he heads into his second season of 'Dancing'
When Thalia Heffernan signed up for the first series of RTE's Dancing with the Stars, a boyfriend was the last thing on her mind.
It was an opportunity to try TV, and learn how to dance. "I definitely wasn't expecting to meet someone. I was expecting to learn how to put one foot in front of the other and not look like an idiot," recalls Thalia.
It was at the first meet-and-greet between celebrities and professional dancers that Thalia and Ryan McShane first met.
"We introduced ourselves, and then we just had a bit of fun. I said 'well, I'm definitely not going to get you, because you're taller than me'. And she was like 'well… you never know'. 'No, I do know'," he recalls with a laugh. They were not cast as partners for the show, but "after that, we were almost like best friends", Ryan recalls.
In the intense atmosphere of the show - 14-hour days, seven days a week - they bonded quickly. "Straight away we connected," recalls Thalia, who has gone on to present Xpose on several occasions. "I walked into the meet-and-greet shaking like a leaf, thinking, 'aaaagh, what have I signed up for'. Ryan was so lovely - we just clicked immediately."
"We would always look for each other at rehearsals," Ryan adds. "We would sit and have coffee together and talk."
On initial impressions the pair could not be more different. Thalia, one of the most widely liked people in her industry, is open, warm, a self-confessed goofball. She possesses a leonine, tawny beauty, all long limbs and beachy hair. Ryan is reserved, his professional intensity and focus manifested physically in his compact, dark good looks and powerful presence. At 22 and 32 respectively, there is a 10-year age gap. "We've never once in our relationship had a problem with age. You started professional dancing so young," Thalia says turning to Ryan. "And I started modelling full-time when I was 15. I live so many lives in one year, and I have done for seven years, that I think I'd probably struggle with anyone my age. It's just a whole different world."
For Thalia, despite the fact she has been working with huge success as a model for nearly eight years, the show was unexpectedly daunting. "I think I didn't let myself realise the extent of it," she says of just how out of her comfort zone she was. "I walked on set the first time and my heart dropped straight through me. At the first rehearsal, it was so nerve-racking; all the pro dancers watching you."
Ryan interjects quickly; "we are there to support, not there to judge".
Worse than just the embarrassment of feeling like a klutz was dancing in front of the man she now fancied.
"Trying to dance in front of him for the first time was worse than [in front of] the nation," says Thalia, inclining her head towards Ryan.
"But I couldn't be any more supportive," her boyfriend protests.
She remembers with a bashful smile that practising the rumba with her dance partner Curtis Pritchard was particularly mortifying once Ryan walked into the room. She and Ryan weren't officially together, but they had shared a kiss after the first live show, so things were taking off.
"That was terrifying, I wanted to kill him. The rumba is one of the most embarrassing dances for somebody who doesn't dance, because it's so sensual, and I looked on Curt as my younger brother. And then Ryan decided to rock into the studio and said: 'If you can't do it in front of me, you can't do it in front of anyone else'.
"He sat down - and I don't even remember doing it. I was like 'I need you to get out of the room right now, I can't do this'," she says with a smile.
Dublin contestants are regularly first out in these shows - Dubliners do not vote in large numbers - and Thalia was gone after just four weeks.
"If you watch the footage, you can see I was absolutely devastated," says Ryan, who currently stars in a music video for the band Wild Youth with Thalia. "I felt like my heart dropped out. I remember the next week I was sitting by myself, so low because she wasn't there. From a pro dancer point of view, I can see how much potential she had."
After her elimination, Ryan spent most of his time outside work at Thalia's house rather than in the accommodation provided by the show. "It was really nice to go home to someone who knew the pressures I was under. Because I went to the final last year; that really takes it out of you mentally."
After the final, he went back to Birmingham, where he runs a dance studio. "We went from seeing each other every day to not seeing each other for months. It was really challenging. I was nervous coming to Birmingham," Thalia remembers. After almost three months apart, they went for a week's holiday in a villa in the mountains of Tuscany. Contrary to plan, it rained all week. "But it gave us a chance to actually spend time together. Because Ryan had never had any free time."
"When we went to Italy, we put the fire on, watched movies, and talked," recalls Ryan. "And I guess if you're not really going to like someone, spending a full week with them, where there are no external things to do, it's going to come out. We're very opposite," he continues, "in that I am very, very, very organised. And Thalia is not so organised, but where we have similarities is that we're artistic".
"I'm always worried about my lack of organisation. I could spend five days wearing the same outfit bar some clean things I need," smiles Thalia. "I'm the kind of person who needs to have everything ironed, even my socks and underwear," laughs Ryan.
"My bedroom is so tiny. And my dog is about six foot when he's lying down. So I can sometimes tell that Ryan walks in and is like 'OK, this is what we have to deal with'," says Thalia. "No, no," her boyfriend interrupts, objecting. "I sacrificed my 20s because I had a goal. I didn't have a life. I didn't socialise. I would go to training on Christmas Day, New Year's Day. I blocked everything out, because that's what mental people do, and I'm a little bit mental. And now, with the show, and our studio, and the fact that I've got the most amazing girlfriend in the world, I feel like I've got a life. And I can enjoy it. So why would I worry about stuff? Her lack of organisation makes me feel relaxed," he smiles. "I don't need to be organised."
"I've shown you that it's not entirely necessary," Thalia interjects. "As long as I'm there on time for work, that's the only thing that matters," Ryan adds.
In other hands, all this could run the risk of sounding sickening, but Thalia has never been one for gilding the lily. The third and youngest daughter of producer Gerald Heffernan, who made No Frontiers, and former model Susan Ebrill, she has spoken about her struggles with working in an adult environment from a young age, and the identity crisis that it led to, as well as the pressures of being a certain shape in her line of work.
When she started the show, her life was somewhat in flux. Since her family home was sold after her parents' separation, she had lived between their new homes, as well as travelling to London and Australia for work.
"I started Dancing with the Stars all over the shop. I had moved out of my mum's house into a new house. I found this place with my friend Rob. My room had been used for storage, so it's really really tiny. I started off the show with no bed, no wardrobe, no TV. I had nothing. Before one of the rehearsals I went out to Ikea, bought a bed, built it, went to rehearsals, and slept that night with no sheet, no duvet.
"And then I got Len," she says, referring to her beloved rescue dog, Leonard. Thalia is an ambassador for the DSPCA and has studied animal psychology. "It was a big struggle. He had a lot of problems because he was an abandoned dog. It was exhausting, and I was very much on my own. But then I met Ryan, and things settled with Len, and with my new home."
Now, Ryan is back for the six months of the show. "There's an element of pain with it, because it's so hard not being involved," says Thalia. "But you have to just get on with it. It was a stepping stone."
Life hasn't been smooth for Ryan either. Growing up in Lurgan, he was the only child of a mixed marriage, which, he says, divided his family for years.
"It was hugely problematic. A lot of family members didn't talk for a long time, and it was just my mum and dad. They are just the most amazing people, my heroes. Everyone's grand now."
Ryan, a former UK and British latin professional champion and British show dance champion, played football from a young age. When he broke his leg aged four, his parents signed him up for dance classes to build his strength up. He resisted for a few months, before being drawn in.
During school, it was either football or dance after classes. But the dancing was a secret.
"My mum's Catholic and my dad's Protestant. And then their son's a dancer. And you've to tell the boys at football, 'I'm not going to play on Saturday'. And I was probably team captain. I went for trials to England. But I wanted to go dance. Dance was the only thing I couldn't get right. I still can't get right."
Is he a perfectionist?
"Beyond," says Thalia, wryly.
"In the whole time I have danced, I have never done anything absolutely correctly. In my mind, it's not good enough," Ryan says. He left home to study in England aged 17, winning a scholarship for sports science and physiotherapy.
"Then people knew because I was in the paper," says McShane. "There would be a photograph of people in a dance studio, and I would be at the very back of the studio, trying to hide. I'd won all these trophies but I didn't want to be seen. It's funny to me now, because I go out with Thalia and I love dancing with my girlfriend. It's so special, it's probably the only thing I think is perfect.
"But at that time I couldn't tell anyone. It did bother me. I would think you are in a band with 11 men on a Saturday, and I'm dancing with an attractive girl, and I'm the one you're calling all these names."
Getting to the semi-final of Britain's Got Talent was a harbinger; his dancing career was outed at home, and people got behind him. He had a small group of friends who always knew, but Ryan's dedicated lifestyle didn't lend itself to a wide social circle.
"I don't really have a massive group of friends because any time I was competing, I would think 'you're not really my friend any more, you're my enemy, you're the person I want to beat'. That's how my mind works."
Once this season of the show ends, they're planning a big trip to Asia. "We always say to each other there's no pressure. I would never ever say to her 'I want you to move to England'. And she has never ever said to me 'I want you here.'"
"Only when I'm feeling really needy," Thalia jokes. "But I'd never mean it." As light-heartedly as it's said, she may just get her wish - Ryan says he would love to set up a dance studio in Dublin. "I don't think we ever said 'we're going out'," he smiles. "It was just very organic."
Dancing with the Stars starts on Sunday, January 7, at 6.30pm on RTE1. Thalia and Ryan are pictured in 37 Dawson Street.
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