Thursday 22 March 2018

Bad girl gone good? Jennifer Maguire: 'Bridget was probably pregnant before they got married and he did it because they had to'

She made her name trading insults for laughs but now motherhood has helped TV and radio star Jennifer Maguire uncover her own sensitive side

Jennifer Maguire: Top, €190, Alice and Olivia, Brown Thomas; trousers, €50, River Island.
Jennifer Maguire: Top, €190, Alice and Olivia, Brown Thomas; trousers, €50, River Island.
Jennifer Maguire: Earrings, €135, Margaret Elizabeth, Loulerie; jumpsuit, €210, Whistles, Brown Thomas; bracelet, €5.95, H&M
Leading man: Jennifer and husband Lau Zamparelli
Jennifer Maguire as her character Bridget from Bridget and Eamon.
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

We're coming towards the end of our shoot in Dublin's Morrison Hotel when Jennifer Zamparelli (née Maguire) looks at the tattoo on her right arm and grimaces.

"I got it when I was 17 and living in New York," she says. "My sister and I thought it would be cool to get tattoos so we went down to the Village and I just basically went in and said 'I'll have that one'. It's Japanese for 'heaven'…

"I went first and she chickened out. I thought it was cool for a while and now I absolutely hate it. I'm going to get it lasered off." There's another shudder before she regains her composure and strikes a pose for the photographer.

The 35-year-old television presenter is now older and wiser. She married husband Lau Zamparelli in 2014 and gave birth to baby girl Florence the following year. The trio live in "a little shoebox" in Ranelagh, Dublin and their lifestyle is more bikes and bakeries than tattoos and Tequilas.

Starts are early and not just because of Florence - Jennifer co-presents 2fm's Breakfast Republic from 6-10am weekdays, with Keith Walsh and Bernard O'Shea. And it's with O'Shea that she's developed new sitcom Bridget and Eamon, a spin-off from their skits about a married couple in the 1980s on Republic of Telly. Is Lau anything like her on-screen husband? "They are polar opposites," she laughs. "Eamon is stuck. He doesn't want to do anything or go anywhere.

"Bridget was probably pregnant before they got married and he did it because they had to. He told her on the wedding night that he liked her - I think that's the extent of his affection for her."

Lau, on the other hand, is a diehard romantic. They met when he auditioned for a role in a play she was directing in Bristol. He got the part - and the girl. The actor and stuntman is originally from Bristol, but of Italian descent. Jennifer says she fits right in when they visit his family in Italy. "They're very like the Irish - the Catholic Church has a major hold on them as well. They're very family-orientated and very close."

There are some aspects of Italian culture that she can't abide, though. "It took me a long time to come to terms with going to his mam's house. She would cook for 15 people and, after dinner, all the women would clean up and all the men just sat down. I was kicking Lau under the table like, 'Hello! Why aren't you standing up?'"

The pair married in Castle Leslie in July 2014 after which she took her husband's surname. It's an institution that some people consider old-fashioned. "They're entitled to their opinion," she says, "and they're probably right when you look at the bigger picture."

Still, it's a great surname, I offer. "It's a great surname!" she laughs. "Maguire - Zamparelli? Come on! There was no question. O'Shea or Walsh? No, I'll keep my own name."

She switches to serious mode. "I changed my name for our daughter. I want us all to have the same surname."

Still, the tattoo story is a tantalising vignette that suggests this mature lady was once a precocious teenager who rocked to her own beat. I wonder what she was like in school.

"I was a f***ing nightmare," she laughs. "I had no interest. I wasn't very good. I wasn't very academic. I was OK at History and English and Art but I was always late and I'd mitch quite a bit. I wanted to be finished and making money. I just wanted out."

She eventually got out ahead of her peers by skipping Transition Year. There was a brief spell in a secretarial college after the Leaving Cert - and an even briefer spell in a cabling company - before the bright lights of the Big Apple beckoned.

Jennifer is the youngest of six siblings brought up in Baldoyle. Her brother Cathal and sisters Michelle and Isabel were already living in New York when she made the move. They still live there today. "My brother left for New York in 1986 when he was 17 or 18. Cathal probably inspired us - he got the ball rolling."

Jennifer didn't attend university but she earned a degree in graft and tenacity during her late teens and early 20s. She worked the graveyard shift in a New York bar. She cleaned toilets as a chambermaid. When she came back to Ireland, she sold hairdressing promotions to passersby on Grafton Street.

By 21 she was living in Belgium and running her own sales-based business. She was engaged to be married but they split up a year later. It was a wise move - he would later sell a kiss-and-tell about their relationship to a UK tabloid. She moved to Cardiff next, and then Bristol where she worked in a lucrative commission-only sales job while running an amateur theatre company on the side.

Jennifer has been acting since the age of 16, but she played herself in her first ever TV role when she took part in British television series The Apprentice in 2007. The media christened her 'The Ice Maiden' and she admits that she came across as cold in the boardroom. The mugshot-style publicity photo can't have helped matters.

She didn't enjoy the experience and she returned to Ireland shortly after Lord Alan Sugar hit her with the immortal words "You're fired".

She didn't come back to lick her wounds, though. She used her newly acquired business acumen to open Bella Makeover Studio (a makeover and photography experience for women which she has since closed). Meanwhile, she was asked to take part in the RTÉ reality show Fáilte Towers, which led to a screen test for Republic of Telly.

She got the gig and quickly developed a reputation for her audacious interviewing style, particularly on the red carpet where she asked celebrities deliberately offensive, Dennis Pennis-style questions. Her days trudging up and down Grafton Street asking women if they wanted to buy hairdressing packages served their purpose.

The straight-talking presenter is often described as having "balls of steel"; however, she admits that some interviews required considerably more gall than others. "The Irish ones were harder because you see these people all the time," she says. "It was easier speaking to Mark Wahlberg or Will Ferrell because you're so far removed from these people.

"But doing it on your own doorstep, with Irish celebs that you might know or see… that was kind of hard."

She brings up the Grainne Seoige incident at the VIP Style Awards. She asked the fellow TV presenter if she wanted to gauge her own eyes out after hosting the All-Ireland Talent Show. A clearly upset Seoige stared at her before replying: "That's a really mean thing to say."

"She was a bit pissed off about that - and rightly so," says Jennifer, who acknowledges that there are risk/reward considerations with this strand of comedy. "The thing about comedy is when you get it wrong it's not very nice, but when you get it right, the rewards are huge."

There are other occupational hazards to consider too. She brings up her part in hidden camera prank show The Fear. Her favourite episode was when she purported to be a water meter installer in a housing estate in Crumlin, Dublin. It culminated in a householder chasing her down the garden path with a knife. "Kind of scary but brilliant television."

She announced that she was leaving Republic of Telly in July of last year. After seven years, she felt it was time to move on. She also wanted more time to work on Bridget and Eamon. Republic of Telly viewers will recognise the dysfunctional 1980s couple at its helm from a sketch that started on the show.

"We got great feedback," she explains. "People said, 'We'd love a series of these two' but it was never the right time. Eventually Eddie Doyle {Head of Comedy, Talent Development & Music at RTÉ} said, 'I see huge potential in this' and the three of us {she and co-star Bernard and producer/writer Jason Butler} went away and wrote a sitcom.

"We would meet after radio and brainstorm ideas. Then we'd write the beats and divide it up. We'd each write six or seven scenes and then we'd meet again and amalgamate it. The lads would fix all the major holes that would be in my bits.

"I learned a lot from working with them because I'd never written before, a sitcom especially. Bernard and Jason are brilliant writers and they gave me the confidence to write jokes."

She wouldn't describe herself as a comedian, though. "I'd say comedic actress. I would never call myself a comedian because then people say, 'Do you do stand-up?' That is something that absolutely terrifies me. I wouldn't have the balls to do stand-up. It's scary."

It's a curious stance given that she once asked Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary what it was like "being the biggest prick in Ireland". To be fair, his response was equally brilliant: "You've never seen me without my clothes on so you really wouldn't know whether I am or not."

Would she ever consider doing a straight chat show? "It doesn't really appeal to me," she says at once. "I think we have enough chat shows in this country - I'll leave that to Ryan. It's not really for me." What about the States, would she ever move back? "I'd love to move back if the opportunity came."

There are two actors in the Zamparelli household. Does she think there is even a grain of truth in the idea that actors shouldn't marry? "Absolutely not," she answers. "He has the personality for it. He's very good at seeing the positive side of things in an industry where rejection is huge. He'll always push me and I'll push him."

However, she concedes that they are both in precarious professions and six-month plans, let alone five-year plans, are almost impossible to map out. "We live a very short-term life. We can never go: 'OK, in a year's time I'll be minding her full-time and you'll be doing this.'

"He's an actor and I work in TV and radio. We don't know where the next job is coming from or how it's going to come. Luckily I have a mother who steps in and helps out but it's really week-to-week. This week, for example, he knows I'm very busy so he's not taking any jobs on. I don't know how long we can sustain it."

As it happens, Lau, who is minding Florence today, is due to meet her at the hotel and she's eager to finish up the interview and spend the afternoon with her daughter. She apologises and blames maternal guilt.

"I was reading about Lucy Kennedy talking about guilt and nobody told me about that. The guilt is the hardest thing.

"We've been working crazy hours. We had the radio show and then we were straight to filming Bridget and Eamon - it was 14-hour days. There were some tears but my saving grace was that it would be over in six weeks.

"I wasn't prepared for the guilt but everything else I was prepared for. I have 10 nieces and nephews. I had been waiting a long time to have a baby so I was so ready and so wanted it."

The couple were trying for a baby for two years before Jennifer became pregnant. Like many women, she says she finally conceived when she stopped over-thinking it.

"I think stress plays a lot with women's hormones. When I stopped thinking about it and stopped being so regimented about trying to conceive, it happened.

"I have a hippie friend who lives in Glastonbury and she was like, 'Jennifer, your body is a vessel and it has to create a human being. If you're stressed and anxious, or there's too much going on in your life, it's not going to happen for you'. That really rang true for me - it was about being as relaxed as possible."

The pregnancy wasn't an easy ride, though. She developed hormonal acne and suffered from mood swings. "My whole face changed shape," she says. "It got really round. And then I got acne along my jaw. It made me really self-conscious but I just had to deal with it - it's hormonal. There's nothing you can do."

On the plus side, she didn't gain excessive weight during the pregnancy. "I didn't over-eat. I'd be quite conscious of what I put into my body. I don't deny myself anything but I'd be quite healthy." She attributes breast-feeding with helping her lose any weight she gained.

Does motherhood mean she's hung up her dancing shoes? "I did Electric Picnic last year for a night and that was my blow-out," she says. "I'd never take her, though. I don't think anyone wins in that situation. I'd take her to Buddhafield in the UK or a festival designed especially for kids and family, but not to a full-on music festival to wheel her around listening to Orbital."

While some new parents can find the change of pace overwhelming, Jennifer says she finds it empowering. And she's certainly not begrudging the lack of nights out. "You kind of care less because it doesn't really matter as long as she's OK. If Bridget and Eamon is a flop, it doesn't really matter - as long as she's OK. It's kind of liberating really. It's a nice feeling."

How else had motherhood changed her? "I would be a little bit more sensitive - I am quite a sensitive person anyway. Your whole life changes because it's no longer about you. It's about her and it's always going to be about her. That's why I'm being a pain in the arse today…"

Lau has arrived and Jennifer is getting restless. Our interview is cut short and while I'm left with many unanswered questions, I can't help but admire a woman who has her priorities straight.

'Bridget and Eamon' starts on Monday at 10pm on RTÉ2

Jennifer loves...

Eating at: I’m a big fan of Thai food so Siam Thai never lets me down. I love it there. For the best nachos, Dillinger’s in Ranelagh.

Going to: Rome is my favourite holiday destination and, while I’ve stayed in a lot of hotels, nothing comes close to Castle Leslie in Monaghan where I got married.

Wearing: I don’t really go for designer anymore but I love Sandro. Also, Topshop and Folkster.

Beautifying with: I wear Chanel Coco Mademoiselle perfume and MAC Ruby Red lipstick. I get microdermabrasion in Nu Essence on South Anne Street.

Reading: Graham Norton’s The Life and Loves of a He Devil.

Watching: Making a Murderer… who isn’t?!

Listening to: Mostly Mother Goose Club or Pajanimals in the car with Florence.

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