'We all have a sob story, the trick is not to get stuck' - Aisling O'Loughlin on life after Xposé, her relationship split and starting over in France
After her role on Xposé ended and her relationship broke down, Aisling O'Loughlin decided to up sticks and move to the South of France. Here, she tells Orla Neligan how her leap of faith paid off and why she's counting her blessings - and dusting off her apron
'Ready for our next therapy session?" laughs Aisling O'Loughlin down the phone from her new home in the South of France. It's been seven years since I last interviewed the TV presenter in what she considers a good "therapy session" and possibly one of the most cathartic interviews, for us both.
Back then she embodied that elusive quality much beloved of primetime TV audiences: relatability. And confidence. Not that brash "look at me" kind of confidence endemic in TV presenters but a genuine self-possession skewered with the kind of honesty that is so often guarded. Today, while she still possesses that same easy-going manner, there's an assurance that makes her all the more engaging; a tangible sense that she's all grown up.
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At 40, and a mother to three boys, Patrick (seven), Louis (five) and Joseph (three), she has the lively energy of a teenager and the looks to match. A quick glance at her Instagram feed and it's striking how little she's changed. Still demure, still fresh-faced with an enviable glow that makes me want to up sticks and move to the South of France. It's obviously suiting her.
"It really is," she sighs happily. "It's so beautiful here and I love the relaxed way of life." The move came as a result of a culmination of 'ends'. She had been given the proverbial push by TV3 from her long-standing role as presenter on Xposé, her relationship with her French partner, photographer Nic MacInnes, had finished and it was time for a change.
"I blame Marie Kondo," she laughs. "She does warn you in her book that when you start detoxing your life, change happens. Things had come to a very natural end for Nic and I, and my career was changing direction. I started to Marie Kondo everything; I wanted to make myself lighter in every way. I didn't want to be chained to one place and I always wanted the kids to be bilingual, so it felt like the right move.
"I also started listening to the Villagers song Courage on repeat and that sort of pushed me that bit further. Sometimes you just need a song," she laughs.
Home is now the beautiful medieval village of Lorgues in Provence; somewhere Nic had always wanted to live. But she's quick to point out they are not cohabiting. "We're sharing a village but not a home," she answers deftly.
Some days they hang out together as a family but, she admits, they work better separately. It sounds like they've mastered the art of "conscious uncoupling" Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin-style. "We're trying," she laughs. "Sometimes it looks like we're doing so well... some days we really are magnificent conscious uncouplers, but other days we're not so successful."
Anyone who has endured the trials of a difficult relationship or separation will relate to the heartache, the anger and the propensity to blame. Remarkably, O'Loughlin and her ex-partner Nic have found common amicable ground on which to split, together. They are not pitted against each other but are "growing apart nicely". And judging by the photographs that Nic took for this shoot, it seems they are collaborating nicely too.
"Don't get me wrong, we have our skirmishes," she admits sheepishly. "But we're stuck with each other and I truly believe we came into each other's worlds to teach one another something; there are no accidents. And it would be too easy to blame the other person... that just becomes so dull and boring. The hardest thing is to take responsibility for the part you play. Plus, family is hugely important to us, and the kids come first."
She's not dating yet but admits to being "open to love in every capacity". The kids, she tells me, are adjusting very well; they have catapulted themselves into French life and mastered the language. They have no expectations that Mum and Dad will reunite but seem genuinely happy. Joey, her youngest, has yet to start school and is happily ensconced in village life, where he is doted on by the locals. But is it possible for kids to come out unscathed from a broken relationship, I wonder.
"I think kids are fine if their mummy and daddy are both happy. It's a disservice to make them the reason you stay together; that's not fair on you or them."
Great things never came from comfort zones and O'Loughlin is clearly not a woman to stand on the sidelines of her story. The last few years have had no shortage of challenges and yet she's philosophical. Her departure from TV3, while not her decision initially, was, on reflection, the right one. She didn't personally hand over the baton; it was handed over for her and it felt like a natural progression. "It was perfect for my 20s. I met amazing people, travelled the world, but I was becoming jaded by it. I think it's about setting intentions that line up with your core beliefs. My beliefs were no longer about celebrities and fast fashion. Something wasn't sitting comfortably and it was right and proper that the new girls have their time too."
It's very gracious of her, I offer. "It's all about attitude," she muses. "We all have a sob story but the trick is not to get stuck. We can feed the story, give it energy and get stuck to it like glue until it consumes us. You have to change the record. I've put a new record on and it's a happy one."
In many ways another TV show is the last thing O'Loughlin needs. She hasn't so much given up on TV but she's not "chasing it down". Her preconceptions of success have changed. Today, she is demonstrably comfortable in her own skin but it wasn't always that way. Of her first six years as a news presenter, she admits to being terrified most of the time. Performance anxiety goes with the territory of living in the TV pressure cooker, I assume.
"It does if you allow it to," she answers. "I've given into fear a lot in the past; it trips you up and that isn't good when you're on TV," she laughs. She is happier now, though, even if she still gets "the fear" about money and whether she'll be destitute in France. "There are days when I say, 'Jesus! What am I doing and where's this all going?' But I don't give it much space in my head. If you play that record, that will probably come true - so I change the record."
The conversation segues to her childhood, when she was at her happiest. The youngest of four girls, she spent her early years communing with nature and talking to animals in her native Co Clare. It's no surprise that now, having turned vegan, she feels closer to her childhood self.
"It sounds very LA but I do feel like I am finally honouring that kid. I always questioned the lamb on my plate as a child and I hated the meat section of the supermarket. It all felt wrong at the time but we lived in rural Ireland - I would have been lynched if I had refused the meat and two veg for my dinner."
In a country where eating cheese is almost a religion and most menus cater for the carnivore, being vegan in France must pose some challenges? "They really aren't great at it," she admits. "But when you've three kids, you don't get to eat out that much." Still, she's happy with the amazing choice of fresh fruit and veg on offer at the local markets. "The thing is," she pauses, considering her next sentence, "there's no stopping veganism - there's critical mass behind the movement. Meat eaters are going to become museum pieces and it's clear from the high cancer and cholesterol rates here in France that the current way of eating isn't healthy."
Her eating habits are just that, however. The boys can eat whatever they like, although she has "honest conversations". "Nic is prone to feeding them saucisson. Joey takes the sausage out. Go Joey," she giggles. "But I don't try to persuade them; it's my awakening, not theirs. They'll come to their own conclusions themselves but I'm not behind the door about where the meat comes from - I'll tell them straight."
O'Loughlin is not behind the door about much, I'd imagine. When probed about the biggest challenge of living in France, she answers quickly and honestly. "Making a living and how I do that remotely. It's a question that follows me." She writes a weekly newspaper column and she has her website Exquisite - a fashion, beauty and lifestyle magazine - which, she admits, she's very proud of but has been neglecting somewhat.
"Perhaps I was too positive, or naïve, when I came here first but it's taken me a full year to bed in, and Joey cries every time I reach for my laptop so I've stopped fighting it and I've decided to give it my full attention when he starts school in September," she confesses.
There is no official "plan". She has, in her words, "relented" to motherhood. It's not so much that she feels compromised but she has let go of trying to fit it all in and searching for that elusive something.
"I remember interviewing Irish author Emma Donoghue on the Bafta red carpet. I asked her what her inspiration was for her novel Room and she told me it was 'motherhood' and the feeling of being trapped. I was pregnant with Patrick at the time and a bit taken aback, but now I get it. You do sometimes feel trapped. Most days, Joey is on go-slow and walks through the village backwards. It would drive you nuts but you have to slow down and go at his pace," she sighs.
Nic may be a few feet away but she is ultimately alone, a foreigner in a remote village, and yet shows no signs of loneliness. Her parents and sisters visit regularly and she will spend the month of August at home in Ireland. "You can't be apologetic for your presence," she says, a little irked. "It's the same for a foreigner in Ireland - you have to step into it, don't hold back; you've just as much right to be there and you have to find your place."
Be under no illusion, either, that her social life is suffering.
"It's better than when I was working on Xposé," she squeals. Village life, it seems, is alive and kicking, all thanks to the village fête. "There's fêtes for everything and it's so cheap. It's a real family affair so it's very inclusive."
And what about a night on the tiles? She admits there aren't many of them but last week her neighbours took her out to see a band. "I danced all night like nobody was watching. It was so much fun," she gushes.
Tomorrow's Bastille Day is the next big celebration, another fête. It'll be a family event with Nic and the kids, although she's hoping her neighbours might drag her out dancing again.
French village life is something we could all tap into, it seems. "It's that sense of civic duty they have - a rebellious bunch of individuals that collectively look after one another. It's not homogenised in any way.
"At home, it sometimes feels as though you're penalised for your individuality. The French can have raging debates with each other and can still be friends: they aren't capitalists in any way and they have the art of living down to a tee. I love that."
On the flip side, they could learn a thing or two about humility when it comes to admitting mistakes. Apparently they're "never wrong". "Not that it's a competition or anything," she laughs, "but the Irish definitely win on personality and customer service."
Although she admits to having turned her back on fashion somewhat, her passion for it is being reignited - a result of living among those effortlessly stylish French? "It's all about the blow-dry, good sunglasses and oodles of confidence," she says matter-of-factly. Gone is the polished glamour, the coiffed hair and red-carpet garb of the past; her own approach is more laissez-faire these days.
If there is a secret to ageing well, O'Loughlin has it pegged. But she's quick to dismiss any notion of youthful radiance in favour of the "soft lighting" shtick and lots of Instagram filters. Or perhaps it's the vegan diet or the fact that she uses "a bit of everything" when it comes to her beauty routine - but there's no denying she's glowing.
"I'm not hard on myself: I've accepted my imperfections but also..." she pauses before asking rhetorically, "who wants to see themselves in harsh lighting? I go out with a soft filter in my head," she laughs.
There is clearly a new sense of unbridled joie de vivre after her year in Provence. The lack of a plan seems to be serving her well and, while I get the impression she's eager for some creativity, the limelight is no longer a position she craves. I'm interested to know what she feels she's learnt most about herself since we last met.
"I like myself," she laughs. "I don't mind hanging out with me and [I've learnt] that it's OK to lose everything, that you can be better as a result. "We never stay the same," she adds enthusiastically. "Isn't that lovely that we don't? We get to change the record."
Sometimes all you need is a new song - and hers is a happy tune.