Saturday 20 October 2018

A stylish match

Declan Cashin gets an exclusive preview of RTE's revamped Off the Rails and meets the show's engaging new presenters Brendan Courtney and Sonya Lennon

Mixing and matching is the key to making fashion work. The same rule applies to pairing new co-hosts for a television show. Get it right and the results can be spectacular, memorable, a work of art even. But get it wrong and that mismatch will have the critics howling faster than you can say 'pret-a-porter'.

Brendan Courtney and stylist Sonya Lennon, the new co-presenters of RTE's reformatted make-over show, Off the Rails, are fully aware of those risks, but they are confident that their combination will be deemed 'haute' rather than 'faux' couture when the new series of the show struts onto our screens on September 24.

"We come from different things, but we complement each other very well," Courtney says. "I've done fashion for British television for the past three years, but I haven't really done any editorial work. Sonya has all the contacts imaginable in that area."

Chatting exclusively to Weekend some three weeks into filming Off the Rails around various Dublin locales, Courtney and Lennon exude a wide-eyed excitement for the project. On the morning we meet, they are set up right in the heart of the north inner city, preparing to film a segment in and around the Smithfield fruit markets.

In the Mary Street production offices, Courtney, dressed in a snazzy, bespoke, check shirt, turquoise tie, dark jeans and black Italian shoes, chats and jokes while waiting on make-up.

Meanwhile, the make-up girl is attending to Lennon, who is perched on a table, back to the door, her blonde hair in curlers. Wearing a blue Martin Grant Raglan dress and black Miu Miu shoes, Lennon tries to murmur 'hello' in between the make-up girl's moves, and whirls around at the first opportunity with a beaming smile and a warm greeting.

The two new hosts seem to be constantly making one another squeal with laughter, and they interact and bounce off each other like old friends.

Courtney reveals: "We knew each other socially for about 12 years and had mutual friends in Dublin and London. She has lots of gay friends."

Lennon smiles at that one and pipes in: "It comes with the territory!" She continues: "It was weird because, when I found out I'd been selected with Brendan, the first thing I said to my partner David was, 'Guess who my new roomie is?' Then, right that second, I got a text from Brendan saying, 'Hi roomie!' So I think it was meant to be."

It was widely reported earlier this year that Off the Rails had been axed from RTE's schedules, and that erstwhile hosts, Pamela Flood and Caroline Morahan, were to be redeployed within the national broadcaster.

When it was announced that the series would in fact continue, but with different faces, some commentators thought they could sniff blood in the air and anticipated a good, old-fashioned media catfight between the old and new guard.

Courtney is happy to disappoint the bloodhounds, however. "Pamela and Caroline were both very sweet, there's no weirdness there at all," he says.

"They had finished up last January and had been told that Off the Rails in its present format wasn't coming back. They're working on other things now and both rang us to say congratulations."

All of which begs the question: how has the format of the series changed under the new style gurus?

"It's completely different," the charismatic Courtney replies.

"We are picking the tone, and that means everything from the clothes to the people we make-over in the next 13 weeks. The only thing we don't get to pick is the title and the music, but everything else is us."

"I think the change is in its informative nature," Lennon adds. "It's not about throwing stuff on. Our approach is really about teaching people how to walk away with a system and a formula for dressing that will help them to feel good for the rest of their lives."

The show's new direction is also being guided by the results of an intense online survey that has honed in on specific style and body issues identified by Irish women.

"Each week we attempt to tackle an interesting issue," Courtney explains. "So, one week it will be pear-shape with a big bum, or the next it could be styling for bigger stomachs."

Lennon joins in: "The thing that's really close to our hearts is that Irish women are so bloody hard on themselves all the time, so we're trying to knock that out of them a bit.

"I think some women feel guilty about looking fabulous, or wanting to. On this show we want to help people to feel happy in the now. If they can feel good now, maybe they will find the confidence to look at other things they want to change."

Furthermore, the dynamic duo reveal that their reforming sights are set on as wide a demographic as possible. "Our youngest candidate is 28, and the oldest at the moment is 56," says Lennon. "If this all goes well, we'd love to tackle teenagers' style, as well as looks for women in their 70s. Whatever the age, bring it on!"

Courtney takes up the mantle: "One woman said she can remember the day, the exact moment even, when men stopped seeing her as a sexual object. That's not true, but it's the way she saw it. I really feel that age is just a number: as long as you have your health, you can do anything to feel confident about, and comfortable with, yourself."

For 36-year-old Courtney, there is a nice symmetry to him landing the Off the Rails gig: as a younger man, he unsuccessfully auditioned to be a presenter for the show in its previous incarnation, Head to Toe. Following the success of his own programmes Wanderlust and The Brendan Courtney Show, he was snapped up to co-host The Clothes Show on UKTV Style.

Today, he divides his time between London, where he runs a production company, and Dublin, where he says he is happy to be right now for one specific reason. "My sister just had a baby, little Emily, so it's great to be here for them," the Clondalkin native says.

Of his own sense of style, Courtney says he likes to pay homage to one of his icons, Tom Ford, by wearing simple black and white as often as possible. "I think I like to look as classically smart as I can, because there's nothing sexier on a man," he says.

He admits that his biggest splurge recently was on the new Burberry donkey jacket. "It cost a super amount of money," he says guiltily. "But that will be my big spend for the year. As my mother would say, 'Tis a grand coat for the winter'."

While Courtney is a familiar face to Irish viewers, Lennon is a newbie to mainstream audiences. Born and raised in Malahide, the 39-year-old started her career in retail (including stints at Firenze and Vivien Walsh's jeweller), before becoming fashion editor for the now defunct D'Side magazine.

Since then she has built a highly successful freelance styling career for a variety of magazines and advertising campaigns, as well as in film and theatre.

Along the way, she also found time to set up home on Dublin's North Strand with her partner, David Smith, a graphic designer, as well as having twins, Evie and Finn, now aged three-and-a-half.

Lennon says that her daughter, in particular, seems to be following in her mother's steps. "Evie likes to pick out what she wants to wear herself," the proud mum reveals.

"She's a strong-willed little lady, but I guess she didn't lick that off a stick."

Lennon was also a regular contributor to Head to Toe and Off the Rails prior to becoming host. "I remember doing a very, very early piece about cleavage that involved displaying my own to demonstrate my point," she laughs.

Like most women, Lennon admits she experimented greatly with her own sense of style, starting at age 11 when she cut up and dyed her granny's old bottle-green velvet curtains to make matching outfits.

"I had a pretty no-holds-barred approach to fashion back in the day," she recalls. "For example, I went through a phase of wearing curlers as part of my look. I also wore a Gaultier men's bowler hat decorated with brass bells, so it was like a symphony every time I moved!"

Lennon, who picks quirky Maggie Gyllenhaal as one of her style icons, says she cannot "stand, do, watch, see or wear" Ugg boots and deplores "the pandemic of tanorexia in this country".

"I like structured femininity," she says. "If I was going for an accent piece on an outfit it would be more about a ruffle or a bow than a sequin. I don't consider myself to be bling, but that doesn't mean I can't be shiny. I wasn't allowed to have my first pair of jeans until I was 15, so I do make more of an effort not to rely on them, and to dress up a bit."

To that end, she reveals that the prized possession in her own closet these days is a vintage couture gown by Dublin-based designer Ib Jorgensen that she picked up in a vintage store 15 years ago.

"It's stunningly beautiful and I've never worn it actually," she laughs. "That's not to say I won't wear it some day."

She pauses before adding: "I'm still waiting for the right opportunity."

Off the Rails, September 24, RTE 1, 8.30pm

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