Wednesday 21 March 2018

Ruth O'Neill: Me, myself, I, Xpose and LA Confidential

Ruth O'Neill left home with only a dream, yet managed to score one of the top jobs in the LA entertainment industry. Now home, she has done it again

Ruth O'Neill of Xpose
Ruth O'Neill of Xpose
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

'In my mind, time had frozen. Especially in LA; there were no seasons and I was still going out all the time. And then I came home and I was like: "What, people don't go out any more? People are getting engaged and buying houses? Oh my God, I'm not at that stage. I felt a little out of place for a little while. I still feel a little out of place, I guess," Ruth confesses with her trademark throaty chuckle.

At the age of 22, Ruth O' Neill, then still living in the family home in Castleknock, packed her suitcases and booked a one-way ticket to LA.

Her aim, to break into television, seems somewhat far-fetched, given that she knew no one and had limited TV experience. "There wasn't much of a plan," she said, "I'd never even visited the city."

Shortly after graduating from Commerce in UCD, Ruth had been a runner-up on Total Xposure, TV3's televised competition to find a replacement Xpose presenter for Lorraine Keane, afterwards working as an intern at the station. She knew she had to do something drastic if she wanted to make her dream a reality and shake off the model/TV presenter mantle/that girl from the Johnny Logan McDonalds ad that, even now, seems to rankle.

Even in those early days though, Ruth stood out as someone who had a grasp of what it would take to forge a career in television and who wasn't merely dazzled by the glamour of it all.

"I knew I had to do something to have the competitive edge. I had to leave here. I only did modelling part-time in college, but I kind of knew that's what people in the media were associating me with.

"I thought, 'How do I prove that I have more to offer?'"

In LA, she recalls that she "just started asking everyone I knew, 'I want to work in TV, any aspect, d'you know anyone who's hiring?'

"I was out almost every single night. Sometimes it was like ,'Who am I hanging out with here?' The parties you were invited to were nuts."

It worked, though. Defying the odds, she went from freelancing for MTV and VH1 to a job with ABC News, to eventually working in that most coveted of entertainment roles, as a reporter for one of America's most popular entertainment channels, the E! Channel, home to the Kardashians and their various reality shows, among others.

She returned home to Ireland last summer, having suddenly announced on her Instagram feed that she was leaving Los Angeles. after five years. When I last met Ruth, she was only off the plane from LA a few days.

Pleased to be home, she was slightly apprehensive about the weather, but full of the joys of the work-life balance we enjoy here, thrilled to be back with her parents in Castleknock and nearer to her close-knit group of childhood girlfriends that includes fellow presenter Rachel Wyse. She was glad to be off the brutal treadmill involved in working at the heart of the world's entertainment industry. There was talk of a pilot with RTE and the possibility of producing something herself.

As it turned out, moving home wasn't anything like as easy as she had anticipated, she reflects now.

"I definitely needed a break from LA. Because I only got home once a year. But moving home was much harder than I thought it would be. Me and my parents just didn't anticipate that I would find it so hard. We were like, 'Oh I'll just settle back in' and I didn't. At all. I found it really hard. I would almost say it felt like a break up. You think, 'Oh I'm so over it' and then a month later you're like, 'I miss the coffee shop I used to go to' or the little life I had; my apartment, or my car, or the friends I hung out with. For a while I couldn't really look at Instagram," she says, shaking her head with a rueful smile.

"I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it was. Then when I came home I thought, 'Oh, everything's changed'. I read articles from people who have come back from Dubai or Australia, they thought time had frozen and everything would be the same. And then you come back and realise everyone has moved on. Everyone is at a different stage of life. But then I've changed too, which I didn't realise."

By nature, Ruth seems like a glass-half-full type, but it's clear she struggled for a time.

"The lack of sunshine, I think that affected my mood. But it's fine now. It's just it was harder than I thought," says the presenter, who is just back from a quick break in a villa in Ibiza with a gang of friends and friends of friends, including the fashion designer Julien MacDonald.

On moving back to Ireland from LA, the plan was to move to London, but a few weeks back and forth for meetings convinced her she wasn't actually keen on the city.

"I thought I'll come home for a few weeks, see how it goes and then I'll probably move to London because there'll be more jobs there.

"But I was going over and thinking, 'Augh, I don't think this is really me. People were not as warm as Irish or American people. Even on the tube, no one makes eye contact."

The pilot, which she began working on within weeks of coming home, didn't get picked up.

"It came to December and I was like, 'It's not happening. There are no jobs here. I've exhausted RTE and TV3,'" she laughs.

Ruth's natural modus operandi is to be a self-starter and the enforced career hiatus was galling.

"I was very frustrated. I'd gone from being so busy in LA and I felt like I had learned so much, that I'd so much to offer. I was getting a bit down about it. So I thought I'm not waiting round here. I'm going to move to New York."

At the back of her mind, admits the 28-year-old, she toyed with the possibility that maybe it was time to give up on the TV dream.

"I thought, 'Maybe I need to just let this go. Maybe it's just not happening'. I'd always said to myself if it doesn't happen before I'm 30, I'm 100pc changing my career.

"But when I went to New York, I knew I'd be fine. New York is all about contacts. I'm pretty good at networking once I'm on the ground," she laughs. Ruth's family were living in New York at the time of her birth, her father working on Wall Street.

Having found an apartment in the East Village, she was getting settled, going to meetings, doing some freelance work, meeting up with friends who had moved from LA, when a call came from TV3, for whom Ruth had guest hosted Xpose for a couple of nights in October while home."I love New York, but I've always wanted that job. It's kind of like the missing piece of my career," explains Ruth. It was, of course, the competition for a role as an Xpose presenter that kicked off Ruth's TV career.

The gentler work pace of Ireland was also appealing.

"It's very competitive and demanding in the States," says Ruth, for whom the yoga studio was the one place to escape the exhausting ambitiousness of those around her in LA. "It's hard to shut off your mind when you work in America. In LA, after a while you realise a lot of people are in therapy, on anxiety pills, taking sleeping pills.

"People can't sleep at night. You're constantly on your phone. It never stops. You could be told that day you're being fired and you have to pack your office and go."

Having to work and socialise, live, non-stop essentially, in the world she worked in "grinded on me towards the end of LA, but I actually missed it when I was back here for a while. I missed being around everyone in a creative industry."

The Xpose job is bringing her back to that kind of lifestyle. "All the things I used to do for fun. Gigs, art exhibitions, concerts. That stuff I really missed." So she came home and hit the ground running as one of the anchors of TV3's nightly entertainment show.

Originally, Ruth was hired until November to cover maternity leave. As of last week, she and her new best friend, Cassie Stokes, have been made permanent, replacing Aisling O'Loughlin, Lisa Cannon and Peter O'Riordan. Ruth found out shortly before the autumn launch.

The show seems to be undergoing a revamp, reverting to the original format of a half-hour, rather than an hourly slot. Ruth and Cassie, both with international presenting experience, are being credited with appealing to a younger audience.

Ruth herself is keen to push the access the show gets to international events, to expand its social media, to get bigger red-carpet interviews.

While we may enjoy a more manageable work-life balance here than in the US, the Xpose presenters' work rate is notoriously brutal.

Ruth and her colleagues only receive the next day's schedule the night before and pitch, research and edit their own slots. It requires a relentless work ethic that makes any sort of social life, never mind relationship, challenging.

"Cassie and I don't care," she muses, "because we're both 28, single, love what we do, up for it, ready to go, loads of energy. I absolutely love it. It's the most fun job. This is, like, the only show I would want to be on in Ireland."

When I met her last summer, just home from LA, you got the impression her decision to move home was partly that she had decided that the time to settle down could be approaching, and she didn't see herself doing it in LA.

Now though, work allows for little time for anything of that nature.

"I don't even think I would have time for a boyfriend," she continues with a laugh.

"I just haven't met anyone that I like, that I'm excited about.

"It's also hard to meet new people in Ireland. I walk into a bar and I see, like, an ex-boyfriend, or someone I've dated." Dating in LA was awful "but I'm kind of coming to realise that that's a global thing," she says, with a burst of laughter.

"In LA, the one place I always got asked out was the grocery store, after the gym. I used to always pretend I had a boyfriend. Which I never did."

Coming home, though, it seemed everyone not only had a boyfriend, but had gotten engaged and was settling down. It was a shock, after LA, where everyone behaved, at least, as if they were single.

"And I was like, 'I don't even know if I want that. And am I meant to want that?' It's not even on my radar, any of that stuff, when I'm abroad.

"But here I'm constantly asked, like every day, 'Do you have a boyfriend? Are you single? Are you going out with anyone?' It's not even a conversation in LA or New York."

It doesn't worry her, though; she muses aloud about the possibility of ending up in New York for work and being single for life.

"I found something that I love to do. I feel so grateful that I've gotten the Xpose thing. To get paid to do what you love to do is such a privilege. The amount of people I knew in LA who were musicians or actors, and they love what they do but they can't get paid to do it; you can see it's breaking their hearts."

The Xpose job is the only one of its kind and the only thing keeping her in Ireland, for now.

"I kind of like the not-knowing," she says of the uncertainty of her line of work. "Being out of my comfort zone."

Xpose, 6.00-6.30pm, TV3, Monday to Friday.


It’s difficult to imagine now but when Xpose, a long-awaited entertainment show for TV3 was launched in 2007 at the height of the Celtic Tiger, it seemed to be designed to be a vehicle for Lorraine Keane, the station’s  then most glamorous star. Lorraine was the studio anchor, with Karen Koster, Aisling O’ Loughlin, Lisa Cannon and Sybil Mulcahy as reporters. Sybil left in 2008 for maternity leave and Glenda Gilson replaced her. Mulcahy never returned to the show, but went on to have a successful career on other programmes.

Over the years, guest presenters have included everyone from actress Michelle O’Doherty, to broadcaster Vincent Browne, Nadia Forde, Pippa O’Connor, Jodie Albert, and blogger Suzanne Jackson.

Lorraine Keane’s shock exit in 2009 was a national storm in a tea cup for weeks; was she pushed, did she choose to leave, was she unhappy at changes planned to the format or did she really want to spend more time with her kids? A competition was televised to replace her, Total Xposure, with Daniella Moyles and Ruth O’Neill placing highly but Sean Munsanje ultimately won the coveted role. He stayed with the show for a year. In 2014, Peter O’Riordan moved from America’s TMZ to join Karen, Glenda, Aisling and Lisa, the line-up which has remained in place until last week’s cull.

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