Saturday 15 December 2018

Who's that girl?

Tanya Sweeney

Grainne Seoige's reputation as an A-lister may be assured on home soil, yet when she makes her UK move to present ITV's Daybreak, she'll most likely be playing second fiddle to another Irish presenter.

It must be a novelty for Seoige to be introduced to the British public as Christine Bleakley's 'double', as happened in a UK newspaper last week. And when people are comparing other presenters to you while one's own TV career is barely out of the traps ... well, it all bodes rather well for the future.

Christine's career trajectory is a curious one. It's an overnight success story aided and abetted by a bewildering number of variables.

The 31-year-old is one of the few beneficiaries of the right kind of reality TV exposure (thanks to a stint on Strictly Come Dancing). Add a Premiership footballer boyfriend -- one Frank Lampard -- some tactical paparazzi shots and a bidding war between ITV and BBC into the mix, and Christine's rise to the top was a surprising combustion that few saw coming.

Predictably, Christine's defection to ITV from the BBC, where she hosted The One Show alongside Adrian Chiles, is said to be already ruffling feathers. Yet as well as presenting Daybreak, Bleakley is now reportedly in the frame for British TV's tastiest gig -- fronting The X Factor.

As part of a €4.7m deal with ITV, Christine has been handpicked by Simon Cowell to replace Dermot O'Leary in the show's next series. According to Cowell's Britain's Got Talent co-presenter Amanda Holden, Cowell has quite a "crush" on the brunette, inviting her to his box at Ascot and his 50th birthday party. And Cowell's not the only infatuated one; editors the length and breadth of Fleet Street reportedly can't get enough of the Northern Irish beauty.

Last month, as she holidayed in Sardinia with Lampard, Christine was afforded the sort of paparazzi attention that not even Jennifer Aniston receives these days. Grazia magazine bestowed her with the titled of "Power WAG", with editor-in-chief Fiona McIntosh writing that her "Belfast burr" would stand her in good stead.

Amid it all, one thing has become clear: Bleakley plays the media game with staggering élan.

Born in Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry on February 2, 1979, the presenter dreamed of TV stardom from a young age. Her earliest role model was Gloria Hunniford, an Ulster presenter who made impressive inroads into the London media scene.

"It's very flattering to hear that," says Hunniford. "We've met a few times and have chats backstage when we work together, so to read about me supposedly being her heroine or something is strange to read, but very flattering."

Christine trained to become a TV floor manager while studying for A-levels in Bloomfield Collegiate School in Belfast. As a teenager, she talked local radio station Citybeat into giving her an entry-level job. She then moved to BBC Northern Ireland while studying for a politics degree at Queen's University Belfast (which she later dropped out of).

Yet while it has been largely accepted into lore that Christine cut her teeth in BBC NI's continuity department, a source in the department notes that "continuity was not what Christine did". Rather, she was one of a handful of fledgling presenters on digital channel BBC Choice.

Yet Christine's reasoning that languishing on the lowly rungs of the BBC's ladder would work eventually paid off. She began working on a number of shows for Northern Ireland, among them Sky High, First Stop and Children In Need.

In July 2007, Bleakley landed her job on The One Show. As her predecessor Myleene Klass unexpectedly went into labour, Bleakley was flown from Belfast to present the show for the first time that very night.

Says a TV insider: "She was living in a hotel at the time, and was fairly shell-shocked and didn't know what was going on. But the good thing about Christine is that she's able to take everything in her stride. For this reason she'll be well-equipped to work on a breakfast show, where you need to be really sharp as anything can happen overnight."

As the wide-eyed and effervescent yin to Chiles' brusque, Northern yang, their on-screen chemistry greased the show's wheels nicely.

After Chiles' 10-year marriage to radio DJ Jane Garvey broke down, tabloid coverage of the co-presenters increased. The extra exposure didn't harm Bleakley's profile. At the same time, she appeared on the BBC's hit show Strictly Come Dancing.

Amid her sunny demeanour, however, there seems to lurk a shrewd woman. On June 4 this year she terminated her contract with long-time agent John Noel via text message. At the time he had been negotiating a new deal for Bleakley at the BBC, to the tune of €2.3m. The message allegedly read: "It is better if we go our separate ways. I hope that we can work together in the future. X."

When Noel emailed Bleakley for an explanation, he was reportedly sent a letter from Olswang, her solicitors. Bleakley then signed with John Thoday, who also represents Chiles.

In her personal life, Christine has shown similar drive, with each paramour more high-powered than the last. One of her earliest serious boyfriends was Curt Bowen of the Belfast Giants ice hockey team. In 2004 she met Christian Stokes, the Dublin-based restaurateur behind the eatery Bang.

After their engagement dissolved in 2005, Christine moved on to entrepreneur Mark Beirne, owner of Belfast's trendy House Pub & Kitchen on Stranmillis Road. The pair split in January 2009, six months after they weathered rumours that Chiles was the third wheel in their romance.

Yet Bleakley barely had time to lick her wounds before she moved on to the ultimate man-accessory; a Premiership footballer. Recently split from his fiancée Elen Rives, Lampard began dating Christine in November 2009. And with UK interest in the WAGs at fever pitch, the romance heralded another shift in Bleakley's profile.

Bleakley balked at the 'WAG' term. "I am so not a WAG," she said. "The other day I read a scathing article that said I was 'over ambitious' and wanted to be the next Cheryl Cole and take over the world. Every word was the opposite of what I am."

Yet it would seem that Christine's carefully calibrated career-climb might say otherwise. To date, there has been only one minor misstep in her career: while considering the two deals set out by the BBC and ITV, the relative newcomer did the unthinkable by playing the two broadcasters off each other.

BBC thought they had a verbal deal with Bleakley, and were bemused when asked to better their deal by her new agent Thoday. The BBC recalled their offer, leaving Bleakley with no choice but to accept ITV's lucrative deal. Yet as career setbacks go, the episode hasn't dimmed Bleakley's mega-watted power one bit.

"Christine's been under duress to do this photoshoot and that one, and in the grand scheme of things she does relatively few shoots," says Hunniford. "She'll simply say, 'That's just not me'. As for the paparazzi thing, Christine knows that being linked to a footballer means that she's going to get that from time to time."

So will overexposure eventually erode Bleakley's love affair with the public? For now, and even with Grainne Seoige snapping on her heels, Bleakley is still very much the girl with the Midas touch.

Irish Independent

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