Dermot O’Leary: ‘I have an Irish passport. Who’s laughing now?’
The ‘X Factor’ host on childhood summers, being Irish in Britain, and growing up a gabbler
Irish in Britain: “My parents never experienced any racism,” says Dermot O’Leary. Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty
Dermot O’Leary is in the middle of a hectic day of promotion for his forthcoming children’s book, but midway through the round of interviews he gets a text from his parents, Maria and Sean. Only a week earlier the couple had moved from Colchester, the Essex town where they had lived since 1968, back to their native Wexford. “Ah, the sunny southeast,” O’Leary says with no little affection. “They just let me know there that the furniture has turned up. I’ve got a bed there now, thank God.”
Why did they decide to move? “There was a lot of building going on, not necessarily where we were living, but I think they probably wanted to move house anyway. One of my aunties moved back [to Wexford] a few years ago. They were never that generation who left Ireland and would never come back. There was never a feeling of remoteness. Now it’s just a question of a Ryanair flight and some hand luggage.”
In an Instagram post seen by his 360,000 followers, O’Leary paid tribute to his family in their last week in the family home: “They’ve loved it here. Since they’ve moved in 68 the people have been nothing but kind, welcoming and generous to them in a time when it wasn’t easy to be Irish in Britain. But, home calls.”
You’re aware that a Muslim is no more a terrorist than a Catholic was in the IRA. The people of London are overwhelmingly saying, ‘Not in my name’
The post’s reference to being Irish in Britain garnered plenty of attention. “It got picked up by a few people, but my parents never experienced any racism,” O’Leary says. “It’s funny when it has that kind of impact. I was just posting that to give them a salute, as it were. I didn’t think it would make any impact. But they had nothing but a great welcome over here.”
Still, O’Leary’s parents arrived in Britain, and raised Dermot and his sister, Nicola, at a time when it was indeed not especially easy to be Irish in Britain. And it’s something, alas, that hasn’t gone away. In much the same way that London’s Irish community felt the brunt of anti-IRA sentiment, so the city’s Muslims have experienced Islamophobia in the wake of Islamic State terrorist attacks.
“I’m not saying that doesn’t exist, but you’re aware that a Muslim is no more a terrorist than a Catholic was in the IRA,” he says. “There’s absolutely none of that, and for the most part the people of London are overwhelmingly saying, ‘Not in my name’, which makes me proud to be a Londoner as well. I will say, though, that the people we had contact with in our day-to-day lives were lovely.”
Sean Dermot Fintan O’Leary had a classic first-generation upbringing: the walls of his house featured pictures of the pope; Sundays featured Mass and céilithe
The prospect of spending more time in Wexford evidently excites the 44-year-old TV presenter, but then he is no stranger to the area, having spent many of his childhood summers there, and in Curracloe, with extended family. And even during his upbringing in Colchester the Irish influence loomed large.
The man born Sean Dermot Fintan O’Leary had a classic first-generation upbringing: the walls of his house, to all intents and purposes a little Ireland, featured pictures of the pope; Sundays featured Mass and céilithe. His father was a hurling champion with the Father Murphy’s team in London. O’Leary says that his hero when he was eight was the singer Brendan Shine. When he married his Norwegian girlfriend, Dee Koppang, in 2012, the Wexford duo Emerald Folk played at their wedding.
Dermot O’Leary’s Instagram post
Squeezed in a last visit and supper to O'Leary HQ before Mam and Dad take the trip back to Wexford. They've loved it here. Since they've moved in 68 the people have been nothing but kind, welcoming and generous to them in a time when it wasn't easy to be Irish in Britain. But, home calls. So thanks Maria and Sean, for being brave enough to pack up as kids, leave your homes, loved ones and move somewhere no one knows you. Here's to all our parents, and what they do for us. Your daughter has a PHD, your son... well he talks out loud for a living, but let's gloss over that. Est 1968, with a final supper of home grown potatoes, obvs, and one last wistful gaze at those beautiful big Essex/Suffolk skies. Here's to act three. X
And O’Leary has always had an Irish passport – something that has taken on a new significance since last year’s Brexit referendum.
“I know. Who’s laughing now?” he says, smiling. “I don’t think [my parents] thought any deeper than, It might be nice for them to have an Irish passport. I’m not Irish in the same way you’re Irish, but I’d have a lot in common with people who are second-generation West Indian, or Jewish . . . It’s really interesting in terms of how it shapes your identity.”
Does he think his Irishness had any part in his ending up in broadcasting? “Put it this way: there are a lot of people in British TV with ‘O’’ in their surname,” he says. “And I don’t want to fall into lazy cliche, but we are gabblers.”
Gabbler or not, there’s little denying O’Leary’s on-screen golden touch. After starting out on BBC Essex, one of the corporation’s local radio stations, O’Leary got into TV presenting in the late 1990s, as one of the hosts of Channel 4’s weekend-morning strands. He went on to prove his mettle in live television, most notably on Big Brother’s Little Brother and The X Factor.
At the zenith of his broadcasting career, in 2015, and with eight years of presenting Simon Cowell’s televisual juggernaut behind him, O’Leary quit The X Factor to pursue “other projects”. That year he stood in for Terry Wogan at the 11th hour on the BBC’s Children in Need telethon. (Wogan died two months later.)
Among his other side projects was a partnership in a pair of fish-and-chip restaurants, Fishy Fishy, in the English seaside towns of Brighton and Poole. Both had closed by 2016. That year, after Cowell reportedly asked him to name his price, O’Leary returned to the X Factor fold.
It’s not a phase of his life that he’s happy to retread. “I sort of said everything there is to say about that, but it was kind of a contract thing, and I did get exasperated by it, so I went off and did some really fun stuff. When I had some time to breathe I realised you can’t get away from the fact that you miss the live shows. So when they said they’d love to have me back it was a no-brainer. All in all it was a good break for me.”
It’s not hard to conclude, after the prodigal son’s fuss-free return, that the entertainment industry – when you’re operating at the top of your game, at least – appears much kinder than it is often given credit for. In June O’Leary’s friend and fellow TV presenter Ant McPartlin went into rehab after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers. The industry, including the pair’s ultimate employer, ITV, has pledged full support, offering McPartlin whatever help he needs.
“The industry is very supportive,” O’Leary says. “People try and help each other out, especially as you progress in your career, and there is so little backbiting. You look out for your friends, don’t you? I’m sure every industry is the same, but, being in the public eye, we seem to be in an area where people are empathetic and work around us. In that regard it’s a good time to be around.”
Among his other side projects from 2015 is his forthcoming children’s book, Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape. Written ostensibly for his nine-year-old niece, Josette, the story is inspired by O’Leary’s own rescue cats, Toto and Silver, whom he and Koppang found in an olive grove in Italy. It’s a clever, wryly funny tale of a cat that is blind but learns to trust its senses from a ninja cat master.
It became a book because, also in 2015, O’Leary wrote a well-received autobiography, The Soundtrack to My Life. The publisher asked if he had any other ideas, and as it happened he had “two or three fiction ideas knocking about”.
I ended up writing the kind of book that I would have liked as a kid: counterintuitive and warm and funny and perhaps not particularly written for children
“They were keen, but before they dropped any money on it I had to do a story arc, and outline it for them, like any other writer,” he says. “I didn’t set it up to write a children’s book per se, but I ended up writing the kind of book that I would have liked as a kid: counterintuitive and warm and funny and perhaps not particularly written for children. You have to credit them with a bit of intelligence.
“One of my favourite kids’ books is Fantastic Mr Fox [by Roald Dahl], because it’s funny and quite nuanced. I liked that you have a wisecracking brother-and-sister pair who tease each other, like any other pair of siblings.”
With Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape about to hit bookstores, O’Leary is also about to return to fronting the X Factor live shows. He may have one of television’s cushiest gigs – O’Leary signed a four-year deal worth a reported £8 million, or almost €9 million, making him one of British television’s two or three highest-paid stars – but there is still room for other plans. “I really enjoyed doing The Nightly Show and would love to have a crack at that again,” he says, referring to ITV’s experimental talkshow earlier this year, two of whose eight weeks O’Leary fronted. “I just love doing something interview based. I just like talking to people.”
O’Leary is keen to put pen to paper soon to bring Toto and Silver on another adventure, but would he ever, say, run another restaurant? “Never say never,” he says, brightly. “What I learned, though, is that you got to have the time to do these things. You can’t just do it and not commit 100 per cent to it. If you’ve spread yourself too thin you’re dead in the water.”
Toto the Ninja Cat and the Great Snake Escape, with illustrations by Nick East, is published by Hodder Children’s Books on September 21st