Lucy Kennedy: ‘English celebrities are more fragile than Irish’

TV presenter Lucy Kennedy in Dún Laoghaire. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
The energetic TV and radio presenter  ‘lives with’ people like Sarah Harding and Katie Hopkins but isn’t famous herself, she insists

Lucy Kennedy doesn’t walk into a room, she sort of bounces. She’s just had her hair and make-up done for The Irish Times photo shoot and is feeling “less Shrek-like” than usual. Apart from us, there is nobody else in the dining room of the Royal Marine Hotel in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, which has sweeping views down to the harbour below.

The energetic TV and radio presenter, in a pretty dress and practical trainers, tells me she is in the middle of a home renovation nearby. After a long search she bought a house by the sea that she hopes is the last one she and her husband will have to buy. “I hope it’s my forever home, like I don’t have a pension. Do you have a pension? You probably do …”

Her husband, who has a steadier job than Kennedy, has a pension but also an annoying tendency to whistle through his nose while sleeping. You’d know that if you listen to Kennedy’s breakfast radio show on Ireland’s Classic Hits FM where she reveals such details to her listeners and her longtime “radio husband” Colm Hayes.

The pair started on radio together in 2010, filling in on 2FM after Gerry Ryan died. “It bonded us,” she remembers of those early shows with Hayes. “We have a very close friendship. I think because we met under such sad and pressurised circumstances. He’s my other husband.”

She’s been with her actual husband for 23 years. I tell her I’ve read lots of interviews with her in advance of this meeting where she’s described as still being “madly in love” after all this time. “I’m not. I’m not madly in love. I’m stuck,” she deadpans. “After 23 years it’s too late to get it annulled.”

Kennedy is a professional chatty woman who in the Living With Lucy television show, moves into the homes of celebrities for three days to try to show what they are really like in their natural habitat. I’m interviewing her because the new series, the ninth, is about to start on Virgin Media One.

Our encounter is less like an interview though, and more like spending time with a talkative and charming woman with no filter you meet at the bus-stop.

Having “lived with” a lot of celebrities and being a well known person in Ireland herself, I’m interested in her views on fame. She quickly rejects the notion that being on television in Ireland makes her famous.

“No, I’m not. I get told so many times I look like Lucy Kennedy because in real life I don’t make an effort at all. I am wearing make-up now and my hair is done because I am doing this, but yesterday picking up my daughter from school I was wearing an old Ireland’s Got Talent T-shirt, [she presented that show brilliantly for several seasons] my face covered in spots from wearing masks, and my daughter was going ‘mom, you’re so embarrassing’ … In real life I just look like a tired mother, which I am.”

We talk about how, when some well known Irish celebrities are spotted walking their dogs in the park, they still look like the polished, famous version of themselves. “I don’t,” says 45-year-old Kennedy. “I look like Freddie Krueger”.

She does have some observations about “actually famous” people, having lived with several of them including the late popstar Sarah Harding. The Girls Aloud singer died of breast cancer last month aged 39, after the cancer spread to other parts of her body.

Kennedy describes her as “fragile”. “We all really liked her,” she says. “She was very nice not just to me but to everybody in the crew. A real lady. I can’t pretend that I know her because I only lived with her for three days … but my assessment based on that was that she was really insecure, and beautiful, very pretty in the flesh.”

“Then it’s just the fact that she was so fragile. She was doing something for MTV when we lived together and getting very agitated about quite small things. I did kind of fall into the older sister role, in that I was trying to kind of say ‘look, this is fine and don’t worry about it’, and I felt like she needed to be minded.

“She was a very honest person, a very sweet person. I think she was looking for love. She would have loved to have gotten married and had babies. It’s so sad. I was shocked like everybody was when I heard she died. I don’t know why. I suppose when we hear that somebody famous is sick you just presume they’re going to be okay don’t you, that it will be curable?”

If Cillian Murphy walked in here now, I’d say ‘oh my God, it’s Cillian Murphy’ and I’d stare at him until he leaves. In the UK, they would go straight over

In general, based on her experience, she believes English celebrities are “more fragile”. “They are scrutinised the whole time, there is a different press culture over there and it’s ruthless.”

She remembers another late celebrity Jade Goody who she lived with on the very first series, telling her that the photographers would stand in her way, and make her trip up so that they could use that picture to say she’d been drinking. For the latest soon-to-be-aired series she spent 72 hours with the “very funny” ex-soccer player Paul Gascoigne who she says “is off the booze at the moment”. They spent time together in Bournemouth, England. She says the difference between being famous in England versus Ireland is stark.

“Let’s say if Cillian Murphy walked in here now, I’d say ‘oh my God, it’s Cillian Murphy’ and I’d stare at him until he leaves. In the UK, they would go straight over. There I was having a coffee with Gazza and people were straight in for the selfie, no asking ‘do you mind?’, just straight in for the hugs, and I was thinking ‘Covid-19 anybody?’ It’s like the woman from Little Mix was saying recently, celebrities are not treated like human beings over there, and they are not. There is a different celebrity culture over there, they are really treated badly.”

She is always keen to help anybody who wants to get into television but often, when she asks young people why they want to, “it’s always, oh because I really want to be famous’. And that is the problem right there,” she says.

“Like many people of my generation, I served my time. I mean I started out as Eamon Dunphy’s slave on the Weakest Link. [We’ll talk more about that singular experience later]. And I worked my way up behind the scenes on production … It was for the pure love, it wasn’t for the money, because sometimes I was on the dole waiting for the next gig.

“And I always say to people, don’t forget it’s a job. As much as I love it, I wouldn’t do it for free. The way I see it is, my job just happens to be filmed. I think with all the influencers and famous-to-be-famous people, they forget there is an actual job behind the face”.

I’m curious about why she ended up pursuing a career in TV. Interestingly, being an air hostess with CityJet in her 20s gave her a taste for it. “I was very fond of the microphone on the plane, loved talking to the passengers, and was always being told ‘Lucy, the passengers don’t care about your love life, just tell them how to get off the plane and whether they are having chicken or beef.’ I just loved people. I loved talking.”

Around this time Davina McCall was breaking through as a presenter in England, hosting a dating show called Street Mate. “She was my hero, I looked at her and thought I could do that, I’d love to do that.”

She signed up for a course in television production with Bil Keating. “I remember the group of us in the course being asked ‘hands up who’d like to be in front of the camera?’ I was going to put up my hand but I remember looking around at the people who had their hands up who seemed much more confident and ‘jazz hands’ than me, so I kept my hand down. I thought ‘no, I’m just going to stay behind the scenes.’ And I didn’t have the confidence to put my hand up for another ten years.”

She completed the course and started sending out CVs, scrabbling for work, paid or unpaid. Her start came as a runner on TV3’s Weakest Link in 2002, filmed in RTÉ and presented by Eamon Dunphy. “I think I might have got like 20p and a packet of Tayto. I remember rocking up and thinking this was the most exciting thing in the world.”

She loved working as Dunphy’s “slave”. “I think he thought I was bonkers. I was only 20, I didn’t know what I was doing … I remember one time the producer saying to me ‘Eamon’s feet are sore. He’s going to need a foot spa’. And all I could think was do I have enough petrol in my car to drive to Argos. But I remember it like it was yesterday, getting the foot spa and filling it in his dressing room for him to put his little tootsies in between takes.”

We’re talking about her start in TV, but I’m also interested in her start in life. She grew up not far from here, the middle child in a middle-class family of three sisters, and went to school in Holy Faith, Killiney.

She had a great educational experience there and has put both her daughters’ names down for the school. Although she does have one negative memory of the nuns from primary school: “We weren’t allowed to wear patent shoes, in case the boys could look up our skirts. I mean, hello?”

“I liked the school. The nuns are all gone and it’s a really nice place for girls, and except for me, most of them turned out like ladies.” (Her recurring chats about bodily functions and genitalia, are something of a trademark.)

Her father is Irish and her mother, a dress designer who trained with Paul Costelloe, is English. “She made all our wedding dresses and our baby’s christening outfits.” Her parents broke up when Kennedy was 15. “Thank God it wasn’t one of those horrific separations,” she says. “I was 15, my sisters were 17 and 11. It was done almost seamlessly in that my dad still collected us the next day to bring us to school”.

She agrees that even though it felt “almost seamless” at the time, the break-up was a seminal moment in her life. “But I also remember thinking ‘do I want parents who are unhappy together or not together?’ Fifteen is a complicated age, but I had the sense to assess that it was the best thing for them”.

Kennedy calls her dad, who is 85, her “best friend”. He’s had a triple bypass and shoulder operations and “is hanging on by a thread”. She describes him as stubborn and self-reliant – the Kennedy sisters rotated during the pandemic, bringing food to his house in Dalkey or doing his washing. Her mother still lives in the same seaside home where Kennedy grew up.

“For us I think when dad moved out there was that more feeling of balance … my dad never met anyone else. My mum and dad were married for 17 years, but my mum is with her current partner for 30 years.”

Lucy Kennedy: “It all goes back to my love of people. I think that’s the reason I am still working.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw
Lucy Kennedy: “It all goes back to my love of people. I think that’s the reason I am still working.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Kennedy worked behind the scenes in television until she was around 26, on an Irish language programme (despite having no Irish) and on programmes such as A Scare At Bedtime with Podge & Rodge.

“I never had any interest in being in front of the camera. I remember, marking up the big beta tapes ... thinking ‘life is good’. I didn’t have to make any effort. But then I hit 26 and saw all my pals going around in company cars, wearing suits and earning money. I thought to myself ‘Lucy, you are a loser. You still don’t know if you will be making your own Christmas presents.’ There were days when I’d be choosing between buying ciggies or food. I just felt like I needed a proper job.”

So she joined radio station Spin FM, as a salesperson. “I wasn’t very good, I’d get so into talking to the client I’d forget to ask them about buying ad space.” She says her time in sales honed her people skills even further and she enjoyed that time in her working life. But still, when a friend from her television days, Maia Dunphy, insisted she apply to be host of a new dating show called The Ex Files with Adare Productions, she went for it – bunking off work from Spin for the afternoon to do the audition.

She did a mock interview asking somebody about their love life. The feedback was that she seemed to have a genuine interest in people, and – which pleased her greatly – “a Davina McCall vibe.” She got the job. “My life changed that day,” she says.

The dating show lasted for two years and in 2006, after getting a call from Jim Jennings of RTÉ she auditioned for the job of host on The Podge & Rodge Show. “I had worked with them behind the scenes before, and it might sound strange but we always treated them like people. I sat down with them that first time and they said something like ‘your boobs have grown’ and I thought ‘I’m going to be fine here’.”

She got that gig, and spent three years listening and laughing as Podge & Rodge said things to celebrity guests that nobody – even a pair of puppets – on television would get away with now. “Absolutely, not,” she agrees. At one point, the show had a viewership of half a million people. After three years, Kennedy says she “got to the point where I felt like Debbie McGee, I’d be leaning on the bar in Ballydung looking at the boys interviewing people and I was thinking I’d love to be asking the questions.”

When RTÉ asked what she’d like to do next, she got together with Adare Productions and came up with the concept of Living With Lucy. A ratings-hit of a programme was born.

The programme started life on RTÉ before migrating to TV3 which is now Virgin Media One. Kennedy has “lived” with all sorts of celebrities including, controversially, Katie Hopkins, about which she has said she has no regrets despite the criticism and trolling she was subjected to on social media for giving airtime to the right-wing commentator.

During the pandemic, the format of the show changed to Lodging with Lucy where participants, included Amy Huberman, Paul McGrath and Adele King (Twink) who brought her cockatoo, “lodged” with Lucy in a sprawling home in Co Meath.

I have to make someone feel comfortable with me within two minutes of us meeting. I have to make the celebrities trust me

The upcoming series includes encounters with Rory O’Neill aka Panti Bliss and settled Traveller Hughie Maughan. She moved into Maughan’s halting site in Ballymun. On a previous series of Living With Lucy, Kennedy spent time with Traveller and actor John Connors. Did she feel that was important, especially with the racism that many Travellers in Ireland experience.

“Yes absolutely. You can’t generalise about a whole community from one bad experience but people do that all the time. And in my experience it’s a lovely culture, and they are really good people. And I never for one second, between the shoot with John Connors and with Hughie Maughan, I never felt in any way uncomfortable or unsafe. I felt really welcome and comfortable; they are beautiful people very, very private. A very respectful culture.”

She said she had “the most fascinating conversation” with Hughie Maughan’s dad. “His father was absolutely devastated when Hughie came out as gay because he knew the complications and the threats his son would get being a gay Traveller. They just don’t go hand in hand. And I’d a really in-depth, amazing emotional interview with his dad outside the caravan. Just the pain in his face as he talked about how he treated his son initially. He talked about the regret and then the love and the support. They’re a beautiful family”.

She was struck by something Maughan told her, that he can’t call a taxi to come where he lives because they refuse to drive into the site. He has to go to Ikea to order a taxi. “From my experience I think they get a really raw deal”.

Our time is up and we haven’t even talked about the documentary she made about her rescue puppy Riley or her children’s book The Friendship Fairies.

Earlier, Kennedy told me she has never experienced any sexism or ageism in the television industry, but she has been thinking recently about a potential change of career.

In her early 20s she considered studying psychotherapy. “I think you need to have experienced pain to help other people with their pain,” she says in reference to her parent’s separation. In hindsight, she says she didn’t have enough life experience but the desire to help others, putting those finely honed people skills to another use never left her.

A few years ago, while presenting The Seven O’Clock show on TV3, she completed a psychotherapy foundation course and says she will, at some stage, go back and complete the four-year course. It involved her going to 24 weeks of therapy herself. “I loved it. And I love the idea of helping people properly. It all goes back to my love of people. I think that’s the reason I am still working. And it’s why Living With Lucy suits me so well. I have to make someone feel comfortable with me within two minutes of us meeting. I have to make the celebrities trust me. So that’s what I do. And I love doing it.”

Living With Lucy is on Virgin Media One