Better balance: Angela Scanlon on the trade-off between work and motherhood

Angela Scanlon: ‘Irish people have this sense that home is always home.’ Photograph: Julien Behal
THE FASHIONISTA TURNED BROADCASTER HAS RISEN SWIFTLY IN THE UK, BUT AS A NEW MUM WHO HAS BEEN OPERATING AT FULL THROTTLE FOR A FEW YEARS, SHE IS TRYING TO SLOW DOWN

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Angela Scanlon is on a flying visit to Dublin. The broadcaster is here to help launch Taste the Island, a new Fáilte Ireland initiative aimed at showcasing the best of Ireland’s food and drink culture to visitors. Without being prompted, she launches into a verbal appraisal of Ireland’s culinary scene, namechecking the likes of cafe chain Sprout and Emilie’s, a restaurant in Glenbeigh, Co Kerry. 

In many ways, there is no better woman for the job. Over the years, Scanlon has established herself as something of an unofficial poster girl for all things Irish, fronting campaigns for quintessentially Irish brands like An Post and Kerrygold. It’s a phenomenon that Scanlon describes as “lovely” but also “weird and a bit mental”.

Like many Irish people who move abroad, she says being away from Ireland has given her a renewed sense of Irishness. “It’s kind of embarrassing how I come home like, ‘Wow, it really is green and the people really are friendly,’” she laughs. 

No matter how long you’ve lived abroad you will always reference coming ‘home’ as coming back to Ireland. I think that is a uniquely Irish thing. That sense of being fiercely protective over our Irishness 

“Irish people have this sense that home is always home. No matter how long you’ve lived abroad you will always reference coming ‘home’ as coming back to Ireland. I think that is quite a uniquely Irish thing. That sense of being fiercely protective over our Irishness. That idea our accents might soften and the shame of it.” 

Originally from Ratoath in Co Meath, Scanlon first made her name as a stylist and fashion journalist. She became a fixture on Irish television, appearing on the likes of Xposé and Off the Rails, as well as Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch. Soon she was tipped as the Irish heir apparent to the British trendsetter Alexa Chung. Vogue dubbed her as one to watch for 2013, and wrote that she was known for her “humour, directness and upbeat cheerfulness”. That year, she presented Oi Ginger!, a light-hearted one-off documentary about growing up as a redhead in Ireland.

It was around this time that Scanlon made a conscious decision to move away from fashion and focus on her nascent broadcasting career. She landed a co-hosting gig on the RTÉ/BBC Northern Ireland travel series Getaways, and fronted her own documentary series for RTÉ called Angela Scanlon: Full Frontal. 

In the meantime, her career in the UK began to take off. Scanlon upped sticks and moved to London in 2014. She caught the eye of the BBC and has since become one of its go-to presenters, landing plum hosting gigs on the likes of The One Show with Alex Jones and Matt Baker, and Robot Wars with Dara Ó Briain. More recently, she has hosted a property makeover show called Your Home Made Perfect, as well as a weekly radio show on BBC Radio 2. 

Robot Wars: Angela Scanlon with her copresenter Dara Ó Briain
Robot Wars: Angela Scanlon with her copresenter Dara Ó Briain

In other words, her rise has been swift. Facebook recently reminded her that it had been four years since she fronted BBC’s coverage of the T in the Park festival in Scotland. It was her first ever live television gig. “I’m like, ‘Wow is that only four years ago?’” she says. “Because it feels like so long ago and in another way it feels like only yesterday, which is quite a cliched thing to say.” 

Scanlon attributes her success to a sort of relentless hustle on her part. When she arrived in London, she says she approached things with “a kind of fearlessness and recklessness”. 

“When you first start out, there is a sense that you have literally nothing to lose,” she says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know anybody in telly and I don’t have a clue what I’m doing, but I quite fancy that’.

“There was a real power in that that I only appreciated in hindsight. That ability to arrive at things and go, ‘Maybe this is a good idea. Can I email the head of the BBC and say I’m really kind of great, you should meet me’ in this way that you’re not really supposed to do, apparently. 

“The momentum and enjoyment I got out of that hustle did make things happen quite quickly, and it felt that there was progression, for sure. But I also worked my proverbial balls off for a really long time.” 

Taste the Island: Angela Scanlon on her flying visit home. Photograph: Julien Behal
Taste the Island: Angela Scanlon on her flying visit home. Photograph: Julien Behal

Alongside the likes of Aisling Bea, Sharon Horgan and Nicola Coughlan, Scanlon is part of a cohort of Irish women who are killing it in British television right now. The broadcaster believes Irish women these days carry themselves with a sort of confidence and swagger that may not have been there previously. “Irish women historically have not had the best of times,” she says. “There was a sadness and shame, and there’s a real defiance now.” 

That sense of defiance was on display during last year’s campaign to repeal the Eighth Amendment. Such moments instil a sense of national pride, Scanlon, says, while also standing in stark contrast to what is currently happening in the UK. 

“It’s bittersweet living in the UK right now, because in a way the exact opposite is happening over there,” she says. “There is a poignancy to us having these milestones and changing and using those moments to define a new era of Ireland.”

After a few years of operating at full throttle, Scanlon is now trying to slow down a little bit. 

There’s a fear in talking about your failures. There’s a denial. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s pretend it never happened. Let’s pretend everything is great

“That drive and ambition is useful in an industry that is pretty tough, but you also realise that there’s not very much joy in that relentless pushing of yourself,” she says. “I am trying to get a little bit of balance back into my life.”

Despite appearances to the contrary, Scanlon says things haven’t been all plain sailing for the last few years. What we don’t see behind the highlights reel on Instagram are the cancelled shows and the dream gigs that got away. Recently, she has tried to be more open about this. 

“There’s a fear in talking about your failures because it’s like, ‘Ooh maybe it’s contagious,’” she says. “Maybe if you didn’t get one thing someone will see and you’ll never get anything again. There’s a denial. Let’s not talk about it. Let’s pretend it never happened. Let’s pretend everything is great.”

She recalls one particular low point, right after she gave birth to her daughter last year. 

“A few days after I came back from the hospital, I got a call and was told that a show that I had worked on wasn’t being recommissioned,” she says. “I don’t know whether it was crazy hormones or the fact I had a new human and was quite unsure about what the hell to do . . . but I wept. It was honestly as if my whole world had fallen apart. It sounds so dramatic, but it was purely because, you know, you’re a brand new mother.

“I was already grappling with the idea of how my identity was going to change with being a mother, and being defined by that. Now suddenly I was unemployed. It was awful. 

Your Home Made Perfect: Angela Scanlon with Laura Jane Clark and Robert Jamison
Your Home Made Perfect: Angela Scanlon with Laura Jane Clark and Robert Jamison on the BBC show

“Obviously that was contrasted with being able to look down at this brand new human and gaining a bit of perspective. But it was moment to moment like, ‘How am I going to provide for her?’ and ‘Hang on, who gives a sh**? I’ve just created a life and this show is not that important.’ Maybe that’s the biggest change for me with motherhood, apart from scheduling. That sense of perspective.”

Next up for Scanlon is a new podcast series called Thanks a Million. Each episode will see her interview a well-known personality about the moments that should have broken them, but ultimately taught them something new or sent them on a different course and for which they are ultimately grateful.

Scanlon, a proud consumer of all things “woo-woo”, is a big fan of gratitude. “I’ve done therapy,” she says. “I’ve read every self-help book under the sun. I’ve tried everything and gratitude, although it sounds so fluffy, is one of the things that I’ve found is such a quick fix.

“Basically, I write gratitude lists and I change from being negative and pessimistic into somebody that is actually quite badass. It’s the thing that I consistently go back to.

“I remember reading that you are the best teacher of the thing you need the most,” she says. “This podcast is essentially a free way for me to get therapy, and to learn a positive attitude from people.”