Caroline Downey: ‘I have no interest in being a TV presenter again. I didn’t really enjoy it so much’

The ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ judge talks about fame, women in business and privacy

Judge and jury: Caroline Downey. Photograph: Eric Luke

Judge and jury: Caroline Downey. Photograph: Eric Luke


‘We were told not to smile on camera in the boardroom,” Caroline Downey explains when the Irish Times photographer tells her it’s okay to smile at the camera. She has been regarding the lens with quite a forbidding expression, because this is what she does in her role as a judge on Celebrity Apprentice.

Actually, Downey’s default expression is not the imperious, grande-dame and rather chilly one portrayed on screen these last four weeks; it’s a great big smile. We’re sitting in her office at the Gaiety Theatre, of which she is managing director. She’s also an owner and director of MCD, the country’s biggest entertainment promoter, which sells more than a million tickets a year. And she has been responsible for raising almost €40 million for charity over the past 25 years.

“I think it was because of my charity work that I was asked to be a judge,” she says. The series features a number of people, some better known than others, including Nick Leeson, Amanda Brunker, Mikey Graham and Emma Quinlan, who are competing to win €25,000 for charity.

Downey agreed to be part of the series without having seen any of the Apprentice shows, which have featured Donald Trump in the US, Alan Sugar in the UK and Bill Cullen here.

“I was sent some tapes, and I said, I suppose I should watch it before we start filming. So a friend and I went to my house in Spain, where we have a cinema, and we watched it. My friend would talk me through it: ‘This is where people come into the boardroom . . .’

“My first reaction was that I was signing up to the gym as soon as I got home. I knew there was a table involved in being a judge, but I hadn’t realised there were full-body shots.”

In the end she got hooked on the various versions of the show. “I prefer the way Donald Trump fired people. He always did it respectfully. I think Alan Sugar is too aggressive. I decided I wanted to do it Donald Trump’s way.”

Four episodes of the show have now aired. Has it meant that people recognise her on the street? She laughs. “I live in a world of celebrity because of the people I work with, people who really are famous. One Direction, for instance. I go to The X Factor with Louis [Walsh] every year. I met One Direction before they were even put together as a band. It was the same with Westlife. What I’m doing is tiny.”

Walsh texted her after Monday’s show this week to tell her he thought she looked like Judge Judy in her pearl-collared outfit. “I can tell you, when I’m walking down Grafton Street with Louis, there’s only one person the public is looking at, and it isn’t me,” she says, laughing. “So no, I’m not recognised.”

Given that she occupies such a prominent position in business, what are her opinions on the lack of women in senior management in Ireland? She thinks for a little while. “Until you asked me this question I don’t know if it had ever crossed my mind that this was an issue.” Really?

“Well, maybe I thought about it recently, when I was on a radio show with Liz O’Donnell” – a panellist on Celebrity Apprentice – “and the presenter asked why there were so few women in politics. I guess in our industry, entertainment, we’re equal. Being a woman is not something that holds you back. But I don’t believe you should be given a job because you’re a woman. You should earn it.

“I think women have different priorities to men. A lot of business deals are done on the golf course and at dinners by men, and most women would prefer to be at home with their children rather than on the golf course.”

Downey has three grown-up children: Zac, Storm and Jett. She also employs a housekeeper, who does most of the cooking. “I find it very hard to relax. I’ll record my favourite shows on TV and watch them back: The Good Wife, say. Or if I’m really stressed I’ll turn off my phone and cook. I can only cook two things: soup and lasagne. My lasagne is very good. Everything else is bought from Avoca or Cavistons.”

Downey works by choice. “I’ve always worked,” she says. “I like being busy. I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t work.”

Before we met Downey had texted to say that if any questions were asked about her personal life it would be “a deal-breaker”. As it happens, there has been some kerfuffle in other newspapers about her personal life. When this is brought up, she sighs.

“When we were doing interviews to promote Celebrity Apprentice, in my naivety, I thought the focus would be on the celebrities taking part, and not me. I was not used to being interviewed.” She’s not smiling now.

“It had come to my attention that someone . . . was about to sell my story. I wanted to control it. So I did an interview with a newspaper where I was asked a question, and I answered it honestly.”

The question was about her marriage to the financier Denis Desmond. The answer was that they were no longer together, as he had had an affair.

“I didn’t wake up one morning and decide I was going to tell everyone about it.”

Downey brings up the name of Terry Prone, the writer and media adviser, who subsequently wrote an article criticising Downey’s comments on the break-up of her marriage. Prone wrote that, in her opinion, Downey would regret putting details of the split on the record.

“I had never heard of her until I read her article,” says Downey. “What does she do? PR?” Downey seems mystified about why “a woman would do such a thing to another woman. So much for women supporting each other. I mean, it wasn’t a secret that Denis and I had split up. How did I become the bad person in all this?”

She wonders if she was naive to give interviews. “Why would anyone be interested in my marriage? I don’t view either of us as public figures. We don’t represent the State, and we’re not in politics.”

She does not plan to work again in television after Celebrity Apprentice. “I have no interest in being a TV presenter or in doing it again. I didn’t really enjoy it so much, to be honest. It was quite stressful.”

She hasn’t yet seen the remaining two programmes, which she plans to watch at home, with her children. “They want to know who wins, but I haven’t told them.”

The Celebrity Apprentice semi-final is on TV3 at 9pm on Monday