Jennifer Zamparelli: ‘I had to ask myself, do I want to be in this industry?’

The Baldoyle native did some soul-searching as she turned 40 mid-pandemic

Dublin is a village. When I tell a friend I’m going to interview Jennifer Zamparelli, who used to be known as Jennifer Maguire, my friend says: “oh, she lives near me. She let my daughter put our puppy’s poo in her bin.”

I relay this to Zamparelli in the nearly deserted RTÉ canteen, a place I like to imagine Ryan Tubridy and associates call "the canner". The former Apprentice contestant, current quiz show host and 2FM broadcaster looks visibly relieved by the cheery outcome of this tale which occurred on the street near her south Dublin home.

“That story could have gone either way,” she says, laughing. On another day, in a less generous mood, Zamparelli implies she might not have been quite so neighbourly. At a time when so many people in the public eye are relentlessly showing off their best side on every available platform, it says a lot that she is so free with this admission.

Because of the sorry state of the world at the moment there is one solitary chair arranged at each round table in this Marie Celeste of a cafe space, so I drag another one over while Zamparelli gets the canner coffees in.

She's wearing a swishy leopard print pink skirt and a black leather jacket. Her chestnut brown hair, tied in a ponytail, looks suspiciously sleek and well coiffed for the times that are in it. When I mention this, she credits her well honed skills with the home dye kits and those little green bottles of touch up spray that so many of us have relied on through three lockdowns. Her English-Italian husband Lauterio Zamparelli, father of their two small children Florence (7) and Enzo (3), learnt a lot about her during the pandemic. "Lau didn't recognise me," she laughs. "He was shocked. I've been going grey since I was 27. Leave me on a desert island and I'd be the hairiest, the greyest person I know."

Interestingly, 27 is the age she says she still feels on the inside. “We all have an age like that don’t we, the one we feel like forever?”

In real human years, she turned 40 during the first lockdown. It was an anxious time. She knew in the run up to it she would find that birthday “traumatic’ and had planned a series of diversions as a buffer to all the age-related dread. The things she planned to get her through turning 40 in 2020 – a romantic trip with Lau to Paris, a big holiday with her five siblings in America, a lavish celebratory family dinner – were all derailed by the pandemic. Instead, “I had to sit with myself, ask myself some big questions ... am I in the right job? Do I want to be in this industry? Do I want to be in the public eye, to expose my kids to it? Or do I want to be in a field, planting veg? I don’t want to miss out on stuff, the kids growing up, time with my parents. Is there other stuff I should be doing now? Should I be in a field planting vegetables and living my best hippie life?”

Her anxiety was real but has largely passed, she says. But not through meditation or mindful breathing which she found only made her panic attacks worse. She finds being in nature, climbing mountains, or a walk and a chat with a friend, the most effective cure for what ails her. When she turned 40 being in a “work haze” for years had taken its toll but she feels “more grounded” now. Having just turned 41 a few weeks ago she’s found a certain acceptance of ageing that eluded her in her twenties when she confesses to sneakily shaving a few years off her age on her Wikipedia page. “I wouldn’t do it now,” she says.

Her show, Jennifer Zamparelli on 2FM, has been running for nearly two years. Three hours of live radio five days a week was daunting at first, she says, especially having brought it back as a phone-in talkshow, which hadn’t been done since the late Gerry Ryan was hosting. “He was a giant,” she says, adding that it meant a lot that she had Ryan’s daughter Lottie’s blessing and support presenting the show. The pair are good friends and Ryan is a regular voice on the programme bringing showbiz news and breezy banter. Zamparelli says she has finally found her voice and feels confident in the role.

'You'd do the best link of your life and all anyone talked about was what you were wearing'

That confidence took time to build. “I didn’t trust myself at the beginning. What do I want to talk about and how do I want to sound? It took a while to figure that out. The more authentic you are the better the show is … I was a year into the show before we started to get people phoning in, and there’s such an appetite for talk in this country. I realised that’s where I am most comfortable.” She’s a natural broadcaster, her cheeky, open style a perfect fit for 2FM. The topics she covers are vast, ranging from her own tubal litigation – she and her husband have decided not to have any more children – to Direct Provision. She also has a refreshing, authentic Dublin, by way of Baldoyle, accent, not something you hear much of these days on national Irish radio apart from Joe ‘washyerhands’ Duffy.

“Radio takes time,” she says. “It’s a slow burn, it’s very different to television.” Speaking of which another of the questions she has asked herself in recent times was “am I too old to go on telly in a short sparkly dress?” The scrutiny “women of a certain age” endure on television is something she brings up a couple of times in our conversation. She talks about her stint co-hosting Dancing with the Stars with Nicky Byrne where “you’d do the best link of your life and all anyone talked about was what you were wearing”.

She doesn’t know, she says, if Dancing with the Stars is coming back later this year or if she’ll be asked to present. “I’ll be the last person to know,” she says. Her latest television gig as host of a family quiz show, Home Advantage, doesn’t require short sparkly dresses. Three families are pitted against each other, some in studio and the rest tuning in to the action from home due to Covid restrictions. “It’s a laugh, I don’t know the answers to any of the questions,” she says. “Also, a 10-year-old dropped the F-bomb the other day which I loved”.

Zamparelli once told an interviewer that her success was down to “10 per cent talent and 90 per cent hard work”. This appears to stem from her pragmatic approach to life rather than any performative display of faux humility. Her full and varied CV from successful sales executive to reality TV show contestant to business manager to radio and TV presenter tells the story of hard graft, brass neck and opportunities enthusiastically seized. And then there’s the talent part. She is a gifted comic actor and a reluctant if accomplished television writer. She starred in and wrote four seasons of the hit RTÉ comedy Bridget and Eamon, but found the writing challenging and time consuming if “satisfying”.

She says she was no great shakes academically at school but started working aged 13 behind the reception desk at the local swimming pool. Her father, a Garda, taught swimming there and at St Michael’s Hospital where he worked with children with special needs. She credits him with her capacity for hard work and her mother Myra Maguire for her love of drama. Zamparelli starred in every school play, taking after her mam who she says, is “an am-dram queen”.

At primary school, she was bullied, beaten up regularly by another student, an ordeal which started when she was picked on in the schoolyard for wearing a duffle coat. Some things never leave you. “I had a dream about her [the bully] the other night. I was doing a television show and she was in the audience. If I saw her now I’d still be the terrified young one in the bathroom all those years ago. It’s my biggest fear for my kids, them being bullied, or them being the bully. It can go either way … it made me want to get out of Baldoyle.” Even after she left primary school “she [the bully] was everywhere.”

A great escape came while she was still in her teens. Aged 17 there was a stint working the graveyard shift from midnight to 6am at Eileen’s Country Kitchen on McLean Avenue in Yonkers – “it might as well have been Longford” – joining her older sisters who had moved to New York. She had no visa, so it was enjoyable but precarious and she returned home from America hoping to pursue her first love of acting. When she couldn’t get into Trinity, the acting dream was put “on the backburner” and she went looking for a “proper” job, discovering an aptitude for sales. “I found I was good at it. And suddenly for the first time I had money …I didn’t have anything really as a kid or a young adult. My mother always said money gives you freedom. I liked being able to buy stuff so I stuck with sales for years and years.”

She worked in sales jobs, mostly on commission, at companies in Dublin, Cardiff and Brussels. It was proper hard work, she recalls, in contrast to her current job. “I mean I work very hard in TV and radio but it’s just sitting on your arse chatting. The dream job.”

While working another sales job in Bristol, she met her husband after her mother encouraged her to set up her own theatre company. Lau, a budding actor now a film stuntman, auditioned for one of the parts in a play she was staging. Later, he gave up a steady job to pursue acting in London while she looked for a way out of a sales job in Bristol, applying for the 2007 season of The Apprentice hoping to land that 100k job with narky entrepreneur Alan Sugar. This is how the Irish viewing public first caught sight of Jennifer Maguire as she was known then.

She says she hated the reality TV experience, the cameras in her face as she was woken at 6am, the sleep deprivation. “They didn’t feed us properly,” she says. “There was a cupboard full of skittles and whiskey. We were demented, I wanted out of there so bad.” In this respect  Sugar’s “you’re fired”, when it inevitably came, was a reprieve from the reality television ordeal. The aftermath, her first brush with fame, sounds even worse. “It was bonkers” she says. At the wrap party for The Apprentice a photographer stuck a camera up her skirt. An ex-boyfriend sold a story to the tabloids sharing the most intimate details of their relationship. “My dad and father-in-law had to read about my sex life,” she says, the mortification still apparent over a decade later. (In fairness to Mrs Maguire she took it well, telling her daughter “fair play to you”. “She was glad I’d had fun,” says her daughter.)

'It was enjoyable but hard work. We did four seasons. I'd love to do more, it's just not the right time'

Zamparelli “ran home to my parents” using her new public profile to start a makeover business off Grafton Street. She had no intention of doing anymore television but went for it when she was asked to take part in Irish reality show Fáilte Towers, where celebrities take over a hotel for a week. It was an enjoyable experience in contrast to The Apprentice and it led to her being asked to be a presenter on Republic of Telly, performing comedy sketches and confusing unsuspecting celebrities on the red carpet by being bold, cheeky and in some cases quite rude. She looks back and cringes at the memory of some of those stunts. “I called Rita Ora a geebag,” she says, not proudly. Ora, not understanding the colloquialism, said “thank you very much”. Zamparelli says she was young and didn’t care. She thought, back then, that celebrities were “bulletproof”. She had a job to do, a brief from the director, ducking out of her makeover studio to do comedy vox pops on her lunch breaks and heading off to London at weekends to heckle stars at movie premieres. “I was playing a character,” she says. She did 13 seasons of Republic of Telly.

Bridget and Eamon, a sitcom about an unhappily married 1980s Irish couple bickering for Ireland in the Midlands, was conceived at this time. She and Bernard O’Shea were improvising lines for a Republic of Telly sketch using funny things they’d heard their parents or aunties say. “Bridget, was the name of my best friend’s mother”. It took a long time to get the series off the ground, she’d just had her first baby, Florence, and was always trying to wriggle out of the writing but collaborators Jason Butler and O’Shea kept her motivated. “It was enjoyable but hard work. We did four seasons. I’d love to do more, it’s just not the right time”.

She fell into radio, there wasn’t much of a plan. 2FM were looking for a new breakfast show and came calling. Breakfast Republic was the noisy early morning collaboration of Zamparelli, Keith Walsh and O’Shea. It was a huge learning experience which stood to her when she was approached to take on her own show. It’s taken a while, that radio slow burn again, but she doesn’t have “the fear” anymore. The pandemic helped. She was doing her show from home, just with a microphone. She wasn’t having to line up ads or jingles or run the programme desk. “I learnt to listen,” she says. “And I became a better listener and therefore a better broadcaster. Now I’m back in the studio, I am worse at running the desk but I am a better listener.” She gives full credit to the team on the radio show. “They do the work. They are phenomenal. And we’ve been through a lot of ups and downs personally. They are just an incredible bunch.”

I'm interested in how she handles criticism. I mention one radio review in this newspaper the week she first started her own show in June 2019. The headline was: Jennifer Zamparelli: A sarky presenter of little wit or charm.

“That was hard. Yeah, it wasn’t great now,” she says of the review which appeared before the official launch date in her first week. She winces at the memory. “But that is the nature of the beast. To say it is just water off a duck’s back is a lie. Maybe years ago I wouldn’t have cared but I think when you’re older, when you love something so much – and I really, really love this gig – you want to be better at it. I want to keep it long enough that I can get better at it. I take it on board, I try to see if there’s anything constructive in there. I know I’m not amazing, I have a lot to learn. So that’s the good part. But if it gets personal, I have an issue with that. Because it’s not just me, I always think of my mam reading it. My biggest fan. I suppose these knocks are good for you and make you better at what you do.”

She got into a bit of bother last September when she tweeted “We are having an open discussion on my show on @RTE2FM tomorrow about face masks. Do you have strong opinions on wearing them or not wearing them? I’d love to hear from you. Mail me.” As it happened people had very strong opinions on the subject and more than a thousand people replied, many of them appalled that Zamparelli would posit the wearing of facemasks as a debate.

"I think that was a real error that got totally blown out of proportion," she says. "I'd heard we were going to be discussing masks, I was playing a song. And I sent a tweet … and then it kind of exploded. You live and learn … I'd be a lot more conscious of that kind of thing now. But it was a very tricky time and a delicate time as well. And everybody was on tenterhooks. Yeah, that was a weird time." She has since left Twitter although she is still active on Instagram.

Did the criticism she received over the ill-advised face mask tweet turn her off social media?

“Not at all,” she says. “That came later. I just got bored looking at people argue. It didn’t make me feel good.” So six weeks ago she said goodbye to her 100k followers on twitter. “Some people said it was a bad business move … I did not care. I felt so much better. My daughter’s getting older and I don’t want her to be looking at me being drawn to my phone.”

'I'm still the biggest messer'

“Thinking back now I should have really given the account to the radio show so they could use it for promotion. But I don’t regret it. I’m just a bit hasty like that. Which probably got me into the mess with the face masks … I need to rein myself in. I don’t regret leaving Twitter. It just wasn’t for me. And eventually, I’ll probably come off Instagram.” For now though, she’s still on there, “posting pictures of bridges and mountains.”

Zany is a word that has been used to describe her in articles. She seems more Zen Jen these days. “I don’t want to go back to the way it was, I don’t want to have to go to events and be so crazy busy,” she says. “I’m a hippie at heart”. A rocker too. Her husband bought her a record player and a vinyl of Queen’s Greatest Hits for her 41st birthday. She doesn’t mind admitting she’s very fond of Slash.

To say she has matured might be overstating it, “I’m still the biggest messer” but she definitely feels more content. “I wasn’t very good at saying no,” she says. “But then I turned 40 and I became excellent at saying no.” Not that there’s much going on at the moment, but her friends know if she agrees to something, she may very well cancel at the last minute if it doesn’t suit her.

Before she walks me out of the RTÉ canner, Zamparelli says she is happy about where she has landed, appreciative of the balance she’s achieving in her work and home life and increasingly assured in her broadcasting career.

“I am definitely more comfortable now, but in this industry there’s a shelf life. I am the kind of person who likes to leave the party early, so I’ll be leaving this party before I get thrown out.”

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