She made her name as the girl next door with a laddish sense of humour, but has a decade in the spotlight turned Lucy Kennedy into a ‘fragile’ celebrity? Not so, Fiona Ness discovers as she talks to the Ireland’s Got Talent host about career ambition, Botox and raising happy children
We are none of us uncomplicated. Lucy Kennedy – relatable, girl-next-door Lucy – knows this. The TV presenter has built a high profile career parlaying her personal brand of what-you-see-is -what-you-get. It has brought her up to the celebrity realm via her reality TV show, Livin’ With Lucy, and into the world of the common people via Ireland’s Got Talent.
“I prefer normal people,” Kennedy clarifies, when we meet to discuss the imminent second season of the popular variety show. “Real people, chasing real hopes and dreams.”
Celebrities, on the other hand, need constant minding. Perhaps that’s why so many of them have jumped at the chance to ‘live with Lucy’ since the show began in 2008. After all, what could be better affirmation of their continued relevance than having a camera follow them into the bathroom? “Yes. A lot of them are so fragile. You have to be careful about that,” Kennedy says of celebrities in general. “A lot of them choose the business they are in because they are insecure. The life they have chosen doesn’t really suit the people that they are.”
But not so Lucy. On first meeting she presses me close to her leopard print bosom in a quick-fire embrace – one arm locked around my neck, the other clasping a slew of bags and a tottering toddler – before releasing me into a barrage of chummy talk.
She sweeps the south Dublin hotel foyer like a tidal bore, scooping up visiting businessmen with her laughter and letting them down dazed but not depleted by their early morning brush with celebrity. We settle on a spacious booth in the near-empty hotel bar.
The bags are dumped and there is toast to be ordered for the two-year-old (who had to be brought along because she has a cough), and a boiled egg, a high chair we won’t end up using, and a large Americano – “the largest they’ve got” – drunk milky and cold.
A tiny porcelain tea set is produced from one of the bags and baby Jess gets to work knocking water out of the cups before slithering out of the chair entirely and wobbling off. I give the interview 15 minutes, tops.
I watch after Jess anxiously as if one of my own whilst the 42-year-old mum-of-three masterfully keeps the toddler in her peripheral vision, at the same time making me feel as if I have her full attention. The interview stretches on to almost double the allotted time. Barely out of pre-walkers, Jess is displaying all her mother’s competency already.
“There’s another parent here, I can be horizontal!” Kennedy says slumping amongst the cushions with a laugh. She is sorry about the me-bending-over-backwardness of our meeting, where I have slept little and have had to make an early morning dash across town, leaving one of my own children into A&E and another at a parent-teacher meeting, sans parent. En route, the taxi driver had enthused. He listens to Lucy Kennedy every morning on Radio Nova. She is, he says, so normal. So herself. So absolutely very funny.
Kennedy has found out all this about me and more within a few minutes of take-off and although I’m enjoying the chance to off-load, I demur that I should really be asking the questions of her. “Oh forget about that! You need sleep! You should lie down here! Now!” she says, the air rich with exclamation marks. “Press record and I’ll just talk for an hour!” It’s a jest – although she possibly also means it. She is guilelessly charismatic, simple and warm.
“You get to a stage where you’re ranking all your problems… and you realise there’s nothing you can do about them but drink wine,” Kennedy says laughing.
The nation warmed to Kennedy’s ditsy-ladsy persona when she first came to prominence in 2006 as the unshockable straight-woman for RTÉ’s repugnant puppets Podge and Rodge, and she’s been on the boil ever since.
She was a woman on telly before the relentless onslaught of ‘female empowerment’ trussed up in body con, Botox, clean eating and enervation. Kennedy has sailed through all the challenges of gender inequality and #metoo, seemingly unafraid to be herself: a little bit smart, a little bit forward, and very, very kind. “I could not get involved in that subject. I was not one of those people who didn’t get paid anything less than equally. Is that because we’re strong women? I wouldn’t stand for it,” she says.
Although she also talks of times when she was pregnant and running around between school collections and recording live TV shows when she would sit down in the television studio and fight back the tears – “I felt so panicked and stressed.” When third baby Jess came along in her 40th year, she says she decided it was time for her to enjoy her family with husband of 11 years Richard Governey, “and find a better balance for all of us”.
Balance for Kennedy means a daily early morning show on Radio Nova, filming the last episode in the sixth series of Livin’ With Lucy for Virgin Media and gearing up for the second series of Ireland’s Got Talent, which begins tonight on Virgin Media 1. She says she will front a new entertainment show for Virgin in the autumn – and will also publish her first children’s book in a three-book deal. In between times she’s on the school run in her tracksuit, donning the Marigolds – “Why do I love cleaning so much? Is it because I’m a control freak?” – and cracking down on screentime.
“My desire to have babies has always been stronger than my desire to be Graham Norton. I have always said if it is possible to be able to work while we have a family then brilliant, but every decision I make is around the children,” she says. “They are the core of my life. I’m in a good place. If anything, there are times I wish I could spend more time with them,” she says.
Over the years, her megawatt smile has drawn a sharp laughter line between her brows, one which a lesser woman-in-the-public-eye might have removed by now. “I’ve said to myself, ‘Will I get Botox? Will I do it?’ Part of me is like… I’m Taurus the Bull and fairly tough while fairly soft, so part of me goes, ‘Well, just come and have a go’.
“Why would I change me just because I’m on telly? I will always fight four or five pounds. I will always have a big arse. I’ve got cellulite, my nose annoys me and I’ve got this frown on my forehead – but I’m me and I don’t think I’d change any part of me.”
“That’s real confidence,” I say.
“Is it? Is it? Or is it just laziness?” Kennedy laughs as baby Jess rifles through her bag, emptying out vitamins and a tub of chewing gum before settling in to slather moisturising cream on her mum’s tanned, toned and anything but lazy-looking arms. “What is going on, on telly? I’m fed up of looking at more and more people who just look the same,” Kennedy says. “I’m not a size six with perfect eyebrows. I represent the majority and I think that’s why I’ve done well. I don’t pretend to be anyone else and I think in 2019 that’s quite refreshing.”
During the photoshoot for this interview, Kennedy says she had struggled to turn off the Cheshire smile and the goofy gags, as the camera sought to show another side to Kennedy the woman. She was the stylist’s Eliza Doolittle. “I can’t do sexy face,” she says. “I just end up looking constipated.”
Kennedy’s voice is uncommonly deep and unctuous for her 5ft 4in frame, and continually at odds with the timbre of her views on what are the pressing issues of the day – more who’s doing what in Closer magazine than climate change and Brexit. “I’m so fed up with Brexit. Are you? I think If Teresa May walked in her I’d say ‘Get out!’ I don’t want to see you or hear your name. I’m just so bored. Just make a decision and move on!”
So she wouldn’t go and live with the British PM for an episode of Livin’ With Lucy? “Oh God yes; but what would I ask her? I read Heat magazine. There was talk at one point of me living with Nigel… is it Farage? Politics and me are like oil and water.”
Nonetheless, it hasn’t stopped her going there. One episode of her reality series saw her shack up with former politician Ivan Yates, another, with Senator David Norris. “Bizarrely he came right down to my level. He loves politics and James Joyce and I love Fair City and Penneys. We totally clicked. He’d quote literature and I’d plan my Tesco shop.” It’s not to say Kennedy doesn’t concern herself with the big issues. Death and happiness are top of her worry list. Since she turned 40, she says, she has become a lot more morbid. “I’m probably at my healthiest, my fittest I’ve ever been at 42 but do I want another baby? I’m going to be 153 when Jess is 21… I’m not embracing it. I’m beginning to worry about death.”
“I worry about the kids – just their happiness. I don’t worry about their jobs or what they will do.”
Sometimes before they go to sleep, she presses them to answer the big existential question: “Just before bed, when they’re at their most honest, I say, ‘Are you happy?’ Money comes and goes but your happiness… there are so many yucky problems they will have to face.” The big themes of all that might occur to disrupt the path to happiness – from homelessness to hubris – slide by unplumbed.
Kennedy grew up in affluent south Dublin, the middle child of three girls. Her father is a musician and her mother, a dress designer who owned a boutique in Dublin city centre. Her parents separated when she was 15. It was, she says, “an OK outcome”. Amicable. Discussed.
“Dad left but still did the school run with us – it was as normal as could be. I think it’s a case of can’t live with, can’t live without… I love my parents. The thought of living without them makes me feel sick.
When Kennedy was 28 years old and working in TV behind the scenes, on and off the dole and “happy not happy” she was close to opting instead to study psychotherapy full time. “I’m interested in it. I have never felt the need for help… we are a very talky family… but I’ve always felt the need to help other people,” she says.
As she took her first steps in front of the camera, Kennedy also began a psychotherapy course in Dún Laoghaire. She loved the process, which included a 25-week block where she had to undergo therapy herself. A lot of students would go to their sessions and sit in silence with a box of tissues, but not Kennedy. “I took advantage of being able to talk for an hour and have someone else listen,” she says.
What did she uncover about herself? “I don’t know. That the desire to help other people stems back to my parents being separated? I didn’t feel like I needed fixing but after I was ‘fixed’, I was glad I was.”
She points in mock horror at Jess, who is eating a pat of butter and ignoring the toast. “I would find a heart in that piece of toast. If someone has a heart I will find it.”
Kennedy’s phone is ringing but she doesn’t give it as much as a sideways glance. Her initial affirmation that she is “aware of making people instantly feel comfortable with me” doesn’t seem quite so trite.
“Do your funny eyes! Do your funny eyes!” Kennedy urges Jess, who performs on cue. “She’s my Dec!” Kennedy declares, and not for the first time. “I’m Ant and she’s Dec.”
It’s an unfortunate analogy, giving the tumult in the life of the British TV star Ant McPartlin which has played out recently across the media. Does she worry that her job also places her and her family’s life at risk of such damaging scrutiny?
“I don’t think about it. I’m a bit of a nerd and my party days are well over. The craziest thing I would do now would be to drink a bottle of wine watching Suits in my pjs.”
But still, her family are visible in the media – was this a conscious choice, or did she succumb to pressure to morph into a ‘celebrity mum’? “I’ve always been like this except now I am a mother. I don’t film them every second but I have done VIP magazine with them, more-so for their memories with me. I always buy three copies, one for each of them to keep. But I don’t think anyone would know they are my children if they saw them without me. They are not on Insta Stories. I am very protective of them.”
Women in Ireland, she says, are in a good place right now. “I’ve always done what I want; breastfed my babies at the side of the M50, laughed at myself if my boob was hanging out in Debenhams and someone walked past looking like they wanted to vomit. Bringing up healthy, happy children should be everyone’s priority. If you want to do it, just do what you want.”
Within reason. A recent conversation with her older children Jack (9) and Holly (6) about stranger danger saw her uncharacteristically reticent. Explaining to them that you never talk to anyone you don’t know or get into anyone’s car, Holly put up her hand and said, ‘Mummy, why do you talk to everyone then?’ And I said, ‘That is a very good question.'”
‘Ireland’s Got Talent’ begins tonight on Virgin Media 1 at 7.30pm