'I'd love my own show - that would definitely be a goal'
BUBBLY radio presenter Brenda Donohue tells Andrea Smith about her life and ambitions as she celebrates 25 years at RTE.
'I find I'm much more tempted to do items on things like facial ironing and vampire facials these days," says the very funny radio presenter Brenda Donohue. "I think your attitude changes as you get older because, in your 30s, you're saying you would never get anything done and intend to grow old gracefully. And then, in your 40s, there's a hair popping out of your chin or you're picking your boobs up off your knees, so you kind of say, 'Okay, what can be done for this?' I haven't done anything yet, and the plastic side of life, where you've no expression, wouldn't appeal to me, but I think if you can afford it and it makes you feel better, why not?"I'm out at RTE having tea with Brenda, and she's discussing the perils of growing older. At 47, the mother-of-three looks fantastic, which she attributes to finally getting some sleep at night now that her youngest child has turned four. "I used to go into work pretending I was fabulous, after being up with a child and only getting three hours sleep," she says.
In addition, Brenda has also lost 30lbs in the past four months, which she did for health reasons. "I wouldn't be the slimmest girl, but it was more that I can't be arsed with my arse any more," she laughs. "I want to get rid of it. I'm doing it through going to Motivation, which is not a plug as I've paid for every session, and I'm so proud of myself. It's been easy really and it has worked so, touch wood, it continues. I feel better now at 47 than I did at 27."
This year, Brenda celebrates 25 years on air at RTE, and the secret to her enduring popularity is her unflagging enthusiasm and energy. It was something that Willie O'Reilly, now RTE Group Commercial Director, spotted when he was an RTE radio producer and brought the 2fm roadcaster out to UCD.
As a student of economics and history, and a leading light of DramSoc, Brenda was lined up to chat on air and, afterwards, Willie advised her to come up with a few ideas to contribute to the newly-launched Gerry Ryan Show. She went to the student bar with a friend, got drunk and came up with 10 ideas and, a few weeks later, following her final exams, she was out in RTE reporting for the show.
"I chose economics because I did well in it at school," Brenda explains. "I was determined to do well because it wasn't taught at our school, so 10 of us used to traipse across to the boys' school to do it.
"I didn't want them to think I was only doing it for the lads, although I was, of course. I remember doing a thing on air about family budgets with Eddie Hobbs, and he was explaining economies of scale to me, so I told him I have a degree in economics, which surprised him. That was the only time I've ever used it!"
Brenda is from Newbridge, Kildare, and is the eldest of Mary and Michael Donohue's five children. She's very close to her parents, who play an active role in helping with her own children. Gay Byrne actually spotted her potential very early on, as she was entered into a bonny baby competition he was judging, and he awarded her a special prize for the 'most talkative baby'.
She went to Billie Barry, although she preferred the comedy and MC-ing side of things to the singing and dancing, and says that, while she was a messer at school, she secretly wanted to achieve and did well in her exams. She thought she might become an actress or director, but The Gerry Ryan Show was a natural fit for her comic ability and easy manner, and she hit it off with the late broadcaster, who died in 2010. They worked together on the show for 18 years.
"It was my son Harvey's first birthday, and I was at home, and it was a 'birthday party, first cake and proud mammy' kind of thing. Then my husband called me to tell me that Gerry had died, and I told him to go and eff off. It was such a shock and I couldn't believe it.
"I feel bad talking about him sometimes because we've all moved on and, of course, we think about him and miss him, but I feel for his kids and Morah. They're the ones living with it all of the time, and they're all terrific. Their lives have been turned upside down.
"Gerry and I had a brilliant relationship and a very similar sense of humour," she adds. "We were really good old buddies, and Radio Centre is a different place without his enormous, warm personality in the building. The dynamic has changed, and I miss him on many levels."
A lot of media coverage ensued following Gerry's untimely death, particularly around the cocaine revelations at the inquest into his death. As a close friend, it was difficult for Brenda to deal with.
"It was very hard," she admits. "There are a few of us who really knew Gerry well, and we'd go out for lunch and a chat while it was all going on. We'd talk about the funny times we had with him or discuss what was going on privately as a group, and that helped a lot. They were saying things, and I was saying things, and sometimes I might let off a bit of steam or give out about a headline.
"We'd be very protective of him, and we were getting it off our chests in a safe environment with people who knew and loved him."
Now working on Mooney on Radio One, Brenda also has a great relationship with its host, Derek Mooney, and greatly enjoys her job. She's always out driving around in the car, meeting people and covering events, or moving and shaking, as she puts it, and says the most relaxed part of her day is actually sitting on the show in the afternoon, when it's all done and packaged.
"I really love what I do, and Derek and I have great fun," she says." I think we bring something different in the afternoons. I love the human interest stories although, of course, I love a little bit of celeb stuff as well – the air-kissing and the gossip."
Brenda feels that the challenge as a broadcaster is to always be fresh and never take your audience for granted. She loves a little bit of 'divilment' on air, but says they probably pushed it too far when they did an item on vajazzling around the time of the Tallafornia series. And then there was the time that she uttered an expletive live on air when she was in Cork covering an Oasis concert, and had a crowd of kids singing Wonderwall at the 2fm roadcaster.
"Noel and Liam Gallagher suddenly appeared and took the mic and started singing," she says. "And I went, 'Oh f**k!' on air."
That's the work side, but Brenda feels that the personal challenge is to achieve a good work/life balance. It's a subject she says she's become obsessed with.
"It's a huge struggle for women," she says. "You could be in work and you get a call from the school to say that something has happened.
"I'm lucky that the people in work are great and very understanding, but I also work my socks off. This is a very fickle industry, and if you're gone off-air for six months to have a baby, you can be easily forgotten. Women are under-represented in radio, and to get recognition as a woman for being on air is a struggle, as is not being seen as a bunny girl supporting people. Obviously, I'd love my own show at some stage, and that would definitely be a goal. I also love television."
She must have been surprised when Pat Kenny recently announced his move to Newstalk, which surely must have rocked the Radio Centre? Brenda agrees that it came as a shock to her, and she received the news by text as she was away on holidays.
"I think it's all very interesting and, in a way, it gives people on air a little bit more currency and power, and recognition," she says. "We'll see how it plays out. Many people are saying that the real challenge for Pat is to build an audience, because a lot of people have the dial turned to Radio One and won't switch one way or another."
Brenda is married to Dennis Cousins, who works for Cricket Ireland, and they have three children – Ali (13), Robyn (10) and Harvey (4). She and Dennis met at a Christmas party in 1994. It was a slow-burner, but they fell for one another and were married in 1997 in Newbridge.
It was a typical Irish country wedding, she says, with a few showbizzy pals thrown in, which gave the locals something to look at. In fact, Brenda knew she had made it when an ice cream van that always attends big events turned up outside the church.
"I knew I'd hit the big time locally," she laughs. "There were terrific pics in the papers afterwards of Gerry Ryan and Dave Fanning queuing for their ice creams, alongside all the women in the big hats. Apart from the fact that he's funny and handsome, I was attracted to Dennis because I like kindness in a person. He has a bit of a hard neck as well, and I like that.
"He's a bit of a Del Boy. You couldn't do the job that I do, especially with three kids, without someone else who is equally pulling their weight. What drives me mad about him is that I just can't understand why men can't fill dishwashers properly, and I'd say what drives him mad is that, if I have a pain, I'm a bit of a moan. I go on and on about it. And when we go out, I keep on talking long after he wants to go home, and he's like a floor manager saying, 'Come on – the babysitter! Wrap it up'."
Brenda was almost 43 having Harvey, and decided to go for a third child when her daughter Robyn started school. Then they moved house and work was busy, so they put it onto the back burner for a while.
"I was kind of nervous because of my age, but it was the easiest pregnancy of all," she says. "Getting pregnant with the two girls happened very quickly while, with Harvey, it took a bit longer, but I didn't put myself under pressure because we had the girls. I always consider him our little gift – well, maybe not when he's hitting or kicking! I get a bit mushy when I talk about him on air, but he's a great little munchkin, and the girls are great too."
Brenda says that you can give your children all of the French lessons and tennis lessons in the world, but you hope that they will have a bit of cop-on, which will carry them a lot further through life. With a daughter who has hit her teens, and another one coming up close behind, she predicts fun times ahead. "The GAA discos, the Facebook challenges and the Hollister uniform that they all have to wear, etc," she groans.
"You worry that they'd meet the wrong fella or friends, and hope they would have enough cop to say, 'No, I'm not going to stick that needle full of heroin into my arm.' Being a parent is fabulous, although it's got to the stage where some of the stories I tell on air embarrass them.
"For example, I was talking recently about a summer job I had in college, where I had to clear used condoms from the roof of a hotel abroad, and Ali said, 'I can't believe you told that story, Mum'."
"But, sure, half the fun of being a parent is embarrassing your children," she cackles.
Catch Brenda on Mooney, RTE Radio One, Monday to Friday, 3-4.30pm.