Friday, August 14, 2009

Girls' night out, the Boo Hoo Factor and M3 tolls

I've been a bit neglectful of posting my stuff for the last week, so here are three bitteens you may have missed...

From last Friday's Day and Night magazine:


By Susan Daly

Friday August 07 2009

By the power of Jimmy Choo, I despise all those "girls' night out" ads. That includes the one for a brand of sparkling wine that has the unmistakeable bang of a gone-off Sex and The City plotline about it.

Two girls sit in a bar, one with a face on her like a rabid wasp, the other waving her hands and looking a bit mad because she's telling the Most Hilarious Joke Ever. Then their third gal pal arrives, breathless, just in time to clink glasses.

Ah! There's the punchline! She's the One Who's Always Late; the crazy hand-waver is the group's Joker and the humourless cow is the Organiser who is a stickler for punctuality.

And all are absolute tools.

It's the laziest type of marketing for women: Girls! Which one of these lady stereotypes do you conform to?

We had it with the Spice Girls and we had it with Sex in the bloody City and their personality-by-hair diktat. (The red one was angry, the brunette straight-laced, the curly one a bit quirky, and the blonde a slapper.)

But -- whisper it -- I suspect the Girls' Night Out is over. I came to this conclusion at dinner with my two best female friends last week. That might sound like a contradiction, but it's not.

We did not start the night trying on each other's bras or whatever the male advertising exec fantasises about. We didn't ban boys; they just weren't around. We were three friends catching up over a meal, and we just happened to be women.

"Do you think we're the odd ones out in this room?" I asked, looking around.

"You're the oddest person in most rooms," said my pregnant friend.

The pregnant bit is important: she gets away with cracks like that, and she is allowed two-thirds of the communal dish of fries. If we were really on a Girls' Night Out, I would have rushed to the bathroom to sob because that's what the hormonal imbalance of a room full of girl drama does to you.

What I meant was we were the only table of women in the restaurant on a Saturday night in Dublin. Time was when, to paraphrase Joyce, you couldn't draw a line across Dublin city without hitting a bistro stuffed with gaggles of ladies who dine. The one we were eating in would have been attractive to girl-girl-girl-girl seating arrangements: soft lighting, cute waiters, scrumptious chocolate desserts.

On that night we were surrounded by families, tourists, male-female twosomes and a gay couple who were feeding each other. Oestrogen and testosterone were both equally on the menu.

And -- now that we thought about it -- this was our first dinner out together in months. We had seen plenty of each other, but nothing that required a taxi into town.

I'm not sure anyone I know is going out as frequently as they did two years ago. There's less of this 'oh, it's cocktails with the girls tonight, romantic dinner a deux tomorrow, his pub night with the lads on Sunday'. You might pick one blow-out night -- and you have to be open to catch up with everyone.

It happened seamlessly last Saturday. After Ms Expectancy had waved regally out the back window of her taxi home, my other friend and I went off for a post-prandial snifter. The Fella rang to see if we were around, and he and his mates joined us. (They had been watching a match and eating curry, so I guess some gender stereotypes remain intact.)

Even if I'm wrong and the whole world but me is on a never-ending pink-cowboy-hatted hen night, would it be a bad thing if the term Girls' Night Out got the bullet?

To me, it denotes Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan losing their knick-knacks somewhere between their house and getting out of their limo. It's Carrie Bradshaw, the single most irritating fictional character ever created, self-obsessedly moaning to her friends while they knock back Cosmopolitans to numb the whine of her voice.

It's not about sisters doing it for themselves and being freer in each other's company. Girls' Night Out is fun facism: if you're not bankrupting yourself on Mojitos, a new dress, stilettos and fake eyelashes in BTs, then apparently you're not putting in the effort.

In any case, I like talking to men and women. I like the vibe when you have a room full of interesting, friendly people who don't discriminate by naughty bits. So shoot me. Or buy me a pint.

From last Saturday's Review section in the Indo...

The boo hoo factor
The X Factor publicity machine knows the sweetest tune to our ears is the one that plays on our heartstrings.


Saturday August 08 2009

The producers of the ITV phenomenon The X Factor have noses like bloodhounds. If there is a sob story lurking in the swarms of hopefuls who audition for the hit show, they will hunt it down.

As this year's show launch date of August 22 edged closer this week, the publicity machine cranked up a notch. Judge Dannii Minogue let slip the "amazing" backstory of one of the latest batch of contestants, a 21-year-old Asperger's Syndrome sufferer who had hidden himself away in his bedroom for years.

Scott James managed to make it to the X Factor auditions in Manchester however -- and blew the judges away with his performance of that reliable tear-jerker 'You Raise Me Up'.

"He told us that because of his Asperger's Syndrome and the fact that he'd been picked on, he hadn't left the house in seven years," Minogue relayed breathlessly to an interviewer this week. "Then he started singing. You will not believe his performance when you see it."

Whatever about his voice, Scott's life story has the X Factor. The show thrives on its image as a second chance for the underdog who fights through the tough times on sheer talent. It's a sort of Rocky for pop music.

The show's canny producers -- of which chief judge Simon Cowell is the masterminding force -- know that there is no tune more seductive than the one plucked out on our heartstrings. Scott James is blessed with a two-pronged attraction. The hardships he has had to overcome have been great, and he has raw talent.

This potent combination is what transformed Susan Boyle from quiet-living Scottish spinster to SuBo, unlikely star of Britain's Got Talent (a show which is also a Cowell creation). She too had suffered bullying and social difficulties.

She was frumpy and frizzy-haired. Then she opened her mouth and silenced the sneering judges and audience with her soaring vocals.

That magical moment of discovery, an instant YouTube hit, is known in TV circles as "the reveal". Boyle would have had to perform several times for producers to get to the filmed audition. From the pantomime jeers to the perfect 'O' of surprise which took shape in Amanda Holden's mouth, a talented choreographer had been hard at work.

But that would be the view of a cynic and The X Factor's success relies on its fans to be the least cynical of all TV audiences. The desperate, the destitute and the plain pathetic all have a place in our hearts -- and the show has an unerring talent in rooting them out.

The stories swing from the trite to the traumatic. A female auditionee told how she had fallen down a staircase and was almost paralysed; a soldier elaborated on his memories of serving in Iraq and witnessing the deaths of two friends.

There is some authenticity -- after all, a person putting themselves through such a public ordeal as The X Factor must be seriously motivated to change their circumstances. (Even so, there appear to be a disproportionate number of agoraphobics who manage to cope admirably to achieve a lifelong dream to top the charts).

The talented Shayne Ward won X Factor 2006 but the runner-up, bin man Andy Abraham (42) had his blue-collar struggle remembered when he was chosen to represent the UK in last year's Eurovision. He came last.

Ward, initially a chart-topper and tipped for American stardom, has largely disappeared, showing that an X Factor win on any basis is not a guarantee of career longevity unless you are Leona Lewis. Last year's winner Alexandra Burke went double platinum with 'Hallelujah' but where is she now?

Like Abraham, former Happy Mondays backing singer Rowetta Satchell attracted attention for her visit to last-chance saloon in the 2005 series. She didn't take the charts by storm but continues to perform, and revealed her alcoholism on reality show Rehab last year.

At the other end of the age spectrum came 15-year-old Eoghan Quigg from Co Derry, his baby face and fluffy mop of hair charming audiences into voting him into the final three of last year's X Factor. His debut album was greeted with dire reviews in April but he's been touring with Boyzone this summer and, sure, hasn't he his whole life ahead of him?

More rivetting still are the contestants haunted by past traumas and the beloved departed. Natasha Benjamin's life with a violent partner was aired in her first audition for the 2007 show. Her seven-year-old daughter Jazmine was sent to stand at the table with the judges while mum performed her heart out.

That year's show also featured Niki Evans who had a poignant reason for auditioning: she found an application for X Factor in her late father's personal belongings.

Judge Louis Walsh said at the end of X Factor 2007 that "there were far too many sob stories and far too much crying in this series. This is supposed to be a talent show, not Jeremy Kyle".

Nonetheless, with 2008 came the pinnacle in the Boo Hoo Factor. Daniel Evans was targeted for interview by X Factor presenter Dermot O'Leary at general auditions as he sat cuddling his cute blonde toddler daughter. By the time he stood nervously before the judges we knew this was going to be a masterclass in pathos.

"Why are you here today?" asks Louis, evidently no longer jaded by contestants' motivations. Daniel dropped the bombshell. His wife had died in childbirth. He was a swimming pool cleaner struggling to raise three children.

As doe-eyed Cheryl Cole dabbed away tears, sad music swelled in the background -- the cue for the rest of us to take Daniel and his dead wife to our hearts.

Evans later declared: "I want the X Factor to be about me and my singing. I don't want to be seen as the sob story guy."

Also featured last year was Rachel Hylton, a former drug addict who had three of her children taken into care by the age of 26. Hylton didn't play up the 'second chance' card herself -- but the programme made such frequent reference to it that Hylton later said she felt "exploited".

Contestant Andy Turner's hopes also went under in 2008 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His appeal for his real parents to come forward and get to know him was rubbished by his birth father who said he had recently spoken to him by phone.

The hype has been cleverly constructed to the point that everyone has an opinion on The X Factor -- even Oasis's Noel Gallagher. "It's a bit s***e really, to be honest," he said last December. "'Oh, my f*****g god, my cat died, and his outstretched paw was pointing to an X, so I'm going to sing 'What's New Pussycat'!"

Now that's publicity you just can't buy.

From yesterday's Herald... (and er, no, that's not me biting the steering wheel...)

By Susan Daly

Thursday August 13 2009

With all these business big wigs going bust, it must surely be a good time to get a helicopter on the cheap.

God knows, commuters are going to need some alternative to travelling the new tolled M3.

Commandeering a chopper may well work out as economic as stumping up nearly €12 a day to pay the tolls on a return trip from Kells to Dublin.

That's the equivalent of throwing a 10-cent piece out the window of your car every single kilometre of that 120km total drive. (Or €2,600 a year for a Monday-to-Friday commute, if you prefer the bigger picture).

There is always the new train to Navan of course -- as long as you don't live north of that town and can wait until 2015.

But even the helicopter plan has a catch (Just the one, you ask?). Even if you manage to persuade some snivelling developer to part with his old Bell chopper for a knockdown price, you might end up paying the M3 road toll anyway.

The bright sparks in charge of negotiating the Government's deal with the private company who will manage the M3 tolls have allowed them to insert a "minimum traffic" agreement into the contract.

That means that the company, Eurolink, will be compensated by the Government if the number of motorists using the M3 falls below target. Not that we know what that target is. Nobody in the National Roads Authority wants us to know.

Suffice to say that if we motorists don't stump up and use the road to the level envisaged by Eurolink, then they will be looking for the Government to make up the difference.

And by the Government, of course, that doesn't mean Brian Cowen will have to personally shoulder the burden.

It means every taxpayer will take the hit, even the ones who chose not to use the overpriced piece of tarmac in the first place.

Seriously, what kind of buffoon signs off on a contract like that?

There cannot be another business in this country that is guaranteed to be kept afloat by the Government in the middle of a recession, which is essentially what they are promising in this case (I would mention NAMA here if I wasn't in danger of exploding into angry boils).

People don't like your product? Don't worry, we'll bridge the gap for you until they buy into it.

The advice generally given to anyone opening even a sweet shop is to get yourself on to a FAS small business course double quick.

Learn the essentials before you put so much as a price tag on a Curly Wurly.

They're not the only ones who could do with a crash course in the fundamentals of enterprise.

The problem with the Department of Transport, the NRA, and pretty much every section of Government that has its fingers in our collective till is that they haven't a scrap of business nous between them.

Remember how delighted people were to give George Lee a vote because he is an actual qualified economist? And he's stuck on the Opposition bench!

But it doesn't even take a genius business mind to have some common sense.

If anyone in Leinster House had their eyes open, they would see the large 'Sale' signs in shop windows all over the city.

The revolutionary idea is this: If custom is falling, you find other ways of getting punters in. You slash prices, come up with special offers, find a way to tempt them through the door.

If the M3 is short of traffic, it will be because drivers would rather find the longest, windiest back road to Dublin than pay a ludicrous toll fee.

Why the NRA feels the need to back up such greed instead of ordering a toll price cut is beyond me.

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