Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"We're not celebrities"

Cover story of last Saturday's Weekend mag:
By Susan Daly

Saturday April 10 2010

Celebrity culture doesn't sit entirely easy with the Irish. We traditionally take pride in not being too impressed by the rich or famous.

In recent years, however, a number of homegrown photo-driven celeb mags have fared well here. This conflict of curiosity and disdain for the high profile goes some way to explaining the phenomenal interest in Gerald Kean and Lisa Murphy. Some people might know the names but are not sure why; those who do invariably have an opinion on them.

On (non-glossy) paper, this is a solicitor and beauty-salon owner who met in a bar, dated for a few years and then got engaged. He went down on one knee in the smoking section of their favourite watering hole last December, surrounded by her family. Granted, it was the exclusive members-only club Residence and he had originally planned to propose on holiday in Miami, but still.

Few newly engaged couples are asked on a Saturday night TV chat show to spill the beans on their wedding plans. Nor are they introduced to the audience as "Ireland's Posh and Becks" and look unabashed at the hyperbole.

Gerald Kean disagrees. "I'm not a celebrity, I never have been a celebrity and I don't know where this comes from," he says. "I have very influential friends in footballing and in the music world, I do mix with different people, but this is only a very small part of my life. The rest of the time we could just as easily be with Lisa's mum and dad having a Chinese."

Lisa, sitting next to her fiancé on a sofa in Dublin's Dylan Hotel, is listening carefully and wants to add her thoughts. The couple don't go looking for publicity, she says. "People seem to be interested in what we're doing, and we're just ourselves with everybody."

She does, however, have an insight into the attention she has attracted. "I just happened to fall into it because of Michael."

That would be Michael Flatley, the Riverdance hotstepper to whom she was engaged until their split in early 2006. Six months later he proposed to fellow dancer Niamh O'Brien. In jig time, they were married and had a son. His comments in his autobiography that same year, which inferred Lisa hadn't been a woman he could see as the mother of his children, were less than gentlemanly.

The duration and conclusion of her relationship with Flatley fascinated people. It was a long way from a normal suburban home in Ballinteer to being papped on the beach at Barbados with a fabulously rich Irish-American. She rarely said a word when the pair appeared in public or posed for pictures on the front lawn of his Castlehyde estate in Cork. When they broke up, she continued to keep her own counsel.

As it turns out, the air of mystery had a deadly normality to it. She was terribly shy. In her previous relationship with boxer Joe Egan, she had a breast enhancement for what she has said were all the wrong reasons. She has also spoken of staying away from her own debs ball and having to take a Valium before her first date with Michael

Flatley in order to calm her nerves.

"In my relationship with Michael, we were very quiet, I wouldn't have been out as much," she says. Clearly, things have changed for Lisa. She is warm and open, still softly spoken but not timid.

"Gerald is so much more gregarious," she says. "I'm going to a lot more things and meeting more people, and getting my own business has helped [she runs New Lisa Life, a beauty salon in Sandycove]. Gerald would have given me confidence, wouldn't you darling?" She turns to her other half.

"You are totally different now," he agrees. "At the start, it was a bit of a struggle for her with me. In one day she'd be meeting a crowd of friends I'd been friendly with for 15 years in a pub in Manchester, they would be dancing on tables and singing, and that same night she'd be at a black-tie function. But she's far better with people in so many ways than I am and she has been incredible."

Despite all protests to the contrary, Kean has brought a considerable profile of his own to the table. Solicitors don't generally make for good showbiz, but Kean must now be one of the most high-profile legal professionals in Ireland.

There is no shortage of well-off legal eagles here. He is, I'd wager, the only one to have appeared on reality shows such as Celebrity Bainisteoir and The Restaurant.

Part of the publicity is a consequence of the work that helped him move on from a £7,000 starter salary in a solicitor's office in Capel Street. Kean's moniker as 'celebrity to the stars' comes from the early days in which he promoted the tax exemption relief available in Ireland to artists and musicians. He says it is his famous clients who have mentioned his name and not the other way around, although he does then relate an anecdote about trying to stay out of a photograph of Simon and Yasmin Le Bon when he brought the couple to Dublin.

His marriage to first wife, fellow solicitor Clodagh Hopkins, also brought a kind of mutual celebrity. Social diarists liked to gasp over how she flew him and 70 of his closest friends -- Gerald Kean is nothing if not a networker -- to Paris for his 40th birthday in 1997. A few years later, he flew Clodagh and 150 guests by private jet to a ball in a castle near Salzburg.

The profile of the couple after their split in 2006 is interesting. While Clodagh is still pictured at charity gigs from time to time, it is Gerald who is more prominent in the press. Self-publicity or selflessness? He's insistent that he just likes to help out. To be fair, he and Lisa are squeezing in an interview request from me on Easter Monday morning so I can make a deadline.

"I spend every day of my life helping others; whether that is portrayed in the media or not doesn't interest me," he claims. "I travel the country all week, from Portlaoise to Donegal, and any appearances I do for charities I insist the fees go to the charity. I get footballers and musicians involved in fundraising."

He says he didn't mind when his drink-driving conviction in April of last year was reported in the newspapers. "If you're caught for drink-driving, it's right that it's all over the papers."

Nor does he care that his 50th birthday party, where he and his guests dressed up as pre-revolutionary French aristos, was lampooned by "some silly editor". He laughs it off: "We throw a good party -- it was the best night of my life and we loved it!"

Bad publicity doesn't matter as long as it's not inaccurate, he says. I think -- mostly because he mentions, several times, certain newspaper editors who he believes are "unhappy in themselves" -- that he cares a little more than he would like to admit.

Whatever about the outsider's perception of them, the couple seem very happy. Lisa still lives with her folks in Ballinteer and won't be moving to the substantial Kean country pile in Wicklow until the pair marry at the end of this year, or the start of 2011.

"I would be very traditional like that," says Gerald. "It's a big jump because we don't live together but it's exciting to plan where your clothes are going, where mine are going. You're sharing your life."

A significant point for both of them is that Lisa gets on so well with his 13-year-old daughter, Kirsten. "We're very close," she says. "We were on a cruise there a couple of weeks ago and she would say, 'Don't come and get us [Kirsten and friend], dad, I want Lisa to come and get us'. Gerald will get very emotional and I'll say, 'But darling, I didn't want to hang around with my dad at 13. It's nothing personal'."

It's hard to be cynical about them as a couple when it is clear that they look after each other so well. His health issues have also brought them closer together. Diagnosed as a diabetic shortly before they met in late 2006, Kean has to check his blood-sugar levels four times a day and administer insulin. Lisa keeps an eagle eye on him, not wishing to see a repeat of the incident two years ago when he collapsed at a fashion show in the RDS. "It was terrifying," she says.

He's fresh from the gym when we meet, half the man he used to be, and tucking into an egg-white omelette (after the insulin check, of course). "She guides me and I listen," he says. "She certainly had a hugely positive influence on my life especially at a time when I needed it."

The nuptials will be in Kean's native Cork. He had thought they would marry overseas, because his divorce precludes a church wedding here anyway, but they decided against having people fly out and "spending their money abroad".

Instead of gifts, guests will be asked to make a donation to Scoil Triest in Glanmire, Co Cork, a special school for students with learning disabilities. It's especially personal to Lisa, whose older brother Paul had special needs and died in a road accident in 1995.

"If we have a big wedding, more power to it because we'll get more donations to Scoil Triest," says Gerald. But doesn't ostentation of any kind attract ire, I ask?

"Lisa and I made whatever money we have ourselves. Am I going to stop drinking a nice bottle of red wine? No. Am I going to stop buying a nice shirt and tie? No. I do not come from the stable that, from now on, I must eat stale brown bread. If I make €1,000 tomorrow, I am very happy to spend €500 on a bottle of wine and €500 on a charity."

He mentions that if the couple have babies, as they hope to do, he wishes they will look like their mother. "I want that on the record! And I hope they would have my positivity and enjoyment of life.

"Nothing gets me down."


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