Monday, February 22, 2010

Cloning Cowell

My op-ed from Saturday's Evening Herald on news that Simon Cowell might be getting hitched at last...

WE knew it – the X-Factor’s Simon Cowell is just a big softie underneath it all. A ‘close pal’ has been telling newspaper reporters that Mr Grumpy has gotten engaged to his artist girlfriend. Not only that, but he is thought to have popped the question on Valentine’s Day during a romantic dinner.

Hold on one candy-coloured moment: dinner a deux, Valentine’s Day, a £250,000 diamond ring? That’s quite the leap from three years ago when Cowell tut-tutted at the “commerciality” of February 14. “I am not conventional,” he said back then. “I don’t do holding hands and cuddling up in front of the TV. I find things like Valentine’s Day ridiculous, being forced to be romantic on a certain day.”

Would you get him – “not conventional”. I bet he had a team of violinists serenading the ‘lucky’ lady, make-up artist Mezghan Husseiny, and I bet he went down on one knee for good measure.

Mind you, he also said repeatedly that he would never, ever get married. This is truly a momentous occasion. Simon Cowell, the man who thinks he’s always right, admits he may have been wrong.

Even if he’d never vowed to stay a bachelor, news of the engagement is surprising. (Not least to ex-girlfriend Terri Seymour, whom he was with for six of the years in which he was banging on about his wedding phobia). Who would ever have thought that Simon Cowell could love someone more than he loves Simon Cowell. If he was an ice-cream, he’d lick himself to death.

Could it be that turning 50 last year is what did it for Simon? His birthday party was like a particularly debauched stag night, complete with half-naked dancing girls, magnums of champagne and baby sharks swimming in tanks in the toilets. There isn’t much to do after a blow-out like that except get married.

A sense of mortality gets to us all at some stage. Something has certainly pierced Cowell’s armour and – oh dear, God – could it be love? Perhaps this is his version of a midlife crisis. He already has the garage full of trophy cars, so it’s no good splashing out on a firebox-red penile extension. He has to find another way to rebel.

Or maybe Cowell is more conventional than he would have us believe. He has said that his biggest fear of getting married had been the cost of getting divorced. What an old romantic. Now he’s talking of being “smitten” (and presumably, he has a good lawyer or seven who knows their way around a prenup).

But here’s the most telling revelation so far. In an upcoming TV interview, he tells Piers Morgan: “I think I need to have little Simons around.” So that’s it. Cowell’s ego demands that it’s time to start producing the future in his own image. Heavens preserve us all.

Friday, February 19, 2010

He's not the Messiah, Cheryl; he's a very naughty boy

My op-ed in yesterday's Evening Herald about the idiocy of Ashely Cole...

IN the history of lame excuses, it’s as lame as a one-legged duck. According to footballer Ashley Cole, there is a perfectly innocent explanation for why pictures of his wobbly bits were sent from a mobile phone that he owned to the phone of a blonde model.

He forgot he had taken naked pics of himself before he loaned the mobile to a friend who was ‘between phones’. That friend passed it onto another friend. That friend-of-a-friend found the pics, pretended to be Ashley and forwarded them for a larf, innit?

Bloody hell, but Cole is one unlucky fella. If that’s what happened, that’s what happened. Sometimes dogs really do eat homework.

Still and all: who takes naked pictures of themselves when they are alone in their hotel room and saves them on their phone? Cheryl Cole shouldn’t spend too much time worrying about whether to believe her husband’s three-men-and-a-phone explanation. She should just get down to brass tacks and realise that this guy is just too dumb to stay with any longer.

If you are a high-profile young man who has, in the past, been accused of cheating on your equally famous wife, the best policy would surely be to live your life as blamelessly as possible. Taking pics of yourself in the nip and leaving them lying about in a mobile is not clever. It’s sub-stupidity of epic proportions.

Instead of protecting your lovely wife – Britain’s sweetheart, if we are to believe her good press – from any future hurt, you open her up to deep, public humiliation. Cheryl, sweetheart, you can do without him. Don’t believe the lyrics of your own song. Don’t Fight For This Love.

Much has been made of the fact that Cheryl has flown to LA on her own, with a big piece of costume jewellery where her wedding ring should be. It could just be that Ashley is laid up at home with his broken ankle (and wouldn’t it be awful if Cheryl accidentally banged off it with her suitcase on the way out the door.)

But I hope it’s a sign of her intentions. I hope it means she is through with standing by her man.

There is so much to admire about the former Cheryl Tweedy. She dragged herself out of a tough background on a council estate in Newcastle by sheer talent and ambition. By showing her vulnerability and empathy on the X-Factor, she has made herself one of TV’s most popular personalities. She doesn’t deserve to shed any more tears over her husband.

She doesn’t need to stay with him for status or money (John Terry’s wife, do you hear me?) She has made it on her own. She didn’t need to stay with him in 2008 when hairdresser Aimee Walton sold her story to the newspapers. She didn’t need to stay with him when another buxom young lady came forward claiming to have ‘scored’ with the England footballer. She doesn’t need to do it now.

Ashley Cole might well be an innocent party in all this. Cheryl, however, has more to be getting on with than to wait around to find out.

Ashley suffers from the same syndrome as many young Premier League footballers. All they really have is their two right feet. The silly money they earn, and the fame it brings them, can turn their head. Why was Ashley Cole taking pics of his naked glory? If it wasn’t for someone else, it was so he could admire himself. How arrogant is that.

These lads, being constantly told they are the icons of their generation, develop a God complex. They don’t always have the education or the smarts to temper themselves with a bit of modesty.

But do you know what Cheryl – they are not Messiahs. Mostly, they are just very naughty boys.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Size matters

The market is demanding plus-size fashion be taken seriously - but what does high fashion think?

By Susan Daly

Wednesday February 17 2010

Real women eat their dinner. Real women are an average dress size 14. And real women are 'infiltrating' high fashion, gracing catwalks that were previously only stalked by impossibly thin models.

Or are they? It's hard to tell over the trumpeting noises that have accompanied new forays by high-end mags and designers into the world of the larger model. Germany's best-selling magazine, Brigitte, has just published its first issue that is totally devoid of 'traditional' models. Brigitte -- with an average readership age of 48 -- is not at the cutting-edge of fashion. However, when its editor-in-chief Andreas Lebert announced his plans with a press release that proclaimed Brigitte's stand against an industry that he says "is anorexic", it was reported in the international press.

British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman fired off a letter to designers last June criticising them for supplying "minuscule" sample garments for photoshoots, forcing Vogue to hire models "with jutting bones and no breasts or hips" to fit into them.

There was also excitement when US Glamour magazine published an unairbrushed photograph of plus-size model Lizzie Miller (she's an Irish size 12-14).

The praise for Glamour's decision to display Miller's small roll of belly flab was disproportionate to the prominence of the picture in the magazine. The pic measured three inches by three inches and was buried back on page 194 of the issue.

Still, the rapturous response does indicate a public appetite for fleshier models.

A scene in the movie The Devil Wears Prada explains how decisions on a hem length or fabric colour made by the powers-that-be in high fashion trickles down to the high street.

Is it possible that the trickle-down effect has reversed? Take the case of designer Karl Lagerfeld, currently being praised for shooting plus-size burlesque star Miss Dirty Martini for high-fashion US glossy V, who scorned the decision by Brigitte to make itself a model-free zone.

The magazine, he claimed, was being unduly influenced by "fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly".

Either Lagerfeld's had an epiphany or he's realised he's out of step with the public. The more democratic world of the internet is producing a growing number of self-styled "fatshionistas". These plus-size, style-obsessed bloggers are publishing blogs like Musings of a Fatshionista and Fat Girls Like Nice Clothes Too.

Twentysomething teacher Gabi Gregg has appeared on US television speaking about her Young, Fat and Fabulous blog.

The content is similar to other personal style sites -- she posts photographs of herself in her favourite outfits.

She also alerts her readers to plus-size clothing lines and other plus-size bloggers. Her mission statement is only quasi-political: "I'm a fun-loving girl who happens to have a flair for fashion. I'm just trying to change the world one fat girl at a time."

The market has started to wake up to this sea change in demand. has launched a 'Curves' section. In Ireland, has run a Curvy Competition for the past three years to discover new plus-size modelling talent. The king of positive body image acceptance, Gok Wan, crowned last year's winner.'s commercial manager Brenda O'Sullivan says there is a demand for "fashionable clothes that weren't just exaggerated sizes but were tailored for the curvier lady". As for whether she believes high fashion has truly embraced the larger woman, O'Sullivan is adamant: "Absolutely not -- yet size 16 is the best-selling size in the market place."

It's a feeling echoed by Jules Fallon, co-owner of Irish model agency 1st Option, which supplies models for high-end designers. The demand for plus-size models has been growing so much that Jules has stepped in front of the camera herself in recent times.

"We are finding the demand is coming from all angles," says Fallon. "I think it's definitely changing."

Nonetheless, Fallon has just had a troubling experience sending some of her girls to model in the London Fashion Week.

"One of the girls had a 35.5-inch hip measurement and the agency refused to put her through, saying the absolute limit was a 35-inch hip," says Fallon. "In Spain, they check the Body Mass Index of the models in Madrid Fashion Week to make sure they are a healthy weight. London is just crazy."

The fashion industry appears to be singing from different hymn books from country to country.

A judge on Australia's Next Top Model says there is no market for plus-size models in Oz.

"We could have a plus-size model win the competition and she would end up doing catalogues for Target (department store)," says Charlotte Dawson.

Kristi Kuudisim, one of Ireland's most in-demand plus-size models, says she never even considered modelling as a career option until she moved here seven years ago.

"In Estonia, they just want skinny models." She claims there still are not very many plus-size models working consistently in Ireland but that she is getting busier by the year.

"I notice even the fashion magazines in the last six months have had bigger models in them. Six years ago, you wouldn't find one," says Kuudisim.

"I don't think it's a novelty -- but there are certain clothes that look better on skinny women. But there should be a market for both because there are some clothes that look better filled out."

Kuudisim rejects the notion that the use of plus-size models is normalising obesity. "A plus-size model is still a model," she insists. "You have to be toned. I don't sit on a couch doing nothing. I don't starve myself but I eat healthily and work out."

So the demand is there -- is it just a case if when, not if, the high-fashion industry gives in wholeheartedly to it?

Kuudisim says the nature of the work she is attracting is changing. "I'm being called to do a lot of editorial work (high-end magazine photoshoots)," she says. "That didn't happen before."

Jules Fallon thinks that magazines like Vogue, Glamour and V are "testing the water". There has been debate over the real value of highly publicised shoots carried by US Glamour and V when the plus-size models used are frequently depicted nude or semi-nude. Is this promoting the larger woman in the context of fashion, or simply fetishising their bodies?

Then there is the argument that what fashion considers plus-size ("anything from a size 10 or 12", says Kuudisim) is not so in the real world. 'Plus-size' model Lara Stone is a size eight, but because her body shape is not androgynous -- she has hips and breasts -- she is lauded as a poster girl for the fuller-figured woman.

"The likes of Vogue are not going to change overnight," says Jules Fallon.

"But I do think the day of heroin chic look is binned and gone. LA celebrities are a good watermark of where the industry is at. The 'lollipop ladies', heads bigger than their bodies, are disappearing. They are starting to change their attitudes that being skinny is not going to necessarily get you a job."

Whether the runway can be as fashion-forward is still up for debate.

The fashion and beauty industries' small steps towards accepting plus-size women ...

2004: As part of their 'Campaign for Real Beauty', Dove cosmetics' global survey finds that women "believe in a broader definition of beauty than the narrowly defined ideals most often portrayed in popular culture".

2006: Former celebrity stylist Gok Wan teaches 'real' women to be self-confident about their shape in his hit Channel 4 programme, How To Look Good Naked.

2007: US Glamour announces its 'First Annual Figure Flattery' issue in October and makes America Ferrera, star of Ugly Betty, its cover girl. Website Jezebel noted how trim Ferrera appeared as a cover girl in contrast to a shot of her taken at the Emmy Awards on the week the issue launched. Glamour insisted the cover picture had not been digitally slimmed.

2008: Whitney Thompson becomes the first plus-size contestant to win America's Next Top Model.

2009: German magazine Brigitte announces in November that it is to make its pages a "model-free zone", inviting "real people" to model for fashion pages.

2010: Designer Karl Lagerfeld shoots plus-size burlesque star Miss Dirty Martini for the February 'Size' edition of high-fashion US magazine V.

The 2010 advertising campaign for plus-size high-street store Evans arranges a bevy of plus-size models in an homage shoot to the famous 1990 cover for Vogue which featured supermodels Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford and Tatjana Patitz.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lie back and think of the lunch menu

The less-than-sexy truth about filming lurve scenes (from the Irish Independent's Review on Jan 30 last)...

Grab her thigh -- now
Sex scenes sizzle on screen but Neil Jordan says that filming them is embarrassing for all involved. SUSAN DALY talks to actors and directors about the passion-killing work that goes into faking it.

FILM directors can be very precious about their work. There is a reason why the ‘director’s cut’ tends to only make it as an added extra on DVD – only diehard fans can sit through their full, ass-numbing vision.

Neil Jordan, then, has gone against the grain by voluntarily cutting a lengthy sex scene involving Colin Farrell from his new movie Ondine. Far from shedding tears in the editing suite, Jordan was unsentimental about losing the scene. “Sex scenes are embarrassing for anyone involved,” he said.

Not all erotically-charged scenes are as disposable. The plot of Jordan’s Oscar-winning The Crying Game pivots around that scene of mind-bending nudity.

Back when the Hays Code confined Hollywood within a chastity belt of legislation, actors didn’t have to worry about preserving their modesty. Now that sexual matters can be depicted so much more freely on screen – the 1927 Code decried any kiss lasting over three seconds as “excessive” - love scenes are all in a day’s work for the actor.

Getting paid to lie naked with Johnny Depp sounds like a dream job. We, the audience, see beautiful people writhing in a symphony of slick limbs and soft lighting. Just out of frame, however, is the soundguy holding the boom mike, the make-up girl waiting to panstick the actors’ bottoms and the director yelling: ‘Grab his thigh – now!’

Actress Victoria Smurfit has acted out her fair share of love scenes in a career that has spanned TV dramas and movies from Cold Feet to The Beach. The reality of filming them, she says, is not sexy at all. “Usually by take three, I’m wondering what’s on the lunch menu,” she laughs.

“They can be awkward. You talk about it beforehand, who’s going to put what where, and you get on with the physical bit. Then you realise that you have lines to say – there’s the bloody dialogue to think about! It’s more like stuntwork than anything.”

Like any stunt, sex scenes are heavily choreographed. This has two purposes: so that the camera can be in the right place at the right time, and secondly, to make the actors feel more secure.

When actor James McAvoy spoke to me about kissing Angelina Jolie in the thriller Wanted – not as nice as “kissing someone you love” - he referred to the rather more steamy scene he shared with Keira Knightley in Atonement. It wasn’t fun, he said, but director Joe Wright made it easier by directing their every groan and grind.

“Joe was great because he set the boundaries very clearly. When you have boundaries you can totally go for it, you can get totally committed. Whereas if there are no boundaries, touching your hand to theirs might be too much, you know what I mean?
“You don’t want to get too into it, you don’t want to violate someone - and I don’t want to be violated either!”

As with McAvoy’s experience of having to cling precariously to a bookshelf while ravishing Knightley, not all actors are afforded the luxury of filming their sex scenes in a bed. A new Irish film, One Hundred Mornings, has an uncomfortable scene where two of the actors have a loveless tryst up against a tree. Actress Kelly Campbell is looking forward to the film getting an airing at the upcoming Jameson Dublin International Film Festival – it will certainly more enjoyable than filming that outdoor romp.

“Invariably, it’s always first thing in the morning when you film these scenes, it’s half-eight and you’re in the nip,” she says drolly. “My experience though is that directors are very respectful. Weeks before we shot the scene, we discussed it. I would approach it as a dancer would – you break it down into movements and look at it in a mechanical way.

“Conor (Horgan, the director) was very specific which was helpful. He would shout, ‘More vocal, less vocal, move your leg that way’, and it’s taken out of your hands and makes it easier.”

Campbell certainly had no trust issues during the making of another film she has just finished shooting. In Sensation, she has a sex scene with Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan and a good friend of hers in real life. The director is Tom Hall, who happens to be Campbell’s husband. Awkward, much?

“Because we have worked together and we are very clear cut about our relationships, it was actually easy,” says Campbell. “I had more of an advantage because the scene we shot was outside the intensity of the schedule. We did it two months after filming finished because we all agreed it was needed for the plot.”

Kate Winslet’s husband Sam Mendes was more squeamish when he directed his wife in Revolutionary Road with her old Titanic squeeze Leonardo di Caprio, apparently removing himself to another room to watch their love ‘action’ on a monitor. Victoria Smurfit also found that familiarity breeds embarrassment. “I once filmed a scene with a guy where his brother was the director,” she remembers.

“Every time the actor reached over to pick up his script, his brother saw a lot more than he probably ever wished to see. It was awkward. It can be fine sometimes just to meet someone for the first time, shake hands, on with the flesh-coloured pants and get on with it.”

This chimes with an anecdote recounted by actor Simon Callow about the practicalities of a on-screen “quickie” for his character in Shakespeare in Love. “The furniture was quickly adjusted and, like a couple of mating dogs, we leaped on each other, our orgasm hailed by the director shouting: ‘Cut!’ Great satisfaction all round, hands shaken, off we went… A typical one-night stand, in other words.”

Intimacy between the actors – whether familiar to each other – is almost a moot point when the fake lovers are surrounded by a film crew. Even a so-called ‘closed set’ can be crowded.

“You have to have a camera operator, a focus puller, a boom operator, and if the
camera is moving, you have a grip,” says Dubliner Dan O’Hara, who has just directed an episode of the risqué Channel 4 drama Skins, which returned to our screens this week.

“You could have someone from the costume department standing by with a dressing-gown. I had one scene which called for an actor get out of bed naked, and within the two seconds of me saying ‘Cut’ and coming out from behind the monitor, he had his boxers on.”

Victoria Smurfit’s first love scene was filmed in a bog – she has a clear memory of lying in the mud on her back, staring up at the soles of the electricians’ boots as they adjusted lights up in the trees overhead.

Daisy-shaped plasters for nipples, careful editing, nude-coloured thongs and spray-on perspiration: the sweating flesh we see on screen is a game of smoke and mirrors. Kelly Campbell says that most performers use a protective barrier: “Only the most gung ho actor will say, ‘Whatever’.” If you’re Marlon Brando, you might plump for underpants and Wellingtons. That’s what the star insisted on wearing while filming a sex scene with Stephanie Beacham in The Nightcomers in 1971, forcing the cameraman to keep calling ‘pants’ or ‘Wellington boots’ every time they came into shot.

And what about this for a passion-killer – the need to adhere to health and safety laws. When director Declan Recks was preparing a scene for sex-drugs-and-the-Midlands TV series Pure Mule, the art department had to get involved to make sure the kitchen table on which two characters were to have sex was reinforced so it wouldn’t collapse.

“And there’s definitely nothing sexy about it when you’re doing it on a concrete floor in a building site,” says Recks. “There is all the practical stuff to think of, that a pair of jeans aren’t so tight that when the scene calls for them to be ripped off that nothing else comes down too.”

Most directors are happy to do whatever it takes to limit the scope for embarrassment. While some A-list actors can afford to write no-nudity clauses into their contracts, most working actors have to trust the director to get them through sex scenes with minimal trauma.

“Most Irish actresses won’t reveal a nipple or part of, for television and I wouldn’t blame them in the least. It’s a small audience - and they’re not getting paid enough!” says Recks.

Booze, laughter and practical jokes are some of the tricks actors use to defuse the discomfort of a sex scene – although some admit that they enjoy it…

CHARLIZE THERON: Lesbian love scenes with Christina Ricci in Monster made Theron crack up on set. “We drove the sound guy bananas by giggling into his mike,” she said. “It was OK kissing Christina except for the dental implants I had to wear and
which sometimes came loose.”

KATE BOSWORTH: Superman actress Bosworth says can’t even remember filming a love scene in 21 with co-star Jim Sturgess. “We were both so drunk,” she said. The pair had downed shots of vodka to calm their nerves.

NAOMI WATTS: In We Don’t Live Here Anymore, Watts decided to lighten the mood during an outdoor romp with her co-star Mark Ruffalo. He explained: “We were up against the tree, completely naked, trying to act this scene in front of all the crew and cameras. And then Naomi, to ease the tension, had a fart maching going… Instant defuse.”

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: Knightley dispelled her nerves while filming The Duchess by laughing at her co-star Dominic Cooper. “The director did actually come over and said: ‘Come on, pull yourself together, this is serious work here’ but I could not help it – Dominic standing there in a skin-coloured nappy! It’s the most unsexy thing ever.”

ANGELINA JOLIE: Never one to shy away from a love scene, Jolie said filming with good friend Ethan Hawke in Taking Lives was the best. “The first few times he backed me against the wall we just burst out laughing. When it’s a friend it makes it more comfortable.”

EWAN McGREGOR: McGregor says he is comfortable with sex scenes. “I’m never aware of the crew – you shouldn’t be,” he said. “I could have a soundman lying under the bed and I wouldn’t notice him.”

SALMA HAYEK: Her stunning turn in Desperado made Hayek a Hollywood star – but she cried all the way through what were her first movie love scenes. “I nearly got fired. I cried throughout the love scene. That’s why you never see long pieces. It’s little pieces cut together. I didn’t want to be naked in front of a camera. The whole time, I’m thinking of my father and my brother seeing it.”

JOSH HARTNETT: The Sin City and Black Hawk Down star says that sometimes a male actor just can’t win… “The biggest problem is if you don’t get aroused then the woman is mad at you, and if you do get aroused the woman is mad at you!”
And… there’s always one:

HUGH GRANT: Grant may have had tongue firmly in cheek when he said that he has always enjoyed sex scenes. He elaborated: “The classic answer is, ‘Oh, it’s not sexy at all because there are so many technicians standing around’. But I’ve always found them extremely arousing.”

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Massacre

As another Valentine's Night draws to a close, I can be pleased with the knowledge that I did not add to the vomit-inducing hearts and flowers fluff in the features pages. Instead, I asked a few well-known Irish faces for their anecdotes about dating disasters and unfunny Valentines.
Nothing like a shot of schadenfruende to make the heart grow fonder...

From yesterday's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent:

VALENTINE’S DAY is a tough time to be heartbroken, single – or even to be in a relationship. The hearts-and-flowers expectations of the date can make the most practical person feel hard done by if they’re not being whisked off to Paris in a hot air balloon.
To make us all feel better, some well-known faces have been telling Weekend about their past dating disasters and worst Valentine’s Days. The path of true love rarely runs smooth….

VIP publisher MICHAEL O’DOHERTY remembers a terrible blind date who ended up blind drunk.
“About 10 years ago, a family member set me up on a blind date with a girl he worked with. She was sold to me as a doctor (promising...), tall and blonde (another box ticked...), and was funny, charming and without any obvious hang-ups (OK, I'm sold). We arranged to meet in a bar for one, before going to dinner.
She turned up 45 minutes late and, while pretty, was wearing Doc Martens and combats. She asked for a pint of Guinness and, 15 minutes later, another one. When I reminded her about dinner, she suggested one for the road.
An hour and a half, and four pints later, she suggested we skip dinner, and go to a concert in the Sugar Club. Once there, she raced to the bar, ordered two cocktails, sat down with me for 30 seconds, and then announced “I need to dance”. She ran (alone) to the dance floor, and started dancing with the first guy she saw.
Then I did something I'm not proud of - I walked out without even saying goodbye. I never saw her again, nor did I ever go on a blind date again. I'm guessing she married a publican.”

Novelist NIAMH GREENE on her romantic break from hell.
“My husband , then boyfriend, took me to County Cork as a Valentine’s surprise years ago. We were both poor students at the time and he had saved for ages to pay for it so it was a very special occasion.
Things didn’t start well when we were given the smallest, grottiest room in the place – it felt no bigger than the broom cupboard and the bedclothes looked suspiciously rumpled. There was one grimy window (with iron bars in case we felt inclined to try to escape).
Dinner was included in the stay - as was half a bottle of house white - but the dining room was strangely empty. We were practically the only people there. I began to realise why when the meal was slapped in front of us by a scowling waitress who clearly felt very underwhelmed by her job.
We tried to enjoy it, despite her fierce attitude and the terrible food (prawn cocktail, chicken or ham, trifle). But then I found a long black hair resting under my grey looking ham and I lost my appetite somewhat.
I didn’t say anything though; I was far too scared what the waitress might do to me.
We persevered and tried to feel romantic, but the last straw was when she plonked herself across from us, emptied her tip jar and proceeded to count out the coins one by one, muttering about tight-fisted diners all the while. We finally admitted defeat when she began stacking chairs onto the tables around us. It was still only nine o’clock.
Even though it was such a disaster, we were hysterical with laughter about it afterwards, even when we discovered the bath had a scummy soap ring round it and a previous guest had left countless used tissues in the bedside locker. The experience proved what I already knew – there was no-one else in the world I’d rather be with, through thick or thin. Twenty odd years later I still feel exactly the same way.”

Broadcaster and All-Ireland Talent Show judge JOHN CREEDON knows what it is to suffer for love – his first date combined public humiliation, walking 16 miles in the dark and getting bitten by a dog.
“My very first date was a complete Valentine’s Day disaster. I was a young fella, 16 or 17, down in west Cork and I really, really fancied this girl I met at a disco in the town. Well, it was a bit of a makeshift disco but they did have those UV lights that were new at the time. So I asked her to meet me again the following night, which was Valentine’s, at the same place.
I was so excited, looking forward to my hot date. I had my groovy pair of monkey boots on – they were the precursors to Doc Martens – and I thought I was the coolest thing ever. The sole had come away from the upper, so before I went out I found some Bostik glue in my aunt’s kitchen and lathered that all over it. I was all set.
I waited and waited outside the ‘disco’ until I thought I had been stood up. She finally approached me and said: ‘John, how are you?’ I hadn’t recognised her at all – I thought she had freckles and really white teeth from what I’d seen the night before. Obviously I wasn’t used to that ultra-violet effect!
So that didn’t impress her and when we got inside, it went pear-shaped altogether. I started dancing around until not only she was looking at me but half the dancefloor. The Bostik was luminous under the UV light and I had a giant glowing foot. I looked like my leg was radioactive.
To top it off, my cousin was due to give me a lift back from the disco in Castletownbere to my aunt and uncle’s in Adrigole but I missed him. I had to walk 16 miles home on a freezing February night. And then I got bitten by a dog on the walk home. I got back at 7.30am and I’ve never been so glad to see my bed.”

Weather and Lotto presenter NUALA CAREY was once offered a romantic weekend away – but ended up on a hen night instead.
“My birthday falls around Christmas so it’s bad news for guys – it can be hard enough thinking up one present, never mind two. So this one Christmas, the guy I had been with for a good while covered all bases with a message in my Christmas card that he would treat us to a weekend away in the new year.
That was fine, but things hadn’t been going terribly well. As time ticked on, I felt the relationship was doomed and I think he probably did to. So in the end, I said straight out to him, ‘Look, I don’t think I can fit in a weekend away at the moment, so just give me the money instead and I’ll treat myself.’
He gave me e200 so he got a bit of bargain really – that wouldn’t have covered a weekend in Paris! In fact, I think I went away on someone’s hen weekend with it in the end. I know it sounds terrible, but I think it worked out better than us going away and being miserable together.
Sometimes it’s not about the big gestures. If we stopped for petrol and a guy went in to pay and came out of the garage shop with a bar of my favourite chocolate, I’d be just as touched and impressed.”

COLM LIDDY knows something about marriage - his book, I Love You, But… 40 Fights Between Husbands and Wives, has just been published as a Penguin paperback – but says romance is hard to make room for when you’re married with kids…
“Here’s how Valentine’s Day goes for my wife and I: We kick off with an attempt at breakfast in bed. Within minutes, we have several other little bodies – our smallest is two – jumping in with us, so it’s all about putting extra milk in the tea to avoid second-degree scalding.
My wife would be very of the school of ‘Now, don’t be getting me anything,’ but wait until the bouquets of flowers start arriving for everyone else in work… Ignore what she says and get a gift.
After work, where you’ve obviously sent her the contents of an Interflora van, you might want to make preparations for going out for a romantic dinner. If you haven’t got a babysitter already arranged, forget about it. If you have, the wife will want to tidy the house before she gets ready to go out in case the babysitter might see the place looking untidy.
Once the babysitter arrives, they are on the clock and you still have to get ready after all the tidying. Then there’s the drive to make the dinner reservation on time, and the wife getting stressed because you’re driving too fast and you tell her men have superior eye to hand co-ordination and anyway 99 per cent of accidents happen to other people.
After you’ve had a dinner served by waiters who didn’t want to be rostered for this night and driven home quickly again to let the babysitter off, you’re about to hit the sack, exhausted. Until the three-year-old needs to go to the toilet because the babysitter didn’t make her go before she went to bed. Yes, that’s a fairly typical Valentine’s.”

Young novelist RUTH GILLIGAN found that you need a good sense of humour to cope with the dating scene in America, where she is currently in college.
“I was on my first date with this guy and it hadn’t been great, so I was happy when we finished dinner. But when we came out of the restaurant, we couldn’t remember where the car was parked. I had had a couple of glasses of wine, so I definitely wasn’t sure and he was really embarrassed.
After a good half hour walking up and down the neighbouring streets, he decided to ring the car pound and sure enough – it had been towed. To make matters worse, he had only brought cash for the meal and didn’t even have a credit card on him, so I had to pay to get the car released.
I could see the funny side of it, but sadly, Americans don’t have quite the same sense of humour at times and he took himself very seriously. We left the restaurant at ten and it took the guts of two hours to locate the car and get it back. By the time midnight came, I had most certainly turned into a pumpkin.”

PADDY POWER of the bookmakers Paddy Power saved up for the grand romantic gesture but it was lost on his Valentine’s date.
“I was only in college and saved up for a couple of months to buy my girlfriend a Russian wedding ring. It was 45 quid at the time which was really expensive for me. I was so excited, it was my first time buying a piece of jewellery for a girl.
So we went out for dinner on Valentine’s night and it was all going well until the subject of jewellery came up. She mentioned that she thought giving someone a ring could be really presumptuous – and all the while, there I was with this ring burning a hole in my pocket.
I had also organised that the chef would come out and give Jane – that was her name – a rose. The guy came out alright, handed her the rose and said, ‘Happy Valentine’s Day… Lisa’. At that stage, there was nothing for it but to give her the ring. She was so embarrassed that she almost ran away and I went home and told my mum what had happened.
Still, Jane did later become my wife – although she had to wait about ten years before I offered her a ring again.”

Model RUTH O’NEILL was dreading Valentine’s Day after breaking up with her first boyfriend – until her dad became her knight in shining armour.
“There’s only one Valentine’s that sticks out in my mind. I was 18 and I had just broken up with my first real boyfriend in middle of studying for my Leaving Cert mocks. I was completely devastated – life was just awful and Valentine’s Day was going to be awful, as far as I was concerned. I couldn’t eat in the week running up to it, I felt so heartbroken.
Then on the day itself, I went with my dad who wanted to look around a car salesyard. Very romantic. And then my dad just turned around and bought me a Mini-Cooper car. I jumped on top of him, I was so excited. Now this was the height of the boom – around 2006 – so don’t think this would happen every year. But my dad has always been one to buy my sister and I heart-shaped boxes of chocs every year. He was my knight in shining armour that year – although he rode in a black Mini, not a white horse!”
-As told to SUSAN DALY

Firth Class

Lucky, lucky me - I got to admire Colin Firth in a Tom Ford suit a day before his Oscar nomination for A Single Man was announced...

Here is how that goes (with a bonus side helping of Nicholas Hoult)

By Susan Daly

Friday February 12 2010

Men just don't get Colin Firth. Tell people you are going to interview the star of Bridget Jones's Diary, Mamma Mia! -- and now Tom Ford's A Single Man -- and you get two reactions. The women squeal in excitement and the men sigh with boredom. (One male gay friend squealed and sighed.)

Neither reaction does Firth justice. True, he still cuts a fine dash in a black Tom Ford suit, white shirt opened a few temperature-raising buttons. "Why would I dream of wearing anything else?" he says pithily. "I even put it on for my phone interviews."

It was another white shirt that branded Firth as the quintessential English posh totty. In the BBC's 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice, his Mr Darcy dived into a lake in order to cool his desire for Lizzy Bennett. The image of Firth emerging, linen shirt clinging to his manly torso, was seared into the brains of a generation of women.

But teetering on the edge of 50, his career has progressed beyond the damp-shirt school of acting -- even if both his detractors and his most ardent fans have yet to acknowledge it. Twelve hours after he sits in his sharp suit in a London hotel, animatedly describing his love for the character he plays in A Single Man, he will be shortlisted for Best Actor at this year's Academy Awards.

He deserves it for the intensely moving performance he gives as George, a gay English professor in 60s LA, thrown into suicidal grief by the death of his long-term lover. His particular brand of restraint, which has in the past been read as him being uptight, is pitch-perfect for the neurotic, middle-aged George.

Firth is aged in the movie by his severe dark-rimmed glasses, rigidly Brylcreemed hair and the pallor of grief. Yet he is not strait-jacketed by George's need for order and compulsion for neatness. (In one tragic-comic scene, he lines out all the paraphernalia for his suicide and funeral at perfect right angles on his dining table.)

Designer-cum-director Ford allows his camera to hold steadily on Firth's face because he has such amazing nuance of expression. When George receives the phone call that tells him his lover is dead, the camera stays utterly focused on him long after the call has ended. George doesn't need to punch a wall to convey his distress -- it's all written there in Firth's eyes and the crumpling of his face.

"A lot of people talk about the phonecall," says Firth. "Tom was so courageous and patient about letting that take its course ... I put the phone down, and Tom didn't say, 'Cut'. I stayed there until the magazine ran out and I said, 'Okay, how's that?'" He found Ford and the others in the next room, looking at the monitor and passing around the Kleenex. They shot the scene three times, Ford allowing the magazine of film to run out each time.

The film was shot in 21 days but Firth credits first-time director Ford for giving him plenty of creative space. "Tom creates the illusion that you've got all the time in the world," says Firth.

The sad truth is that Firth has been giving nuanced performances like this -- the type that wins awards -- for a long time, but not always in well-known films. Films such as Tumbledown, as far back as 1988, where he played a Falklands soldier who is brain-damaged by a sniper's bullet; or as poet Blake Morrison in And When Did You Last See Your Father (2007).

He has said that he feels he has "done work I've been proud of in films I'm not particularly proud of". Which might explain his appearances in the St Trinian films or even in Mamma Mia!

"That wasn't really your festival nomination film, although it did get some," he says. "And in some ways I think that's just snobbery. We can argue about the qualities of Mamma Mia! but I think it's a superbly made film that's been designed to look like it's been thrown together in an awkward way."

He laughs at the idea that it's one big karaoke hitmaker -- "the boys can't sing, I accept that" -- but defends it to the last. The common perception of him as a gentlemanly type is not unjustified.

He is not, however, all buttoned-up Englishness. We learned that when he agreed to send up his role as the definitive Mr Darcy by playing his parody, Mark Darcy, in Bridget Jones' Diary.

He's also quick to crack a joke, often at his own expense. I wonder if he has adopted some of George's obsessive habits and started ironing his socks. "I wished I could go to a drawer and see all those shirts like that, everything starched and prepared, but it's not me. I just couldn't keep it up," he laughs. When told that Pierce Brosnan has recently said he doesn't think there will be a Mamma Mia! sequel, he feigns surprise and quips: "Oh he nixed it, did he? No, he's going to need the work."

While he might be a fantasy figure for many women -- a scene in A Single Man in which he and young Nicholas Hoult (of About A Boy and Skins) take a skinny dip in the sea will not disappoint -- I'm reminded that he's someone's dad. As I leave to let Firth get ready for the London premiere of the film that night, one of the PR people mentions that his teenage son had just arrived at the suite. "That must be weird," she says, "seeing your dad with the kid from Skins!"

His partners of choice have not been traditional English roses. Although he had a relationship with his Pride and Prejudice co-star Jennifer Ehle for a time, his first son was with the Canadian actress Meg Tilly. He has been married for 14 years now to Italian film producer Livia Giuggioli, with whom he has two more sons. When Firth won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival last year, he made his acceptance speech in the local lingo. The English everyman is actually pretty cosmopolitan.

"Venice was in some ways the best moment," he says, "because there was no buzz, there was no talk about the film at that stage. My wife's Italian, it was a big moment in lots of ways -- and we showed this film for the first time and it got lots of warmth. I remember thinking, 'it can't feel better than this really'. Everything else is just gravy really."

A day later, he was in the running for an Oscar.

Welcome to the feast, Mr Firth.
Friday February 12 2010

Nicholas Hoult is very young to have already staged a career comeback. In A Single Man, he plays a college student, Kenny, who both intrigues Colin Firth's character and is, in turn, intrigued by him. Tall, tanned and beautiful, Hoult catches the eye from the moment he appears on screen in -- of all things -- a mohair jumper.

He is all but unrecognisable from the last role that required him to pull off a silly jumper. Nine years ago, he played a nerdy 12-year-old who makes an unwilling surrogate dad of Hugh Grant in About A Boy. Back then, he was all bobble hats and unruly hair. Now he's got ridiculously high cheekbones, a full-lipped pout and a proper Hollywood buzz around him.

"It was odd seeing this film for the first time," he says, "because I'm spray-tanned, have Beatles' 60s-ish hair, and dressed in white head to toe a bit like a guardian angel." Today, dressed to attend the London premiere of A Single Man, the tan has worn off, but he's still very impressive in tailored trousers (Tom Ford, of course), shirt and some very shiny cufflinks.

"I suppose I did things in between that weren't commercially successful and people didn't see me, so it might have looked like I came out of nowhere," he says hesitantly. "I think my change in appearance has been part of the reason -- everyone changes a little bit -- but it was like I was making a comeback."

Hoult, just turned 21, might be the fresh new thing in Hollywood -- his next job is a part in Mad Max 4. But his reincarnation from dorky kid to sex symbol came a little earlier for Irish and British audiences. Four years ago, when Hoult was 17, he headed up the cast of Channel 4's edgy teen drama, Skins. Hoult left school early to play Tony Stonem, the brazenly raunchy lead man of the group, for two years.

"He'd been as manipulative and as much of an arsehole as he could be in the first series and then did the most random things ever, then he got hit by a bus, and came back. So I think they had explored everything possible there!" he laughs.

TV drama's loss looks likely to be the big screen's gain. Hoult has been acting since he was three, even though his parents -- a piano teacher mum, a British Airways pilot dad -- had nothing to do with drama. "My older brother wanted to do acting first, my older sister did a lot of singing and dancing -- she's now on tour with Joseph. My younger sister's still in school, bless her. We've all kind of got into it by following my brother's footsteps," he explains with a shrug.

Despite his youthful blasé, he does admit it would be "the most annoying thing in the world" if he was to be typecast as a pretty boy, especially when he feels his new character Kenny is more than the sum of his perfect smile and bare torso. "He's a complex character trying to understand himself and the world around him, but he's a sweet guy," says Hoult. "He's got a powerful predatory side to him at the same time. I think people will see parts of that and not just see a suntanned kid."

Hoult's mum rings. There's some confusion over a car which is to bring his parents -- with whom he still lives in Berkshire -- to the hotel.

"Sorry, sorry," he blushes as he turns off the phone. Later still, he giggles when he says biology was one of his favourite subjects in school.

There's a bit of The Boy in there yet.

Harry Potter and the Dead Ringers

My books essay in the Independent's Review this weekend:

As the film of the Percy Jackson novel 'The Lightning Thief' opens this weekend, Susan Daly reports on the rush to emulate JK Rowling's spell-binding success

Does the name Tanya Grotter ring a bell? She's an 11-year-old orphan who attends the Abracadabra school of witchcraft and rides a magical double-bass in a bestselling series of Russian children's books. Next door in Belarus, they have Porri Gatter and the Stone Philosopher.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, author JK Rowling must be beside herself with pride. The outlandish success of her creation Harry Potter -- 400 million books sold worldwide and counting -- has spawned a predictable number of imitators.

Some claim to be parodies. This is clearly the case with Barry Trotter and the Shameless Parody by American humorist Michael Gerber, which features some very adult behaviour at the Hogwash School of Wizardry and Witchcrap.

Some, however, tread a very fine line between parody and plagiarism. Tanya Grotter has been slapped with a cease-and-desist order by Rowling's lawyers and its publication in English is prohibited. There are unashamedly brazen rip-offs: In 2002, a book called Harry Potter and the Leopard Walk Up To Dragon appeared in China, purporting to be the fifth instalment in the series. Tiny problem: Rowling was still at home in Scotland beavering away on the real fifth book at the time.

Suspicions were also raised by the plot, which hinged on a shower of sweet-and-sour flavoured rain turning Harry into a hobbit.

While not all 'homages' to Rowling's fiction have been quite so bonkers, there has been a rush to emulate her billion-dollar success. Much as record labels like to mould and market new performers as the next Beyonce or this generation's Bob Dylan, book publishers are constantly scouting for the 'next' Harry Potter.

Percy Jackson is the current contender for the tween fiction throne. Like Harry, Percy is an ordinary young boy who discovers he has extraordinary powers. Like Harry, he struggles with life in the 'real' world. He suffers from dyslexia and ADHD and thinks he's a loser -- until he finds out his father is the ancient Greek god Poseidon.

The Percy Jackson books have been huge sellers from the moment US author Rick Riordan sold them to a publisher in 2005, two years before Rowling wrote her seventh and final Potter instalment. There are some clear intersections between Percy's world and Harry's -- both boys attend magic schools: Hogwarts and Camp Half-Blood; and Percy has his own Ron and Hermione sidekicks in the shape of Grover and Annabeth.

Movie bosses, encouraged by the success of the Harry Potter movies, were not slow to greenlight a screen version of Percy Jackson and The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. It opens in Ireland this weekend -- a fact that will already have been drummed into you if you are the proud owner of a child aged anywhere between eight and 13.

At the helm of the movie (as is very clearly stated on the promotional posters) is two-time Harry Potter director Chris Columbus. He says he recognises there are "similarities" between Percy and the more famous boy wizard. "We would be fools not to hope for the same kind of audience."

Indeed they would. The six Harry Potter films so far have raked in $5.4bn at the box office -- the final two instalments, to be released at the end of this year and the start of 2011, are expected to continue the cash-in.

Percy author Riordan readily admits that Rowling was an influence and that he "took some lessons" from her ability to blend fantasy, humour, thrills and character. Riordan draws on a lot of personal inspiration that can't be attributed to Rowling -- he began writing Percy Jackson to comfort his own son Haley, who is also dyslexic and has ADHD.

He adds that while Percy is like Harry in many ways, it is not because he is modelled on him. "It's because they are both models of the same archetype," he says, "A lot of what JK Rowling does so well is drawn from Greek mythology."

Yet even Riordan admits that without Harry Potter, he may never have got published. "It [HP] made publishers aware there was a market for children's literature," he says.

Not just any old children's literature though.

Since the first Potter book hit the stands in 1997, there has been a surge in publishers and authors latching on to the fantasy novel. The question could be asked: What first attracted you to the genre that made JK Rowling a billionaire?

None of these authors has come close to sniffing the level of success or critical acclaim of the Potter books. Riordan's books have sold over six million copies -- very respectable, but only a fraction of Rowling's worldwide sales. The trumpets were previously out for The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black, which first appeared in 2003. It too spawned a film, starring young Irish actress Sarah Bolger, which has almost doubled the return on its $90m budget, but earned nothing close to what the average Harry Potter film would have made.

The Shadowmancer series by GP Taylor; the Wolf Brother books by Michelle Paver; Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy; Alison Goodman's Eon series -- all fine books set in the realm of children's fantasy; none reaching the dizzy heights of Harry on his magic broomstick.

Riordan thinks it's foolish to call anyone a rival to Harry Potter. A former teacher, he says: "I had students who read these books 13, 14 times and I would say, 'Great book, but don't you want to try something else?' And they would say, 'There's nothing else this good.'

"There is no 'next' Harry Potter. There never was a Harry Potter before Harry Potter. It's completely unprecedented in children's literature."

It's a thought echoed by Darren Shan, Irish author of the very successful Cirque du Freak children's horror series.

Addressing young fans on his blog last Sunday, Shan remarked that "while success in any field breeds imitators and copycats" and many of these do well, "you just don't get the same buzz if you read a book about a school for wizards that was written to cash-in on the success of the HP novels."

Shan is absolutely correct. Ironically enough, his own fiction holds a key to the trend that is overtaking young adult fiction as fans of the boy wizard grow up and away. Shan's fantasy world has been populated by vampires and demons since he published his first kids' book in 2000 (he has sold 15 million copies worldwide).

Five years later, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series came along, selling 85 million copies and proving that the sexy teen vampire is taking a real bite of the competition.

Irish Independent

The Terrific Travels of Charlie and George

Charlie Bird and George Lee have been having it tough these past few months - by their own account anyhow. Listening to them whine about life outside Montrose is dispiriting to this journalist who remembers being in awe of them at the ESB Media Awards a decade ago. I was nominated for a colour writing award (and seated at a table with a medical monthly and a agricultural pamphlet, I had a fair idea I shouldn't worry too much about having to make a speech, sit back and enjoy the free dinner). George and Charlie, though, were the real deal and were honoured for their investigative journalism in breaking the NIB tax evasion scandal. Charlie's speech went something along the lines of "We were warned off this story but we are not anybody's typewriters..."
Oh Charlie, what has it come to?

My op-ed in the midweek Herald went a little something like this...

The crèche in RTE is apparently a very fine facility. No doubt it will shortly be taking delivery of a batch of the hotly-tipped children’s bestseller, The Terrific Travels of Charlie and George.

Through the medium of nursery rhyme, this listen-and-learn tome will prepare the offspring of RTE staffers for life within the Montrose family.
“This little boy went to Washington; this boy went to the polls; both little boys went ‘Wah! Wah! Wah!’ – all the way home to D4.”
Don’t bother trying to pre-order Charlie and George at your local bookshop: it has a very limited run and the small print is illegible to anyone outside Donnybrook.

Here’s how the world works for the rest of us: we jack in our jobs to go adventuring, we get a P45. When George Lee decided to run for the Dail so he’d have something to tell the grandkids, he got a guarantee that a job would be still there for him in RTE twelve months later. When Charlie Bird harrumphed that he’d had enough of Washington, he was told to come home early out of the cold.

Why wouldn’t you want to return to an employer like that? The very notion that Lee and Bird are some sort of maverick risk-takers is laughable. RTE all but sewed their mittens onto a piece of string and threaded it through the armholes of their duffle coats before sending them out to play.

They didn’t have to be called in for their dinner. Homesick Charlie has returned over two years early from a four-year post. George spent nine months on the job for Fine Gael. That’s just long enough for him to have kittens over not being treated in the manner to which he had been accustomed.

There is a case to be made for sympathising with Curious George. He looked beyond his role as economics editor at the State broadcaster and thought he could see a different future. (Albeit with RTE standing nervously on the shore, ready to chuck a lifebuoy at him if the waters got choppy).

He couldn’t hack a single winter of discontent. I don’t know if he was being intentionally hilarious when he complained to Pat Kenny on Frontline that he was frustrated that most TDs were “institutionalised” by the comforts and cosiness of life in the Dail. It certainly gave me a laugh. Is there not plenty of opportunity to become institutionalised by the fine renumeration, facilities and jobs-for-life at RTE? I’d be only delighted to be incarcerated in that golden a cage.

There’s no suggestion of a timeout in the sin bin. Lee has been touted for the seat in Washington newly vacated by Bird. In any case, he’ll return to his full salary of around e150,000 which should keep him warm until he gets out of the decontamination zone.

Bird has already laid out his own welcome mat in the documentary about his ill-fated year in the US. “I’ll be back in Dublin, I’ll be walking around and I’ll go back to doing the job I was doing before I left,” he said. Brave little soldier.

Why wouldn’t they expect to be allowed to come home to Mammy Montrose with the minimal of consequences? RTE looks after family, see. That devotion to family saw Charlie Bird miss out on the major US story of last year: the sudden death of Michael Jackson. He was in Dublin at the time, all over the rather more important job of toasting George Lee as he went off to dip his toe into politics.

It still seems scarcely believable that Charlie Bird admitted in public that he couldn’t cope with the Washington job. I don’t need to tell a man who – along with Lee – broke the tax evasion scandal at NIB in the late ’90s that journalism is all about making contacts.

So why did he admit that he essentially felt past the point of being able to do that? More to the point, why did RTE think showcasing his inadequacies in a TV two-parter was a good idea?

A much sterner mother would have said to them both, ‘Climb that tree if you want but if you fall and break both your legs, don’t come running to me.”

The prodigal sons may not know when exactly they are coming back to RTE, or to exactly what role. But no doubt they are looking forward to regaling their wide-eyed colleagues with tales of how awful it is in the world outside Montrose over cups of subsidised tea.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Brand Bramy - not

For the weekend that was in it, an' all... (oh yes, that obviously isn't Amy on the bike in the picture to the left...)

Building brand Bramy
The Irish Posh and Becks? Unlikely, says Susan Daly, who looks at the country's favourite celebrity couple and why you won't find this down-to-earth pair sitting on thrones at their wedding or selling the pictures to the press

Saturday February 06 2010

Waiting in line at the credit union is rarely a glamorous gig. Unless, of course, one is lucky enough to be in the mystery branch that has Brian O'Driscoll as a member.

The current TV ad campaign for the League of Credit Unions shows the Ireland rugby captain rocking up to this unnamed branch to do a bit of business. Perhaps he's got a regular saver account. For the summer wedding to Amy, like.

He's relaxed, he's smiling. Everyone greets him by name as he makes his way to the counter. "Hi Brian! Hi Brian! Hi Brian!" A pat on the shoulder here, a mock-salute there. A baby in a buggy wears a T-shirt that reads 'Yo Brian!'

Then the flirty cashier makes a joke as he presents her with his credit union book.

"Hello Ronan," she smirks, by the way mistaking him for his Ireland team-mate Ronan O'Gara. He shoots back with his own famous smirk. He knows that she knows who he is. Everyone knows Brand BoD.

Has life ever been better for Brian O'Driscoll? Ireland's Six Nations test against Italy in Croke Park today is a year removed from their Grand Slam victory but, for the fans, it might as well have been yesterday. In BoD we still trust.

On a personal level, the best is yet to come for O'Driscoll -- he and actress Amy Huberman will hold their wedding celebration in Lough Rynn Castle, Co Leitrim, in July.

This past year has been the couple's most high-profile ever. He, at the zenith of sporting heroism, his selling power -- he has endorsed major brands such as Gillette, Lexus, O2 and Adidas -- increasing incrementally; she, the actress-turned-chick-lit-author who scored three weeks at the top of the Irish bestseller list with her debut novel Hello, Heartbreak.

Huberman's power to be a publicity magnet has grown -- notwithstanding the news that The Clinic has been axed from RTE schedules, and with it her most famous acting role so far as Daisy O'Callaghan.

Her part in the RTE2 comedy sketch show Your Bad Self, for instance, was greatly talked up in the run-up promotion for the series, although she doesn't feature as prominently as the publicity would suggest. The same was true of her role in A Film With Me In It, in which her character dies early on in the plot. She does, however, have a lead role in a new low-budget Irish film called Redux.

So, while she might not be world-famous, Huberman is clearly in orbit in Ireland's miniature galaxy of household names. If she fetched up at your local credit union, you'd definitely twig who she was.

Is this enough to make O'Driscoll and Huberman a very Irish version of Posh and Becks? Clearly, the comparison is ludicrous in terms of cash and global influence. David Beckham might not be the world's best soccer player, but he may well be the most recognisable. Conversely, Brian O'Driscoll may be the best rugby centre in the world, but Japanese schoolgirls aren't covering their pencil cases with photographs of his rippling torso (much to BoD's relief, no doubt).

The Beckhams are worth just under €150m. According to accounts filed at the Companies' Office, O'Driscoll raked in around €400,000 in endorsements in 2008. Even taking into account his increased earnings in the wake of the Grand Slam win, and Amy's tax-free royalties from the sales of Hello, Heartbreak, there's a way to go before they are in La La Lolly Land with the Beckhams.

Their credibility as a couple to admire, and a relationship to aspire to, is a different matter. With Posh and Becks, there seems to be a trade-off of power. Victoria stands by David during reports of an affair and sextexts with his PA; David's global reputation continues to give Victoria the profile she craves. Whatever happens behind closed doors, their public persona as a couple has the whiff of greenbacks about it.

There isn't that cynicism in Brian and Amy's union. There is a sense of mutual support that isn't just staged for the cameras. Amy's book launch last year was a case in point. No one is pretending that her link to Captain Fantastic hasn't boosted her marketability.

As Amy has admitted, before she met Brian, "I didn't have his profile. Apart from people who would watch The Clinic, people wouldn't know who you are or particularly care. As soon as I started going out with Brian, there were people suddenly saying, 'Oh, we would like to invite you'."

The launch itself though, in the Sycamore Club in Temple Bar, was relatively modest. Friends and family far outnumbered Z-list personalities and hangers-on. Brian, although he posed for a few snaps early on in the night, faded carefully back to a table in the corner to drink bottles of beer and hold on to Amy's black clutch bag as she gave quotes to a few showbiz diarists.

By the time I left the place later that night, the couple were sitting together in the corner laughing with a few friends. If they have plans for world domination by milking public interest in their relationship, they're going to have to do better than that. Stage a few rows on the street. Arrange a photospread with VIP: Brian and Amy in Their Lovely Clonskeagh Home. Be less normal.

As it is, they have sworn not to be pictured on matching thrones to pay for their summer nuptials. "We've been asked about OK! magazine," said Amy, "and we're like, 'Nobody knows us over there, why would they care?'"

It's a pretty typical comment from straight-talking Amy. When she was nominated for a best supporting actress award at last year's IFTAs, she attended the Valentine's Day bash on her dad's arm because Brian was away playing for Ireland in Rome. Amy's cheerful reaction was: "I'm sure he'll make it up to me when he comes back."

Their wedding plans follow the same unobtrusive lines as their engagement. Brian apparently spelled out the proposal in rose petals at their home the day after they had Amy's 30th birthday party there. The only bit of bling about the affair was her €30,000 engagement ring.

Brian told me in an interview for Weekend that he wouldn't tell exactly how he proposed because "in a world where I don't have many secrets any more, there has to be something sacred. That's between myself and Amy". They did, however, pose for photographers on the street, and were then left alone.

This new relaxed approach to being in the public eye is the key to their positive image. Give a little and keep the rest private.

It works better than the modus operandi they employed at the beginning of the relationship in 2006. The couple seemed to go to farcical lengths to avoid being photographed together. Amy later claimed it wasn't meant to turn into a game of cat-and-mouse with the paparazzi. "Brian's way of being really uncomfortable is to go 'Let's get out of here', and he usually marches so fast and I'm usually laughing behind him or looking incredibly uncomfortable," she said last year.

You could interpret Brian's discomfort as a hangover from the heady days of his relationship with model Glenda Gilson. He admitted in our interview that he was mortified by his acceptance of an Ireland's Sexiest Man award -- presented by Glenda. "Cringey" was the word he used. He got "involved in pictures I didn't want to be involved in ... going to an event maybe I shouldn't have".

Being "sucked into" the social pages wasn't good for his athlete's image -- but then this was his 20s, a time of rebellion expressed by his constantly changing hairdos, and yes, perhaps, the model girlfriend.

But it would be disingenuous of him to suggest that it was just his choice of girlfriend which shone the spotlight on him. It had been switched on for some time. In 2000, when he scored his stunning hat-trick for Ireland in the Six Nations in Paris, he made an obtuse signal to the TV cameras. It was interpreted as a secret sign to his long-term girlfriend at home, Suzanne Meenan.

The resulting fuss in the papers was silly and short-lived, but it showed that Brian O'Driscoll was no longer a guy from Clontarf going out with Suzanne, a girl from Donnybrook. He was being touted as the future of Irish rugby and it was his first lesson in what happens when you draw attention to your life off the pitch.

It's taken him 10 years to get to a point where he doesn't care what people think. Amy might have come along at the right time, but she's also the right one.

She's also in her 30s and has lived a little. She visited Auschwitz with her Jewish father a few years back -- knowing that her paternal grandfather was lucky to have left Poland for England in the early 20th century must have afforded her a greater perspective on the business of life than most of us are lucky to have.

She went to Loreto college in Foxrock, but "she's not one of those inane, orange-skinned girls who inhabit that world of minor celebrity", said A Film With Me In It director Ian Fitzgibbon, "she's a smart actress with her head screwed on. She knows exactly what she's at."

If her raised profile brings her a few perks -- such as a free Fiat 500 for being their girl-about-town ambassador or West Coast Cooler Rosé providing free gargle for her book launch -- well, it's not like she's asking Prada to dress her for the IFTAs.

It's unlikely we'll see them producing his 'n' hers perfume in the style of Posh and Becks. Nice and Nicer eau de parfum, anyone? And, let's face it, that 'Bramy' tag never really took off.

But perhaps the Irish League of Credit Unions could get added value by writing a new ad to feature them both. Brian is sauntering to the counter when Amy rushes in and rugby tackles him to the ground. "So glad I caught you," she'll gasp, handing him a blue plastic wallet, "You forgot your lodgement book, babes."

Brian and Amy might be in the running for Ireland's golden couple, but these twosomes have already marked their territory in the power couple stakes:

The newbies: Katy Perry kissed a girl and liked it, but she likes her brazen English funnyman Russell Brand more. Brand's been fired from MTV and the BBC, but keeps bouncing back. Now they are getting married after a whirlwind romance -- expect a saucy vicar at the ceremony and the bride's suspenders to be entirely visible.

The hip-hop royalty: Jay-Z and Beyoncé were already two of the biggest names in the music biz. When they came together in 2008, it was a match made in branding heaven.

The first couple: US Presidential pair Barack and Michelle are frequently caught embracing in the corridors of the White House and go on 'date' nights to keep their marriage healthy under extremely stressful circumstances. When they danced to Beyoncé's version of At Last at his inauguration, TV viewers around the globe felt as if they were guests at a wedding.

The bold and beautiful: Hollywood's finest set of his 'n' hers square jaws came together as many movie couples do -- after Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt fell in love on set. They may have split up, but they were the most talked-about couple in the world.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What have the Swedes ever done for us?

From today's Evening Herald

By Susan Daly

Well, that's just charming. The Swedish embassy is pulling out of Ireland - and breaks the news with Valentine's Day looming.

I know we've let ourselves go a bit recently. We're stony broke, heading for obesity and yes, we're still a bit too fond of the drink. We haven't been doing all that well at the Eurovision these past few years -- and God knows the Swedes love a catchy pop hook.

It's a bit cold-hearted though. Have the last 60 years here with us meant nothing to them? Fine. Be like that. See if we care.

What have the Swedish ever done for us anyway? Oh sure, they're not bad at designing stuff. Inconsequential little things like some of the world's sexiest cars (Saab), and some of the safest (Volvo). And so what if the Irish long-haul lorry driver wouldn't dream of hitting the road without his Scania truck? Swedish engineering gets us places in safety and style -- yawn and yawn.

It was much more exciting when we drove clapped-out bangers whose brakes didn't work when it was raining. Or too windy. Or there was an 'r' in the month.

Perhaps the same lorry driver calls home on his sturdy Ericsson mobile phone. He won't get an answer because the wife is off in Ikea, eating a giant plate of meatballs for a fiver. Right shower of rip-off merchants they are.

They stand in the middle of their big fun blue-and-yellow warehouse, look you straight in the eye without blinking and say, "Yes, madam, you can indeed buy that bed, wardrobe, matching lockers and sliding drawer system for €100."

Who do they think they are with their minimalist chic and their clever storage solutions? I rather liked when the awkward space under my stairs was chaotic and cluttered. I don't remember asking anyone to design a set of sleek rolling shelves, handy shoe-organiser and hideaway coal scuttle. My books were perfectly fine on the floor where they were. Bunch of do-gooders.

At least we Irish know how to enjoy ourselves. What contribution has the Swedish nation made to entertainment? Apart from the enduring legacy of the pop perfection that was ABBA, that is.


Irish wedding receptions would be hard pushed to find another floor-filling anthem to replace Dancing Queen. Without ABBA, the broken-hearted would never know the bittersweet pleasure of drowning their sorrows in a bottle of Absolut (Swedish premium) vodka while crying along to The Winner Takes It All.

Alright then: literature. We have Joyce, we have Beckett, we have Bernard Shaw. Yes, I agree it would be a long day doing a straw poll on Grafton Street to find one person who has ever actually finished any of their books. And yes, it was the Swedish who gave international recognition to Heaney, Becketts, Yeats and Shaw with the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Yes, the Swedes came up with those best-selling Scandinavian detective novels we all love to curl up with in bed at night. Yes, the new Stieg Larsson is a rollicking read. Yes, I love the Wallander series on TV at the moment. What's your point?

Okay, kudos for the cultural stuff. But what do they do for fun? We were doing just fine with our repressed sexuality and fear of public semi-nudity before the Swedes came along with their saunas and positive body image, thank you very much.

Now you can't swing a Speedo in a spa here without hitting a group of Irish lads sitting around in a steamy room as shameless as the day they were born. Relaxing together in a calm, amiable environment rather than beating seven shades of cider out of each other at closing time? I blame the Swedes.

At least they're not a very good-looking race are they? Britt Ekland, Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Victoria Silvstedt -- shockers, the lot of them.

Case closed. The Swedes have done nothing for us. Apart from the cool design, the safer transport, the great novels, music and TV, the Swedehearts and the power to make us all chill out. . .

If we Irish need to stay angry to dull the pain of being abandoned maybe we should focus on the fact that the referee who didn't call Thierry Henry's handball against Ireland was Swedish. It might also explain why the embassy is leaving so suddenly: the threat of war.

Benicio del Toro: Mild at heart

My interview with Benicio del Toro from when he was in Dublin for 24 hours to promote The Wolfman. There was a full moon that night but thankfully neither BdT's bark nor bite are as scary as one might expect...

Breakfast for Benicio del Toro is an espresso and a Marlboro. For all I know, he may well have got in a bowl of muesli and a spot of yoga before we meet on a grey Saturday morning in Dublin.

Even so, he inhales the shot of coffee and taps out a cigarette from a pack on the table in front of him with quick, practised movements. This is definitely routine.

It's the only sense of urgency revealed by the actor. Those two basic requirements fulfilled, he exhales deeply and leans back in his seat.

"I went to some good places in Dublin last night," he says, once the espresso has kicked in. "I was in Residence for dinner -- the food was very good. And then we went to meet Ryan [Tubridy -- del Toro had appeared that night on the Late Late] in the Dylan hotel. Yeah, good night."

And here we now are, Ryan Tubridy apparently having kept Benicio up past his bedtime. It's an amusing picture -- the bookish Tubbers wearing out the Hollywood actor famed for his bad boy looks and dark, intense performances.

"How did I look on the Late Show?" he asks. I tell him he looked substantial, as most people do beside Tubridy. "Fat?" he asks. No, tall. He laughs, but it's true. The common experience with meeting Hollywood stars is that they can be disappointingly less impressive in the flesh than they are on screen. The opposite is true of del Toro. He measures 6ft 2in but such has been his line in melancholic or criminal characters that he often seems to hunch into his roles, looking tortured or shifty.

"Yes, I've been told I shrink into the character," he agrees pleasantly. "I've heard people say, 'You're much taller than I thought'. I wonder if it's something to do with when I played basketball, I played point guard. That's usually the shortest guy of the squad. I'm tall, but in the basketball world, I'm short. Maybe I carry that with me."

It's not quite the exploration of inhabiting character that one would expect from a method actor who won a scholarship to the prestigious Stella Adler Conservatory in LA at the age of 19. "Do we have to look so deep? I don't know," he laughs.

Alright then -- back to last night. There was a full moon out, the brightest we're going to see this year, apparently. That's quite the coincidence, having del Toro prowling the town and promoting the remake of the werewolf horror classic The Wolfman.

"There are no coincidences," says del Toro, in a mock-serious tone. "It's like, in a weird way, I was always a fan of these classic horror movies from Universal. They were the first movies I recall knowing their titles and the names of the actors in them. And here I am doing one of them. This was way before I thought I could be an actor, so maybe it's a coincidence, maybe it's destiny, but who am I to say?"

It certainly seems that there has been some hand of fate steering Del Toro's path to stardom. It wouldn't have seemed credible that the baby boy, Benicio Monserrate Rafael del Toro Sanchez, born to two lawyers in Puerto Rico, would one day become a film star in the English-speaking world.

Forty-two years later, del Toro has been honoured at every significant event in the awards calendar, including the Oscars and Golden Globes in 2000, where he took Best Supporting Actor gongs for his conflicted Mexican police officer in Traffic. He claims not to have much use for awards -- it's the experience of working with great actors and directors that he brings forward with him -- but he likes that he is only the third Puerto Rican actor to win an Academy Award.

"I'm number three Puerto Rican," he says, suddenly animated, "Jose Ferrer for Cyrano de Bergerac; Rita Morena for West Side Story," ticking the other two off on his right thumb and forefinger.

It's an achievement on two counts. One, because his Oscar-winning performance was mostly conducted in the Spanish language. Two, because del Toro's distinctly Latino looks and pouchy-eyed insouciance has mostly been translated by directors into the role of outsider, criminal or oddball. His first big role was as the youngest-ever Bond baddie at the age of 21 in Licence to Kill and he has long been a cult-film favourite, bringing his mumbling magnificence as Fenster to The Usual Suspects and as Dr Gonzo to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He burned himself with cigarettes and piled on more than 50 pounds to play Gonzo.

Maybe for this reason -- being perennially cast as the outsider, but also taking pride in being one -- the awards he appreciates most of all come from outside the back-slapping hothouse of Hollywood.

"I got the Palme d'Or and a Goya for Che, and that was all in Spanish," he says. (I think he means the Best Actor award in Cannes, rather than the Palme d'Or which is the award for best film). "Those were both won in 2008. Those are the last couple I've gotten so they're very important," he laughs.

You're only as good as your last award? "Yeah, yeah, yeah," he laughs, "you're only as good as your last award."

He turns serious for a moment. "Well, really, I liked getting them because, you know, Cannes is kind of like the Olympics. The Oscars is more like being in the pros in America. It's like we have the NBA, it's every year. In Cannes, the jury is a composition of film-makers not just from one place but from all over the world. There is an element of cinema in it that makes it cool to be recognised. Even to be in the festival, to be in competition. It's quite cool."

Del Toro doesn't have to worry too much about what's cool. He is cool. Even in his mismatched, red-checked lumberjack shirt and formal blazer. Even in The Wolfman, through the layers of CGI, lupine make-up -- "man, taking that stuff off at the end of the day was painful" -- and the distraction of co-star Anthony Hopkins hamming it up to the high heavens, he manages to arrest your attention.

He just doesn't seem to take himself too seriously. When he talks about loving Dublin writer Bram Stoker's version of Dracula and I ask if he would like to add a vampire to his CV of monsters, he replies laconically: "How much money have you got? I did Wolfman because for me it's really a nostalgic thing. Money doesn't motivate me, it's never motivated me, but it sounds good when you say it: 'I did it for the money'."

The Wolfman probably isn't going to add to his awards cabinet, but he thinks it's "cool" that his manager saw a movie poster of the original 1941 movie in his house and, next thing you know, del Toro's acting out his boyhood fantasies.

It might be the stereotype of the fiery Latino temperament and the effect of his powerful physicality, but it's a surprise that del Toro is so laid back. His sentences are peppered with pauses and tangents, and frequently trail off into mid-air. (On the importance of those awards in making him a Hollywood player: "It's kind of like one of those things, it's, ah, I don't think that, Universal, I don't know, it's hard to tell, but I think it does help.")

Yet, when he acknowledges that "we all have our dark side", you believe those brooding performances must come from somewhere. Certainly his early life can't have been easy, his mother dying when he was just nine, and the whole family decamping to the States when he was 13, del Toro unable to speak English and sent to a rigidly conservative Catholic school.

The Wolfman has some poignancy when you consider that the backstory of del Toro's character, Laurence Talbot, is so similar to his own. Talbot's mother also dies at a young age, and he is sent to America to his extended family and separated from all that was familiar from his childhood. Del Toro concedes that his own mother's death was "a major event" for him. But he is notoriously private about his off-screen life.

I wonder if he's in a relationship but then remember that he 'jokingly' told a previous interviewer that he had several dogs who he would let loose on him should he ask any more personal questions. Considering he might think I called him fat at the start of this interview, I don't push it.

We talk of The Wolfman exploring the notion that all humans struggle with baser, primal instincts. "Thank goodness for the conscience!" says del Toro. But can he relate to that primal rage?

"I can relate to moments of rage," he says, after shifting in his seat a bit and scrubbing his chin. "What makes me mad? People condescending would make me mad. Not to the point of 'grab that TV and bash it over your head', but.. People who flat out and lie. Bullying. Abuse. Disrespect."

Then, sensing we're getting into "deep" territory, he cracks a slow smile. "I could get a little cranky if I haven't eaten."

Waiter -- bowl of muesli, please.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Don't let Santa Claus ask Saoirse for her autograph

OSCAR shortlist day brings out the patriot in us all. We love to see an Irish name in the running for an Academy Award. The Sheridans alongside the Scorseses. The Neesons taking on the Nicholsons.

So it was disappointing that Saoirse Ronan was passed over in the Best Actress category yesterday. The supremely talented 15-year-old from Carlow had been tipped for recognition of her performance as a murdered young girl in The Lovely Bones.

I hope she is not too downhearted – but I’m not altogether sorry that she has missed out. That is neither begrudgery nor jealousy speaking. (Although her great success so far does make me wonder what the hell I did with the first 15 years of my life.)

Saoirse, who already had an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress under her belt at 13, has nothing to prove. Since the Lovely Bones, she has shot a movie with Colin Farrell and is about to shoot another with Atonement director Joe Wright. To
say she has a future in film is an understatement.

But the spotlight is an even more intense place for her two years on. She is no longer the child who wore a green dress to the Oscars because she wanted everyone to know she was Irish. At the Dublin premiere of The Lovely Bones last week, she looked every inch the lovely young woman. She wore fabulous Nina Divito high heels and a glittering black dress.

It’s that cusp of teenagehood where she begins to look womanly – but at 15, she is very much still a child. Her parents, Paul and Monica, are protective of her. Under their guidance, Saoirse is unlikely to start drinking the hotel minibar dry or turning into a nightclub-hopper like Lindsay Lohan.

There is, however, only so much Saoirse can be protected from, given the industry she is in. Her friend Sarah Bolger – who starred in Jim Sheridan’s In America as a 10-year-old and whose star is also on the up - has spoken of how she was offered inappropriate scripts when she was still 16. When I interviewed her last year, she explained: “These scripts were coming up for me even two years ago that had stuff in them that would be just a little dodgy.”

And just because she has turned 18, reporters apparently think it’s okay to ask her about sex.
“It's madness,” she said. “This interviewer asked, ‘So who would you like to jump into bed with?’ We had been talking about Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (with whom she stars in The Tudors), so I'm sure he just wanted me to say him.”

Even Saoirse’s acclaimed role in The Lovely Bones could have presented her with a very grown-up dilemma. In the book on which it is based, her character endures a terrible sexual assault before she is killed. Thankfully, the film’s director Peter Jackson decided such graphic detail was not needed for the screen version. As time goes on, will Saoirse confront less understanding directors and producers?

It’s wonderful to see our two lovely girls grow up so beautifully on camera but we can’t forget that they are still fragile teenagers. It’s a tough enough phase of life as it is – without the added pressure of having to cope with adult expectations and pervy interviewers.

We might heed the words of the first real child star, Shirley Temple, and her poignant reminder that fame made her grow up too fast, too soon.
“I stopped believing in Santa Claus when I was six,” she once said. “Mother took me to see him in a department store and he asked for my autograph.”

It’s not as salacious as the cautionary tale of Drew Barrymore, the little girl from ET who was drinking at the age of 9, taking cocaine by 11 and in rehab at 13. The moral of their stories are the same though: being thrust into the public eye at a young age hastens the death of innocence.

If missing out on the Oscars carousel for a year gives Saoirse more time to go home and play with her beloved dog Sassie and hang out with her mates, then it will be time well spent.

THIS is the extended version of the op-ed I had published in yesterday's Evening Herald at

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Addicted to love

'Love rats'.... I just can't escape my past in the world of tabloids...My feature in today's Irish Independent on sexual addiction. Forget bad jokes about Tiger Woods - there's something in it.

Once upon a time, adulterous spouses were branded 'love rats'. Now the term 'sex addict' is being used with increasing frequency to describe chronic cheaters.

But is 'sex addiction' a real disorder, or is it just an excuse used by men (and some women) who have been caught behaving badly?

Golfer Tiger Woods is the latest celebrity to check in to a sex addiction clinic - he was recently photographed outside the grounds. Woods is paying around €45,000 for six weeks of treatment. Is his stint in rehab an act of contrition or an exercise in damage limitation?

The concept of sex addiction tends to enter public consciousness only when a high-profile figure has been caught in the throes of infidelity. It carries the distinct whiff of a publicity stunt designed to save a reputation and a career.

The cynicism extends to the medical community. There is no general consensus that too much sex can be classified an addiction in the same manner as the abuse of cocaine or alcohol.

"The use of the word 'addiction' is still controversial in that context," admits Eoin Stephens, director of training for the Irish Centre for Sexual Addictions. "In the medical profession, they prefer to keep the word purely to describe addiction to substances."

The traditional view would be to bring excessive sexual activity under the umbrella of compulsive behaviour. Stephens would argue that using the word 'compulsive' brings its own problems.

"It brings obsessive compulsive disorder to mind," he says, "But the things people get compulsive about aren't intensely mood-altering. The textbook obsessive compulsive behaviours would be things like someone feeling the need to wash their hands repeatedly, or turn on and off a light a certain number of times.

"Addiction to having sex is compulsive self-rewarding -- each time it is a 'hit', a buzz. OCD I would call compulsive self-protection -- it's not rewarding, it's something the person feels they need to do to preserve the status quo."

So if it's not a form of OCD, does that necessarily imply that the desire to have excessive amounts of sex falls under the remit of an addiction?

The director of the Pine Grove clinic in Mississippi where Tiger Woods is currently trying to mend his ways is one of the strongest advocates of branding sex addiction as a definite disorder. Dr Patrick Carnes heads up a growing industry which claims that sex addiction is as real as an addiction to cocaine or alcohol -- and can be treated as such.

Carnes believes that up to six pc of the US population suffers from sex addiction. A high sex drive doesn't make you a sex addict, he says, but he does outline a range of excessive behaviours which he believes mark one out. Excessive time spent on sex that impacts negatively on your family, career and mental health is a warning bell.

Colin O'Driscoll is principal psychologist with the Forest clinic in Co Wicklow which specialises in addiction treatment. He absolutely believes that sex addiction exists, and says the last two years have seen a rise in approaches to the clinic from people who believe they are out of control. Some women have made enquiries, he says, but most of their clients have been men.

"We would classify it as a behavioural addiction," says O'Driscoll. "That means that it is not a case of being addicted to an external substance. However, it is similar to other behavioural addictions like gambling, where the person might be gambling to zone out rather than deal with bad memories or to emotionally compensate for something. They are behaviours that lend themselves to escapism."

'Some people play it down and laugh and say, 'If I was to have an addiction, that would be the one to have'. We see that people are suffering and their families are bearing drastic consequences as a result of their behaviour and that is genuine."

O'Driscoll is correct to say that there isn't much public sympathy for the sex addict. Several films and TV shows have used the sex addict as the punchline to a joke. In Blades of Glory (2007), Will Ferrell's lustful character attends a sex addicts' meeting which ends with the 'patients' hooking up in the bushes outside. Sex toys were given out as promotional gifts at the premiere of Choke (2008), a film about sex addiction.

There remains this nagging feeling that sex addiction is the affliction 'du jour'. A few years ago it became trendy to call oneself a chocaholic or shoe-aholic. In the 'because we're worth it' climate it was a badge of honour to be indulgent to the point of claiming an addiction. Similarly, the idea of too much sex evokes whispers of a guilty pleasure, of something that's a bit . . . well, naughty.

Eoin Stephens agrees that the legitimacy of the label is questioned when it's used by people to describe a habit or passion. "It can be abused," he says. "But when the reward lessens and that struggle -- 'I wish I hadn't spent all that time or money on doing that' -- increases then the addiction has taken hold."

America, whose population tends to be more outspoken and self-analytical, has been most free with the term. Z-list celebrities can be seen scrutinising their sexual patterns on the VH1 programme, Sex Rehab with Dr Drew.

We have a tougher time believing that Irish people could go down that line but, says Stephens, Ireland has spawned its own particular context which encourages sex addiction. "When you look at our history, up until 1993, Playboy was illegal here," says Stephens.

'In the space of a few years, lapdancing, telephone sex, easy access to internet pornography all mushroomed. That won't turn everybody into a sex addict but a move from low availability to high availability, and the historical repression of sexuality in this country, makes these seem all the more exciting and subject to overuse and abuse." Ireland has its own branch of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, which takes referrals from treatment centres. The treatment of so-called sex addicts is modelled on the 12-step type programmes familiar to AA clients.

"Although," says Colin O'Driscoll, "abstinence is easier to promote with a substance like drugs or alcohol. You can imagine how complicated it would be for an alcoholic to be told, 'You can have one glass of whiskey a week'.

"It's much more complicated with a sex addiction because it's very like overeating -- they have to learn to engage with the process at some stage again but in a controlled way."

So while Tiger Woods might still be practising celibacy in his stay at Pine Grove, his hope will presumably to have a 'normal' sex life again.

"Do I think Tiger Woods is a good example of what I would call a sex addict?" asks Eoin Stephens. "I would be curious if this is the first time he's been caught.

"Or if he has promised to stop several times before but hasn't been able to, showing that it was definitely a case of being out of control."

As opposed to taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to a fit, famous, rich young man who finds himself frequently away from home, one presumes.
* DAVID DUCHOVNY The former X-Files star became the butt of his own joke in 2008 when he announced that he had "voluntarily entered a facility for the treatment of sex addiction". At the time he was playing a sex-obsessed writer on the TV show Californication.
* RUSSELL BRAND The comedian bad boy (right) wrote in his memoir, My Booky Wook, that he received treatment at the Keystone Centre in Pennsylvania for sex addiction. "One day," he wrote of his treatment, "I had to write a victims' list -- a litany of the women I'd wronged as a result of my sexual addiction. I felt like Saddam Hussein trying to pick out individual Kurds."
* michael douglas Douglas became one of the first A-list celebrities to be linked to sex addiction but has since said that his reasons for going into rehab were misinterpreted. He said: "Around 1990, I voluntarily went into rehab because I was drinking too much and some smart-ass editor said, 'Oh, another boring story about an actor going to rehab. Let's give him sex addiction'."
* eric benet Musician Benet, Halle Berry's ex-husband, was reported to have gone into sex addiction rehab in 2002 but he later told New York magazine, "In retrospect, it's not what I would label my situation."
* woody harrelson He once admitted openly that he was a sex addict and said: "Monogamy is one of the most confusing things about getting married. I don't understand marriage in the traditional sense." He has been married now for 12 years.