Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The clown and the contortionist

From today's Irish Independent:
By Susan Daly
There are days when it's tempting to run away and join the circus but for most the fantasy is rarely realised. Not so for one girl who travelled 8,000km to join the circus -- and found love in the process.

Contortionist Wang Dan (Dani) and resident clown Otto currently open the Fossett's circus show with a joint juggling trick. What the crowd don't know is that the performers are a romantic double act outside the ring. Although they make an odd couple in their stage outfits, Edward Fossett (aka Otto) and Dani are a handsome couple in their civvies.

"Lots of people meet through work," says Edward (22). "It's just that our work isn't like most people's."

Edward is heir to the Fossett's family circus, the world's oldest continuously-touring show. Dani (21) came to work with them for a season from an acrobatic school outside Beijing, China, in 2006. Arriving with two fellow contortionist Chinese friends, she experienced serious culture shock.

"We couldn't speak English then, only a tiny bit, so we three just kept together and practised together," says Dani in English now tinged with a Dublin accent.

Edward was in his Leaving Cert year at the family's home base in Lucan, Dublin, when Dani arrived but would visit the circus wherever it was at weekends to put on his clowning hat.

"We began to talk to each other backstage during the show," he explains. "When you're on the show, it's like a little community, it binds people together. We actually got together on my 19th birthday -- Dani would have been 18."

But the course of true love never runs smooth. When the season ended, Dani had to return to China with her friends. "We were never off the phone were we, honey?" Edward says, turning to her. A year later, she was asked back by Fossett's to resume her popular contortionist act.

"The first time, 2008, when I came back on my own, I did feel lonely," says Dani. "But I am close to Sonia and Sarah (Edward's two younger sisters). It feels like I have friends here and a boyfriend here, so it is much, much better now."

She misses Chinese food. "I don't know how to cook though," she laughs, "but Edward is very good at it -- I like his pasta."

While our photographs of them in costume would be an extraordinary addition to most family albums, Edward and Dani's relationship is not entirely breaking with tradition. Edward's grandfather, Teddy Fossett, married an aerialist from Czechoslovakia.

"My mum came to Ireland with her parents and sister in the late 1940s to come work with my father and uncle," says their son Eddie, current MD of Fossett's and father of Edward (having an Edward in each generation also runs in the family). "She fell in love with dad and never left."

The close-knit and nomadic nature of circus life can be difficult for outsiders to understand or infiltrate. "Saying that, circus children don't necessarily fall in love with other people from the circus," says dad Eddie. "My wife was a wages clerk in (plumbing merchants) PJ Matthews when I met her."

Son Edward agrees that Dani and he are lucky. "It's true that it's not very easy to find someone of the same age who you are attracted to working in the whole circus area. But it would be harder if I went out with someone who wasn't in the business because I'd be away from them the whole time."

Conversely, working and living in the same quarters can be a hard ask. "Sometimes we go have a cup of coffee together in the nearest town, go shopping for an hour, yeah, for hairspray!" says Edward, referring to Otto's Jedward-style quiff. "Just to get off the site and away from everybody on our own is nice."

The pair also share an understanding of the hard work required with performing for a living. Dani attended a live-in performance school in China from when she was five years old. She would get up at 5.30am and practise until 8.30pm, with just breaks for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"That was tough," she says. "When I was seven years old, I said, 'I don't want to go there any more' and my dad said, 'Okay, we won't'. But I decided to go back after a few months and stayed until I was 17."

Edward's earliest memories are of dad Eddie training circus animals. He thought he would follow in his dad's footsteps and had his own pony act in the show at the age of nine. When Edward was 14, the resident clown broke his arm and he had to step in. "I was crapping myself the first day but I got through it okay. The make-up helped -- it's a bit of a mask."

He got the clowning bug and, when Fossett's decided not to continue with animal acts, being the funnyman became a full-time career.

As with many family businesses, it is presumed that Edward will eventually take over the reins from his father -- especially since circus performance was designated an official artform in 2003.

"That has implications for Dani and I," he says, "I'm not a normal artist -- I'm the boss's son. As I get older I have to take on more responsibility. The longer Dani stays here and the closer we get, the more responsibility she will have to take on."

As for running away from the circus, well, Dani mentions she would like to go travelling at some stage.

"I would love to go away for a year too," says Edward. "But maybe to another show to see how they do it."

Once a Fossett ...

Monday, June 28, 2010

"This is my son we're talking about"

This will be a court case to watch when it comes up in the Irish High Court in the coming 12 months. A number of Roaccutane-related lawsuits are also pending in the US (where the drug was sold under the name Accutane).
From last Saturday's Review section in the Irish Independent:

By Susan Daly
Liam Grant was a young man with all of life's advantages on his side. The 19 year old was handsome, popular and academic, in his second year of an engineering degree at UCD.

He was equally talented in sport and in music, played in a band and had built a recording studio in the garden of his family's comfortable suburban home in Terenure, Dublin.

He had a firm eye on the future, working his way towards a career as a sound engineer. He was "an outgoing young man", his only concern apparently a mild case of acne on his neck and shoulders. For this, Liam was prescribed Roaccutane, a strong acne medication, by a dermatologist in February 1997.

Thirteen years on, his father, Liam Senior, pinpoints this as the time when his son's character changed dramatically. The young student withdrew from friends and family, spending more time in his bedroom, the curtains drawn because he said light bothered him. He instructed his younger brother to tell friends who called to see him that he wasn't at home.

In June 1997, Liam was found hanging from a tree in the foothills of the Dublin mountains. He left a note expressing his belief that he had few friends and that the turnout for his funeral would prove it. In that respect he was entirely, poignantly, wrong.

Since an inquest jury returned a verdict of death by suicide for Liam, his father has been battling to prove that his son had taken his own life as a direct result of taking Roaccutane -- and that Roche, the pharmaceutical giant that manufactures the drug, knew of the risks and failed to sufficiently warn patients of them.

Roche denies that Roaccutane causes "psychiatric events" but in a victory for father-of-four Mr Grant this week, the European Ombudsman has ordered the European Medicines Agency to collate and hand over to him all adverse reaction reports it has received relating to Roaccutane. The information will be vital when Mr Grant finally squares up to Roche in a High Court case within the coming 12 months.

"It has taken seven years to get to this point," Mr Grant, now 61, told Review this week. In 2004, he sued Roche in the High Court. The company offered to pay him the maximum compensation under law for the death of his son -- about €30,000 -- as well as his costs and special damages. This offer would not, however, include any admission of liability on Roche's part for Liam Junior's death.

"Six years ago, Roche made me an offer plus legal costs and I wouldn't take it. Then their appeal in the Supreme Court (to make him accept their offer) failed and I was allowed to proceed. We have been waiting for this for a long time now so it's really good for us that we will have the case heard in the next year.

"I would say that anyone taking on a pharmaceutical company like this would really want to understand what they have taken on," says Mr Grant, referring to the David vs Goliath nature of his challenge to Roche.

As a forensic accountant with some 40 years' experience, he has some experience of drawn-out legal processes.

Mr Grant says he has never been "intimidated one iota" by the lengthy legal challenge because, he says, "I am used to this kind of work". His accountancy firm has acted as experts in the Mahon Inquiry, formerly the Flood Tribunal.

Yet the personal toll on the Grant family since young Liam's death is immeasurable. Mr Grant has spent over €1m in building a case against Roche, gradually selling off a portfolio of properties he had invested in to fund his retirement. He has funded several independent research studies into the side effects of Roaccutane, including one which was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The drug, which went under the brand name Accutane in the US, was pulled from the American market last year. Roche says that decision was for purely business reasons, and still strongly denies the medication can cause suicide, but the drug has been cited in scores of personal injury cases there. Roaccutane is still prescribed to acne sufferers in Ireland.

Roche Pharmaceuticals Ireland told Review that while they wouldn't comment on the European Ombudsman's decision or the Grant case in specifics, "the wellbeing of the patients taking our medicines is of primary importance, and we are constantly monitoring the safety of all of our medicines, including Roaccutane (isotretinoin)."

The Roche statement added: "Since 1982, over 15 million patients worldwide have been treated with Roaccutane. Although there have been very rare reports of suicides and suicidal ideation in patients with acne being treated with the medicine, the fact is that severe acne can cause some sufferers to become depressed and can also affect their mood and self-esteem."

Roche also says that a patient information leaflet provided with Roaccutane advises that patients tell their doctor if they "notice any change in mood or behaviour" while taking the drug. However, Mr Grant maintains that this warning was not included by Roche with the drug in Ireland at the time it was prescribed to Liam in 1997.

The battle clearly isn't about money for Liam Grant Senior. He was firmly supported in his ongoing case against Roche by his wife Loyola until she died three years ago, just before the Supreme Court ruling.

"It isn't for the weak-hearted," he says of his continuing battle. "But this is my son we're talking about."

Papa don't preach

LIPSTICK, cheap jewellery, drink bottles and household detergents – what does this list say to you? To most folks, it reads like a pretty mundane collection of everyday objects. To more exciteable souls, these items all come dripping with hidden sexual meanings.

Since time immemorial, humans have been obsessed with sex and how to get it. Unlike in the animal kingdom, however, sex among we two-legged creatures quickly became subject to social, religious and cultural mores. There is always someone telling us when and with whom we should be getting jiggy. As a result, some sex practices get shoved under the carpet, others go underground. To gain access to them, you have to know the secret code.

That’s the fearful fantasy anyway – that a dangerous sexual undercurrent is constantly throbbing under just under the surface of society. This fear recently exploded into a furore over so-called ‘shag bands’ apparently doing the rounds in Irish and British schools. Parents were suddenly alerted to the ‘real’ meaning of the plastic multi-coloured bracelets popular with teenagers and children.

Rather than the cheap fashion accessories they appear to be, each coloured band supposedly signifies a different sexual activity ranging from French kissing to full-blown intercourse. If a boy ‘snapped’ one from a girl’s arm, she had to succumb to the activity that band represented.

Parents, naturally, freaked out. They could well believe their 9-year-olds were being indoctrinated into a sex craze because, as Carol Platt Liebau writes in her book Prude, “an incremental but aggressive sexualising of our culture (has created) a status quo in which almost everything seems focused on what’s going on ‘below the waist’.” Even though pop stars Avril Lavigne and Pink sport these bracelets as a style statement, it was possible they meant more than that.

The shag band reports have been doing the rounds for some time. In the States, they are called jelly bracelets and in the early Noughties – or should we say, Naughties – were banned from schools in Marion County, Florida after a few students divulged their “secret meaning” to adults.

Outside of that incident, it’s up for debate whether kids were aware of the sex symbolism of the bracelets before they read about it in the papers or on the internet. In the 1980s, I had no idea how risqué Madonna’s Like a Virgin was until my mortified father demanded I stop singing it at the top of my voice around the house. (Incidentally, it was Madonna who first popularised the jelly bracelet and I decked out my entirely virginal arms in them as a tribute. Who knew I was sending out sex signals at the age of 8?)

The shag band phenomenon is the latest in a line of everyday objects apparently gaining currency as a sort of sexual token. In the 1970s, it was the ring pull from a can of Coke. Offer a broken one to the object of desire and they had to return the favour with a kiss. Manage to take the tab off intact, and the prize was much higher. Beer bottle labels came with similar smutty innuendo. An intact label peeled carefully from a bottle was supposed to entitle the bearer to sexual recompense. It all sounds a little convenient and as Barbara Mikkelson of the hoax-busting website says, “wishful thinking codified into belief”.

Still, it didn’t stop down-with-the-people princess Oprah giving weight to one urban legend by allowing mention of it on her chatshow in 2003. In a debate on oversexualised young people, one contributor spoke of ‘rainbow parties’. Oprah’s well-to-do Middle America audience listened with their mouths gaping to how young teenage girls would slather on brightly-coloured lipstick and then give oral sex to any number of boys at secret sex parties.

The ‘rainbow’ referred to the different coloured rings of lipstick left on the boys’ genitals as proof of their conquests. If you’re having trouble picturing it, think of a Fruit Pastilles ice lolly with its stack of differently-coloured flavours.

As it turns out, the legend of the rainbow parties was shortly debunked by investigative reporters who couldn’t find one group of teenagers to admit, even off the record, that such activities were widespread. The same had been the case with the so-called ‘non-virgin clubs’ – no explanation needed – of the 1950s.

So our teenagers may not be half as devious as we think but there have been other groups who have made widespread use of sexual codes. Gay culture, for example, had to get around the fact that for a long time to signal your homosexuality was an illegal act. The Hanky Code, or flagging, sprang up in 1970s New York to signify sexual availability to another man – it is even referenced in the 1980 movie Cruising when Al Pacino’s straight character is heckled for wearing the wrong colour handkerchief to a gay bar. The roots to the code are believed to go right back to San Francisco just after the Gold Rush when gay men would wear blue hankies to square dances to identify themselves on the ‘gaydar’.

Adulterous sex is another area that has traditionally required its share of signals and subterfuge. When my mother, who lived in London as a young woman, would see boxes of OMO washing powder stacked neatly in Irish shop windows she used to give a little chuckle. She had always been told by her English friends that a box of OMO in the bedroom window of a house signified to a lover in the time before mobile phones that the ‘Old Man’s Out’ and the coast was clear for a rendez-vous.

There is of course the modern difficulty of trying to crack the sext code of your husband or wife’s texts to their new close friend (the number ‘8’ is often used to signify oral sex though, if that helps). But love letter-writing paramours went to great lengths to conceal their affairs. Invisible ink, invented by Socrates, reactivated when held to the heat of a candle flame or fire was a crafty way of reading between the lines.

And just as parents might sit kids in front of a DVD while they head off for an “afternoon nap”, Tsar Alexander II and his mistress Katia had a personal code for sex in their letters: an otherwise nonsensical word, ‘bingerle’. In 1871, Katia wrote: “I saw in your eyes that you wanted to throw yourself at me to forget everything and enjoy our bingerle.” Well, quite.

Even the censorious Victorians found a way to express their hidden desires: they literally said it with flowers. The red rose, of course, denoted true love but if you received a bunch of gardenias from a suitor, his intentions were slightly less honourable: gardenias stood for ecstasy.

Sexual codes are everywhere now from subliminal ones in advertising to the overtly sexual lads’ mag at the supermarket checkout. As such, it’s easy to read sauce into everything we see. Shoes, we are told by Leora Tanenbaum in her book Bad Shoes, can signify sexual availability in women if they are high enough and pointy enough. Then again, women seen smoking in the 19th century were seen to be of loose moral standards. Perhaps sometimes a kids’ bracelet is just for fashion – and a woman’s shoes are just for fun.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Shelf life for lads' mags...

‘Lads, gags and shags’ mags might be falling in sales but, SUSAN DALY asks, have readers’ tastes really changed – or are they just gone elsewhere?

WHAT men want is what marketers the world over want to know. Nearly 300 years ago, the first men’s magazine appeared to have it all figured out.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was launched in 1731 to great success. It titillated subscribers with a heady mix of social gossip and gruesome details of recent executions. It printed tips from readers on how to keep all one’s own teeth and hair into advanced age (which, granted, was probably no more than 55 in the 18th century).

Gawping at celebs, body-consciousness and a fascination with gore – it doesn’t sound a million miles removed from the lad-mag culture of today.
Nonetheless an American media mogul is claiming that the lads’ mag as we know it is dead. Michael Rideout (what fun mags like Nuts or Zoo would have with that name) is launching a new publication and website targeting men in the 25-34 age bracket. He has given the brand the aspirational name of MadePossible and describes it as the “anti-Maxim”, referring to one of the former market leaders in the ‘girls, gadgets and grog’ magazine sector.

“At around 25, guys start making grown-up choices for the first time that will largely shape their future,” he says. Young men want substance, not sex in their bathroom reading material, he argues.

If Rideout is right, then the end must be nigh for a huge publishing phenomenon: the lads’ mag. Top-shelf men’s material has been around since the advent of lurid Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’ – cheap pulp fiction aimed at young men – right through the creation of Playboy and its more hardcore successors Penthouse and Hustler. But what the 1990s brought was a boom in men’s magazines that were considered acceptable to display at eye-level, just about.

In 1994, Loaded fired the first volley in a revolution of mainstream men’s mags. Esquire and GQ existed at the time as glossy men’s ‘lifestyle’ publications but were concerned with literary essays and advising readers on the importance of wearing an expensive watch.

By contrast, Loaded announced that it would be the magazine “for men who should know better”. Its 20-something creator James Brown said they spoke to “the millions of real blokes who love football and want to pull women… I’m very proud to say we’ve lowered the tone.”

Quick to lower it further – and noticing the 250,000 copies sold by Loaded in a matter of 18 months – titles like FHM and Maxim appeared on the scene. FHM in particular captured the …er… imagination of hormonal young readers with its High-Street Honeys competition, which celebrated “real-life hotties” by inviting them to pose for the mag in bikinis. Female C-list celebs began to see the obligatory photoshoot for a lads’ mag as a viable career move (see panel).

James Brown has claimed that he wasn’t trying to do anything that hadn’t already been deemed a success in women’s magazines. To persuade his publishers that Loaded wouldn’t be taken off the shelves for being too lewd, he showed them headlines and articles about sex taken from women’s magazines. “At the centre I placed an article giving details on ‘How To Give A Blow Job’ from Cosmo,” he said.

The men’s magazine sector had never seen anything like the bump in circulation figures in the following five years. FHM, which took over as market leader, sold almost a million copies a month between the UK and Ireland by 1998. It fit with the laddish culture of Men Behaving Badly on TV and Oasis in the charts, supposedly obsessed with beer, birds and tongue-in-cheek humour. If you didn’t see the fig leaf of irony – as some commentators and sociologists didn’t – the implication was that you weren’t getting it.

Here, where Playboy was only available in a brown envelope from cousin Mikey in America until 1993, the new additions to the newsagents looked startling next to copies of Ireland’s Own and the RTE Guide.

The sales figures stayed high until the early Noughties – or Naughties, as the mags would probably have called them – but were massively hit by the downward evolution of even less sexually subtle weekly titles like Zoo and Nuts.

With their competitions to “win your girlfriend a boob job”, gross-out pics of freak accidents and what the industry would call a high nipple count, there is no pretence that they are being read for their articles. There have been calls to have the mags bagged, tagged and reassigned to the top shelf. A recent ‘publishing error’ in Zoo magazine caused huge controversy when actor Danny Dyer’s celebrity column advised a broken-hearted reader to cut his ex-girlfriend’s face.

They are under siege on the sales front too have seen a drastic fall in circulation. Zoo and Nuts were down over 20 per cent off their year-on-year sales in the last half of 2009.

Does this mean that the boys have finally grown up? It would be a pretty abrupt end to the history of soft porn and erotica. Cave art from over 12,000 years ago found in Creswell Crag, England only a few years ago includes huge paintings of female genitalia. When Victorian archaeologists cracked open the ruins of Pompeii, they were so mortified by the many artefacts inscribed with graphic depictions of sex acts that felt the need to hide them away in a secret museum in Naples for over 150 years.

A cursory glance at the reading habits of the Irish male might conclude that they are a refined bunch compared to the inhabitants of ancient Rome. Homegrown magazines dedicated to the Irish male have never managed to take off here, for example.

But on closer look, the titles that tried their hand and ultimately failed, Patrick and Himself, were pretty tame. The first media brand to target the Irish male in quite some time is the new website It appears again to be a relatively restrained mix of sports, style, entertainment news, motors and money. (Although it does feature a section titled ‘Joe’s Lovely Ladies’, currently illustrated by a pic of everyone’s favourite FAS model Georgia Salpa.)

It is interesting to note, however, that the section of with most hits in the first few months of the site’s existence is not the GAA column by Cork icon Sean Og O hAilpin nor the healthy eating column by chef Kevin Dundon. It is the sex and relationship agony aunt column by glamour model Claire Tully. Topics to tickle Tully’s fancy include bikinis (to wear or not to wear), cross-dressing and the rather less inconsequential matter of false rape allegations.

Sexual obsession might be moved out of the eyeline of the impressionable from time to time like those kinky Pompeiian artefacts but in those cases it just goes underground for a while. More likely, lad-culture magazine buyers have simply gone online. When Australian lads’ mag Ralph announced the current issue will be its last ever, due to poor sales, its publisher Phil Scott said it was because the tastes of young male readers had changed. “The growth of online is a factor but if history is any guide, it is not the key issue,” he claimed.

Yet most lads’ mags seem to recognise the siren call of the online portal into ever more raunchy content – they have all launched their own websites with ‘extra value’ material. (The Nuts website is currently home to 100 Real Girls in Bed, videos of crazy car stunts and a competition called Assess My Breasts).

On top of that, those with more extreme tastes know they can easily find other sites where the kind of material available is not subject to consumer watchdogs. It makes the breasts and booze of lads’ mags look almost quaint.

SOFT PORN – OR CAREER MOVE? Five lads’ mags favourite cover girls (Or in ladspeak: Top five birds)
GAIL PORTER: The children’s TV presenter said she had no idea FHM were going to project a naked image of her photoshoot with them on the London Houses of Parliament – but it gave the mag record-breaking sales in July 1999, and made Porter a household name.
ABI TITMUSS: The former nurse emerged from the shadow of being ex-girlfriend of disgraced telly personality John Leslie by posing for 38 covers of lads’ magazines in 2004 and 2005, and becoming a reality TV regular off the back of it. She has since become an actress but did a photoshoot for Nuts last year.
JENNIFER ELLISON: The baby-faced Brookside actress put what in lads’ mag parlance would be her blonde, busty looks to work as a regular pin-up. Her first such shoot was for FHM at the age of 16 under the headline ‘Jailbait’. She has since said that posing for lads’ mags has hurt her acting career in the UK, saying “UK casting agencies can be a bit sniffy” about glamour models.
CHANELLE HAYES: The female contestants on this year’s final series of Channel 4’s Big Brother who stripped off within hours of entering the house will no doubt be contemplating a lucrative, if possible short, stint doing the same for lads’ mags on their eviction.
It has been a tradition of BB that each cast has at least one camera-loving exhibitionist – and a tradition of the mags to feature them on the cover immediately after. Chanelle Hayes claim to fame in 2007’s Big Brother was a striking resemblance to Victoria Beckham. Since then, she has become one of the most regular BB contestants to pose for lads’ mags and co-presented Nuts TV in 2008.

Nightwatch: Guilt-stricken by the human sushi bar

My Nightwatch column from last Friday's Day and Night magazine...

GUILT is an unwelcome guest on a night out. It is an emotion best saved for the morning after. It's going to come unannounced anyway, letting itself in with the key you meant to get back from your ex.

It will sneak up the stairs, stand drooling over your pillow for a moment and then yell in your earhole: 'I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST NIGHT!'

Ah yes, guilt. The horrors, the shakes, the frantic scramble for the Solpadeine followed by a grab for the phone to see who was texted, what was texted and what planet of inappropriateness you were on at the time.

It ain't nice, but it's like penance for throwing caution and all three sheets to the wind the previous evening. It helps us to say, hand on heart, 'Never again' and mean it for at least four working days.

What is pointless is feeling guilt before you've actually done something wrong. I get it when I throw up a deadline for a dinner date. It makes the crème brulee stick in the throat. (Ed: What?! You told me you had to rush your pregnant friend to Holles Street that time you were late last week.)

Ahem, I mean, I can imagine that kind of thing might make one feel guilty. Please don't fire me. Then there is the particular type of seasonal guilt that comes into play about the time my hayfever kicks in every year.

The nights, theoretically, are balmier. The risk of developing frostbite or being hailstoned to death is, theoretically, negligible. It's that wonderful time when al fresco drinking becomes de rigueur.

This also means that the chances of being asked for spare change five times in an hour are pretty high.

A friend more cynical than I describes it thus: in summer, in Dublin, each pub has two bars. There is the one inside and the one outside, which my friend calls the sushi bar.

Apparently, you see the exact same people pass in the exact same order at regular 20-minute intervals, asking for change or a cigarette. It's like watching the same bit of tuna go past on loop, and you're trying not to catch the tuna's eye.

As my friend is one of these sad old gits who insists on sticking to the same pub in a city full of watering holes, I'll have to take his kerbside observations as reliable.

My friend is somewhat hardened to these regular appeals to his benevolence. He has decided to give money only to the old lady with the shopping cart and a polite but firm 'No' to the others.

Me on the other hand? I take my gin with a rather large slice of guilt in it. I don't want to be hassled, but then I feel bad for not wanting to be hassled. I can't blame some down-on-their-luck person for noticing how many drinks I have in the space of an hour and how I could well afford to spare them the price of one.

Oh I know, poor me, what a dilemma for the person who does actually have a bed to go home to. Seriously though, what do you do?

I just holidayed in Italy -- again, doesn't your heart bleed for me -- and spent a night in Milan watching the beautiful people at a bar so cool I thought I was going to be thrown out any second for parting my hair on the wrong side.

These hipsters had an 'interesting' way of dealing with unwanted approaches from outside the velvet rope -- scream at them until they went away. Clearly, that's not the way to go.

Nor is staying inside the pub an option. That would just make me feel guiltier still.

I guess the only thing for it is to either give with good grace or stop feeling bad about saying no. Alternatively, I might spend the rest of the summer hiding behind my friend.

Come out with your hands up

From last Saturday's Weekend magazine in the Irish Independent
By Susan Daly

Remember that old kiddies' rhyme,"Heads, shoulders, knees and toes"? We didn't know it then, twirling around on our dainty little toes and smooth, youthful pins, but that rhyme was prophetic.

In the age of body consciousness, we've come to obsess over every minute part of ourselves. It started with facelifts. The nip and tuck is no longer the preserve of the ageing Hollywood starlet: it's now a high-street commodity.

In Ireland, we spend roughly the same amount on cosmetic procedures a year -- €55m -- as we do on our supposed national obsession, tea bags.

As the spotlight on the perfect figure grows stronger, no body part is safe from scrutiny. The focus now intensifies steadily from head to toe. Demi Moore got a kneelift when she decided her patellas were less than perfect. Fashion victims found fault with their feet and started injecting derma fillers into their soles to help them stand upright in skyscraper stilettos.

Now it's hands that are under fire. Sarah Jessica Parker, often pilloried for her unconventional looks, is taking a battering for her "bony" fingers. Pictures of her at the recent premiere of Sex and the City 2 were accompanied by bitchy critiques of the "bulging veins" on her hands and arms. The usual unmerciful comments about having the face of a horse were replaced by jibes about having the hands of a man.

Marie Claire magazine found her mitts so unsightly that they did a complete Photoshop job on them for the cover of their June edition. They were plumped up and smoothed out, with no protruding knuckles and no throbbing veins.

Cameron Diaz and Angelina Jolie have also suffered the barbs of the 'granny hands' police for having less than dainty digits. In a mild foreshadow of what was to come, Diaz was lambasted some years back for turning up to the Oscars with chipped nail polish. Anything but top-to-toe perfection is inexcusable on the red carpet.

Now she's accused of sacrificing her hands to her surfing hobby, letting them shrivel up and roughen in the sea and sun of the Californian coast. Jolie's skinny hands are often ringfenced as proof that it may not be possible to be too rich, but it is possible to be too thin.

This sudden focus on the hands is certainly linked with the overall body-beautiful obsession. Even Kate Moss has used a hand double for close-up shots in a Rimmel make-up advertisement. Ironically, the ad was for Renew and Lift foundation. The tagline? Look and feel years younger.

Social critic and psychotherapist Susie Orbach, author of Bodies, says: "Our bodies are increasingly being experienced as objects to be honed and worked on. What I am seeing is franticness about having to get a body. I wish we could treat our bodies as the place we live from, rather than regard it as a place to be worked on, as though it were a disagreeable old kitchen in need of renovation and update."

The result is that an aggressive anti-ageing campaign on the face and body shows up a pair of withering hands like never before. Madonna, for example, has the body of a teenager, the face of a twentysomething, but the hands of a middle-aged woman. Her hands are the age they should be, but they look weird because they don't match the rest of her preternaturally youthful bits and bobs.

Columnist Julie Burchill, writing to "celebrate" Madonna's 50th birthday in 2008, said: "I know I'm fat, but I have to say that if I spent four hours a day working out, I'd want to look a damn sight hotter than Madonna does; those vile, veiny hands, that sad stringy neck -- yuck."

That's the sisterhood for you.

Teri Hatcher, incidentally the same age as SJP at 45, has similarly been roasted for letting the appearance of her hands betray her full age. They might be holding back the years on their faces, but the hands are giving the game away.

Comedian Lucille Ball once suggested that the secret to staying young-looking was to live well, eat slowly and "lie about your age". That's not so easy when your hands are doing the talking for you.

Cosmetic doctor Katherine Mulrooney, of The Clinic in Dublin's Sandymount Green, says she's not surprised hands have become the telltale mark of a person's true age and lifestyle. "People were mostly concerned with their face, neck and chest area up to now," she says. "But the hands are constantly being used and abused. The poor old hands get a terrible hammering."

Even exercise -- so vital for a celebrity's slim-line credentials -- is a vice when it comes to how it makes the hands look. Overzealous cardio workouts increase blood flow and can lead to enlarged veins. Coupled with low body fat, they are both more prominent and easily noticed.

Up until recently, not much could be done about it. Josephine Allen, manicurist to stars such as Julia Roberts and Heidi Klum, says the most she could give her clients was this homespun gem: "If you want to look younger, hold your hands up -- sit with them raised during dinner so the blood flows down and veins appear smaller."

Hands are just too difficult to operate on. The practicalities are that hands can't afford to be frozen or made any way immobile by the traditional surgical 'lifts'. The increasing demand for youthful paws to match frozen-in-time faces, however, has motivated the cosmetic industry to find alternatives.

What it has come up with are topical treatments to treat sun damage, and injectable fillers or fat from elsewhere on a person's body to plump out the hands and make them look fuller and less gaunt.

"The hands are one of the most sun-exposed sites," says Dr Mulrooney. "Photo damage counts for a lot of the manifestation of skin-ageing; collagen breaks down, the hand appears more bony, the skin crepey and the skin acquires sun-damage brown spots. What has happened now is that the more they do to rejuvenate their faces, the more they notice their hands by contrast."

Dr Mulrooney says fillers injected between the metacarpals are becoming popular, as are intense pulsed light (IPL) lasers or fractionalised lasers carried out over a course of a couple of months to treat unwanted pigmentation. A full hand makeover will run you into thousands of euro.

"At the moment, it's a bit like the toe surgery some people have to fit into their fancy designer shoes," she says. "It's never going to be as massive a thing as Botox, but there's definitely a demand for it."

Vivian Diller, a psychotherapist who wrote about women's feelings on ageing in her recent book Face It, wonders, though, if the eternal pursuit for youth is as good for our mind as for our toned-up body parts.

"I have a client who is a cosmetic surgeon," she says. "He talks about how strange it is to treat an 80-year-old who has the breasts of a 20-year old. Body parts are out of sync. How do women feel when parts of their body look young and other parts don't? The psychology of this is not being talked about."

For those not yet willing to put their hands in a doctor's hands, you can take the less worrisome precautions of sunblock and moisturising.

Or if the damage is done, constantly wearing a pair of white cotton gloves might make you look as if you're auditioning for My Fair Lady, but you'll be keeping your hands -- and age -- to yourself.

Read more:


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Take a break

From last Saturday's Evening Herald...By SUSAN DALY

THIS week has been a good one in which to nursing our Celtic Tiger hangovers. The Banks report makes it hard to forget the pickle we’re in and how we got here.

But the sulphurous whiff of greedy bankers is not the only stink lingering on. It turns out that there are other bad smells hanging around the country – like the distinctive odour of a labourforce still working way too hard. (I imagine it smells like a mix of stale sweat, Lynx and crispy chicken baguettes eaten at the desk).

A report from the Chartered Society of Physiotherapy revealed that one in four people are still working through the entire day without taking a break. As a result, says the report, they are left “stressed and physically unwell”.

What in the name of Michael Fingleton are we doing? This isn’t Wall Street and it certainly isn’t 2004 anymore. During the boom years, we were brainwashed into a cycle of work hard-play hard. Lunch is for wimps. Last one out of the office is a rotten egg.

Working overtime and working through breaks was expected in many companies. To refuse was to be a clockwatcher, to mark yourself out as not being a teamplayer. Work-life balance? Only losers worried about that when there was money to be made.

I remember one diligent man I knew nearly having a nervous breakdown because he’d worked eight days straight. He would barely leave his desk to heat up his lunch in the office microwave. On the eighth day, he lost the rag over something silly, face turning red, purple veins bulging out of his neck.

A cool-headed colleague walked past, paused at his desk and said: “John, I can guarantee you one thing. When you die at the age of 55, the MD of this company will not be standing over your grave saying, ‘Wasn’t John great? He never took a lunch break’.”

It made us all laugh and it defused the situation, not least because every word was true. As it turned out, despite all the hard work, all the hours spent sitting in our cars on the M50 instead of at home with our families, the economy went down the tubes anyway.

I understand that the current climate does not make it easy to take a break. With companies slashing staff numbers, remaining employees often end up doing more work for the same, or less, money. Fear makes people feel obliged to be seen as indispensable, even for the time it would take to eat a sandwich away from the computer screen.

I can’t talk. As a self-employed person, I know I work too hard and take too little time off because ultimately, I’m always living in fear of the next day and what it might not bring.

There is a lot of bitterness out there – some of it justified – towards public sector workers and their scheduled breaks, flexi-hours, set lunch times. There is anger when we hear trade unions squabbling with employers and the State over five minutes here and there.

But maybe we’re not angry with civil servants for getting a lunch break, as we are for the thankless, break-less situation many of us find ourselves in.

It’s like tuning into the news headlines from a different planet to hear the French or Italians complaining that the average lunch break in their countries has been cut down to 90 minutes. This week, some workers at the Carlsberg plant in Copenhagen walked off the job because the company decided to limit the drinking of beer to
lunchtime in the staff canteen. Until now, staff had been encouraged to help themselves throughout the working day from fridges full of free Carlsberg left around the brewery.

Free beer restricted to lunch time only? An hour and a half break at midday? Chance would be a fine thing, says you.

There is a middle ground to be found here. Surely employers should see that a rested, energetic workforce is going to be much more productive than one that is worked to the bone and on the scrapheap at 50.

We need to give ourselves a break – in every sense of the word.


Next-of-kin: Sybil Mulcahy and best pal Lizzie Lynch

TV presenter SYBIL MULCAHY and best friend LIZZIE LYNCH

TV viewers are used to the sight of Sybil Mulcahy sparking off her male co-presenter Martin King on TV3’s The Morning Show. But while the pair have been entertaining fans with their on-screen chemistry for the past year, in reality Sybil is all about having a good set of girlfriends.

“There are about eight of us who are still close and in touch from our school days and Lizzie is chief among them,” she says of best pal Lizzie Lynch. The pair met when they both moved to the same primary school at the age of ten. “We didn’t know anyone else so we gravitated towards each other,” says Sybil.

Lizzie feels the pair actually had a lot in common from the get-go. They are both from large families headed by strong matriarchies. Lizzie adds: “I think it was probably expected of both of us that we’d become lawyers and marry doctors!”

The career paths they did take put thousands of miles between them in their early 20s. Lizzie, who works for Goldman Sachs, lived in London for many years. “I still don’t have a clue what her job entails,” confesses Sybil, “I just know that it involved a lot of jetsetting and she earns about four times what I do.”

Lizzie claims they are both impressed with each other’s success. “Mine is the serious boring job but Sybil’s is much more glamorous.”

When Lizzie was in London, Sybil ended up in the States for five years. “She met a guy there and started doing TV work, so we thought we were going to lose Sybil to Ohio,” says Lizzie.

However, both girls ended up back in Dublin and fell easily back into the friendship. “I think it’s not just a case of shared history,” says Lizzie. “Sybil and I genuinely enjoy each other’s company and when we’re together we can get back to who we are.”

Sybil insists that she was “the messer” of the two of them in school. “I was suspended from school for two weeks once but she wasn’t bold at all. She would have been very academic and kept the head down.”

Lizzie argues: “Neither of us were model pupils. We were BOTH suspended at different stages. It was nothing malicious, just high spirits, and coming towards the end of the six years we knuckled down. Actually Sybil was a very good netball player in school.”

Now both women have families of their own – Sybil has two children and Lizzie has three – but see each other at the weekends. “We both love drinking wine, having a laugh, shopping,” says Sybil.

Their lively relationship is not untouched by the odd argument. “Mostly after a few drinks,” they chime.

“The only time we row is about politics,” says Sybil. “We had some humdingers about that. She would always have been a real Fianna Fail head during the Celtic Tiger and I would be going on about corruption and brown envelopes.”

Lizzie says the disagreements are healthy because they are both honest and open types. “Sybil wears her heart on her sleeve but she doesn’t bear a grudge.

“Most of all she’s just great fun. When I was her bridesmaid with another friend, we got a Wonder Woman outfit for her to wear on her hen. With someone else you might have to bully them into it but Sybil needed no persuasion. The boots were on in minutes, the cape over the shoulder, bold as brass. She is just as much fun as she was when we were kids.”

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Respect the Nonna (and Nonno)

My opinion piece in today's Evening Herald based on a very upsetting report about abuse and neglect of the elderly...

THERE is a lovely custom in Italy that the eldest family member at the dinner table gets the choicest cut of meat and the most sauce on their pasta. Everyone else sits on their hands until Nonna and Nonno (Granny and Grandad) have had their fill. Considering how much Italians love their grub, that's a high mark of respect.

This esteem for the elderly struck me everywhere I went on my recent hols to Italy. It is not unusual for grandparents to play an active role in raising their grandchildren, as their own parents did when their families were young. It's a pay-it-forward system. Everyone has a role and a value and a place.

How striking a contrast then to come home and open the papers to a very grim headline. Almost 2,000 cases of alleged abuse of the elderly were forwarded to the HSE last year. Half of these allegations were made against a son or daughter of the alleged victim. We Irish are supposed to have that one thing in common with the Italians -- that we love our mammies. How did it come to this?

The reported complaints make for upsetting reading. The allegations run the gamut of psychological abuse, financial abuse, neglect. In a sickening 14pc of cases, the abuse was reported to be physical.

The true level of elder abuse must surely run deeper and more widespread than this. As with children, we are talking about a section of society that is vulnerable, isolated and increasingly voiceless. The allegations being reported to the HSE are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg because so many are incapable of complaint. Or unwilling, should their abusers happen to be the very people they are dependent on day-to-day.

At what point did the blessing of having our parents and grandparents still alive and participating in family life become a burden rather than a cause for celebration? The onus is on us, the physically able, the financially 'viable', to change how we look at older people.

There is a tendency to afford status to people depending on what they're worth to our economy. Ask any newly-unemployed person how valued they feel. They miss the salary, sure, but they'll often talk about their sense of worthlessness because society doesn't see them as 'contributing'. I fear we secretly feel the same about people in retirement even if they have spent a lifetime diligently paying their taxes.

It's not just an individual attitude towards old folks. It's institutionalised too. How often do you hear of relatives crying out for more support to help invalided parents? How does a family value an older relative when society at large essentially considers them a drain or -- that horrible term -- a 'bed blocker'?

It's not a huge surprise that tensions and resentments will spring up. And abuse, yes, abuse too, although no measure of frustration should ever be an excuse for it.

We just have to do our best to see the real worth of our older generations. We have to afford status to non-monetary things like wisdom and experience.

Many people tell my 90-year-old grandfather that he is lucky to be living with his daughter, my mother. She would say otherwise. She dreads the day she can't sit down in front of the fire with him of an evening. I dread the phone call that I know will surely come. But we'll be happy that we knew what we had when we had it. How many can say as much?


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Still in Vogue

Fabulous at 40 - how does Naomi do it?
It's the veteran supermodel's birthday today and she looks stunning. Susan Daly susses out her secrets and sees how her contemporaries are doing.
Saturday May 22 2010

Turning 40 is a milestone by anyone's measure. Turning 40 when you're one of the world's most scrutinised models is monumental. Naomi Campbell, who reaches the big 4-0 today, is a rare exception in an industry ruled by youth and beauty.

So remarkable is her career longevity that Oprah Winfrey dedicated an hour-long special to Campbell earlier this month. It was pitched as the world's most powerful black woman getting to the core of the world's most beautiful black woman. The conversation ranged from why she's such an angry person -- a fear of abandonment apparently -- to her friendship with Nelson Mandela.

In reality, Winfrey's viewers probably couldn't care less about Campbell's core. The biggest question as Campbell gets into her fifth decade is purely superficial: How the hell does she still look so good?

There was a riveting segment in the Winfrey special in which Campbell makes a video diary of her new home town of Moscow where she lives with billionaire boyfriend Vladislav Doronin. In her whistlestop tour of the city, she points out a traditional spot for newlyweds to have their photographs taken and deigns to step into a few group shots.

The rigidly fixed smiles of the unfortunate brides say it all. Even at 40, Naomi Campbell is the last person any woman wants to be snapped standing beside on her big day.

Good genes clearly have a lot to answer for: Campbell has always had cheekbones you could hang a Philip Treacy hat on. Yet surely it takes more than a decent bone structure to hold back the ravages of a heady lifestyle.

She has admitted to having worked hard and played harder at the height of her 1990s fame. She was a regular fixture on the party scene as on the catwalk, stepping out with high-profile boyfriends like Robert de Niro, Mike Tyson and ex-fiance Adam Clayton of U2. When her friend, designer Gianni Versace, was shot dead in 1997 she slid into a pattern of drug use that came to a head when she collapsed at a photo shoot in 1999.

"I felt like I couldn't keep up with the grief, so I just started replacing it with drugs," she said. Two months ago, she admitted: "I thought I'd never actually make this birthday."

Little trace of this hard living is visible on Campbell's unlined face and lithe, toned limbs. She was recently papped on her boyfriend's yacht, wearing a tiny bikini and showing off a body most 20-year-olds would envy.

Eleven years ago she told Playboy magazine the secret to her banging bod: "I never diet. I smoke. I drink now and then. I never work out." If the smoking/drinking/no diet or exercise regime was a real winner, wouldn't we all be supermodels?

"Naomi Campbell is pretty unique," concedes 1st Options model agency boss Trish Fallon. "My sister Jules (and business partner) once met Naomi and her mum, and her mother is also absolutely stunning. But if you look at Naomi's body -- it's like an Olympic athlete's. She is definitely following a regime to keep herself in tip-top condition."

Campbell may have burned the candle at both ends from time to time but, says Fallon, she is a real contrast to her contemporary, 36-year-old Kate Moss. "Let's be honest, Kate Moss isn't looking great," says Fallon. "I love her but look at her skin, her teeth, her eyes -- her lifestyle has really started to catch up with her."

Campbell insists that she's never invited the helping hand of a plastic surgeon. Dr Katherine Mulrooney, dermatologist and cosmetic doctor, has a finely tuned antenna for telltale signs of medical intervention. "The most I could say that Naomi would have had might be the slightest amount of Botox," she says.

"Science has come on so much that everything from what you eat to what you put on your skin can have a huge impact over a couple of years. I'm sure she takes anti-oxidants in her food and applies them topically because she has an amazing glow and vitality to her skin."

The biggest factor in her youthful appearance, however, was with Naomi in the womb. "Her skin colour is Fitzpatrick Type 5 (a classification of skin's reaction to UV light). You and I, being pale-skinned and prone to burning, have type 1. The sun is the most ageing environmental factor to the skin and her skin has an inherent sun block. Black skin is also a lot more resilient to other environmental factors. It is slightly thicker than most and can take more wear and tear."

Or, to quote Winfrey and Campbell herself, "Black don't crack."

Those amazing cheekbones are also key, as they act as a type of scaffolding for the face. "Naomi has what we call the 'triangle of youth' where the broadest part of the face is around the eyes and the smallest point is at the chin," says Mulrooney. "If you are blessed with good cheekbones, they are literally like a vector from which the skin will hang, giving it a taut, voluminous look."

Despite being a genetic lottery winner, Campbell has moved to distance herself from her old comments in Playboy about not having to work for her body. "Now I've stopped the parties, stopped trying to burn the candle at both ends," she said.

The Oprah audience was treated to the sight of Naomi working out in her gym. (Surprisingly, it didn't involve vigorous mobile-throwing upper-arm moves.) She uses Pilates-based strength exercises known as gyrotonics. "As we all get older, everything changes and moves, and there are natural ways to exercise," she said. "I think it's important, and I think it's something that can help keep things in place."

Neither is she pigging out on fast food after her daily workouts. She no longer eats gluten and gave up eating meat a year-and-a-half ago. Boyfriend Doronin has also had an influence. "If there is bread on the table, he's like: 'Don't eat bread,'" she told Oprah.

Living in the wacky world of high-fashion, however, has left Campbell with some bogus notions about what's good for her. She also told Oprah that she goes on the infamous Master Cleanse diet three times a year. This is the crash dieting method favoured by the likes of Beyonce and Gwyneth Paltrow. The mainstay of the diet is a concoction made from maple syrup, water, lemon juice and cayenne pepper. "It was not what you would characterise as pretty or easy," Paltrow has said, "It did work, however."

Well, yes, it would do. As the dieter consumes less than 600 calories a day, they are essentially starving themselves. Some celebs use the Master Cleanse for up to 10 days at a time -- Campbell said she once did it for 18 days in a row.

She doesn't have to be so hard on herself. Mulrooney adds: "I'm sure Naomi does all she can to keep age at bay but, really, she was just born lucky."


Schiffer will be 40 next year but is still fit enough to pose nude -- and heavily pregnant -- for the cover of the current German Vogue.
Perhaps it's the slight overbite that helps her retain the slightly childlike air but Schiffer looks like she is still hovering around her early 30s.
Her client list, however, has moved from haute couture to more commercially friendly high street stores like Mango and Accessorise in recent years.

This Irish model was a favourite muse of Vivienne Westwood in the 1990s and was a huge star in the high-fashion world of Japan for years. Even though she is now 38, her youthful look had her fronting the cutting-edge graduate show from the Limerick College of Art and Design last year.

Kate Moss has four years to go before she reaches the big 4-0 but she has already suffered her share of unflattering paparazzi shots. Her rock-chic lifestyle of sex, drugs and late nights has not been without its toll.
"She's also an inveterate smoker," says Dr Katherine Mulrooney, "and it really is the worst thing you can do to your skin after sun damage." Moss was the third-highest paid model in the world last year, raking in €7m -- a chunk of this came from her designer range in TopShop.

The former Miss Denmark passed the 40 mark in December 2008 with the high cheekbones inherited from her Peruvian mother still very much intact.
Christensen spent her 30s mostly behind the camera. Now though she is the face -- and, more importantly, bottom -- of a Reebok campaign in which she appears entirely perfect and entirely naked, save for a pair of trainers.

Canadian beauty Linda uttered the immortal words: "We don't wake up for less than $10,000 a day." At 45, she's proving somewhat immortal herself.
Three years ago she was still a cover girl for Vogue and two years ago was the face for Prada. At the moment she is a L'Oreal ambassador -- although specifically for their anti-age range.

Turlington's face is so perfectly symmetrical that the New York City Metropolitan Museum of Art made a mould of it to represent the ideal of beauty. At 41, she remains pretty much flawless; the result, it seems, of a dedication to yoga and hatred of smoking(see her website

Crawford is the eldest of the original supermodels, but if it's any consolation to her, she is May cover girl for Fashion magazine under the headline: Still Sizzling at 44.
Harper's Bazaar announced in March, 'The Sexiest Super is Back', quoting designer Christopher Kane: "I have fond memories of my sisters working out in our living room to her fitness videos. We still have the first one, and her body hasn't changed! Is she a machine?"


When Sarah Met Carrie

By Susan Daly
Friday May 28 2010

To the casual observer, the career of Sarah Jessica Parker begins and ends with a tutu. The alpha tutu is the short pink one she wore in the opening titles to the Sex and the City TV series. The omega tutu -- a grown-up, shin-length affair -- was borrowed from the Royal Ballet of London for her character Carrie Bradshaw to wear in the final episode of the show in 2004.

For the majority of fans who will pay this weekend to Sex and the City 2, the marketing behemoth-come-movie, Parker is synonymous with Carrie. She may have been a working actress since the age of eight, but real A-list fame only came at 33 with SATC. It took those six short years as the clotheshorse sex columnist to bounce her from quirky movie support act to household name.

Her late career blossoming has been described -- by The New York Times, no less -- as the ultimate Revenge of the Nerd. Glam, streetwise Carrie was not the career-defining role Parker was supposed to have. She played earnest urchin Annie as a child on Broadway. She was the geeky, gangly heroine for awkward pubescents everywhere in 80s TV teen drama Square Pegs. When she made it to the movies, she was the academic, mousy-haired sidekick of wild and sexy Lori Singer in Footloose.

Surprising then that the show that made her a power player was one equally obsessed with the exterior appearance as with the interior lives of its characters. "I have no illusions of who I am or what I look like or what I have to offer," said Parker in 2000, two years into her role as style icon Carrie.

She has spoken before of losing out on roles because she isn't traditionally beautiful. "I'm not particularly proud of how I look," she once said. "I've never been what Hollywood considers beautiful. It would be so great to look like Andie Macdowell. She beat me for the part in Four Weddings and a Funeral."

Parker might have her detractors but none are as deprecating as she is about herself. She has suggested that even Johnny Depp looked better than her in biopic Ed Wood (1994), where she played transvestite director Wood's girlfriend. "That was depressing because in drag he was more beautiful than me," she said.

In fact, the roles she took in her 20s were already teeing Parker up to be able to convincingly play a rom-com icon such as Carrie. The wickedly funny LA Story (1991) gave her licence to play ditsy, sexy blonde SanDeE* -- a persona she took out of the box again as trophy girlfriend Shelly Stewart for The First Wives Club five years later.

In Honeymoon in Vegas in 1992, she proved she could carry a romantic lead as she was fought over by Nicolas Cage and James Caan. Here though, her character was somewhat objectified and only given a first name, Betsy -- Parker was still a bit player.

When the Sex and the City script arrived in her lap, Parker actually thought it signalled the death knell to her career. A year into the series, when SATC was proving to be a hit, she admitted that she had been "terrified" of signing up to a TV show. "I was very nervous about doing a television series," she said, "It sounded depressing to me." She explained that she thought a return to TV was a last pit-stop before retirement. "That you'd never get better, you'd just get comfortable, and that's it."

Her husband, actor Matthew Broderick, convinced her otherwise, telling her that the worst-case scenario would be that it would be successful. "And in fact he was right," she says.

Was he ever. Purely measured against the benchmark of cold, hard cash, Sex and the City made Parker a player in the entertainment business. Her personal stock as an actress went up. Before SATC, she was not commanding outrageous fees for her movie roles. When she played Nell in a tame family movie called Dudley Do-Right in 1999, she earned her first $500,000 pay cheque because SATC had just made her a star.

She was also smart enough to translate Carrie's popularity (she was easily the most fleshed-out character compared with the archetypes of tough Miranda, prissy Charlotte and sex-mad Samantha) into a producer credit. It created some rancour among her castmates, and this apparently had much to do with the four-year delay in bringing the first movie version of SATC to the screen after the series ended.

Sarah Jessica Parker is herself as much a brand now as Carrie Bradshaw. There was a blip when Gap dropped her as their brand ambassador in 2005 in favour of singer Joss Stone, but otherwise she's raked in millions in endorsements, her own clothing line, Bitten, and in the lucrative fragrances industry.

Ironically, she insists that she is really a homebody mother of three. She had two high-profile relationships in her 20s -- with Robert Downey Jr and John Kennedy Jr -- but said "my single life was never as colourful as that [of Carrie's]. I've never been a drinker really, never gone to clubs and dances all night and been irresponsible, even as a young person". As such, she is a blank canvas for fans and advertisers to project their fantasies on.

So complete is the transformation from journeywoman theatre actress to star brand that her new perfume is simply called SJP NYC, putting her star wattage on a par with the Big Apple itself.

In the long run though, has Parker shot herself in her Jimmy Choo-shod foot? She claims that the reason she put an end to Sex and the City, the TV series, was because she was too comfortable there. "I felt it was really incumbent upon me at this time in my life to do something new and challenging," she said.

Those words came in 2005, just after she had a modest critical and commercial success as the highly strung businesswoman Meredith in dramedy The Family Stone. In truth though, none of the rom-coms she has chosen since she left SATC have raised her up the acting star league. Smart People (2007) was a small independent black comedy that was shorter on laughs than its trailer would have suggested. Failure to Launch with Matthew McConnaughey, one of her first forays into movies after her TV show ended, was disastrously titled and badly reviewed.

What is often forgotten about the first two series of Sex and the City -- perhaps most of all by Parker herself -- is that they made much use of her sharp comic instincts. This was before the writers got distracted by 'fabulousness', product placement and attempts to flesh out two-dimensional characters such as Mr Big into likeable people.

For all that, Parker appears to be as popular as ever after the demise of SATC the TV series -- it has to be noted that she only made the Forbes Celebrity 100 power list for the very first time in 2008. This was due mainly to the success of Sex and the City: The Movie -- the other movies she had made in the intervening four years hadn't put her there.

Parker appears to be making the wise choice to evolve behind the camera -- she has recently produced a comedy series for HBO called The Washingtonienne and an art reality show. She must realise that while slick SJP is no longer square peg Sarah Jessica, it's every bit as much of a pigeonhole.

Sex and the City opens in cinemas today

Next-of-kin: The bumper issue! Peter Sheridan, Louise Lennox and Katherine Lynch

A few pieces from my Next-of-Kin series for the Weekend magazine were published while I was away, so here's who you (and I) may have missed!

Peter Sheridan has moulded his life around the arts. He and brother Jim founded the Project Theatre Company in Dublin in the early 1970s, Peter going on to become a prolific playwright and author and Jim directing films like My Left Foot, The Field and In The Name of The Father.

“Our dad introduced us to the theatre when we were teenagers and we just fell in love with this medium even though we had been playing music, we had been in a garage band together,” says Peter.

Despite this familial way with words, Peter was surprised when his youngest son Fiachra approached him with a draft of his first book, a memoir called The Runners. It was published last year.

“I was very surprised when Fiachra started writing because of all my four kids I would have least expected him to,” says Peter. “My daughter Doireann always had a strong interest in my work, but the conversation between me and Fiachra would have been more like, ‘Isn’t it terrible Liverpool were beaten 3-1 yesterday?’”

There was no-one more surprised than Fiachra. He had a chequered career in his 20s, spanning a spell as League of Ireland footballer and a hedge fund manager and, eventually, his current day job as a maths teacher. “I went through a lot to realise teaching was what I loved,” says Fiachra. He wrote The Runners at weekends and in the holidays, and is currently working on a sequel.

“For the whole of my 20s, I really hadn’t a clue what I was doing. I think now: How did Dad achieve so much in that time? He had four kids in his 20s. I was nearly 30 when I had my first.”

Peter and Jim had just turned 20 when they founded the Project. Fiachra thinks his experiences of growing up in an artistic environment might have delayed the bite of the writing bug.

“I hated the arts and all I wanted to do was play football,” he says. “All I saw was the Project and actors sitting around drinking coffee and going to rehearsals. As a kid, rehearsals are inherently boring. When you’re a kid, you rebel against everything your father does.”

Peter, although committed to the arts, understood his son’s reluctance. “To be honest, I would have much preferred if they became footballers because that’s what I wanted when I was a kid, maybe play for Man United,” he says.

Neither, says Fiachra, did the financial insecurity of a career in the arts appeal.
“They (children Doireann, Ross, Fiachra and Nuala) always felt that the arts equaled poverty and they were right,” says Peter, “We were living on very small pickings in the 1970s and 80s. We lived in a very small house in Ballybough, I remember my two daughters sharing a bedroom that you could barely fit the bunk bed in.”

These days, Fiachra can see his dad’s house from the bedroom window of the north Dublin home he shares with his wife and their two small children. In the back garden, his six-month-old son Julen is gurgling at his granddad.

“When he became a father, I felt it was this huge bonding thing in the family,” says Peter. “You feel that thing of life starting again, of the circle continuing. It’s been a big bonding thing for us and has deepened our relationship in the past few years.”

The writing too has brought them together. “When Fiachra came to me with his first attempts, I was so taken aback. He has that gift of expressing something in a very unaffected manner.”

Praise from a proud father? Fiachra demurs. “I know the most honest opinion I will get will be from him. I don’t fear showing him something and him telling me it’s crap. That’s alright.”
• Peter Sheridan directs The Shawshank Redemption at the Gaiety Theatre Dublin until May 29.

TV chef LOUISE LENNOX and her sister NICOLA
When pastry chef Louise Lennox appears on RTE’S The Restaurant, sister Nicola is often carefully watching. Not to see Louise keep the visiting celebrity cooks in line - but to check that Nicola’s clothes are not making a surprise appearance on TV.

“My flatmate is convinced Louise has a key to our place and she comes up when we’re not there and raids our wardrobes,” says Nicola. “It’s when she wears the stuff to cook in that it annoys me. They get destroyed. She gets chocolate everywhere!”
Nicola, a nanny, tuned in one day to see Louise do a cookery demo on The Afternoon Show. “I was making a sandwich for the little girl I was minding and told her to tell me when Lou Lou was on the telly. She comes running in saying, ‘Nicky, Lou Lou is wearing a pair of your earrings!’”

Apart from the issue of accessories gone AWOL, their relationship as adults is much more stable than it was as children. The youngest two of five, there was a substantial gap between Nicola and Louise and their older siblings. As a result, they were both “the babies” of the household.

“We were as thick as thieves because we shared a room together,” says Louise, “But then we’d kill each other and be best friends an hour later.”
When they fought, they’d fight ferociously. “Oh, hair-pulling and biting and scraping,” says Nicola, “We each had our signature moves. I would start to cry and Louise would give me one of her sweets if I wouldn’t tell Mum, and I’d be like, ‘Okay’.”

Two very difficult times in their lives pushed the childish battles behind them. Both girls were diagnosed with dyslexia as youngsters. While Nicola felt her secondary school was supportive, Louise felt no-one but her siblings could really understand the frustration and embarrassment she suffered as a result of her reading difficulties.

“It’s kind of how I got into cookery,” says Louise. “I used to stutter through reading assignments so my teacher let me figure out recipes from a cookbook my aunt gave me when I was ten and bake a cake for my homework. That was great – it gave me self-belief.”

She needed that confidence when she started secondary school, a different one to that which Nicola attended.

“The teacher would make me stand up and read and I’d have panic attacks, feeling this heaviness all around me. I couldn’t even read words like ‘the’ and ‘these’, which I normally could. I bunked off school a lot so I wouldn’t have to read aloud.”

Then, when Louise was 17, her best friend Janice died in an accident.
“Louise is two and a half years older than me and that was a huge age gap when I was 14, but when Janice died it drove us closer together,” says Nicola.
“From the day Janice died, I used to sleep on Louise’s floor,” says Nicola.

Louise takes up the story: “Because I was afraid to sleep on my own. Scared Janice would come down to say, I’m okay!’ It was okay for me to cry around Nicky. I’m really weird about letting people see me cry, but I felt comfortable in her space and then we developed a friendship on a whole new level.”

Louise describes Nicola as “really caring” – she does a lot of voluntary work outside her job as a nanny – and for her part, Nicola is proud of her sister’s TV work but knows it’s not for her.

“Our parents never compared us to each other,” says Louise, “There’s never been sibling rivalry in that way.”
Nicola thinks for a moment and adds: “The only thing I would be really jealous of is if she got to do something with Westlife. I really like them and she just wouldn’t appreciate it!”

Comedy actress KATHERINE LYNCH and best friend WARREN MEYLER
ONLY a very, very good friend can persuade a woman to burst out of a costume shaped like a sanitary product in front of a packed auditorium.

That was the test of friendship set for TV comedy star Katherine Lynch by her best pal and co-writer Warren Meyler – and she passed. As the only woman among a chorus of men entering Alternative Miss Ireland in 1998, Katherine had to stand out. She chose a drag alter-ego, Tampy Lilette, who she describes as a periodically-obsessed country and western singer.

“So we had her burst out of a giant tampon onto the stage, saying, ‘Sorry I’m a little late!’” laughs Warren.
“I was going, ‘What is that?’ when he suggested it,” says Katherine, “And Warren was saying, ‘It’s a tampon. Just get into it’.”

The pair take their comedy quite seriously now. They run their own production company, Waka, which created the RTE2 series Single Ladies and Wonderwomen, with Katherine the performer and Warren producer, director and co-writer.

Their shared comedy roots go back to the mid-1990s when they first met but it wasn’t exactly friendship at first sight. Warren was working in a late-night café in Temple Bar called Smalltalk – “a real whiskey-in-the-teapot place” – when Katherine started as a waitress.

“We hated each other at first,” he said. “I thought she was weird, and she thought I was weird.” (Katherine interrupts: “He WAS weird. Warren was a Michael Jackson fan and he moonwalked everywhere.” For the record, Warren denies this. Strongly.)

Working nights proved a bonding experience. “We used to have people on shift work coming in, from doctors to U2 and Boyzone,” says Katherine. “One night Quentin Tarantino and Mira Sorvino came in and stayed till six in the morning because we doused them in whiskey. I sang Caledonia for Mira and she cried… in pain.”

They “settled into each other” and discovered a mutual love of kitsch, slapstick humour.

“We shared a flat together on Parliament Street and when we were broke we’d be sitting in and doing sketches and that’s how we ended up writing comedy together,” says Warren.

Over a decade on, Warren and Katherine still socialise and work together. They say their romantic partners are very understanding of their close friendship. Ask if that was always the case in the past and they laugh. “There have been one or two situations like that but someone who is threatened by your friendships isn’t right for you,” says Warren.

They are currently holed up in an office together writing material for Katherine’s live shows in Vicar Street this August. (“And Warren’s doing my VAT for me,” adds Katherine.) Don’t they ever get on each other nerves? “We laugh loads and we argue loads,” says Katherine.

They are still pals with the Smalltalk gang some of whom, like Brendan Courtney and Declan Buckley (aka Shirley Temple Bar), have also found success in the entertainment biz. They might be all grown-up now but it doesn’t take much prompting to get Katherine and Warren reminiscing about their party days.

“We were adamant we were going to get into the MTV awards when they were in Dublin, do you remember that?” says Warren. They blagged into seats beside Whitney Houston – with Katherine dressed in a floor-length white puffa coat pretending to be a Dublin hip hop star and Warren and a friend as her backing dancers.

“The poor boys were dressed like a pair of gay dancers with bellytops on them,” says Katherine, “I couldn’t take my coat off because I had my work clothes from the restaurant on underneath. I was sweating buckets!” Sounds like a good idea for a comedy sketch…

Pull up to my bumper, baby

Nightwatch column from Independent's Day and Night mag:

By Susan Daly

Friday May 21 2010

On a night out, it's up there with queuing for the ladies' toilets. The taxi ride home is an unavoidable pain in the ass. But is it getting better? Do you feel the same? I've had an unsettling number of incidents recently where a taxi driver has pressed his little meter gizmo at the end of a trip and said something like, "Seven-forty, love. Ah, let's leave that at seven". All the while, he's beaming at you like an urchin child who has come bearing the gift of a mud pie.

Since when have taxi drivers been rounding down their fares? It doesn't seem that long ago that the done thing was to suggest rounding up the fare to the nearest €2 coin. Hand over the exact change and you'd feel two searing pinpoints of burning rage reflected from the rear-view mirror. The 'stingy-cow' stare for what they perceived was a 'stingy cow' fare.

Have you not been listening? Do you not understand that the country -- the entire country -- has its hand in the taxi driver's pocket, in the pockets of his rickets-ridden children and that of his invalid mother? And the dog needs an operation. You heartless wagon.

There are clearly still some dinosaurs out there in the ranks. The ones who think parking across the entire breadth of O'Connell Street makes them the heirs to Padraig Pearse. The ones who perform a go-slow protest through the city at rush hour in the deluded notion that it will make us punters sympathetic to their cause.

I don't seem to be getting those guys and gals of late. I've been hopping into the nice, clean taxis of nice, polite folks who seem to have worked out what the letters PSV on their taxi licence stand for. So no enforced psychotherapy sessions. ("You know what your problem is? You're stressed out. You'd want to relax." Thanks for that. I feel much better. Keep the change.)

And no sessions with me in the role of the therapist, listening to the blow-by-blow account of the row they had last night with the missus. Yes, you were wrong to tell her what was what and, yes, I do blame you. No, I don't want to go by the quays. Stop picking your nose.

Hand on heart, I can say there was a time when I point-blank refused to use taxis. It came after a series of curious incidents -- all in the night-time -- where the drivers behaved like some shower of marauding pirates.

One had a road-rage tantrum that made Britney's umbrella attack on that paparazzo's SUV look mild by comparison. One referred to a passing taxi being driven by an African gentleman -- that was the presumption; he could have been from Cabra for all we knew -- as a "blacksie".

My personal favourite was the man who told me every reason why "culchies" should not be allowed to own property in Dublin -- and then asked what part of Tipperary I was from.

Sure wasn't his mother from there and wouldn't he recognise the accent anywhere.

There is only so much time in a day you can waste beating a path to the Carriage Office to make complaints. So I gave them up like sweeties at Lent, but with lowered blood pressure as the reward instead of a big chocolate egg.

Recently, though, I've been seduced by the new come-ons from Public Service Vehicles. They seem to want my business. One taxi passed me on Dame Street the other day with the words 'Email me at ... . day or night' written across the side door.

A few have bright flashing 'For hire' signs in the windscreen now, in case you missed the big yellow sign on the roof.

So I've decided to give the relationship another go. It's honeymoon days yet, but the signs have been healthy.

Good manners, nice small talk and, er, clean upholstery.

If things go on like this, you can most certainly pull up to my bumper, sir.