Kylee Vincent

First Published January 2022

KYLEE’S HERE TO EXPRESS HERSELF

If you were tuned into last Sunday night’s episode of DANCING WITH THE STARS (DWTS) on RTE 1, you’ll have seen professional dancer KYLEE VINCENT guide her celebrity partner, none other than Offaly’s own comedy overlord NEIL DELAMERE, safely through to the next round of the show. And that next round promises to be something extra-special, because this coming Sunday is always one of the most anticipated and exciting of each season…it’s movie week! 


Truth be told, Neil couldn’t possibly be in safer hands, and his amazing start to the show with two stellar performances already under his belt are proof of that. From Pretoria in South Africa, Kylee joined DWTS last season with quite the dance CV to her credit. The softly-spoken but immediately and endearingly warm and friendly Kylee is – as we’ve already seen evidence a-plenty of – a World Champion, having won the WDC (World Dance Council) Under-21 Latin Championships in 2011. She also claimed the WDC’s South African Under-21 Latin Championship that same year, before going on to secure the Under-21 Open British Latin Championship one year later. Since 2013, Kylee has toured the world with the Burn The Floor dance company. 


And on top of all that, she’s been keeping Neil in-check while turning him into a dancer! And every bit as impressive as everything I’ve already mentioned, is the lady herself when you get a chance to talk to her. Which, luckily for me, I did! 


When I had the pleasure of spending some time in Kylee’s company last week, last Sunday night’s dance was still on the horizon, so that was where our chat began…


“So Sunday night we are actually dancing the Charleston, which is quite a scary one to start with or to have as a second dance because you get to do lifts, and tricks, and throws, and drops! So it involves quite a lot. I think Neil is going to treat the audience on Sunday [laughs], as he always does! I think people are going to be shocked by what he can do. They’re in for a big surprise, that’s for sure [laughs].” 

From a technical point of view, for Kylee as a teacher and choreographer, how difficult is it to come up with a routine that’s as short as they need to be for television, as opposed to a normal routine that might be part of a theatre show or a competition? 


“As a choreographer, we kind of do what the music tells us to do. So when we get our piece of music, we have a listen through for what the music is telling us, for where the accents are, where the music breaks are. Then we take the concept, the story that we would like the audience to see, and we portray that story through the music and through the dance. So it’s actually quite a nice way to choreograph because you’re not thinking of an hour-long story that all needs to make sense from beginning to end. You’ve got that minute and a half to impress everyone and get in as much content as you can. It’s a fun process!” 

In the way that some songwriters will tell you about how, for example, they might have got the idea for the chorus first and then proceeded to work everything else around that, might things work the same way for Kylee, I wondered? Would she get an idea for the middle or maybe the end of a routine first and build things in whichever direction she needed to from there, or is it always a more linear process? 


“I think it kind of depends on the number you get, or the story that you get to tell. Sometimes it’s easier to build the story from the beginning, sometimes it’s easier to take it from the end. It completely depends on what dance you’ve gotten and what song you were given. Or maybe, you can’t come up with a concept just yet, so you create a routine and then decide that this concept would fit nicely with it. Or maybe the other way around. Maybe you want to portray the story first, and then you go and find the music and the choreo.” 

As DWTS returned to our screens a few weeks ago, not only did Kylee and Neil have the honour of being first to hit the floor that night, but that, of course, meant they were also the first pair to dance in the new series…


“I was really happy to open up the show. Neil was really happy to get it done and out of the way first [laughs]. I think that was his main focus! Be first so you finish and relax for the rest of the show [laughs]. But I think it was a nice strong number for Neil, it wasn’t your typical paso, it was more rock ‘n’ roll. So it was easy for him to go out there and have fun, and I think the excitement overtook the nerves which was a great thing.” 

So what is Neil like as a partner for Kylee? What traits does he have that make him a good student and good to work with? 


“I first thought Neil was going to come into the studio, and because he’s a comedian, there were going to be thousands of jokes and we’d be giggling more than actually working! But Neil takes this so seriously, he works so hard. He comes in, he’s got his stretches, he warms up first, he’s looking after his body, and he just keeps going. He pushes SO hard. From a teacher’s perspective, that’s the most important thing, to have someone who is willing to try everything, willing to learn, and give their time up for this. That’s what makes Neil a great student in the studio.” 

I wondered if Kylee had any idea of who Neil was before she actually met him for the show? 


“So my husband – well, both of us – we both love watching comedy things on YouTube and going to comedy shows, and the minute Neil’s name came up, Stephen was like ‘I know him! I ‘ve seen him on YouTube!’ [Laughs]. So my husband [Stephen, also a pro dancer on the show] pulled up all the videos and showed me absolutely everything on Neil. So I didn’t know him before, but before I met him, yes, my husband had informed me on every little thing [laughs].” 

Last time round on the show, which was Kylee’s first season, everyone knows that she had a much harder task on her hands with Father Ray as her celebrity partner. What we can clearly see from Neil already, however, is that there’s a lot more room for Kylee to be creative and to express herself as a teacher. Not comparing Neil with Father Ray, but how much of a difference does it make to what Kylee can do in her role when her partner this year allows for a much more adventurous approach to things? 


“It’s really exciting. As a choreographer and as a dancer, it’s a real pleasure to see what you’ve had in your head come to life. With Neil, that’s what’s happening. Everything that I imagine or create, is slowly coming to life. That’s what we dream of. That’s what Neil is bringing for me this year. Yes, he takes a while to learn the steps, he doesn’t learn fast, so the process is still slow. But I think because he’s so committed to being in that character and to portraying that story we’re trying to tell, it makes life so much easier!” 

With the Charleston coming up on the Sunday after we spoke, and with the Paso already out of the way, is there any other particular dance that Kylee really hopes she and Neil stay in the show long enough to do because it would be amazing to put together a routine for it with Neil? 


“Oh! All the dances have such unique qualities. There’s so many things that make me think, ‘Oh, Neil would be great with this’, or that it would be nice to create something here and there. I know that there’s Dedication Week coming up where the celebrities get to dedicate their dance to someone special in their lives, so I’m quite excited to create that. So hopefully we get as far as Dedication Week so we can get that one out in front of the public.” 

Kylee is from Pretoria in South Africa, and her husband Stephen is from England. While working on the show, of course, they both live here in Ireland. But where do the couple normally call home? 


“That’s a tricky question actually [laughs]. My husband and I, we tour a lot with dance shows. So hotels are our homes most of the time! But we do have home-home in South Africa at the moment, where all of our belongings are and where we can say this is our house, this is our bed, this is our kitchen [laughs]. But, you never know what life throws at you. So we’re just going with the flow at the moment [laughs].”

Kylee being married to Vincent very much mirrors the relationship of Janette Manrara and Aljaz Skorjanec (and indeed, Karen Hauer and Kevin Clifton once upon a time) on Strictly Come Dancing. Because Kylee and Vincent are married, and both are dancers by profession, I wondered if they are often booked as a couple as well? Because they have, for example, both toured together with Giovanni Pernice on his Dance Is Life show in 2018 and 2019…


“We have been lucky enough to always be booked together. Even if we’re maybe not dancing together, we’ll still be on the same show or the same contract. That’s made our lives super easy. I get to travel and dance and experience life with him all the time. So I’m really blessed. In this industry, as a dancer, booking gigs is a struggle on its own. So most people take what they can get, when they can get it. But we’ve just been really lucky and fortunate.” 

Kylee and Stephen actually met while working for a dance company called Burn The Floor...


“So Stephen has been a part of Burn The Floor for almost nineteen years now. From the age of seventeen he went off and joined the dance company. When I finished school, I joined the company and we bumped into each other on one contract. We weren’t dancing together at that stage, but certain things happened on that contract where people had to leave and they had to recouple the dancers, and they put Stephen and I together. Then after a couple of months…! Yeah, he worked hard, I must say [laughs]. He was really sweet, and very persistent [laughs].”

Giovanni Pernice, who we mentioned briefly a moment ago, went home with the prestigious Strictly Come Dancing glitter-ball last year, finally winning the show with the inspirational actress Rose Ayling-Ellis as his celebrity partner. What was it like for Kylee to see someone she knows win a show as massive as Strictly is? 


“Stephen and I have worked with a lot of the Strictly dancers actually. We’ve worked with Kevin (Clifton), Aljaz and Janette, Gorka (Marquez), Dianne (Buswell), so we’re a very close-knit, small group in Burn The Floor that always follow each other. And although Giovanni hasn’t actually done Burn The Floor, experiencing his tours with him, you get really close. It becomes sort of like a family environment, you look after each other. You live, sleep, eat, rest all together. So I was just ecstatic for him. I know it’s been a dream of his for a long time, and he’s been in that final way too often to not have a win! So yeah, I’m really, really happy for him. And it’s going to change a lot of views about the deaf community and how we can help that community as a whole, Dance brings people together, and that was just one more battle that they broke through to bring communities even closer.” 

Kai Widdrington, who was still a member of the DWTS family in Kylee’s first season, went on to join the Strictly line-up as a full-time pro last year, and even made it all the way to within touching distance of the famous glitter-ball trophy with his celeb partner AJ Odudu. Is that a move that Kylee would like to see happen somewhere along the way on her own career path as well? 


“I think Strictly is a  dream for any dancer. It’s an absolutely amazing platform, not only to show your skill, but to connect with the public. It’s a different way of connecting, really getting to know your fans. And it’s a pleasure getting to see someone learn, and grow in a studio environment. Even working with Neil, from day-one to where he is now is absolutely amazing. Sometimes I wish the public could really see the actual day-one to where they are now. Yeah, Strictly is definitely a dream! No-one will say it’s not a dream of theirs [laughs]. Fingers crossed, you never know! [Laughs].” 

To finish up our chat and let Kylee back to Neil – who I’m sure was waiting somewhere patiently in the background practising his moves in front of the studio mirror – I asked Kylee to share why dancing is such a passion in her life. And also, for people who might love to learn to dance but are scared to take those first steps, what would Kylee say to encourage them to dare…


“I’m not really an extravert. From a really young age, I’d never just walk up to someone and start a conversation. So dancing – and it sounds cheesy [laughs] – but dancing was a way of expressing myself. It was a way of letting out and showing a different side of me. That still happens today. I get to express myself in different characters, and forms that I wouldn’t necessarily be able to show people on a day-to-day basis. That in itself has connected me to new people. I would have never met people like Neil and Father Ray, and all of these pros that we’re working with. Dancing is a thing that brings people together. And I think that’s the main encouragement for people who are afraid of learning. It’s a social kind of thing. We come together to connect, and it doesn’t matter where you start off. It doesn’t matter if you have two left feet. By the end of it, you will be able to move, you will be able to find something that’s unique for you, so that you can express how you’re feeling and not feel self-conscious about it. We’re all here just to enjoy ourselves and to express ourselves.” 

KYLEE VINCENT and NEIL DELAMERE return to the floor of DANCING WITH THE STARS next SUNDAY night (January 30th) at 6.30pm on RTE 1. To support Neil, here are your voting options: Text NEIL to 53125; from the Republic of Ireland call 1513 717101; or from Northern Ireland call 09011 331101. 

ENDS

Neil Delamere

First Published December 2021

LIFE’S A DANCE

“Yeah, we’re about a week or so in. It’s very enjoyable, I have to say. You’re being trained by a world champion. I mean, how often do you get a chance to be trained by someone who’s so talented at what they do? It’s great fun. You get into it, you really get into it. The thing about me is I have nothing to judge it off from the start. I haven’t done as much as a dance class along the way, of any kind! So there’s no frame of reference for how quickly I’ll pick something up or maybe how slowly I’ll pick something up! But it’s been great fun so far.” 

With his journey as part of next year’s DANCING WITH THE  STARS IRELAND class just getting underway, there seems to be little doubt that comedian NEIL DELAMERE is taking it all in his stride. With the hit show finally set to return to our TV screens in January, Delamere – amazingly – is one of TWO Offaly men who will be aiming to get their hands on that prized Glitterball, with rugby star Jordan Conroy also looking to impress on the dancefloor. And Neil – who brings his LIMINAL tour to the Tullamore Court Hotel on March 5th next – has already seen the signs of his new sequined self beginning to emerge, as he explained when we caught up for a chat about DWTSIrl, and more, last week…

“Some things are coming easier than others, but it’s incredible how quickly you get into it, in terms of you’re doing steps when you’re walking around the house…or, I said this on The Late Late Show…I’ll put on the indicator of my car, and as it goes tick, tick, tick, I’m goin’, ‘One, two, three, four, five,six, seven, eight…!’ So the patterns are getting into your brain!” 

I suspect that Neil has a competitive side to him. Will we see that in this competition?


“Haha, well I have a competitive side to me IF I have the ability to compete! If it becomes evident very quickly that there are some people who are amazing dancers and the rest of us are just making up the numbers, well then you’ll just kind of enjoy it on that basis. But ah yeah, listen, I’ll give it what I can, and after that let the chips fall where they may!” 

Somewhere else I didn’t expect to see Neil showing up in the coming weeks was on Ireland’s Fittest Family. But sure enough, he’s taking part in the show’s Celebrity Special at the end of December. Also taking part is someone else I’m lucky enough to know pretty well, Grainne Gallanagh, who was Miss Universe Ireland in 2018. I put it to Neil that this – no more so than Dancing With The Stars – was definitely a different kind of show for him…


“Well, it came about because of Covid, and because my normal schedule wasn’t what it normally is. I was asked to do it and I said I’d love to. You have a couple of months lead-in time, about six weeks lead-in or whatever – and then you have some degree of focus, ya know. You know you have to get this done or otherwise you won’t be fit enough to do the show. It was as much about me saying this will give me some sort of structure on my weeks, because as you know, because of Covid we were restricted in what we were allowed to do and what we weren’t allowed to do. Comics, without a deadline, we tend to not be massively creative! It’s not like writing a book or doing a TV show, so you need something where you have to have a show done by X day. So, I had a lot of time, and I also didn’t have the usual structure on the year that I’d always have, so I went yeah, absolutely, I’m gonna do it. I got a team together, and it was us against Grainne, Sinead Quinlan, and the Happy Pear as well. We did it for the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland. I can’t tell you who won, but if you look at who’s in and judge the fitness of people on sight, you’ll probably be in the ball-park of who did! [Laughs].” 

In Dancing With The Stars and the Celebrity Special of Ireland’s Fittest Family, we’d already touched on two huge upcoming events in Neil’s life. But never a man to do things by halves, there’s something even bigger coming up in 2022. In fact, it’s Neil’s biggest solo show ever, and it’s happening at the SSE Arena in Belfast in March ??? 


“Biggest solo show I’ve ever done, yeah. I’ve done gigs to ten thousand people before, but on mixed bills. Can’t wait to do it. I was up having a look at the Arena the other day, the Belfast Giants Arena, and it looks spectacular. And again, that sprang from Covid, from wanting to give myself something to aim for in these weird times when we don’t know what’s going on, ya know. So ya kind of force yourself into, ‘Oh God, this is happening…write jokes, write jokes, write jokes!’ I can’t wait for it. I think it will change the way I do the show in some ways, because a big, big room might not have the usual messing and interplay that I would have with the front row if people can’t really see the front row! [Laughs]. I know from playing the really, really, big rooms that you have to do it in a different rhythm, you almost have to wait for the wave of laughter to come back. It’s a slightly different technique. And I’m very grateful that ‘The Blame Game’, which we’re doing at the moment, is allowed a small ‘live’ audience, and that kind of keeps the name out there in the north still.” 

Neil’s current tour is called Liminal (relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process) and from the meaning of the word, my guess was that it’s to do with the place the world finds itself in with Covid, amongst other things as well. I wondered if I was correct in that assumption, and if I was, where, in fact, does Neil think we – as a country and a planet – are with Covid at this stage? 


“I think overall Ireland has done very well. Our vaccine roll-out has been amazing, and I think our vaccine uptake has been amazing. Smaller countries in Europe tend to do better than their larger neighbours in terms of social cohesion. In terms of how many people passed away, our figures were much lower than say the UK. I don’t know how far we are into this. My worry would be that we may not be as far in as people think. And selfishly, I suppose, for people in the arts, we’re wondering what’s going to be left at the end of all this. My worry wouldn’t be for the people that are going ten or fifteen or twenty years, that they’ll be removed from the scene. My worry is for the younger people – either younger in age or in experience – doing their respective music, dancing, comedy, whatever it is. They may well have been washed out of the system by Covid. So we could lose all these important and exciting new voices. The rest of us will be fine. If we’ve built up enough touring, and enough TV shows, and enough radio, we can afford – almost – to take a hit. But my worry is that we would lose the next generation of people, ya know.” 

Neil mentioned how the way he performs his show in a bigger venue might have to change slightly, but I wondered if how he writes his material had to change over the last twenty months or so too. So much of what he does is observational, comes from being out in the world, around people and with people. Did the lockdowns, and Covid in general, change his creative process much? 


“That’s a very good point. I suppose it didn’t change the observation as much as much as it changed the anecdotal stuff. A lot of the time you’re telling stories and you’re animating the stories with observations and characterisations and stuff. But you are still telling stories about what had happened to you. If you haven’t done anything [laughs] – because most of us didn’t do anything for a fairly protracted period of time – what do ya talk about? ‘Dancing With The Stars’ and ‘Ireland’s Fittest Family’ have given me ten minutes of material sort of thing. It’s not why I did them [laughs], that’s a beneficial extra from the two of them. But it’s such a strange world to be thrust into, that you can’t fail to get some stuff out of them. Also, I probably have a decent closer for the SSE Arena and for the Tullamore Court Hotel and everywhere else, because I know Des [Bishop] when he did it years ago, I think he used to bring his pro dancer and they’d dance at the end. So, ya know something…I wouldn’t rule it out! I haven’t talked to my pro dancer about it yet, but it seems like a cool way to end a really big show. It’s something I would definitely consider if I was any good anyway [laughs].” 

Looking at everything that’s happened since March of 2019 when Covid kicked in – and even going back a little bit before that to when Neil and I last spoke – there’s been so much absurdity. From almost everything to do with Boris Johnson in the UK, to Trump and January 6th in the States, to the whole anti-vax movement here, and more. From a comedian’s perspective, what’s been the most absurd moment of it all? 


Well January 6th was completely off the wall, I thought. I almost couldn’t believe that was happening. If a couple of things had gone a different way, maybe if Mike Pence had made some decisions in another way, it could have been much more serious. That, in terms of one day, was bizarre. The Dominic Cummings thing and how he was supported by a Prime Minister who has since completely removed his support. I mean, Cummings driving to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight was so absurd! Boris Johnson is the gift that keeps on giving. All I’ll say is his testicles are as fertile as his imagination! As good as he is as a comedy source, I wouldn’t wish him as a Prime Minister on anybody. We criticise politicians in Ireland, but there’s a lot to be said about a steady, seasoned hand at the tiller, both in terms of Michael D. Higgins and some of the members of the government. I think we can be overly harsh on them in a very difficult – VERY difficult – scenario for them.” 

Going back to events on the horizon for Neil, he’s also filmed Pointless Celebrities


“I did! I love a quiz. Since we last spoke, I did Richard Osman’s ‘House of Games’, which is the big one, you do five episodes and you’re on for the entire week. I managed to nip a victory in that at the last minute. So you’re paired with somebody else in ‘Pointless Celebrities’, and all I’m saying is I DID ok! My partner, however…may be a different story [laughs]. So people can look out for that fairly soon as well [laughs].” 

Between getting himself ready for Ireland’s Fittest Family, and now for Dancing With The Stars, Neil – certainly from a fitness point of view – will definitely have been seeing some positive changes in himself over the last few months. Indeed, this whole period of humanity has changed many people, some in good ways, but some more – unfortunately – in bad ways. In a general sense, has Neil noticed any changes in himself and maybe how he sees life? 


“I’d be more inclined [now] to do something that’s a bit off the wall. Like, I have been approached about doing ‘Dancing With The Stars’ several times before, and either I couldn’t do it or I wasn’t ready to do it in some ways. This is the year where I kinda went, well listen, who knows what’s gonna happen next year in terms of what we’re allowed do ‘live’, but another part of me – that’s kind of the legacy of this last eighteen, twenty months – is just do something that scares the hell out of ya! Why not?! Life is too short. Particularly in the western world, we go through periods of thinking we can control things. If you get sick, you get antibiotics. If something goes wrong, well you can pay someone to fix it. If it’s something with your health, you can get an operation. We tend to think we can control things, but actually, every so often, God/ the universe/ whatever you believe in, throws a curve ball at us. And that’s what Covid has been. And there’s a freedom in relinquishing that control in some ways. Covid has made me more likely to take risks and do something brand new because who knows what the future holds really?” 

Neil has his huge show at the SSE Arena coming up next year, and he’s also had some gigs in gorgeous churches – of all places – in recent times. But, if he was to plan his perfect show, here’s what I wanted to know. Where would his venue be, what three guests would he invite along to chat to, and what musical act would he choose to close out the night? 


“Hmm. Let me see. I think in terms of places I’ve played before, I’d say Vicar Street. It’s a fantastic venue, and I’m playing there again soon. It has the roar of a thousand, eleven-hundred people, which is a great roar. But it’s physically intimate enough for everybody to feel connected to what’s going on on stage. So it would probably be Vicar Street as the venue. The three guests that I would like to interview, off the top of my head…David Attenborough would be one. I think he’s absolutely fascinating. There’s nearly a hundred years there of wisdom, and he’s such a brilliant communicator. I think he’d be first on the list. Second on the list, would be Mark Rylance who is an actor people would know from ‘Bridge Of Spies’, and from ‘Wolf Hall’, and ‘Dunkirk’. I’m actually going to see him very soon in the West End. He’s one of those magnetic presences on the screen, that you cannot take your eyes off. I’m hoping that he’d be able to replicate that if you were having a chat. I think he sees the world in an interesting way in his work. So I wonder would that be the same if you met him in person, ya know. I’ll come back to the third person, but a musical act to close the gig off entirely? I would reform Oasis! For one gig! Because first of all, nobody has ever got them to do that. And secondly, the music of when you were a teenager holds a special place in everybody’s heart. I think that would be…oh my good God! [Laughs]. What a night that would be! Just for one night only. And my third guest…let me see…I think I would pick somebody like Orla Guerin, the BBC war correspondent. I think she’s seen a huge amount of the world and what people do to each other, great heroism, great sacrifice, and great cruelty. So, assuming that the gig has been great fun, and assuming that at the end of it it’s going to be lifted in an amazingly unique way by the reformed Gallagher brothers [laughs], and assuming that David Attenborough is going to give us some wisdom, and Mark Rylance is going to give us some laughs and some wisdom, I think we can go fairly deep about humanity with Orla, knowing that that’s the light and the shade. I think that would be an unbelievably good night out!” 


Finally, and we didn’t know when we spoke that there would be another address to the nation only days later, I asked Neil to put himself at that lectern outside Government Buildings in Dublin. If either Micháel Martin had called on Neil to don the green jersey as it were, face the cameras and deliver a message to the people of Ireland ahead of 2022 getting here…what thoughts would he have shared with a weary nation? 


“I think we should be proud of ourselves and how well we’ve done so far. We do, as a small country, tend to compare ourselves to other countries, and broadly speaking, if you look at the figures, we have done very well. And we’ve done well because we’ve looked after each other. That’s what I would say. And let’s all continue to look after each other. The country is a much better place when we [all] consider other people. That old Irish phrase, ‘Ní neart go cur le chéile’ (There’s no strength without unity) is the thing that comes to my head. That’s all I’d say. The country doesn’t need me to preach to them. That’s the thing about comedy gigs. People go to them to get away from life. They go to get away from their troubles for a while. And when we have been allowed to do things, you could see that people were going to escape the news-cycle. So let’s just stick together, and this too shall pass.” 


DANCING WITH THE STARS returns to our screens in January. Before then, on December 29th, you can catch Neil in the Celebrity Special of IRELAND’S FITTEST FAMILY. Neil brings his LIMINAL tour to the Tullamore Court Hotel on March 5th, with tickets ON-SALE NOW. For more details, check out www.neildelamere.com 

ENDS

LAURA NOLAN

First Published November 2021

READY FOR ANYTHING

Underestimate LAURA NOLAN at your own peril. That’s pretty much the best way to sum up the woman who became one of the undoubted stars of this year’s hit TV show, ULTIMATE HELL WEEK. If, before this year’s series began, you only knew Laura from her role as one of the professional dancers on another one of RTE’s biggest attractions, Dancing With The Stars Ireland (DWTSIrl), and you thought things went no deeper than the glamour and the glitz, well…more fool you. But, like so many more, you know better now. 


We first had the pleasure of spending some time in Laura‘s company back in January of this year, and her energy, positivity and sense of fun made her one of our most favourite within about five minutes of first saying hello! But it wasn’t just those qualities already mentioned that made Laura stick in our mind. As you dig deeper into her story, and really get a sense of who she is as a person, away from the bright lights of television, what you find is someone who is – and has always been – fearless in the face of adversity, relentless in the pursuit of any goal she sets for herself, and inspirational in how she digs in and fights.

In short, if you found yourself in a tough place, Laura is the kind of person you’d want to have at your side and on your team. 


When I heard she was taking part in Ultimate Hell Week this year, I knew she was going to surprise a lot of people. But not anyone who knew her already. Those people knew she was made for something like Hell Week. And man, did she prove it in style.


Back in January, towards the end of our first chat with each other, Laura described herself like this…


“I’ve always had that inside me”, emphasised Laura, “that grit, the grind, the graft to succeed, to be the best. So yes, people see the glamour, and they see the glitz, but you have to understand that didn’t come without a lot of tears, a lot of sweat, a lot of blood, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of dedication. It’s like any sport, you have to prepare for it. If you want something enough, those are the things you’re prepared to do to be the best. And once you are the best, those sacrifices aren’t really sacrifices. They’re actually moments that make you, and make the journey that bit better.” 

This time around, I was catching up with Laura a few days after yet another fabulous moment on her journey, a 6th place finish in the World Professional Showdance Championship with her dance-partner – also of DWTSIrl fame – John Nolan. So before we even got around to talking about her Hell Week adventure, Laura filled me in on this one…


“I had finished competing. My last competition was in January 2019. I had made a decision then to do Dancing With The Stars (DWTS), and because that’s such a long process and you have to really commit time and effort to it, there was no time really to compete. So I’d made that decision. But speaking to John after lockdown and stuff, we were both thinking that we’d love to go and do the showdance. The showdance is a different type of competition to what I would have done in the past. You have a theme, you have three-and-a-half minutes, and certain rules that you need to adhere to when you’re doing your dance. I asked him would he be interested, because we dance together, we were practising to keep ourselves going and keep ourselves fit knowing there was a possibility that DWTS could come back. We made the decision six weeks ago to do it, and we had one of the choreographers from DWTS, Ian Banham, helping us, and Tommy Shaungnessy our coach, the four of us worked together and we created Marilyn, the show which we did over there. We travelled over on Friday just gone, and we competed on Saturday, and we made the final which was absolutely amazing. It was both of our first professional competitions, so to speak. It went amazing and we were delighted with it, and with the performance that we created.”

So, onto Hell Week! Now obviously it’s a completely different experience to be living through that process twenty-fours a day for a week to watching it back months later in forty-seven minute or so snap-shots. How different were those two feelings for Laura, I wondered? 


“When I was in there, it really became a reality, almost. You felt like you were living in it. It wasn’t just a couple of minutes and then the camera switched off. So it felt very intense. Everything was amplified because you’re kind of in shock at being put into a situation you’re not used to. When I watched it on TV, the one thought that I had from the start was that it doesn’t look as difficult at all from what it was! The helicopter and how high it was. Because it was so intense and there was no switch-off, it was so gruelling and such a difficult process. Way more intense than how it looked, and I know it looked intense, but multiply that by ten! Then you get what we were actually feeling in there. It was such a shock to the system. What I tried to do was not overthink about things, just kind of deal with it as it came to me. Through the whole thing, I remember when I was watching it back, I was thinking jeez there were parts of it I almost forgot happened, because I was just in such a daze through the whole thing! [Laughs]. I was in so much pain that I couldn’t even comprehend what was actually happening [laughs].” 

When Laura was first asked to take part, was it an easy “yes” on her side straight away? Or was it more a case of, “Ok lads, let me just think this one over for a little bit!”


“For me, it was the easiest yes that I’ve ever said. Yeah. I read that email and the first thing that I thought to myself was, ‘Absolutely, I’m DEFINITELY doing this!’ I love pushing myself outside of my comfort-zone and I love trying new things. For me, it was just a perfect combination [of those]. I think everyone always has the idea in their heads to do something like an Iron Man or a trialton or something like that, and this was my type of challenge.” 

When we spoke to Laura’s fellow UltimateHell Week contestant Ryan Andrews a few weeks back, he pointed out that, because the start was delayed so often, this really affected his preparation for the show, especially as he’s the kind of person who needs to have a set date in mind to focus on. Did Laura find her own preparation affected by all the delays as well? 


“It did, to be honest. It’s quite an intense kind of training you need to do for it, and because it was pushed back so many times and we didn’t know when it would actually go ahead, you can’t keep up that level of intensity. It was only two weeks beforehand from when we actually did it, that we actually knew for sure. There wasn’t that much time to change up what we had been doing. Of course, we had an idea of some of the things that were going to come up, however, I feel like there was no real way to train for it. We were all quite physically fit, but with the added lack of sleep, lack of food, all on top of them shouting at you and constantly having you on the go…there was no real way to prepare for that! It’s a mental thing as well as physical.” 

I was glad Laura had mentioned the mental side of things, because that’s what I wanted to ask her about next. Because of what she does for a living – being a professional dancer – Laura is as naturally tough mentally as she is physically, because she has to be. But, even at that, on the mental side of things, was there any way she was able to prepare herself for what Hell Week would bring? 


“To be honest, I think that was more a personal thing, ya know. It’s how you’re able to deal with pressure. Everyone dealt with it slightly differently. I don’t think there was really any way to prepare for something like that. How are you supposed to know how you’ll react to someone shouting in your face twenty-four/seven? [Laughs]. You just don’t know. For me, how I dealt with it was I didn’t look at certain challenges. Before we went in, they sent us previous episodes and I watched one then said ya know what, for my mental health, I don’t want to know what’s going to come up. I would rather deal with it as I’m faced with it, because therefore, I won’t overthink it. So for me, it was just dealing with stuff and moving on. A lot of the time in there as well, they try to turn our team and our bond on each other. That was another mental thing. But what you really have to do is just try and move on and not overthink it, just leave it in the past. Whatever challenge happened, happened, then move forward. I think that’s where I dealt with things quite good because as a competitor decisions and competitions don’t always go the way you want. You have to try and just pick yourself up and move forward. You can’t dwell on that competition, otherwise you’ll be stuck there. You have to move on to the next one, and the next one. I think that’s where I excelled mentally, because I was used to having knock-backs and having to pick myself up, and push myself on.” 

From what we didn’t get a chance to see on TV, was there any particular moment of her own that Laura will always look back fondly on? 


“Yes! There’s one moment in particular. I don’t know if you remember the ‘king of the ring’, where we had to grapple and push each other out?”

Everybody remembers the ‘king of the ring’, Laura! 


“[Laughs] So the first one I was already going in with a sore nose, because I’d been punched in the nose, and you know how that brings tears to your eyes. I got pushed out, but someone fell on me – not on purpose, it was accidentally – and hit me on the head with their boot, and I went out cold for a few seconds. When I came back around, I started crying uncontrollably [laughs]. You saw on the show, that’s when Ray came over to me and said, ‘Show us the determination and what you said to us in your interview.’ I pulled myself together and I got this force inside me, I don’t know what it was, it was like I just wanted to kill everybody! [Laughs]. One of the moments which I was really hoping that they would show was when I saw Peter Stringer in a moment of vulnerability and I rugby-tackled him out of the ring. It was as if everything just stood still for me in that second. I was like, ‘Did anybody just see that? The dancer rugby-tackled Peter Stringer out of this ring!’ [Laughs]. It wasn’t shown and I was ragin’. That was one of my fondest moments. And there was actually another one too. The very first day was the only day that we had a shower. We didn’t have a shower for the whole time that we were there except for that first day. Every time that we had to leave the room, we had to have our helmet, our bars, and our boots on. The first day in particular we got so punished for not doing it, because we didn’t know our heads from our tails, we hadn’t got a clue what was going on, we had so much in our heads that we weren’t doing anything properly. So that first day anyway, when we were going for the showers, the showers were up a flight of spiral stairs and across a yard. We were in such a rush that Deric [     ] was beside me in his boxers, his helmet, his gun, his shoes. Coming the opposite way, was Steph [   ] in a towel, her helmet, her boots, and her gun. And I was just thinking, ‘Oh my God, what has happened to us?! What are we like?!’ [Laughs]. There were so many of those behind the scenes moments that weren’t shown, I’m sure I don’t even remember all of them that probably happened.” 

Although it might seem like a slightly weird question, I wondered if there was ever a moment during Laura’s time on the show when she thought to herself, ‘Ya know what…I’m actually loving this!‘? 


“I suppose the moment I really felt that was when I got over a really tough challenge. For example, when I was going across the rope. Even though I was in so much pain, I was so delighted that I actually did it because I knew what it really meant to me. And by pushing through that gruelling moment, I was like, yes, I’m delighted I did this, I’m so happy I did it. After the show, after I dropped out, all those emotions come back to you and you think, yeah, I’m so delighted I did it. Now, I suppose through it there were more moments where I was like, why am I doing this to myself?! [Laughs]. And they’re shouting at us. ‘Do you want to drop out?!’, and we’re screaming back at them, ‘NO!!!’ [Laughs]. I was thinking what’s wrong with me, why do I want to do this?! But at the same time, I’m so delighted I did.” 

On Laura’s last day, when DS Ray Goggins told her that she could hand him her number (as opposed to him taking it off her) because, in his words, “You’ve earned it”, and when he followed that up by telling her, “You’re so tough”, how much did those words mean coming from a man like Ray in a moment like that? 


Oh it meant everything. He didn’t only say that I was tough, he also said that I was going to be an inspiration to a lot of women and children, and that his daughters would look up to me, and look at me as a role-model. For me, that’s the reason why I did it. I knew going into the show that people were going to have a perception of me, she’s just a dancer who likes her glitz and her glam. And they probably didn’t think I’d last a day. But they don’t see the years of sacrifice and dedication and hardship I had to go through to become the champion that I am. And that’s really what I wanted to show and prove in there. I wanted any young girl – or anybody who has a dream – and somebody else is telling them that they can’t do it, to look at me and say, ‘Jesus, if she can do it, so can I.’ So for him to say those words to me that day just put everything into perspective, and really made it worthwhile why I did it.” 

Laura’s chosen charity for her time on Hell Week was Women’s Aid, an organisation I know she holds close to her heart…


“Yeah, it is a charity that’s very close to my heart. I had experienced – through my dancing career – a little bit of mental and physical abuse, so Women’s Aid was a charity that was very close to my heart. And I know that during lockdown, their cases re-upped, so I thought what perfect timing to do it for them. It’s something that I feel very strongly about. I want to inspire women, and I think this is a perfect charity to go hand-in-hand with that.” 

Either from what she learned about herself, or maybe from what she saw in others, what did Laura take away from Hell Week that will now be part of who she is from here on out? 


“One thing would definitely be how strong I am. Never to doubt myself, never to question myself. Afterwards, I felt that anything I put my mind to, I can do it. No ifs, buts, or maybe. I would have questioned my strength, as in my physical strength in comparison to others. I knew I was cardio-fit, and I was mentally strong, but I didn’t really realise how strong I actually was. Now, going forward, I feel like I should never, ever, ever doubt myself, that I can really throw myself into anything and give it a bash. When you look at others, it would be how amazing people are, and how supportive they are. Never question a friendship or how people can be to you, because really, when someone cares for you they really do give everything to give you a helping hand. I suppose now, instead of trying to cover things up within myself, I would definitely be way faster to ring somebody, talk to somebody and say look, ‘I’m struggling here, do you have any bit of advice?’ Because when you’re in there, the people around you really help you, and you create such a special bond. So now I feel like don’t be afraid to reach out and get somebody else’s advice and help, instead of always trying to deal with things by yourself. Because really, people are there for you, and they’re ready to give you a helping hand if needed.” 

And finally, we finished up with the same question I put to Ryan. What if, next year sometime, someone Laura knows comes to her and confesses that they’ve been asked to do Hell Week, and they’ve said yes. What advice would Laura pass that someone’s way? 


“Composure. Being able to stay strong and compose yourself. It’s very, very easy to start to panic, but you have to realise – and you have to keep saying this to yourself – they cannot kill me. This is a TV show. They can’t put me at that much risk. You have to keep that in mind. Yes, you end up hurt. Yes, you end up wrecked. Yes, someone ended up with a broken rib. But, those are all things that you can get through. You just keep that in mind. In the mental challenges, like where I thought the water was going to come up over my mouth, that’s one thing that I kept in my mind through it, is to really believe that you’re going to be ok, that there will be an end to it. Always always try to dwell on the positive instead of the negative. And as well, they were so obsessed with water that the best thing you can do beforehand is to just keep getting in and out of the sea [laughs].” 

~ You can follow Laura on Facebook and Instagram (search Laura Nolan). 

ENDS

Ryan Andrews

First Published October 2021

KING OF THE MOUNTAIN

“The thing about the breaking is, and they [the DS] said that from day-one, you need to be broken. In order for you to build, you need to be broken. Some people might go in – not that recruits did – but some people might go in and say I won’t be broken. You won’t break me. But when you allow yourself to be broken, and I did, I got to the real, real bottom of my soul. Like last week’s episode where I was saying [to myself] that the only way forward now is up. I can only go up from here. So when the hike came, I was like, well, I’ve been to the bottom of my soul, I’ve been to the lowest part of my life, so this is a bonus. That’s where I was at. That’s allowing yourself to be broken, it’s allowing yourself to get vulnerable and open up. And you build back up even quicker.” 


That was actor RYAN ANDREWS talking to us about last week’s epic episode of ULTIMATE HELL WEEK which saw Ryan and his fellow remaining recruits take on the monumental Foreman Aftman challenge, described as Hell Week‘s toughest event. If you – like me – followed Ryan‘s journey on Dancing With The Stars Ireland in 2020, there’s one thing you’ll already have known about him, and that’s that he commits himself body and soul to everything he takes part in. We saw that week-in and week-out on Dancing With The Stars. Maybe, though, some people might have considered a show like that to be a bit of an easy ride, so not really the best way to judge someone’s levels of resilience or depth of character. Well firstly, those people would have been wrong – soooo wrong – in thinking that way. And even if they did back then, there’s just no way they could think like that now. Because last week on Ultimate Hell Week, the man who showed he could be a king of the dancefloor, proved he could be king of the mountain, too. 


I first met Ryan back during his time on Dancing With The Stars, and lest anyone be in any doubt, a finer gentleman you could not meet. And it was my pleasure to catch up with him again last week. 


After first congratulating him on his achievements so far, and before we got into the trials of Ultimate Hell Week itself, I wanted Ryan to take me right back to the moment when he was first asked to take part. Did he say yes straight away?


“I got an email. And the email said, ‘Hi Ryan, we are Motive Television and we produce the series Hell Week’, and I replied without even reading the rest of the email, 100%, I’d do it. It was meant to go on ages ago, the show kept being put back so many times. It was meant to be last year, then in November, then in January. And I actually tore all my ligaments in my ankle last year when I was going to be doing the show, and I even said yes then! Even with my ligaments torn. Little did I know how bad the show was gonna be! [Laughs]. But yeah, I was 100% doing it straight away. I knew this was something I would never, ever do again in my life. I’d never get the chance to. So it was ‘Yes!’ before I even read the end of the email.” 

What was the reaction of Ryan’s family and of Michaela when he told them he was doing it? 


“Well Michaela doesn’t know anything about the show [at the time], she’s never seen the show, and she kept goin’, ‘Ah, it won’t be that bad, they’re not gonna make ya do that, it’ll be more like ‘I’m A Celebrity’, that’s what she thought it was! My mam and dad, they watch the show like myself, and they went, ‘Oh Jesus, that’s tough!’ Normally what happens is, you do a show and you think it won’t be that bad…and it ends up being bad [tough]. But with this, before I went into it, I was saying this is gonna be horrible. I knew it was gonna be so tough. But even at that, I wasn’t expecting how tough it was actually going to be.” 

Although Jake Carter remarked on one episode that he only had two weeks notice before the show began, generally speaking, it’s not something that you find out about today, and it begins tomorrow. Knowing Ryan to be the kind of guy he is, I knew he wouldn’t have let the time between being asked to take part and when the show got underway pass without doing as much as he could to ready himself for what lay ahead. So physically, how did he go about preparing himself for his time on Hell Week


“Realistically, I had about four or five weeks’ notice. This happens [with me] all the time. Unless I have an actual goal, an end date, I won’t do anything. I can’t focus or put time into something if I don’t know if it’s going to happen, or when it’s going to happen. I need a specific date, whether it’s Dancing With The Stars, whether it’s panto…I need an end goal. We got a few emails back and forth and I wasn’t doing anything because they were saying, look, it might happen next year, it might not happen at all. Then I got the final confirmation that the show was happening in four to five weeks time, on whatever date it was. Then, I said ok, I’m 100% all-in. The diet, the training. And the hard thing is, the more you train, the further away you think you are from where you need to be. You try to cram everything into five weeks, but in those five weeks, you’re tired, you’re fatigued, you’re mentally nearly getting weaker. You’re researching the show, and the more you do that, you feel like getting sick! [Laughs]. It was a mad five weeks! But, I learned a lot about myself in that time, and to train specifically for what would be at hand, and I think that’s what I did.” 

In many ways, the physical side of Hell Week is only half the battle. Less than half the battle, even. On a show like this, your mind will be your biggest ally, or maybe your worst enemy. How did Ryan try to prepare for that side of things? 


“The mental side is the most important. The mental side is number-one. If you’re not mentally strong or fit… It’s your mind that tells your body what to do. Your mind, your thoughts, that’s what tells you to get up at 5 o’ clock in the morning to go on the hike. Your body doesn’t tell you that. Your mind is the number one thing, and if that’s right, and in a great place, you can achieve and conquer anything. Sometimes in life, my mind might not be the strongest. And there might be days where I don’t want to do that training session. I don’t want to get up. I don’t think I’m good enough. But those four or five weeks [beforehand], and that week of that course, I felt like my mind was as strong as it has ever been. Even with the hike, it was my mind telling my body to go on. It was my mind saying your rib is broken, but it’s not gonna stop ya. So I went to the sea a lot, and I’d go in in the freezing cold and stay there as long as possible. I’d visualise myself completing the course, visualise myself getting through the course, doing all of that stuff. And I’d meditate a lot, too.” 

Before going any further, I wanted to turn the conversation in the direction of another big reason why Ryan said yes, his chosen charity, the Mater Foundation…


“I’ve said this before about the Mater Foundation, or really any charity, because there were eighteen recruits with eighteen different charities. The work of the Mater Foundation and all the frontline workers – I’m talking about cleaners, caterers, head-doctors, electricians in those hospitals, everyone – they keep all that running for patients throughout the year. And my dad was one of those patients this year. I saw the work that they did. They go through hell every single day. Their daily routines are like a week of ‘Hell Week’ for us, what they have to face, the obstacles they have to overcome. In particular over the last year. They were a lifeline, they were like the DSs to my dad [laughs], they were the ones calling the shots. Hell Week is a show. We’re well-known people going on a reality tv show. But these people [in the Mater Foundation] do it for life. The hike wasn’t life or death. If I wanted to quit, I could have quit and got a lift home. These doctors, these nurses, they can’t. They can’t just quit. If they quit, that affects so many people. So I wanted to show my respect and support for all the people in the Mater by doing this for them.” 

There were two things that I figured had to have been on Ryan’s mind going into Hell Week: his biggest fear, and whatever he promised himself about his time on the show. I asked him if he’d share those thoughts…


“To be perfectly honest, and I said this going into the show when Doctor Jason called the day before – when we were locked in our hotel room and he came in to do a physical examination and a mental examination – and he asked what are your biggest fears. I said I don’t have any. He said, ‘Ah they all say that!’ [Laughs]. But I said no, I didn’t. And I proved that on the show. I wasn’t afraid of water. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I wasn’t afraid of the dark. I wasn’t ‘afraid’ of anything. I was self-conscious, I was uncertain, I was worried. But I was never afraid. I never had a fear. Except, for when the balaclava went over my head. And that was a fear which I did not know I had. So that was a shock, because I was so well prepared mentally, physically. But the emotional side completely took over because that brought back memories of my dad struggling for breath on a ventilator in the ICU. So it’s amazing what this show does. It opens you up, it makes you even more vulnerable. And when you haven’t slept, and you have no food, things just come rushing back in. That was a fear that I definitely faced. And, as you’ll see in next week’s show, I have to face it a whole lot more! And one thing I said to myself was I won’t stop. And in particular, that came back to me on that hike. I said NOTHING will stop me. I said they will have to take that arm-band off my arm. I said I was going to get to a point where they would actually physically have to take that arm-band off me. That was my mentality going in, ya know. If you don’t have that mentality, if you don’t set yourself up like that, if you only go halfway, sure you’ll fall at the first hurdle. So you have to set your goals high to achieve a realistic outcome.” 

Hell Week is somewhat strange in that it can only really be experienced as an individual, and yet, you can only really get through it as part of a group, as a team. How did that team dynamic first begin to form, in Ryan’s opinion? 


“We all had to isolate ourselves in a hotel, so it even started the night before, straight away, it was funny. Obviously there was lockdown, and social-distancing, and we were all tested and isolated. We were like a bubble. The first people I high-fived or shook hands with was Rory O’ Connor, Rory’s Stories. I’m talkin’ about in a year! So when you’re hugging these people before you even start, there’s definitely a bond there, and there was respect before it even started for everyone even saying yes to the show. The more people that dropped out, the tighter the group got. At a lot of points during the show, whether it was a pat on the back or a wink, or Rory – when I broke my rib – he lifted me back onto the boat with Jake, and when my head was down for the first time, he said, ‘Keep your head up, Eighteen, don’t drop it now.’ There’s little moments like that, I wouldn’t have got to this point, without the people around me. It really does mean a lot. You’re only as good as the people around you. You’re only as strong as the people you have surrounding you. I think that’s something I’ve definitely taken from the show, and that I’m going to take forward into my everyday life now.” 

It’s funny that Ryan mentioned Rory there, because in my opinion, the two most completely open and honest people on the show were the two of them. Was there much of a gap between the expectations that Ryan may have had of people from what he knew of them before Hell Week and how he found them during their time together on the show? 


“Probably not with me. I’d be a good judge of character. I knew beforehand that anybody saying yes to this was a certain type of person. They were there to prove something for themselves. They wanted to do something that not many people would say yes to. I respected everyone. I would have gotten to know people better, heard more of their life stories. Do you know what I enjoyed? I enjoyed getting to know how they got to the point where they are today. Take Laura, for example. Most people would have said dancer, blonde, pink, nails, glittery slippers, whatever! But Laura shared stories of her in secondary school getting a flight to England on a Friday evening, rehearsing and training, rehearsing and training all weekend, and flying back to Ireland on Monday. That’s resilience. That’s what builds up their character. Rory talks about having mental breakdowns and going through depression, and fighting that. If you can get through that, you can get through anything. And everyone shared stories like that. And Peter [Stringer], about his training with the Irish team, the legend that he is, that’s what I enjoyed. I loved seeing how people have gotten to where they are, and seeing who they are now because of what they went through in their life.” 

When Ryan was lying in his bunk, in silence – when he actually got a chance to lie in his bunk! – what would go through his mind? DS Ray Goggins, in his remarkable book Ranger 22: Lessons From The Front, shares how he used to use the words of the Madness song, Our House, as a kind of mantra to help him get through some of his toughest moments. Did Ryan have anything like that? 


“No. Nothing [laughs]. One of the Army guys, before we went in, said eat when you can, sleep when you can, and rest when you can. And that really, really stuck in me. He goes, ‘The only three things I want people to do is eat when you can, sleep when you can, and rest when you can.’ That, in some ways, turned me into Robocop! Because when there was food there, all I would do was just eat. When I wasn’t on a task, I would just rest. And when I slept, I would literally go, I don’t know how long I’ve got. So I don’t want to be up thinking, I don’t want to be worrying. I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know what’s coming. So there’s no point thinking about that. I just wanted to get as much sleep as I possibly could. I always think of my body as a battery. You want it to be at 100%. But I was running at 60%, maybe 40% going to bed. I was just thinking I want to recharge as quickly as I possibly can to be ready for what’s in store. So it was more like just get to bed as quickly as you possibly can and recover. And then, you think you’ll do that, but they put you on sentry duty where you have to walk around and you don’t sleep. Then you get into bed for fifteen minutes and you’re woken up with a banger and you’re fecked into a feckin’ plunge-pool! [Laughs]. It’s so hard! But that’s what I’d do, I’d just try to rest and recover for what was in store.” 

Ryan mentioned earlier that he found out a lot about himself during the four or five weeks when he was preparing for the show, but did he find out anything about himself during the show that he didn’t know beforehand? 


“That’s a good one. I always thought that I had resilience, courage, that extra something. But, I probably 100% never really believed it. I give 100% into anything I do. Whether it’s making a cup of tea. Whether it’s playing with my nieces or nephew. Whether it’s ‘Dancing With The Stars.’ I always give 100%. But there was always a doubt there, in the back of my mind, am I actually good enough? Can I back-up what I think I can do? And I never thought I really could. I don’t know if I needed something like this show, that I could say, THIS is tough, the toughest thing I’ll ever face, the toughest thing I’ll ever go through. This is something that has a 10% feckin’ pass-rate. So this was a challenge that I needed. So to get to where I have, I’ve proven to myself that I am resilient, I am determined, I am committed to whatever I do. And this show proved all that for me, and that was a massive thing for me, to get rid of that self-doubt in the back of my head.” 

To wrap things up, I wanted to really dig down deep into Ryan’s reservoir of Hell Week knowledge. So, just suppose someone like Grainne Gallanagh – someone we both know – comes to Ryan next year and says, ‘I’m going on Hell Week…what’s the most important thing I need to know or remember aboutwhat’s to come?’… what words of wisdom would he have to share? 


“Run! [Laughs]. Don’t do it! Don’t do it! [Laughs]. No, I would say be open to finding out who you are. Some people don’t really want to know who they actually are inside. But you have to be open to that. Also, it’s going to be the toughest – emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually – event you will EVER go through in your whole life. Be prepared for that. It’s that saying that if you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail. You have to be very comfortable in yourself to do something like this, whoever you are, because you’re going to find out a lot of things about yourself – good and bad – and you have to be ready to accept that. I think everyone from the show got nothing but positive, nothing but good things [from it]. It’s something that everyone should take forward in life, stepping out of your comfort-zone, finding out a little bit more about who you are, and more about what you are as well.” 


~ The FINAL episode of this season’s ULTIMATE HELL WEEK airs TONIGHT, Wednesday, October 13th, at 9.35pm on RTE 1. To vote for Ryan and support his chosen charity, the MATER FOUNDATION, text RECRUIT18 to 50300.

ENDS

Laura Nolan

First Published February 2021

A RELENTLESS SPIRIT

Part 2

In Part 1 of our chat with LAURA NOLAN, the World Champion dancer, tv star, model, reigning Miss Universe Leinster, and MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND finalist (Top Three) 2020, took us on a journey from the earliest days of her dancing career right up to being on our screen week-in and week-out on DANCING WITH THE STARS Ireland with her celebrity partner Brian Dowling in 2020. 


The duo certainly became one of the show’s iconic couples during their time on DWTSIrl, but their time in the spotlight came to an end waaaaay too early due to what can only be described as – at least in my opinion – some seriously dubious voting by the Irish public! That fact aside, I asked Laura to talk about the challenge of taking a non-dancer, who is also a celebrity, and trying to teach in just a week routines that they then have to perform on ‘live’ television…


“It’s a lot of pressure! Trying to teach somebody first of all who has never danced before, it’s a lot of work. I don’t think people realise the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes, the amount of hours a day. You’re talkin’ ten hours a day. And you know, when you have somebody who’s never danced before, you’re adding in even more pressure on their behalf. Somebody who has been in the public eye for so many years, and is loved by so many people, that’s an extra pressure on them. They’ve always been a certain type of person, always seemed very professional. Now all of a sudden, you’re taking somebody out of their comfort-zone and asking them to dance on ‘live’ TV. So, there is a lot of expectation, you know, to get this dance right. It takes a lot of courage on the celebrities behalf, and a lot of work. For me, as the professional, I’m there to try to encourage them, to really bring them out of their shell, and to be there for them through every step, to make them realise that this is ok, that they are doing well. It’s about nourishing them through an experience and bringing the best out of them each week. Because it is very difficult, and very emotional. I don’t think people realise that on the show people are exhausted. They’re after putting everything into it. And they’re being asked questions week on week that are actually very personal to them. And because of the exhaustion, because of the amount of work that they’ve put in, because of all the emotion that’s coming up, you do get very caught up in it. And it is a very emotional thing! And you [the viewers] can see that on the actual show. It’s not until you come out of the experience and you look back on it, you’re like…ok, that wasn’t half as emotional as I thought it was, but when I was actually in it I was just so engrossed in it AND it was so emotional [laughs]. Yeah, it’s a very unique experience, but at the same time, it’s an amazing experience. And it’s one that you’ll only get on Dancing With The Stars.” 

As Laura had mentioned, being on DWTSIrl brought her into the public-eye in a huge way, even more so than she had already been. To the extent, in fact, that talk of romance between her and hurling great, Kilkenny’s Aidan ‘Taggy’ Fogarty, began to fill the nation’s gossip columns. I wondered if that sense of being in the public-eye in general was something that Laura found she enjoys, or is it more something that she just accepts as part of the job? 


“Well, I knew that going on the biggest show on TV I had to expect that. You have to expect people to want to know about your personal life, because they want to know a little bit extra about you. I knew that came with it, and was part and parcel of it. However…[laughs]…when you’re seeing people walking down the street after you, and you’re thinking ‘Ok, is that someone with a camera?!’…you do have to adjust your life slightly! It is something that you have to get used to. It’s not every day that you have somebody waiting on a corner to take a picture of you [laughs]. But I was very lucky that I did have Brian Dowling, because being so used to it, he almost helped me in that sense. He was helping me in one aspect, and I was helping him in another, so we worked together on it! Myself and Aidan thought it was so funny when speculation came out that there was romance between us! We were actually crying laughing because we were great friends. There were four of us that were very close; myself, Brian, Grainne Gallanagh, and Aidan. We’d been going out on nights-out together. Everyone on the cast knew that I was single at the time, and they also knew that I was single, and they were like, ‘Oh, you two!!!’ And we were like absolutely not! [laughs]. So it was being put to us from the beginning, but then when it came out in the papers the two of us just couldn’t help laughing. They were speculating about something that was just completely wrong. But sometimes you just have to take these things and laugh at them, because that’s all that you can do [laugh]. You have to just take it light-hearted and not take it personally.” 

Joanne Clifton, the 2016 winner of the show with her celebrity partner Ore Oduba, was one Strictly Come Dancing connection in Laura’s life which I wasn’t actually aware of until the day we spoke. But there was, of course, another connection between Laura and the show too, in the shape of Kai Widdrington, who had been Grainne Gallanagh’s professional partner on DWTSIrl last year. Kai went on to feature in the last series of Strictly as well. Would Strictly be something that’s also on Laura’s list of goals? 


“Oh, it absolutely is! Stepping into the world of Dancing With The Stars was completely new for me and I was keeping my options open. Everyone was saying, ‘Strictly, Strictly!’, but I said, you know something, let’s just see how I feel after Dancing With The Stars. I’d been in the world of competitive dance for years, and I just wanted to see how I’d feel after it. I wanted to keep my options open. But after experiencing Dancing With The Stars, I can say 100% yes, Strictly is something that’s a big goal of mine, and it’s something that I would absolutely love to do.” 

The reason we aren’t seeing Laura on Dancing With The Stars this year, of course, is because of the ongoing Covid 19 crisis, which has made the last year a pretty tough one for everyone. How had Laura been dealing with that side of things herself? 


“It’s very difficult to adjust, knowing that this time last year you were getting ready for a ‘live’ show. And you’re so caught up in, and so busy with something for a couple of months, to think this year that that’s just completely gone…I’ve been thinking, ok, yes it’s Covid time, and yes, things have been cancelled, but it’s not going to be like this forever. So I keep putting goals down for each day for what I want to do. And I’ve come up with a lot of creative ideas. Knowing that Dancing With The Stars wasn’t coming back, I knew I was going to have this time free, so I had to say, well what am i going to do now? So I started this Dance-Fit class, and even though that can’t happen in person, it’s going to happen online. I’ve also put something in motion that is an ultimate goal for me. I’ve really started thinking outside the box about contacting people and making things happen for summer time. That’s really all you can do. You just have to keep looking forward, and keep putting goals into each day for yourself, long-term and short-term, and try to make them happen. Even if it’s not happening right now, you have to believe that it will happen down the line.” 

Even with 2020 being as bad and as weird a year as it was, Laura still managed to end it on a high by being crowned Miss Universe Leinster, and by making it to the final three of Miss Universe Ireland, fantastic achievements both. What prompted Laura to enter the Miss Universe Ireland pageant and how did she enjoy the whole experience? 


“Back in 2012, I did a show for the final of Miss Universe Ireland. And since then, I’ve always been interested in Miss Universe Ireland, but I never really had the opportunity to do something like that as my whole career was based around dance. But then I came to a road where Dancing With The Stars had been cancelled, I was supposed to go on another show but that was also cancelled, so I thought well I now have time in my life to maybe explore different options. And also, of course, I was looking at Grainne’s role. I was very close with Grainne during DWTSIrl. So, as I did have an interest in that kind of pageant world, I was thinking to myself, right, I have these few months, a blank year…let’s try something different. Let’s try something that I haven’t tried before. And that was really what prompted me to do it. The experience was obviously unique and unusual because of Covid, it was all online. I know that usually it would be a one or maybe a two-day show, but this actually went on for four and a half months online. But it gave us the opportunity to do things that you wouldn’t have usually done. As in creating videos, doing different types of interviews. And it also gave us the opportunity to get to know the girls a bit more even though we haven’t met in person. At this stage we all know each other for so long, and yet, we haven’t even met! It’s very unusual [laughs]. But I have to say the whole experience overall was amazing.” 

As we wrapped up our chat, I wanted to come back to something that Laura had touched on at the beginning of our conversation. Everything about Laura, from her ballroom dancing, to Dancing With The Stars, to Miss Universe Ireland, all of that screams glamour, and glitz, and showbiz. But, there’s simply no way that Laura could perform to the standards that she always does at everything without being a fiercely determined person. So I asked her to tell me about that side of her, the fighter that sometimes people might not see or acknowledge as much as is deserved…


“I actually love that question. People see that glitz, and see that glam, they see the final product. But they don’t realise the sacrifice and the dedication it takes to get there. And like in any sport, there’s always going to be ups, and there’s also going to be a lot of downs that people don’t see. They don’t see the times that you got knocked out [of competition] and you were standing on the side of the floor wishing you were in that final, after dancing twelve hours a day, dedicating yourself, and sacrificing so much. And after your parents sacrificing so much money-wise for you. And after all that, you don’t get the placement that you deserve. That’s heartbreaking, heartbreaking. Like in any competitive sport. But every time, you have to pick yourself up, pick yourself off the ground, and teach yourself that it’s just one competition, so you need to keep going. It’s not easy to get up every single day of the week – your feet would be hurting, your toes would be bleeding – to end up dancing ten, twelve hours a day. Yes, it’s very difficult, but you do it for the love of your sport. And in myself, I have this want to be the best. When I’ve had a goal in my head, I’ve always been like this until I reach that goal. Someone once said to me, ‘You’re the most relentless person I know.’ And when they said that, I was like, that’s exactly what I am. I just won’t quit until I actually reach the goal that I want. You’re dead right in saying that to be successful, you have to have that want inside of you, that competitive spirit. Because it’s not easy. It’s definitely not.

Laura continued,“The last few years of my dancing career were the most challenging for me. My partnership wasn’t this beautiful, easy thing that people see. They see that you’re World Open champion, or you’re International champion. But my partner was, unfortunately, not the best partner. And actually, I’m due to appear on a programme where I actually speak about this. I’ve done a lot of work in the last couple of months for Women’s Aid, and the reason why I’ve done that is because of my own history, and what I experienced. To do something that you love, but to have someone beside you who’s not 100% with you all the time, is very difficult. You do need to have that extra want in you to succeed. And that’s how I am as a person. I always try to look at the positive in life, and I try to never dwell on the negative. If things don’t go my way, if I get knocked back, I always just say to myself, ‘What’s your end goal?’ Everything in life is not going to go your way. You have to expect the ups, and the downs. Yes, there has been a lot more downs and difficulties in my career than there would have been in somebody else’s, maybe somebody else in another country who has a federation who supports them, and actually funds them. But at the same time, it makes the journey even sweeter when you reach your end-goal. Through my career, I had a federation over here telling me, ‘You won’t make it to an international final. You won’t make a World Open final.’ They didn’t believe in their own dancers, because it was never done before. So that’s also an extra thing that keeps that fire in your belly…well I’ll show you…!””

I’ve always had that inside me”, emphasised Laura, “that grit, the grind, the graft to succeed, to be the best. So yes, people see the glamour, and they see the glitz, but you have to understand that didn’t come without a lot of tears, a lot of sweat, a lot of blood, a lot of sacrifice, and a lot of dedication. It’s like any sport, you have to prepare for it. If you want something enough, those are the things you’re prepared to do to be the best. And once you are the best, those sacrifices aren’t really sacrifices. They’re actually moments that make you, and make the journey that bit better.” 

You can follow Laura on Facebook and Instagram. 

ENDS