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

Laura Nolan

First Published January 2021

THE MOMENTS THAT MAKE US

Part 1

Far too often there are far too many people who make the mistake of judging others – especially celebrities – based on the now, what they see of them today, without ever giving a moment’s thought to how they actually got to where they are today. To say it’s an easy mistake to make is too lenient a verdict to settle upon where such folk are concerned. Because what it really is, in fact, is a lazy mistake to make. And there’s a big difference between an easy mistake and a lazy one. Dubliner LAURA NOLAN – world champion dancer, one of the pro-dancers on Dancing With The Stars Ireland, and as such, among the most famous faces in Irish entertainment – knows all about such rushes to judgement. 


Some people would have you believe that Laura was somehow just dropped into the world of celebrity out of nowhere, and that her life has always been as glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled as it appears when we’ve seen her on our screens on DWTSIrl. But here’s the thing, you see, moments like that really are just ‘the now’, they’re not the whole story. They never are. Everything is glamorous, perfectly measured, and controlled NOW all right, because Laura is one of the very best in the world at what she does. But once upon a time – and for a long time – things would have been anything but perfect by anyone’s measure. 


But those moments – and this is crucial because, as you will discover, it gets to the very heart of who Laura is as a person – the hours and hours in rehearsal studios, the aching limbs, the bleeding feet, the travel, the living far away from home, the sacrifices made in so many ways – those are the moments that made Laura the star we know today. 


Last week we had the pleasure of sitting down with Laura for a chat about those same moments, the ones that nobody else might ever see or even know about, but without which, Laura’s story would not have been possible. And as far as her story goes, while we don’t have DWTSIrl to look forward to in 2021, Laura at least, has still managed to make it back onto our TV screens by teaming up with RTE Kids recently. So, that’s where we began our chat…


“They contacted me a little while back asking me to do a little dance class for children as schools aren’t open and there’s not much activities going on for them. So this was something that they could do that would be a little bit enjoyable, and also, it would help to keep dancing alive as it’s not on our TV screens this year. It’s very popular with children as well. So they wanted me to do an easy kind of class that would keep children interested and just, you know, keep them occupied for a half an hour [laughs]. I said absolutely, that was something I was really interested in doing and hopefully it’s going to become a regular thing. It went really, really well, it was very successful and the feedback was great. Positivity all round, really.” 

And Laura’s own dancing career began at a very young age, too, dancing competitively from the age of just five years old, I’d once heard. So if she began dancing competitively at five, I wondered, did that mean that she first began learning to dance even earlier? 


“Yes! I started to dance when I was three years old. My Mam was a dancer. So the minute she could, she put me into dancing. So I started ballet, ballroom, and latin all in the one week. And it kind of went from there. I know that for my first competition I was actually only four, but I’d say competitively from five because that was when I did a proper, proper competition. But my first competition was solo, and it was just  asic routine that I had to do. Now, this story has been told to me so many times, and I do remember parts of it [laughs], but I wouldn’t have a recollection of all of it. However, everyone reminds me of this story all the time [laughs]. So in my first competition, I was out on the floor. And I was obsessed when I was younger with diamonds and fluff! So I saw a diamond on the floor, and I stopped in the middle of the competition when all the judges were looking, and I started biting the stone on the floor! [laughs]. It was very popular at the time to have a boa of feathers at the end of a dress, so I saw this girl sitting down and I ran over to her and I got the fluff and put it up to my nose! [laughs]. So that’s how my competitive career started!” 

Was there a long line of dancers in Laura’s family, or did it just begin with her Mam and move on to Laura? 


“It just started with my Mam and it moved on to me. She was the one who really guided me through my career. She understood what it took to become a top dancer. It was a lot of sacrifice and a lot of dedication, not only on my behalf, but on my parents behalf. They really pushed me, and understood my career choice. And it was really because of them that I got to where I am now.” 

One thing I never realised about competitive dancing is that people can be in a partnership for so long. Laura had been partners with Stanislav Wakeham for about four years, and then with the brilliantly named Alessandro Bosco for about four more. I asked Laura what, from her point of view, makes someone a great partner? 


“I think trust is a huge part of any relationship, not just in dancing, but also in life. So you need to be able to trust your partner, and you need to be able to work as a team. A man has a huge role in leading the partnership, you know, when you’re on the floor and there’s many couples around he would guide you into the open space. You have to have that trust that you know you’re on the right path together, and that you have the same dreams and you have the same goals. I also think it’s important that the two characters get on. If you’re two different types of characters and you keep bashing off each other, it’s very difficult because you spend so much time together, especially in the studio. I had that last experience where the two of us were very different characters and it is very difficult. You need to be able to manage how you are as people together. And I suppose in dancing, it’s important that they have the same amount of commitment and drive as you do. You have to have the same goals, and the same wants, and the same determination, because if you don’t it can be very difficult. And I’ve also experienced that in other partnerships throughout my career. Especially in dance, because not everyone has the same goals as me. Everyone used to think my goals were ridiculous and unachievable, but I always had that determination needed to get there, and I did. But that meant needing to work that extra bit harder. A lot of people will just see dance as a hobby, I didn’t. So you definitely need to have the same level of determination to work the hours that are required to reach the top.” 

So Laura obviously found all of those positive qualities she mentioned when she teamed up with Stanislav in 2009? 


“Yeah, it was late 2008, I think. I’ve had many partners here in Ireland. My first partner, his name is Luca Mastropietro, he was an Italian living in Ireland, he was my longest ever partner. We danced as children together through the juvenile ranks, and we were together for like seven or eight years. I switched from partner to partner because people were stopping to dance, or just different circumstances and stuff. My coach was very well known around the world of dance, and he used to have a lot of people coming over to take lessons from him from other countries. And there was this couple staying in my house at the time, and it was actually Joanne Clifton, who went on to be on Strictly [Come Dancing], and she actually won Strictly. She was staying at my house at the time, and obviously she was English, and her and her partner at the time, Marco Cavallaro, they used to teach a lot in England. Everyone kind of knows each other around the world of dance, and it just happened that I was looking for a partner at the time and I mentioned it to them as they were staying in my house, and they said, ‘Yeah, we know this boy.’ And it just so happened that he had actually approached my coach as well at a competition a few months before that. So I went over to try out a few weeks later and we started dancing together. And when we started, I was only fourteen at the time, but he was already seventeen at the time, so we were in the adult ranks. There was a competition seven days later, the British Closed Championship, we danced it and we actually came second after just seven days dancing together. That was Under-Twenty-Ones, so even to make a final of that was a huge thing, never mind to place! Everyone was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s after happening?’ [laughs]. 

Laura continued, “That partnership went really, really well. For the first six months of that partnership I was actually travelling over every weekend to England because we had a lot of our coaches in England at the time. And we were doing the English circuit competitively. So, what I used to do was I used to leave school on a Friday at one o’ clock, dad would collect me, I’d get changed in the car, and he would drop me off at the airport. I had to fill out this cert to say that I was allowed to travel by myself, because my parents used to just drop me and I’d get collected on the other side. Once I got collected on the other side, it was straight to the dancing hall, have lessons, the competition practise, then on a Saturday I’d have a full day of lessons,and a full day of practise. Sunday, competition. Monday, I’d get on the first flight back to Dublin, my dad would collect me again on the other side, I’d get changed back into my uniform, and go straight into school! And that was my life for around six and a half, seven months. Then we realised, look, we need to be able to practise during the week as well. So he ended up moving over here and living in my family home. So yeah, that was a very successful partnership in that it got me to a different stage of my career. We were the first ever couple to make the final of a World Championship from Ireland. That happened in 2009. We were also the first ever to make an International Open Final, that was in 2010. We made the final of a British Open Championship, so really, that launched me in my career. I was still really young at the time, so I should have been dancing junior, but I was dancing adult. Youth is from sixteen to eighteen, but I was out of that by the time I was fifteen because of my partner. But I should have still been in junior. So it went really well. We were teaching over here, we had a huge school over here, but it got to the stage in 2021 where he had grown very, very tall! And it was actually too much then if we wanted to reach the next level. So we were like, look, this isn’t working height-wise, so we need to think of something else. So we went looking for different partners and we just went down different roads. He moved back to Moscow where he was originally from, and I went on to dance then with somebody from Italy. So yeah, he left first, and I was left without a partner for a couple of months. But then I started dancing with this Italian, and went and lived in Rome for three months. Big, dramatic story! [laughs]. Ended up coming home after three months, I wasn’t mad about it over there, and a few months later then I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco and moved down to the south of Italy.” 

I had been planning to ask Laura about some of the reasons why partnerships might come to an end, but literally, in one instance for her, it was just because her partner became too tall??


“Yeah! Everything was going quite well, and our results were going quite well, but in that case we decided to stop because of our height difference. We knew that if we wanted to get to another level, which would be in the amateur-ranks the final of the World Championship. We were in the final of the World Championships for Under-18s but then when you move into amateur, you’re against people who are in their thirties. So we were in the Top Twenty-Four, sometimes the Top-Twelve, and we wanted to get to the Top-Six. To do that, we knew that height was having a restriction on how we were dancing. So we just made a mutual decision to move on. In other cases, I’ve been in partnerships where I just didn’t get on with a partner, it just wasn;t working as people to people. Then you’d have some people who were like, ‘Look, I’m just not committed to this role, it’s not what I want anymore.’ Every partnership is unique. And every relationship you have with a person is unique. So they can end for different reasons.” 

When a partnership like Laura’s one with Stanislav comes to an end, especially after being so successful both on and off the dancefloor, is that a very difficult time? 


“Yeah, it is difficult. But that was a unique case for me, in the sense that we had already made that mutual decision that it was done. So I was almost ready for it and expecting it. But it is difficult, because you have to readjust your life, you know, after spending so much time with somebody. I remember being heartbroken at the time that it was over, but in the end, it ended up being the best thing for me. You don’t always realise these things when they’re happening at the time. But afterwards, looking back on it with hindsight, it was the best thing that I ever did. Once I started dancing with Alessandro Bosco, I would say that was probably the most successful career partnership that I’ve had. That launched me into a different part of my life in the amateur ranks, which is professional almost. And that was my longest as well, I was there for five and half years in Italy. In 2014, just two days after Christmas, I moved over to the south of Italy. We were representing Ireland, but the reason why I was living over there is because he had a massive studio beneath his house, and our coach – who was his coach as well – had his school set up in Alessandro’s studio. All of our lessons, all of our practise with the whole club was in his studio. So it just made much more sense [to be there]. Over here, it’s difficult to find studio-space to practise the hours of the day that we need. A lot of studios over here wouldn’t be only dedicated to ballroom and latin, it could be dedicated to hip-hop or ballet, and then you’d have your classes in the evening and stuff. So it’s just difficult to find what you need here. Whereas over there, it was his own so we could spend as long as we wanted in there.”

Fast-forwarding a little bit to 2019, Laura and Alessandro had retired from ballroom as a partnership, and Laura had joined the Dancing With The Stars Ireland team. When DWTSIrl first reached out to her, I wondered if Laura had been surprised to hear from them, and if it had taken her long to say yes? 


“A couple of years before 2019, in my partnership with Alessandro, I would have been one of the most successful dancers that ever came from Ireland, because of that partnership. I was doing really well in the competitive world, I was one of the top dancers in that world, I became World Open champion in that time, and International champion as well. And DWTSIrl actually reached out to me for the very first season. And I said no because I was competing at the time. A lot of my friends, a lot of my colleagues from Ireland, had gone through the audition and that’s how I got news of it [their interest], but I was like, no, I’m in my competitive career at the moment and I wouldn’t be able to dedicate my time to it. So, season-one went on, season-two went on, and then I got contacted for season-three by the producers and I turned it down again because I was still competing. Then, it came to January 2019, a huge event happened [in my life] and I ended up back home. I said to myself, right, I’m after being put in this position where I’m now after splitting from my partner, and I started looking at my life in a little bit of a different way. I was like, you’re after achieving all of your goals, you’ve become World Open champion, you’ve become International champion, so now it might be time to actually try something new. The producers reached out to me again…and I was like, it’s time, it’s time for me to go on the show. It’s time for me to change things up [in my life]. So because I’d been contacted a few times before, I was almost ready for it, I was expecting it. And yeah, it went from there. It was honestly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life, that little switch over. Because I’ve now opened doors that I would never have thought even possible.”


~ Stay tuned for Part 2 of our chat with Laura – including her memories of working with Big Brother legend Brian Dowling on DWTSIrl and much more – coming your way in the next few weeks! 

ENDS