First Published February 2021
A RELENTLESS SPIRIT
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.