Legend of Irish rugby, Peter Stringer and ‘Young Offenders’ star, Demi Isaac Oviawe, are flying the flag for Cork on ‘Dancing With the Stars’. Esther McCarthy catches up with them in rehearsals.
As a boy Peter Stringer would work on perfecting his game, determined to be so strong and focused that no coach could leave him on the bench based on his height (he is 5ft 7in). In a game dominated by big men he achieved his goals, becoming one of the greatest players ever to wear an Ireland and Munster jersey.
Now, he says, it’s back to the planning board - because when he takes to the stage for Dancing with the Stars this weekend he’ll be very much out of his comfort zone. He would not, he says, be known for his prowess on the dance floor.
“That’s very much the case. I suppose being a non-drinker, you’re never really brave enough to venture onto the dance floor on a night out, you always really shy away from all that. When people say: ‘I’m not really a dancer’ they probably have some experience on the dance floor of throwing some moves. But I genuinely haven’t — I’ve had maybe a five-minute dance at my wedding and that was about it. I’m going into it very blind and inexperienced but I’m hoping that through repetition and commitment that I’ll be able to learn a few things.” Though he has maintained his strength and fitness since retiring from a stellar sporting career last summer, which will help with the flexibility and hours of rehearsals, it’s the actual footwork that will bring him his biggest challenges.
“The whole thing is terrifying!” he laughs. “I’m always looking after myself in terms of going to the gym. and I’m used to putting my body in certain different positions, with flexibility and mobility. It’s probably just the two left feet that are the issue at the moment!
“You’re rehearsing for five or six hours every day and your body is in different positions to what you’re used to. You do have aches and pains, but throughout my career it was about me looking after myself, being ready for any challenge. This came along, and I’d like to think that I’m as prepared as I can be in terms of my body being ready.
“I think I’m someone who would regret not doing everything I could to be in the best possible shape. It’s all about being that 24-hour athlete, that’s been the approach I’ve taken. The easy bit is being told what to do by the coaches and taking direction. It’s when you go home and you have to manage you own recovery, your own preparation, your own food, that’s where I really looked after myself. I wanted to do everything I possibly could to keep playing as long as I wanted to.” As well as his remarkable career longevity, Stringer was also focused from the early days on not letting his height hold him back on the sporting stage.
“Right from day one when I first started playing I realised I was much smaller than everybody else. I wanted to make sure first and foremost that the skills that I was able to bring to the pitch, with my fitness, with my speed, with my passing, they were the elements that I really worked on in the early days. I didn’t want to give any coaches any reason not to pick me just because I was small. I wanted to make sure that I had a skillset that was good enough for them not to leave me out of a team.
It’s not the first time Stringer has found himself very content to be outside his comfort zone. A few years ago, he tells me, he decided to train for a pilot’s license. It was something he’d wanted to do for some time and over a few months he went for it.
“I went away and got my pilot license very randomly, in an off season. Again, terrifying - but it was just the challenge of doing something different, to learn a new skill. I was able to do it in four or five months, to be able to fly a small plane. That was a box that was ticked on the list.
“Rugby, obviously, was my number one and when I was playing it was all I wanted to do. I wanted to be as good as I could be and I didn’t really want to be distracted by a lot of other things. When I do something I want to do it properly, to be committed. I didn’t want to get to the stage (with Dancing With the Stars) where March or April came and I regretted not doing it. It’s too easy to say no.”
Last summer, Stringer hung up the boots on a professional career that spanned two spectacular decades. Being able to play at such a level until the age of 40 was another sign of his dedication to his health and fitness. Other professional sportspeople have spoken of the pain of retiring, of missing the buzz of a crowd’s roar or the camaraderie of the competitive team sport experience. When sport is all you’ve known it can be difficult to start over, but he’s philosophical about change, and ready to embrace it. For example, he’s spent recent months among family in his native Cork enjoying the catch-ups and the downtime.
“You know what? It’s actually been really nice. I’m lucky to have been pitch side for a lot of big games and you still get a sense that you’re at the games, you get to relive the atmosphere. But I’m never going to replace that team camaraderie, arriving every single morning, seeing your closest friends, doing what you love doing and having that kind of banter, that friendship in a team sport.
“I think a lot of people do struggle when they step away from it. It’s something that they’re always longing for. I’ve spoken to a lot of guys and I don’t think you’ll ever, ever replace what you had in that team set up. The fact that I understand that and I’ve accepted that, I think it’s easier to move on and you get highs from other things - your family, and other challenges like this. New people and new environments.
“It’s not a case of longing for what I had before. I had 20 years of being in a professional setup and it was unbelievable. There is that kind of void but I understand that it’s not going to be really possible to replace what I had. The main challenge for guys is realising that and accepting that. What we had was really special. You think of the good times and you don’t really dwell on them being gone. You just remember the fun that you had and look back at it fondly.”
In any case, he has had the most wonderful of distractions. In 2017, he and his wife Debbie welcomed baby Noah into the world. He’s now 21 months old and his doting dad is very happy to spend as much time with him as possible.
“I just didn’t want to be absent for a lot of his early days and it’s been amazing. To be able to come back to Ireland in the last six months, waking up every day, has been incredible. Even if you don’t see him for the week, when I’m in Dublin for the show, you see so many little changes with him. It might seem like the simplest and most basic thing, but to hear a new word coming out of his mouth, you’re like: ‘where did that come from?’ It’s so nice to see him develop and grow, become his own little person. Debbie’s family and my family are in Cork as well and the grandparents love spending time with him, especially after being away the last number of years.
“Once I retired during the summer I just made a decision to take six months away and come back to Cork. We’d been in the UK for six years and to be back among family, with our son, to be able to spend a bit of time with them has just been great.”
She made the nation smile as Conor’s first serious girlfriend on hit TV series The Young Offenders- now Demi Isaac Oviawe is embracing her inner glitter princess as she prepares to make her debut in RTÉ’s Dancing With the Stars. It’s an aspect to her she didn’t even know existed - like any teenager Demi loves her fashion but never thought of herself as a glittery girl.
“I’m not a big fan of glitter or dramatic make-up. But since I started the show and trying on all of my costumes, I love it - the more glitter the better. The bigger the eyeshadow, the bigger the hair, give me more! I never thought of myself as being that sort of person. I went and bought sparkly dresses because I love glitter now!” she says, the surprise still evident in her voice.
What a year it’s been for the 18 year old from Mallow. This time last year, viewers hadn’t yet seen Peter Foott’s terrific TV series of The Young Offenders, in which she and co-star and friend Jennifer Barry played the girlfriends who put manners on Cork’s most loveable young rogues, Jock and Conor.
The series was a smash hit both here and in the UK, returning for the recent Christmas special and with a second series already confirmed. She landed the role after a family friend told her about the original film: “about two dopes going around Cork looking for cocaine” and encouraged her to audition for the TV series. It was a series full of hilarious moments, from the Frank & Walters bus singalong to Billy Murphy’s many escapades. But there were incredibly moving moments too, and Demi’s favourite scene in the entire series was when the four friends sang together during an emotional visit to Jock’s mum’s grave.
"I think it was episode three, when we’re at the grave singing ‘With or Without You’ by U2. It had a special place in my heart personally, because I lost my mum at a young age. So for me, I could understand, I could relate to Jock’s emotions and what he was going through as a character. Everything you saw on my face is what I was feeling personally. It was just a very nice and simple scene but there was still a lot of cuteness and Young Offender-ness to it.”
Demi’s mum, Joy, and dad, Joe, moved to Ireland from Nigeria to start a new life when she was a toddler and settled in Mallow. Joy passed away from breast cancer when she was just five, and tragedy would strike again a decade later when Joe would die from complications caused by a brain tumour.
Joe had found love again with Kim, Demi’s step mum, to whom she remains very close. Her uncle, Courage, and brothers Obrian, Amen, Jack and Noah will also be cheering her on as she takes part in Dancing With the Stars.
Her main motivator is to make her parents and family proud, she says. “I was always close to my dad, Joe. He was my dad. He was funny, he was serious, he was loving, he was passionate. If you needed something he’d break his back to get it for you. He’d always do what he needed to do for us, especially for my family in Nigeria, for my grandmother who is still alive. He would bend over backwards to make sure they were happy and they were comfortable. He’d do anything he could, go out of his way to please everyone.
“When I do stuff like this, The Young Offenders or Dancing With the Stars, yes I’m doing it for myself. But also I’m like: ‘If I do something like this am I going to get more opportunities to make my family happy? To please my mum and dad or make my brothers happy?’ I kind of have my dad’s mentality about feeling passionately about his loved ones and caring for his loved ones more than anything else.”
It was while larking around with new DWTS presenter Jennifer Zamparelli at an RTÉ launch in August that producers first considered her. “I did a quick little interview with Jennifer. I was having a laugh with her and I got an email two weeks later asking if I was up for Dancing With the Stars. It was a long process of me thinking:
Kim and her uncle accompanied her to meet the show’s producers. “I was there and they were asking me questions about my family and myself, what I was doing at school, just to get the kind of person I am. I was talking away with them for about an hour and a half and it felt natural, it felt really good. “They did ask me if I had dancing experience. I’d done pantomimes at school and learned to dance. I’ve been acting since I was small and singing as well. So I kind of knew what I was getting into before I was on the show. It’s not that you have to be the strongest, it’s are you up for learning how to dance.”
It’s been a doorway to a whole new world she didn’t know of, of cha-chas and tangoes, and she’s found it fascinating. “I never knew there were different types of shoes for dancing until I was on the show. I was like: ‘What’s a Latin shoe?’ It has this kind of heel and this kind of strap. I thought: ‘Oh my God I know nothing’. It’s like going to school. The teacher asks you a question and if you don’t know, you revise, and you come back the following day.” She says that when she was first asked, she felt grateful that producers thought she was mature enough to go on the show. She spoke with family, the principal and career guidance staff at her school, Davis College in Mallow, who have been very supportive.
She jokes that - just like when she said she was cast in The Young Offenders- some of her classmates and teachers initially thought she was kidding. After being unveiled as one of the contestants on The Late Late Show, she felt “like a celebrity” at school the following week. She has been rehearsing for several weeks and is thoroughly enjoying the new challenge. “I’m so competitive. It’s not even that I want to win - I want to make it far enough. If I win it then obviously that would be really great but I’m not here to get knocked out easily. Everyone is lovely, the dancers, stars, production staff are all so nice. I’ve not met one bad person which I’m super grateful for.” While the rehearsals are physically challenging, Demi has been loving the process so far. “Obviously you’re stiff, because you’re stretching different muscles in your body. I have not been in agony. My dance partner pushes my limits. I’ve actually been very grateful with technique that it hasn’t been a very difficult dance so far.” While she has always loved dancing when out with friends, she adds: “I wouldn’t do the cha-cha or the salsa. I would just do my own thing.” But taking part in the show has given her a new-found appreciation for ballroom, classical and Latin dancing, and she’s keen to learn more. Which dance is she most looking forward to taking on?
As the stars and dancers prepare for the live shows to begin, Demi is excited at the prospect of competing on one of RTÉ’s biggest shows of the year. It’s been an extraordinary 12 months, but like The Young Offenders, she’s ready to embrace whatever opportunities and challenges DWTS brings her way. “I wouldn’t change the way anything went. The way I got The Young Offenders and the way I got this, I would keep it and I wouldn’t change anything.”
Dancing with the Stars starts tomorrow at 6.30pm on RTÉ One