She was on the red carpet with her future husband, The IT Crowd actor Chris O’Dowd (they married in 2012). He was suddenly fêted by Hollywood after the success of the movie Bridesmaids in which he played the shaggy, sweet police officer.
Meanwhile O’Porter (she acquired the O’ when she married O’Dowd) was, she admits, in a “spiral” career-wise. She made her name with candid, first-person TV documentaries presented with a wide-eyed spirit of enquiry. They included Super Slim Me, about slimming to a Hollywood size zero, and My Breasts Could Kill Me, about breast cancer, which killed her mother Carol. But she had stopped being commissioned.
She felt directionless. What was she doing on the red carpet? The dress didn’t feel right; neither did her hair. Then Brad Pitt walked over. “He said, ‘We saw the film four times.’ ‘We’ meant him and Angelina,” she laughs. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Chris’s fiancée. He held two of my fingers, then started talking to someone else without letting go. I was counting the seconds. That was the highlight of my night.”
Lunch with O’Porter is a flurry of laughter and confession. Since her 2011 nadir, she has reinvented herself as a novelist and is launching a vintage clothing line, just as her new TV show about retro clothes starts on Channel 4. This Old Thing sees O’Porter taking women wedded to high street fashion into second-hand shops. “I’m very proud of it. It’s not some makeover show telling you to change yourself, but just [to say] put a bit of effort into finding clothes and you’ll feel awesome.”
Her new label, Bob, is inspired by her love of the 1960s. After her mother’s death when she was seven, she was brought up by her aunt and uncle, furriers who were big players in the fashion industry. She loved her aunt’s Mary Quant dresses and the “spaceage kooky bob”. Today she is wearing a $15 black cord tunic dress, her hair is cut in a heavy-fringed Cathy McGowan wedge. She is slightly nervous. Her father, Bill, is over for a holiday and she’s left him to his own devices at Ground Zero. They are in New York because O’Dowd is starring on Broadway in Of Mice And Men.
Their social life is starry. One night she tripped over Kiefer Sutherland’s foot in Soho House in Hollywood, then he confessed to being O’Dowd’s biggest fan; a “wild night” ensued.
While O’Dowd gets on with being a film star, O’Porter writes.
After last year’s Paper Aeroplanes, she has just published Goose in paperback, the second in a quartet of novels about two friends who, like O’Porter, grew up on Guernsey. The friends drink, snog boys and cope with the grief of losing a parent, just as O’Porter did.
Her parents separated before she was a year old and when her sister Jane was three. Then her mother got breast cancer, which spread: “It ended up being cervical in the end. She was just riddled.” At seven she was old enough to know something was badly wrong. “She had a turban on and couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t know she had cancer, I didn’t know what the word was. All I remember is going to school and telling everyone my mum had died of appendicitis.”
She spent her teens in denial. “I used my personality to hide the agony I was in. The main thing I struggled with was that I was too young to remember her clearly.”
Her grief became more raw as she got older. “You know you were the centre of this person’s universe, and she was the centre of yours, and you can’t place the emotion anywhere; it’s just gone. My main memories are the smell of Chanel No 5 and her red nails. I have very sensory memories of her: her cold face waking me up from sleep. I also remember she had a boyfriend, and looking down from our playroom as she was passing a Polo between her mouth and his. They were just having a snog on the doorstep, but I love that image.”
After her death, the girls spent holidays in Scotland with their father. Today she is very close to Bill, who lives in a mobile home on the banks of Loch Lomond, but she knows the loss of her mother is what drives her. A fear of running out of time made her “hardcore ambitious”.
“It made me get off Guernsey, get into drama school, pursue, pursue.” She started out as a runner on Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned. At 25, she published a book about meeting men over the internet, honing her image as a “really naughty girl about town”. Although she wasn’t having as much sex as everyone thought. When a woman talks about sex, she says, people make a number of incorrect assumptions. As for drugs, “I didn’t say no to much. I had a great time and no regrets ... I wasn’t living a wild and crazy life, I was just single.”
She began making documentaries on polygamy, geishas and free love. “I really didn’t have a lot of fear, even if that was being naked in a room full of weird German hippies.” From 16 to 21, O’Porter had three great relationships, then “absolutely horrendous disasters” littered her twenties. She was working in LA when she met O’Dowd. Their mutual friend actor Nick Frost advised him to look her up.
She kept rebuffing his advances on Facebook but invited him to her 30th birthday party. “I was dancing with my dad, and he is the Irish version of my dad. He picked me up, threw me around the dance floor, then left. I remember thinking ‘Who was that?’” The next day she told her sister she’d met the man she’d marry.
“Suddenly I had this guy living in my apartment. He slept with a baseball bat beside the bed, and my apartment is really girly. He is an alpha male in the extreme. He’s incredibly strong and protective.”
Her career difficulties were more testing. An agent told her: “You need a comeback.” She thought: “Comeback? I’m f***ing 29.”
When the Bridesmaids hurricane hit, “There was nothing in my inbox, and Chris’s was ping-pinging. I’ve no interest in being an actress but it was a stark reminder my dream wasn’t happening. The irony was that on some of the biggest red carpets, on his arm, I felt like a WAG. I was really low. I was broke, Chris was paying the rent. I had all the positivity for him, but I’d be in bed all day miserable.”
After she lost a writing column, she felt like she was “nothing”. “To be honest, I accessed a lot of things about my mum. I think I needed to be really sad and sorry for myself. I wouldn’t have let it go on much longer than I did,” she laughs. “I’m not hugely materialistic but I hated being skint.” She had four sessions of therapy in London, “so I could tell someone how s*** I was feeling without them being all emotional”.
The therapist asked her why she doubted she could do what she had already proved she could do. Now O’Porter has gone from feeling like the interloper on the red carpet, to letting Chris “do his stuff” while she has a glass of wine at the bar.
She prefers writing to TV presenting. It’s hard to be the token woman on a panel show, she says. “I’d rather have three f***ing women. Why are they trying to shoehorn one?” She wonders why Richard Bacon can helm a TV show like his blokey Beer & Pizza Club, but women are stuck with Loose Women, “which doesn’t speak to me or my friends”. Last year a lads’ mag pulled out of an interview with her because she refused to do pictures.
“I’m a married woman. Why would I want to pose in my bra and pants? I don’t judge women who do,” she adds. “If a woman wants to exhibit her body, then great.” She’s a feminist (“It’s about instilling: be yourself, don’t say no when you mean yes, don’t be stopped”), but loves cooking Chris dinner. “Does that make me less of a feminist? I love food, I love cooking for my husband, who I love more than anyone else in the world. At the same time I want women to be equal, and I don’t understand why they’re not.”
O’Dowd is a feminist too, so what about the recent GQ cover with two half-clad women draped over him? “Chris and I felt a ‘shouldn’t have done-ness’ about that after it came out,” she says. “It was a huge privilege to be called ‘the king of comedy’ on the cover of GQ, and he is so not a player, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but in retrospect it did not represent who he is. I’m not anti-sex, but he’s not a lad. He’s immensely respectful of women.”
She wants children: “I want to see Chris as a father, he’d be so endlessly brilliant.” But she finds motherhood “slightly scary. I have this fear I’ll die on my children. My mum died ‘next year’ and I’m healthy. I’m not a hypochondriac, just very aware of my body. If my mum had checked herself, she might not have died.” She does a lot of work with cancer charities.
When O’Dowd was nominated for Best Actor at the Tonys (he lost to Bryan Cranston), she wore vintage Halston. She embraces standing out rather than wearing pieces everyone else sees in Topshop. “I mean, there are worse problems in life,” she says drily, “but you can avoid that one.”