I like things my own way, even in relationships. That’s probably why I’m on my own.
I never had any ambition to be an actor.
I started working in a record shop when I was 17 and by 24 I was marketing manager of EMI. I had a car, expenses, and was meeting big stars like Tina Turner and David Bowie. Then in 1990 I was made redundant. I completely blew my redundancy money. I thought I’d walk into a new job, but it didn’t happen that way. I started doing publicity for Brendan O’Carroll on not a lot of money, nothing like I was used to.
I was extremely stressed after the redundancy and in 1994 I got a brain tumour. I woke up one day and one side of my face had dropped and I sounded like I was drunk. Everyone laughed and I thought I’d just slept in a draught. Then the doctor told me: you’ve had a mild stroke. I was only 34. Fair play to Brendan O’Carroll — he said take as much time off as you need. When I recovered he asked me to go on the road with him as tour manager. He is a generous person.
I was a very outgoing child. I never liked sports. I grew up in Ballyfermot and I loved it as I had gangs of friends. We spent a couple of years in Athlone and then Limerick — my dad was running branches for the ITGWU. I moved to Kilmainham in 1990 and I am still living in the same house.
Brendan wrote Mrs Brown for radio and then added a gay character. In the beginning, he couldn’t afford to pay actors so roped in people he knew — like me — to read the parts.
The stage role fell to me by chance when the regular actor had to leave suddenly. At the time I was doing Brendan’s publicity so I’d been at performances every night for a year. We were due to open to sold-out shows in Liverpool and Brendan said ‘you know all the lines, you can fill in’. I said sure, as I thought he was joking. I’d never been on a stage in my life.
I was petrified the first night but soon realised it didn’t matter if I made a mistake as Mrs Brown was always on stage so if I did freeze, Brendan would come to my rescue. He changes the show each night anyway because he doesn’t want the cast to get too comfortable and start busking it.
If I could be reborn as someone else for a day I’d love to be Boy George. He’s done so much for gay rights, just by being himself. People like Peter Tatchell were preaching to the converted but Boy George spoke to a lot of ordinary people who didn’t really have an opinion about gays one way or another. They loved him. He was a pioneer.
I didn’t come out for years. I thought there would be a scandal. But as soon as I met other gay people I came out and realised it actually wasn’t an issue. I never had the conversation with my own mum. I just assumed she knew. It came up when I was being interviewed by Miriam O’Callaghan on TV and I just rolled along with it — and thought to myself, well, me ma knows now alright.
When I was recovering from the brain tumour in Beaumont Hospital I used to go to the chapel for peace and quiet, to just sit and meditate. I did pray a bit too. I’m not an atheist.
I didn’t get depressed. But I’m like the dog — if I’m down, you should just leave me alone at the bottom of garden to get over it. I didn’t want visitors. I didn’t even tell anyone what had happened for a week.
Being ill changed my philosophy on life. I realised nothing is ever as bad as it seems. I do think what a waste when I hear of a suicide — especially if it is because of financial trouble. That might sound callous but I get angry at the waste of life and energy. I learnt not to bother worrying. I’m not a worrier now. I firmly believe things will work out for the best.
I still smoke — but I am giving them up. I work out and eat well.
My advice is to find something in life you are passionate about, and do it.
I’ve never done panto before. I’ll never forget going to see the Maureen Potter pantos every year when I was growing up. A lot of modern pantos appear to be more like computer games than actual, real pantos — but ours is a proper, good old-fashioned, traditional pantomime.
Rory Cowan is in Cinderella at The Tivoli Theatre Dublin; www.panto.ie