Louise McSharry is pregnant. Ecstatically happily married to Gordon, a producer for RTÉ TV, the 2FM DJ can barely believe her good fortune. Why? Well, mostly because of the label, Fat girl, which has dogged her throughout her life.
It started, aged five, when her mother, looking at her sagely, put her on a diet. At the time that was the least of Louise’s problems. With her father dead from cancer, her mother, Dee, was descending into alcoholism, and Louise was trying to protect her brother and cover the truth.
The family moved to America, but, when Dee hooked up with a guy who tried robbing a gun shop whilst the children waited in the car outside, she was persuaded to surrender custody to her brother and his wife.
Life became more stable, but that fat issue remained. It ruined friendships, and caused McSharry to enter some dodgy relationships in her teens, thrilled when a boy wanted to kiss her, or later, sleep with her, because it meant she couldn’t be quite as disgusting as she viewed herself.
But the final blow came just last year. Having survived cancer, McSharry was told that there was little chance of her conceiving. And that, if she were to undergo IVF, she would need to lose a lot of weight.
“That was devastating for me to hear,” she says when we meet to discuss her memoir, Fat Chance. “But I never really bought into it. I have a tendency to think, everything will be fine.” Even so, becoming pregnant naturally still feels like something of a miracle.
McSharry decided to write her book in August 2014, when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a treatable cancer that affects, mainly, young people. “It would make me feel I had achieved something while I was sick,” she says. “I didn’t want to feel it had been a waste of time.”
Although cancer forms a part of the narrative — Fat Chance is so very much more. It’s a brave, heart-breaking yet sometimes funny account of a life full of the issues all women encounter at some stage of their lives, but rarely admit out loud. How did Louise strike the balance?
“I thought hard about what I wanted the book to do,” she says. “The more honestly we can talk about those universal issues, the easier it will be for all of us. I really hoped it would make an impact on young women, and help them make life easier for themselves.
“All that body image stuff is so poisonous. It infiltrates every area of your life, and it’s so tragic. There is a photograph of me and Gordon taken when I was sick and had no hair, but we are dancing. If it was a photo of anyone else I would think it was beautiful. It was two people who were clearly in love, but all I saw when I looked at it was, Oh, I’ve put on weight. I couldn’t see anything else.”
If her body image has been bad — McSharry’s career has soared. Discovering radio in UCD in 1999, she started off in Newstalk; and at RTÉ she filled in for Ryan Tubridy, and now has her own show. Her ambition is to move to RTÉ Radio 1, and present a conversation-based show.
There have been many low points in McSharry’s life, but the worst, she says, was being made redundant from a radio station in Galway.
“That was a really dark time for me. I was living with two friends at the time and they were working. I would stay in my room all day, and when they came home I would shut the door. I felt I had nothing of value to contribute.”
McSharry became a household name last year, when the course of her cancer was documented on TV. She is candid, in the book, about the ‘benefits’ she gained from cancer.
“It does feel weird. A friend rang and said, ‘How did you manage to swing that?’ He said, ‘You realise the benefits?’ And this was like, two days after I had been diagnosed.”
Total honesty means McSharry has written some harsh things about her family. All have read the book, and are in full support. That includes her mother. The two were reunited, and McSharry read the relevant chapters to her, but tragically, she died of cancer just two weeks ago.
McSharry gives lots of great advice based on her experience. The most important piece, she says, is to remember that you are your worst critic.
“No one is thinking that terrible thing about you that you are thinking yourself. You should give yourself a break,” she says.
Having largely accepted her body now, and put her demons to bed, McSharry says she is a work in progress. “After years of self-hate, it’s going to take me a while to find the balance. But my value system has changed. In the past five years my body has got cancer, and gotten over cancer. It went through chemotherapy with less side effects that the people I met along the way. It shouldn’t have got pregnant and did. That is pretty remarkable.”