Interview: Dawn O’Porter
TV presenter turned best-selling author talks about refusing to follow the herd with her new novel The Cows
Oooh, you’re wearing cows!”
As greetings go, writer and TV presenter Dawn O’Porter’s is unconventional, as she arrives at the hotel lounge, all glossy bob and huge white-toothed warm smile.
“You’re wearing Cows. The colour. It’s the same as the cover.”
Ah yes. I’m carrying a copy of her latest book, for identification purposes, and the proof copy cover is a bright mustard that synchronistically matches my jumper. The Cows, O’Porter’s first adult fiction novel is why we’re meeting in Glasgow, as she continues her book’s publicity tour and already this week she’s been on Loose Women, Radio 4’s Loose Ends and in various magazines and newspapers as her book hits the top ten in the Sunday Times Bestseller List. No wonder she’s on a high.
With the TV rights to The Cows optioned there’s a screenplay to write, she’s just finished the first draft of her third young adult Renée and Flo book, has a contract to write another adult fiction for HarperCollins, a monthly column for Glamour magazine, and a second baby due in July, with hunky, funny IT Crowd and Bridesmaids actor husband Chris O’Dowd, with whom she lives in LA. Throw in her vintage clothing business, BOB, that champions British manufacturing and the fact that she’s co-founder of Help Refugees charity (www.helprefugees.org.uk), with more than 80 projects across France, Greece, Italy, Serbia, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, and Dawn O’Porter has every right to feel good about herself.
“Life is really good at the moment. Everything is really great,” she says and beams.
Not following the herd is something O’Porter has lived by and her willingness to put her inside take on life out there for us all to see, warts and all, has made her someone worth watching. Whether it was attempting to slim to a size zero for a documentary or writing a book about the growing number of women who don’t have children, O’Porter’s approach is to be frank and funny.
“I’ve always had this ‘carve out your own existence’ attitude and I’m always encouraging other people to do this, if they can. Of course not everyone has the choice. I’ve been lucky. The overall theme of the book is live life your way, take control of your own existence, and don’t worry about what everyone else is doing.”
The Cows kicks off with a definition of the word ‘cow’ on the opening page. “A piece of meat; born to breed; past its sell-by date; one of the herd.” This is followed by the exhortation: “Women don’t have to fall into a stereotype” then O’Porter takes us into the lives of three women who don’t follow the herd. There’s Tara, a documentary maker, Cam, a lifestyle blogger, and Stella, PA to a star photographer who has lost her twin and mother to breast cancer. It’s about judgment, friendship, feminism, shame and a woman’s right to choose, or not to choose, motherhood.
Because life is what happens to us while we are making other plans, as O’Porter began writing her book about women choosing not to have children, she discovered she was pregnant and the book changed course. And as O’Porter’s life so often is her work, it would be unthinkable that she could write a book that didn’t express the feelings she was experiencing, and one of the characters inevitably became a mum.
“There’s an element of me in all of them. I did think about Polly Vernon, the journalist – who I know – when I was writing the character of Cam, because she is really contentedly, electively child-free and this isn’t a sadness in her life, it’s a genuine choice. Also Lionel Shriver, who writes about her choice not to be a mother, how that wasn’t what she wanted from her life. There are so many women like this and it’s under-represented, which is weird considering the character of Samantha in Sex and the City, this larger-than-life persona we all fell in love with back in the 90s. Yet we’re still uncomfortable with the idea of childlessness. So the book was going to be about three women who didn’t have children, but then I had a child and knew motherhood had to be part of it because I had just gone through this massive thing. So there’s Cam, then Tara’s got the mother in me, and Stella is my sadness and my loss.”
O’Porter warms to her subject and we talk about the ridiculousness of busy political women like Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May having to explain their child-free status in a way a male politician would never have to.
“They have to explain because people think they’re cold because of it and that’s the terrible thing,” says O’Porter. “We didn’t ask for our wombs and ovaries, and this presumption that we have to use them because otherwise it’s a waste, otherwise we’re not emotional or not sensitive in some way, it’s a really cruel diagnosis of a woman’s character. Especially of women in politics where people want them to be hard and abrasive so they can feel more comfortable with the idea of women being politicians in the first place. And for them to have to explain their childlessness is just very unfair.”
Now 38, O’Porter was born Dawn Porter (the O’ was added when she married O’Dowd five years ago) in Alexandria, West Dunbartonshire and moved to Guernsey with her mother and sister after her parents split up when she was one. Her mother died of breast cancer when she was almost six and she was raised by her grandparents, then an aunt and uncle, with frequent visits to her father, who lives near Loch Lomond. At drama college in Liverpool, she changed to TV broadcasting in her final year, and then work experience on Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned led to Channel 4’s hidden-camera show Balls of Steel, and she wrote her first book, Diaries of an Internet Lover (spilling the beans on her internet dating).
She continued to grab the nation’s attention by attempting to diet down to a size zero for the documentary Super Slim Me in 2007 and in a series of BBC3 documentaries including Dawn Gets Naked and Dawn Goes Lesbian. Women who live as geishas and polygamists were another study in her Channel 4 Extreme Wife series.
O’Porter has never shied away from using herself as her own raw material; she’s got balls. Or rather, she hasn’t, as anyone who has seen her shows can attest. Her TV work had prompted the move to LA in 2008 but then her screen career faltered and she embraced a writing career. Her monthly magazine column led to writing young adult fiction with the semi-autobiographical Paper Aeroplanes in 2013 and Goose a year later, highly-praised books that dealt with themes of teen friendship and bereavement. These days she spends her time looking after her son, Art, and writing in her office in the garden of her West Hollywood bungalow.
“I treat writing like a nine to five job. But The Cows was a bit different because I didn’t plot this one because of having Art and time pressure. I needed to sit down and just get words out, so some days I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was 100 pages in before I knew what it was going to be about. It was so exciting and nice to have no limits.
“I surprised myself constantly with The Cows. There were key moments where I’d run into the living room and go to Chris, ‘this character’s just done something mental, I need to have a glass of wine and wind down’. And I think that’s paid off.”
Yet no matter how happy and successful O’Porter tells the world she is, how much she beams out of the TV or laptop or writes upbeat columns in Glamour magazine, this week’s interviews have left her slightly crestfallen.
“I’ve noticed because I’ve been having so many that the tragedy of my life has been what seems to be the most interesting, when I’m sitting there with this amazing husband, pregnant with my second child, successful new book, all this wonderful stuff… God, do we have to go over old ground?
“I lost my mum when I was young and it was a huge part of my life but it’s 30 years later and ALL anyone wants to talk about in interviews, which I kind of understand, and at the same time I’m like ‘Oh, I can’t escape that, can I?’ So I can be out there promoting a book about vintage clothing and I’ll have to talk about my dead mother and about the time where my career kind of fell apart for a couple of years, which happens to everyone who works in media and it’s pulled up every time, and what seems to be more interesting than my work is any sort of sadness or tragedy in my life.
“Or I stupidly said I was planning a natural birth, and twice on different TV shows with my book about the option to be child-free sitting on the coffee table in front of us, the first question I’m asked is about the birth I’m planning for a child. They want to ask about Chris and the baby and that made me feel really small. But because I’m not a dick, I just answered the questions and had a conversation I didn’t really want to have. But there’s so much other stuff in a six-minute TV interview we could be talking about.”
For instance the charity she co-founded, Help Refugees, or how she worries about racism being on the rise post-Brexit, not to mention living in Trump’s America.
“I thought we were getting more liberal as a society, more inclusive and I’m gutted racism has come back stronger with Brexit, devastated and I feel Brexit promotes a racist attitude. And American politics is so all-consuming, because I never thought it would happen, the situation we’ve got. I’m applying for a Green Card so I have to be careful what I say, but one wonderful thing is it’s kick-started society to be proactive. We needed to be kicked up the arse. This generation has forgotten the power they have and we’re rediscovering that. So in ten years time we might be better off.” She grins. Nothing will rain on O’Porter’s parade, not even the light Glasgow smirr that contrasts with her usual LA sunshine.
So used to a gender-biased line of questioning has O’Porter become that she recently started an email chain with her well-known female pals, asking them the questions they get asked constantly, questions a man would never be asked, so she can lob them at her husband O’Dowd, when she interviews him for one of her podcasts. “The email string is the funniest thing ever,” she says.
What are the questions?
“Things like ‘were you worried about how fatherhood would affect your body?’ Women get asked that and the answer is ‘No, I was just really excited to be a mum, I wasn’t worrying about my thighs’. And ‘What’s in your handbag?’, constantly, which is kind of a fun question, but … sorry, I’ve just written a book! And ‘Are you going to have plastic surgery?’ ‘How many children are you going to have?’, ‘Are you going to have another child?’
“I don’t get angry about it, I understand,” she says. “And this book is about motherhood so I couldn’t have done this book tour without talking about motherhood, that would have been ridiculous. But when I was promoting a book about vintage clothes a few years ago, it was still all about babies and motherhood, and that was when I got frustrated.”
I can’t wait to hear what Chris O’Dowd keeps in his handbag and whether he’s worried about his thighs. At the moment he’s away from home filming in New Mexico on Get Shorty, Epix’s 10-episode remake of the 1995 film based on Elmore Leonard’s 1990 comedy thriller and he’s also been filming the Van Gogh biopic Loving Vincent.
O’Porter met O’Dowd when she was living in LA. He was in town filming and he asked her out on Facebook.
Really, did she not think, you know… a nutter?
“Well, his picture on Facebook is an old lady and I thought who is this guy? So I googled his name and I thought the IT Crowd guy, never seen it, and then he happened to message me on my 30th birthday and I said ‘Come along and bring your friends.’ He turned up at midnight when almost everyone had gone, and we just danced, then he left and I thought he was absolutely fantastic. He moved in with me four months later.”
With next month’s deadline for the latest in the young adult series looming it’s back to the shed in the garden for O’Porter before six months’ maternity leave after her baby is born. If the book takes off as O’Porter hopes, they have plans to extend their three-bedroomed bungalow to accommodate the growing family and her vast vintage collection, everything from £2 fleashop frocks to a 1965 Courrèges runway dress. And perhaps a bigger writing space too.
“You realise that what you’re aiming for in life is quite small really… just a really nice place to sit and write.
“I started writing about Renée and Flo when they were 15, now they’re 25. I’m going to write about them till they’re grannies,” she says. “I’ve got another three books to write after this one: another HarperCollins, another two Renée and Flos and the TV script for The Cows. I’ve never written a script before so God knows what that will end up being like, but it was so flattering that someone bought it before the book was even out. That was awesome.”
O’Porter is loving the life of a writer and has absolutely no plans at the moment to go back into TV, despite being asked to film her family. She laughs at the prospect. “We’re just not the Kardashians and I’m fiercely protective of Art. I could not do those TV shows now. Well I could, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to be on the road for 14 days working eight-hour days and mothering on Skype. Chris has to do that and it’s hard for him.
“I don’t think I’m sacrificing anything because I paid my dues in my twenties and had this amazing time and did all these brilliant things. Unless it’s an idea that absolutely grabs me, the sacrifice of not being around at home is just not OK for me. TV is so disposable, you can do a great show and they decide they’re not going to pick it up again, and that’s you not working. As long as I keep writing I’ll always work.
“With TV I got to do amazing things – my God, some of the opportunities: my dinner party stories are amazing! – but there would be something in the course of every programme that wasn’t in my control, that would be the bit that’s picked up. For example the lesbian one opened up, ‘My name’s Dawn Porter and I get loads of sex…’ and I remember going, ‘But I don’t, ha, ha, ha, I’m having a particularly dry spell at the moment’, but people are saying ‘it’s a great opener for the show’, so you go, ‘Oh f*** it, I’ll just say it’. And then it comes out on TV and it’s just cringeworthy. Arggggghhhh!
“If you’re writing books that doesn’t happen. Every word is mine.”
Dawn O’Porter’s new novel The Cows is published by HarperCollins, £14.99