Tonight is the finale of the fifth series of Dancing with the Stars (DWTS), RTÉ’s flagship show with Cuban heels and all the feels. “I’m gonna fall down the stairs, finally,” quips Jennifer Zamparelli, diverting a question about what audiences can expect. The top of every show sees her descending an imperial staircase, in high heels, opposite her co-presenter, Nicky Byrne.
She has “no idea” who is going to win the glitterball trophy. Not when judges’ least favourites like Aslan guitarist Billy McGuinness outlasted decent dancers like Ronan Keating’s daughter Missy. Not when being at the top of the leaderboard is no immunity to facing the dreaded dance-off, as singer Erica Cody and rugby player Jordan Conroy both discovered. Jockey Nina Carberry has been a stand-out contestant. Paralympic swimmer Ellen Keane has brought her gold-winning determination to the dance floor. Love Island hunk Matthew MacNabb saw off contestants who could actually move in time to music.
“I love them all and you can’t call it. But the unfortunate thing is people don’t vote for the people they like. They look at people and go, ‘Jeez, aren’t they a great dancer, I love watching them,’ but they forget to pick up the phone and vote. I just hope people will vote for their favourites. And may the best one win.”
Judges Brian Redmond, Loraine Barry and Arthur Gourounlian give scores out of 10, but viewers get the final say. Much like the contestants, Zamparelli has herself felt the vagaries of public opinion, and is sympathetic.
The Dubliner was caught up in the recent furore over Tipperary comedians The 2 Johnnies, who were temporarily taken off air just three days after their new daily 2FM show began for posting a video containing sexist language. Funnily enough, when McMahon and O’Brien launched their 2FM debut on Zamparelli’s daily show from the roadcaster in the middle of their hometown of Cahir, she quipped: “I have a bet on with my producer for how long ye’ll last.”
As you might expect of a former saleswoman and entrepreneur whose stepping stone to broadcasting came via TV comedy shows Republic of Telly and Bridget & Eamon, Zamparelli is both wry and canny. “I’m glad that they’re getting a second chance,” she says now. “I think it was the right thing to do. They apologised. They were sincere in their apology. And I know The 2 Johnnies; I’ve worked with them. I’ve met their mommies and a fiancée, and that is not who they are. So, for the mistake that they made and their apology, I thought, ‘Let’s all move on from this now’. And I hope we can because they’re good people.”
Along with social media baying for their cancellation came accusations of double standards at the national broadcaster. Twitter commentators were quick to reference a 2013 clip from Republic of Telly, in which Zamparelli was seen on the red carpet at the Q Awards in London. Among her attempts to wind up various musicians at the event, she made a sexually suggestive remark to visibly unimpressed singer Brandon Flowers and joked about the size of comedian Al Murray’s penis. “Does Jennifer Zamparelli need to ‘Be Better’ or is it just men?” asked one tweeter, linking to the clip on YouTube.
Is she more careful speaking to and about men these days? “Yeah, I suppose. The thing about this is we’re all kind of learning retrospectively, aren’t we? I mean, I’m 41 now. When I was on Republic of Telly, I was a young presenter; I was in my 20s. And my role was to go out and have a laugh and get a reaction. That was the brief,” she explains.
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She stops for a moment and sighs. “Looking back, am I proud of everything I did? I look back and think, ‘Jesus, I would never say some of those things now’. When things happen like that — The 2 Johnnies, whatever — I think we all learn from it, which is great. But yeah, there are definitely things that I’ve done in my past that, Jesus, I would never say that to someone now, ever. Should I be cancelled because of what I’ve done in my past? No. Because, like I said, we’re all learning and making changes.
“I think it all comes down to intention as well,” she adds. “Like, people always say, ‘Oh, when you spoke to Gráinne Seoige on the red carpet, you were so rude to her’. I said, ‘Yeah, but we all shook hands after and had a laugh’.” This was at the 2010 Style Awards when Zamparelli asked the Ireland’s Got Talent presenter if she felt like gouging out her eyes at how bad Irish talent was.
“Your intention is not to hurt people. Your intention is to have fun and have a laugh at them and have a bit of banter or whatever.”
It is telling that Zamparelli’s one major brush with cancel culture prompted her to leave Twitter. In September 2020, she tweeted asking people who had “strong opinions” either way about mask-wearing to get in touch. Pre-vaccines and mid-pandemic, her request provoked condemnation for apparently seeking to platform anti-maskers.
“I’ve been involved in a pile-on and a cancel thing, yeah. Maskgate. And I came off that platform. I came off Twitter and my life has been so much better since.”
The experience was “very uncomfortable. I felt like it didn’t matter what I said — it was never good enough. But then it just went away.” Not before RTÉ chief Dee Forbes interjected with a tweet clarifying that the mask debate had been scrapped. “I tried to learn [from it] and I’m better, myself, for what happened. And coming off a platform like that has given me headspace. I feel much better for it. And I’ll come off Instagram as well. I have a real love/hate relationship with social media.”
Though she likes “being able to have a connection with people” online, “there will be a day, I suppose, when my daughter probably wants a phone and I’m telling her not to be on Instagram, but she’s looking at me on Instagram. I suppose that will be the time where I’ll have to question what I’m doing. Because they just do what you do”.
Zamparelli is mother to Florence (seven) and Enzo (four), and is married to stunt coordinator Lauterio ‘Lau’ Zamparelli. Balancing the demands of family life with presenting a three-hour radio show every weekday and rehearsing and delivering DWTS on Sundays — all while looking flawless — becomes impossible when “life throws things at you”. In January, she had to make an SOS call to Lau while he was on location in the States.
“I had to call him in the height of Covid, when I got Covid, my kids got Covid, and say, ‘You need to come back from America, from your gig, and help me because I can’t cope. I can’t do Dancing and the radio’. It’s a team thing and you can’t do that on your own. I physically couldn’t do it.”
Did he mind coming home from America? “No comment,” she jokes. “Of course he did. It was weeks before he should have but we came to a decision that this was important for me right now. And he came home, and I’ll drop everything for him if he ever needs me to — and that’s the way it is.”
It is tricky territory, deciding whose career is more important at any given moment. “Like, I won’t be on Dancing and I’ll say no to gigs,” she elaborates, of supporting Lau next time.
When her husband returned home early from his work obligations, Zamparelli’s friends asked her why she hadn’t reached out to them first instead. “I hate asking people to help because I feel like I’m supposed to do everything. You feel like that as a woman. And I learned that the hard way and it wasn’t nice.”
Here she is referring to the “massive wobble” she had when she turned 40 a month into the first lockdown in 2020. “Jesus, I was on to the psychotherapist and everything. I was like, ‘Help me’.”
By the time she sought professional help for her untethered, anxious feelings, she was struggling on the job. “I couldn’t breathe. I used to pull down the mic and my producer was like, ‘Are you OK?’ I just couldn’t catch my breath. I felt like there was physically something wrong. But it was just too much.”
The psychotherapist “grounded” her. “She just reminded me of what I need to do. It sounds so basic, but I wasn’t feeling grounded, with everything that was going on. So getting out into nature, starting to hike, really helped. And just talking. Proper talk, not like, you know, ‘How are you?’ ‘Yeah I’m grand!’ Being honest when people ask you.”
But Zamparelli is “not there yet”. She still bats away serious questions with flippant replies. She can still act first and think later. In September 2020, she admitted live on air that she regrets having tubal ligation (commonly known as having your tubes tied) for permanent birth control. Even Lau was taken aback, ringing to say they had discussed the procedure beforehand.
Today our conversation about it is bookended with her joking that she is “gonna probably settle for a dog” or “rob” one of her pregnant colleagues’ babies. But in between, Zamparelli inadvertently makes a strong argument for thinking longer and harder before opting for sterilisation.
“I had it while I was having Enzo. So while I had a C-section, I had my tubes tied. I don’t think I put a lot of thought into it at the time. I didn’t. And that’s me. That’s my problem with these things. I’m very hasty and I make quick decisions. Generally I don’t think things through. I don’t think, ‘Well what are the consequences of this in a year’s time? In five years’ time, in 10 years’ time?’ I’m just like, ‘What is good for me?’
“I was so sick in pregnancy, to the point where I could barely get out of bed or go to work. I was like, ‘There’s no way I can do this again’. But, of course, when you have the child, you forget about all that. You think, ‘I could definitely go again’. It was just one of those things. I think I made a really hasty decision with it. You can have IVF and it’s not completely final but it’s a long road to go back.” The idea that she has even looked into this possibility feels astonishing.
“Lau is very happy with two. He doesn’t want to rock the boat and he is probably right.”
Zamparelli was 37 at the time and felt “so fortunate because I was quite late getting pregnant and having babies”. She and Lau talked about him “getting the snip” but then her sister in the States had tubal ligation. “So it was all very, ‘Oh yeah, this is what we do. And this is easy.’ I felt very fortunate to have the two healthy babies. You kind of think, ‘Jesus, just be happy with what you have’.But I’d have loved to have had another one.”
Sometimes her hasty decisions have worked in Zamparelli’s favour. Portrayed as an “ice maiden” in BBC One reality-TV show The Apprentice in 2008 and mocked for claiming to be the best saleswoman in Europe in her bid to win the £100,000 job with Alan Sugar, she was blindsided by the aftermath. An ex-boyfriend even did a tabloid kiss-and-tell. “I ran back to Ireland with my tail between my legs. I was done with the UK. Like, I was living in the UK for years. I had a place over there and I was, like, ‘I’m coming home’.”
If her provocative red-carpet interviews are being judged more harshly with hindsight, so, too, is the cavalier treatment of Noughties reality-TV show contestants. “I was so traumatised, I’m amazed I came out of it unscathed,” she says of her Apprentice experience. She still can’t bring herself to watch manipulated reality shows like Love Island and says contestants will need “a lot of psychiatric help when they come out”.
DWTS is “a different ball game altogether… it doesn’t have any nastiness”. Unless Zamparelli chooses to wear something unusual, like that black bow mini-dress by Copenhagen-based brand Rotate. “My god, ‘Sack the stylist’; ‘Kill whoever put you in that’; ‘You look like a sack of potatoes’ — it went on and on,” she says, of the social-media insults that were flung at her. “I thought, ‘That’s fashion, baby!’”
She doesn’t mind “stuff like that”, she says, because it’s “trivial” and would “be more offended if they said something about my radio show or something about one of my team”.
This is true. Broadcaster Louise McSharry, who lost her job at 2FM last October, recently said in an interview with the Irish Independent, “… there’s a demographic of women in their 20s and 30s whose interests are just not currently being served on radio”.
Zamparelli bristles somewhat at that suggestion. “I think it was an odd thing to say coming from a station that has a predominantly female line-up. Doireann Garrihy is on the breakfast, then it’s me, then it’s Tracy Clifford, then it was Jenny Greene, then it’s Tara Kumar. We’re a station that champions female presenters more than any other station out there. So, I thought that was odd.”
Zamparelli has had her own radio show for three years now, and, prior to that, co-presented Breakfast Republic with Bernard O’Shea and Keith Walsh. She plays pop music, has a resident sex expert, loves a quirky story and tackles some current affairs. In the week of our chat, she interviewed Carlow medical student Rachael Diyaolu, who was stuck in Ukraine after the Russian invasion. “But then it’s a hard shift to go, ‘OK, now we’re gonna play Partners Under Pressure!’” she says, of her regular couples’ quiz. “But we have to keep informed and we have to listen to these stories.”
She has to moderate content in real time to suit both management and her youthful audience. The day we talk, guest comedian Kevin McGahern requests an old-fashioned song and she refuses, saying, “You’ll get me sacked.” She adds now: “I’m not sure how the head of music would feel about me playing Nancy Sinatra.”
Zamparelli keeps a keen eye on delivering what RTÉ wants and has been signed up for a third series of family quiz show Home Advantage later this year. Key to every job is “navigating the tone”.
“And you don’t get it right all the time,” she says, ruefully. “You’re going to make mistakes. But you strive to get it right. And I’m really learning every single day.”
The final of ‘Dancing with the Stars’ airs tonight at 6.30pm on RTÉ One
Photography by Evan Doherty; styling by Fiona Fagan; make-up by John Bowes, hair by Lara Moody, both Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, brownsugar.ie
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/television/jennifer-zamparelli-should-i-be-cancelled-because-of-what-ive-done-in-my-past-no-41474603.html Jennifer Zamparelli: ‘Should I be cancelled because of what I’ve done in my past? No.’