It’s been eight years since Laura Whitmore beat a host of wannabes to become MTV’s newest, freshest face. Success and celebrity status followed, as well as the unwanted tabloid attention. Now at 31, the Irish presenter is poised to begin a whole new chapter. Here, she tells JESSIE COLLINS why her next step will be her biggest challenge yet.
PHOTOGRAPHED BY OLIVER PEARCE
STYLED BY DEE MORAN
There is a telling piece of archive footage from 2003 of Laura (then Laura Ann) Whitmore in her first TV appearance as a finalist for the Irish Supermodel of the Year competition on RTÉs The Late Late Show.
The hair may be darker, the fashion a little less polished, but the poise and attitude are there, the confidence oozes.
Fast forward almost 14 years, and that same composure and certainty is before me now, as the 31-year-old slips easily between guises on the set of our February shoot, moving gracefully between moods and outfit changes. It’s not so much confidence, she claims though, as it is her “give it a go ethos” that has taken her this far. “I always think you have one life,” she clarifies, “so give every opportunity you have 100 per cent. I am lucky that both my parents have always been encouraging (most of the time) with me following my dreams or going down an unconventional route.”
She was raised by her mum in Bray, Co Wicklow, and although her parents were separated, her father was very much present, and her mother’s diligence and hard work left an indelible mark on the young Laura. That first TV appearance was just a tiny preamble to whqat was coming. After completing a degree in journalism at DCU, she entered the Pick Me MTV competition in 2008, beating a whole host of wannabes across Europe to become the station’s newest presenter. At just 23, Laura Whitmore was already making a name for herself.
Her star ascended over the following eight years, as she continued to present for MTV as well as host from the red carpet of almost every awards show, and was part of one of the highest rated reality TV brands in the business. I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! may not be everyone’s cup of escapism, but in terms of reality shows, it’s a box office draw, regularly pulling in over 13 million viewers, with its sister show, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here Now!, which Whitmore anchored, regularly pulling in over 2 million.
It’s quite the exposure, something that comes with a price too. During her time as its presenter, it has also made Laura Whitmore regular tabloid fodder, with constant speculation on her personal life and a level of stalking by the press that would make a lot of young women feel pretty caged. Recent events haven’t necessarily helped to turn the heat down. Last year, she made the bold move to decline another season of I’m a Celebrity… to forge a new direction (more of that anon).
First up, though, she wanted to fulfill another ambition – to take part in what is now the ratings giant of all reality shows, Strictly Come Dancing. “I had been asked before to do it, but couldn’t because of I’m a Celebrity…,” she recalls. “It was just something I wanted to do just for the craic in some ways. It was one of my favourite shows to watch, and I love dancing. Everyone kind of wants to do that show, so to be asked to do it… I thought, I’m going to do this, and it was a nice little transition.”
So far, so good. But she didn’t quite count on how tough the experience would be. She readily admits it was a big challenge, particularly given, she says, her dancing prowess is more akin to “Bambi on Ice” than Beyoncé. But that was only the half of it. “The show itself, I loved, but I found it quite intrusive in other ways. The media attention was ridiculous. I’ve had that before, but not to that extent. And I think it was particularly the case for me and Daisy [Lowe, the English model who was also a contestant on the series]. I remember Rob Rinder [another contestant], who’s a really good friend of mine, saying, ‘I didn’t realise until afterwards that being a woman on the show is very different to being a man on the show.’”
The attention she is referring to is mostly to do with how the tabloids built up her relationship with her dance partner, Giovanni Pernice, first of all claiming that this was set to be the show’s big romance before claiming they, in fact, were feuding and that things had become “toxic”.
“I remember the first week, I was really nervous,” she continues, “because the papers were writing all these stories and just having a field day, and I just felt really self- conscious because I just thought, ‘I don’t even know this guy, and if I stand beside him, I’m going out with him; if I don’t stand beside him, we’re having a fight’ and I just thought, this is too weird.”
The schedule of rehearsing was also gruelling, and then in week three of the show, Whitmore sprained her ankle. “You’re in a lot of pain [but] in one way, it made me stronger. I was still trying to train and go to physio and do everything else because until they told me I had to pull out of the show, I wasn’t going to pull out. And even the day they told me that I couldn’t dance, I [still] went there that day. Until the last minute, I was there to do it, and I was always saying I would never step down from the show.” She fought through it, though, and came back to top the leader board again. “There’s something kind of nice in it at the same time because you learn a lot about yourself, and you’re a little bit stronger than you think you are.”
Still, it took its toll in ways she didn’t expect. “We [the contestants] were all crying all the time. The guys were all crying all the time. It’s just so emotional. But I think there’s something great with kind of tapping into that side of you – it’s okay to not be strong for a bit, but then there’s actually strength within that.” Despite the sweat, blood and tears, on week six, she was voted off the show in a head to head dance-off – although, there was some consolation in that her opponent, Ore Oduba, went on to win the show. For Whitmore, though, the end came as a relief.
“I actually was really, really in a lot of pain, and probably more than people realised. I remember going in that day and actually packing up my dressing room before I went on – you know in your head when you just don’t think you can put your body through this anymore. As much as I bloody loved it, it just wasn’t possible. But I still got out there.”
And there were other projects weighing on her mind. Namely, her next move. Strictly, in fact, was really a segue into a new beginning. Quietly for the last two years, she has been honing her acting chops, and last year, landed the part in a major new play from the blockbusting crime writer Peter James. Not Dead Enough is the latest adaptation of James’ novel of the same name, The Perfect Murder having already been worked into a successful stage show starring Jessie Wallace and Shane Richie of EastEnders fame. Getting its world premiere at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre this April, it again stars Richie as lead detective Roy Grace, opposite Whitmore, who plays pathologist Cleo Morey. It may not be Death of a Salesman, but it’s got some great credentials, namely its Olivier Award-winning director, Ian Talbot.
So why acting, and why now? “I studied drama from when I was a kid and did all the grades, and then I ended up going back to study it after DCU. Then I won an MTV competition, went to London, and then ended up doing it over there. But I never really told anyone – it was just kind of more for me.” She was cautious about saying too much, too soon. “It’s been kind of happening for a while in that I wanted to get back into acting for a long time. You get into that bit where you don’t really tell anyone and you feel like you’re on this path, and I don’t know, maybe you care too much about what people think of you.”
Then two years ago, she found herself an agent. “I [did it] without really telling anyone. And then for the last few years, I have been meeting casting directors and auditioning for different things.” An audition with producer Joshua Andrews, who was behind the highly successful production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Gillian Anderson, left an impression, and though that part didn’t materialise, he proved fortuitous. “I bumped into Joshua again when Jesse Eisenberg had a play in London, and he said, “We’ve got this new play coming up, and we think you would be perfect for it. Would you audition?” This time, she got it. “And for me, it’s kind of exactly what I want to do. I’m excited by it because you can get too comfortable in life, and I think as soon as you stop challenging yourself, as soon as you don’t have the butterflies, it’s time to think again. I think you should be constantly learning and just kept on your toes.”
That said, the transition wasn’t exactly smooth. Auditions, she says, were “horrible”. “I remember being really nervous and I had my script and was like, ‘Why am I so nervous? I’ve hosted TV. You can do this – sort yourself out!’ And then I talked to one of my really good friends, who is an Irish actor – I said to him, ‘All I do is think I’m sh*t all the time and have self-doubt,’ and he was like, ‘That’s what actors do – welcome to the world.’”
She’s well aware too that there is also the challenge of changing people’s perceptions, and that the expectations in some senses will be for her to fail. “I remember when I was auditioning for the play and they were kind of like, ‘Oh no, she’s a TV presenter’, and they basically sent an email to my agent saying – not as crude as this, but kind of going, ‘Oh, we thought Laura was going to be sh*t, but she’s actually quite good!’ You have to work harder than if you were just a newbie coming fresh from drama school.”
You have to hand it to her – it takes guts. She could have stayed on an easier street, but not going for a fifth year of presenting I’m a Celebrity… was also about taking some control. “You don’t know [what’s going to happen] because every year you wait until the summer until they [offer you the show] again. And then I just thought, at some stage, you’re going to have to make a change. For me, I think it was the right decision. And also, I think it’s good to leave when people still like you.” There is a certain amount of flying by the seat of your pants that Whitmore invites too. “I don’t really have a plan as much as I probably should have a plan. I just kind of take each thing as it goes.”
But what of the big dream? Is it acting, presenting, or both? “I’m a big fan of someone like James Corden, who started out as a comedic actor and then he was in Gavin & Stacey, and then he was in The History Boys on stage, and then became a chat show host, and now he sings in cars with famous people, and I just think, there’s no reason why you can’t have a few things going on if it’s right. For me, it’s not necessarily about having an end goal, as it is to be happy and enjoy life too. I’ve got friends who hate their jobs who on a Sunday night think, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go into the office on Monday’ and I just never want to do that, and I never want to be too bored either. So I’m constantly working on how to challenge myself.”
She is keen to start a family, but not quite yet. “I want kids, but at the moment, I don’t really live a life [where that would work]. I definitely love kids, but this is probably not the best time.
“I think very few things are conscious decisions,” she continues. “I’ve always followed my heart over my head. But I am almost nine years older than that girl who entered Pick Me MTV, so I have matured and naturally want to grow and have a bit more control over my own decisions. But I’ll see how it goes and just plan to live in the now, and then deal with later, later.” Sounds like a great (non) plan.
Not Dead Enough runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre April 18-22. This article originally appeared in the February issue of IMAGE magazine, on shelves nationwide now.