Belfast Telegraph

Rising BBC star Holly Hamilton on wanting to do Strictly, the trolling of her colleague Mike Bushell and passion for integrated education

Last night she was one of the main NI presenters on Children in Need, now she tells Claire O'Boyle how sport has helped her and husband Connor Phillips settle down in Manchester and why she loves working with him

By Claire O'Boyle

She's one of the brightest young faces to come out of Northern Ireland in years - and Holly Hamilton's star is only on the rise. From the famous red sofa of BBC Breakfast to fronting the NI leg of the iconic Children in Need this weekend, the presenter is fast becoming a top telly favourite.

But just a year and a half into married life with Co Armagh broadcaster Connor Phillips, the busy 33-year-old admits finding time to hang out with her husband hasn't been easy.

"We got married in the Algarve in June last year, and it's been great," says Holly. "We've really enjoyed it, but our first year has been so busy with work.

"I've been doing loads of TV and Connor has made the move into the BBC too, doing things for radio as well as The One Show. It's been crazy, but maybe that's the key to a happy marriage - never seeing each other." In fact, through the couple's relationship with the Beeb and Connor's role on The One Show, their picture-perfect Portuguese wedding made an appearance on TV.

"It was quite surreal," says Holly. "Connor had been doing some work for The One Show about the Irish language, and then on our wedding day he did part of his speech in Irish so they featured it in a little segment.

"It was very strange watching it two days after the wedding on our phones from Portugal knowing it was going out on TV in the UK. It was fun though."

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Holly Hamilton has moved to Manchester with her husband Connor Phillips

And while she's on our screens most days and counts some of TV's biggest names among her friends with Breakfast stars Naga Munchetty, Dan Walker and Charlie Stayt in her phonebook, Holly laughs at the notion she's a 'celebrity'.

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"I never feel it much," says the sports presenter. "People are mostly polite about it, and it's only when I'm with friends and they notice that I realise people have recognized me.

"But it's not just me, I find it funny that people see Charlie, Naga and Dan that way. To me they're my friends and my colleagues.

"I think it was more extreme in the past. It's a weird world with social media now, so there's easier access to people in the public eye.

"It breaks down the wall a bit and there's less of that celebrity thing. I don't know if that's a good or bad thing, I just get on with it but it's always nice when people talk to you."

And while Holly, originally from Greyabbey, Co Down, can see the positive side of social media, like most people in the public eye she's aware of its downsides, too.

Just this month her colleague Mike Bushell faced a fierce online backlash over his place on Strictly Come Dancing after surviving three dance-offs with his partner Katya Jones.

He was finally eliminated from the show last weekend, and reports claimed he was relieved to be gone. "I'm good friends with Mike and I'd been dying to go along and see him in a couple of weeks," says Holly. "The dancing was all new to him and I'm so proud because he's the sort of person who gives everything a real go and I could see him getting better and better.

"He never does things just to make up the numbers and I could see in his face how much it meant. I was devastated for him," Holly adds.

"We were so shocked by the reaction on Twitter, but I think people online sometimes forget they're talking about a real human who can see all this stuff.

"It's really disappointing. But there were so many people behind him too, his colleagues and fans, especially about the abuse. That's a real boost when something like this happens."

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Holly Hamilton with her colleagues at BBC

Luckily Holly herself hasn't faced any major Twitter storms - although she knows it's a risk.

"I think it comes with the territory unfortunately," she says. "I've been lucky because I've never experienced anything particularly bad, but I'd definitely say to anyone starting out in this work - don't go looking for it. If you go looking for trouble, you could very well find it."

But her colleague's experience with Strictly Come Dancing hasn't put Holly off, and appearing on the show one day is not something she'd rule out.

"People always ask me that," she laughs. "Literally everyone, my friends, my colleagues. The sporty thing just adds to the pressure because people expect you to be good.

"My dad a did a Strictly Come Dancing event at his church - and won - so that's extra pressure for me, too.

"I'm quite competitive, so I'd want to do well and I haven't danced since I went to a tap class when I was four. But who knows, I wouldn't rule it out. It's an amazing show."

For now, things are going well and the plan is, I'll just keep going with the flow.

And with her life now based across the water in Manchester, Holly credits her love of sports with helping her and husband Connor settle in to their new home away from home.

"We've been here more than five years," she says. "In many ways it feels like we just got here, but we love it, and we've managed to build up a strong network.

"I play hockey and Connor's in a Gaelic team and we're very into the social side of it all. This might sound a bit much, but hockey has honestly become one of the most important parts of my life. I took a couple of years away from it after school and university, but when we moved to Manchester it was a real priority because I knew it would help me settle in." Sticking her shin pads on and turning up to work covered in mud has given her BBC colleagues some laughs, too.

"The make-up team have their work cut out with me," she laughs. "But they're used to me turning up in my mucky tracksuit with messy hair and having to get me TV ready. It's really not all glamour."

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Holly Hamilton

Aside from the challenge of balancing work with her sporting commitments, like all Breakfast presenters, Holly has the famously gruelling early starts to contend with, too.

"This might sound annoying, but I don't really mind," she says. "I'm an early bird. I think I'm one of those annoying chirpy, happy people in the morning whereas if you asked me to work at night I'd be miserable.

"The problem comes if you say yes to an event because you don't want to be the person leaving at 8pm. But in normal circumstances, I love going to bed.

"Ask Connor, he'll tell you, I love sleeping anywhere, anytime, any which way. That's one thing about working on Breakfast - you learn to nap. Set me anywhere and I'll go to sleep."

As well as being husband and wife, the couple have worked together on screen - something Holly would love to do more of. Could they be the next Eamonn and Ruth?

"Well that would be ideal," she laughs. "We really enjoy it and we'd love to do more. Well I would anyway, but then I'm the bossy one.

"We had an absolute ball working on a BBC NI show together last year, and we're together on air the odd time in Manchester because we're in the same building.

Connor will get me in to do the sport on the radio, which is really fun. I'd love to team up a bit more - but Connor might have other thoughts!

From different backgrounds in Northern Ireland - Connor went to the Abbey Grammar School in Newry, while Holly went to Regent House in Newtownards - together the couple are also big supporters of integrated education.

"We're both really passionate about it," says Holly. "Just us being together really highlights the whole issue because of the different experiences we had, and coming to England made it even clearer.

"There are children in Northern Ireland who don't have access to Gaelic football, who might absolutely love it as a sport, or kids who'll never play hockey.

"When I met Connor I didn't even know the rules of Gaelic - although needless to say I do now - and Connor had never picked up a hockey stick.

"When it comes down to things as basic as that, that children aren't getting the opportunity to play a sport they might be amazing at, it just doesn't seem right.

"When it comes to children of our own one day we wouldn't want to choose between schools based on religion.

"People don't have to in England or Wales, and we don't think they should have to in Northern Ireland either."

And with almost a year and a half of marriage under their belts, are Holly and Connor feeling the pressure to get on with starting a family?

"Yes," she laughs. "People are hilarious. It's actually my dad who's the least subtle about it. Connor got a new car there, and the first question was how many doors it had. When he said three, then it was all, 'That's that out the window then'.

I've got a bit of leeway. My older brother got married the year before me so I feel like I can offload the pressure onto him for a while.

"I think it's never ending though. First it's, when are you getting married. Then it's when is the baby coming. And I've had friends who've had their first baby, and before you know it they're getting asked when number two is on the way."

For now, Holly has more than enough on her plate. As well as her regular slot on Breakfast, she's picking up more and more additional work and this weekend is an especially busy one with a packed schedule for Children in Need.

After fronting the Northern Ireland leg of the show along with Stephen Clements last night, she's back on telly tomorrow for Children in Need - Best Bits.

With an extended look back at how pupils from across Northern Ireland prepared for their part in a nationwide performance of hit song 'True Colours', the show will also see Holly meeting up with fitness coach Joe Wicks at a Co Down School while Barra Best visits some of the 183 local projects funded by the appeal.

"It's been a brilliant experience," says Holly. "I always loved watching when I was a child so it's been phenomenal. I loved the day meeting Joe Wicks - but I have to admit the children seemed more impressed by Pudsey than any of us. Not that I blame them."

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The BBC NI studio with presenters Stephen Clements and Holly Hamilton

And working on the appeal meant another bonus for Holly - getting an extra stint at home.

Close to her parents David and Kim, as well as her brother David and sister Sarah-Joy, she tries to get back to Northern Ireland as often as she can.

"We get home quite a bit anyway," she says. "In fact I think I see my parents more often than some of my English friends see theirs.

"We're lucky because we live near the airport and the flight is so quick, but it's always brilliant to do some work at home."

Now a big name in broadcasting, Holly credits her parents with putting her firmly on the road to success.

"My dad's a farmer and he's so level-headed," she says. "I always go to him for advice - and he's always right. My mum's been a brilliant role model right the way through, and she gave me the bug for the work I do.

"She worked as a journalist, and through all those years she managed to combine it with having three kids.

"You don't appreciate when you're a child or a teenager just how much of a balancing act that must have been, but I am definitely getting more of a sense of it now.

"She was very into her sport as well, and her hero was George Best. She interviewed him twice, and I grew up hearing about him," Holly adds.

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Holly’s mum Kim interviewing one of her heroes, George Best

"In fact, I heard so much about him I chose him as my specialist subject when I went on Mastermind earlier this year. I came second. My George Best stuff was good - it was the general knowledge that got me. It's not like pub quiz - you don't have until the end of the round to figure it out!"

But with major success on all her other shows, coming second on Mastermind wasn't too much of a knock for Holly.

"I've been lucky to end up where I am," she says. "It's a place I'm really proud to work, and I've made some really amazing friends. For now, things are going well and the plan is, I'll just keep going with the flow."

Join Holly, Stephen Clements and Pudsey Bear for a special programme, Children in Need - The Best Bits, on BBC One Northern Ireland, tomorrow from 3.50pm.

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