| 11.4°C Belfast

Cate Conway: 'Stephen Clements was like a brother to me and dragged me through really dark days'

In her first in-depth interview since the death of her 'on-air husband' Stephen Clements, Cate Conway talks with Leona O'Neill about their great friendship and how she's proud to help his brother Gavin this week launch The Stephen Clements Foundation with an online final farewell

Close

Stephen Clements and Cate Conway

Stephen Clements and Cate Conway

Cate with friend and work colleague Stephen Clements who died suddenly earlier this year

Cate with friend and work colleague Stephen Clements who died suddenly earlier this year

Stephen Clements and Cate Conway

Almost four months since broadcaster Cate Conway lost her "on-air husband" and best friend Stephen Clements she will later this week join his brother Gavin and his friends for a virtual final farewell and celebration of his life and to launch the newly formed Stephen Clements Foundation.

The much loved BBC Radio Ulster radio star and father-of-two Stephen died suddenly on January 7 this year.

U105 broadcaster and south Belfast native Cate (44), who shared the airwaves with him for almost five years on their hugely successful Q Radio breakfast show, says it still hasn't "sunk in" that he's gone.

"I knew Stephen over a period of 10 years," she says. "I knew him before we worked together on the radio. A friend introduced us as Stephen was working in the media and knew I wanted a career change. We both talked about how we wanted to get into TV presenting. From that conversation we ended up doing a pilot of a dating show called Would Like to Meet which was a lot of fun. We were just always friends from that point on. I am going to hunt out that pilot again and watch it, just to see me and Stephen so many years ago, it will be lovely."

The pair remained firm friends since that first encounter and when the chance to audition for a slot beside Stephen on his Q Radio breakfast show came up, Cate jumped at it. Very quickly Cate and Stephen became what many described as an "on-air husband and wife" with their witty bickering and quips.

Close

Radio presenter Cate Conway

Radio presenter Cate Conway

Radio presenter Cate Conway

"We fought the bit out constantly," she says now. "It was the same on air as it was off air, we bickered, and that is why people said we were like an old married couple. We would have just barked at one another constantly, but we had this relationship where we didn't always have to show the other person the best version of yourself, we were just ourselves.

"We just really cared about one another and looked after each other. We had the same sense of humour and we got to the same point where we could almost read each other's mind. Because I had to look at him for four hours every day, I knew every movement in his face and I could tell what he was thinking and he was the same with me. So he knew what way to phrase something that would get my back up, and I was the same.

"I couldn't believe that we were getting paid to do what we were doing, because we were having such a good time."

Cate says there were so many stories, memories and cringeworthy moments that Stephen would openly share with thousands of listeners - while she sat there, hands over her face, peering through her fingers.

"I would tell him a story off air when we were just chatting before work and later on he would incorporate it into the show with the words 'So, yesterday you…' and I'd be thinking, 'Oh no here we go'.

"One of my favourite ones was when - and it feels strange talking about it now - I made my will. He turned it into this whole show about what I was putting him down for, what I was leaving him in my will. And I told him that I wanted him to host my funeral. He thought the whole thing through. He was asking me when I was thinking it would be so he could work out whether to invoice me at today's prices or what. He had this whole thing about what he was going to wear, the music he was going to run into. He had people ringing in suggesting songs to play - Down, Down, Deeper and Down and Firestarter and all these inappropriate things. But that is where Stephen's skills were. He was able to make you participate and to laugh at things that you felt you shouldn't really be laughing at."

Close

The pair have an emotional last day at work

The pair have an emotional last day at work

The pair have an emotional last day at work

Though it's obviously painful for Cate to talk about Stephen, there is clearly also comfort to be had in reminiscing about the good times she shared with her great friend. Cate continues: "He embarrassed me so much over the years. I remember the time I got stuck in my dress after the Miss Northern Ireland contest. Stephen was hosting it and I was one of the judges. I got dressed in the Europa Hotel and someone zipped me up. But on the way home in the taxi I realised I was not going to be able to get out of it again and that there was no one at home to help me with the zip, so I asked the taxi driver to unzip me.

"I had told Stephen this, not thinking this would be part of the show, but I should have known. He made me tell the story on air. People went bananas. Taxi drivers were ringing in, asking could they pick me up. Stephen was asking the nation what if he had done that, asked a taxi driver to unzip him? It was hilarious and it went on for weeks and weeks. He was always so funny about things."

And Cate says that it was during dark times, when life threw her challenges, on bad days when she didn't feel happy and had to go on air and entertain listeners, that Stephen would be there for her too.

"We always helped one another out," she says. "Stephen basically dragged me through some really dark days. I had to go in every morning and pretend that I was happy on air. He always knew. I remember sitting outside in the car one morning and just being really, really upset. I went in and I was all chirpy and happy. We sat down in the studio and he put a song on. He took off his headphones and said 'Right, what's wrong?' That was what he was like. He always knew, and he didn't want you to feel that way."

Cate and Stephen stayed friends even after he left Q Radio for what he said was his "dream job" at the BBC. She says she would have been talking to him every single day, that he was involved in every strand of her life and was like "a brother" to her.

She says she remembers with heartbreaking clarity the moment she got the devastating phone call to say Stephen had died.

"The last time I saw Stephen was on the Saturday afternoon," she says. "I had coffee with him and we spent most of the day together. He was fine. There was no inkling that he was feeling so low. If I had any idea of that I would have put him in the boot of my car and not let him out. He was grand. He was talking about all the things he was doing and everything that was coming up for him at the BBC.

"If you had the slightest notion that your friend was feeling like that, you wouldn't leave their side. I had no idea.

"On the Tuesday morning I was at an appointment in Bangor and had my phone on silent. When I came out I had all these missed calls. Then my friend rang. I had no idea and they could tell by the tone of my voice that I hadn't yet heard the news. They had to break the news to me and I just couldn't breathe, I couldn't actually breathe, when I heard the words.

"I was in total shock. I knew I couldn't drive straight away so I just sat there in my car. I knew that I was still in shock, I hadn't quite taken it in... I decided to make my way back to Belfast. As I was driving I just kept saying 'Don't think about it, don't think about it' and it wasn't really real until I got home."

Close

Stephen and Cate together

Stephen and Cate together

Stephen and Cate together

Cate says that, in much the same way Stephen pulled her through dark days, the love and support from friends, family, listeners and even strangers carried her through the days after Stephen's death.

"My phone was going non-stop for weeks," she says. "The number of messages that I still have on my phone that are still unread is unbelievable because I just couldn't compute it all. I knew they were there and I knew what they were saying, and I could see the names of the people reaching out to me. I had messages from people who had been through a similar situation or just listeners sending me good wishes, asking me did I need anything, telling me they were here for me. Complete strangers. Children would leave flowers on my doorstep. People could just see my hurt and wanted to reach out to me. And that is what kept me going. I am so appreciative of all that kindness. There was so much love for Stephen."

Cate channelled her grief and energy into something positive, firstly by becoming an ambassador for Aware NI, then being part of the Stephen Clements Foundation, which will help Northern Ireland charities in his name.

"Stephen's death was so overwhelming and to be honest, it still hasn't sunk in yet," she says. "I'm still there, I'm still in the middle of that grief. I'm still on autopilot, but with the need to do something positive.

"When I was approached by Aware NI to become an ambassador I was there, 100%. It was just something, even regardless of what happened with Stephen, that I felt was such an important issue.

"We are launching the Stephen Clements Foundation this week. We were unable to hold a physical memorial event for fans to say goodbye to Stephen. Now with lockdown and social distancing measures in place for the foreseeable future, we are seizing the opportunity to bring radio fans the laughter they need right now during an unprecedented time.

"With the current global pandemic, we are all missing Stephen's humour immensely and we know he would have helped so many people cope right now. Therefore, we are creating a special tribute show with the hope of giving people a laugh, to celebrate his legacy and to say goodbye.

"The foundation will look at projects that charities that were close to Stephen's heart are working on so we can put his name on them. It's about keeping his name alive, raising funds for local charities and helping make a positive impact on local people's lives in Northern Ireland. Through fundraising efforts, the foundation aims to embrace Stephen's infectious personality and his love for helping others in everything that they do."

Thursday night's online tribute will be an emotional one, says Cate.

"It is going to be really emotional for me," she says. "We have a short film which is me showcasing all the brilliant things he did. I just wanted an opportunity to say to everyone, Stephen was amazing and I felt really sad that there wasn't a public goodbye. I think Stephen would be looking at us doing this, open-mouthed, shaking his head and saying he couldn't believe we were doing it for him."

On her low days, Cate says that she still hears the sage advice her best friend gave her ringing in her ears.

"Stephen used to say to me 'you're Cate effing Conway, get out there and effing do it!" she says. "He would tell me to remember who I was. When people are getting at you or you are doubting yourself or feeling bad, he would say that to me. He was just always looking out for me."

An Evening For Stephen will be streamed live this Thursday, May 7, at 8pm via the official The Stephen Clements Foundation website. People are encouraged to log onto the website between 7.30pm and 8pm to secure their place as the foundation predicts the virtual tribute show will be streamed by thousands.

For more updates and information on the foundation, visit www.stephenclementsfoundation.com and connect with the official social media pages, on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, using the event hashtag #EveningForStephen

Belfast Telegraph