Newtownabbey native Dean McCullough is preparing for his new weekend show on Radio 1
When Northern Ireland man Dean McCullough is asked if he will have to make any changes to his broadcasting style when he begins his brand new weekend show with BBC Radio 1, he laughs, “Honestly, it would be too hard to tame me, they know that, they absolutely know that.”
Particularly meaningful for McCullough, who is from Newtownabbey, is that his new weekend shows (Friday to Sunday, 10.30am to 1pm) begin on 10 September.
It marks the twelfth anniversary from the same date he boarded a flight from Belfast to London Gatwick to go to drama school and start a new life.
“If you’d told me in the departure gate, ‘Right Dean, in 12 years’ time you’re going to be starting your own show on Radio 1’ I’d have been like, ‘Aye, catch yourself on.’
“It’s been a really long, exciting process but I feel like everything has led up to this point. I feel a sense of calm because we got there, but I feel a sense of pure and utter euphoria that I’ve actually got my dream job.”
The energetic, and disarmingly positive McCullough has so much natural charm and mischievous humour, it is no surprise he has been snapped up by Radio 1. While his effervescent enthusiasm is captivating, he is also unafraid to be vulnerable with all aspects of his life including growing up gay in Northern Ireland, and deciding to give up alcohol.
He was “born and bred” in Rathcoole and went to Glengormley High School. McCullough found growing up and realising he was different a “real shock to the system.”
Though finding the outlet for his passions at Belfast’s Rainbow Factory School of Performing Arts was a defining moment in his life.
“I wasn’t into football and I wasn’t into rugby and actually all I wanted to do was dance and act and sing. So whenever I was seven, my mummy brought me down to the Rainbow Factory and that’s where it all began for me. That’s where all of this magic really started because that’s where I really learned that I could express myself in a different way.”
McCullough was born in 1992 and his birthday fell over marching season.
“I don’t ever remember a birthday where there wasn’t cars burnt out at the end of the street or roads being blocked because of the marching. Me not being able to get to the Odyssey to watch Shrek one year was the worst things that could have happened to me.”
However, being born in the early nineties had a huge influence on his musical tastes and so did hearing local radio and music he heard at home. He laughs and calls his Spotify playlist “an absolute nightmare.”
“I grew up listening to The Spice Girls, Steps, S Club 7, proper cheesy pop.
“In our house the radio was always on so Hugo Duncan, Gerry Anderson, we listened to them in the car and that’s when I fell in love with radio.
“I remember Simply Red, UB40, Bay City Rollers, Patsy Cline — all of these artists we listened to when we were kids. But that’s what I love about Radio 1 and that’s why this is my home because I can play rock, dance, pop and our listeners love it.”
McCullough said he didn’t realise he was gay until he was around 11 or 12. He was bullied quite badly at school.
However, he says he is so grateful to the Rainbow Factory as it is where he learned to accept himself and was celebrated for his passions.
“My escape was dancing, so I was going to ballet, jazz, tap, contemporary and that’s how I expressed myself and it was okay for me to be different when I was at the Rainbow Factory because we were all colourful, outgoing kids who just wanted to act, sing and dance.”
He pursued his love of dance and managed to become the first person in Northern Ireland to get a scholarship to Laine Theatre Arts in Surrey, where one of his pop idols, Victoria Beckham also attended.
“Without the scholarship I wouldn’t have been able to go. My mummy and daddy split up and we were literally living on my auntie’s sofa.
“My mummy just scraped money together and took me over to this one audition that we could only afford. I got in and got the scholarship. I couldn’t believe it, that was such a massive moment.”
He trained there professionally for three years and while it was gruelling, McCullough said he learned a lot.
He then moved on to pursue musical theatre in London. Ten years ago a friend asked him to come along to an M.C. workshop. Reluctant at first, McCullough tentatively agreed and absolutely loved it.
Unbeknownst to him, there were scouts at the workshop, one of whom asked him to host at one of the biggest dance events in the UK.
He took the job and has hosted it ever since, along with a slew of other events.
He said he tried to “pedal both bikes for years” pursuing musical theatre and choreography all over the world as well as his presenting.
Friends advised him to focus on presenting and he said the decision to go for it was the best decision he ever made.
“I got offered this volunteer breakfast show on a channel called Wandsworth radio. That was when everything clicked. It was just me, the music, the listener together for three hours in the morning and I went, ‘Okay, this is where I need to be, this is what I need to do.’
He did the breakfast show for a year and a half and then went travelling, saw the world and came back “bursting wanting to be back in the studio again.”
His next job was with Gaydio, the UK’s biggest LGBT+ radio station, and he finishes there in August after three years.
Life during the pandemic was tough and while McCullough said that the station putting him on their breakfast show “saved him,” it became difficult doing everything alone after his co-host could no longer do the show, and the constant absorption of the news became overwhelming.
“What was really beautiful was I had no distraction so I was focusing all of my energy onto that breakfast show every morning. But I got really, really stressed out and I worked myself into the ground.
“I think because you don’t get to put the duvet over your head every day you have to really take in all of the news and take in everybody’s anxiety and everybody’s worry.”
He took a break to assess everything, including his worries over drinking too much.
“I was drinking wine at the weekend. I was sort of losing perspective on everything and there was a big grey cloud over my head.
“I didn’t think I was going to claw it back and I thought, ‘I’ve lost who I am here.’
He eventually reached his turning point. “I woke up the day after Manchester Pride and I just went, ‘It’s time for me to get a job at Radio 1.’
He gave up alcohol that day for one month as a trial, and still doesn’t drink alcohol.
Four weeks after giving up, he saw a tweet seeking demos from new, undiscovered talent to try and land a broadcasting slot on Radio 1 over Christmas 2020. There were only 30 places but McCullough was selected for his beloved Radio 1.
He said it came at the perfect time as he was so burnt out, he was thinking of giving up radio altogether.
“I got the call from BBC and the lightbulb came back on.”
He felt like he had already won the jackpot hosting two Christmas show slots, but he has since hosted Friday Early Breakfast and then he got the life-changing call that offered him his own show. He is still pinching himself.
“It is so magical. If we look at people like Colin Murray and Phil Taggart who came before me from Northern Ireland. That feels so special because I love Northern Ireland. I get to represent Northern Ireland but I get to be there for the people of Northern Ireland.”
He is hoping this career move will help him achieve his ultimate ambition.
“So the whole reason I’m doing all of this is to be on Strictly. I want a free spray tan a week, and I want to dance on TV every Saturday night. I’ve not danced in years and years, I just want to be on Strictly. It is a dream.”
In a landmark move, McCullough’s show will be broadcast from BBC in Salford and is the first Radio 1 programme to move out of London.
“This is mega. When I told them I wanted to do my show from Salford, they absolutely moved mountains to make it happen because there is so much rich culture across the whole country,” he said.
One thing is for certain, McCullough will bring his effusive passion for Northern Ireland to his shows as well as his honesty, positivity and delightful energy.
“I’m able to go into the studio in Radio 1 and I’m able to 100 per cent be myself. Me being gay is a secondary thing, it’s not even talked about, this is just who I am. That’s another thing that means a lot to me about Belfast. Being gay right now in Northern Ireland, it’s not a safe place to be LGBT, it’s just not. And hearing people in Northern Ireland, whether you are LGBT or not, they need to hear people on the radio and see people on the TV.
“I have to be myself and I have to tell my story on the radio and lift up those other people who are going through the same things that I went through. Belfast has a very special place in my heart.
“We need to celebrate Belfast, we need to celebrate how great Northern Ireland is.”