Yvonne Connolly: Before Masterchef I could barely cook... now I bake to the sound of U2 and my kids' rap music
Yvonne Connolly talks to Una Brankin about life and love after her marriage to singer Ronan Keating and reveals how learning to cook has prepared her for a new role as a food ambassador for supermarket Lidl which today unveils its plan to help fight food poverty.
The top models of the Nineties in Dublin commanded between £150-£200 for an hour’s work on a photoshoot or photocall, the latter often requiring them to stand in a bikini on Grafton Street.
As a fashion editor back then, I remember booking the young, single Yvonne Connolly at the standard rate for a winter wear shoot in Clery’s store on O’Connell Street and being impressed by her professionalism.
Unlike many of her colleagues, she was helpful to the stylist, even offering to leave back a selection of hats to the far-off millinery department at the end of the shoot.
A few days later, I saw her at a fashion show in a trendy restaurant in Temple Bar and she winked at me from the catwalk.
At 5ft 7in, she wasn’t the most statuesque of the models, but definitely knew how to carry herself.
“I can make myself look taller,” she’d said at the shoot, extending a slender neck and somehow stretching her narrow frame.
The photographs were stunning and made the cover of the magazine. Yvonne always had a cool, elegant look. Fine-boned and demure, with striking blue eyes and porcelain skin, she had the ice-blonde, aristocratic allure of Hitchcock heroines.
As a 43-year-old mother of three, she isn’t as skinny these days, but she’s still as graceful and glamorous in the pictures promoting Lidl Northern Ireland’s plan to turn their unsold food products into meals for charities.
Today the value for money supermarket revealed that it will donate 250,000 meals to charities here by 2020 in a partnership with FoodCloud, a social enterprise that connects retailers and suppliers to hundreds of local charities, to redistribute surplus food. Yvonne has come on board as Lidl Northern Ireland’s food ambassador.
“Aw, I member that fashion show — Eden, wasn’t it?” she says. “Those were the days. I had a very, very tiny frame and didn’t put on weight.
“My metabolism isn’t what it used to be but it’s natural to put on weight more easily. I’m really comfortable in my own skin.”
Since her success on the RTE version of Masterchef 2013, the former model has reinvented herself as a cook.
Slowly but surely, she has cast off the shadow of her ex, Ronan Keating, to have the confidence to revert to her birth surname of Connolly, as she was known back in her modelling days before she met the Boyzone singer.
As well as her own magazine column, she now has a regular slot on the Six O’Clock Show on TV3 and her Lidl Northern Ireland gig.
Well-spoken and articulate, she has also appeared on This Morning, with Eamonn Holmes and his wife Ruth Langsford, the latter of whom has just been revealed as among this year’s Strictly contestants.
“They’re so lovely,” she says of the famous couple. “Eamonn is very supportive. I cooked chicken and egg fried rice and a sweet and sour dish for them. He loved it. I know they have to say that, but he did.”
From Kildare originally, Yvonne now lives in a million-pound luxury home in Malahide with her adoring partner, cameraman John Conroy, who describes her as “such a beautiful, classy, understated person, who always puts everyone else first”, and her children — 12-year-old Ali, Missy (16), a promising actress, and Jack (18) — from her marriage to Keating.
“Life’s good — I get to be at home with the kids and I get to go to work and do my beauty column and so on too,” she says. “Missy’s back at school after taking some time out to act, and Jack’s doing his leaving cert, so it’s busy.
“Ali has done some commercial modelling work — I’d encourage her if she wanted to become a model, but I’d encourage her to get a full education too.”
The young Keatings have had quite a different childhood to their mother’s. Taught by nuns at a boarding school, Yvonne was away from home for long stretches of her formative years.
“I didn’t grow up learning how to cook with mum,” she says. “She wasn’t a big influence and I don’t remember my dad ever cooking, but my granny Farrell’s house was always filled with the smells of baking bread and dinner cooking. It’s very nostalgic when I catch a whiff of baking bread, even now.
“But the food at school was really bad. Meat and two veg, left in the oven for hours.”
She admits to eating “rubbish” throughout her modelling years.
“I didn’t try and starve myself — I ate a lot of dreadful food,” she laughs. “Two Big Macs and a Coke a day. And anything sugary, for a quick fix.
“At college, I would have rotated spaghetti bolognese, chicken casserole and baked potatoes. The fanciest it got was adding a bit of Parmesan to the bolognese.
“I’d really no clue how to cook. I picked it up over the years and it developed very quickly after Masterchef. I learned a lot from (hosts) Dylan McGrath and Nick Munier.”
After the series, Yvonne enrolled in a professional cookery course, but she prefers to keep her cuisine simple.
“I love the Great British Bake Off and I do like baking, but my tastebuds prefer savoury,” she says.
“I like the Asian influence; I’m not stuck on traditional cooking. I like Thai and Vietnamese street foods. It’s so hard to choose.
“I love to chop and prepare food. I listen to music while I’m doing it — classical, jazz, some rap music of the kids. It’s fun to listen to. And U2. I remember the first Joshua Tree tour and I went to Croke Park (Dublin) to see them a couple of weeks ago.”
Back in the mid to late Nineties, models weren’t required to be skeletal. While Yvonne was a small size 10, her friend and colleague Amanda Byram and her beautiful sister, Natasha, were a healthy size 12. (The two stay in touch and Yvonne attended Amanda’s wedding last year.)
She has admitted in the past to feeling insecure about ageing in front of the camera. Her reflection, under the harsh TV studio lights while filming Masterchef, gave her “a fright”.
Does she still feel pressurised to look flawless in her public appearances?
“Well, clients are not booking a skinny young model when they book me now,” she says. “I don’t feel any pressure on me. I try to maintain a certain weight. I play tennis, and golf. I don’t mind a couple of extra pounds at my age, and it’s all or nothing with me.
“I’ll go to the gym for a month or so then stop. I used to do horseriding but it is so time-consuming. I’d like to get back to it some day, but I have to live my life.”
Although she plans healthy meals for her family, she wouldn’t go as far as the so-called ‘clean eating’ fad.
She says: “That’s a personal choice. For me, it’s all about balance. We try to eat healthily but I do allow treats; it would be unfair not to, especially after all the chocolate I put away.
“I would love to say I prefer expensive dark chocolate, but unfortunately I like cheaper stuff. I love a Twix and a cuppa. When I have to get in shape, I’ll have a protein ball instead but it’s not the same. But I try to keep sugar in moderation.”
When it comes to eating out, she likes Dublin’s newer eateries on Wexford and Aungier Street, as well as the Michelin-starred L’Ecrivain restaurant on Baggot Street — “it’s fabulous”.
She’s looking forward to finding out what Northern Ireland restaurants have to offer, if Lidl send her up to one of their branches here.
“I’d love to come up — Lidl have so many stores there. They really have found their niche.
“I used to work with a few people from Northern Ireland back in the day. (Artist) Terry Bradley was quite a character when he was modelling. I still have some of his art hanging on the wall. And Alan Boyce, from Toni & Guy. I haven’t seen him for years.”
She also worked with the Newry-born singer Kieran Goss for an afternoon, on another photoshoot I’d organised in Dalkey. (Her then boyfriend Ronan drove her there and came in to use the toilet).
Her fee had gone up to £600 an hour by then, but the pictures, for The Leather Studio fashion shop, were worth it — even if she did refuse the client’s request to jokingly nibble on the diminutive Kieran’s ear “for the laugh”.
More than two decades on, her fees now run into the thousands. The next big pay cheque could be her own cook book and the obligatory series, but she’s in no hurry.
“I’ve no plans just yet — maybe next year,” she concludes. “I’m happy with the way things are at present. Life is good.”
- Lidl Northern Ireland has today committed to donate 250,000 meals to Northern Ireland charities by 2020 in conjunction with FoodCloud. With one in eight people in Ireland experiencing food poverty, the partnership will see all 38 Lidl stores here, including a warehouse, partnered with local charities who will benefit from the store’s surplus food
Rustle up some tasty meals from leftovers
What you’ll need
Leftovers from a roast chicken dinner, chopped
1 tbsp Primadonna olive oil
1 knob of Dairy Manor Gold Spread butter
2 cloves Oaklands garlic, chopped
1 tbsp Belbake plain flour
3 tbsp Milbona creme fraiche
1 tbsp Batts mustard
2 tbsp tarragon leaves, chopped
1 Connell Farm egg
1 sheet of Chef Select ready rolled pastry
Chop up leftover ingredients from a roast chicken dinner and place in an oven proof dish.
In a separate pan heat the olive oil and butter. Over a medium heat cook the garlic for two to three minutes then stir in the flour, creme fraiche, mustard and chicken stock. Allow to simmer for five minutes.
Stir through the chopped tarragon and pour over the leftovers.
Roll out the pastry and lay over the dish. Press the sides gently and trim the excess. Beat an egg and brush over the top of the pastry.
Make a small incision in the middle of the pastry and cook in a preheated oven at 200 degrees for approximately 15 minutes until golden brown. Season. Serves 4
What you’ll need
Leftovers to be used from any roast lamb dinner or casserole, chopped
1 tbsp Primadonna olive oil
6 Connell Farm free range eggs
3 tbsp Coolree Creamery milk
Kania ground black pepper
Crack the eggs into a bowl. Add the milk, a pinch of salt and pepper, then whisk. Add the oil into an ovenproof frying pan and spread out the leftovers including the spinach. Break or chop the lamb if necessary. Tip in the egg mixture.Cook over a low heat for five minutes or until two-thirds of the frittata is set, then cook in a preheated oven at 200 degrees for 10-15 minutes until cooked through.
Leave to cool. Slide the frittata onto a plate, cut it into slices and serve with chips. Serves 4
All the ingredients available from Lidl stores in Northern Ireland