Cool FM's Rebecca McKinney talks make-up, how she dropped a dress size... and the death of her beloved grandmother
The Belfast woman tells Linda Stewart why she opted for a celebrity fat loss treatment, how she would love Holly Willoughby's job and the fashion items that every woman should really buy
Rebecca McKinney has a startling admission to make. The Cool FM Breakfast show presenter may be a bit of a fashion icon but, despite her alter ego as a stylist, she does have her less groomed moments.
"I love radio, because you don't always have to put make-up on for it!" she confesses.
And who can blame her, what with the gruelling 4.30am starts as she heads into work every day from her east Belfast home to join her co-presenters Pete Snodden and Paulo Ross.
It isn't easy to get going at that time of day, she admits: "I do three alarms and I get a weekend wake-up call from security in work. You can imagine the tone some mornings when I'm really tired!
"But it's a privilege to be on the radio at that time of day. You get used to constantly being in a state of being tired, but it's amazing what you can do when you push yourself, if you have to.
"Pete is a good example of how to do that sort of thing - he fills his day with work and family stuff."
It's five years since Rebecca made the rather unconventional jump from her career as a stylist at Victoria Square (which she still does) into radio broadcasting.
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But she set the tone with her less than orthodox career choices long before that -certainly for someone who aspired to become a lawyer as a child.
There can't be many people who can say they grew up in the beautiful wooded grounds of Campbell College, the famous Belfast boarding school that lists Narnia creator CS Lewis among its alumni. Rebecca's dad John still teaches there, while her mum Valerie is a teacher at nearby Strathearn prep school.
"My father taught there for 40 years so my family home is in the grounds. My mum and dad still live there, and I went to Strathearn school down the road," Rebecca says.
"It was like Harry Potter, it was the most gorgeous place and I probably take it for granted how lovely it is. Because when I bring friends and people there, they just can't get over how gorgeous it is, but to me it was just home.
"It sounds a bit weird to everybody else, growing up in a boys school, but it just became very normal.
"My brother went to the school and when I was growing up my dad was head of the boarding department - so we always had to be on our best behaviour!"
There were just the two siblings - Rebecca and her brother James (27), now a professional rugby player based in Italy.
At first, she says, she wanted to be a teacher and follow in her mum's footsteps. Her younger brother James was unlucky enough to suffer the consequences.
"I used to put on lessons in the kitchen, and I used to make that poor child sit in the class and pretend to be a pupil," she laughs.
"And then I changed my mind and decided that I wanted to be a lawyer. So I went to Queen's and I studied law.
"My mum and dad are amazing; they're so supportive and they've always been nothing but amazing about us pursuing our passions, which I think now, looking back, for parents must be quite difficult because our career paths have never really been normal in a sense.
"I think when you're studying law at university, you are naturally going to move into a solicitor's career, but they always encouraged me to try something that I like."
That proved to be a postgraduate move to the University of Ulster to embark on a Masters in Communication, Advertising and PR.
Rebecca says: "I loved it and I just felt that was really where my heart lay, in that side of things, rather than going back into the legal world.
"I had to do a lot of work experience for free and internships for nothing, but looking back now it actually taught me so much and I made loads of really good contacts," she says.
Her first job in a marketing agency that looked after retail clients, including high-end Belfast shopping development Victoria Square, in turn led to a new career as a personal stylist.
"They were looking for a personal stylist to come in with a bit more of a marketing background," she says.
"I'm super lucky because I loved fashion, fashion has always been a massive part of my life but I wasn't a trained stylist, so giving me an opportunity was a risk on their part," she says.
"From then on, Victoria Square was a really fabulous platform for me, I made some of my best friends there and had the opportunity to work with brands and put on shows and events on such a huge scale."
Rebecca was hosting events for Victoria Square, including the Christmas lights switch-on, and as luck would have it, the fifth birthday event which was also being hosted by Cool FM's Pete Snodden. The pair got chatting over coffee and Rebecca asked for advice on breaking into broadcasting as it was something she had always wanted to do but had been too scared to try.
"Months and months and months down the line, I got a call up for an opportunity to come and do a demo for Cool FM," she says.
"Pete was going back on breakfast and they were looking for a team. They already had Paulo in place so the boys were already on the show and they needed a new female voice so they asked me to come in for the summer and to do a trial.
"So for that summer I would do the breakfast show and then go into Victoria Square and make up my hours in there. It was a crazy summer but totally worth it! And in September they offered me a permanent presenting contract. Five years down the line and we've never looked back since."
While your first time in front of the mike could be daunting, Rebecca insists she never suffered from nerves.
"I'm probably too terrified to listen back to those first shows in that first year - I probably sound like a completely different broadcaster than I do now, but that's good because you learn," she says.
"But I think it was a really weird thing - I would have expected to be so nervous but it felt like it was the right place at the right time.
"There's never a morning where you go in and feel nervous, and I think that's the trick, that if you've got nerves and you sound like you're trying too hard, then the listeners pick up on that.
"You have to be yourself and not everyone's going to love you, but the good thing about us is you've got three very different personalities, so someone's always going to relate to one of us."
And it has been tough at times. Rebecca says the boys are like brothers to her - and it would have been much more difficult if she had been out on her own.
"I would have been lost without them, on this whole journey of going from a job that was quite under the radar to being catapulted on to this… airwaves, as such," she says.
"It was definitely a learning curve and I've had to develop a really thick skin - and I think the boys have been brilliant because we really are a team."
One of the big challenges has been the dark side of social media.
"I am a sensitive person, but I was much more sensitive at the start of this job," Rebecca says. "Initially I found criticisms and people reaching out and being nasty, I found that quite hard to take, when you are not used to it, and arguably you should never have to get used to it.
"And Pete even said himself when he started it was a completely different experience because people didn't have Twitter and Instagram wasn't a thing and if you didn't like someone you couldn't just reach out and send it straight to them.
"There are some days it will affect you more than others and I think that's only human. I just don't understand why people would... I would never dream of writing something down and sending something nasty to a stranger. That's a really sad reflection on how that person is, but it's a worse reflection on them than it is on me."
But having such support from Pete and Paulo makes a huge difference.
"We're very close and I think hopefully that translates on air and it's why people feel like they're part of our friendship group when they're listening." Rebecca says.
"We can wind each other up like nobody else, but, like family, you can wind someone up and then five minutes later you're fine again, which I think is a really special thing.
"We do a lot of things together off air which helps massively with the on-air content. Paulo is obsessed with climbing mountains, so he took us up the Mournes once - which wasn't pleasurable!
"We would hang out with Pete's family - we're good friends with his wife and his little girls so we would spend a lot of time down in Bangor, his home.
"It's much more than just a four-hour thing - they're really important people in my life and they have both taught me so much about broadcasting, coming into radio, arguably from having no experience, and being lucky enough to be given an opportunity."
Rebecca admits things have been tough this year with the loss of her beloved grandmother last Christmas.
"She was the biggest part of our family and she passed away on Christmas Eve after quite a short battle with cancer and dementia, and that was really hard because she was just the most amazing woman and a big inspiration to me," she says.
"She was fabulous - she was stylish and positive and kind and taught us all to just be good people.
"I think this Christmas will be really hard - mum and her were just two peas in a pod.
"It's been a challenging year but my family is very close. We kind of help each other get through those tough times. We were very lucky to have her. I think when it happens to any family, especially around Christmas, it's very tough to get through."
She also talks about her two-year long-distance relationship with her partner Chris Smith (36), who lives in Scotland - "It's definitely a case of absence makes the heart grow fonder!"
The couple first met — “but not properly” — years ago when Chris’s best friend married Rebecca’s best friend, but they didn’t start dating until four years later when Rebecca’s friend set them up.
“We were all out with my school friends and just chatting about love lives as you do, and my friend mentions ‘What about Chris. He’s a really good guy. Why don’t you give him a chance?’ She fancied herself as Cilla Black on Blind Date!
“So she went and made the connection and then he texted me the next day and we’ve never looked back.
“We talked for a month, getting to know each other, and then he came back to Belfast and took me out on a date.
“He was very considerate because he knew I had to be up for breakfast the next day for the show, so we had a lunch date instead of a dinner date, so that we could have a few drinks and still finish early!”
Last week Rebecca celebrated her 33rd birthday with a group of friends — and it was the perfect opportunity to break out a new dress that she’d bought at the start of the summer, one size too small, with the goal of dropping a dress size by September.
“I felt so nice and it was lovely to be able to feel really good in something,” she says.
She’s proud of working hard at the personal training all summer, but one thing that really helped to tackle the problem areas she was self-conscious about was a CoolSculpting session with Martina Collins Dental and Skin Clinic on the Lisburn Road, in Lisburn.
It’s an FDA-backed fat-freezing treatment that has been on the market for 10 years and is used by the likes of Jennifer Lopez and Khloe Kardashian, she explains.
Rebecca admits she is sceptical about celebrity-backed weight loss treatments and dietary quick fixes that promise rapid weight loss, but was reassured when she learned that CoolSculpting is aimed at people like her who have a healthy lifestyle, but are struggling with areas of stubborn fat.
“I’m never going to be a tiny, tiny size — I’m always been a curvy size 10 and I’m happy with that,” she says.
But definitely I think as you get older and your body changes, there are little areas of your body that we’re all self-conscious about. Certainly, around my waist was a certain area that, no matter how hard I was training, I was finding it quite difficult to shift certain pockets of stubborn fat, so I decided to give the CoolSculpting treatment a go,” she says.
“It’s perfect for people who have a healthy lifestyle — they’re training regularly, they’re eating properly.
“This isn’t a quick fix weight loss treatment — this is something that specifically targets stubborn areas and I decided it was my waist I was most conscious about.”
Rebecca says the treatment wasn’t that painful — you lie on a couch with Netflix on and it takes 25 minutes to half an hour per area. “It numbs your skin — that’s the only sensation you have”.
She continues: “After that, it takes three months before you properly see a result so you just continue with your normal routine, and over the summer I’ve been training as I normally would, going to classes and personal training the way I have been.
“For me I felt instantly more confident — I was more toned around my waist. We wanted to make sure we were not in any way suggesting you have to do this if you feel like you’ve got a spare tyre, but just for me... it’s just something that made me feel good, and worked with my lifestyle. So I dropped a full dress size and I just feel like I’m back to myself again.
“It’s safe, it is a permanent treatment that will hopefully mean for the rest of my life that my training can be optimised even more and I can push myself to finally get some form of an ab, maybe at some time in my life. Or even just half an ab, I would be happy with that!
“If something about your body is really, really making you feel unhappy, it’s nice to know that there is something that you can go and do that actually works.”
Rebecca’s new look came just in time for her latest stylist supper club, a new initiative under her Styled by Rebecca McKinney brand and combining fun, food and fashion. Her most recent event took place on Monday at Cafe Parisien, in Belfast, showcasing the autumn/winter looks. It is sponsored by its4women.co.uk.
“You can choose from a three-course brunch or a three-course supper, with fashion between the courses. I style up all of my favourite looks from my favourite high street brands, we take this around the country and we pull together a really bespoke fashion experience,” she explains proudly. “It means we’re in a very intimate setting and guests can enjoy the style up close and personal to a really cool soundtrack, and we throw in some delicious cocktails.
“I wanted to create something that was all inclusive, so we cover all kinds of ages, stages, sizes, budgets to make sure that anybody who comes doesn’t feel intimidated. It’s just a really positive environment where people can come and relax.
“Our youngest guest this week was a little girl of 12 or 13 and their mum was saying to me afterward that she just really enjoyed it. It was a really positive message for them, which makes my day — that’s the reason we want to do it.”
As for her personal style, she describes it as classic with a bit of a twist.
“I love neutrals, creams, whites, all those kinds of colours. I’m really into coats — I’m taking after my mother. I always say everyone should invest in a good pair of shoes and a good handbag — if you’re going to spend money on anything, they’re the two things to splurge in.”
And her style icons? “Audrey Hepburn. Victoria Beckham. Olivia Palermo.”
She thinks a moment and then adds: “Holly Willoughby — everybody’s fave. She is my goal in life. If I won the lottery on dream jobs, her kind of TV presenting and that kind of lifestyle aspect would be my ultimate ambition.”
EXCLUSIVE COOLSCULPTING TREATMENT
CoolSculpting is exclusive in Northern Ireland to Martina Collins Dental & Skin Clinic. It is a leading non-surgical fat reduction treatment to eliminate stubborn fat that’s difficult to shift, even with diet and exercise. More than seven million CoolSculpting treatments have been performed worldwide.
CoolSculpting employs Cryolipolysis™, a patented FDA-cleared method that uses carefully controlled cooling to remove unwanted fat in isolated areas of the body to create the ideal silhouette.
Renowned as the non-surgical alternative to Liposuction, with CoolSculpting there is no downtime, no recovery period and no discomfort. Prices start at £700 per cycle.
Martina Collins is holding an exclusive CoolSculpting event this Monday, September 30 from 6-8pm offering complimentary consultations and Rebecca McKinney will be there to share her experience of the treatment. Limited places are still available and to secure a spot, call the clinic on 028 9066 6684.