DJ Carolyn Stewart talks racist bullying at school, sexism in broadcasting and the debt she owes her late father John
The broadcaster tells Stephanie Bell how her father helped her get through trying times, her business ventures and her love of pets which saw her become the patron of a cats club which will be taking part in the Belfast Telegraph Pets Expo being held later this month
Life hasn't been without its challenges for popular radio DJ Carolyn Stewart, but through it all there was one person that she could always rely on to keep her upbeat - her late dad John.
Carolyn lost her dad 15 years ago this week but he still - and always will - remains one of the most positive influences in her life.
Theirs was a special relationship which carried her through her childhood without her mum (who left when Carolyn was just eight) and through years of playground bullying.
It's thanks to her dad that she grew up with a quiet confidence despite enduring relentless name calling, some of which was racist, during her childhood and early teens.
And as she prepares to mark the anniversary of his passing on Monday she can't help but reflect on just how special he was: "My dad was the focus of my life. He brought me and my older sister Marie up. He was an amazing man.
"I lost him 15 years ago and I can't even believe it as it seems like yesterday.
"My dad and I were so close, he was such a good friend and I owe so much to him. He was always there for every single occasion and he always pushed me forward to be the best I could.
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"I did get bullied for a bit from the age of about seven until I was a teenager and dad was there for me.
"Kids can be cruel but I don't think they realise they are being so hurtful. I would still see some of them out and about today and I don't feel any malice towards them and I imagine they are probably regretting it.
"It was mainly name calling and some of it was because of the colour of my skin and maybe they didn't like it (the colour of my skin) but I do accept we were all just kids."
She adds: "My dad always taught me that you can't change the past but you can control how it affects you now."
It is a lesson which Carolyn has passed on to others throughout her career in the media. An inspiration to young people from her own community, she has regularly gone back to give talks to youth groups.
Her message comes from her own personal experience of having a devoted parent who instilled in her a sense of self worth: "I have been invited to talk to young people and I have used what dad taught me as a confidence-builder for them.
"Dad taught me there is no point in carrying negativity with you through life - you can determine your own future.
"You are not born without confidence. People throughout your life try to knock your confidence and make you feel less than who you are. Dad taught me that you make your own destiny and not to let anything change that.
"My dad was 72 when he died and I just think he had so much more to give and to offer.
"Every time I had to make a decision he was the person I would go to and he would talk about it and make you think about your decisions.
"I owe him a lot, I can't even express what I owe my dad, and he was my number one person."
Listeners love Carolyn for her cheerful personality and passion for music.
Life is good for the U105 DJ, who can't quite believe that she is soon to mark a 30-year milestone on radio in 2020.
Carolyn started her career on Cool FM in 1989 when radio was still very much a male-dominated profession.
She did experience some sexism in those early years but again credits her father with giving her the strength to believe in herself.
Outside the studio, Carolyn embraces her other passions for food, gardening and pets with just as much gusto.
Lunch and dinner are often fresh vegetables picked from her garden and her love of cooking - legendary among her friends - has led to her launching her own food range a couple of years ago.
A budding entrepreneur, she also recently opened a new beauty salon in her home town of Ballyholme with her partner who is a beautician. Carolyn has been in a relationship for five years and although protective of her partner and her privacy, she does confess that she believes she has finally found "the one".
She feels blessed, too, that she shares a very close relationship with her sister Marie who, since losing their father, has stepped into the role of her confidante.
She says: "My sister is a strong force in my life and if I need to discuss anything important now she is always there and I feel we are very lucky to have such a good relationship as I know that not all siblings get on so well."
Carolyn grew up in north Belfast, loved music from an early age and had her own decks in her bedroom where friends would gather while she played her favourite tunes for them.
She was a pupil of Dominican College, leaving after her GCSEs with no real career plans.
She had started to DJ for friends at private parties and weddings and was soon making a name for herself on the Belfast club scene.
She got a day job working for record distributor Solomon and Peres which is where she met the late Jackie Flavelle who came into the shop regularly to buy music for his Downtown radio show.
Jackie heard a tape of Carolyn's DJ compilations playing in the shop during one visit and suggested she try radio.
She wrote a letter to Downtown Radio and heard nothing back for six months.
Then, out of the blue, she was surprised to be invited by the company to join a new sister station, Cool FM, which she debuted with on its very first day of broadcasting in 1989.
Carolyn stayed with Cool FM until 2005 when she joined U105 where her weekday show from noon until 3pm offers a light-hearted mix of everything from fashion to food, celebrity interviews and of course, great music.
There are many memorable moments from a career which in February will have spanned three decades, a milestone she still can't believe she is soon to reach: "It's been a fantastic career and I really mean that.
"Its not something you will ever make a lot of money at but it's the pleasure you get from it and the joy it gives. Even on the worst days of my life when I go on air I feel happy," she says.
"I joke that I spend more time with my listeners than I do with my own family and I cannot believe I've been on air for 30 years. I mentioned it recently on my show and had loads of messages from listeners, one of whom said he had been listening to me for 28 years.
"You do get to know their names and some of them will come up to me when I am out and I feel like I know them so well.
"There is nothing about it I would knock and I feel blessed to have been able to do something I love and make a living out of it."
Of the many highlights in those 30 years there is one shy young woman she interviewed who she will ever forget.
The late, great Amy Winehouse was a virtual unknown when Carolyn recognised the beauty in her music and invited her into her studio.
She recalls: "It was in Cool FM in 2000 and I had got a copy of her first album, Frank. I remember listening to it at home and thinking that it was fantastic.
"The songs were really sung from the heart. She was due into the studio and my colleagues were going out for lunch and asked me to come along and I remember saying I couldn't because I was waiting on Amy Winehouse. They asked me who she was. No one had heard of her.
"She came in, this wee waif of a thing with this tiny wee guitar, and we talked about the inspiration for her songs and she told me they were based on a real relationship and I just knew listening to them they felt so real," she says.
"Most people are prepared before they come in and know what they are going to say. When I asked Amy what she was going to sing she told me to pick a song and I loved that about her. Nothing was contrived. She sang and she blew me away.
"I kept playing her songs and Frank wasn't that big at the time but when she brought out her second album, Back to Black, a few months later she then became a big name.
“It was so tragic what happened to her. The talent was oozing out of that young girl and her life changed so much in such a short space of time. It was so sad. I was really gutted.”
Carolyn still feels that radio today needs more female presenters and is surprised that so few women consider it as a career.
When she started in 1989 there were very few women on the airwaves and she did encounter some colleagues for whom her gender was an issue.
She recalls: “Whenever I went in initially someone actually said to me ‘I don’t like hearing women on the radio’. I just thought ‘I’ve no chance if people I’m working with are saying things like that’.
“There was a bit of that in my early career but I battled through it because I love what I do.
“When I was doing clubs I would have had men come up to me and ask why I was doing a man’s job.
“My attitude was that I had worked too hard at my job and I do it well to have someone tell me I am not as good as the boys.
“It is good to see more women coming through now although I don’t think there are enough women on radio.
“It’s a fabulous career. If you are into your music, there is no better way to spend your day. I think it should not be seen as mostly blokes which there is no doubt it still is.”
While it’s a big part of her life, radio doesn’t dominate it. Outside work, Carolyn is a real home bird.
She lives in Ballyholme where she enjoys interior design, gardening, cooking and looking after her beloved pet Labrador rescue dogs Ella and Jackson.
For Carolyn, relaxation is escaping to her garden where she loves to grow plants from seed and has a vast array of vegetables and herbs which she enjoys picking fresh each day and cooking with.
She says: “Gardening is my hobby and the garden is my go-to place if I feel stressed.
“I go in there and I lose myself. I don’t spend a lot of money on it. I like to separate plants and grow them from seed and I have a greenhouse.
“I grow everything. I have spinach, carrots, beetroot, lettuce, tomatoes, chillies and much more. It’s really satisfying to be able to go into the garden and pick lettuce and tomatoes and have them for your lunch.”
Cooking is another pleasure which has recently led her into business with the launch of her own food range.
Some years ago she visited Jamaica on holiday and fell in love with Caribbean cooking.
When she tried to recreate some of the dishes at home she found she couldn’t source the ingredients, so she experimented and made her own.
Her dishes were so popular with friends that she was encouraged to bottle and sell them and her own food label, Totally Hot NI, was launched.
Created in her own kitchen but now manufactured in Enniskillen, she has four popular products — Caribbean Pickle, Pineapple Chilli chutney, Blueberry Chilli Sauce and Raspberry Chilli Sauce.
She says: “It started with the Caribbean pickle. I couldn’t buy it anywhere here so I tried to make it and I ended up getting it perfect.
“Last year it got a Great Taste Award and recently we also got a BLASt Irish food award.
“They are made with all local produce and we now have 15 stockists and it’s going great. I love cooking for people and my friends persuaded me to produce them and sell them. I am now working on a rub for chicken and pork.”
It’s not her only venture into business. Just two weeks ago she opened a beauty salon in Bangor with her partner who is a beautician.
Simply called The Beauty Salon, it is the culmination of months of hard work by the couple.
Carolyn is thrilled for her partner that the local community has already embraced the business which has been busy since it opened its doors.
She is protective of her relationship and prefers to keep her partner out of the spotlight but there is no doubting that she is happy.
She says: “I’m very settled and very happy. I am a relationship person, I’m not the type of person who likes being single. I do like sharing my life with someone. We’ve been together five years and I am happy and very lucky that I have met someone special. I do believe I have found the one.
“We have opened the salon together but it is her business as that’s what she does.
“It’s been her dream to have her own salon and I’ve been there to support her and help get it set up. It’s been hard work and its only open a couple of weeks but it’s doing well.
“It is a brilliant space and people in Ballyholme village have been coming in to say it is perfect and just what they needed in the area.”
Pets too have always played a big part in Carolyn’s life and she is a very active patron of the Ulster Siamese and All Breeds Cat Club.
The club will be one of many local organisations taking part in the forthcoming Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo.
Carolyn is looking forward to lending her support during the two-day event to be held in the Titanic Exhibition Centre on November 16 and 17.
Although known for her love of cats — she has owned several over the years — she surprised herself as well as her friends when she arrived home from a visit to Assisi Animal Shelter with two lively puppies nine years ago.
She laughs as she tells the story: “My friend was looking for a dog and I offered to go along to Assisi with her thinking maybe I would get a cat.
“We walked in and saw 11 little black puppies running about. My friend took two and I just felt I had to take two as well. It was completely life-changing.
“People say you are either a cat person or a dog person but I am an animal person. I love all animals although I’ve always had cats.
“When I first brought the two dogs home they were a handful and I thought I couldn’t get a cat as well and now I would still love a kitten but I am not sure how the dogs would react.
“I was delighted to be asked to be patron of the All Breeds Cat Club a few years ago and really enjoy helping out at cat shows.
“The Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo is going to be a great experience for the group and I am looking forward to being there to support them.”
You can catch Carolyn from Mondays to Fridays on U105FM from 12-3pm. For tickets to the Belfast Telegraph Pet Expo — which is sponsored by Vertigo, and takes place at the Titanic Exhibition Centre, Belfast, on November 16-17 — visit www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/petexpo/tickets. Tickets will also be available to purchase at the door