Ryan's daughter returns – Bonnie Ryan on her fear of failure, dealing with grief, and setting up her own business

It was just before Christmas when Bonnie Ryan decided to make the leap to open her own business. Out on her own, only her own name over the door, she says now with a smile. The business is a make-up studio in Hession Hairdressing salon in Drumcondra, Dublin.

You probably know Bonnie – the middle child of Morah and Gerry Ryan’s brood of five – as the teen singing phenomenon whose band, Lady Nada, toured with Westlife when Bonnie was just 13 years of age.

Now she is a make-up artist and an influencer, with all the attendant accoutrements – a growing social-media following, her own YouTube channel, and the inevitable #sponcon (sponsored content). There’s also a burgeoning TV career – Bonnie has just started a regular slot on Lisa Cannon’s film show, Box Office.

Most of us give little thought to what we’re going to be, until the time comes to fill out a CAO application form. By that stage, Bonnie had already mastered one career. Having formed a band, aged eight, with two of her best friends from performing-arts school, the now 26-year-old, who describes herself as someone who cannot do things by halves, had, from a young age, displayed an almost professional attitude to the endeavour.

“We used to practise all the time in my house,” she recalls now with a smile. “I’d be really serious about it, with schedules of when we would rehearse. I’d be in the sitting room going, ‘No, go again, go again’, and my poor mum and dad would be looking in saying, ‘Jesus, she’ll have no friends left if she treats them like this’.”

Bonnie’s older sister Lottie, who is now a 2FM DJ, was employed as the band’s choreographer, Bonnie recalls with a laugh. They submitted their act to The Late Late Toy Show – “our own submission” – she says with a wry smile, shutting down suggestions of nepotism. Her father, the late Gerry Ryan, did help at one point – manning the video camera in the sitting room, she explains with a laugh.

As a dad, Gerry was, she says, “so much fun. But also just, like, a dad. He would drive me to dance rehearsals. Or to my Girls’ Brigade shows. He’d collect me from school; go to parent-teacher meetings. I think people are always expecting you to say something ground-breaking, like, ‘He’d get in from work and do a back flip into the kitchen, and be like, “I’m here for dinner!”

“It was just Dad. Obviously he was incredible, and he was like my best friend. Very cool. Knew how to deal with a 14-year-old girl who’s having her moments. I would have talked to him about anything. Even when you were being bold, and you had to kind of explain yourself. He was just emotionally aware and good with every situation. But also just, like, your dad.”

Outgoing and mellow

“We’re such a good mix of both our parents,” Bonnie says of her siblings and herself. “We have that outgoing side from my dad. And my mom is quite mellow and calm. I look at my parents and I think, ‘How did I get so lucky with two really cool parents?’ I still go into my mom’s wardrobe and wear her stuff. She’s fab. I could talk to her about anything. We love going off and doing stuff together, just enjoying each other’s company.”

When Lady Nada performed on the Toy Show, Louis Walsh happened to be watching. At the time, he was looking for a new girl band to tour with Westlife.

He called; a meeting was set up. Thirteen-year-old Bonnie and her two best friends were signed to Westlife’s 2007 Irish tour, the first of two tours they would accompany the band on, including a stint of 20 nights in what’s now called the 3Arena.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Bonnie recalls now. “I was Westlife’s biggest fan – at the time, I was obsessed with them.” She was excited rather than nervous. “I feel like I was more mature then than I am now. We took it so seriously.”

The band would also tour with X Factor 2005 winner Shayne Ward, and perform at the Childline concerts.

Linda Martin was their “keeper” – collecting them from school, watching over them at the venue. They would bring their school bags, doing homework on the road.

“We’d be in school and nobody even talked to us about it. For some reason, I found it easy to separate. I knew how to balance the two [worlds]. I knew no different.”

In 2008, aged 15, Bonnie left to go solo. She travelled, worked with producers in Sweden, toured, gigged at festivals, eventually putting out her own single, I’m Out, in 2015, when she was 22. Bonnie was a schoolgirl throughout much of her musical career, but maintaining a sense of normality proved not to be the issue it might have been for others. For one thing, her school friends kept her grounded. But crucially, this world wasn’t new, and therefore overwhelming to Bonnie. To an extent, she had grown up in it.

“For me, there were always kind of the two worlds,” she explains now. “Dad had this really cool job that everybody knew about. So I kind of understood that that’s a little bit not normal for everybody. But it was part of my normal.”

Gradually though, Bonnie began to realise that what had been a passion was no longer making her happy. “All my life, all I ever wanted to do was sing and dance. I studied music in college. I gave it everything I could.”

But for one thing, the frustration of being in a career where, like most performing arts, you are dependent on someone else giving you your big break, began to take its toll. “I would spend months on end just sitting at home, writing and writing and writing; creating all of this stuff. I was just waiting for my moment. I released my song, it did well here, but then I was like, ‘What do I do now?’ Trying to come to terms with it, you know, that maybe this wasn’t going to be the thing that I do forever, was really difficult,” she recalls.

There was the pressure she put upon herself, the fear of what would others think. “Changing from music as a career was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. Because I felt – totally brought on by myself, in my own head – oh my god, everybody’s just going to think, ‘But she’s the music girl, why is she doing that?’

At first, she told only her long-term boyfriend, John, about her doubts. “I wanted the ground to swallow me up. I was just like, ‘Everyone’s going to think I failed at this’. And I so didn’t see [music] as a fail. I saw it as I’ve done all these amazing things, and I can’t believe the amount I actually accomplished.” She is also, she explains, the kind of person who will be slow to quit anything, even when its sell-by date might have passed.

Cried all day

“No matter what, I just wouldn’t give up on something. Even if it was something that I wasn’t happy doing any more. So it did take me so long to say, ‘I have to put this to bed now’. I knew in my heart I was not happy any more. I wasn’t the same person for a while. I felt, ‘I’m pushing on something that I actually don’t think is meant to be right now. And I think that I need to go and find something else that I love’. It was so hard,” Bonnie says of admitting this to herself. “I think I probably cried for a full day when it was getting to that point where I knew ‘I need to really make my mind up on this’.”

She told her mother, artist Morah Ryan, how conflicted she felt. (Although Bonnie is currently saving to move out, she still lives in the family home where she grew up with her four siblings – Lottie, Rex, Elliott and Babette.)

“I had closed off from everything,” Bonnie recalls of how she had not previously told her family about the doubts she was having. “It was so stressful. Especially because you know when you leave school and you’re like, ‘Oh my god, what are you doing?’ Well, everyone thought, ‘Well Bonnie knows what she’s doing, she’s fine’.

“I’m not happy,” the then 22-year-old Bonnie told her mother, admitting she had given music all she could. Morah met her daughter’s confession with the kind of calm she is known for.

“She was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. This is so not a big deal. I’m telling you, even what you pick now, Bonnie, that’s probably not going to be what you do. You’re going to pick 10 million things until you find the thing’.”

A plan was formed. Before definitively giving up on music, Bonnie began a part-time evening course in marketing and event management to try out an alternative. A year in, at 23, she decided to fully commit, leaving music behind, and beginning a full-time job in marketing while continuing the course.

“I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to give this everything.’ And actually I wasn’t bad at the job, but after a year I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is just not me. I don’t know who I’m fooling’.”

For a time, the then 24-year-old Bonnie felt as if she was back at square one – that feeling of giving up on something. In retrospect, she admits now that she was being incredibly hard on herself. At the time, it felt like a midlife crisis, she explains, laughingly qualifying with the more accurate “quarter life”. “I can look back and think, ‘Wow, I was so hard on myself’.

So two years ago, she came to a decision. “I went up to my room, locked the door, and wrote a list of everything I loved. And at the top of the list was make-up. I had always loved it; I just never thought, ‘That’s what I’m going to make my career in’.”

Having quit the job in marketing, she began to do makeovers. “And then it was like everything just fell into place. It’s like the universe just knows when it’s the right thing. All of a sudden, I was so happy again. I felt lighter. And there was no judgment from anybody.”

Partly, the fear of judgment might have come from growing up somewhat in the public eye, she admits.

“But now that I’ve gone and done other things, I realise nobody really cares what I’m doing,” she says, laughing. “Nobody’s going, ‘Oh, but we know she’s tried two other things, or five other things’. Because everybody’s too worried about their own stuff. Now, I just have to go with the flow. I’m really enjoying something right now, and will just see where it takes me.”

Starting her own business has helped with the anxiety she had experienced for the past few years. “I have anxiety, and it’s definitely something that I have to work on a lot,” she reflects. “But I know myself things that will trigger me.”

She’s naturally quite shy, finding it challenging, on occasion, to be in social situations with people she doesn’t know. So from the off, the social-media aspect of her work wasn’t something she naturally relished.

When things are out of her comfort zone, there was often that little voice in her head, she explains, saying: “This might bring on a panic attack, it happened before”.

“And you don’t want people to see you like that. That kind of stopped me from doing a lot of things. Even things like going to events. Obviously I have to go to a lot of things in my job. And at the start, I didn’t know anyone. I’d be outside on the phone to my mom, going, ‘I can’t go in, I can’t go in’. I’d get actual panic attacks.”

Morah would talk her down. “Seeing myself do little things like that; going in [to events] on my own – to somebody else that might seem so small, but to me they were such mountains to overcome; that did kind of help my anxiety a little bit,” Bonnie says. It gave her the ability to tell herself, ‘You got through that, you can get through this’.

“Now I’m just not afraid of it any more. I know how to deal with it. I feel like I know who I am a bit more, and that helps. It definitely wouldn’t be something that rules my world. You learn to roll with it.”

As she gets older, there’s also that feeling of comfort in one’s own skin. “I know I’m only 26, but as the years go on, you do get a little bit ‘I am who I am, and either people are into it or they’re not. But if they’re not, it’s ok too’. You’re not going to be everybody’s cup of tea.”

As a child, she wasn’t shy at all. Their parents were subjected to nightly plays, Bonnie recalls with a laugh – Lottie would write, Rex was included, dressed as a woman. “I just loved performing all the time. I think the shyness probably came later. When I was younger, I was really outgoing. Mad, in the best possible way.”

Best friends

Growing up with her four siblings was “the best fun. We’re so different but also so similar. We’re all loud”. They are, Bonnie admits, genuinely best friends. “I’d call them for anything. They’d do anything for me. There’s nobody who knows us better than we know each other. We’re such a close family. And that’s thanks to our parents. They kept that family unit together always.”

The Ryans still holiday together, and have lunch as a family every Sunday.

Grief doesn’t always unite a family; in fact, it can break it apart if all members retreat to their private pain. This clearly wasn’t the case when the Ryans lost their adored father, broadcaster Gerry Ryan, in 2010.

The strong family unit was crucial, Bonnie reflects. “We’re lucky that we are such a close family. There’s nothing I don’t think we could get through at this point. We’ve gone through all of this together. So we understand each other. And it’s really nice to have that kind of support.”

On coping with grief, an experience so unknown until it actually happens to you, she says: “I’m no expert, even though I’ve gone through it. I think keeping a good circle [of family and friends] is the main thing. And also just expect that you’re creating a new normal. You can’t ever expect for things to go back to the way they were. It won’t be like that, but you create a new normal. I think that as soon as you realise that you’re going to create a new normal for your life, things get a little bit easier then.”

For now, she’s enjoying flexing her muscles, taking on things that might previously have felt too daunting.

“I’m just enjoying this year, saying yes to things that put me out of my comfort zone. Or things that last year I would have thought, ‘Oh, I could never do that’. I’m really proud of opening my own place. Last year, I might not have thought that I could do that. So why can’t I do other things?”

Bonnie Ryan is nominated in the Most Stylish Online Influencer in the Peter Mark VIP Style Awards, which take place on April 26 at The Marker Hotel

Photography by Kip Carroll   

Styling by Liadan Hynes

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