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‘Mistakes are not a failure, they are part of the gig,’ says TV presenter Angela Scanlon

The broadcaster spoke about being a “lost” teenager, Irish dancing and why having a family felt so out of reach for her.

Angela Scanlon, 38, navigated a tricky path to find success in showbiz.In her Letter to My Younger Self, she reflects on why she had to give up her competitive streak to find happiness in the TV industry and the paralysing fear of mistakes which held her back.

I was really into Irish dancing when I was a teenager. I’m one of four girls, and my mum got us into dancing. I was pretty good at it. I danced competitively and travelled a good bit with it, so my whole social scene was built around that. It was my real passion.

Most people in my age group would have been nudged into Irish dancing classes in one way or another – in the local hall or at school – it was pretty compulsory in the 1980s. I was a lively kid, so this was an outlet for me to play and hang out with loads of other little mad eggs. I forget how much I love dancing until I let loose at a wedding – I really need to sign up for Strictly to unleash that beast again.

Angela Scanlon grew up with three sisters. Image supplied

It is quite a bizarre question to ask a child – what will you be when you grow up? It’s like at a certain point you turn into something else and that becomes the definition of who you are. I’m trying to figure out how I will approach it with my oldest daughter. But I remember watching Baby Boom with Diane Keaton – a classic movie, underrated – and thinking this woman is an absolute badass. In her suit in the boardroom then leaving with her baby, moving to a country house and setting up an incredible business.

So if I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say: “I want to be a businesswoman in a turquoise convertible with my hair blowing in the wind!” A bit of me wanted to set up an empire. It was a strong vision. There was a sense that I had quite big ideas about myself, but I wasn’t sure where to channel them for many years. 

I think my teenage self was actually quite lost. I went to university and studied business – so there was obviously still a bit of that Diane Keaton/turquoise convertible thing going on. I knew I wanted to work for myself. But I was really, really hard on myself. So I would want to wrap my younger self up a little bit, to be a bit more gentle with her – while also admiring that fire behind her eyes and her slightly clueless ambition.  

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I would like to tell my younger self that she is enough. I would tell her that whatever you are and whatever you decide to be will be enough – and mistakes are not a failure, they are part of the gig. That is life. Embrace them, don’t be afraid of them. Because I was so afraid of making mistakes for a long time that I was quite paralysed – I talked myself out of a lot of experiences because I was afraid I wouldn’t do them well enough.  

Buckle up! That’s what I’d say to my younger self about getting into showbiz. And I’d tell her to enjoy it. I’ve started to now but there was a period when I took it really seriously. Of all the jobs in the world, it does not deserve to be taken seriously. I feel so lucky to be able to do what I do – but I was very competitive with everybody and thought everybody was my competition for a long time. And it was a very lonely way to operate. It has taken me a really long time to stop that habit of always looking to the next thing rather than enjoying the present. It could all go tomorrow.

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My eating disorder started at the end of my school life, when I was 17. I guess that was my way of coping with changes and with becoming a woman. I found that very difficult – maybe because I danced, when my body started to develop, I didn’t know what to do. It didn’t feel like my own. I didn’t feel ready for adulthood but was confronted with this body that looked like a woman’s. That was the catalyst for it. Even though I presented as an independent young bolshie woman, I was very sensitive and afraid of the
big bad world.  

I felt out of control and miserable and hopeless. When I was at my loneliest, I genuinely believed I’d be stuck there forever. So I would want my younger self to know they can get over these things and eventually even be grateful for what an eating disorder can teach you about yourself. The sensitivity that means you’re more susceptible to that sort of illness is also a superpower to be protected. 

angela scanlon
2021: Transforming horror houses on Your Home Made Perfect. Photo: BBC

I always wanted love and a family – but it felt very out of reach. It felt like something a grown-up did and I never felt like a grown-up. Having been through a long period where I dealt with an eating disorder, to know that on the far side of that would be a great relationship and two gorgeous little ladies and that I’m able to do it – I don’t know I would have really believed that.  

Praise is not thrown at kids or teenagers growing up in Ireland. But self-worth is so important. You deserve to be loved, to be adored, not just to be tolerated.  

Angela Scanlon and her two children. Image supplied

My younger self would think I am quite boring – and that feels like a bit of an achievement. There was a drive in me. I felt like I had to be always doing things to impress and be loved. So to get to a stage where I don’t need to dance every day for love feels really good. But my younger self would be like, you meditate every day? That sounds dull. Safety and routine are things I turned my nose up at in favour of glamour and excitement. I don’t think I felt like I deserved any of those things so I dismissed them.  

Last year I did my own chat show in Ireland called Ask Me AnythingFor big Angela it was a moment – but it would not even have been in the wildest dreams of my younger self. This was the kind of life somebody else lived. Having a show where you are in the driving seat, getting to chat with amazing people from all walks of life who have done brilliant things, and to call that work felt really special.  

I would love one last conversation with my granny, Dolly. There’s a chapter in my book about her. I was about seven when she died. It is so vivid to me even now – I had a really special relationship with my granny. She would visit, I would get into bed with her, she would take her false teeth out and make me laugh and feel so special.

But I also remember not going for a walk up the cul-de-sac with her because there was a family of smart-arsed boys from my class who lived up there. I didn’t go because I cared what these dickhead boys thought and didn’t realise until it was too late that I wouldn’t have a million other opportunities. So I would love to thank her for those little moments of intimacy that I didn’t realise I needed until it was way too late.  

angela scanlon
2021: Hosting her own chat show Ask Me Anything. Photo: RTE/Andres Poveda

I believe we are inherently a product of our environment. I kicked and screamed and fought against that for a long time, and I do believe in neuroplasticity and in therapy to change patterns that might not serve you any more. But there is a comfort now in leaning into that. And I feel really proud and really held by my family. There’s real heart and soul and goodness there.  

If you look at an eating disorder as an addiction, it is not something that is cured overnight. I think I swapped my addiction, and work is where a lot of that focus goes now. It is more acceptable, possibly healthier, but it is something I have to manage. I have to lean into asking for help and not thinking of myself as a machine. I’m definitely a work in progress.  

My dad is not a philosopher – he’s a very straight-talking man – but when we were kids, he would say “We could be dead tomorrow.” We don’t have forever, so to be acutely aware of our mortality allows us to live in a really full, unapologetic way. It’s too easy, like with my granny, to feel that we will be around forever. So although he said it in a morbid Irish way, what stays with me is that sense of how fragile life is. And that can make us quite fearless.  

Joyrider: How Gratitude Can Help You Get The Life You Really Want by Angela Scanlon is out now. (Vermilion, £16.99) 

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