Dawn O’Porter: ‘I don’t want fame. I want success’

Bestselling novelist, sunkissed life in LA, married to Hollywood’s hottest funnyman… Dawn O’Porter really is living the dream. Just don’t say it’s all down to luck, she tells Sophie Heawood.

I think I’ve fallen in love, and it’s with a character in Dawn O’Porter’s new book who can’t stop talking about sex. The novel is So Lucky and the character is called Risky, a millennial woman who isn’t afraid to recommend vibrators to her older boss. She’s a work of comic brilliance. I can see why the radio DJ Chris Evans announced on his breakfast show that he wanted to buy the film rights to the book after fighting with his wife to read their copy, and why it has entered the bestseller lists in its first week of release (as did her previous one, The Cows). 

When I phone Dawn in Los Angeles, where she now lives, it turns out that the former TV presenter, who grew up in Guernsey and has published seven books, also loved Risky so much that she gave her a name that was intended for Dawn’s own child. Wait, what?

Dawn O'Porter
Hailey Simone Porter

‘I think it was two days before I went into labour with my second son, Valentine, who’s now two. We went for a curry to try to get the baby out. We didn’t know its sex and we were desperately trying to come up with girls’ names,’ she says. ‘We’ being Dawn and her husband, the Irish actor from The IT Crowd turned Hollywood star Chris O’Dowd, with whom she also shares an older son Art, four. ‘I was saying, “I don’t want a name, I think we should find a cool word or something that’ll stick.” Honestly, we’d come up with some ridiculous things and then suddenly, as we walked out of the restaurant, Chris went, “It’s a bit risky.” And I said, “Risky – that’s it! That’s what we’ll call her if it’s a girl.” We were so delighted until we got home and had a cup of tea and just went, “Risky – that’s a dog’s name, isn’t it? It’s the worst name we’ve ever heard.” But because we’d been so joyous about it, I had to use it for a character.’ 

And if the book sounds a bit risqué, well it is and it isn’t. Tracking the lives of these women who don’t realise that fate is pulling them together, united by their nuanced relationships with their bodies, motherhood and the internet, So Lucky might be full of zeitgeisty subjects but it handles them with wonderfully deft insight into the human condition. For example, there’s a dogging storyline which might sound a bit behind-the-bike-shed sniggery but, in Dawn’s hands, is actually rather fascinating. A new mother, who has been feeling bitterly unloved by her own partner, finds herself watching another couple getting it on in a parked car. Initially she feels mortally embarrassed, until she realises not only that they want her to watch, but that there could even be something tender in this silently shared moment between the three of them. Other characters battle secrets from their private lives too, and Dawn becomes quite impassioned when I ask her about all this. 

‘You can have someone in the public eye who’s well known and loved,’ she says, ‘and a story comes out that they’ve had some weird sexy night. Suddenly they’re demonised. I’m not going to name anyone but I think it’s totally society’s own shame projecting on to that person because everyone has the capacity to have a kinky experience where it’s a bit off the books. Someone can introduce you to something you didn’t know you liked, and you could wake up the next morning and think, what the hell was that? But, hey, you know, I didn’t hurt anyone.’ She says she doesn’t enjoy any kind of writing ‘where I feel like sex is being used for shock or, you know, vibrators just being funny. I think if you’re going to have someone with a vibrator, don’t make her a fool. Understand that we all do that thing.’

Dawn O'Porter
At the Emmys in September where Chris won for his role in State Of The Union. Image: Getty Images

And then she has to pause for a moment because she’s in a shared workspace for women in LA called The Jane Club, where she rents a desk, and I presume she’s taking her phone somewhere more private because she’s embarrassed about this stuff. But, no, she’s actually cheerily swallowing a cannabis oil gummy sweet ‘to take the edge off things a bit’ because she and Chris had a big weekend celebrating his 40th birthday. It also meant the rare thrill of time away from their kids, to whom they are, of course, devoted, ‘but, my god, just three nights with nobody screaming at you – it’s really a lot, isn’t it? I slept until 8.45 in the morning! We’re in the bit where we’re battling exhaustion all the time. Chris and I both work really hard and we go at it without an awful lot of childcare, and we’re, like, are we idiots? Why don’t we have a live-in nanny like everyone else in Hollywood? But the truth is we don’t need it – you’ve just got to parent, haven’t you.’ 

After rising at 6am and taking the boys to preschool, Dawn is committed to working nine to five, Monday to Friday, as a writer. And it’s not just books – though she isn’t able to say much about it yet, she has also written a West End musical, Especially For You, for the 80s pop producers Stock Aitken Waterman, using their back catalogue. She rose to fame presenting bold, sparky documentaries on BBC Three, after dropping out of drama school in Liverpool to take up a starter job on the TV programme Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, but isn’t sure she wants to be on the public side of the camera again. Yes, she’s a self-confessed show-off, but Chris now gets recognised and asked for selfies when they’re out with their kids, ‘and people are very respectful and it’s a wonderful part of our lives’, she says diplomatically, ‘but if it was both of us… I don’t know. What turning 40 and becoming a mother has taught me is that, actually, it’s not fame that I want, it’s success. It used to be this kind of rampant mission for fame. Now I want my books to sell, I want people to read my work, I want to be renowned for being really good at what I do.’ 

Motherhood may have changed her focus, but So Lucky is also about maternal ambivalence, a subject that isn’t going away. ‘I think my books will always have a theme of complicated relationships with mums just because I don’t have one – I mean, I loved my mum dearly but she died when I was six,’ she says. Dawn (who added the O to her surname Porter when she married Chris) was raised mainly by her aunt and uncle, ‘and I don’t have a romantic relationship with motherhood, so I kind of don’t presume that it’s always going to be this really great thing’. 

Dawn O'Porter
Dawn signing copies of her new book – already a bestseller. Image: Instagram/Dawn O’ Porter

Yet she also credits that loss with her huge work ethic. ‘Not to be depressing about it, and I don’t want to delve too much into my psychology, but because I lost my mum when she was only 36, I think that without even really realising it, I’ve been fuelled by this fear of running out of time. It was what motivated me massively in my 20s and in my 30s, and now I think it’s just a part of who I am.’ As for the online sisterhood that she pokes fun at in her book, she says she remains ‘sceptical of this idea that all women should and do support each other. ‘Look, I work in a workspace full of women, a really supportive female environment. I think going to an all-girls school never leaves you in terms of knowing how quickly the chat can turn against you when you leave the room. That can stay with you for life. Twitter felt like the school yard when it first started. But women have got way better at making an active choice not to bitch because we finally understand the damage it can do. I certainly have.’

Meanwhile, her husband’s work can take him off to film for months at a time, but he flies back at weekends ‘and is so hands-on immediately that it can honestly feel as though he’s never been away. He doesn’t like being apart from the boys and when I’m on a book deadline he can do the lion’s share with the kids while I work late. We somehow manage to make it work where we each get a few months of the year to work like crazy.’ 

Dawn O'Porter
‘International travel and fringes are not friends’: a typically irreverent Instagram post. Image: Instagram/Dawn O’ Porter

Theirs is a marriage centred on comedy and humour. ‘Chris loves funny women. Strong women. I think it’s because he came from a very matriarchal family in Ireland with so many sisters.’ Being outnumbered by boys in her own house isn’t really a thing ‘because he’s a very feminine man. I’ll see him in the kitchen pruning flowers and lighting candles and rearranging the shelves, choosing new paint colours for the house we’re doing up.’ (They are moving house because Dawn finally grew sick of everyone having to trample through her bedroom to get to the garden, including guests at their frequent parties.) ‘I love watching him father because he’s going to raise two emotional, sensitive guys – well, along with the wrestling. I’m hoping that one day they’ll support Liverpool FC, too. I’m like, come on boys, get into soccer – then I’ll get Saturdays off for the rest of my life!’ 

As for how they met, well, it’s the story of another party organised by Dawn. She had recently moved to LA, and Chris had been asking her out for a few weeks on Facebook, even though they’d never met. ‘I hadn’t seen The IT Crowd and I didn’t know who Chris was. He said our mutual friend Nick Frost had told him to get in touch with me. I kept saying no, I’m not going bowling with you because I’m seeing somebody else.’ Yet her 30th birthday drew close and the boyfriend had to attend a family event in Paris, so Dawn relented and invited Chris to the party she had organised in her friend’s fitness studio. Chris turned up at midnight and walked in with his arms spread. ‘And he just picked me up and started dancing with me and then he left about an hour later. I woke up in bed with my sister the next morning and said, “I think I’m going to marry that guy.” Chris moved in with me six months later.’ 

Dawn O'Porter
Hailey Simone Porter

That really does sound… so lucky. The title of the book is ironic though, unpicking the myths of lives that seem to have everything – or nothing – going for them. Dawn is the first to admit that writing sceptically about Instagram celebrities when she has nearly 400k followers and posts ‘so many times a day that I basically have a constant TV channel going on’ could raise a few eyebrows. Yet she is at peace with her own desire for online attention. ‘I love nothing more than posting a nice picture of myself and getting loads of compliments. I’m very happy that I have a big following and that people know my name. But I always think, if all you’ve posted are heavily contoured, filtered photos of yourself, don’t you walk into rooms with real people in them and just want to put a bag over your head? I do the school run most mornings, so if any of those people follow me, they need to know what I actually look like.’ 

Surely though people still follow her life and think everything looks absolutely dreamy? ‘I’ve got friends who have tried so hard but haven’t been able to have kids, who say to me, you’re so lucky, and in those instances I really am. But when it comes to work, I slightly resent it because I think that I’ve got to the point of writing these books because I’ve been relentless, I’ve written constantly since I was in my mid-20s. I feel lucky that Chris just walked into my life because, honestly, this is not the life that I was planning or thought that I’d ever be living – but don’t belittle my hard work by saying it’s luck.’ 

So Lucky by Dawn O’Porter is published by HarperCollins, price £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99, with free P&P, until December 17, call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk.