Beauty, brains and banter: Cool FM’s Rebecca is riding high

The popular radio presenter and bestie of Pete and Paulo, tells Joanne Savage about broadcasting at the break of dawn, fronting her new solo Saturday show, battling sepsis and her love of designer shoes

Saturday, 15th May 2021, 8:00 am
Radio DJ, stylist and banter lover Rebecca McKinney

Your alarm clock goes off. You try to work out where you are in space and time, locate your limbs and find your way back to sentience with a strong cup of coffee and...for many of us...the sound of giggle-ridden banter with Rebecca McKinney, Pete Snodden and Paulo Ross on the Cool FM Breakfast Show. The music is energising wake-up-world pop and maybe you wonder how this trio can be so absolutely chipper at the break of dawn, chatting away nine to the dozen, slagging each other off and talking to listeners like they are forever friends.

The chemistry the trio share on air is undeniable, authentic, and has proved a massive hit with Northern Irish listeners, with the show becoming the biggest in the country (move over Stephen Nolan) when its ratings went through the roof at the start of lockdown, outperforming even Radio Ulster.

McKinney, 34, laughs when I ask her about the horror of having to set her alarm at 4.30am, then at 4,45 and then at 4.50 before getting out of bed, immaculate blow dry in place no doubt, before she rides the airwaves with her trusty side kicks, whom she describes as her best friends, family even.

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“Pete and Paulo - they drive me insane, but I love them completely. On air we are not faking it, we genuinely have the best fun together. We’re lucky, even if we do have to get up at 4.30am to be on air at six, that listeners let us into our lives and allow us to help them get set up for the day ahead.

“That’s the thing with radio. It’s all about shout outs and drawing our audience in and interacting with them. It’s a privilege to get to do what we do, and hopefully our listeners do think of us as friends, even if we have never actually met.

“During my seven years on Breakfast I’ve learned to be more comfortable revealing things about myself, because connecting to your audience is so important. You want listeners to think of you as a companion and good radio can really be just the tonic for people, especially during lockdown, when a lot of people were lonely.”

East Belfast beauty Rebecca had a difficult time of it before the start of lockdown, and over the past year overcame serious illness and a lot of soul searching to discover a new kind of contentment; she’s stopped worrying about the trivial things and now realises the transience of life, the importance of friends and family, the things that matter most.

“I hadn’t been feeling well from mid-January time last year,” Rebecca confides. “I just really wasn’t feeling like myself at all, and having gone through quite a hard time, I sort of put it down to anxiety and my asthma. I went to my doctor who took blood tests and when the results came back it turned out I was suffering from sepsis.

“I felt like I was dying. I couldn’t get out of bed. Then my doctor phoned to say that an ambulance was on the way to my house because the levels of poison in my body were just through the roof.

“It presented itself as an undetected lung infection. It’s all a bit of a blur to me now. My brother James was just about to go to Australia to play rugby but he was the one who took me to the doctor because I kept insisting I was fine and just needed to keep going. So he really saved my life.”

After ten days at the Ulster Hospital Rebecca went to recuperate at her parents house in the grounds of Campbell College (where her father teaches) and then, having been put on the clinically vulnerable list, spent five months shielding at home.

Like many people Rebecca was lonely in lockdown, but her days were brightened by Paulo and Pete, and walks with her father around her native east Belfast.

“My brother went to Australia, I missed him, but Pete and Paulo would call round just to leave a parcel or say hello to me through the window, and my friends and family did the same and that really helped. It was tough. But the whole experience taught me how strong I could be.”

But now she is back in the game with gusto.

A self-confessed social butterfly who completed a law degree at Queen’s and was waiting to resit her Barr exams before she got the opportunity to do some radio work, Rebecca has serious academic chops as well as being a committed fashion stylist and collector of designer shoes (Louboutins) and handbags (Dior and Mulberry). Anytime she appears on the Belfast social scene she is perfectly coiffured with seriously voluminous, enviable big hair, superbly co-ordinated outfits (she was once voted Best Dressed at Down Royal) and a perfectly lipsticked pout.

She was working as a professional shopper and stylist when DJ Pete Snodden came into the Victoria Square store to record a show to mark its fifth birthday. Rebecca was asked to join him for a slot and her easy, chatty, happy-go-lucky manner impressed Pete so much he put her name forward to the controller at Cool and before long she was on air each weekday morning. Although she sill works as a stylist and curates fashion shows across the country, radio is her first love, and now she has her own show that you can tune into on Cool each Saturday at 2pm.

“My first solo show was actually one of the best days of my life. I was shaky nervous at first, but the feedback from listeners was incredible, the sun was shining and it all went to plan. I’m hoping listeners know me well by now and I look forward to hearing all about their Saturdays while playing cool music.”

For years I put off doing it because I listened to that voice in my head that told me I wasn’t good enough and couldn’t do it, because although I can certainly talk I’m a technophobe who always worried about working the desk on my own. But Pete and Paulo were my mentors, and with their encouragement I found the confidence to take on the new slot.

‘I’m inspired by the classic style of Audrey Hepburn’

During lockdown, Rebecca has been known to record the Cool Breakfast Show with Paulo and Pete from her living room in her pyjamas. She claims to have looked a state while doing so, but it’s hard to imagine this queen of the airwaves looking anything less than immaculate.

“It was very weird with the three of us in separate locations recording from home and you forget sometimes when you’re chatting that you are actually talking to thousands of people.”

As well as committing to the morning show, which is so much fun “you almost forget when the red button is on”, and now fronting her own Saturday slot, she continues to work as a fashion stylist as she has done for the past decade.

“I’m inspired by classic silhouettes, clean lines and the style of people like Audrey Hepburn, Victoria Beckham and Michelle Obama. I love helping women to look and feel good and during lockdown I’ve been doing virtual consultations with clients, but it just isn’t the same as being with someone in person.

“My favourite designer is Chanel but really I’m a high street girl.”

‘I stopped listening to the negative voice in my head, then nabbed a solo slot’

“From day one on radio I felt so comfortable,” says Rebecca. “I had no previous experience and was still working at Victoria Square as a stylist and I felt I had to prove myself for a time and see if the public liked me. And I’m lucky enough to have been embraced by our listeners.”

The DJ and stylist grew up amid the Narnia-like beauty of the grounds of Campbell College, where her father taught, riding around on her bicycle with younger brother James. At school she kept her head down and did A-levels in English, history, religious studies and art. She secured three As to pursue her dream of studying law at QUB, but after going on to complete a masters in communications, marketing and PR, began to see broadcast less as a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream and more as a real world possibility: “I maybe saw myself as getting into something more serious like news reading, but when Pete Snodden helped me get on the airwaves at Cool FM I began to realise that broadcasting could be brilliant fun. And it’s not all about you as a presenter, even with my new solo show, it’s about reaching out to the people who are listening and having banter with them which is a very Belfast thing really, and I think Pete and Paulo have provided me with the best possible training in that area.”

She didn’t pursue solo DJing before because she was always “listening to that negative voice in my head that said ‘You aren’t good enough, you can’t do that’. Also, I was put off by the technical side of things. But before my first show Pete and I spent a good six weeks training and working on the format in the studio and he was a brilliant mentor who helped make me realise that I can do this, connect with listeners and be the kind of friendly voice you would want to tune into on Saturday afternoons.

“When I was at school being a radio DJ never seemed a real possibility. Back then you were either good at science and maths and did medicine, or you were good at English and languages and then maybe thought about becoming a teacher or a lawyer. Both my parents are teachers, they have 70 years of teaching between them, but I felt I would try law and was bitterly disappointed after my degree when I didn’t pass the Barr exams first-time round. Now I look back and realise I was supposed to follow a different path and I’m so glad I did because getting to have fun and chat on the airwaves has to be one of the best jobs in the world, and I didn’t ever imagine you could get paid for having craic with listeners and playing tunes.” Describing herself as a “typical virgo”, Rebecca is meticulous about everything she does, whether styling fashion campaigns or wowing listeners.

Q&A: ‘I love Walt Disney, R&B and dressing up’

Can you tell us some of your earliest memories?

My brother James and my parents grew up in the beautiful, magical grounds of Campbell College and a lot of the time we had the whole space to ourselves. I had this lovely outdoorsy, healthy childhood where we were always out and about on our bikes.

School days - the happiest of your life?

I really enjoyed my school days. I went to Strathern. I’m still best friends with my school friends.

Your ideal way to spend a day when lockdown restrictions are fully lifted?

Blow dry in the morning, lunch with the girls and then heading out for a nice meal.

What music would we find on your Ipod?

I love commercial, old school R&B, and throw-back dance classics. Some of my favourite artists would be Beyonce, Rihanna, Coldplay and Niall Horan.

Favourite gig you’ve been to?

Snow Patrol 3 at Ward Park. We had a barbecue at Pete (Snodden’s) beforehand, with Paulo, and all our friends and family and then we all went to enjoy the concert together.

Can you describe yourself in three words?

Kind, friendly and an organiser.

What qualities would your ideal man have to possess?

I like someone who is kind - that has become one of the most important traits. Someone who is supportive, driven, tall, dark and handsome and well-dressed. When I’m not on the radio I’m a fashion stylist so I really do appreciate a man who knows how to be well turned out.

Love is...

The best feeling in the world.

The meaning of life is...

Surrounding yourself with good people.

If you could invite anyone from history to a dream dinner party who would you bring and what would you serve them to eat and drink?

Audrey Hepburn and Walt Disney, I’m a big child who loves Disney movies with happy endings like Frozen. I’d also really like to have a chat with Robin Williams. I probably wouldn’t be able to get a word in but I would love to hear his stories. We’d have to drink a good rose wine and an Italian meal, some kind of pasta. I am a horrendous cook, such that my mother is ashamed of me, but I could always get caterers in,

How would you describe your personal style?

Classic with a little bit of a modern twist. I love a clean silhouette, clean lines, nipped in waists, that kind of ultra-feminine style. I love dressing up.

Tune into Rebecca McKinney on Cool FM, Saturdays at 2pm.