First Dates cutie Damian Friel opens up about finding love, living with Tourettes and what really happened with him and Kai after the show.
Hoorah! First Dates returned to our screens this week which means we can look forward to seeing loads of love-hungry boys looking for love over the next couple of months. This week, Damian Friel, a supercute 25 year old mental health nurse, met handsome business man and model Kai for a dinner date and won our hearts with his beaming smile and electric personality. Of course, as we love First Dates so much, we had to track the fella down to his home in Brighton to find out more about him and – more importantly – see what really happened with Kai after the show.
Damian, the nation fell in love with you on First Dates – what made you go for the show?
That’s so sweet of you to say that! I’m really overwhelmed by how positive the whole experience has been. I actually have a few friends in Brighton who had already been on the show. They all had a fantastic experience and although didn’t find love they highly recommended it. So I applied one night when I was bored and had nothing better to do.
Were you nervous?
I was extremely nervous but the whole production team were amazing. They really put my mind at ease. The date was really good and I smiled all day afterwards at how fantastic the match was. The whole process from application to appearing on TV lasted about eight months so it had kept me quite anxious for quite a while.
Did you have to go for an audition?
I did. They asked me lots of questions about previous relationships, about my life when I lived in Derry, about my life in Brighton, about why I study what I’m studying and all about my family and friends. The interview was about an hour long and was recorded. They were really respectful when asking questions too and I knew I was in good hands.
What kind of guy were you hoping to meet?
I don’t generally have a type (although my friends would disagree). I just wanted to meet someone who could make me laugh and someone I could have fun with. I wasn’t expecting anything like what happened and I wasn’t expecting to meet anyone as handsome and charming as Kai.
Do you get nervous around men – when you meet them for the first time?
I get nervous meeting anyone for the first time. Because of my tics I worry that I might tic something inappropriate that makes a lasting impression and have no chance to explain myself.
Was this your first blind date?
It was. I was really worried about it more so than usual. Partly because it was televised and partly because of my tics. Normally before I agree to a date I give my ‘Tourettes and mental health discliamer’.
What did you make of Kye when he walked in?
When he first walked in I first noticed how attractive he was; I thought I would never have approached him myself and that he was very much out of my league.
Were you conscious of your Tourettes when you are saying hello.
I was very conscious of my tics. I was focusing so hard on trying to suppress them which takes a lot of energy and focus. So much so that I didn’t even register his name to begin with. Luckily he’d forgotten mine too so I didn’t feel too embarrassed.
How as the date? Were there any awkward moments?
The date was great. It was literally the perfect date and he was such a gentleman. There was no awkwardness at all and he completely was non-phased by my tics.
What was it about him you liked?
He was just such a genuine person. We made each other laugh and we has so much in common. We talked about RuPaul’s Drag Race and Britney Spears at length.
Did you think he wouldn’t be interested?
I hadn’t a clue whether he liked me or not. He said afterwards that he thought the same thing about me. I only knew that we got on very well and had a lot in common but wasn’t sure whether he fancied me or not.
You said on the show that you started getting tics after a break up. What did you think the ticks were when they first started to emerge?
At first my tics were stammering and stuttering and twitches all over where my leg would give way while walking. I was told initially that it was anxiety and that with time it would go away. I trusted this but eventually I noticed that even at times when I was relaxed or when I was in a really good mood I was twitching and so I started to question my anxiety being the cause.
When did you get diagnosed with Tourettes?
My tics first started in November 2012 and they progressively got worse and worse through 2013 becoming their worst in 2014. All that time I’d been on the waiting list for a neurologist who can diagnose Tourettes Syndrome but kept seeing doctors who weren’t specialised in movement disorders. Eventually I just gave up waiting and decided I had done enough research to know what was going on and self-diagnosed.
Explain to us how the tics grip you.
I describe my tics like breathing. You do it without thinking but if you concentrate you can hold it for a while. Some of them though are just like heartbeats, they happen without having a premonary urge which is like a feeling of discomfort that lets you know you need to tic.
Is there a way of controlling it?
When I focus and concentrate hard or when my brain is distracted it stops temporarily. I can’t do this all the time though because the tics build up and eventually need to come out and they come out in an explosive manner.
Will the tics one day disappear?
I really don’t know and I’ve stopped hoping and praying for that. It’s given me such a deeper understanding and empathy of disabilities and how they can affect a persons entire life.
Has it been difficult for you when meeting new guys?
I don’t go on very many dates because I’m pretty much too busy with working at the bar and being a full time student but I do constantly worry that it’ll make people feel uncomfortable or not want to introduce me to their friends or family.
Has it put many guys off?
I’ve had one guy show up to meet me and see me tic and then just walk away without even letting me know he wasn’t going to meet me. I found out from a mutual friend that he’d seen me ticcing, thought I was ‘crazy’ and walked away. I stood waiting for him for an hour. I was angry at him because I was waiting in a square that was pretty busy feeling very self conscious for an hour and he didn’t have the decency to just tell me he didn’t want to go out with me. I don’t feel heartbroken about people like that, I think if they’re that shallow then they’re probably not very nice people and I wouldn’t want to even be friends with them, never mind date them.
What are people’s reactions to you when they hear or see the tics?
People in Brighton are generally quite good. Brighton is a very accepting city where people just don’t question anyone and let people be who they are. I have had people staring or nudging friends and giggling at me in the past but I’ve learned to filter that out and have the blinkers on so I don’t get upset.
Do you think people still look at those with Tourettes in a strange way. Do you think Big Brother’s Pete Bennett gave us more of an understanding about it?
I think Pete helped in a huge way for people’s understanding. It’s another reason I wanted to do First Dates. I am always very keen to spread awareness and I’m on the board of Tourette Alliance, which is an organisation to support, advocate and educate people around Tourettes.
Looking back, when did you realise you were gay? How long did you keep it to yourself.
I realised I was gay when I was 13. I had a girlfriend at the time and I come out as bisexual. I broke up with her and eventually come out as gay to friends at 14 and family at 15. I didn’t keep any gay feelings to myself for very long and because my family and friends were so supportive I didn’t have to.
What was your first gay experience?
The first time I kissed a guy was someone else in my year at school who was out too. He was the only other gay person my age that I knew at the time. He was a great guy and we’re still friends.
Did you have girlfriends?
I only ever had one girlfriend really and when I come out I told her she would be the only woman I would ever have feelings for.
Was being gay something you were worried about? Did you go through the period of not wanting to be gay?
I did go through a period of not wanting to be gay. I always said that I accepted it but if I could change it I would. Now though, I wouldn’t change it. I love being gay and how gender stereotypes aren’t enforced in the gay community. I also like who I am, I’m a nice person and I think being gay is part of that person so I embrace it.
Who were your gay role models?
I didn’t have any gay role models really. I’ve more just taken inspiration from people off all orientations to be a better person.
A lot of people go through dark times when they are struggling to come to terms with their sexuality – did you?
I didn’t really struggle too hard with it. My mum’s best friend growing up was gay. I knew she would be supportive and wouldn’t be anything but the loving mum she had always been. My dad was the exact same. He had no problems at all with me being gay and was actually a big part of me finding acceptance and loving who I was as a gay man.
Who was the person you were most worried to tell. Why?
I was most worried about telling my big brother. I couldn’t even bring myself to telling him myself. He was surrounded by people that would have made life difficult for him and slagged him off for having a gay brother. He found it really difficult at first but his opinion changed and he would even come to pride with me. My big brother passed away in September 2013 and just before he passed away he was even working a few shifts in a gay bar. He was a great man.
Who was the first person you told what were the reactions?
The first person I told was a friend. Her reaction was to come out herself and tell me how proud she was of me. The love I felt from her actually left me feeling excited to tell other people.
How did your family take it?
My family are amazing, my brothers and sisters grew up just knowing I was gay and that it was perfectly normal. My granny was so good too. She came to pride to support me one year and one time asked me why I never brought any boyfriends up to see her.
How was being gay at school?
Not really. I feel bad that it’s mostly more feminine men who are the victims of homophobia. People would say to me, ‘we know you’re gay but you wouldn’t be able to tell’. At first I was grateful for that but now I feel that it’s an insult. It just feeds stereotypes. Gay men come in all different shapes and sizes and can be masculine, feminine or whatever they want to me and shouldn’t be judged for it.
Did you throw yourself into the scene?
I love the gay scene. I love the proper sense of community and the support that LGBT+ people give one another. I love meeting people of all genders and all orientations living how they want and loving who they want.
Are you fussy when it comes to guys?
I am quite fussy, especially when it comes to someone’s openness. I can’t tolerate people that are closed-minded.
Have you ever fallen for someone and they’ve not been into you?
All the time. I fall in love about every other day. I really wear my heart on my sleeve and just give myself to people fully. It’s probably off-putting but that’s just me and I don’t want to change that.
Have you ever experienced any homophobia?
I have, it’s something that’s particularly distressing when it comes from our own community. I’ve heard loads of gay men talking negatively about lesbians and a lot of people being biphobic. I always challenge it.
How do you normally meet guys – apps or thru friends?
I normally meet guys in person, because I work in a bar at the weekends we get to see quite a lot of people. That’s how I’ve got most of my dates the past two years.
I used to volunteer in an LGBT+ drop-in centre in Derry called the rainbow project so I was always quite clued in to sexual health and have always been quite insistent about safer sex. I also have a few friends who are positive though and know how stigmatised HIV still is. It’s good for people to properly educate themselves on STI’s.
Are you Kai still seeing each other?
Unfortunately not. Life got in the way for me and Kai. We both had work and uni commitments and lived too far apart to properly commit to one another. It’s a real shame because he’s a beautiful human being inside and out.
What do you look for in the perfect guy?
Physical attraction normally is what gets my initial attention but unless that person has a caring humane side to them I lost interest pretty quick. A sense of humour is always a bonus.
If you were to write a lonely hearts article who would you describe yourself to men?
Tourettes would definitely be mentioned in the headline. But I would include that I’m a funny Irish man with a big heart who has a lot of love and laughter to share with people.