(originally published on February 26, 2018)
Back in 2007, I bought an episode of MTV’s True Life series called I’m Supporting My Family. One of the people featured was a remarkable woman named Unique Irish. Throughout the episode, Unique showed a kind of courage, strength, and selflessness that left me in complete awe of her.
My fascination with Unique began right away. The situation she was in was unlike anything I had ever seen. At that point in time, her mother had tragically taken her own life, and Unique made the loving decision to take custody of her three teenage sisters while already raising her then three-year-old son as a single mother.
As the episode progressed, we watched Unique struggle to pay her family’s bills, put food on the table, and still be able to maintain a social life. Unique stated in the beginning of the episode that her sister, Cassie, was pregnant at that time and her boyfriend was also living with them, which I didn’t see as a problem. As long as Unique was OK with it, then so was I.
The episode was pretty much a roller coaster. It seemed like every time Unique would get a break, there would be another setback. At one point in time, she made the difficult decision to return to stripping in addition to her full-time job in order to help her expanding family. I found this to be admirable. While many, many others felt the same way, there were sadly too many people that placed way too much judgment on her sisters (including her sister’s boyfriend). I found this to be very sad. What people don’t realize when we watch a reality show is that we’re only getting a small peek into their lives, not the whole story.
Several years ago, I found Unique on Facebook and sent her a friend request. To my excitement, she accepted! Over the years, we’ve been able to have small conversations here and there. I always found her to be very sweet and quite humble. Once again, I was in complete awe and admired her strength more than ever.
Recently, I reached out to her hoping to not only to hear her life story but also what her life has been like since MTV did an update on her. I was thrilled when she said yes! I sent her some questions and I was deeply moved by her answers. I always knew that Unique was a very wise and strong woman, and reading her answers only confirms what I’ve already believed.
Here is my interview with Unique Irish. Trust me, you’re going to love this!
1. What was your life like growing up? Did you have a normal or difficult childhood? Please don’t feel pressured to share anything you don’t feel comfortable with.
My childhood was pretty amazing in a lot of ways but can look pretty tragic on paper. My mother struggled deeply with addiction and mental illness, she suffered more than most I think. She had a very rough childhood herself which I now believe stunted her ability to be a successful productive adult. She had many holes to fill, but she was also funny, brilliant, artistic and genuine. People gravitated towards her because she was so amazing. We moved a lot when I was little, always looking for an easier life in the perfect place. For most of my childhood, we were sort of modern day gypsies, traveling and staying with train tramps. They have the best stories by the way. Often residing in cars, shelters, tramp camps and squatting in condemned houses, sometimes we would settle in for awhile until we couldn’t afford the rent anymore. At that point, we would pack up the car and drive away. We begged for money with a sign that said: “will work for food.” We call that workin’ the sign. There were many years of abuse, neglect and incredible adventures. It sounds sad and was scary at times, but it provided a bond between our family that is completely unbreakable and an experience with everlasting lessons. My mother had 6 children, my 2 older siblings were raised by their Dad on the East Coast, which is where we originated. My three little sisters were born across the states along our travels like pins on a map. We were forced to use our imaginations, be resourceful and adaptable. It allowed us the ability to survive anything. We interacted with such a diverse group of people that we learned about all kinds of cultures, belief systems, and personalities from one extreme to the next. As a result, I think we are really empathetic and grateful. I wouldn’t trade a moment of it.
2. I remember you said in your “True Life” episode that you had a little bit of independence before your mother tragically took her life. How difficult was the transition going from being a college student/single mom to moving back home and taking custody of your three sisters?
Our family was very close even before my Mom died. There wasn’t a day that we weren’t together those last couple of years. I had moved out with my 2-year-old son but lived just up the road for about a year before she died. There was no transition really. It was one foot in front of the other, one day at a time. In my mind, there was never a chance I would consider them not living with me. There was talk of my elders splitting them up and taking them back to different states but the conversation was ended immediately. We were staying together, where they go I go and vice versa. The girls filled a couple bags up of their favorite things and moved into my 2 bedroom house. Within a month I moved into a 4 bedroom and quit school to work fulltime. We worked as a team to make it through. We helped each other stay strong.
3. Sadly, too many people misunderstand suicide and think of it as “cowardly” and/or “selfish” without considering what the person who took their own life was going through. Do you feel like people who watched your episode were too quick to judge your Mother?
I think suicide can bring out a lot of different emotions for different people, just as people commit suicide for different reasons. Perspectives, belief systems, and personal experiences play a big part in how people view suicide. We can’t help but to judge especially when we think our judgment may somehow sooth or unite the survivor. I was angry at my Mom for a long time. I felt betrayal and abandonment. Thankfully, in my experience that gave way to a profound realization…I tried to imagine how she was feeling at that moment. In doing so I had to set my resentment down to fill my arms with the weight HER pain. My Mom loved us so much, I have no doubt she would have done anything for us. Nothing was more important to her than us, no matter how broken she was she carried us all. She tried her very best, I KNOW that…so can you imagine what immeasurable agony she felt to ignore her love for us? That was a life changer for me. For years my Mom was fighting every day. She got her ass kicked over and over and the woman still got up every time. That poor woman. That poor strong beautiful scared girl. I am so deeply humbled by how long she lasted fighting those demons for us. She is stronger than anyone I have ever met. People tend to focus on her end, but I am in awe of her fight. My Mother was far from a coward, she was incredible, brave and strong. People are welcome to their opinions, they hold no value against my beliefs.
4. How were you all able to heal as a family after your Mom’s passing?
Healing is on a personal basis. We had had different emotions after my Mom passed. Some of us forgave sooner than others, some of us maybe never will. It was important to me that we were accepting of each other’s grieving process. We stay honest about our memories. We celebrate the good times and retell the stories every chance we get. We laugh and cry and talk and listen. Every day we heal, and sometimes the wound is cut open. We will heal together for the rest of our lives. And that’s ok.
5. How did you end up on True Life? Did you respond to a casting call?
I was living in Missoula and working fulltime at a call center and fulltime as an exotic dancer at night. I was on public assistance and barely getting my bills paid. I was really struggling as a 20-year-old single Mom of 3 teenagers and a toddler. One day my food stamp card didn’t reload…I went into the office and my case manager explained that I made $30 over the income limit. We were both shocked. She apologized profusely and vowed to find some kind of grant or program that could help us. It was very kind and generous of her. We used the food bank on a regular basis and was on every list available. About a week later she had me sign a release of info for a vague program she heard about, 3 days later she left me an enthusiastic voicemail, almost screaming IT WAS MTV TRUE LIFE, they are going to call you, GOOD LUCK!!! Now listen Sarah, I am a 90s girl. MTV was everything growing up. I didn’t believe this was happening. A couple of days later I get a voicemail from a lady named Alex stating she had heard about my situation and was very interested in hearing more about our life. I couldn’t believe it. I called the number back convinced that it was some seriously elaborate prank. It rang, a lady answered “MTV”…I almost dropped the phone. I said my name is Unique, someone recently left me a message??…it was Alex, one of the producers of the show. She was expecting my call, put me on a group call with another producer Matt and they just started asking me questions. They were very kind, patient, curious and gentle. By the end of the call, they asked if they could come meet us. 5 days later what was supposed to be a “test shot” became the first day of consistent filming on and off for about 3 months. Matt the producer was also our cameraman and quickly became a good friend. It was a struggle for him to have to just watch things happen and not help us, it was hard for me to see him feel so helpless over our troubles. That’s when I realized it was ok to show people who we were. People needed to know, they needed to be reminded to be grateful and loyal and brave. It was a good feeling. I have no doubt he was a different man after spending that much time with us. We tend to rub off on people lol.
6. Were you happy with the way you and your family were portrayed or did you feel like things were edited unfairly?
I get asked that a lot actually. To be very honest, they did a good job. The only things I experienced that were ‘staged’ was sometimes we would be talking and a car would drive by and he would have me repeat something. Or when we went in or out of a building or car, you had to do it twice. I also think that they chose to only use clips of my sisters being bratty. Don’t get me wrong, they were teenage girls, but they were much more than that. They were good girls, they were funny, helpful, insightful and extremely genuine. With that being said I understand they were trying to show me parenting them, and well you don’t really flex the mom muscles when they are being angels right…I just wish people knew how much they contributed to our success. People don’t think about the fact that while I worked 2 jobs, my sisters were working together to watch my son and keep the house running. They also worked hard in school and continued getting good grades regardless of our instability and chaos. They also carried themselves with dignity far beyond their years, even after the whole high school had watched their sister stripping on MTV. My sister held their heads high and continued to be proud of who they were.
7. What’s been the biggest misconception people have gotten about you and/or your family after the show?
Hahha oh man, I still, almost 10 years later, get people from all over the world message me on facebook. I love it! I love to connect and encourage these beautiful people. It’s such a liberating feeling to connect with someone that truly knows how you feel. Now that’s the good part… unfortunately some people have the misconception that I am rich? Famous? And that I might be able to get them on MTV, like I got a shoe in and can call them up and say ‘hey, this girl is real cool, go make her famous!’ Its a really awkward situation to be in for me. I would probably be considered middle-class low income. We still struggle like everyone but we are more stable than we ever have been. I super-duper-absolutely-not-on-our-best-month could I afford to send a stranger money, no matter how much I wish I could. And to have to say no, breaks my heart. I am not famous. I get recognized sometimes and respond like a total nervous weirdo. I usually act like an idiot about it. Luckily it’s not very often. Online I have a pretty amazing audience and really enjoy interacting this them. People are amazing. They just want love and hope.
I do not know ANYONE at MTV. I don’t even know how the casting call was found. My producers were independent contractors.
There is also the misconception that my sisters were spoiled and lazy. Just not true. They were teenage girls, based on that alone, they were angels compared to the other girls their age. They were really patient with me, considering I was a terrified teenager myself, desperate to do everything right while not knowing how to do a god damn thing. Imagine your big sister all of a sudden becoming your #1 constant boss of everything. Now she gets to ground you and take your favorite things away? She controls how you dress, who your friends are and what music you listen to? Poor girls, lol, they were tough cookies! I was overprotective, stubborn and had very high expectations of them. They exceed every single one.
8. When MTV did an update, you seemed to be in a good place. I know you’ve had another beautiful son since then as well. How are you and your family doing today?
We are doing really great! We live in Boise. Cassie has 4 beautiful children now, 3 girls and a boy. They moved back to Montana a few years ago and just moved into a really great house near my Granny Marge. She is a very talented cosmetologist. Her 3 daughters are the most perfect children, they are so happy and smart and engaging. Her son is the biggest Momma’s boy! They all have white/blonde hair and just run around like little rays of sunshine. You cant help but be happy when you are around them. That really says something about Cassie, don’t you think? Evie lives just a couple blocks away from me with her daughter and boyfriend. She is an amazingly energetic stay at home mom during the day. Her daughter is brilliant and just the sweetest little girl that loves nature just as much as her parents. They live a very active lifestyle, hiking, hot springing and camping often. She also works as a cocktail waitress at a country bar. People adore her, she really brightens the lives of everyone around her. Its the perfect job for her at this time. Jayme and her daughter live at home with us. Its a dream for me, if I could have kept all my sisters at home forever I would have. She is the only one that finally caved and let me keep her for a while longer lol. Jayme is such a devoted mother, she plays and educates her kiddo every second of the day. Her little girl is the most articulate 2 year old I have ever met. She is also our babysitter and does most of the cooking these days, she is an incredible cook! She is probably my best friend. Stephen and I have been married 10 years this May. He is an insanely hardworking man, he provides for us all and is such a family man. He is a saint. Definitely the best partner a woman could ever ask for. He still gets me a single rose on the 13th of every month in honor of our first date. Such a romantic! We had a son 7 years ago, Grady Elvis Danger Irish, and if you think his name is cool, oh boy wait until you meet him! He is so intelligent and intuitive. He is hilarious without trying, extremely honest and has quite the vocabulary. He is entirely, unapologetically his own person. For his 7th birthday, we let him dread his long curly hair. I have never seen him so proud. My oldest boy Niki is 15 now! He is at least a foot taller than me, outweighs me by 30 pounds and is loving high school. He is the sweetest, kindest, most pure boy. He is incredibly empathic and caring. He loves video games, sports and just started dating. I am not worried one bit, he is going to be very successful in this life. He has such a great attitude about life and the people in it. My adopted brother Carey lives with us also. He came over about 2 years ago from Montana. He is the perfect addition to our family. He is very helpful and supportive and is a good role model for the boys. The babies just adore him and of course, Niki idolizes him. Between Stephen, Niki and Carey ALLLLL the man chores get done lol. Never will a lid be stuck again!!
9. This is a bit of a weird question so I hope you don’t mind, but would you ever consider writing a book about your life as well as your time on MTV? I would buy it in a second and I believe it would help many people!
I have been writing a book the last couple of years. It’s really hard. Emotionally it is extremely taxing, I end up being pretty incapacitated for a few weeks after writing for just a couple of days in a row. Its one thing to tell someone about your life, you can use facial expressions, humor and vocal changes to kind of soften the blow for them. When you are writing it in black and white, it just is what it is. Painful, dirty and bare. I also lack the ability to write it like a book. Right now it is just a straight rundown of memories from birth on. I had looked for a writer to help me for a little while, but it turns out writers are very busy and expensive, making it really hard to find someone I could connect with and trust to speak in my own words.
10. What advice do you have for anyone either wanting to appear on True Life or on a reality show at all?
I didn’t go out and do it for myself so I am not sure how all that works. I would definitely recommend True Life, I was nervous as I had read the horror stories of bad editing online, but they were amazing. They were very true to our life, forgive the pun. I would suggest doing a lot of research on the show, watch the episodes, look up reviews and testimonies of people that have been featured. Ask yourself if you are ok with what is portrayed, how honest you can be and how it will affect your life and the lives of the people around you. Also, keep your expectations realistic. For example, True Life is a documentary series, they do not pay you to participate. You also do not own any rights to the footage. That was never an issue for me, but I think some people go in with the hopes of some kind of payout.
11. Speaking of reality TV, do you like to watch that genre at all or does it hit too close to home for you? Are there any particular shows you like to watch?
I love tv, I am a binge watcher for sure. Netflix gives me life! I am a big big fan of a few different reality series, particularly Rupaul’s Drag Race, Project Runway, Ink Master, Face Off and Skin Wars. I LOVE body art and costuming. It just fascinates and thrills me, I am constantly in awe, the genius of creativity is so empowering! I love those shows for an inspirational boost. Mama Ru is everything, Tim Gunn is my human spirit animal and people are by far my favorite canvas.
12. What are some career paths you are passionate about that you would like to one day pursue?
I currently work in the photography industry as a creative director and master fabricator. I do a lot of conceptual body art, theatrical makeup, and wardrobe/prop fabrications. For example, I once made an 8-foot tall stilt walker into a phoenix with 6 foot wide wings. I transformed 10 people into Vikings, 8 people into film worthy pirates and once worked on a project completely devoted to the original sketches and watercolors of Tim Burton. I love what I do, my kids always have the best Halloween costumes every year! However, Idaho does not have proper laws, certifications or licensing for people like me. It’s not a “movie” state, so our laws and regulations are very close-minded. This really limits what I am legally allowed to do. I have a very small window of opportunity in the theatrical arts in which my art is permissible. It’s extremely frustrating. I would love to see this change so that I can really challenge myself and push to my highest potential. I would love for my art to be my career. I feel really confident what I have to offer will be well received and beneficial to my family. In order to do so I would have to go back to school and get licensed in a field I do not wish to work in. This is still such a selfish dream for me that I haven’t been able to justify the time and money required to make it happen. Eventually, the right time will come. I am researching my options often and feel really grateful and honored to get to do what I do. Its awesome for now. I think art is a universal superpower. It’s amazing to realize you can make, do or be ANYTHING regardless of what you have and where you are or came from. You can express things that you didn’t know you were capable of. I hope to inspire people. To fight, to push, to believe, to challenge, to be brave.
You are fully capable and worthy. I want people to believe that.
13. Looking forward, especially going into 2018, what are your biggest hopes and dreams for both yourself and your family?
I hope we travel a lot more this year. I have had the chance to see many new places in the last few months, both with and without my family. I would love to do a lot more of that. It’s in our blood, we just really love it. It’s an experience we all want to share with our children as it was so impactful to how we grew up. We have been planning a road-trip to the Red Woods in California. The forest of the giants was one of my most fondest childhood memories, to be so small next to something so big was truly magical. We are all really looking forward to that for our kids, I have no doubt that our babies will be just as close as we were.
Thank you so much, Unique! Your story has touched me greatly and I’m excited that you agreed to share your heartwarming journey with us all. I can honestly say that you have already made many of us that have seen your story proud and I have no doubt that you will continue to inspire people for years to come. You have a bright future ahead of you, and have accomplished so much already!