Alison Campbell, engaged to heralded sportsman Darren Clarke, is tall, blond and beautiful. And more importantly, she is a successful businesswoman in her own right, says Irene Feighan.
STANDING over 100 metres from the first hole at the Irish Open in Killarney this week, Alison Campbell immediately knows Darren Clarke has not hit the best of shots.
“I can tell by his body language,” she says. “If it’s a good shot he will immediately pick up the tee but if he’s not happy with it he will look into the distance after the ball.”
Alison has joined Darren’s family — including his father, sister, two sons and nephews — on the fairways and will follow her fiance’s every swing, chip and putt over the bank holiday weekend competition.
Tall, blond and strikingly beautiful, the one-time Miss Northern Ireland seems a perfect fit for celebrity girlfriend mould. Except she is no mere foil to a successful sportsman. As owner of one of the North’s most successful modelling agencies — Zoe Salmon from Blue Peter and Orlaith McAllister from Big Brother were once on her books — she has stayed at the top of a highly competitive business for 25 years.
And there’s more. In a classic inversion of the age-old trend of successful men dating much younger women, she is seven years older than Darren, who turns 43 next week.
Though warm and down to earth, she is reluctant to discuss the age gap when we meet at the club house on the first day of the Open.
“Age is really a number,” she says. “For the last 10 years I’ve never admitted my age — I stopped at 40.”
You can see why — she looks great and would easily be mistaken for a thirty-something. Was the age gap ever an issue for Darren?
“I don’t know, you would need to ask him about that,” she responds, kicking the question delicately to touch and diplomatically refusing to get caught up in limiting beliefs about age differences.
“My life couldn’t be better at the minute,” she says, steering the conversation back to the present. “I’ve met the most wonderful man, who is kind, generous, loving, funny, cheeky — keeps me on my toes. And I think we are a good match for each other.”
They got together in 2009 after fellow Ulsterman and golfing giant Graeme McDowell and one of Alison’s models set them up on a blind date. They met for dinner where, according to Darren, they got on “like the proverbial house on fire”. Thirteen months later, just before Christmas, he proposed on bended knee, producing a single rose and a rock of an engagement ring.
Darren has come a long and sometimes dark road since his wife Heather died in 2006 after a five-year battle with breast cancer. At the time their sons, Tyrone and Conor, were just seven and five years old.
Alison, who is divorced, also has two sons — Stuart, 22 and Philip 19. Her experience as a mum seems to have deepened their relationship from an early stage. “Alison spends a lot of time with the boys, they get on great with her,” Darren has told reporters.
Alison chooses her words carefully on this topic. “His boys are 10 years younger than mine — so everything that they are going through, every stage in their lives, I’ve also seen. I know what boys are like, I know what they are into what they are not into — computer games and sports — then girls come into the situation and going out,” she says, adding that they are “lovely, lovely boys”.
The couple also share a common geography, both were born in Co Tyrone. Alison’s family is from Strabane where her parents run a successful dairy farm (her dad has recently branched into horse breeding). Her mother was a nurse but quit when the children came along — Alison is the eldest of five.
“I was brought up in a strict Presbyterian family but there was lots of fun — my childhood revolved around showjumping and horses. My two brothers and two sisters represented Ireland in showjumping.”
Alison herself competed in the Dublin Horse Show as a teenager in the 1970s.
Her impressive business savvy was formed during the 11 years she worked for Ulster Bank in Belfast.
“I had applied to university to study maths but was accepted to join the Bank of Ulster before I got my A-level results. The lure of a salary at the end of every month compared to student life and having to do more studying appealed to me so I joined the bank.”
She won Miss Northern Ireland in 1982 and was swiftly moved into the bank’s public relations department.
“I was the face of Ulster Bank, I went around all the agricultural shows, I worked in their corporate hospitality — really glorified caravans serving teas and coffees. It was a great experience.”
Her mentor and early driving force was PR manager at the bank, the late John Kenny — an ex sergeant major in the Irish Guards.
“There were times when I could have run away he was such a hard task master. But he had the confidence in me that I probably didn’t have in myself and he pushed me out there.”
As a “hobby” she began organising the Miss Northern Ireland Competition in 1987. “I soon realised there might be a business opportunity there because there weren’t any real agencies in Belfast at time.”
She left the bank on October 31, 1990 and set up her business — Alison Campbell Modelling Agency — the next day. “I didn’t have any interim period, I just went from one to the other.”
It proved to be a good time to set up in the North — the boom had started — and after surviving the critical first three years — things “started to build up”.
In 1984 she married Arthur Campbell. Their first child Stuart was born three years later. He had just started school the September before she set up her own business. “It was a juggle. I was a one-man band then. I would put an answer machine with the message: ‘Sorry I’m on the phone at the moment’ while I was really running to pick him up from school.”
Her second son, Philip, was born in 1992. There was no luxury of maternity leave. “I left work on a Thursday and he was born the next day. I stayed in hospital for several days, came out and brought him straight to work with me the next day.”
She could have opted for a an easier life on the coffee morning circuit. Why is she so driven? “I always wanted to be independent. I didn’t want to be relying on someone else looking after me. And I always strive for success no matter what I do.
“At the time, I said ‘I’ve to prove to everyone I can do this; I’ve got to prove it to myself’. I had left a good pensionable job in the bank where I got paid at the end of every month and I moved into this scary world of self-employment.”
Arthur also had his own business but the combined pressures of two parents being self-employed proved too much. “We split up in 2004 — we just grew apart really. I got busier and busier and probably wrapped up in my own business. And I was becoming more and more successful.”
Her success has been hard won.
“Everything has to be right and if it’s not right then I’m not happy. And I think I’ve tried to instil that into the staff and models,” she says, adding that these high standards also apply to herself. “I’m very critical of myself. I hate making mistakes however if I do make a mistake, I put my hand up and say I have done wrong.”
The chill winds of recession are blowing into all sectors of business, but particularly vulnerable are advertising and PR budgets — the mainstay of her business.
“Two years ago, I had a very slack year, but things are starting to pick up. I’ve had to take note of what’s been happening in the whole economic climate and cut costs and always remember the bottom line and cut out unnecessary costs.”
Might she downsize now that she has met Darren?
“We’ve been together for over two years and I’ve managed to run the business. Darren needs some time to himself on tours — he doesn’t need me hanging round all the time. I do travel with him quite a bit and I was lucky enough to be at the British Open this year. It was a marvellous experience.”
When Darren is at home she stays with him in Portrush, where he has moved back to live with the boys following a 10-year stint in London. Otherwise, she stays at her own house in Belfast which is nearer her office.
“There are things you have to plan but with Darren’s schedule — when he won the open he hadn’t planned on travelling to the States but now he is — I’ve got to focus on what I’m doing rather than wondering where am I going to go with Darren.”
As two people in the public eye they much in common professionally.
“He is very supportive to me because when you run your own business you are on your own, you’ve got to make decisions. Darren’s involved in the world of sponsorship and marketing and PR and it’s a similar kind of thing. He is not intimidated by someone wanting to take my photograph. And it works both ways.”
Content with her life just as it is, she is not looking to set up a shopping channel or establish a global brand. “I am happy with where I am but I’m always open to business propositions (though the previous day she turned down a request from an advertising company to model lingerie.)”
I mention that I’d accidentally typed her name as Alison Clarke on a work document the previous day. It prompts the question: will she be changing her name when she gets married to Clarke? “I’ve already changed my name personally back to Smyth but people still know me as Campbell. I think to be respectful to Darren I would change my name to Clarke. I’ll still have the same initials though — AC.”
Framed against a backdrop of the majestic Macgillycuddy’s Reeks, Alison Campbell, nee Smyth and soon to be Clarke, is the picture of contentment.
“I am very happy that I’ve met Darren — I am going to spend the rest of my life with him. I don’t know when we’ll get married. We don’t have a date set, we don’t have a house built, but all those things will happen in time.”
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