After she flashed her hairy armpits for the ITV cameras, an overwhelming 80% of the viewers in a live vote said they were shocked by the idea of a woman who doesn’t shave under her arms or legs.
Yet Emer is not alone.
At the Golden Globes in 2010, on the red carpet, Precious star Mo’Nique Nique happily showed off her woolly legs.
“I’m 42 and very hairy,” she said. “I tried shaving one time and it was so uncomfortable that I said never again. [But my husband] Sid loves the hairy legs, so there you go.”
When Hollywood star Julia Roberts graced the red carpet for the premiere of the film Notting Hill in 1999, the world gasped.
It wasn’t her shimmering Vivenne Tam dress that sent the paparrazi into a spin — it was her unshaven underarms.
Responding to the uproar, the 44 year-old simply shrugged: “On a day-to-day basis, I don’t think about my armpits.”
More than ten years on, not so the average Irish woman — 84% of whom confess to feeling more confident fuzz-free, according to a recent survey by Gillette.
As a typically dark-haired, fair-skinned 20-something Irish woman, I’ve tried everything from shaving to waxing, threading to epilation and laser hair removal to restrain my inner Yetti.
Never mind the pain, with the most basic bikini wax starting from e20, it’s the thought of how much I’ve spent on defuzzing over the past 15 years that really makes my eyes water.
With the recession biting deep, many businesses have been forced to shut their doors for good — but on Dublin’s South William Street, things are going smoothly for the newly opened Wax in the City.
“Irish women are definitely still spending money on themselves,” says beautician Marjorie Cusack, who owns the unisex salon specialising in waxing.
“My own fashion business in Limerick closed down due to the recession — but since Wax in the City opened three weeks ago, we’ve been really busy.
“So while they may not be buying the new dress, they’re still splashing out on beauty treatments such as professional waxing.”
Around the same time that Roberts’ piliferous pits hit headlines, TV show Sex and the City showed Carrie Bradshaw — played by Sarah Jessica Parker — getting an extreme ‘Brazilian’ bikini wax.
And the rest, says Cusack, is history.
“Ten years ago, most Irish women went for a classic Californian wax to tidy up their bikini line,” says Marjorie.
“Over the years, though, girls here have gotten braver — and now the ‘Brazilian’) which leaves a ‘landing strip’) and the ‘Hollywood’ (which removes all pubic hair) are among our most popular treatments.
“I think it’s a generational thing — clients in their 20s generally get more off than those in their 30s and beyond. There’s a perception that the Brazilian is sexual, but that’s not necessarily the case — women themselves seem to prefer it.”
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, 39, seems to have been converted after a trip to J.Sisters international salon, the New York establishment credited with creating the Brazilian — reportedly leaving a signed photo scrawled: “You changed my life.”
Actress Jennifer Love Hewitt, 33, confessed to going one step further.
“After a break-up, a friend of mine Swarvoski-crystalled my ‘precious lady’. I loved it — I walked around for a week feeling very special and nobody knew why. It looked like a disco ball down there,” Jennifer said.
But it’s not just women who want to go hair free.
“We’ve got lots of male clients,” says manager Marjorie, of Wax and the City. “A few go for a ‘Hollywood’ — but most just get their back, neck and shoulders done.”
Other lads here stick to shaving — and not just their face. “I went bald in my early 20s, but the damn thing still grows where I don’t want it,” says Paul, 35, an IT worker from Dublin.
“I hate my ‘shoulder minge’, so I get my girlfriend to help me shave it about once a fortnight.
“I’d definitely consider laser hair removal, but I don’t like the thought of waxing — I don’t know how girls do it.”
For top Irish model Tiffany Stanley, waxing is just a way of life.
“As someone who regularly models bikinis and lingerie, I need to look 100% smooth at all times,” says Tiffany, 24.
“I get waxed every three or four weeks and usually go for the full ‘Hollywood’ — although I haven’t tried a ‘vajazzle’ yet.
“To be honest, it’s pretty sore — but I’m happy to grin and bear it because I hate having any hair on my body, apart from my head. These days, it’s practically expected of you.”
It wasn’t always the case.
While the ancient Greeks and Egyptians traditionally rid themselves of body hair for cultural reasons, it wasn’t until the 1920s that new flesh-flashing fashion prompted women here to start shaving theirs. Almost a century on, a hair-free ideal of female beauty is ‘rooted’ in everything from music videos to fashion mags and porn movies.
“Over the years, pubic hair has gone from being the very least of a woman’s worries to a pretty routine part of ‘self-care’,” says Caitlin Moran, 37, a newspaper columnist and author of How to Be a Woman.
“When I was 17, the idea of waxing your bikini line was for porn models only.
“Now, the industry-standard pop-video crotch shots of girls in bikinis make it very clear: there should be nothing there.
“It is now accepted that women will wax,” she says. “We never had a debate about it — it just happened.
“While some use the euphemism ‘Brazilian’, I prefer to call it what it is: a ruinously high-maintenance, itchy, cold-looking child’s fanny.
“Personally, I believe a grown woman should have a proper muff.”
And she’s not alone.
Just as women ‘burned’ their bras in the 1970s, now they’re binning their razors in response to the societal pressure to look prepubescent.
Last December, feminist activists across the pond took part in the first ever ‘muff march’ to protest against the rise in ‘designer vagina’ surgery and extreme bikini waxing.
It’s a trend that dermatologists are sure to approve of. “With continued shaving, the abrasive effect of the razor can lead to redness, irritation, ingrown hairs and folliculitis (inflammation of hair follicles),” says Dr Peter Prendergast, who is the medical director of Venus Medical in Dublin.
“Similarly, depilatory creams contain chemicals — including calcium and sodium thioglycolate — which can cause contact allergic dermatitis.”
“Waxing is a popular hair removal method,” he says, “but there have been some medical case reports of hot-wax burns and genital infection following Brazilian waxing.
“And while laser has revolutionised hair removal in recent years, burns can also occur if the wrong laser or wrong setting is used — so only go to a medical clinic to get it done.”
In spite of the cost, discomfort and even health dangers associated with its removal, it remains to be seen if many Irish women will dare to bear body hair like Emer O’Toole this summer.
For me, it’s a vicious cycle — having become so used to being fuzz-free, it feels alien to cultivate a lawn on my legs.
To paraphrase the Pringles jingle: Once you crop, you can’t stop.
My friends agree: “Although part of me resents the amount of defuzzing I put myself through, I’m so used to it now that it feels weird if I let it grow back,” says secondary school teacher Helen, 30, from Dublin.
“Personally, I shave partly for myself — but mostly because I couldn’t handle the stick if it got out that I was hairy,” says flatmate Sarah, 29. “Just look at Julia Roberts.”