Erin O’Connor’s down to earth, Irish roots have served her well. Esther McCarthy meets the unassuming supermodel in Dublin
Erin O’Connor has a vivid memory of the first time her photograph appeared in print. It was not while posing in exotic Versace for the cover of Vogue, or while modelling on the catwalk with supermodel pals like Naomi Campbell or Kate Moss.
“It was dressed as a leprechaun!” she laughs at the recollection.
“At school, one of my first starring roles was as a leprechaun.
“I remember wearing this brown woollen beard that my mum made me, complete with pointy green hat and pointy green feet.
“It was my first ever published picture and it was in a newspaper called the Express and Star in 1982. I have it in a frame.”
The anecdote is both a nod to her Irish heritage and a sign of how down-to-earth O’Connor remains in an industry where it would surely be easy to have your head turned.
When we meet at a Dublin hotel, she is warm, wise and talkative, with a hearty laugh that belies those striking, fine-boned features which have made hers one of the most iconic faces in fashion.
A vocal supporter of young people and models new to their trade, it comes as no surprise that she’s supporting ISPCC Childline and Vodafone Ireland’s rather funky new ‘Headbomz’ initiative.
The national awareness campaign and schools’ programme aims to get children talking, reinforcing the idea that talking - to a friend, relative, teacher or Childline - can make you stronger.
“There’s a kind of anarchic feel to it. It’s kind of gory and fun.
“It’s a visual, a stimulation, and if that gets them talking then that’s absolutely perfect,” she says of the campaign.
O’Connor has previous when it comes to supporting young people both within and beyond her industry. She’s been involved in establishing a models’ union, in protecting young models in the business, and in challenging the fashion industry’s dependence on unachievable and unrealistic body ideals.
“I think it’s a huge, big deal to be asked to promote something so publicly when you’re still forming yourself in mind and body,” she says.
“The double whammy there is that other women and men are going to be influenced by something that’s completely unobtainable, and unrealistic. I just felt they needed to have more time to form themselves. To know their own boundaries instead of having them inadvertently imposed on them.
“The children we’re hoping to reach out to in Childline are obviously smaller, but I think the pressure to grow up now has never been so acute.”
When they proudly cut out her first photo from the local paper, little could O’Connor or her family have known she would go on to become one of the most photographed women in the world.
For 23 years, she has navigated and succeeded in a notoriously tough industry, marching to her own beat in a way that only endeared herself to clients, designers and the public even more.
As part of a family of four raised in suburban Birmingham to parents who had both emigrated from Northern Ireland, she is extremely proud of her heritage. While she loved looking at top models like Naomi and Christy in teenage magazines with her sisters, the glamour of modelling seemed a world away for the unassuming youngster.
“I was very shy, I still am. But as a child I was very timid, and a real worrier. I find it very interesting that you can be born to the same parents but your temperament is laid out for you at birth. We’re all unbelievably different,” she says of her family.
“I grew up in England but in a very Irish community. We were an extension, I guess, of the youngsters who came from Ireland in the 1960s and 70s and landed in Liverpool or Birmingham, the cities of trade, to get work. My dad was one of them.
“It was a fascinating childhood because on the one hand it was very concrete out the front window, then out the back it was rolling fields and church spires. It was at odds with itself, really.
“There were loads of kids, Irish, overflowing. There was chatter and singing. We went to Catholic school, that was our identity as we knew it.
“I don’t think there was any particular real focus in concentrating on appearance.
“We loved the joy of going to ballet and tap. We were aware of and influenced by the whole supermodel era but it was via the pages of teenage magazines.”
Was her background important to her?
“You get to realise the value of knowing who you are and where you began, certainly.
“I was always proud of my heritage, always happy to be different on the one hand, I just had to grow my voice a bit more.”
Life changed the day 17-year-old Erin was spotted by a model agency scout while at the Clothes Show at Birmingham’s NEC.
“She was just looking at me from different angles and then she approached me and that was it. I remember how exotic it was, she was just taking pictures of my face.
“I was quite conscious. I had big metal braces at the time. She had a mobile phone and said she would call my parents.
“I bombed it down to the next level and I queued up at the payphone. By the time I’d reached home she’d already called, there was an appointment arranged to see them in London and that was it. It was like landing on a different planet, coming to London.
“We spoke the same language but the culture and the attitudes were so different.
“Actually London prepared me. It almost enforced a confidence that wasn’t necessarily there. I sort of manufactured it very quickly.”
Her family were supportive of the move, not least because Erin was of the age where leaving home was likely anyway. I was 17. I would have gone on to uni, so it wasn’t so strange. I was prepared in my head in that sense. But I remember taking lots of tinned food, and getting lots of change in the form of 20p pieces so that I could call home. Which was an order, not a request!”
It took a couple of years of hard graft to establish herself, but her striking good looks quickly made her a catwalk regular, and it wasn’t long before she found herself among the women she had been reading about with her sisters at home. “My first big show was Versace in Milan. The girls that very same year that I had been pouring over in my teenage magazines, I was stood next to. Naomi Campbell, Helena and Kate and Amber and Linda. All of these extremely famous people.
“You know, I was 6’1”, with short shaved black hair.
“So I possibly didn’t look enticing, myself, in terms of them feeling comfortable to nurture me. They probably thought: ‘Who’s this then?!’
“In a way I kind of held my own. But maybe it’s testimony that I still have a relationship with those girls more than two decades later. What’s really encouraging is that we’re all still working.”
Now 39, she remains at the top of her game and manages work with motherhood after welcoming toddler Albert, her son with long-term love Stephen Gibson, into the world.
“I’m going to be 40 on my next birthday but it makes no odds, because I’m still doing the same work that I was when I was 19 or 20. I’m possibly doing a better job now because I’m more self-aware,” she reflects.
“I knew it (motherhood) would change my life immeasurably which is why, I think, I took my time. I am my own business so it’s up to me to make it work and keep it ticking over. So endless travel, never being settled anywhere was not conductive to the environment of being a good mummy. I’ve always thought that kids are amazing and I don’t underestimate the power of love and commitment that you have to give to them.
“I had Albert when I was 36 and I was ready, but also wildly naive. I think that serves as a protection. We learn to communicate all the time but then you have this little brand new human who is solely reliant on you being there, with them, for them, for the rest of their lives. And that’s quite profound, it’s kind of amazing.
“He has his own interests already. He has a far more lively social life than I do.”
For further information about Childline and Vodafone Ireland’s Headbomz initiative go to www.headbomz.ie
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