From Eamon to Ross, and finally to Rebecca
Model agent Rebecca De Havalland's life has been one of extremes, writes Antonia Leslie
I'M SITTING with Rebecca De Havalland, in her office. Bright, homely, slightly zany but tasteful decor. This is a model agency and three of her girls are buzzing round, discussing photos, making tea and making me feel at home. "We all sing from the same 'hymen' sheet here... we all talk about things together." Rebecca smiles.
"I know that if there was something wrong with Emma-Louise here, she'd ring me, wouldn't you?" Emma-Louise, a pretty redhead, nods and hands me a cup of tea. "I specialise in individuality, that's why the girls get on.
"I've been in the fashion industry from the age of 15. I started in hairdressing, winning 'hairdresser of the year' while working for David Marshall. I did loads of photo shoots and won the 'Face of the Eighties', it's in my DNA.
"Then I was asked by Grace O'Shaughnessy to do a bit of male modelling. Back in the day there weren't many male models, and it wasn't that I was stunning but I was top male model here. So I know what it's like to be employed by agents and I know what it's like to wait for money.
"I remember being with one agency, I was hair and make-up artist mainly, but I remember looking at my invoices and I was actually owed 15 grand and I was walking round the streets of Dublin, going on Go-Sees and I was eating popcorn because that's all I could afford."
Being hungry and going on Go-Sees weren't Rebecca's only woes back in the Eighties. For Rebecca -- now a 53-year-old successful businesswoman, running De Havalland Model Agency, presenting on NV TV in Belfast, and writing her beauty column in Suburbia magazine -- was born Eamon Tallon, "the second child and first son of a middle-class family in Granard, Co Longford.
"I'm often asked when did I realise I was a girl. I always knew I was a girl. It had nothing to do with thought; there was no process of realisation."
Rebecca has written a book about her life, His Name is Rebecca, and was the subject of a recent RTE Would You Believe documentary. After watching the documentary and reading about her life, all I can say is: what a life!
Rebecca suffered horrendous sexual abuse as a child by two members of a religious order, a broken home, then rose to celebrity status in the Eighties, to vision, glamour, marriage at 22 and fathering a child, alcohol abuse, heroin and crack addiction, falling into the pits of despair and nearly losing her life on quite a few occasions, rape, and working in London as an escort. She was a madam in a male brothel in Amsterdam, became Ireland's first sex change subject 22 years ago and finally found peace, contentment and redemption.
What made her agree to do the documentary?
"Oh, my good friend Mary McEvoy had done it and suggested to me that I'd be a great for it, because of my enduring faith in Our Lady. I didn't know much about it. I didn't realise quite what I was getting into. I went into it quite innocently."
Innocence is a theme that runs through Rebecca's life, for despite a tale that would make most good Christian Irish mammies' hair stand on end, Rebecca seems to have retained an endearing innocence, a vulnerability, a trust in people.
"Shooting the documentary, we went to Granard and the whole experience, reliving it all, well, it was a bit harrowing."
There is a defining moment in the documentary where Rebecca stands in a spot in London where she had her final realisation of just how low she had sunk; she was barely alive in every sense.
"In the documentary, I saw myself, my reflection in a window, it was back when I was five-and-a-half stone and I was explaining to the crew that it was all there again. I just broke down and even then I was trying to control it because of the camera crew being there, but inside I was screaming, and that was it, back to that moment, I was hanging on to life by a thread."
Rebecca was in the depths of her drug use and had sunk to her darkest hour, standing on this corner waiting for anyone to pick her up, buy her a drink or give her a fix, and later she was put on a life- support machine in hospital. And here she is with me now, remembering these moments, yet again.
"Back then during all that stuff, I would have moments like now, where my past would flash before me... My model agency, being the hair stylist to Johnny Logan in Dusseldorf when he won the Eurovision, being on the winning team ... being Ross... such extremes. I'll never stand on that f**king street corner ever again!"
She laughs now. "Then there I was, sitting in the Bad Ass cafe last Sunday night watching that moment again, and you could hear a pin drop. I was so compelled, it was like watching someone else's life. I was surrounded by friends and so all I could do was look at the screen, there was nowhere else to look, and after everyone just stood up and clapped and I actually accepted the round of applause, almost deservingly, for the first time I thought, I agree here..! But if I had been watching it alone, at home, I'd be hating myself!
"It's funny, because the thing I found the most shocking was that some of my family, young cousins, all sitting watching it at home, never knew anyone but Rebecca. They've seen one or two photos of Ross but they've never seen him live, a Ross that moved and talked. And my voice has changed, my voice was really deep as Ross."
I make an observation. "You were Eamon as a child, up until you were 16, then Ross, but Ross was a kind of invention. You became this whole new person, living as Ross, and when you finally became Rebecca, in a way a new person again, this third person was the real you. Ross seems to be the least real you. Much less so than Rebecca or even Eamon."
"Yes exactly. Ross was the bridge between Eamon and Rebecca, but Ross wasn't really a human being. Rebecca has more traits of Eamon.
"Louis Walsh used to slag me off and we'd be sitting there and he'd be, 'Alright Eamon?' I would get into a huge bad mood. Ross was this bleached blond, really in-your-face guy, whereas Eamon was a big doe-eyed, brown-haired boy. Eamon became Ross when I was 16 and working in the hair salon. They changed my name there; I was devastated.
"But now I love the name Rebecca, it's Biblical. It means 'bound' and it means 'strong'."
I ask her about her faith. "Well, people always say, 'Oh, I never knew you were so religious,' and I say, it's not that I'm religious, it's that I have an affinity with Our Lady.
"As a child my granny did most of the rearing and I couldn't confide in her that I was in the wrong body. My mum would appear in very chic clothes, down from Dublin, and I'd be in awe but I couldn't really talk to her.
"There was this gable room in the house and there was a statue of Our Lady in the room. Most kids have imaginary friends, I had a statue of Our Lady to confide in. I'd tell her everything, all my secrets. She listened to me and she didn't condemn me. I went into that room a lot, especially after my sister's communion, I was devastated. My communion was the following year and I knew I'd never be able to wear a dress like hers. They kept that dress in a trunk in the gable room and I used to sneak in and try it on. So there was this special thing between me and Our Lady."
Rebecca pauses. "My family was made up of strong women -- my father left when I was very young, there was only my uncle. But that's not it. I was born this way."
I ask her something I've wanted to ask for a while now. "This might be a stupid question, but is it very painful? The operation?"
"It's not a stupid question," she reassures me.
"It is, but the pain beforehand is far worse -- and no matter what they prepare you for before, there's nothing to prepare you for the after effects. Physically, mentally and emotionally. I do things differently, emotionally now.
"And now I'm 53, I live in Granard, I drive home, go in to SuperValu and I'm just treated like anybody else. The local people, they don't care if I'm in 9-inch heels or whatever, they just love me. People there in Granard have told me since the documentary that they are actually proud of me, which for me is hard to fathom."
At the beginning of Rebecca's book there a page that reads: "Let's get one thing straight. I'm not gay. I'm not a transvestite. I'm commonly called transgender ... If you insist on a label, I'm medically classified as Gender Identity Dysphoria. A third gender. But ... I am a woman ... I love my family, my daughter, my granddaughter ... I love my many friends, my dogs, my home ... I love my work and I'm bloody good at what I do ... I'm Irish and consider myself a good citizen... I am a Christian ... I live and breathe and love and laugh just like you ... I have been to Hell and back. Survived ... I am me ... "