My Favourite Room: A faithful reflection
She's lived in the same house for 35 years, Celia Holman-Lee tells Mary O'Sullivan, but her elegant home has evolved along with her life and tastes. Photography by Tony Gavin
Ask most people in Ireland what the best things about Limerick are, and they'd be hard put to name three without a prompt -- Pat Shortt might be first to spring to mind, then JP McManus, then, reaching back to the dim and distant past, they could dredge up the late Richard Harris, and finally they'd say something smart-assed such as, "The road out of it." However, ask anyone in the fashion and beauty business the same question and there wouldn't be a moment's hesitation -- the name Celia Holman-Lee would trip off each and every tongue with speed.
Everyone young and old in the business knows her -- no mean feat, considering her stomping ground is the much-maligned city on the Shannon. What's more, they respect and admire her. It's not just because the fabulous fiftysomething has been around for ever, or merely because she's a businesswoman with her well-established Celia Holman-Lee Model Agency, but it's also due to her great personal style, which she is constantly changing and evolving.
The secret to a successful life is, according to Celia, possessing the ability to change and adapt. She applies this principle to everything -- be it her business, managing models and running fashion shows, or her home, in which she has lived with her husband, Ger Lee, for the past 35 years, but which they have changed over time. Of course, the thing she has changed most of all is her own look: she adapts to every trend, though always retaining her own feline glamour. She is currently embracing body con, but she has done them all -- her 'Joan Collins in Dynasty' look was a highlight and led to her first TV appearance, which was on The Late Late Show -- she's embraced every craze since the Sixties, starting with the 'demure model' look when she first started out at the age of 15 in her home town.
"I was still at school: this lady, Anne Moloney, asked: 'Would you mind doing a little bit of modelling?' In those days, it was totally different: if you were a model, you had to be a model 24/7 -- the gloves, always in heels. Then I was asked: 'Is there anyone else like yourself?' That was the start of the agency. It's the longest-running agency in Ireland. I have it nearly 40 years," Celia notes proudly. "Then came the shows -- I had done Irish dancing, so I was able to choreograph things."
She doesn't do as much ramp work as before, except for the more sedate, elegant labels, but she still runs the shows, at least two a week. She will go anywhere in the country, and so spends her days and nights in a minibus travelling to and from the different venues. And she does all the high-profile shows, such as the Rose of Tralee and the annual Newbridge Silverware Midwest Bridal Exhibition. Cork and Kerry would be regular haunts.
"It's funny, I got a call to do a show from Sligo the other day -- 'Is that you? Are you still alive?' the voice at the other end of the phone said," Celia recalls in her husky voice. "The cheek of it! I said: 'How dare you!'" She laughs, but it's obvious she is delighted that they are still calling for her services after all these years. Celia also does a regular event that she calls "an evening of style, deportment and fashion".
Things are easier in some ways these days -- her beloved husband, Ger, as youthful and stylish a man as Celia is a woman, runs the money side of the business and looks after the organisation of ramps, sound systems and so on, while her daughter, Cecile, who spent seven years buying with Dunnes Stores, runs the office and does the marketing.
"I've no problem getting into a minibus at 2pm, taking off for a show and not arriving home again until 3am, but I hate sitting at a desk and bringing in work. But it's all in place now," she says with an air of satisfaction, though she concedes it's not all plain sailing. "You can work tremendously well with family, or you can kill one another. We do both," she says philosophically.
The only one of the family not involved in the business is her son, Ivan. "He works for a veterinary-supply company -- he runs a mile from the agency," she laughs.
One of the things that has helped to keep the profile of the agency high is Celia's own exposure on TV -- she's a regular on TV3 and is often asked to do the fashion slot on Ireland AM, which she loves.
"All the years of working like a dog have finally paid off. I'm never not busy, which makes me happy," she notes.
There's a lot of spin-off work from the TV appearances, posing for product photo-ops, judging best-dressed awards, judging student design shows, and appearing at charity events, all of which means that she has to spend a lot of time in Dublin and away from home. This she doesn't like, and for a very surprising reason: her grandson Henry -- son of Cecile and her husband Richard -- with whom Celia is, quite frankly, besotted.
"Henry is 18 months old, and he is the greatest thing ever. The last five years have been quite sad," she explains. "My mother died four years ago, my nephew, brother and a lot of aunts died in that period. Henry has brought us all a lot of happiness, and I don't like being away from him for too long."
By all accounts, Celia is a doting grandmother, though Cecile was dubious initially. "You're not going to believe what Cecile said!" Celia exclaims. "She said: 'I didn't think she'd be as good with him as she is, because the last child she had was me.' Can you believe that?"
Of course, another reason Celia does not like being away from Limerick is the lovely home she and Ger have created and developed.
Their first house was a terraced house in Limerick city and Celia didn't want to move. But there were sites in Ballyseedy, two miles from the city centre, and Ger wanted one of them.
"I didn't want to go near the place, I just wouldn't go. Ger bought the site, he got the architect, it was all Ger, but it was the best thing we ever did," she says.
The architect was a man called Michael Healy -- "the same architect who designed JP McManus's place. He was only starting when he did ours. That's my claim to fame!" Celia says. "It started as an ordinary, four-bedroomed bungalow, detached, double front with three roofs."
Situated on an acre, they have had plenty of room to play around with, and over the years they have added more rooms. It now comprises 4,000sq ft.
"It's all split-level -- not such a good idea when you've had a glass of wine and you're our age," she remarks dryly, adding that recent additions include a new hall, a new living room and a conservatory. A very good friend, John McMahon, another architect, designed these additions. Celia is thrilled with them, and says the large expanses of glass, the white-oak solid flooring and the polished marble floors have all given the house a new lease of life.
The inevitable question is -- would she give herself a new lease of life? In other words, would she have work done on her face in the same way she has had done on her house? Indeed, she looks so good it's hard to believe that she hasn't already been under the knife.
"God, I think my face hangs over my two cheekbones," she exclaims. "I've had no work, my hand on my heart. I'm frightened of the pouty mouth and some of the faces you see -- you could fry an egg on them, they're so sheeny. I don't want to return to my youth. I just want to hang on to what I have. I'll be 60 in December, and I don't give a damn. I'm quite happy in my skin, I don't want to lose my individuality."
That's something that will never happen to this lovely Limerick lady.