Really Beautiful... the Irish supermodel standing up for normal women
Katherine Gannon doesn't claim to be the tallest, the thinnest or the youngest model in the world, says Sarah Caden, but she's not going to let small things like that stop her. The former Miss Galaxy Ireland and current World Supermodel Ireland is on a roll at the moment, and adamant that not only will she not change to suit the modelling industry, but she'll make modelling change to suit her. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Nikki Cummins Black
'I'm a size 10 and that's not what works there," says Katherine Gannon, explaining why she's not the kind of model who's going to get work in London or New York. "They are into a totally different look and I don't have it."
Not that this is a deterrent to Katherine. One way or the other, Katherine is making a go of modelling. And if her look doesn't work for the modelling world as it exists, well then, the modelling world needs to change. The former Miss NUIG has held the titles of Miss Galaxy Ireland and World Supermodel Ireland, and she has also been part of the TV show The Fashion Hero, which pushes our perception of beauty past the waif-like, conventional norms.
"There were other girls on The Fashion Hero who would be average, like, a 10 or a 12, and it's kind of crazy, but those girls would be considered plus-size," says Katherine. "And for me, being part of The Fashion Hero was like being part of a movement. In my mind, I've always wanted to be part of a change in modelling. I feel in the next five years there is going to be a big change, and I think this show will be so big in making that change happen. It wasn't about, 'Oh, people will see me on TV and book me for jobs', it was bigger than that.
"The industry is great," Katherine concludes, "but it needs to change for the 21st Century. I prefer how it is now than 10 years ago, and I think I wouldn't have had a chance 10 years ago, because I come from a small town. Now, there's just so many more opportunities."
Confidence is a capricious thing. Now you have it, now you don't; it waxes and wanes in most of us, and it's almost impossible to predict if and when it will be there for you. It is Galway model Katherine's openness about her up-and-down confidence that is one of her key charms.
She's a stunning girl, on a high after a year of international pageant wins and an American reality-TV show, but, Katherine happily confesses that self-doubt is always with her, to some degree. But she admits it happily, breezily even, in the manner of someone who won't let a trifle like that hold her back.
"I think I babbled the last time," Katherine says, the second time we speak. We speak twice, thanks to the loss of my iPhone - with our interview on it. Katherine is nice about it, and, to an extent, happy to have a second chance to share the thrill of the whirlwind of activity she has enjoyed in the last year.
The second time, we speak during her lunch break from her day job, but the first time I meet Katherine, she's in full model mode. She's getting ready for the shoot on these pages and she's sitting still as the hairdresser smooths and combs and sprays and backcombs her long hair into old-fashioned rolls. It's soothing to watch, though it can't be the same for her, and it's fascinating to see her alter before my eyes, but after our two conversations, I imagine that nothing will alter the fundamental sweetness of this Connemara girl. And that, she knows even herself, is her greatest asset.
When she was a little girl, Katherine always dreamed of being a model. Not that she actually told anyone. She was the youngest child, the only girl, in a family of four, and her mother and her aunt - a mother of only boys - would dress her up and do mini at-home photo shoots with her.
"It was always me who wanted to model, though," Katherine says. "When it came to me wanting to do auditions and stuff, my mom wasn't pushy. It was up to me. She's really proud, but she hates any kind of pushing, in any direction. It was me who wanted to be involved in everything, fashion shows, pageantry, photo shoots. But I saw the importance of finishing school and of college, but the dream was always there.
"I dreamt of being international," says Katherine, "but then, when it happened, it was such a shock."
Katherine won the Miss Galaxy Ireland title in 2012. It was the start, she says, of so many big things. Miss Galaxy is an international pageant, not unlike the better-known pageants, but with a view to emphasising the strength and character of the participants. Yes, Katherine assures me, there is a swimsuit round and, also, it provides opportunity to discuss your charity interests and pursuits. It's a classic pageant, and attaining the national title and then travelling to Florida for the international round was no mean feat.
"It's like Miss World or Miss Universe in lots of ways," says Katherine, "but you can be married, have a baby, have a tattoo, it's not ageist. I like all that. I like that you can be this normal person, who has a normal life. It's not like you have to be this fake person.
"As much as I like modelling, at some pageants they put on this fake thing, and it's 'on' all the time. It's like everything they do in their life, they do it as if they're in a pageant, and they keep themselves so perfect and they never put a foot wrong, or put pictures from a night out on social media, or anything like that. But you have to live, and I think the industry is changing a bit now, and I like that change. Look at Cara Delevingne. She's so normal, and she doesn't hold anything back.
"I didn't even tell people I did modelling when I was a teenager," Katherine says. "I was going to castings and working, but I was very shy. I didn't want anyone in school to know, because I had low self-confidence and I thought they'd laugh. I still have low confidence, but I hide it better. I feel very shy talking about modelling, still, because I think people will say, 'Who does she think she is?'"
Katherine's parents are both from the Gaeltacht and are native Irish speakers, but the language didn't trickle down to her and her siblings. "They really tried, and I really regret it now," says Katherine, "but none of my friends spoke Irish, so I suppose I didn't want to either. I can understand it well, but I can't speak it very well, and that's kind of a confidence thing, too."
Before Katherine was born, her family had emigrated to the States, and it was there that her eldest brother, a decade older than her, was diagnosed with autism. The assessment and support was great in America, Katherine says, but they moved home to Galway to be close to family and friends, and it was there that Katherine was born.
Though she has known her brother no other way, and cites him as her favourite of her three brothers, Katherine can see how having a sibling with special needs influences who you are. "It makes a difference to you," she says. "It makes you more aware and sensitive. He's more then 10 years older and I've never known anything else. But it shows you something else. I'm more open-minded because of it."
While she was studying arts in NUIG, Katherine became leader of the Irish Autism Society's branch in the university, and she remains very active with the organisation. Autism, mental-health issues and dog charities, she says with a laugh, adding that she's the "biggest dog-lover ever".
During college, Katherine continued modelling and won The Face of Galway Shopping Centre competition and then, in her final year, became Miss NUIG. "After that, then, I did modelling and used my summers to do volunteer work," she explains. "I wanted to go to Kenya and Nepal and do building and stuff there." The dream of going further with her modelling endured.
In school, Katherine says, she was often teased for being too thin, as she suddenly shot up in height, but she has no desire to starve herself for a UK modelling career, either. What Katherine believes in, for herself and for the modelling industry, is a redefinition of what model-type beauty is. And, so far, it seems to be working for her.
"The week in Florida at the Miss Galaxy International pageant was the best week ever," Katherine says. "I felt like I really fitted in, even though it was so glitz and glam, and I was much more natural. I feel like I learned so much. I'd done Miss Ireland, and Miss Galaxy wasn't a bit like that. It was brilliant. White parties and pyjama parties and Zumba parties. And while I was there I met a girl who was a promoter for this show, The Fashion Hero, and if I hadn't done Miss Galaxy I'd never have met her, so that was brilliant!"
The Fashion Hero is a model-search reality show of sorts, where you nominate yourself for entry, then people vote online for you, and the people with the most votes get to go to a resort in Cancun, where they do modelling assignments for a week, and live there, and get filmed all the time and enjoy what sounds like a combination of America's Next Top Model and Big Brother. But, Katherine emphasises, without the bitchiness of either. And there's no prize, just the experience.
"I became Facebook friends with the girl who was the promoter," Katherine explains. "And she kept saying I'd be perfect for the show. She herself is this beautiful girl, who's a perfect model, but she's too small. Her portfolio would just be thrown in the bin at an agency, like someone who was too athletic or muscly, or tattooed." That's what The Fashion Hero is about; making models out of people who just slightly do not fit the conventional-model bill.
"Like, with me," says Katherine, "I'm not tall. I'm 5ft 8in, but not the tallest. And I'm 24, so I'm not the youngest, in model terms. But I'm such a hard worker, and she could see that, and she could see my volunteer work.
"It was so exciting," Katherine says of the filming last autumn. "We did underwater shoots and all sorts of shoots. I loved it. It's being shown on TV in Asia and all over the States, and we're hoping it will become European. I'm now doing the European promotion for the next show. But my show will be on YouTube in September. I've seen a little clip that a friend sent me on my phone, and I was so happy about how I came across and what was said about me."
Even though she wasn't looking for more, as is often the way, more modelling came hot on the heels of The Fashion Hero. The day after Katherine found out she had won a place on the show, she learned that she had won the World Supermodel Ireland title, which she still holds. She had put herself forward for it, but never thought it would happen.
"It was crazy," Katherine reflects. "It meant that I did The Fashion Hero in Mexico, then came home for three days before leaving to go to Fiji, where the international Supermodel pageant was on. I had to go to my clothing sponsor Pia, and the Look Academy, who do all my styling and personal training and everything. They had worked out all my make-up plans, matched my jewellery to my outfits, worked out my training schedule - it was crazy."
Again, Fiji was a whirlwind experience that Katherine relished. "But so much happened so fast - I was still on a high from The Fashion Hero and I knew I was going to Australia on the way home to see my new nephew - that I wasn't even focused on winning," she says. "I didn't care and I just thought, 'Whatever happens, just enjoy every minute of it."
And she did.
Coming back to Galway last winter was a bit of a land, Katherine concedes with a laugh, but she's in a very happy place. She's now a promoter for The Fashion Hero and she's involved in setting up the next Miss Galaxy Ireland contest, and she loves both.
"I really didn't want to come home," she laughs. "But I feel all of those experiences launched me into wanting to get more work. There's so much going on for me now, with Galaxy Ireland and The Fashion Hero and I really want to get more Irish people involved. Things were really so boring up to this time last year for me, I was a bit here and there, and I never thought that so quickly I'd be off to Mexico or Fiji, and in this space where I'm thinking that anything is possible.
"My motto is that if you work really hard, you can have anything," Katherine says. "If it's easy, it's not worth it. That's my secret, really."
For more information on 'The Fashion Hero' see Katherine Gannon's Facebook page
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