Stand Tall: An operation to straighten her spine makes a model of Gracie
Kilkenny girl Gracie O'Mahony is the model of the moment, after a dramatic switch from brunette to blonde
In the lexicon of hair-colour signifiers, going from blonde to dark is usually a bid to be taken more seriously. Leighton Meester, Kristen Stewart and Olivia Wilde all found they put on gravitas with their darker locks, and got better roles.
For Kilkenny model Gracie O'Mahony, however, the 'taken more seriously' effect has happened the opposite way. Her decision to switch from brunette to platinum blonde has transformed her from pretty-but-faintly-school-girlish into a sophisticated, Sharon Stone-style beauty, and now one of Ireland's standout models. She is currently in hot demand from clients such as Brown Thomas, L'Oreal and Lennon Courtney, as well as Xpose, with every reason to believe that more, and better, can follow. It's a transition she has taken in her stride, with enthusiasm and an interesting kind of courage - instead of being driven by her goals, she seems inclined to enjoy the journey.
From Kilkenny, Gracie is 20, and has been modelling for four years, since the end of fourth year in school, when, as part of Transition Year, she did work experience with milliner Rebekah Patterson in her Kilkenny studio. At that stage, Gracie insists, "I had never thought of modelling, it never even occurred to me or crossed my mind. I wouldn't have worn make-up, I wouldn't have thought about whether I was pretty or not. I was a tomboy in primary school, I played soccer constantly, and I had no instinct to think about my looks. I just randomly stumbled into this."
Randomly, but not entirely without some kind of guiding hand. Because at the start of fourth year, Gracie had spinal surgery, for scoliosis - curvature of the spine - and the operation made her a crucial couple of inches taller. "I'm quite small, so that made me tall enough so that I just scraped into modelling!" she laughs. "The operation makes you stand up straighter, and that gave just enough height." Not that she knew anything of that at the time.
The scoliosis was discovered after a car crash. "Me, my brother and my sister were in a crash, and that's how they found it, because they have to do X-rays. I was lucky in a way, because no one was hurt, and they discovered it. I was sent off to Crumlin, where they kept an eye on me. I had to go back every couple of months, to make sure nothing had changed, and within the space of six months, the curve had doubled, so they decided they needed to operate." Was she scared? "A little bit," she says. "Not too much. I was interested. I got them to take pictures of everything during the operation, so now I have photos of my spine bolted to metal bars. That's one for the portfolio!"
There is a kind of fearlessness to Gracie's attitude that is very appealing. The operation itself involves resetting the ribs and inserting rods along the spine. "I still have the rods," she tells me. "I'm a bionic woman: half-girl, half-robot!" So does she beep going through the airport? "I don't - but they told me to carry around a doctor's cert to explain it, in case. I'd better not be late for flights, ever," she jokes.
She was in hospital for a week - including for Christmas Day - and in bed for many months thereafter. "It was painful and postural - a bit of both - so that stopped me playing soccer and moved me into fashion, because a few months after all that, I went to do work experience for Rebekah Patterson." And after two weeks there, milliner Rebekah asked her, "'Would you like to model for my Facebook page?' I was like, 'Oh God, no . . .' but she said, 'Come on', and so I did, and she said, 'You should send off your pictures somewhere'. I was really embarrassed - I didn't want anyone to see them, but then I said it to my older sister, Jesse, and she said, 'You have to send them off!'"
Send them off Gracie did, and within a couple of days, 1st Option Management came calling. "I didn't even know what I was going to be doing," she laughs now, of the actual business of being a model. "When I got my first job, for a magazine, I had no idea what they would expect. But I didn't find it overwhelming," she insists. "Modelling has made me so much more confident in myself." Which is, of course, the exact opposite of what we are mostly told about the industry - instead, we usually get the dark side, the 'preying on the insecurities of vulnerable young girls'-type thing. Gracie isn't having any of that, though. "You have to be confident with yourself in order to sell whatever product you're trying to sell," she explains, with great good sense. "But it's in a really nice way. You hold yourself better. It hard to explain," she laughs, "but it's a good thing."
So how does this manifest, on a practical level? "I wouldn't mind as much now what other people think," she says. "If you go for a job and don't get it, it is like you're being judged, but you brush it off, you tell yourself, 'There'll be another afterwards'. It makes you more resilient. You tell yourself, 'Well, I'm happy with the way I look, and that's enough'."
Not, I suspect, that she ever lacked confidence. She seems to be a natural all-rounder - good at sport (all that football), studies ("I wasn't crazy and obsessed with getting 600 points, but I ended up doing really well; it's nice to know I have that security blanket"), a clever designer and dressmaker (she made her own debs dress - "an ivory, plunge-neck, kind of Grecian dress in a jersey fabric, with gold rope detail around the edges and a criss-cross back,") and is in the process of making her sister's. She's popular - far from suffering the kind of backlash that schoolgirls-turned-professional-beauties so often get from their friends, hers have been supportive, "They are so lovely about it, they tell me they saw me on something, and say, 'Oh, that's so cool', but they still take the piss out of me!" - and she has the kind of strong, obvious beauty that doesn't seem ever to have been through an awkward or ugly-duckling patch.
And, an even greater strength, she has a nice boyfriend ("definitely a keeper"), and a loving family; two sisters, two brothers, with Gracie in the middle. Her dad owns a petrol station and the family live just outside Kilkenny, in the countryside. "We're a big rugby family," she laughs. "Every Munster match, we're at it!" And what do her parents think of her career choice? Any reservations? "They don't worry," she says. "They might have at the start when they didn't know much about it, but now, no. My family and friends keep me grounded. They say, 'Do they know how much of a weirdo you are? How do you keep a straight face for so long?'"
After leaving school, Gracie went to Limerick School of Art and Design, where she did a core year - "a little bit of everything," but then, "I didn't get my first choice for second, third and fourth year there, so that made me think, 'Will I just go with what I was given, or take a year out, and try and get a job?' So I decided to give the modelling a real shot. When I do something, I want to do it properly, the best I can, rather than a little bit of everything." And? "So far, I can't believe how well it's been going. It doesn't even feel like work," she enthuses. "It's really fun."
Gracie seems to be of a naturally sunny disposition, delighted with her life, full of optimism and energy. When I ask where she sees herself in five years, she says readily, "Still this, but other aspects of the fashion industry as well. You see so many different aspects of the industry in this job, and meet so many people. I'd like to move into design, maybe, or buying, for when I'm older, like." She says 'older' like someone who has no real idea what such a thing means. Would acting or TV presenting interest her? "It would a little bit," she says. "Doing Xpose and Ireland AM, I found I really like television stuff, which I never would have known before. I feel like I'm almost learning what I want to do later on in life more than I would have been if I was still in college."
And if the relentless positivity can feel naive at times, well, that is because that is exactly what it is - in a good way; the product of youth and good fortune, an approach to the world unclouded by disappointment and regret. That said, Gracie's optimistic talk of moving into design, or other areas of the fashion industry, is far more realistic and likely than such ambitions, expressed by 20-year-old models, often are. In her final year at school, Gracie won a scholarship to the Grafton Academy, to do a summer course in dress design. Before that, it was largely a matter of autodidacticism: "I teach myself, looking things up on the internet; trial and error, basically."
So what motivates her in all of this? "I'd be very ambitious," she admits. "When I do something, I want to do it really well. I love the idea of having a great career at something I really love. The more I do, the more I want to do it well. I want to keep getting better and better at it, booking better jobs. I'd be very driven in that way. I don't like doing anything by halves." Is she sensible? And does that sound like a compliment or a bit of an insult? "I think I am. When you're on a shoot, surrounded by a lot of adults, I think it's almost like you're working for yourself, you have to get it right; you're like your own boss, you have to be a bit more mature about what you're going to do. I feel older than I am. And it's a good thing," she says. "I'm sensible, but not boring. I still have fun, all the time. I go out, like a normal 20-year-old would, I have a normal social life."
So where does she go out? "In Kilkenny, not Dublin. I met my boyfriend in a nightclub in Kilkenny," she laughs. "It's such a typical story - we met on a night out. He graduated from WIT - Waterford Institute of Technology - last year. He's now working in Duggan Steel in Kilkenny, but his family have a funeral home in Kilkenny, so he might go into that." They have been together three years now - "It sounds like such a long time. I can't believe it's gone so fast. I was 17 when we started going out. Now, we're planning ahead, planning for the future. He's been there for the whole beginning of my career, which is kind of nice. He's seen everything, he'll buy all the magazines I'm in, and he'll watch stuff on the telly when I'm on something. He's so cute, he'll ask questions about it - about the process."
She has a cheery attitude to diet and exercise - "I wouldn't be exercising all the time and eating really healthy food. I'm more into the idea that balance is key". And she has a sensible approach to the notion of feminism - "I do call myself a feminist because I think everything should be equal between men and women. I wouldn't be a big crazy one, like 'I hate men!', but I do think everything should be fair, especially in this day and age. It seems so old-fashioned that inequality still happens. We all deserve to have the same opportunities, the same pay; but I wouldn't be waving a placard." And an interesting take on social media: "People would almost book you for a job through things they've seen you do on social media, it's become so important now. It's almost like it's your business page. You get to show yourself, not just your portfolio. You get to build your profile; it's more proactive than just waiting, you can take things into your own hands." The modern version of hanging around nightclubs, being out in order to be seen, I ask? "Yes," she laughs, "and now you can do that from the comfort of your own bedroom, and still be in bed by 10pm."
So what does keep her awake at night? "Probably just knowing that you mightn't have a job next week," she says honestly. "You could be flat-out working for three weeks, then have nothing for a week. There's no guarantee. At the moment, I'm still living at home, and any money I make, I'm saving. But once you move out, have your own apartment, rent to pay - then it would be more concerning."
What about getting older in an industry that doesn't much care for older women? "The thought would cross my mind," she says, "but I'd be more excited to think - 'Oh, I wonder what I'll end up going into next, when I'm older and stop doing the modelling'. It's the exciting possibilities that I see. You can always do whatever you want. If you set your mind to it, you can do it." Does she really believe that? "Yes, I do."
Umit Kutluk showroom and atelier, 27 Merrion Sq, D2, tel: (01) 775-3885, or see umitkutluk.ie
Design Centre, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, D2, tel: (01) 679-5718, or see designcentre.ie
Allicano, 4 Johnson's Place, D2, tel: (01) 677-3430
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Hair by Paul Davey, Davey Davey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1400, or see daveydavey.com
Make-up by Dearbhla Keenan, Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Photographed at 10 Ormond Quay, 10 Lr Ormond Quay, D1, tel: (01) 878-7416, or see 10ormondquay.ie; the ideal venue for weddings, private events, functions and meetings
Sunday Indo Life Magazine