The power of now: Four of Ireland's most empowering women
At the top of their game, women in their prime bring with them experience, wisdom and know-how. Here, weekend meets four of Ireland's most empowering women.
Published 08/11/2015 | 02:30
At 70, Dame Helen Mirren is the latest L'Oreal poster girl, declaring that, "Fabulous doesn't count the years.
It's the years that make us fabulous." At Weekend magazine we share the view that age is just a number, and we know that women don't 'disappear' when they turn 50, as the tired old thinking holds.
Far from becoming invisible, we believe that these women contribute knowledge, experience, colour and wisdom to our daily lives, and we look to them to inspire and motivate the younger women and men coming behind them.
In today's special edition, we are celebrating successful women in their prime. We begin by talking to four of the country's most prominent and successful women - Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, broadcasters Miriam O'Callaghan and Mary Kennedy, and model agent and businesswoman Celia Holman Lee - about ageing, ambition and the realities of being 50 and beyond on both personal and professional levels. And, as our photoshoot, directed and styled by Weekend fashion editor Bairbre Power, shows, fabulous truly doesn't count the years.
One of Ireland's most popular presenters, Miriam (55), presents Prime Time on RTÉ One and Sunday with Miriam on RTÉ Radio 1. She has four daughters from her first marriage, Alannah, Clara, Georgia and Jessica, and four sons, Jack, Daniel, Conor and James with her husband Steve Carson.
"The ageing process needs to be turned on its head, because we should celebrate managing to get to our 21st birthday, never mind 60 or 70," says Miriam. "I'm patron of the LauraLynn children's hospice, and I see kids there who would give anything to get through their first birthday, so the notion that people would moan about getting older is madness."
Miriam says that she's a relentlessly positive, happy person, and the devastating loss of her sister Anne to cancer aged 33 made her grateful to be alive and well. "We only have one life, so I grab mine by the you-know-what and I live it," she says, adding that she is a firm advocate of the power of kindness and courtesy. "Life gets sweeter as you get older, but it's always sweet anyway."
Miriam feels her looks have improved with age - well, the pals who texted her after a recent Reeling in the Years episode from 1993 seemed to be grateful she had lost the bobbed hair she sported back then, anyway.
"I have never traded on looks and it has never been part of who I am," she says. "Once we hit 40, age becomes absolutely irrelevant whether you're a man or a woman, as you're never going to be sweet 16 again. If you're a Hollywood starlet and are known for being beautiful at 18, then it's probably sad if you don't look the same at 40 or 50, but for me, I was a lawyer and a journalist so I never thought about how I looked.
"I'm lucky as I'm not going grey yet, but that's down to good genes because my mother only got grey hair in her 60s. I still end up with dark brown roots though - I'm not a natural blonde and my hair is dyed."
While she has to look good for work, Miriam says that she doesn't spend a lot of money on clothes, but has loads of different face creams, from cheap to expensive, beside her bed. "People say creams don't work, but I think they do," she says. "I mind my skin, I've never smoked, and while I like a drink, I don't have many. I have the odd blowout, but don't usually stay out too late at night so I mind myself. I'm also not a skinny minnie and I eat what I want. Sometimes if you get too thin past 40, it shows in your face, and I have always been between a size 12 and 14."
Miriam feels very strongly that there is never an issue made about men ageing, and says that sexism is rife. After all, older men like Graham Norton, George Clooney, Barack Obama, Colin Firth, Bono and Bryan Dobson are simply written about as very successful men in their prime.
"Someone well-known turned 40 recently, and it was though she had turned 100, such was the focus on her age in the media," she says, incredulously. "Monica Bellucci being a Bond girl in her 50s is talked about a lot, but no one mentions that Daniel Craig is nearly 50. Women should never buy into this female ageist thing, in the same way that we should never succumb to any form of discrimination. Sandra Bullock might be a Hollywood star, but she looks fab in her 50s and doesn't look like she is worrying about ageing. Nigella Lawson, who shares my birthday, is very successful and looks fabulous, and I doubt she wakes up every day worrying about not being 18 any more."
"I had my first child, who's now 28, in my mid-20s and my last little boy who's nine in my mid-40s. I don't think I'm a better mother with age as I was quite a mature mother in my 20s, anyway. I have always had loads of energy, and believe you should shower your children with love."
"Research in the UK found that women are rarely seen on TV post 40, but I think Ireland is a relatively good place to work. I have never experienced discrimination, and think it comes down to whether you're good at your job and the audience stays liking you. I don't believe in tokenism or that older people should be on TV to give us a different view of the world, as you should only be there if you're the best at what you do, whether you're 25 or 75. Gay Byrne is still doing amazing shows at 81 as is Barbara Walters at 86. Dame Maggie Smith is still working into her 80s, and great actors like Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore are succeeding post-40, which was the cut-off age in the recent past for any major actress."
"I feel privileged to be married to a man that I love and who loves me 20 years on. Once my children are healthy and I have a happy marriage, I will never take that for granted. It's great to have children, but they will fly the nest one day and be independent, which means you and your partner will be left alone. I think it's important to keep romance alive, so we go out for meals and go away together every now and again, and as Steve is working in Belfast and I'm working in Dublin, we have a nice, long-distance love where the heart is growing fonder."
Celia Holman Lee
Style queen Celia (64), runs the Holman Lee modelling agency. She has been with her husband, Ger Lee, for 47 years, and they have a daughter Cecile, son Ivan, and four grandchildren, Henry (7), Erica (4), Ryan (4), and Tommy Lee (18 months).
Having started her career as a model at 15, Celia is renowned for her timeless beauty and impeccable style. Slender and always glamorous, she never puts a sartorial foot wrong, but how does she do it?
"I'm lucky as I've always been slim," she says. "I carried a bit of weight after having the children and was a curvy size 12 for a while, but it didn't last long because I'm a divil for running around. When I'm off work, I love my food, but when the season starts, I end up losing a few pounds as I don't have time to eat. Of course I have days where I look in the mirror and say, 'Look at the head on me," but I pull myself together, fix myself up - which I should be well able to do after spending my whole life in beauty and fashion - and then I feel good."
Turning 65 later this month, Celia says that she has no intention of retiring and feels more content than ever before. She attributes this to the fun her "divine" grandchildren have brought into her life, and the knowledge she no longer has to prove herself.
"I feel in control of everything around me, which has brought a calmness that wasn't there before," she admits. "While I still have fights with models and people in the industry if I think I'm right about something, I'm definitely softer and more content. After all the years I've put in, I'm feeling the wonderful admiration for what I've done now, and there's very little I don't know about my business. It's rare that something goes wrong that I can't make right, because I've been through the mill from a learning point of view. I'm not saying I'm the best across-the-board in fashion, but I can tap myself on the head and say I'm brilliant at producing shows and training girls, because my life has been inside that bubble."
While Celia doesn't have Botox and hasn't had surgery, she would never judge anyone else for it as she believes you have to take happiness wherever you can find it. She says she has friends who get Botox and they look great. "To be completely honest, I was tempted at first when Botox came out, but I didn't go there," she says. "When people admire me, I think they see that you don't have to go down the road of cosmetic surgery. I have a few hair extensions in the back of my head, but other than that, it's all me."
When it comes to her 47-year relationship, Celia says that you go through many phases as a couple over the course of a lifetime, and each brings challenges and change. She thinks it takes years to really gel together properly, but doesn't claim to know the secret to the long and successful relationship she enjoys.
"At the end of the day, we just get on," she shrugs. "Of course there are arguments and there have been very difficult times through the decades, but obviously there was an interest for both parties in making it work. The kids are married so the two of us are left looking at each other, and as I get older, I understand the companionship element even more."
How about sex and romance? Do they survive a relationship of almost five decades? "I'm not going into the other one with you, but yes, we're romantic," she laughs. "We still enjoy each other's company, go out for dinner or drinks and have a laugh. Ger is romantic and loves seeing me all dressed up, and he's a very good and loving husband, and of course I still find him attractive. He's a very good dresser, by the way. When we're on holidays, we would be more romantic because I only switch off properly when I go away or am with the grandchildren. I wouldn't dream of asking him whether he still finds me attractive though - I just presume he thinks I'm the most beautiful woman in the world."
"It's very important for women to speak their mind, but you will find that many may not openly disagree with something because it might jeopardise their career. I have walked into that myself, as I have spoken out about things because I felt strongly enough, but the payback hasn't been too positive. Being honourable and as straight as you can be in business is what I would advise."
"I think women over 40 or 50 feel that they're invisible because it's rare that you see anyone like me showing off clothes in magazines. Oxendales are the only people who have ever approached me to be a brand ambassador, and they're celebrating my age. We need to see more of that, as I know hundreds of beautiful, older women, and we have to fight the battle. As Helen Mirren said, we must not be invisible, and it needs more of a strong, national press presence to achieve that."
...Designers and older women
"A lot of them are catering for us, as there are fabulous dresses out there and nice blazers for all different age groups. If there were more older women presenting and out there in the media, people would see that they can still dress up in fashionable clothes."
Frances Fitzgerald, TD
As Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances (65), is a Fine Gael politician. She was appointed chair of the National Women's Council in 1988 and was elected to the Dáil in 1992. Born in Limerick, Frances is married to child psychiatrist, Professor Michael Fitzgerald, and they have three sons, Owen, Mark and Robert.
"There are far more men than women in politics, and I'm very much in favour of the new gender quota system," says Frances, who was among the 15.2pc of women TDs elected in 2011. "We need it if we want to see politics change and have a greater number of women in the Dáil, which will make us a better country. We still have to be elected by constituents, but the chances are that with a 30pc quota, there will be a better percentage next time. I always say we live in an unfinished democracy with the lack of diversity in relation to women."
Frances turned 65 this year, and considers the notion that you would automatically retire at that age to be an out-dated concept. "It's damaging for people when they are told they have to give up work or can't do a job any more because of age," she says. "Deciding to retire is about health, opportunity, interest and whatever makes you tick. We need to challenge stereotypes that women over 50 can't do certain things, because it's not about a number or putting limits on age. We have to think differently about things now than 30 years ago, as life expectancy has changed so much and the attitude to women has changed. Ageism is equally damaging for young people, as I see young politicians being questioned about their capacity because of their age too."
Frances says that as a teenager, she would never have thought about a career in politics, as she was much shyer and less confident than she is now. She adored becoming a mother, and says it has been the most fantastic experience of her life. She took time out of her career by choice when she had her children, but accepts that this can be difficult for other women who would like to do the same, but can't, due to financial constraints.
As a minority group, Frances feels that there will always be added issues for women in politics. We all know that they are subjected to a level of physical scrutiny that male politicians simply don't experience, and the very attractive and always impeccably groomed Frances is conscious of that fact. "You have to be able to live with it, and most of the time you ignore it and just get on with your work," she shrugs. "If you're in the public eye, you have to be aware that scrutiny is a side of it, and it's important to have a professional look. As it happens, I get such a kick out of doing a bit of shopping or getting my make-up done."
Politics is a very interesting career if you enjoy meeting people she maintains, and it provides a great opportunity to make changes. She advises women considering it as a career to find out a lot about it in advance, be aware of what they are getting into and the challenges they will experience.
"It's tough, it's unpredictable and you'll have some very bad experiences as well as some tremendous ones," she counsels, adding that politics is one career area that women often excel in as they age due to the life experience they have accrued along the way. "Some of the toughest experiences I have ever had have been in politics, but some of the very best have too. You have to be in it for the long-haul to make it, but the electorate is very supportive towards women so there are great opportunities."
…Surviving in politics
"The more success you have, the more support you need because there is so much pressure. Good friends and mentors are very important, and having a place to go and talk or think about things is crucial. I'm very fortunate with the friends I have and the support I get."
...Balancing work and family
"I think the state has to support combining work, parenting and high-quality childcare facilities, as it's very difficult for people to manage their mortgages, jobs and kids today. All of this needs to be addressed if we want to see more women in politics. Sometimes there are artificial constraints, where women think they won't get back into work again if they take time out, but if you want to do something, you can shape the world around you and adapt to circumstances."
...Her husband Michael
"Michael has always been very supportive, and I think having a partner who wants to see you do well is great. Some people have partners who may restrict them, but I'm so fortunate that Michael wants me to be the best that I can be."
Mary (61), is the presenter of Nationwide on RTÉ One. She is divorced and has four children, Eva, Tom, Eoin and Lucy. Her latest book, What Matters: Reflections on Important Things in Life is recently published.
"I really love this stage in my life," says Mary. "I'm much more confident and content, and I'm not trying to push myself. I think people get more interesting and colourful with age, and I'm much more relaxed and up for the craic than I was when I was younger. My children are adults now, and I'm happy I'm so close to them."
While she exudes confidence on screen, Mary believes this is something that improves with age as she was shy when she was younger. "I was studying Irish at college and had native speakers in my class, so I felt inferior," she says. "I didn't like being a teenager at all, as I was awkward, shy and self-conscious. I was tall and gangly with frizzy hair - and there was no such thing as straighteners then - and while I still have frizzy hair, I know what to do with it now."
Mary is conscious that her job requires her to be well-groomed. She is lucky to enjoy good health, and eats well and enjoys fitness. "I was always a runner, but I don't run any more as I'm reaping the rewards of decades of running on concrete because my knees are dodgy," she laughs. "I walk fast instead and even go for a jog the odd time, but that's just for nostalgic reasons. I also do Pilates, as flexibility is something you really need to be conscious of at this age."
While many women worry about the ageing process, and can only imagine how pressurised it must be in that regard when you're a TV presenter, Mary admires her daughters' beautiful, clear skin but doesn't hanker after it. Beauty is not just about your face or your shape, she says, it's about the aura that surrounds you, and whether you're open, warm and happy.
"Of course I worried about lines when they first started coming in, but they show character and the life you've lived," she says. "I always find I get a few extra lines in the middle of the summer, but it doesn't bother me now, because this is me. If there was an ageist policy in RTÉ, I wouldn't be there, and the idea that you should be off screen after 30 is ridiculous. The Americans are great with people like Barbara Walters on TV in her 80s, and that's the way it should be. There is no age I plan to retire at and I just can't see it happening at the moment."
Mary is single and says that while she's quite self-contained and happy to look after herself, she has a wide circle of friends and loves having people around her. Now that her children are adults, she has the time to nurture her friendships, and while she has close friends from all stages of her life, she also has amazing friends she only met in the last year. "I think if you're open to friendships and relationships, they come," she says, "and I love meeting new people. Friends can be a huge support, and while I love having my home and garden nice, I'm not interested in doing them up or revamping them. It's all about the 'one-pot wonders' and having people around the table for me now, not the fancy things."
Mary says that, while she's competitive with herself because she wants to be really good at things, her career ambition was always tempered by how it would fit in with her children and their needs. She never went looking for opportunities that would take her away from home when they were growing up, and her priority now is seeing them all happy and healthy. "My ambitions are very strongly around enjoying life," she says. "I want to make the most of it, so as long as I have enough money to pay the bills and my children still want to spend time with me, I'm happy enough."'
"Irish designers are great, as people like Louise Kennedy and Don O'Neill cater for every age, which is what it should be about. I don't have a problem with designers who specialise in young people because I wouldn't be seen dead in the things my daughters wear. I love getting dressed up and wearing nice things to occasions, but I also like putting on the tracksuit when I get home or go for a walk."
...Her new book of reflections
"It's about how women can be a great support to each other and that's important, and family is important too. I speak a good bit about loneliness, which can attack as well. I'm very conscious also that I come from a strong female line, as my mother was widowed in her 50s so she was strong and independent, and her mother was 102 when she died and she was widowed for longer than she was married."
"I would liked to have known when I was younger that nobody is immune to challenges, joys and sadnesses, but it all works out in the end. You can't appreciate the really happy times if you don't know what sadness is as well, but don't think too far ahead as we have to make the most of life and enjoy it. I have definitely learned from just being around people in different situations, and small things can mean so much to someone else, so don't underestimate the power of kindness."
Photography by Mark Nixon, marknixon.com
Styled by Bairbre Power, @bairbrepower
Hair: Peter Marks' senior stylist, Pauline Kennedy from Pavillions SC, Swords
Make-up: Annie Gribbin using Make Up For Ever HD products, Make Up For Ever, Clarendon Street, Dublin 2, www.makeupforever.ie
Props: Alexander & James grey velvet armchair, €799, Arnotts, Henry Street, Dublin 1, arnotts.ie