Olivia Treacy: From Miss Ireland to LA's red carpet
'Theatre didn't openly welcome me, as they saw me as a beauty queen. I had to prove myself and work for £70 a week'
In 1984, Olivia Tracey was probably the most famous woman in Ireland. Young, beautiful, and recently crowned Miss Ireland, she was living a glamorous, technicolour life in the otherwise grey streets of recession Ireland.
Now 53, Tracey has had an eventful life. She has been through marriage break-up, a varied career in fashion and acting, and has lived on both coasts of the United States.
These days, her working life is made up of a mixture of things, from commercials to fashion modelling jobs, to lifestyle feature articles. "When it comes to acting, it's more commercials over TV and film but I haven't really been around this year."
She has just returned to LA after five months back in her hometown, Dublin. "For the last year, I've been dividing my time between Ireland and LA. My mother is 93 and she had a hip replacement last year so I've been helping my brother and sister."
Despite the fact that it's currently warm and sunny in LA, she likes coming home. "I always come back every year, usually for at least a month, if not six weeks. I'd rarely come back at Christmas but because of my mom I was doing that this year. Christmas is an unusual treat. In LA, Christmas is such a non-event." And she will be back in Dublin again in April or May.
"I don't like to be stuck in a rut. I love variety and always loved it in life and in my career."
She certainly did. She was a restless follower of dreams in the '90s, moving from Dublin to London to New York and finally settling in LA. It sounds like the dream of a lot of young girls who grew up in the '80s.
"As a young kid, there were a number of things I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be a model, an actress, a beauty queen and a teacher, and – my father used to find this one hilarious – a maid!"
Portrait of Olivia Tracey, winner of the Miss Ireland Competition in 1984. Photo: Brian Farrell.
Unlike most people, who either grow out of their childhood ambitions or dismiss them as impossible dreams, Olivia managed to achieve them all, even being a maid. "I worked as a chambermaid for a few weeks when I was a student. I got over it very quickly."
Olivia went to school in Loreto Beaufort in Rathfarnham. "I loved school. I was quite studious. I loved English and French. I still dreamt about the other things but thought they happened to other people. I had no clue how to get into the business."
She qualified as a secondary school teacher in UCD, but jobs were scarce and she didn't want to move to a small town in Ireland for a few hours of substitute work.
She had a part-time job in a clothes shop on Grafton Street and through that landed a modelling job. "I loved it, it was great fun and everyone was sociable and friendly. I started talking to the other models. They were talking about Miss Ireland and I was thinking this is how you do it."
She decided to get dolled up one day and meet with the Geraldine Brand modelling agency. "I was intimidated. I brought down a few photos and a day or two later I was sent off to Switzers for my first show." The job was modelling bikinis in Switzer's window. . . in January. "I took to it like a duck to water."
She modelled for the next year and a half. "It was great for your confidence." One evening, her brother Ciaran pointed out that the next day was the closing date to enter Miss Ireland. "I was 23 going on 24 and I would have been too old the following year so I entered and ended up winning."
Life changed overnight. "The day after I won it the phone started ringing and the press started calling. I loved it, the excitement and razzmatazz. I try to create as much of that as possible in my life. I felt very comfortable with being known. I wasn't self-conscious. I was relaxed about it."
Olivia Tracey pictured at the Irish Premiere of 'The Lone Ranger' at the Savoy Cinema Dublin. Photo: Anthony Woods
Her Miss Ireland win opened up a whole new set of doors. "I went from being a model to getting endorsements, doing fashion shows all over the country, my name everywhere, and television too. When I came to the end of my reign, I was invited to audition to be a hostess with Mike Murphy on 'Murphy's Micro Quiz-M'."
She did that for two years, along with continuity announcing. "I was on TV all the time and was really well known. It worked very well with modelling because one fed into the other."
It didn't work well with acting, however, and when she was 27, she decided it was time to get serious about that particular dream and she enrolled in the Gaiety School of Acting. After a couple of months, she got a call to audition for the role of Cinderella in the Gaiety's panto.
"I was very aware that great opportunities were landing in my lap and I was glad I had gone into Miss Ireland later in life because I had more maturity and kept my feet on the ground. That's the way I was brought up, no airs and graces."
She got the part and felt she had finally found what she wanted to focus on. "I loved all the singing and dancing and acting."
She broke out of panto, taking a role in the Project Arts Centre. "Theatre didn't openly welcome me, as they saw me as a beauty queen. I had to prove myself and work for £70 a week and turn down high-profile modelling jobs, and tone down the glamour, which wasn't me because I've always loved glamorous, elegant clothes! I've always been someone who gravitated to dressing up and being stylish."
Next, she got a role in the Andrew's Lane Theatre production of 'Lady Chatterly's Lover', which toured around the country, scandalising small towns.
"They were very exciting days but I was getting a real urge to leave Ireland." By this stage she had been a finalist in both Miss Universe in Miami and Miss World in London. Her eyes had been opened to opportunities abroad.
"I had done a coast-to-coast tour of America doing a promotional tour for a chain of restaurants. I was flown first class, picked up in limos and on radio shows at 5am one after the other. That trip unsettled me in terms of staying in Ireland. I saw America as the land of opportunity, somewhere you could really do well. I loved their can-do attitude, and how the higher you rise the more they love you. I saw it as very exciting. When I was 7 or 8 in the sea in Kerry, I remember my father looking out and saying, 'to think the next parish out there is America' and to my child's mind it captivated my imagination. It was accessible."
When she was 33, she eventually made the move. By that point, her marriage to Peter Catterson, managing director of the fashion label Michel Ambers, had broken up. "I was working like crazy and I knew if I didn't make the move then I never would. I was no longer married at that point and now I had the freedom to go, so I thought I need to take this opportunity now."
She moved to London first, which was an unhappy experience. "It was difficult to go from being famous in Dublin to being totally unknown in London. I suddenly had a feeling that this could be a bit of a struggle." She shared a big, four-story house in Fulham with friends of a friend, which helped her get through the difficult times. "It wasn't a very happy time in my life. I was coming out of a marriage, so it was comforting to be in that house."
She then made the move to America, but didn't know anyone in LA. She knew one person in New York, so made that her first stop. She wrote a column for the 'Irish Echo' newspaper, which introduced her to an Irish-American network and also wrote a column for the Sunday Independent back home.
New York was daunting at first. "Cars were flying everywhere, honking so fast – Dublin is a small, genteel town compared to New York – but once I got my strut going I loved it."
She had some romantic encounters there too. "I almost got married. I got engaged to a restaurant critic from 'The New York Times' but I wanted to move to LA. We were so different it wouldn't have worked out long term."
In 1997, after three years in New York, she finally realised her dream and moved to LA. "The first few years were very hard. I found it very lonely. LA doesn't have a soul. You're on your own and you're always aware of that."
She scored a big role in the 2003 film 'Red Roses and Petrol', where she played against type as a dowdy housewife. Gwyneth Paltrow's mother, Blythe Danner, dropped out of the role following the death of her husband. "I felt like I was having my Hollywood moment. It premiered in Hollywood with a red carpet event."
Since then, Olivia has had different roles in TV shows and some movies, playing opposite Robert Duvall and Drew Barrymore. Moments like that were great, she says, but the industry changed with the economic crash, and smaller roles went to more established actors whose work had dried up. "Somehow you just keep going."
She bought a condominium at the foot of the Hollywood Hills in 2004, and swims in the pool in her building to keep fit, as often as she can. She's deeply involved with the Irish-American community in LA. She presents and MCs at events like the The Southern California Rose of Tralee, and she will be a judge to select this year's Rose.
"When you live in Ireland and go away on holidays the last thing you would do is go into an Irish pub, but when you live away you tend to do that because you're inclined to bump into Irish people you know. There's a big slew of Irish people in LA but they're spread out all over the place so the opportunity to connect with the Irish community is in those moments."
When the former Miss Ireland and one-time 'best body in a bikini' award winner is asked about ageing, she is sanguine. "I feel perfectly fine about ageing. The hardest time for me in terms of ageing was 29 going on 30. The idea of 30 has a sense of maturity around it, but after my 30th birthday I said to myself, 'I feel the same as I felt two days ago, before I was 30.' There's nothing I can do about it. My mother is 93 and thinking how young I look. I'd be robbing myself of the opportunity to enjoy life if I was worrying about ageing. It's a waste of time."
She says taking a role as an older woman in 'Red Roses and Petrol' helped her come to terms with ageing. "After that film, I let the colour go out of my hair and it went silver and I was rewarded for that because Ford models took me on then because I fit into the older woman category."
It still took her a while to get her head around having grey hair in her 40s. "I remember the first fashion shoot I did for a company with bohemian gowns and when I saw those photos I nearly ran straight to the hair salon. I looked like I was 65 when I was only 43. My agents told me to laugh all the away to the bank. I became more pragmatic because I was getting TV show jobs playing the well-preserved older lady so I was rewarded in a way for speeding the ageing process."
She says she eventually came to think of having grey hair as liberating. "I get more compliments on my hair now that it's this colour than I did when it was blonde. Going silver is a statement of self-confidence that you're this cool, older woman who doesn't have to answer to expectations. People think it's a brave move and find it inspirational. Men like it too. Some guys might want to be with the younger woman because they feel they need that. They wouldn't necessarily be the person who wants to date you, but a man who is truly evolved with a bit of maturity will like that you've done that because it's more natural. I don't care who likes it and who doesn't. When you get to 50 you don't really care about what people think of you."
Her attitude to ageing is so far very positive but everyone knows there are downsides to getting older. "I suppose your skin in general is not as firm and that's a hard one because you can exercise all you like and there only so many potions and lotions you can use, but you do the best you can. At the end of the day, I'm still fitting the same clothes that I fit when I was 21. My figure isn't as taut but it would be futile and a waste of time to worry about it, so I'm grateful for what I've managed to maintain instead of looking at the 10pc you can't perfect."
She lives in the plastic surgery capital of the world. Has she ever considered going under the scalpel? "It's not a road I've ever taken. I don't think it's a road I'd go. Maybe when I'm 65 I might feel differently. Sleep and lots of water is my beauty regime. And it's all free."
Relationships, too, change as we get older and Olivia has never remarried. Is she seeing someone now? "I'm in a relationship," she says coyly. Why did she never remarry? "My attitude has always been don't settle for second best. There were times when I wouldn't have been in relationships and people would say, 'how come you're single?'. It was because I didn't meet anyone who swept me off my feet. I'm definitely a romantic but don't want a fly-by-night that's over three months later. I need someone with backbone and character. I have high expectations of the person I'm sharing my life with. I'm not demanding but there are certain standards. Even in the lonely moments I was always certain I shouldn't settle."
Her attitude to life now is one of positivity. "If you think the glass is half empty, life will be that way. If I approach life with an attitude of gratitude rather than an attitude of complaints, I feel happy. I've had a lot of colour in my life. I've lived in different places. I have a great circle of friends and people I've met along the way. I'm very rich in that way. At the end of the day, you never get it all."