Sunday 28 December 2014

The love that brought a superstar home

She's married to one of the world's best golfers, but Alison Campbell is not content to sit back in her Bahamas second home and work on her tan. The model agency boss and former beauty queen tells Barry Egan about her work ethic, and how she and Darren Clarke hit it off

The farmer's daughter from Strabane, County Tyrone, takes the right turn onto Great Victoria Street in Belfast. The memories are coming back to her almost as fast as her 2014 white sports car eats up the road. The Amazonian tall blonde, dressed to the nines in designer duds and heels that could draw blood, recalls arriving in this city as an innocent 18-year-old from the countryside. It was a brave new world for her. She didn't know a soul.

Everyone knows Alison Campbell now as she gets out of the BMW at the Europa Hotel.

The doorman rushes over to park her car for her. The manager has a special table for her waiting upstairs. She looks the quintessence of style as she ascends the stairs. The exact opposite, in fact, to how she thought she looked when, as Miss Northern Ireland in 1982, she went over to take part in the Miss United Kingdom pageant – the winner was entered in Miss World.

"So I went to Miss UK thinking I was the ugly country bumpkin from Northern Ireland," she says. "They were glamourous and gorgeous. I had short-ish mousey brown hair. I turned up in a khaki green all-in-one jumpsuit with little khaki green elf-type boots. I thought I was trendy until I saw the other girls."

The judges, plainly, didn't agree. The 'ugly country bumpkin' finished runner-up. Her beauty and composure on stage – despite animal rights protesters running onstage because the contest, televised live, was sponsored by a fur company – was noted.

She now owns the Miss Northern Ireland competition, runs the biggest model company in the six counties – The Alison Campbell Modelling Agency – and is married to one of the world's most famous golfers, Darren Clarke.

Alison Campbell and Darren Clarke
STUNNING: Alison thought she was a country bumpkin when she competed in Miss UK, but the judges didn’t agree and she finished runner-up. She now runs Miss Northern Ireland, has her own modelling agency and is married to golfer Darren Clarke (opposite page). Photo: Tony Gavin

"I remember getting off the bus from Victoria Bridge in Strabane just here at the Europa and then walking to my digs up on the Lisburn Road," she says, taking herself back to when she got a plum job with Ulster Bank all those years ago. "First of all, the bank put me up in a B&B for two weeks' training. So I was sort of looked after for two weeks. Then you were told where you were being posted to and my transfer was to the Ulster Bank in Skipper Street, which is now the Merchant Hotel. So from the sticks of Strabane to the buzz of Belfast. And this was in 1979! The bombs! The bullets! This was right in the middle of the Troubles," she says with a laugh, her azure eyes lighting up.

And how did her mother and father feel about their young daughter going to Belfast during all that? "They knew I was quite an independent person. They have always backed whatever I have done. I never had fear in my life. It was just my life," she says.

Was it because growing up on a farm in the idyll of Strabane that the bombs and bullets of far away Belfast never occurred to her? "I don't think it did. Although in Strabane we had bomb scares in school. We couldn't drive through the head of the town. We had to get a bus."

Alison had to go though a Catholic area to get to her Protestant school, and she recalls the buses were often stoned as they passed.

I ask her was she ever on a bus that was stoned? "Oh yeah!" she laughs. "But it was just youths going, 'Oh there's the grammar school kids'. There were special buses."

Her parents, Helen and Jim Smyth, came from a Presbyterian background, but had lots of friends, both Protestant and Catholic, "so that wasn't an issue. They raised me with an open mind. They are Christian people but they are not OTT. They have an open mind. And I think because of the horse industry – which we were in and travelled all over Ireland – we had friends of all religions", says Alison. She is the eldest of five children: brothers Richard and Peter Smyth are acclaimed showjumpers; her sister Pauline Twadell lives in Malahide, her other sister Diane McIvor lives in Cookstown.

Her earliest childhood memory says something about the determination and sense of independence that Alison would display in later life. She came out of school in Newtownstewart in County Tyrone at four years old and couldn't find her mother in the car. She didn't cry. She decided she would walk home the four miles. "I didn't get that far – I got down the main street before my mum and dad picked me up in the Land Rover, but I knew where I was going. That was me. I thought: 'They're not here. So I'll just walk.'"

You could make the poetic point that Alison helped Ulsterman Darren Clarke find his way home. When she met him in 2009 he was very much not in a good place: still grieving for his wife Heather who died, aged 39, of breast cancer in August 2006 in the Royal Marsden Hospital, London. There is no doubt that the love Alison and Darren developed helped heal him. It also brought Darren – who was living in Berkshire – home to Northern Ireland; he and Alison now live in Portrush, near the famous golf club which hosted the Irish Open two years ago.

In November 2009, they were set up on a blind date by Darren's friend and fellow golfer Graeme McDowell. "It was blind in the fact that we had never met each other in person before. He texted me on a Sunday. He was getting on a plane to come back from Hong Kong. I said to my son Philip: 'I've just got this text from Darren Clarke. What will I reply?' He said: 'Who's Darren Clarke?' Philip meant that as a joke because he knew who he was."

The golf superstar and the beauty queen arranged to meet at Heathrow Airport. As Alison got off the plane from Belfast, he texted her: "How will I know you?"

"I'm the one in the silver hot pants with the gold knee-high boots," was her reply. "Just to scare him a bit. He had Googled me at this stage, he'd had seen pictures," she adds.

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