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.
"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.
Asked if it is important to live near a golf course when you are married to a world famous Irish golfer, she laughs: "To me – no. To him – yes."
They became engaged in Belfast in December 2011 and married in April 2012 on the beach at Abaco in the Bahamas, where they also have a home.
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.
For the record, Alison was wearing "a little black dress and a big long coat". He took his date to a restaurant in London. The chemistry was natural, she says, "because we'd been in contact on the phone and by texting. I'd picked up his sarcastic wit and he'd picked up mine. Laughter eases the situation. I always try and have a light-hearted look at things".
As well as their sense of humour, Darren and Alison has two children apiece from previous marriages. She had Philip (now 22 and in his final year at Manchester University) and Stuart: 26, who works in California for Invest Northern Ireland. Clarke also has two boys: Tyrone, 15, and Conor, 13, both in school in Ballymoney.
What is it like being the very cool steppie?
"It is like deja vu because my boys have four years between them, but it was like big brother, little brother. Darren's are the same: big brother, little brother. They are going through the same things, the same exams, as mine did, and the same going out and parties."
Before Alison and Darren got serious did she introduce him to her kids – and he introduce her to his kids – to see if they all got on?
"When I met Darren he lived in London and I lived here. We knew it was pretty serious from the start. I think the second time I went over to meet him I met his boys," she says.
I ask her did she realise she was on trial?
"You know what? Not really. I was just myself and that's it. I just blasted on in there and I just spoke to them the way I would speak to my own kids. I have a fantastic relationship with them. They're brilliant."
And what did her kids think of Darren?
"They don't see that much of Darren because they are away. They only see him when he comes back. We do try and spend one family holiday all of us together. Over the last couple of years we've tried to do that. So it's good."
Alison got married for the first time when she was just 23 to Arthur Campbell. "All my friends were getting married at the time and it was the thing to [do]," she says, looking back. "I had no long relationships before I met him, because when I was at school I didn't have boyfriends. I had the odd kiss, but there were no relationships."
"It was 19 years of marriage," she continues. "Then, sadly, the marriage broke up. We were just... you know, going in different directions. We stayed together. We had the two kids. We brought them up, but we couldn't see ourselves spending the rest of our lives together".
As an indication of what Alison was like as a young wife, she says when the girls in the bank used to come in with ready-made meals from Marks & Spencer her reaction was shock and awe, as she told them: "I can't believe that you buy those things."
"I used to spend my Saturdays cooking," she says, "making home-made lasagne, home-made pies, and put them in the fridge and freeze them, to have something fresh every night for dinner. I was a Stepford Wife. I was probably anal – I was so 'I want to do this right'."
This near-perfectionist devotion to doing it right is obvious in Campbell's career path. In 1987, she bought the licence for Miss Northern Ireland and has run it ever since. On October 31, 1990, she took voluntary redundancy from the bank, and opened The Alison Campbell Agency the following month. She put her severance money into the business. "I only ever spent what I had. A new desk, a new chair, for the agency. I know that sounds really sad. I think it was because I was always the farmer's daughter. I was taught to appreciate money and the value of money,"says Alison. "I am a country girl at heart," she says – looking more like a younger Agnetha from Abba does rural chic than the "ugly country bumpkin from Norn Ireland".
Her humour and her character is lively yet self-effacing and unpretentious. "I do talk the biggest load of rubbish, don't I?" Alison laughs, adding that despite her height – 5 foot 10 – she is nowhere near the tallest in the family.
"My sister Diane is six foot! My mother is stunning," she continues. "She probably looks 20 years younger than she is. I can't tell you her age or she'd kill me. She has great genes and I am so lucky that I have inherited them."
What Alison has inherited most, she says, is her parents' work ethic. It is not all first-class trips around the world every other week with dashing Darren. "I work very hard. My life is busy and organised, but happy. I come to Belfast to the office. I don't travel all the time with Darren, but I do go with him to some courses. I have a business to run. I am very ambitious. It is not going off on holidays and to lie on the beach. He is going off to work. He is one of the hardest workers. He is so focused."
To people who don't know Darren Clarke, what is he like? "He is actually really quite shy," she says. "But because of his job he is in the public eye and he has had to learn. He is a great people person. He is a perfectionist."
And for people who don't know Alison Campbell, what is she like? "I am a loyal person, an honest person, hard working, fussy – it is has to be right. I don't do second best. I'm probably hard to work for. I don't suffer fools. If somebody messes me about, I give one second chance."
It is nearly time for her to go. (Darren flew in this morning from somewhere exotic and is waiting at home for her exquisite presence.) I just have one last question. Are you still baking obsessively on Saturdays? "No," she says with a laugh. "Darren cooks more than I do, especially now that he is on all his healthy eating. He can cook anything. So can I. I don't, but I can!" Alison roars with laughter, before going out and getting into her sports car and racing back to Darren in Portrush.
ACA Model Agency, 381 Beersbridge Road, Belfast, BT5 5DT P: 028 90 809 809
See the interview on video, www.independent.ie
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