Model Ruth Griffin: 'Real beauty comes from being empowered'
Our new columnist Ruth Griffin tells us about the lessons she learned as a model and the importance of encouraging women to be their best self
Published 06/03/2016 | 02:30
As she breezes in straight from her photoshoot to our interview in a Dublin hotel, it soon becomes clear why the tall, slender Ruth Griffin was one of Ireland's top models for over 15 years.
Thoughtful, wise and witty, there is way more to her than just good looks, and it is this potent combination of beauty and brains that makes her such a force to be reckoned with.
On the make-up front, the softly-spoken Ruth - who joins Weekend with a new beauty column full of tips, tricks and honest advice - has come a very long way since she first robbed her sister Karen's Rimmel black cherry lipstick as a teenager and thought she was 'only gorgeous.'
"I'm so excited to be writing for Weekend, because this is a dream job for me," she explains. "I always did my friends' make-up when I was younger and have such an interest in beauty and skincare."
If she was to look back on herself as a child, Ruth (40), would scarcely have believed that one day she would be sashaying down catwalks or writing for a national newspaper. Growing up in Rathgar, Co. Dublin, as the second-eldest of Paul and Catherine Griffin's five children, she was so shy that her siblings - Karen, Steph, Gill and Paul - jokingly nicknamed her "The Mute".
"Everyone else in my family was really shouty and opinionated, and it was survival of the fittest," she laughs. "Mum and Dad really encouraged us to be very forthright in our opinions, and the whole lot of them would have something to say over dinner every night but I would stay silent.
"In a family like that, you have to stand up for yourself and I have learned to do that over the years. We're all really close now, and I don't know where I would be without that closeness."
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Ruth loved school and says she was a "closet geek" growing up. While her family is Catholic, her mum, a primary school teacher, and dad, an architect, chose to send her to Church of Ireland and French Catholic primary schools, followed by a Jewish secondary. She believes that her varied school experiences gave her a very broad-minded view of the world.
"The system in a lot of south county Dublin private schools can be very elitist and a bit boring," she says. "They breed you to be a certain type of person, so I'm really grateful to my parents for being open-minded enough to encourage us to be curious about the world and different cultures."
As a youngster, Ruth used to love watching her "elegant and understated" mum putting her make-up on. There were no fashion magazines in the house, and Ruth and her sisters weren't allowed to wear make-up, cut their hair, pierce their ears or chew gum until they were 16 - so they did a lot of experimentation after that.
"My older sister, Karen, bought make-up first, so I would steal from her, then my younger sisters would steal from me," she laughs. "It was the 1990s, so we had one lipstick and would all share that and think we were amazing. Karen would put concealer over her lips to make them pale, which is gas looking back now.
"I remember thinking she was this beautiful creature with blonde hair and blue eyes because the rest of us had long, dark hair. There were no straighteners then so we all had these fuzzy heads."
Ruth went on to study French and English at UCD, and then went backpacking for two years. She worked in an art gallery and joined 1st Option Models at 22.
The world of modelling was different back then; the online world didn't exist and regular people didn't go to fashion shows. Very different to today, when every model, stylist and blogger in the land is now striving to become a brand in their own right through social media.
"Everyone is on Snapchat now showing what they're wearing and what make-up they bought," says Ruth, incredulously. "I think it's all a little noisy now. I would prefer to listen to fewer people with more knowledge than this ocean of noise. "
Ruth loved working with creative people, and had great fun with her close circle of model friends, who included Sarah McGovern, Aoife Cogan, Jenny Lee Masterson, Kristi Kuudisiim and Karen Fitzpatrick. "I loved the freedom of modelling and found it very stimulating. The erratic nature of it didn't bother me, because I was in my 20s and being behind a desk didn't appeal to me at all."
At first, she used to do with just a slick of Vaseline on her eyelashes by day, but soon developed a huge interest in cosmetics.
Ruth estimates that models do their own hair and make-up for more than 50pc of the jobs they're booked for in Ireland, which meant that she had to learn the difference between doing it for real life, screen, TV or print.
"It was very creative and I used to ask for all the tips and recommendations," she recalls. "As a model, you have to invest in really good brushes and brands, as you have to be able to do your make-up and hair in every single way, from 1940s glam to Brigitte Bardot. It's all trickery really and as Sophia Loren said, 'Sex appeal is 50pc what you've got and 50pc what people think you've got,' and that's it in a nutshell."
Ruth says that her longevity in modelling is attributable to the fact that she flew under the radar, and was never the "sexy girl" or the "press girl". She was just doing a little bit of everything, and leaning more towards fashion shoots than commercial jobs.
She retired from modelling in December 2013, but says that she never felt under pressure as younger models came along on the scene.
"I was the older age bracket," she says, "so I wasn't competing against 16-year-old girls. I was the mummy and I loved that there were so many markets and different age groups in Dublin. In fact, a lot of Irish clients, such as Xposé, prefer a more mature model and I like that.
"The downside of modelling was that finances were up and down - some months you'd think you were a millionaire and other months you'd be struggling. It makes me laugh when people stereotype models as being dim-witted, because you actually wouldn't survive in the industry if you didn't have a certain amount of savvy and cop on. You have to be business-minded, because while you work through an agency, you're self-employed."
What about the downside to modelling? We hear about eating disorders and agencies putting pressure on young girls, but Ruth says that this was never the case for her. "I'm 5ft 11in and was always tall and slim," she points out. "I am kind of a greyhound and it was never a struggle for me to maintain my weight, and maybe that was why I was able to enjoy modelling for as long as I did. People say I'm genetically blessed, but 150 years ago, I wouldn't have been seen as very attractive, so fashion changes."
In 2004, Ruth met rugby international - now sports pundit - Alan Quinlan while working at the K Club. She thought he was really handsome, but was under the impression that he fancied her friend and fellow model Sarah McGovern.
"She told me he was staring at me, but all the boys loved Sarah so I told her it must be her that he was looking at," she laughs. "He kept coming in and out to meet and greet the guests with me, but I did a bit of a runner because I was mortified, so we didn't talk to each other."
Not to be deterred, Alan phoned fellow rugby player, Malcolm O'Kelly, who is married to Ruth's sister Steph, and had a chat. "Steph was the gate-keeper before Mal gave my number," Ruth laughs. "Alan got her seal of approval. I love matchmaking and I actually set herself and Mal up. They're married now with three gorgeous little boys, and I'm so proud of that."
Ruth and Alan were married in 2008 and had their son AJ in 2009, which delighted Ruth as she had wanted children since she au paired as a teenager. "I had been broody since I was 19," she says.
"When I had AJ, I felt in my heart that this is what life was all about and why I am here. You hear about postnatal depression, but I felt whatever the opposite is, because I was just floaty and euphoric. I absolutely loved, and still love, being a mum."
Alan and Ruth made their home in Limerick, and Ruth found that hard when AJ came along as none of her family were nearby to help out. Sadly the marriage ended in 2011, and she returned to live in Dublin, where she had great support from her close-knit family. She went back modelling part-time, although she officially retired in December 2013, and did a master's in business at the UCD Smurfit School.
Ruth and AJ now live in a house that Alan bought for them in Churchtown, and she says she has really enjoyed being a full-time, stay-at-home mum since hanging up her modelling heels.
"Alan and I are very good friends, and we co-parent and work together really well together," she says. "He sees AJ whenever he wants, and we do family stuff together, and it all works very well. After the break-up, I was in complete Mama Bear mode for a long time, and could have done with a bit more time to think about it from my own point of view. I would say it is really only in the last little while that I have been processing it myself, but I just concentrated on what was best for AJ. I wanted to build a future for him and make sure that none of it affected him in any way."
It is well-known that, for a divorced couple, Alan and Ruth now get on famously well. Given that she has been through the heartbreak of the ending of her marriage, what advice does she have for people who find themselves in a similar situation?
"I think you are never going to go wrong in life if you are kind and open-hearted," she says, reflectively. "Kindness is love with its work boots on, and I think that in any situation, just try to have goodness in your heart, and be kind to yourself and the other person, no matter what has happened.
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"You also have to adapt as your circumstances waver and make the best of everything that happens. I would never say a bad word about Alan, and he's a brilliant dad. He is a very good person and has worked very hard all his life, and does everything for AJ and for me, to be honest with you."
According to Ruth, seven-year-old AJ is sweet, funny, demanding and sensitive. He is also really sporty, and loves rugby, Gaelic, hurling, swimming and being on the trampoline. He obviously gets the sports gene from his dad, but is he like him in personality?
"He is himself more than he's like me or Alan," she says. "AJ is stubborn and determined, which I like about him as it will get him a lot of places in life, and that's a trait that Alan has too. AJ can be a little quiet at times, which may be from me, but I worry about him when he plays rugby because the game has become so physical and demanding.
"I worried about Alan too when he played, because when I hear the 'thud' I always feel there is something so unnatural about it and wish they could wear helmets. My dad is starting golf lessons with AJ and is all about getting him more into the non-contact sports, so we will see how that goes."
One of the criticisms regularly levelled against the beauty industry is that it encourages women to focus on their physical appearance rather than what is going on inside their heads. What would Ruth say to those who feel that the area of beauty is shallow and there is more to women than how they look?
"I think that's fair enough, because it is shallow to a certain extent," she admits. "I know myself, however, that when you are going through hell, you have to keep going, as Winston Churchill said, so why not keep going while looking as fabulous as you can and embracing that femininity? For me, it is not just about looking lovely - I would encourage women to look as beautiful as they want, to be the best in their job that they can be, and to be empowered."
Ruth feels that women wanting to enhance themselves is a desire that is as old as time itself, and she has a point as the history of cosmetics spans at least 6,000 years. It has even been argued that cosmetic body art was the earliest form of ritual in human culture, dating over 100,000 years ago from the African Middle Stone Age.
"We have been doing this beauty business for millennia and it's not going to change now," she smiles.
"I do understand that there has been a tipping point though, and there is this air of being obsessed with the way you look now, which is maybe down to the 'selfie' culture. Beauty is not about masking, whatever age you are, whether it's 80, 50 or 20, it's about looking after your skin and making the best of yourself. That's why I want my new column to be really positive and pro-women with lots of genuinely helpful tips, and not a 'circle of shame' type of thing. I can't wait to share what I have learned with everyone."