Confidence trick: Thalia's insecurity and why she thinks the world's gone mad
"The most shocking thing for young girls now is going on holidays and seeing real people," says Thalia Heffernan.
She laughs, but she's not joking. Nor does she find it particularly funny. "I genuinely think that's a real thing," she says. "They go on holidays and see people's bodies and what they're really like, and they can't believe that this is what people look like when they're not on Instagram."
Thalia is a woman on a mission. The 22-year-old model - who has been in the fashion business since she was 15 and who was the second star to be voted off Dancing With The Stars - believes that the world has gone mad. Social media is at the core of the madness, she believes, and in particular the manner in which it has created a universal obsession with skewed and manipulated images.
She thinks that this is particularly true of her generation, which is constantly looking at photographs of itself, critiquing, rejecting, tweaking, filtering and only sharing the images that they believe to be their best.
This might strike some as a bit rich, coming from someone whose career is in an industry built on skewed and manipulated images. She's a model; she did a TV dancing show; her new romance with DWTS professional dancer Ryan McShane became public knowledge through Instagram - her life isn't exactly low-key and dead ordinary. But then, who better than someone with that wealth of knowledge and experience to recognise what's going on and to call it out?
Further, some might say that it's easy for someone beautiful to say that the ordinary folk should stop obsessing about looking perfect and striving to achieve perfection. But, then, that's a second part of Thalia's point. She knows that people look at her and think that because she's a model, she must be utterly confident about how she looks, while Thalia says she is far from it. It's important that people know that, she says, and, even more important that we stop believing that looking good is the same as feeling good; is the same as being a good person.
"Society has done this awful tilt," says Thalia, "and I'm not sure how we'll come back level again. Kylie Jenner was, what, 17 when she had her first lip job? Now, I would never body-shame anyone, and if you're that unconfident in your body and it affects your mental health, I think you should do whatever you need to feel OK. That's your choice, and I agree with it.
"But it's what other girls are doing off the back of Kylie Jenner's choices that bother me. It's now this thing that if you don't have that physique and that perfect face, you're not good enough.
"And that's when you're not good enough just to be yourself. People think the better version of themselves will make them happy; that it's not enough to just be yourself. Kylie Jenner holds a big responsibility - she's out there, she's a role model, so she has a responsibility.
I've been that young girl looking up to beautiful girls and wishing I could be like them and thinking everything would be OK if I was more like them. But I know now that that is so wrong, and I feel a bit of responsibility to say that."
Last December, when the images of the annual Victoria's Secret show were hard to avoid, Thalia posted a message on her Instagram that advised against measuring oneself against the "unobtainable" bodies of the show's Angel models.
She counselled against constant comparing and coming up short, and allowing a creeping self-dissatisfaction to cloud good judgement and common sense. Thalia was almost universally applauded for her comments - not that she doesn't get hateful, who-do-you-think-you-are comments too, she laughs - and she felt inspired by the reaction.
Funnily, around the same time, she had agreed to take part in Dancing With The Stars. It was a decision based not only on advancing her career, she says, but also advancing her message. She said, before the show began in early January, that she wanted people to see "the real" Thalia and that meant no make-up as much as possible; lots of goofiness; lots of laughing at herself; not taking her image too seriously.
Obviously, on show night she was done up to the nines, but footage of rehearsals showed Thalia stripped back and relatively raw - and, she laughs, not necessarily the best dancer in the world.
"Oh my god," exclaims Thalia. "Going onto the floor on the Sunday nights was like walking out naked for me. All the 'I'm in the [modelling] industry and used to being looked at and being in front of the [photographer's] camera', you'd think I'd be used to it, but going out there doing that, that was really saying, 'OK, this is who I actually am'.
In advance of DWTS, Thalia wasn't that worried about the dancing bit. After one day of rehearsals, she was wondering what she'd let herself in for. On the first night of the live show, as she stood waiting for the judge's critiques, she was shaking so hard that host Amanda Byram held her hand to stop her from falling over.
For Thalia, there was an extraordinary relinquishing of control involved in doing Dancing With The Stars. She's trained in relinquishing control of her image as a model, but that's a different thing. So much of what was shown of her on the TV show was beyond her control and, while that was part of the exercise, it was also difficult.
"I'm not used to moving or talking or having a voice," Thalia continues. "I'm used to standing and moving very simply and in a very particular way that I've learned over years. I thought [TV] would be an easier transition than it was. It was so weird seeing and hearing myself and you had no choice, because they showed your VTs in rehearsal on the show and it was awful. It was so strange; I had my head in an armpit."
"But you have to laugh, and I had to remind myself that you're your own worst critic, we all are. And other people don't see you the way you see yourself."
Thalia laughs when she explains that, off-duty, she hates having her photograph taken. She hates the constant snapping that happens on a modern-day night out - or even night in.
"I hate having my photograph taken," she says. "Ask any of my friends, my boyfriend, my ex-boyfriends, they'll tell you that I hate photos. When people try to take photos of me I'm, like, 'No, leave me out of it!' I just freak out. But it's like I have this alter ego. My job is to be in photographs, so I just do it because it's my work. And I'll make sure to be whatever the job needs me to be."
That took practise, of course. When Thalia did her first shoot at the age of 15 for photographer Barry McCall, she was trembling so much that all of her photos were out of focus. There was something in her that wanted to continue, though. Perhaps it was her background - her mother, Susan Ebrill, was a model, and her father, Gerard Heffernan, worked for a long time in TV production with his twin brother, Dave. One also suspects that Thalia was wise beyond her years; she has two sisters who are eight and 10 years older than her.
Her family and her agent, Rebecca Morgan, all said that 15-year-old Thalia had the right stuff to be a model; she just needed the confidence.
"We are all insecure," Thalia says, "and your own body awareness is so important. And so many people don't have body confidence, and then those who do have it are seen as arrogant. When it's not arrogance at all, in general.
"For me, it's about promoting the ability to be comfortable. To be able to walk down the street with no make-up. To not feel like you have to hide if you don't feel perfect. I want to hide half the time, too. I don't have massive self-esteem and I'm not the most confident person you're going to come across."
This is not what you expect a model to say, but the young woman who can turn it on for the camera isn't what Thalia would call her real self. Her real self is the girl on DWTS "who was awkward and didn't know what she was doing and was able to laugh at herself for that".
Thalia admits that she was "gutted" to be the second celebrity ejected from the dancing contest. "I knew the [public] voting would be where I lost out," she says. "I was the youngest contestant; not around that long; from Dublin; no parish. None of my friends would vote for a show like that and none of my friends would even watch it live; they'd record it and watch it later. That's the reality. So who would be voting for me?
"It was a knock to my confidence, but people were actually very kind since. I loved the show, but the same week it started, I travelled three days for work, and moved house. I was run ragged.
"I also got him," she says, gesturing to her dog, a lurcher with David Bowie mismatched eyes, called Leonard. Animal welfare is where Thalia's heart lies, she tells me, explaining how she's halfway through an online degree in advanced animal psychology and behaviour.
Getting a dog gave her a proper feeling of being rooted, of having a home, she says. Three years ago, her parents separated, and that was a tough time.
"My response was to just run away," she says. "I'd just finished school and it was like: 'We're splitting up and selling the house'. So I was, like, 'OK, see ya later, I'm off.' And I went to Australia, working. I just ran away to the other side of the world at 19.
"Now, everything that happens has made me who I am, so I wouldn't change it, but still, it was hard. A separation is always going to be hard, and it changes the dynamic.
"My sisters are much older. There are only 14 months between them and they moved in together, and when I was back from Australia, I moved between my parents for a while, and then in with my dad, and then I lived with my mum. Then, last summer, I went to London, and now I'm living in my own place, with a roommate, for the first time. I couldn't have a dog in either of my parents' houses, but I can have one now and that makes it feel like home.
"I'd like to be a spokesperson for animal rights eventually," Thalia says, and going on TV, I suspect, was part of that grand plan. She wishes she'd lasted longer on Dancing With The Stars, of course; wishes she'd had more time to convey the 'relax and like yourself' message.
Thalia's glad she did it, though, not least because she met Ryan, the Northern Irish champion dancer. He has returned to his home and life in Birmingham since the show ended last month, but Thalia seems confident that they are going to make it work, and next month they are going on holiday to Tuscany together.
"Katherine Lynch and I got the same car to the Dancing With The Stars show every week," says Thalia. "We became such friends; I love that woman to bits. But when it started, we were both single and we were, like, 'Well, we've found each other; we'll have great fun together.' Neither of us was looking to meet a man, and by the time the final show came, we were both in relationships.
"It was a great thing to come out of the show," she says with a laugh. "Who knew? And that's the beauty of the world. Neither of us saw it coming. And it happened in the real world, through just being with people and not in the unreal world. I wasn't even on Tinder; I found a man in real life!"
Photography by Aaron Hurley
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Thalia's Top Tips
I RECENTLY BECAME VEGETARIAN.
I go through about three tubs of hummus a day. The Happy Pear boys are a brilliant find. I have both their books, and I love their soups especially. I can batch-cook and freeze them, and if I come in from a long day, I can quickly have some home-made soup with bread and butter. And I love their falafel recipe. thehappypear.ie
I LOVE KEVIN MURPHY HAIR TREATMENTS. My hair gets so damaged on shoots that, when I'm not working, I slick it back and put a treatment in and leave it in all day. Kevin Murphy treatments work amazingly well, and they smell incredible. shampoo.ie
FOR MY SKIN, I SWEAR BY LIZ EARLE. I use the Cleanse & Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser, the day cream and the eye cream. They're all organic and animal-friendly and have no clogging waxes in them. My skin is put through hell the whole time at work, but these products just make it feel so clean and healthy. boots.ie
I ALWAYS WEAR MASCARA. When I'm not working, I wear as little make-up as possible. But I have eyelash extensions and I put mascara on them. That turns me into a girl.