Irish model Aoife Walsh sets off to conquer New York: 'I've always been one to have a game plan'
Aoife Walsh never thought of herself as modelling material. With three degrees under her belt by the age of 23, she took a break from her studies to try her hand at modelling, and went on to win Miss Ireland. In a LIFE exclusive, she tells our reporter about her latest and possibly boldest move yet - taking on the modelling world of New York.
Becoming a beauty queen, winning Miss Ireland and moving to New York were never part of Aoife Walsh's plan.
Life was planned out; there would be study, a HDip, and a teaching career. As it happened, nothing panned out as she expected. At 27, she has just taken her biggest, most unlikely leap yet - earlier this year she moved to New York and got signed with an agency, in the hope that her career as an influencer and model will gain further traction there.
"I've been modelling for a few years in Ireland, and I wanted a new challenge, and to experience something different. I'd always wanted to live in New York; it's that dream a lot of people have. I decided to just come over and put a couple of feelers out and see if anyone would bite about joining an agency here. To see if that would be a possibility for me."
She attended three agencies that she liked the look of, to open-casting calls, and, as it turned out, all three offered her a contract. It's daunting, and much more competitive than Ireland, she says, but she's loving the new experience. It helps that her Irish boyfriend lives there as well, and that she plans to come home regularly - when we speak, it's just three weeks since she moved over and she's heading back to Ireland for her first visit home. "I'm very much a home bird, and I very much miss my mum and dad," says Aoife, whose mother first urged her on to enter the Miss Ireland competition.
From the outset, the Irish model has always been in something of a rush to get started, to succeed. It's an attitude that should serve her well in her new home. Having skipped transition year in school - "I just wanted to get going with my life" - she was just 17 starting her BA in economics and geography in UCC. "I was a bit of a go-getter. I suppose I still am," she muses. "I definitely would consider myself an ambitious person."
Teaching was the aim, but, unusually for one so intent on her studies, getting into the course proved difficult. "I didn't get it. I was gutted. I was really disappointed," she says of applying for the HDip in teaching and education after her degree. "I suppose it was the first time in my life where I wanted to do something, and I had the door shut," she reflects. Sitting around was clearly not an option, so it was on to a master's in the University of Limerick, tutoring in a Youthreach centre in Waterford, and studying accountancy at night. The rather brutal workload sounds almost like a form of self-punishment.
"I grew up that year," she recalls. "I went out about five times in the whole year. I was determined to do quite well in my master's. And I did. I was like, 'Thank God. Thank God'," she repeats emphatically. There's a pause in her resolutely chipper manner. You get the impression that the minor failure had cut rather deeply. She applied again for the teacher-training course. "And I didn't get it again. Second time around." Even now she looks faintly baffled by this, and the sense of relief is palpable when she moves on; third time around, she was offered UCC and Trinity.
She chose Trinity, moving from her native Tipperary; her first time living in the city. "It was a really exciting time for me," she recalls. She was newly single, her then boyfriend having emigrated. "That was very sad, of course, but we stayed in touch," she says briskly.
As it turned out, the year at Trinity was "a really, really hard year". As well as college, she was teaching, which was unpaid. To cover rent and bills, she worked as a model in the Abercrombie & Fitch store, having been scouted in Dundrum Town Centre. "Hey, what's going on? Welcome to Abercrombie & Fitch," she intones. "I mean, you folded [clothes] sometimes as well."
Modelling wasn't an obvious choice. "It was the first time I had ever done anything modelesque. I was just thrilled to be included," she smiles. "I knew nothing of anything like that. I was aware of it, but I kind of always thought, 'Oh, I'm not good enough for that'. But I was thrilled and I really, really enjoyed the job. It was definitely a confidence boost." That summer, working in Abercrombie & Fitch, she thought she'd wait until September, and see if a teaching job came up.
On the side, she had entered Miss University. It was nerve-wracking, she recalls. "I just kept smiling. I would have considered myself a country girl. Considered myself not really good enough, not tall enough for to be a Miss." Coming third was a huge confidence boost.
The next year, she almost didn't enter the Miss Tipperary heat. "I remember sitting by the fire with my mum. I was bowled over with school work. I was like, 'I don't know if I'll go. I've so much to do. I dunno if I'll bother'. My mum said to me - and I'll never forget this - she was like, 'Aoife, if you're going to sit here at the fire tonight with me, will you regret not going up, not doing it'. And I was like, 'Yeah, I will'. She was like, 'Just go up. Get into the car now and go up'."
There's an unabashed sense of ambition about Aoife that's refreshing, and charming in its own way. It's the same quality of moxie that you associate with Reese Witherspoon in her lighter films. You suspect it might come with a perfectionism that could, at times, make Aoife quite hard on herself. Physically, she's a much prettier version of Bree from Desperate Housewives; outwardly, she's all perfectly coiffed hair and immaculate make-up - which might cloak an inner steel. There's a faint suggestion of an old-style, 1950s femininity.
Winning Miss Ireland was, she says, one of the best moments of her life. At the competition, the question she was asked was, "What is the worst thing that ever happened to you, how did you deal with it, and how did you overcome it?"
"I said,'I need a minute'," she recalls, at which the crowd crowed, "Oooooh".
"I didn't want to give a dreary answer. In my mind, I was flashing through moments of my life. It was like a lightbulb went off. 'I have it, I have the answer!'," she remembers thinking triumphantly. Not getting the HDip first time was the answer: "The first time being told I couldn't do something that I wanted to do". In a masterclass in the classic 'beauty queen overcomes hardship' narrative, Aoife elaborated on how she went on to deal with the disappointment, by getting more education, working with disadvantaged kids, and showing she had a vocation for her chosen occupation.
A lot of people said to her afterwards that she knew she was going to win, but she says actually, she didn't. She even had a holiday booked for the day after the Miss Ireland final. Unexpectedly, the world of beauty pageantry allowed her greater freedom than she had ever known in her adult life, and provided her with the impetus to let loose a little.
"I really liked it, because it wasn't heavy," she explains. "I was so used to being so academic and constantly working really hard. I just felt that this was a little bit more fun. I was at a stage in my life where I just wanted to do something a little bit lighter. I felt that the HDip year, it nearly finished me off. I stood back and was like, 'I'm 23, I've done three degrees'. I kind of was like, 'OK, I've achieved a lot'. I was exhausted."
Typically though, she didn't rest on her laurels. To create a career out of modelling, "you have to work really, really hard", she says firmly. "You win Miss Ireland and it is a fantastic platform. I am proof of that. I really pushed myself to work at modelling."
Now, she's scored major campaigns for Newbridge Silverware and Ryanair, and a stint presenting her own show for the now defunct Irish TV. You suspect that a TV travel show might be next on the bucket list she confesses to having. "My dream job growing up was Kathryn Thomas's in No Frontiers." Her Instagram posts are peppered with hashtags about her regular travels, #aoifetravels, pointedly setting travel up as part of her brand.
"I've always been one to have a game plan," she reflects.
She took a lot of last summer off, and some of it was taken up with planned travels. As it turned out, the break was necessary, as Aoife had approached her modelling career with the same exhausting determination as her college studies. "I'd been working really hard since I won Miss Ireland. I really kind of threw myself into modelling, and the scene and the industry. And I kind of said, 'I want to enjoy life a little bit'. I suppose I have a pattern of taking on a lot. I never want to say no. And I try and do everything, because I just want to grab every opportunity."
However, her self-imposed hiatus took an unexpected turn, when in August last year, while on holiday in Greece, she fractured her arm after slipping on the way to breakfast in the hotel. "The very minute I hit the marble ground, I knew that something was really wrong. I had never felt pain like that before.
"When something like that happens, it's so unexpected. I was expecting to just go back to work, and go back to normal, and I really had to take additional time out that I hadn't forseen." Unable to look after herself, Aoife went home to her parents for a time.
"It was kind of a tough time, because you get so frustrated. I was disappointed that I had to take more time out. I wasn't depressed or anything, I think I was just a little bit lonely," she says, laughing her tinkling laugh. "I wanted to be out and about."
For now, it's New York, and an attempt to carve out something there. "I really enjoy what I do. It's not going to last forever, so I always just like to live in the moment, and enjoy it while I can," she reflects. "I push myself to do my best. I think it's because I don't want to have any regrets about anything, ever. I suppose that's why I take on a lot."
And if it doesn't work out, there is always teaching. "I'll go back when the time is right," she smiles. "When I'm too old and nobody wants me any more."
Photographed by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Hair by Roy Leigh, Brown Sugar, 36 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 210-8630
Make-up by Dearbhla Keenan, Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Photographed at Carton House, Maynooth, Co Kildare, tel: (01) 505-2000, or see cartonhouse.com
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