Model Brittany Mason's journey from bullying and abuse in small-town America to love and fulfilment in Ireland
Brittany Mason covers her face with her hands and shrieks with embarrassment when I ask if she really dated Leonardo DiCaprio.
"Ahhhh!" she yelps from behind her hands, before lowering them and clarifying. "I wouldn't call it 'dated'. We hung out. He was split up with Bar [Refaeli] at the time and we hung out one time, and after that weekend, he was back with Bar." It wasn't anything Brittany did, she hastens to reassure me, it was just one of those LA things. LA is a weird place, she says.
Dublin, on the other hand, this former Miss USA finalist is finding far from weird.
Brittany has been in Dublin since last New Year's Eve, having moved lock, stock and barrel from California, with her partner, Stephen, while he sets up his company's aviation-business office in Ireland. I meet her in their chic town house in Portobello, with their new chihuahua, Alfie, scampering around, imploring us to play, and a giant, signed Andy Warhol on the wall. "The only thing we didn't sell before we moved here," Brittany says, when I admire it.
And the dog, I comment, suggests commitment to Ireland. "Yeah," says Brittany, "we're here indefinitely and I'm loving it so far. Ireland has that hominess, that Southern hospitality that I know from growing up, and I love it here. It's a great adventure already."
If you google Brittany, "hominess" isn't what you immediately take to be her comfort zone. You find pictures of her with Obama, and a few articles about when she "hung out" with Leo, and a lot of articles about the pretty impressive anti-bullying work she has done across America. And that's not to mention the fact that she represented the United States at Teen Model of the World and came second, or that she came seventh in the Miss USA pageant, getting particular attention from Donald Trump, who then owned it.
But a few minutes in Brittany's company conveys that way in which glitz and glamour, beauty and success, are no real indicator of what lies beneath. Or what has gone on in the person's past.
When Brittany describes herself as a "classic American country girl", she means it, and she isn't faking it. But she is, also, a classic American country girl who has come a long way, who dragged herself along that way to a great extent, and who has a hard-won belief that she has far to go yet. And now, in Ireland, she's started to wonder if she could be the USA's gift to the Irish beauty-queen scene.
"I'm a midwest girl," Brittany explains, "from a very small farming town in Indiana. But I always knew there was more to life than Indiana, and I wanted to get out and experience the world, and of course everyone thought that I was crazy. I was the black sheep of the family. Most of my cousins married their high-school sweethearts and had babies, and that's great, but I wanted something different. I wanted to travel and I wanted to see what else there was."
There was more than itchy feet at work in Brittany's ambitions to spread her wings, though. Her childhood, as she explains it, was insecure and sometimes traumatic. She has talked in the past about abuse at one point in her childhood, and she was seriously bullied as a teenager, but the desire to flee took root earlier than that.
Her parents were never married and Brittany grew up without her biological father in her life. Her mother married while Brittany was still a child, and she loves her stepfather and calls him dad. But that doesn't make it a nice, neat, cosy story.
"Before my mom got married, there wasn't a huge amount of stability in my life," Brittany explains. "I moved around and lived with different aunts and uncles, and so one of my aunts, she was like a mom to me. I was very close to her and she always encouraged me to meet my [biological] dad, but my mom forbade it.
"She didn't want him anywhere near me or anything; there were drug-addiction problems, and other things that I found out later. I found out a lot of stuff as an adult, but back then, my mom wouldn't talk about it, and it was just forbidden.
"So my mom and her sister got in a huge fight and stopped speaking for seven years," Brittany continues, "until my uncle, their brother, passed away. So, when that happened, I went and met with my aunt and started to rebuild a relationship with her, and she said a box had come in the mail for me five years before and she was holding it for me."
All of this explanation comes as a result of me asking if Brittany got out of Indiana by the classic, work-hard-and-escape-to-college route. And the explanation pours out of her, very articulately, like someone who, as she admits, has done a lot of work on herself. Someone who has squared things with her past and, as Brittany says, "healed".
The box her aunt was holding contained details of Brittany's biological dad, but more of that later. First, though, there is the difficult issue of her adolescence.
Brittany is absolutely of the belief that her unstable background was a contributory factor in the bullying that happened. She's not blaming herself, but she thinks that bullies sensed a vulnerability and went for it.
"I think I was very passive, so in a way, my approach to people was to kill them with kindness, and that's fine," Brittany says, "but sometimes you have to stick up for yourself. I didn't really stick up for myself in the beginning and I let them walk all over me, and I think they thought they could push me and they took it too far."
The bullying of Brittany started when she began high school. It started with a small group of girls, and then escalated. There was no adult in her corner, she believes, no one grown-up on her side, and that played a huge part in how it all spun out of control.
She describes one of "the worst days", the homecoming parade during her high-school freshman year. All of the students were gathered in the school gym, competing to be the class with the loudest school chant. Then a few key girls began chanting something else and, gradually, everyone joined in and the adults did nothing.
"They had a picture of me and they drew all types of phallic symbols and degrading names and they started chanting and pointing, 'You're ugly, you're ugly, you're ugly!'" Brittany recalls, as if it was yesterday. "I was 14 and these girls were older than me and I didn't know why they were doing this.
"It became pretty serious," she continues. "It became physical. Girls, specifically, and then there was an incident with two male classmates and their father, and I was assaulted. The guy, the father, specifically, was someone who was very influential in the community and I didn't come from anything financially where I could afford a lawyer, and because I was a minor, the state-appointed a lawyer . . . I couldn't get help from anyone in the town. I felt like I was being run out of the town.
"There was property damage, there were threats, they actually got red paint and poured it over my parents' yard as blood," Brittany explains, shaking her head at the memory.
No wonder she dreamed of getting out, I say, though the drive she demonstrated in her desire to escape still comes as a surprise.
"Because of the seriousness of the bullying and the feeling that I had nowhere to go and no one to help me, I attempted suicide," Brittany says. Her attempt failed, and, maybe spurred her to try something else as a means of getting away from Indiana.
At the age of 14, Brittany Mason looked at models in magazines and thought, "I want that." They always looked so happy, she says, laughing at her naive interpretation of their posed shots. But, I suppose you could say, anyone looked happier than she felt back then.
Some 14-year-olds might have looked at those models and thought, "Some day . . ." Brittany Mason thought, "Now." Her need was that urgent. She wasn't waiting four years and gambling on getting into college, she needed it sooner.
Not that she really knew anything about how to become a model. She didn't rate her looks, but she knew she was tall and that her measurements were about right for modelling. And she knew she needed pictures, so this driven 14-year-old went around wedding photographers and got them to take shots for her portfolio in exchange for photos to include in their portfolios.
"I didn't even know that you needed to send these to agencies or anything," she laughs now, "but then I heard about this model search and I entered that and four agencies scouted me."
Though Brittany's parents put their foot down and said she wasn't taking any offers to go to Japan or New York, these offers made her all the more certain that modelling was her way out.
She knew now that she could do it, that they wanted her, so when she was 16, she found another agency keen to sign her and told her parents that if they didn't let her go, she was going to drive to New York herself and live in her car. And so, off she went.
"I didn't last that long," Brittany laughs, "not that time. It was such a culture shock and they wanted me to lose so much weight. I was so young and hadn't filled out or anything, and it was just so extreme.
"I was on the treadmill for, like, five to nine miles a day," she explains. "I was living on sugar-free Jell-O and tuna fish, and it was just so tough and I lost so much weight it was sickening me. All my clothes were falling off of me. I went on a couple of castings for Versace and Calvin Klein, but my agent said, 'We're not sending you out any more until you totally lose more weight.' I still wasn't skinny enough, even though I was at the measurements they wanted.
"Since they weren't sending me out and I couldn't lose 'enough weight', quote unquote, I ended up going back to Anderson - so defeated, ugh, so defeated. But then I got something in the mail to enter a pageant and I was like, 'OK, maybe this will be something, because pageants aren't all about weight, they're much more about being healthy.
"And then," Brittany says with a big smile, "when I learned that with Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, they pay for school, they pay for an apartment, you get a year's salary, you get to move to New York. I was, like, 'OK, I want to be Miss USA'."
Wow, I say, she was one focused teenager.
"Well," Brittany laughs. "I had to be. It was everything "
What came next is a complicated process.
"There are different systems in the pageant world," Brittany starts to explain. "It can be confusing. I entered this system called the World Beauty Organisation. But I had no money to enter. So I did my own fundraising. I held my own car wash. I went door-to-door, raising $20 here, $20 there, to help pay my entry fee. My dress was an old bridesmaid's gown that I sewed rhinestones onto, and I used my own swimsuit. I went up against girls who had spent thousands of dollars on coaching for how to talk and walk, and thousands of dollars on dresses. And I ended up winning! That was life-changing."
From that, Brittany became Miss Teen Indiana, then she won the finals in that "system", which made her Teen Model of the USA. Then she represented the United States at Teen Model of the World in Germany, where she came second, and out of that her modelling career took off.
"So I was 17," says Brittany, and I'm startled again by how young she was, "And I started working and waiting to do the 'Miss' division of Miss USA, when I was 20. So I competed for Miss Indiana USA for the Miss Universe organisation, and this was when Donald Trump owned it. And I went to Miss USA and I came in seventh."
Donald liked her, Brittany concedes. "He did stop to talk to me [in the line-up] and he doesn't do that with all the girls. He stopped and talked for a moment."
Pageants changed Brittany Mason's life. They gave her confidence, they gave her a career, they started what she calls her healing.
Education was her other big thing, though. As a teenage model, she home-schooled herself up to a high-school diploma and then she signed up to an international business degree in New York.
She didn't complete her four years, but over the years she has studied fashion law at Fordham University in New York and she has been involved in the Model Alliance, set up by her friend Sara Ziff, a non-profit organisation that campaigns for models' rights and better practices in the industry. The huge work Brittany has done outside modelling, however, has been around bullying. While she was going for Miss USA, she began a campaign called I Am Possible, that took off around America and saw her going in to schools and talking to kids about bullying. It was a dream come true for Brittany.
"I was so happy to do this for kids, but there was healing in it for me, too," she says, "because to look into a teenager's eyes and say, 'There's so much more to this life; don't give up.'
"[School] is such a small window of time, but the stuff that happens in that time can affect you for the rest of your life. And, you know, I wouldn't change anything about my life, and I would not want to relive [the bullying] again, but it's given me the opportunity to be able to connect with someone who's going through something like that.
"And it's such an amazing feeling to know that I can help someone else, because god, I needed somebody like that, and I made a promise to myself that I would always, always, always try to give back and help people who were going through what I went through."
The campaign, Brittany says, is something she'd really love to roll out in Ireland.
During the time she was getting ready for Miss USA and when I Am Possible was taking off, Brittany got a message from a girl who said she was Brittany's younger sister. She had so much going on at the time, and it was such an overwhelming idea, that Brittany parked it, until the death of her uncle, as mentioned earlier, and the reconciliation with her aunt.
The box Brittany's aunt had kept for five years and then gave to her contained details about her biological father, letters and photographs, among which were photos of the girl who had contacted Brittany; her sister. "So I got in contact with them and started to build a relationship with them. I met my biological father and found out the truth of where I came from and my background," Brittany explains.
It was massively healing, and while she doesn't have a close relationship with her biological father, she is very close to her younger sister, who has already visited her in Ireland.
"As an adult, it's not like I needed a father," Brittany says. "For me, I needed closure and I needed the truth to heal, and, for me, it was a healing process. I definitely got the answers that I needed, but as far as having a relationship there, there's such a disconnect. I'm open to a relationship but it has to be two-sided and there's no real effort on the other side. But that's fine with me; I don't need it, I feel whole."
Brittany's very whole life expanded to include Stephen, her partner, when they met two years ago in Las Vegas. Both were at conferences and, she laughs, he "head-butted" her. Accidentally, she adds. Since then, they have been on an "adventure" together, with a lot of travel, a lot of romance and now a move to Ireland.
Brittany didn't balk at the idea of Ireland, despite the fact that she was not the kind of American who grew up with stories of it as "the old country". She thinks that both she and Stephen had great-grandmothers who were Irish, but she felt no ancestral draw to the place. Brittany, as a model, has moved around a lot, and relocated to California from New York several years ago to see if she could extend modelling into TV and film work. She likes a challenge, she likes new places. And, as she says, "if it all goes wrong, California isn't going anywhere. It'll still be there."
If she was worried about being a plus-one to Stephen's life in Ireland, however, Brittany soon felt reassured. She signed to Andrea Roche's model agency and she's working as hard as she ever did.
"Andrea seems like a great fit for me," Brittany says, "and she's involved with a lot of the girls who do the pageants, and I'd love to get involved with the Miss Universe Ireland pageant. I would love to help preen the girl to go to Miss Universe and Miss World, even, being on the other side and mentoring, and all that. I would love it!"
It would be like getting a glamorous international manager on a backwater football team, I say. "Yeah, I love it!" Brittany exclaims. "Go Miss Ireland. I'm rooting for Ireland now!"
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Hair by Michael Doyle for Peter Mark, St Stephen's Green, D2, tel: (01) 478-0362, or see petermark.ie
Make-up by Paula Callan assisted by Michelle Field for Callan & Co - The Experience, 1 St Mary's Road, Ballsbridge, D4, tel: (01) 668-0060, see callanandco.ie
Photographed at The Wright Venue, South Quarter, Airside Retail Park, Swords, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 890-0099, or see thewrightvenue.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine