Roz Purcell: 'Bressie and I are as odd as each other'
For the first six months that Roz Purcell and Bressie were together, she kept a big secret from him.
Often, when the Tipperary-born model told him that she had an early morning or late-evening job, she was lying. A lot of those times, Roz wasn't working. Instead, she was at the gym, or running, or doing some sort of training.
On the scale of lies people tell, this isn't a big one, or a bad one. No one got hurt, but Roz, clearly, was wary of telling her new boyfriend that she had a daily workout habit.
"I thought he'd think, 'This one's a bit overboard'. I was 21 at the time," says the now 25-year-old, "and I thought he'd think I was weird. I mean, now everyone's training four days a week and drinking green juices, but none of that was in back then.
"But then one day I got really upset about not being able to go to the gym," she says, "and I was just so anxious and so upset; I couldn't cope with being around anyone and got really down. I remember just telling him that I wanted to cry, and why, and he was great. He said it was fine and it was totally normal, and explained that it was just another form of anxiety.
"And I was, like, 'OK, you don't think I'm crazy; this is good'. And he pointed out that it was really impressive that I cared so much about looking after myself, but at the same time I needed to be able to control it. So it was from that point that I started being able to do that, and find some balance."
What Roz didn't know then, however, was that Bressie, too, was keeping a secret. He thought that his long-standing mental-health issues, with anxiety in particular, might be a relationship deal-breaker. And it wasn't until a year after her workout confession, Roz says, and when she "freaked" with him for taking sleeping tablets, that he told her.
She hadn't guessed that there was anything he was keeping secret, Roz says now.
"Well, I knew he was odd. But then so was I," she says with a laugh. "We are both as odd as each other."
Conversation with Roz Purcell often comes back to this self-image: one of a nerdy, slightly obsessive, little bit nervy, self-critical creature. She explains herself a lot, second-guesses public opinion of her a lot, analyses and reassures herself as she chats. It's at odds with the image of her as some perfect model, but the contradiction makes her more likeable, too.
We're sitting in Alchemy on Grafton Street, the cafe upstairs from BT2 that trades in wholefood eats and treats, the like of which turn up in Roz's new and first cookbook, Natural Born Feeder.
In the introduction to Natural Born Feeder, Roz explains her "roller-coaster relationship with food" and how she has, latterly, become a wholefoods evangelist. She describes growing up in rural Tipperary on local, fresh produce, and learning to cook with her dad and her grandmother. She writes with refreshing honesty about her early years in modelling, which were characterised by fad diets and food anxiety, and culminated in her crying over a restaurant menu because everything was 'forbidden' by her latest fad.
In her book - which has recipes with regular meat, fish, vegetables, any-flour-but-wheat, any-milk-but-cow's, and, of course, dates - she doesn't claim to have all the answers. Nor does she claim to wave a magic foodie wand to make you feel utterly body-happy, but she hammers home her belief in balance, which, latterly, she hopes she has achieved herself.
"I actually recently ran into one of the models I used to work with back then, and she said, 'Oh, you look so great'. And I was, like, 'Oh God!' You know when someone gives you a compliment and it's, like, 'Awkward!' But anyway, she said, 'Remember how you always used to be so up and down?' She was, like, 'Remember one day you'd have, like, a really healthy lunchbox, and the next day it would be really not?'"
And that's how it was with Roz until about four years ago, when, you might need reminding, she was only 21. But she was nearly three years in modelling by that stage, having been first spotted shopping in Dundrum Town Centre. "It was one of my first weekends up in UCD and definitely my first time ever in Dundrum," she says, "and I'm pretty sure I was wearing my make-up from the night before." She started modelling and began working almost constantly, immediately. Modelling wasn't what she had imagined it would be like in secondary school, though, when she and her friends were hooked on America's Next Top Model.
"I was very editorial when I started," Roz says, "so my instructions were always to turn up very natural; no make-up, no fake tan, hair just washed. I was, like, 'Really? I go to UCD! Everyone has like backcombed hair, fake tan, smoky black eyes. I need to fit in, people! I'm already from the country; I can't do this'. But I learned after a while that beauty wasn't what I thought it was."
She won Miss Universe Ireland in 2010, on her second attempt. The first time around, she was so mortified, she didn't tell any of her friends. But she learned a lot that first time, and what she picked up, most importantly, was the importance of fitness. Also, through Miss Universe Ireland, Roz began her involvement with her now agent, Andrea Roche.
"She was the first person to really believe in me in modelling," Roz says. "I'd never had that before. I was scared of her at first. Like, she's from Clonmel, like me, and she was the only famous person ever to come out of Clonmel. But she's been really, really good to me and that's why I've stuck with her."
After winning Miss Universe Ireland in 2010 and before she headed to Las Vegas for the finals, Roz was invited to take part in a three-week intense training camp in Colombia. "I didn't even ask my parents' permission, I was just, like, 'Bye, I'm off to Colombia. See you in Vegas'. I didn't even understand why my mother was telling me to make sure to pack my own bag on the way home." It was there that her mind was switched on to the kind of focused, intense training that is part of her daily life now.
After representing Ireland in Las Vegas, and coming a respectable seventh, Roz's international career took off. She worked in New York, South Africa, all over Europe, and she dieted crazily in those years. It was a case of getting word of a job and going into panic-dieting to prepare.
"Back then, there was no outlet for informing yourself about nutrition," Roz says. "There were no blogs or Instagram or anything like that. It was just stuff like Atkins, Dukan, that kind of thing, and all different 'shake' diets. You'd do it for a week and then you'd just, like, splurge.
"I had this really big thing about my legs. I always had. Like, even in school, I had really muscular legs from uphill running and stuff. But when I was modelling abroad, I'd be looking at these Brazilian models, or whatever, with ginormous, six-foot legs and I'd be thinking, 'Really, Roz, really?' I mean, I was in situations with, like, 200 other girls and I was by far the shortest and the fattest, and I'd just think, 'Why?' But I've come to terms with my legs in the last two years. They're good for something - I'm very strong on the bike, like, very. And that's part of life; coming to terms with things you really hate."
During her travelling years, Roz was exercising furiously, but, in retrospect, aimlessly and anxiously.
Roz remembers one time, while working in South Africa, she was running up to 20km every other day. She was still eating badly, but it was there that she really cottoned on to wholefoods, which she had noticed were the staple diet of the other "ripped" Miss Universe contestants.
There was a health-food shop downstairs from her South African agent's office, and Roz started going in there and buying all these ingredients she'd never heard of, like coconut oil and coconut flour, and buckwheat, and experimenting with cooking with them. She had always cooked and loved it - "Baking a cake is like therapy to me," she says - which made her adversarial relationship with food all the more difficult. Then, when Roz came back to Dublin, she started investigating health-food shops in Ireland, and a new adventure began.
Basically, though, her mother called a halt to the madness. "I came home and my mum said to me, 'Just don't go away again'," Roz recalls. "So I went away again once more, came back and then just dropped out of modelling for about three weeks. I decided it was time to start being balanced.
"I wasn't going to take up any more fad diets; I was just going to make a really strong change. I'd always been into training, but I was going to make it into more of a priority and just eat wholefoods and not shit, and when I was full, then I'd stop eating, and that was really it.
"Emotionally, it's quite hard if you're dieting and splurging and just up and down all the time," Roz says. "I had some really hangry [hungry-angry] years. And then the guilt you feel when you splurge is awful. Feeling guilty did steal time from me, but I don't regret that, because I'm in a great place now."
In 2013, Roz began her blog, also called Natural Born Feeder, a site that offers recipes and food ideas to her followers.
"I think so many young girls now are just obsessed with what they eat," Roz says, "and, like, I know it sounds weird to say, but I think it's why I started my blog, because I just used to get contacted by so many young girls, asking me what my diet was. I was always posting pictures of my food on Twitter and stuff, and they would post things like, 'What is that?' and 'Are you really going to eat all that yourself?'
"I'd be, like, 'Yeah, and I'll probably go back for seconds', but it's about telling young girls it's not about the amount you eat. It's about eating right."
And Roz is very careful to emphasise that she has to eat differently to most young women, because she trains so much.
When we meet, Roz is having a bottle of water, coloured prettily pink by the fruits suspended in it, and a cup of steaming bone broth - a strained soup made from bone stock. It's rich in protein, and all the go with the nutritionally in-the-know.
"I come in here for this about three or four times a week," Roz says.
"It's like a supplement. I take a good few supplements, like collagen and algae. Not for my looks, but for my joints, because I do a lot of impact sports."
When I ask Roz what her training comprises, she answers: "Running, cycling, weights, a bit of boxing; I think that's it."
And then she adds: "I've gone through phases when I've done just triathlons and then two years of just weight-training, but I really believe you have to combine both.
"People always ask me what I do, because I never hugely fluctuate in my weight, and that's because I keep mixing it up all the time. I might be doing slow cardio in the morning and long-distance training that night, and then next day it's HIIT [high-intensity interval training]; but I can do that. Not everyone can do that. I am different to most people in that I have long chunks of time to train; that's the nature of my job."
And if she misses a day, does she feel bad, I wonder?
"Yeah," says Roz, "but I'm trying not to. It used to be a lot worse, but I think I'm getting control of that. I'm, like, 'Roz, you trained every other day this week and this is your only day off in three or four weeks, so enjoy it, because it's good for your body.' Learning that rest is beneficial is so important."
Did she have to train herself to turn off that negative self-critic?
"Yeah," she answers. "There were times when I was crazy. I was, like, 'Roz, there are no gyms open'.
"One Christmas there was no gym open, and I had a bad knee injury and I couldn't run outside, and I was, like, 'No, I can't do this'. But Bressie was, like, 'Look, you just can't, so get over it; it's OK'."
Bressie comes up a lot in the conversation and rumours of their relationship's demise over Christmas were very obviously exaggerated. The source of the rumours was the fact that Roz went to Thailand with her sister, Rachel, with whom the couple live, but without Bressie.
"I just thought it was so ridiculous," Roz says of the rumours, which Bressie publicly denied. "I'm 25. It's completely normal not to spend Christmas with your boyfriend and to do something yourself."
It was also the first time in six years that Roz had not joined the rest of her family at the sports hotel in Lanzarote that they visit annually. It was in Lanzarote that Roz first got into triathlons, and where Bressie got bitten by the bug, too, she says, when he spent a Christmas there with her family. "I don't think he really enjoyed the experience, though. No, he definitely didn't," she adds, candidly. "And I didn't really enjoy it either, worrying about whether he was enjoying it."
What with this admission, and the claim that they're well-matched oddballs, Roz is open about her relationship with Bressie without giving too much away.
What she is open about, though, is sort of a mutual support for each other's quirks. He talks her down when she's exercise-anxious, and she is very in tune with his anxiety issues, too.
"That's why we don't go very many public places or do a lot of things," she says. "And I'm very protective of him in those sorts of situations, or if people start accosting him, or in big crowds. I'm, like, 'Leave him alone!'"
As well as Bressie, her sister, Rachel, comes up a lot when Roz talks. They are clearly her touchstones, the pair who keep her on an even keel as, she says, her mind constantly has at least five things on the go at once, flitting around, plotting, planning and sometimes panicking.
Her new book is a terribly exciting venture, she says, but scary too.
Also, she admits, her mind is already on to the next project, the next set of recipes. Which she is already trying out.
Is she a person of extremes and obsessions?
"I used to be," she says decisively.
"I've definitely balanced myself out, but it's taken a number of years."
"Twenty-five years!" she exclaims, as if that's ancient, as if she has many, many miles on the clock.
In reality, however, Roz Purcell is only getting into her stride.
Special Offer for LIFE readers: Get Roz Purcell's 'Natural Born Feeder' delivered directly to your door for €22 (includes free p&p within Ireland). Usual price: €27.99. To order, tel: (01) 500-9570 and quote 'LIFE magazine', or visit gillbooks.ie/roz
Roz's pop-up restaurant to launch her book will be open at 140 Baggot St Lower for breakfast and lunch on February 10, 11 and 12
Design Centre, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre, 59 South William St, D2, tel: (01) 679-5718, or see designcentre.ie
Photography by Evan Doherty, Assisted by Pete Regazzoli; Styling by Liadan Hynes, Assisted by Claire O'Farrell; Make-up by Paula Callan for CallanBerry, Assisted by Michelle Field; Hair by Michael Doyle for Peter Mark, St Stephen's Green Shopping Centre, tel: (01) 478-0362, or see petermark.ie. Photographed at The Trocadero, 4 St Andrew's St, D2, tel: (01) 677-5545, or see trocadero.ie. The Trocadero Dublin is now available for wedding and corporate services
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