Roz Purcell on Trump: 'After Miss Universe, I'd met a lot of men similar to him and learned how to talk to them quickly'
It's been a year of ups and downs for Roz Purcell, including her sister's shocking leukaemia diagnosis, a break-up followed by a new romance, the runaway success of her book 'Natural Born Feeder', and now, the launch of her skincare range. She tells Emily Hourican how she's determined to make the best of the good and learn from the bad - and, having met him several times in the course of her modelling career, she gives her take on America's new President-elect, Donald Trump.
'Something like that, it teaches you how to live. That's what we've taken from it." Roz Purcell is talking about the strange year she and her family have had - from the terrible low of her sister Rachel's diagnosis with leukaemia, just a week before the launch of Roz's book Natural Born Feeder, to the high of that book's galloping success and the new opportunities that have stemmed from it.
"Everything was so intense," she recalls of the time of the diagnosis. "And I couldn't tell anyone what was going on, because we didn't even know at that stage. Everything was a blur."
The news, when it came finally, was as good as could be expected under the awful circumstances, although, initially, that didn't look to be the case - "It was three weeks before we found out what type of leukaemia it was. It has actually been in our family. My mum's brother had it, and unfortunately, he didn't live. So when you first hear, you think of radiation, chemo, hair loss, worse things . . . but there are so many different types of cancer, and really luckily for Rachel, hers isn't the scariest." The type Rachel has is rare, although well researched, and incurable but "manageable" - a lifelong condition, to be controlled through medication and regular hospital visits.
"She takes medication every day, and will do for the rest of her life," says Roz "and that will hopefully keep it under control. Rachel is really positive. Whenever she does get a bit down about it, she will always put things into perspective. She's in St James' Hospital every week, and she sees people in there, who are old, or alone, who are sitting there by themselves, or who don't have much hope, and she comes out of there, and she thinks, 'I'm going to make sure I have the best day ever'."
Roz's admiration for the elder sister - who she has always, she says, thought of as "my younger sister" - is very obvious. As is the way in which Rachel's attitude has rubbed off on her. "When that happened to Rachel, it hit me - 'That can happen to me and my family.' Before that, you think, 'Oh, that won't happen . . .' then you realise it can." That, in turn, makes her think: "Go for it; whatever you want, do it."
It has also made her - forced her, actually - rather against her nature, to slow down just a little, and appreciate a moment, rather than jumping ahead to the next challenge. "What I've really learned in the last few months is, take your time and enjoy each moment, and if you can't, take time afterwards and enjoy it, because it's really important to have gratitude for everything that happens.
"I don't think I've ever just let myself enjoy things. I'm one of those people, I was always so uptight about everything, and in a way that's great, it got me to where I am - my head was always down, I was always focused - but I think after Rachel, I realised, 'I have to not worry so much about what everyone thinks. Enjoy your life, stop being so caught up in what everyone else thinks, and if you want to do something, do it'." This has been a difficult lesson. As Roz says: "mostly, people don't just 'learn' that - it takes something as serious as you or your family getting a life-threatening disease, to accept it."
Acceptance, of course, is key. The universe can dangle these things in front of us, but unless we are willing to take them on board, it's all for nothing. And Roz, clearly, is willing, although she will admit, "It's always a balancing act; it's a process. Every day I'll struggle with it in terms of getting worried about something, and then thinking, 'Ah well, it'll be fine . . . '"
Has Rachel's diagnosis changed the relationship between them? Yes, and no. "We've always been so close. Not that I'd ever take her for granted, but you know, with your family sometimes, you think, they're always there. Now, I do definitely try and spend more time with her, I make more effort on occasions like birthdays, because it's so scary when you get hit with that thing - 'Oh my God, I could lose my best friend and my sister'. When you have that reality of losing someone, you just appreciate them so much. And," she says with satisfaction, "it's not like that goes back to normal after a few months, you have that every day."
She is currently working on a second book, building on the success of the first but, sticking with her new determination to enjoy the moments as they come, she is refusing to rush it. "I wanted to wait. I'm still enjoying the momentum of the first book. I'm allowing myself to have that."
In the meantime, she is launching a new range of skincare, starting with body scrubs, with the plan being to build from there. "I wanted to do something a little bit different, and beauty is kind of the industry I was brought up in. This is something I've been playing with for a while. I've always made my own face masks and hair masks in the kitchen, and I thought it would be a nice move from Natural Born Feeder, because they're food ingredients, basically." The range is Ripe By Roz, and the first body scrubs are Coffee And Coconut, and Avocado And Lemon, with a third, Sea Salt And Seaweed, close behind.
"When I do cooking demos," says Roz, "I ask: 'Any questions?' And people might ask a few food-related ones, and then it's always, 'What's your skincare routine?'" Ok then, what is her skincare routine? "Exfoliation is my biggest thing - face once a week; knees and elbows, every day, and my bum every single day, to get those stretch marks down!"
Surely she doesn't have stretch marks, I say? "Oh my God," she laughs. "I will never forget the moment I realised I had stretch marks. I was probably 11 or 12. Growing up, all my best friends were guys, because I went to a mixed school and I was such a tomboy. One of my friends was over and he said: 'Your cat scraped you', and pointed at my side. I knew it wasn't my cat, but I said, 'Oh, maybe she did', thinking, 'I must look back at this later and see what it is'."
And 'this' was stretch marks? "Yes. I was quite a small child until I was eight or nine, and then I shot up, and I got stretch marks on my sides. You'd think with all the modelling that I would have been just so fixated on them," she adds cheerfully, "but it got to the stage where I was like, 'I have them, I can't get rid of them, so just cover them up. I don't even care.' There's still times that people go, 'What's that?' about all the random scars I have all over my body, and I just go, 'This is my body, I can't change it . . .' You can change your size, or your shape, but there are certain things you can't change without surgery, so why fixate on them?"
Why indeed? I don't get the impression that Roz is doing a Truman Capote here (Capote was the master of revealing little things about himself and pretending they were deep, dark secrets, in order to trick the person he was talking to into doing the same with their own really, truly, deep, dark secrets). She isn't just trying to be 'relatable', she genuinely doesn't seem to give a damn about the industry idea of perfection, or have any time for pretending to be it.
There are now so many ex-models moving into the lifestyle and fitness market, their Instagram accounts bursting with photos of green smoothies and motivational messages, but Roz has real credibility. One look at her, and it is clear that this is someone who lives it the way she tells it. Apart from all the markers of good health - shiny hair, glowing skin - she is also pretty much the definition of that platitudinous hashtag #strongnotskinny; she's noticeably fit and muscled. There is nothing of the waif to Roz; she looks like she could pick me up and chuck me a fair distance. It's a good look.
But she didn't get here by accident. Modelling, despite the fact that she says she loved it, steered her into some unhealthy attitudes towards food and weight. Modelling, of course, will do that. "I wasted so much time feeling guilty because I ate that one thing . . . it's just a nightmare. The whole reason I started Natural Born Feeder was to share my story of how many years I wasted feeling guilty about what I'd eaten. How many years you can waste feeling consumed about what you're consuming. It's time to go back and enjoy real food, good food. To stop thinking about all the foods you can't have, and think about all the food you can have. I spent so many years being hungry and not being in great shape. When I was in the best shape of my life, I was eating huge plates of wholefoods and I never felt hungry."
What really prompted her into action were the messages she received from young girls who were unhappy with the way they looked, and desperate for advice. "Growing up, I was so into sport and I never over-thought food. I went through that when I was modelling, and it stole so many years from me, but by then I was 18, 19, 20. These girls are so young. They are 14, 15 - in the best years of their lives - and they're going to look back and think to themselves, 'what a waste'."
In a bid to improve her own health, Roz began reading and researching, and experimenting - "I took notes, after eating, of my body's reaction. I used to think I was gluten intolerant," she laughs. "I wasn't, I was just overeating! I can eat dairy, wheat, anything, and I'm fine. As most people can." The results of that research are all there in her recipes and dietary advice, which is ultimately pretty simple. "Diets are the one thing that fucked me up. I would advocate wholefoods. Cut out processed foods - and I advocate for local food over 'superfoods.' Try to keep it simple. It's cheaper, too."
Roz, unlike most of the rest of us who bitch about Donald Trump, has actually met the man. Several times. "I must have met him five or six times. I would have watched The Apprentice growing up, so for me to meet Donald Trump was very 'oh my God . . .' And he still had that 'You're fired' persona when I met him at Miss Universe. Then I met him when I was in New York, modelling, and he was still very much that persona, but it's not as if he ever sat down and discussed his political views with me.
"I remember going up to his office in Trump Tower, maybe twice, for meetings. He was always really nice, and really complimentary towards Ireland. There was nothing, really . . . People say: 'Oh, did it not raise any flags, anything he said?' It was Donald Trump, like, of course every flag was raised!
"He was very much a parody of himself. He loved the fame of being this iconic celebrity and he played up to it, so you didn't know if it was actually his personality. I mean, you can't imagine him pouring his heart out to Melania in bed, saying, 'I had a tough day', but obviously, he's human.
"People ask, 'What was he like?' I don't know. I was 19, from Tipperary, thinking, 'Why is this happening?' I was taking it all in, it was all surreal. There's nothing he said that I could say 'Oh, that's really strange', I can't say it was normal, either, but by then I'd been modelling for a few years. After Miss Universe, I'd met a lot of men similar to him, men in high-profile positions, who probably felt they could have what they wanted. I learned how to talk to them very quickly - bring up the parents, bring up the family."
Is that so they would see you as a person? Not just an armful of something to be grabbed? "Yeah. It's something that I copped on to really quickly. Like when I was starting off - you just want to reiterate the point, 'My parents are so happy that I'm over here and they want to thank you so much . . .' Just being the very nice, polite Irish girl who's happy to be there. Just play that card."
And does she think it is awful that you have to this? "To be honest, it's just smart," she says. "No matter what industry you're in, there's going to be that thing where you're probably going to have to play some sort of card. A lot of people think, 'Oh, the modelling industry . . .' and ask, 'Were there ever any dangerous circumstances?' No, because I didn't let myself be put in that position," she says, adding candidly, "It's unfortunate, because there are probably loads of vulnerable girls who do."
Going back to Trump, what did she think when she woke up on November 9 and found out that he had won?
"At first I thought, maybe if I go back to sleep and wake up again later, the result will be different! I was so shocked. But now that the dust has settled a bit, I think that maybe this was obvious, and that I just didn't realise, because I had tunnel vision. All the media I followed was anti-Trump, pro-Hillary, and so I didn't understand what was happening. It makes me think about the media sources I tap into. It makes me question a lot of things, particularly where I get my information from. And it makes me think that people in America must genuinely be in a bad place if they took such a risk for change."
Will he be a good President?
"I don't think we can tell that at this stage. he's such an unpredictable person - you can see him backtracking on what he promised voters already, and that's great. During the campaign, people said of him that he never lives up to his promises, so let's hope that's the case! It's our only hope, I'd say!'
Before the shock vote, Roz said that if Trump won, she'd think twice about going back to the States. Does she stand by that?
"I'd already booked flights to go over in January," she laughs. "It'll be an interesting trip."
As well as family and career upheavals, there have been relationship switchbacks for Roz this year, too, with the end of one romance and the start of another. The one that ended, of course, was with Bressie, after four years together. That must have been hard, I say, when pretty much half the country wanted them to stay a couple forever.
"I think for every couple, no matter if you're in the public eye or not, break-ups are really hard, and you have that horrible pressure - 'Oh my God, we have to tell people, and they're going to be upset'. But it's your life," she says wisely, "and you can't think about that. You just can't. The main thing is we're both super happy, and we've both moved on. We don't really want to talk about it any more. We never really talked about it when we were going out, and afterwards, there just seemed to be so much more . . . Break-ups are hard, they just are," she concludes. "But we're happy, we're friends, and that is all that matters. At the end of the day, you can't always be thinking about everybody else."
And she is happy, too, in her new relationship, with music promoter Zach Desmond, son of Caroline and Denis. "I've stopped overthinking it. I think I over-thought it so much previously, so that now I'm just enjoying the moment of things. I'm just enjoying everything."
'Ripe by Roz' is available now from ripebyroz.com, and will be available at independent pharmacies from December
Hair by Daire Lalor, Callan & Co - The Experience, 1 St, Mary's Rd, Ballsbridge, D4, tel: (01) 668-0060, or see callanandco.ie
Photography by Aaron Hurley