Bust and boom: What Irish model Georgia Salpa did next
In the late Noughties, Georgia Salpa's sweet face and naughty curves made her a Grafton Street photocall favourite, happily posing with everything from pumpkins to inflatable bananas, until bigger things beckoned.
Since moving to London, the Greek-born, Irish-bred beauty is a veteran of UK reality TV, a red-carpet regular and ranked as one of the sexiest women in the world, Emily Hourican says, as well as being happily engaged to a hedge-fund manager and hoping to start a family.
In a world full of manufactured phenomena and spontaneous events that are actually the product of intense lobbying and marketing, the few truly natural successes are instantly recognisable, with an authentic excitement all of their own. That was Georgia Salpa in the Fas ad back in 2007. Down-dressed in jeans, maroon top and a pair of studenty black boots, posed with a paper airplane, the ad was far from high glamour, and yet something about that girl, with her long, curly hair and sexy-but-sweet curves, that made it stand out, appealing to both men and women.
From that campaign, Georgia Salpa's modelling career was born, even though it was far from her first public outing, and, somehow, that early, wide appeal lasted. Despite steady success, the backlash never came. Partly, this is because of the natural prettiness of her looks – nothing raises the public hackles quite so much as that feeling of, "Damn it; if I got hair extensions, fake boobs, eyelashes and a load of false tan, I could look that good!"
Partly, though, it is the feeling that Georgia's continued success, just like her original wow, is a slightly haphazard, laid-back, organic achievement, rather than the product of churning ambition squashed into a Southern belle-type pretence of, "Gosh, I don't know how this all happened!" Now 28, Georgia is reaching the dreaded age of 30 – normally a time of panic for girls who live by the lens – without showing any signs of the gnawing anxiety this milestone usually inspires.
Stories that appear about her in the media are either upfront posted by her – like the recent Instagram bikini shots, captioned "It's a #missonibikini day!!" – or seem genuinely without her complicity. There isn't that hint of sneaky planting that so often lurks behind apparently unguarded photos.
Neither is there much evidence that she is battering desperately at the doors of TV presenting, all the while protesting that she isn't interested. When Georgia says, "I don't know if I'd wanna be in the limelight," you believe her.
Models will always tell you they were ugly ducklings when younger. Usually, they are non-specific – something about being too tall and gawky. Georgia, however, has been highly specific: "I was a bit of a nerd," she once told FHM. "I had bad skin, I was always very thin and I had really curly afro hair. Plus, I had to wear glasses and I had a patch over one eye."
Another thing models always say is how shy they are – it's media shorthand for "Please like me; I may be beautiful, but I'm really down-to-earth and not full of myself" – but Georgia has always managed to pitch it perfectly. "When I'm in a bikini or at a photo shoot, I'm real confident. But, if I'm in a group of people I don't know, I'm really quiet," she told Liadan Hynes in an interview for LIFE magazine in 2012. "But the past few months, I think I've come out of my shell a little bit – I used to be so shy. Lately, I've been much more confident."
But it was when she added, "If people get bored of me, I hope there'll be something else I can do. I'm not gonna get really upset if people don't like me any more," that the real Georgia emerged: a little bit shy, a lot down-to-earth, relaxed-bordering-on-indifferent where the future is concerned. Asked outright if she is ambitious, she replied thoughtfully, "I am and I'm not. I like doing well, and I like working, but I wouldn't be, like, real mad, crazy like."
That has been the hallmark of a career that seems to be the product of luck, good timing and personality, just as much as deliberate orchestration, and the natural response to her remarkable face and figure.
So how exactly has Georgia Salpa pulled off the difficult transition from top Irish photocall model to UK credibility? Without being universally hated? And made it look effortless and inevitable?
Born in Athens to a Greek father and Irish mother, Georgia spoke little English when she moved here, aged four, after her parents separated. Her mother remarried and she grew up in Killiney, with her stepfather, Paddy, and stepsiblings. Aged 14, she was spotted by a talent scout and went to London, where she worked a little – "underwear stuff, but I was so young" – and came home after two weeks.
Three years later, a boyfriend sent in photos of her taken on holiday to FHM's High Street Honeys competition, apparently without her knowledge – it is not the done thing, especially for Irish girls, to admit to entering this off their own bat – so that, when she made it as one of eight finalists, Georgia was entirely surprised. This time around, she was more able for the pressure and the attention, and did a range of swimwear and underwear shoots for FHM, culminating in a week in the Canary Islands with the other Honeys, for a Sky One reality show.
"It's so embarrassing looking back on it now," she later said. "I was really, really young, and I was innocent, as well, back then. There was six real bitchy girls, and they were horrible, and then there was me and three other girls that were quiet and didn't really talk," she laughed at the memory. "Kind of like the geeks. I wouldn't do it now, but, looking back, I had so much fun."
After that came the Fas ad, which ran for four years, such was its instant popularity. After that, the rocket casings could fall back to earth. Georgia was well and truly launched. For years, she was the press-call girl, promoting everything from Paddy Power to pumpkins, with an attitude that was pitched somewhere between being able to acknowledge the absurdity of posing with giant inflatable bananas or in a sexy Santa suit, yet without hinting that she was too good for it all.
"It's very hard when you do photocalls," is how she described the particular requirements of the job. "You have to be on time, you have to be all cheesy smiles, and have your hair and make-up done, and be into it. It's not like a photoshoot. You have to really put the cheese factor in. I think you have to be more willing to go for it."
Georgia is classic lad-mag rather than fashion model – stunning figure and beautiful face, but approachable rather than formidable. She looks good fun and sweet natured, not intimidating and prima donna-ish. She does not suffer from Bitchy Resting Face, or from an excess of self-regard, and so, when she said recently, "when I do club appearances, it's girls who come up and get their photos taken with me, not just guys. I don't get much bitchiness," she is entirely believable.
Appearances on shows such as Republic of Telly and Podge and Rodge confirmed the appealing image of someone up for a laugh and unlikely to take themselves to seriously. Indeed, at times, she seemed to have a hard time holding it together. During some of the Republic of Telly prank videos, in particular, she can be seen, shoulders heaving with suppressed laughter while she tries to persuade some hapless member of the public to make a fake exercise video, for example.
The only real blip in the good-luck-Georgia trajectory was the affair with Calum Best back in 2011. The couple met on the set of TV3's Celebrity Salon, around the same time that Georgia's relationship with long-time DJ boyfriend, Barry O'Brien, ended. She and Best started a romance shortly afterwards, largely played out via public appearances in nightclubs, at film premieres and through a series of posed bikini and beach shots.
To the cynics, this may have suggested an attempt to enhance Brand Georgia by linking up with serial bad-boyfriend Best. To the rest of us, it just seemed likely to end in heartache of one sort or another. And, indeed, after just a few months, Best was snapped going home with English TV presenter Donna Air after a night out.
At first, he denied that he had been unfaithful, but finally admitted it, more than two years later. The confession caused Georgia to respond with chilly dignity. "We weren't proper boyfriend and girlfriend. It was a brief fling. We went on a few dates," she said, before adding the killer blow. "Why he'd be talking about it two and a half years later is beyond me."
Whatever they were or were not, Georgia didn't hang around once the rumours of infidelity surfaced. She ended the relationship, such as it was, promptly, saying at the time, "he says nothing happened and wants to stay together, but I can't trust him and that's definitely it . . . I don't want to be one of those girls who takes people back, no matter what they do." The pair seem to have barely spoken since, although, when he dragged it all up again recently, Best made a point of saying, rather patronisingly, "I wish her all the best. Bless her."
The relationship may not have worked out, but, from that time, Georgia gradually, but seamlessly, moved into a different career space. For most models, a few years as the "girl most likely" is followed by fairly ruthless displacement once the next pretty, willing young model comes along.
Instead, Georgia, without really looking as if she had tried, landed a stint on 2012's Celebrity Big Brother. And even though this show has been downgraded to Channel 5, and carries full ironic quote marks around the "celebrity" bit, it was enough to propel her the distance between famous-in-Ireland and famous. On Big Brother, she acquitted herself well, keeping a sensibly low profile that earned her a few accusations of "boring", though notably mainly from other models, rather than the public. She even took in good part the advice of Playboy twins – Kristina and Karissa Shannon – about getting a boob job. "I think you should go a size bigger," one of them said. "It'll make you look more womanly." Cue the sound of irate men across the UK and Ireland booing furiously.
That chat was an indication of the quality of conversation in the house – glamour models sitting round talking about the bits of themselves they would like to change – but also of Georgia's easy-going nature and mischievous sense of humour that she could resist the urge to rise to the bait.
Being evicted third, after being nominated every week, can, in the context of the show, be seen as a compliment. In the Big Brother house, the aggressive and confrontational tend to stay on, because they represent reliable entertainment value, while more discreet and gentle personalities are mostly subdued by the general scramble for attention. She may not have lasted, but appearing daily on TV in a variety of bikinis successfully launched her into the UK. That same year, Georgia appeared on the front cover of FHM's August issue and was voted fifth in the magazine's 100 Sexiest Women poll. This year, she dropped to 25th place, but still beat Megan Fox, Miranda Kerr and even Kim Kardashian.
Also in 2012, she left Dublin for London, despite being initially apprehensive and homesick. "I worked in London before, but I didn't really like it," she said before the move. The transition appeared pretty seamless in the end, as Georgia found a gang and a niche for herself among London's party-going celebs, although she stays close to her Irish pals, including models Michele McGrath and Karena Graham. Instantly compared with Kim Kardashian and Jordan, the British press fell just as hard for her as Irish photographers had, and photos of her arriving at parties, awards and launches became regular go-tos for the tabloids.
Both her style and lifestyle changed around then – more designer labels on bags, shoes and dresses, rather than the casual jeans and vest tops; more red carpet parties and showbiz events; suggestions that she was dating everyone from Tinie Tempah to Peter Andre, and, most recently, a high-flying boyfriend, to whom she got engaged last December.
Joe Penna is a hedge-fund manager and divorced father-of-one, with clean-cut, Wasp-y good looks. The couple live together between London and Marbella, and have no plans to marry just yet, although Georgia has said she is "so happy to be engaged, I'm absolutely delighted and over the moon. It's a dream come true." She also added, "In the future, I really want to have children. Of course, it's something I think about. But, right now, I'm having fun and working."
The question of surgery is depressingly inevitable for so many models, as are the regular, tedious denials, and so the issue of whether Georgia has or hasn't had her breasts enhanced has been ticking over for years now. Recently, the rumours have been of injections, rather than surgical implants, but Georgia's response has remained the same – that genetics is responsible rather than any kind of cosmetic improvement: "My whole family has the same sort of body – slim with big boobs," she has said, describing her figure as a "family heirloom."
Despite the obvious and easy comparisons with Jordan and especially Kim Kardashian, there is a crucial difference between them and Georgia that lies in personality rather than appearance. Both Kim and Jordan have earned many millions from savvy marketing of their looks, whereas Georgia doesn't seem to have that kind of ambition or, indeed, ruthlessness. If her career so far has been a successful one, that seems almost in spite of herself, more a tribute to her natural beauty and sweet nature than any game plan or white-knuckle determination.
Georgia launched her own range of false eyelashes and nails, sold through Penneys, nearly two years ago, but hasn't so far extended or enhanced the range, and the kind of qualities probably required for Kardashian-style success don't seem to be hers. Close friends say they wouldn't be surprised if her vision of her own future is one in which a husband, home and children looms far larger than world domination.
"I don't know if I'd want to be in the limelight. I wouldn't really put my whole personal life on show," she said a couple of years ago, and, so far, has stayed entirely true to that. It is perhaps ironic that the very qualities that make her such an appealing person – discretion, easy-going attitude, wry sense of humour – may be the things that restrict her professionally.
But it's an irony that Georgia seems perfectly happy with.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine