Pippa O'Connor: Life Beyond the bikini
She's less confident than you think, and is painfully aware that she and her husband-to-be Brian Ormond face an uncertain future. But Pippa O'Connor is tough, having survived her parents' break-up and having recently lost, in the space of a year, both of her 'second parents' -- her grandparents. Liadan Hynes meets a very individual and quietly determined beauty who would like to do less of her work on St Stephen's Green. Photography by Barry McCall
Growing up, Pippa O'Connor never thought she'd be a model. "Just didn't think I was good enough," she says, matter-of-factly. "Never thought that I would be capable of it. I'd have known exactly who the girls were. But I never thought, 'Oh, I could do that,' because I didn't think I could."
For the last five years, 26-year-old Pippa has been one of the most high-profile models in Ireland, among a handful of girls recognisable by their first name alone.
Granddaughter of former Irish rugby captain and Mount Carmel gynaecologist Dr Karl Mullen, she is also the sister of Olympic gold-medal winner Cian O'Connor. She dated Andy Quirke -- possible future brother-in-law to Rosanna Davison, and fellow Krystle-nightclub regular -- before getting engaged to TV presenter Brian Ormond, making her half of Pormond, one of Ireland's most high-profile couples, and a poster girl for all things Celtic Tiger.
There's an almost cliched quality to her life thus far, one Pippa herself seems only too aware of. The day we meet, the Pippa who turns up is miles away from the yellow-blonde, orange-skinned girl of a thousand press calls. With her wedding approaching she is bride-to-be slender. Gone are the hair extensions and the orange tan.
For the last year or so, Pippa has been quietly making herself over, or under, to be exact. Long before others had figured out the aforementioned look was tired, hackneyed and drag queenish, Pippa had. In the harsh morning sun, her face -- lightly freckled, make-up free -- is flawless, dominated by huge, green, almond-shaped eyes, which are framed by incredibly long lashes. Take away the supportive scaffolding of the tan and fake hair, and hers is a quirky, individual beauty, summed up by the trademark gap between her front teeth, which remains, despite last year's dental work. She's more Sixties movie starlet than former beauty queen.
It's easy to assume a brash confidence on the part of someone who has the balls to stand on Grafton Street with nothing but a smile and a bikini protecting their modesty. In fact, in person, Pippa has a gentle quality that verges on vulnerability. She's seemingly lacking in any self-importance, ego, or the sort of ersatz courage so often found in her peers.
"I was never shy, but I would have been intimidated," she recalls of her original foray into modelling, when she entered Miss Ireland at the age of 18. "I couldn't believe I won Miss Kildare in the first place."
"Didn't expect to win; didn't win," she says bluntly of the Miss Ireland competition. In her defence, it was the year Rosanna Davison won, and was subsequently crowned Miss World.
Finished school, and "not knowing what I wanted to do", Pippa fell into working part-time in a clothes shop on Grafton Street. "I loved it. I felt like I was a therapist. But I hated the actual job part of it," she says emphatically. "At the back of my head I was like, 'This is the pits, what am I gonna do?'"
She studied at the Gaiety School of Acting, and did a course at Ballyfermot College of Further Education -- "that TV-presentation course that everyone seems to have done" -- but was essentially drifting.
Luckily, fate intervened; her elder brother Cian competed in the 2004 Olympics, which were held in Athens. In the aftermath of the Games, he needed a PA he could trust, and he turned to Pippa. She enjoyed it, but the role took her further away from the world of modelling.
"I would have put on more weight. I was in that world, eating whatever." Pippa's good friend and Cian's girlfriend at the time, Rachel Wyse, a former model and now a Sky News sports reporter, kept at her to come into Assets Model Agency with her. "I said 'Jesus, Rachel, I'm not going in there. There's no way I'm putting myself through that,'" recalls Pippa, whose modesty often threatens to stray over into lack of confidence. Eventually, aged 21, she agreed to visit the agency; she was immediately snapped up.
"The first photo call I did, when they said, 'Oh, you've to wear a bikini top,' I was like, 'You are joking me,'" she remembers in horrified tones. "I probably couldn't eat for two days beforehand. I'll never forget buying the papers the next day and seeing it. I thought, 'God, I could get the hang of this.'" She could and did, soon enjoying a full-time modelling career.
It's a scary time to be an Irish Model. The always finite working life of a model has been brought into stark relief by the recession. Speak to any Irish Model, and they'll tell you about their second career. Make-up artist, retail, fitness trainer. Age and recession-driven cutbacks mean that full-time modelling is no longer an option for most of our high-profile girls.
Ever the realist, Pippa is hoping to steer her own career in a new direction. She recently changed agencies when her long-term friend and mentor Andrea Roche set up her own agency last October.
"Obviously I'm not old, but in my industry I am. You want to try and be taken a bit more seriously. And there's so many younger girls, that are probably nearly 10 years younger than me -- why not let them do the press calls? I did it at the start, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it; you have to do it to get known," she says. "I just am kind of getting that bit older."
What would her ideal career trajectory be for the next five years? "I'd love to keep doing what I'm doing, don't get me wrong. It's great to be able to work sometimes for an hour or two, and get good bread-and-butter money."
I've read that she harbours ambitions of becoming a TV presenter, but it's not something she offers up of her own accord, or with the usual breezy insouciance that normally goes with this statement. In fact, she's mortified when I ask.
"I hate saying that," she says, physically cringing, "it sounds so cliched and such a stupid-model thing to say. 'I'd like get into TV presenting,'" she lilts in a ditsy sing-song voice. "I genuinely think I'm not naive in saying I know what it's all about," she continues bashfully, painfully aware of the model/TV presenter stereotype.
"I'd like to do something that would suit me" she says in her gentle voice.
Such as? "Something to do with the industry. I did a thing recently for a clothing company on Xpose; I loved that."
Her willingness to speak so honestly about her uncertainty over a future career path is endearing, and I find myself urging her to get on to production companies.
"People would think, 'Oh, you've so much confidence," she says wistfully, before launching into an imitation of imagined production companies laughing at "your one" and her notions, if she were to ring and pitch ideas.
"It's hard to make the transition, and it's hard to think that highly of yourself," she continues, with disarming candour. In fact, Pippa has the sort of gamey, completely non-precious, down-to-earth professional attitude of a Tess Daly or a Cat Deeley.
"I hear from Brian that television is hard, there's hardly any work, the money isn't that good," she says, matter-of-factly. Pippa, to her credit, probably does have more of an idea than most of the realities of a television career.
"God, it's really cliche," she smiles when describing first meeting Brian in Krystle
nightclub, at fellow model Sara Kavanagh's 21st. Pippa was 23, he was 28.
The pair were pictured together; the resulting snap, in which a smiling Pippa puckers up to Brian, while he recoils in mock horror, ended up on the cover of newspapers.
"I'd known him to see but I'd never taken much interest. I was in his ear then, talking about presenting, and he was telling me, 'Oh, you should do this and you should do that.' Full of shit," she laughs at the memory. "He said, 'I'll give you my number, and if you ever need any advice, let me know.' So he sent me a text saying 'Call any time, Brian.'"
Scrolling through her phone the next day, Pippa was puzzled to see the text from a now-forgotten Brian. Indeed, it wasn't until later that night when she turned on her television that it came back to her.
"I texted him, 'God, can you believe, I'm only after realising that was you who texted me.' I suppose he was a bit taken aback; 'Oh, thanks,'" she smiles, imitating Brian's huffy reply.
After texting back and forth for a few days, Brian asked her out. "He was a bit weird on the first night, kind of coy," she muses. "Not that he was playing hard to get. I think he was just afraid. Afraid to give too much away, or afraid to get into anything." Because he's in the public eye? "Yeah, or just in general. Maybe he didn't want to get into another relationship," she speculates.
They got engaged over a year ago, on Christmas Eve 2009. Did she know from the start that it was going to be serious? "No. Didn't think so at all," she says in her typical forthright fashion. "I just thought he was a bit of crack."
The couple moved in together eight months later, at the same time as getting a dog. "Brian had a house in Newcastle. I was living at home with my mum in Johnstown. He said, 'Well, if we're getting a dog, you're going to have to be here officially.' I think that was his kind of cool way of saying 'D'you wanna move in?' 'Oh, don't do me any favours, Brian, thanks,'" she laughs at the memory.
It's when she's talking about Brian that she's at her most chipper. "I think we're too alike sometimes, which makes us really spark. Our friends laugh at us; we're the entertainment for the night. We're not mean to one another, but we're sarcastic. We're very lovey-dovey, but we do bounce off one another.
"I'd be very pushy, and not let things drop. Brian'd be a bit more like, 'Drop it'. And I'd push and push and push until he explodes," she says of the dynamic between them. "Brian often says 'I dunno how I love you so much and hate you so much at the same time. I never met anyone that I loved so much but hate them as well.' It's, like, 'Thanks,'" she giggles.
A mere three or four months after moving in together, Brian started talking about buying a house. "I actually did find that a bit daunting," recalls Pippa, who was only 24 at the time. "Now, if he was telling this story it would be completely the opposite. He'd say it was all me."
They stayed in Newcastle, Co Dublin. "We got it at the right time. We're in there a year and a half now. I think, had it been later, we probably wouldn't have gotten a mortgage."
Brian took her to the Ritz-Carlton for a night to propose. After a few post-massage drinks he suggested they open their Christmas presents back at their penthouse suite. He handed her a 2010 diary, with a note inside addressed to "Dear Pippa".
"Brian's way with words is very good. It was just all about how happy he was with me, and blah, blah, blah. At the end it said 'So I think it's time I ask you' and an arrow to turn the page: 'Will you marry me?'"
"I remember I put my head into the pillow and said, 'If this is a joke, it's not funny,'" she squeals. "And he's like, 'I'm hardly joking, I'm here on one knee, is it yes or no?'"
They're getting married this June in the Ritz-Carlton.
"I'm not a Mass-goer as such, but I would be quite religious. I'd be quite traditional. We had thought about going away, but I kept coming back to, 'No, I want to get married in a church here in Ireland.' I just thought that was part of the dream, so go with it," says Pippa, whose father will walk her down the aisle in front of 130 guests.
They hope to get away for almost a month's honeymoon to an as-yet-undecided location. It can't be easy to take that much time off, I suggest, with both of them self-employed in such brutally precarious industries. Is it scary?
"Yeah, totally," she says emphatically. "We don't know what's around the corner. It's weird, because it's kind of a transition in both our lives. I'm trying to go up and Brian's at a crossroads as well. There's nothing major happening in RTE at the moment. There are a few things in the pipeline, but he doesn't know. His name could be in the mix for 10 shows and he mightn't get one. So he's been back and forth to London. He doesn't necessarily want to go, but if there's nothing here you have to try. So we don't know what's going to happen. Come August, September, we'll be either panicking or being, like, 'great'. Hopefully, we'll be saying 'great' -- we can start off our married life, and he can have a good gig -- but who knows?"
Career uncertainty means starting a family will have to be put on hold for the moment. "We've talked about it and I'd love to. My sister's pregnant at the moment. I feel like I'm having a baby myself; the two of us are really close. So that'll keep me occupied for a while. Because we don't know what we're at, or if we even will be in Dublin, I wouldn't like to do anything until we're fully settled."
Despite the fact that her parents split up when she was one, Pippa comes from a very close family; her conversation is peppered with mentions of her parents, brother and sister, and her beloved grandparents, now deceased. "My grandparents basically have been my second parents," she says. The entire family originally lived in her grandfather's house, Tulfarris, now a hotel in Blessington, where her mother ran The Loft restaurant. "It was like The Brady Bunch," she laughs. "Everyone lived there."
"We moved to Florida," she explains of her parents' separation. "My dad wanted to go there for work. At the time, he was into property. They split up over there, and my mum brought us home.
"I don't remember him not being there," she says of her father's presence as she grew up. "My parents would have been great like that. They'd never have said a bad word to our face. I only have happy memories. He would have always come and collected us on a Saturday and done the dad thing."
"I'd be quite close to my mum. Susannah [her sister] went to boarding school, Cian went to Belvedere and was very independent. So it was always just me and my mum.
"When I was about eight, my mum had a really bad car crash and was in hospital for about six months. My grandparents were living in Johnstown, in this beautiful big house outside the village. I lived with them while she recovered."
Pippa lost both her grandparents within a year of each other. "She died in April 2008," she says of her grandmother, Dodo. "She had bowel cancer. She had it five years ago and it went away. It was really strange how quickly it came back. You know when someone is old and frail and they die? It wasn't like that. I remember we went to the house to visit her; Cian and Dodo were very close. She said to him, 'Do I look like I'm dying?' And he said, 'No'. She said, 'Funny, I don't feel like I'm dying.' Two days later, she just went. That was so sad," she says simply. "So traumatic. We all thought they were invincible."
Her beloved grandfather, Dr Karl Mullen, died a year and a day later. "I swear I think he died of a broken heart," she says with a soft, fond smile. "He died on their wedding anniversary. People say 'Oh, that's terrible,' if you say, 'Oh, my granny died.' But it's different because we were so close to them. It's weird when someone dies like that -- you just feel like you haven't seen them in a while."
Do they get together regularly as a family? "Probably not as often now that my grandparents aren't here, because they would have been the core. Any occasion, she would have had a lunch for everyone. She had this long dinner table that seated 20 people. It's kind of like we've to make more of an effort now, because they would have been doing it," she shakes her head, as if she still can't quite believe her new reality.
"It's weird the way things go on, isn't it? Things have changed so much. I've moved out, I've bought a house, both my grandparents died. I'm getting married, Susannah's having a baby. Everything seems to be changing. For good, as well. It's weird. Exciting."
Mac, Paul & Joe, Brown Thomas.
Shoes, River Island
Bodysuit, American Apparel.
Trench, Acne, Brown Thomas Dublin
Bodysuit, American Apparel
Tights, Marks & Spencer
Shoes, Kurt Geiger, Brown Thomas Dublin.
Ring, Kenneth J Lane, Rebecca Davis
Rebecca Davis, Westbury Mall, D2,
tel: (01) 764-5694
Havana, 2 Anglesea House, Donnybrook, D4, tel: (01) 260-2707
Photography by Barry McCall
Post-production by Paul Canning
Styling by Liadan Hynes, assisted by Jen O'Dwyer, Zalie Kirwan and Aisling Wright-Goff
Hair by Ian Davey for Davey Davey, 23 Drury St, D2, tel: (01) 611-1400
Make-up by Kate Synnott for Dylan Bradshaw, 56 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 671-9353
Shot at the Morgan Hotel. Get Your Mojo on at the Morgan -- one night's accommodation with breakfast, and a cocktail in the Morgan Bar, all for only €115 per couple. Tel: (01) 643-7000, or see www.themorgan.com
Sunday Indo Life Magazine