Irish model Holly Keating on dealing with adult acne and contracting viral meningitis
Wicklow girl Holly Keating seemed poised to become the next Georgia Salpa or Nadia Forde, but then a series of health dramas stalled her progress
With memorable bluntness Tina Fey quipped once that she wouldn't trade her acne scars for anything because the zits "spent more time with me in college than any boy ever did." One doubts, somehow, that Holly Keating would ever have said the same thing - male admirers are never in short supply when you bear more than a passing resemblance to Rachel Hunter - and in person on the eve of leaving for a long, hot summer in New York with her footballer boyfriend, the petite blonde's skin is flawless peaches and cream.
But, like Fey, and billions of adolescents before her Keating went to acne Vietnam. And while for the 30 Rock star the zits were eventually sketch fodder, for the Bray woman they were a more serious proposition: for a while it looked like it would end a promising career that had seen the gorgeous blonde written up in The New York Daily News. Too tiny to be a catwalk model but with far more sex appeal and personality than the average photocall pro she seemed poised to be the next Nadia Forde. FHM were already sniffing around, like a randy teenager.
The 26-year-old had never had skin problems as an adolescent, sailing serenely through that awkward gangling phase, that most of us go through, with ne'er a pimple. But a couple of years ago, shortly after moving from Assets agency to Andrea's Roche's stable of models, she began to notice a problem.
"It slowly came on over about a six month period" she recalls over tea at the Westbury. "It just gradually spread over my face and I became more and more self conscious. It got to the point where I really did not want to leave the house. I was still being booked for jobs and there was a lot of anxiety every time. I know some people go through much worse things in life and I don't want anyone to think I'm being self pitying or saying 'oh poor me', but there were some difficult situations."
The worst moment for Holly was when she was booked to appear on TV3's Xpose. "It was for an on-camera makeup demonstration. The day of the filming I was literally covered in boils. One side of me was going 'they're never going to book me again, if I pull out I'll be ruined' while the other side of me was looking in the mirror and going 'I can't go through with this, I mean, I don't even know if the client would allow it, with how I look now.' My face was ruined. It wasn't a few whiteheads, it was cysts."
She eventually pulled out of filming and in despair went to see a dermatologist in the Blackrock clinic.
"He told me that I had a really severe form of acne. He said that the help for it had to come internally, that it wasn't going to change by putting some cream on the surface of the skin. I was put on a drug and it made my skin very red and sensitive."
One of the biggest supports for her through this period was her boyfriend, Michael McCarthy, who played Gaelic football for Dublin and was part of the team that lifted the Sam Maguire in 2011. "It didn't affect our relationship thank God", Holly recalls of the period when she was waiting for a diagnosis.
"I was covered in acne, ruined. And we'd be meeting his friends and I'd do my best but make up doesn't always cover acne, in fact it exaggerates it in some cases. (Michael) used to kiss me on the forehead and say it didn't matter to him at all. He'd drive me to get bloods done once a month after going on the medication. I've been really lucky with him."
The medication caused the cysts on her face to shrink and within a few months they had disappeared. "I was left with scarring and I had laser to get rid of the scarring", she says. "And it's mostly gotten rid of it all. It feels great to get my face back. I was finally able to go back accepting jobs and I was able to work again. And in real life I could go into town and not worry that people were staring at my acne. Friends of mine freak out over a pimple or two whereas that wouldn't affect me at all now."
After the problem with the acne was largely resolved, Holly was faced with another difficult situation. In 2013 she was diagnosed with viral meningitis. "It was really alarming. I still don't know how I got it", she recalls. "I had a really bad headache, it felt like someone had a tyre pump in my ear and was pumping away. I was wrongly diagnosed on a Friday with influenza and by the Sunday I was in Vincent's and they caught what it was."
Luckily it wasn't the deadly kind of meningitis and her life was never in danger. She has now made a full recovery but she says the health issues she suffered gave her a new perspective on her career and life. "It just makes you grateful that you're able to do this at all. Growing up it wasn't my dream (to become a model), but I really love doing it and, when it seemed like it might be taken away, that was very stressful."
As a teenager growing up in Bray, Holly had her heart set on becoming a vet. "I wasn't academic at all", she recalls.
"I was really musical and I adored animals. From the time I was old enough to crawl animals were my passion. If I won the Lotto tomorrow I'd open up an animal sanctuary." After school she qualified as a beautician but hated the work because it didn't allow her to be creative and instead she qualified as a riding instructor. She's been teaching at a riding school for the past four years and says it means she never has to go to the gym to stay in shape.
She won a photo shoot in a competition online and after sharing a status on Facebook was spotted by Assets, and was invited in to meet their team. She had no inkling of how quickly the media exposure would come.
"It seemed to snowball quite quickly right from the start to be honest. It seemed like I was in the press every other day and I was being compared to Katy French. And I was making all these mistakes; I'd be so honest and open, not realising that you have to keep a little bit of yourself back. At the start, and I don't know if it's my look or what, but they'd often ask me things like, 'Rosanna (Davison) went topless, would you go topless?' That seemed to be the main focal point. I'd say something and they'd twist it. I tried to be clear: No, I would never go topless for a shoot, that's just not my thing."
Despite her incredibly svelte figure she says that weight forms the same preoccupation for her that it does for many young women. "It's the biggest thing I worry about. My experience of modelling in Ireland is that you get a phone call the day before and then you just have to go and do it. You might have just had a big meal the night before. You have to constantly watch it. I don't get too obsessive though: If I've eaten badly I'll go for a few walks or not eat badly the next few days."
As sporty as she is, Gaelic football wasn't on her radar until she met McCarthy, first socially and then after a Facebook courtship. "So much so that I didn't even know what shape the ball for Gaelic football was. I've learned a lot about it since then", she laughs. "I love GAA now. Michael trains four times a week and has a match at the weekend. I'm just in awe of his commitment to it." Will they get married some day? "Of course I'd love to get married. A friend of mine got married recently and got the ball rolling, I think, among my group of friends."
McCarthy is playing football in New York over the summer, but Holly hasn't decided yet if she's going to try to dash herself against the lamp of fame and it seems that in modelling, like in boxing, you can't teach size.
"Let's be realistic: I'm 5'5", she begins. "In America it's all 6 foot girls who are tiny. But in Ireland I get away with murder. Maybe I should be more confident but I feel like over there they'd be thinking 'is she here to make the coffee'." But if Stateside fame comes calling she won't say no: "I've nothing tying me down now and if something comes my way I'll grab the bull by the horns."
Holly's hair is by Ciara Lambert, Gold Fever Extensions and make-up by Charlie Goodwin
Sunday Indo Living