The lovely girls: Irish bikini models
The photocall model -- that game girl who specialises in bikini poses on Grafton Street -- is unique to Ireland. Tanya Sweeney looks at why we use the 'lovely girls' to sell just about everything
Say what you will about Glenda Gilson -- and several people already have, many times over -- but the girl is nothing if not professional. Already the first bitter nip of autumn is in the late September air, but Glenda still has her Club Tropicana face on.
This morning's photocall -- one of around six or seven that Assets Model Agency has set up for the morning -- is an informal event, and the girls (Ruth Griffin and Sara Kavanagh are there too) are on first-name terms with the assembled photographers, regaling them with personal tidbits (not too personal, mind) and cheery small talk while they set up.
The girls are prime examples of a media phenomenon unique to Ireland: the photo-call model. The photocall model is pretty, but not too pretty. She is slim, but not too slim, and not too tall either. She's curvy, friendly and approachable. And she's selling something in a newspaper near you.
In other countries (or 'markets', as the modelling firms call them), the work these girls do -- product launches, cheesy photoshoots, promotional work -- would be done by minor celebrities.
But in Ireland, we don't have that pool of celebs to draw from. And photocall models are cheaper. And guess what? The models, with their high media profiles and their rugby-player boyfriends, are becoming celebrities in their own right.
Back at the photoshoot, the girls are working as one. After all, everyone's here to do the same job (in this case, the launch of the new Flex Price Plans for the Samsung Galaxy, available on the 3 network). There is much 'move left a bit' and 'not too much squinting, girls' direction thrown at the models while they strive for the perfect, yoga-themed shot.
"Ooh, you're such a school teacher, Brian," winks Glenda, ever the seasoned pro. "Let's try something ultra-cheesy," suggests one, while the girls nod brightly in compliance. A 70-something man gawps on from the sidelines, utterly agog. A cheeky, coy smile in his direction, and Glenda is back to her on-camera sun salutations.
Another photographer suggests cartwheels, and in the blink of an eye the girls are freewheeling across the green. Nice work for between €150 and €600 an hour, depending on the model.
If you've even cast a casual glance at an Irish newspaper of late, you'll no doubt be keenly aware of the end results of such photoshoots. And, contrary to popular belief, the hub of Irish modelling isn't Krystle, Lillies or even the Ice Bar at the Four Seasons. Rather, it's in St Stephen's Green that most of the magic happens.
Around 10am, come rain or shine, one is very likely to find a gaggle of lithe, comely beauties smiling lasciviously at assembled snappers -- and, sometimes, in various shades of undress -- ostensibly in the name of commerce. Put another way, it's not for nothing that it's known widely in the industry as the 'bikini on Grafton Street' shot.
In recent years, and due in part to the issue of height, modelling has split into two distinct factions: the editorial girls who do fashion, magazine and runway work, and the photocall girls who are used for promotions and more commercial work.
The former is the feral, fierce, gazelle-like yin to the latter's benign, approachable, sexy yang.
"There's a certain type of model who does that photocall work, and they're very up for it and have proper gumption," notes Presence PR director Joanne Byrne, who regularly hires models for her clients.
"I've asked models to stand in a bikini covered in paper leaves and holding a smoothie on Grafton Street. They know what it is, no more, no less. There's no snobbery about it, the pool is small enough, but you don't go back to doing the bikini stuff. You either move on from it or it becomes your trademark," she adds.
"The photocall model doesn't exist in the UK really, mainly due to the huge levels of celebrity there," notes Joanne. "The UK sees photocalls as downmarket. We don't have the levels of celebrity that they have in the UK, so here our models fall into that celebrity category. It's a different ball game here [than in the UK], but you don't have the depth of fashion they have elsewhere, so the girls have to do other things."
Of course, one question is pertinent: why would Irish companies, from blue-chip corporations and charities to public councils and conglomerates, use attractive girls in such a manner? Ask around the industry and one very simple answer crops up time and time again: sex sells.
"[Hiring] with a product comes at a far higher price," notes one client who wishes to remain anonymous. "The model is a more cost-effective way to get your product in the paper."
Former Irish model Kohlin Harris, now working with Elite Models in South Africa, notes that the 'girl next door' quality is the industry's trump card: "They can sell things because you can relate to them. It's aspirational in a different way. If you've a girl doing a photocall for, say, Lyon's tea, Irish people want to aspire to the person you're working with. The average tabloid reader won't look at an international catwalk model, a 15-year-old, six-foot plank, and buy into it. They want buxom, curvy, relatable. They're like the girls on game shows."
The other response offered is that the photocall shoot is now simply the status quo in the Irish media. In other words, if you want your product to get column inches, you must row in with what the (largely) male editors of the Irish media want. Rail against it, and your picture simply won't be used.
"With the press here, any girl or any shot doesn't work anymore," observes Byrne. "Photo desks [on newspapers] are much more specific. It's our job to ensure we give them what they want."
The 'bikini on Grafton Street' often isn't even the first rung on the modelling career ladder. According to Assets director Derek Daniels, girls are often hired for other types of promotions work. Ostensibly taking a leaf from former Renards hostess Amanda Brunker, many of them work as hostesses in Dublin nightspots such as Buck Whaleys and Krystle.
Yet it isn't always as glamorous as one might think. "Promotions work includes launching new bars, handing out leaflets, serving drinks at launches, meet and greets, that kind of thing," explains Daniels.
As to what makes a good photocall girl, Byrne asserts: "They turn up on time and do what they're asked to with a smile on their face. They also have to be polite to the client -- no point in being nice to me if the client who is paying them and me is standing right next to me."
Professionalism is a must: "A few models I've worked with in the past 12 months, they've arrived late, left early because their car was being clamped, sat there po-faced and were unhappy with what was asked of them," says one client. "Suffice to say, they weren't used again."
"The girls have to have a real can-do personality," adds Byrne. "We had Pippa [O'Connor] in a wedding dress waiting for the Luas in Dundrum a week after she got engaged to Brian Ormond, and she was totally into it."
In an oddly vicious circle, the models whose personal lives are written about are more likely to land jobs. Many of the girls have long-term boyfriends based outside the showbiz industry, while others have landed what appears to be a Holy Grail of sorts, a rugby player.
It's a common trajectory, one followed by Ruth Griffin, Jillian Goldthorpe, Aoife Cogan, Ruth O'Neill, Leah Baker, Michelle Doherty, Kerri Ingram and Debbie O'Leary in the past. "You're always looking for an angle with the girls," says Byrne. "Irma [Mali] was going out with Danny O'Donoghue from The Script, and there's no two ways about it -- it helped her career. Sometimes the angle makes the shot."
Another unnamed fashion source adds: "Sometimes this doesn't necessarily happen in the best way for the model. Ruth had to model after her split with Alan Quinlan, and it can't have been easy."
"I won't be dishonest, we work with girls who are topical," notes one anonymous client. "It's a tried and tested approach. This is just the way is it now."
In addition to the established names in the industry, there are the novice models; girls such as Judy Kelleher, Alison Boyle and Jodie Wood from Foxrock. And, in keeping with Daniels' theory that some girls are simply working their way through college, Jodie is indeed juggling modelling with a degree in molecular biology at UCD.
"Modelling is something I fell into; it's just a handy job, not something I'd ever really want to do as a career," she claims. "You can fit the work in better than working in a shop or an office."
Jodie is in demand for press-call work, and works as a house model for make-up emporium Brown Sugar. "I've done the 'bikini on Grafton Street' thing, but I've done it with a few girls so you can have more fun. I wouldn't say I like the attention."
As to the idea that the press might be interested in her personal life, she says: "I have an issue with that. A story was published that I was seeing someone and I had a long-term boyfriend at the time. It's a bit scary in a way knowing that the papers can print what they like."
As to the origins of the humble press call, no one in the industry seems entirely sure how they grew in prominence. Be it a hangover from the car-show days or an after-effect of the Rose of Tralee, the photos became popular in the early 1990s with several Irish tabloids.
"We went into business 20 years ago and Mags [Humphries, co-founder of Assets] pushed the idea of photocalls with the tabloids," notes Daniels. "Effectively, she created and popularised the Irish photocall. Amanda Byram and Yvonne Keating, Una Gibney, Laura Bermingham were all hugely in demand, and if you used them you'd get instant coverage."
Adds John Compton, former model and founder of the Compton model agency: "Amanda Byram kicked it all off in the mid-1990s, she was a total leader of the pack. Everyone knew who Amanda was so she really brought the press call into a new phase."
"When we worked it was a job, there was no celebrity aspect to it," recalls Laura Bermingham, who worked at a time when fewer models did both press call and fashion work. "You'd go down to do a fashion show in some god-awful part of Cork and get home at 3am, and that was your bread and butter.
"Back then it was 'Lovely Laura', never 'Sexy goddess Laura'," she says, noting the decorous nature of the business at the time. "At the time, the big to-do was you leaving the family in Galway and moving up to Dublin.
"But we were definitely treated with respect. It was a bit more 'Lovely girls', but that suited me down to the ground. I wasn't using it as a step to bag a rugby player or marry well; I did it to avoid college and to get my mum off my back."
Referring to the difference between today's press calls and the modelling gigs of yore, Bermingham adds: "The weird thing is you'll see a girl in a bikini and you have no idea what she is selling. I was dressed in a lagging jacket for the ESB, as an apple for Tropicana -- I probably looked like a tit but at least there was some humour in it, and it was all for the greater good of the product. I think one client did the bikini thing and everyone else then jumped on the bandwagon thinking, 'Well if they can do that, great'.
"I hung out of a tree, dressed up as Snow White in the airport; it was the nature of the job. It didn't bother me in the slightest.
"Look, you're not being paid for your brainpower, and you quickly understand what your job is," she adds.
Yet what of the future of the Irish model and the cornerstone of her working week, the press call? With the need to sell things not dying down anytime soon, there is plenty of life left in the 'bikini on Grafton Street' shot.
Yet one anonymous source offers a damning prognosis for the future of the Irish model: "All those girls have become a bit identikit by now. They're almost always fake-tanned, yummy-drummy, middle-class girls, and you can barely tell one from the other. I think people will start getting pretty bored of them soon enough."
And Harris, offering a similar view as both an insider and outsider, surmises thus: "Ireland has produced some great models, there's no doubting that. The thing is, though, they've all left the country."
The Queens of the photocall
There is an unseen hierarchy in the Irish modelling world. The queen bees are: Ruth Griffin, Sarah McGovern, Sara Kavanagh, Roberta Rowat and Pippa O’Connor. Then the names of several young-guns crop up in conversation with agents and photographers: Rozanna Purcell, Michele McGrath and ‘Fade Street’ star Vogue Wilson.
As it stands, Nadia Forde and Georgia Salpa are the two most in-demand photocall girls on Assets’ books: “Georgia and Nadia are working every day. In fact, we’ve had to limit them to one job a day as it’s not fair on the clients that use them otherwise,” reveals Assets director Derek Daniels.
“Georgia and Nadia have definitely taken the mantle,” agrees Presence PR director Joanne Byrne.