Former Irish model: 'When Harrow pupils circulated my topless photos it absolutely destroyed me'
Four years on from leaving her dream teaching post at leading British fee-paying school Harrow after a topless photo row, Joanne Salley has become a born-again Christian and retrained as a boxer. India Sturgis meets her
You may remember Joanne Salley as the art teacher from prestigious fee-paying school Harrow, who posed topless for pictures that were accidentally found then less accidentally distributed by a teeming mass of hormonal schoolboys (presumably who’d thought Christmas had come early).
As career blunders go, it was catastrophic. The former Miss Northern Ireland resigned from her seven year stint at the school shortly afterwards – despite hopes of making history as the first female housemaster – leaving her dream job as art teacher in one of the most privileged academic set-ups imaginable.
But, as she is at pains to make clear when we meet, the whole torrid affair wasn’t her fault, not really, and this black mark has blotted her ledger ever since. Now she’d like to fight back. I am here to discuss other things but when I broach the topless topic, it all comes proverbially tumbling out:
The fight night, held at the Grosvenor House Hotel, invites only the cream of young London society.
“I love Harrow from the bottom of my heart. The boys are fantastic. That school was my life…. No one ever got to know me as a person or what I stood for or stand for. What really angers me is this label that I’ve had and for the last four years, anything I do, they say topless teacher. It is so derogatory. Do you know how insulting that is?”
She eases into fifth, her cheerful Dungannon accent suddenly ricocheting along.
“From being a respectable girl from a religious family in a small town in Northern Ireland I worked really hard, I went to Cambridge and then got a job at one of the best schools in the country. Then this happens, and that is the label everyone pins on me. It is really sad.”
You feel sorry for the 39-year-old, who barely draws breath during our interview and treats me as like a best friend. No one was supposed to see the photos. They were taken by the school’s head of photography - a friend of hers - but somehow the memory card made its way into the school’s photography lab and, from there, spread like wildfire. Overnight she became a viral superstar, the imprint of which she still feels today, four years on.
“I was no better than a pin-up in their bedroom,” she says, wincing at the recollection. “I couldn’t cope with that. It absolutely destroyed me. I couldn’t walk down the High Street; I drove the five minute journey from my flat to my classroom and hid there.”
She still tutors privately but returning to the classroom is out of the question.
“I’m traumatised by the idea of going into a school environment again.”
Except she did, albeit briefly, soon after leaving Harrow when she spent 10 days in “the toughest schools in London to see what the other side of the scale was like”. She was shocked by the experience.
“The main things in those types of schools I would like to change is the class numbers. When you have 35 challenging pupils you are not a teacher - you are actually crowd management. You can’t actually teach your subject.”
It’s interesting that US actress and singer Vanessa Williams, who was forced to resign as Miss America following a similar nude photo scandal in 1984, was issued an apology last month by the Miss America CEO. So are we finally becoming more blasé about boobs? Salley accepts the parallel between both stories, apparently a friend forwarded her the news, but she honestly doesn’t know the answer.
She will say though that she felt “utterly manipulated and controlled for a whole year” after she was crowed Miss Northern Ireland.
“They put you in a box… you will wear high heels, have nails on and go to the hairdresser every day. That was the image, the expectation was attached to. I became that. I guess I didn’t know how to react against it.”
We are chatting in the Club Lounge of a palatial gym, KX, in Chelsea in London because, as well as setting adolescent boys’ pulses racing, she is now a white collar boxer - like you do.
A master of rebranding throughout her whole working life - Salley segued from working in a chicken factory until the age of 21 and training in ballet, to being crowned Miss Northern Ireland in 1998. She then began playing polo, mastering silversmithing at Ulster University and completed a postgraduate course at Cambridge University in education before becoming a teacher and running five marathons.
She now paints children’s murals - in between boxing fights - is a born-again Christian and, this January, plans to cycle the length of Chile, the longest country in the world for charity.
A few weeks ago the ex-beauty pageant queen made headlines again when fought and won a bout at Boodles Boxing Ball at Grosvenor House Hotel to raise money to fund research into neuroblastoma. She trained for 10 hours a week for four months, which explains why she looks as powerful as a racehorse today. Dressed down in trainers, black leggings and a grey t-shirt she looks relaxed apart from a full face of make-up. Wasn’t she worried about getting punched in the face?
“Fear holds you back,” Salley jabs back. “If I felt like that there is no way I would step into a ring. If you don’t train properly you will get injured, that’s why I was 100 per cent dedicated. It is so empowering… and a great stress release.” She lists the opportunity to show off in front of a crowd and the rush of adrenalin as equal draws.
The fight night, held at the Grosvenor House Hotel, invites only the cream of young London society Joanne Salley, 39, taught at the leading independent school for boys for seven years but resigned in 2011 after photos of her showing her breasts were found on a memory stick and circulated by pupils
Her boxing career has earned her a black eye, whiplash and a fractured foot, but seemingly nothing can put her off. Salley was supposed to fight at the same event two years ago but a women on one of the committees decided “she didn’t want” women boxers and kyboshed the female fights.
“It’s one of these things that just divides opinion,” shrugs Salley. “There is a fear it is going to be a pathetic cat fight.” Her family disagree and refuse to watch her.
“They don’t agree with me boxing. The perception is it is not a ladylike sport. Certainly my dad’s opinion is exactly like that. They support me from afar but it is not something they want to see.”
Salley grew up on a small farm in Dungannon in Northern Ireland with her older sister and both parents. Part of her perpetuating drive to succeed was born out of her parents’ separation.
“Mum moved away when I was 16. That has had a huge impact on my life. It was a trigger for me to stand up on my own two feet and never rely on anyone. Everything I do, I do on my own. I don’t want help. I push people away if they try to.”
Now she is single and lives in London with four goldfish.
“I don’t even have a dog!” she laughs.
Keen to remain unlabeled, she doesn’t call herself Catholic or Protestant but says she is very religious and goes to church every Sunday, after a scuba diving accident age 16 when she nearly drowned brought her around to the idea of a celestial being.
Nearing 40, what would she like to be known for?
"I would like to inspire people; to show that just because you are 39 doesn't mean you can’t do a boxing match or that women have to be a particular way all the time or look a certain way."
As a parting shot she tells me her autobiography, if she ever gets around to writing one, will be titled Miss Understood.