The model who put the curves back in Vogue
It was a moment that Louise O'Reilly will never forget. She was standing in her granny's kitchen in Howth at 11.30 in the morning when her phone started jumping.
Her Twitter timeline had exploded and her pictures were all over the internet. After years of grafting in the backwaters of modelling and fashion blogging, struggling to accept herself and have her size accepted, her biggest dream had come true: there she was, hair swept artily across her face, looking like a goddess, staring up from the pages of Italian Vogue. "I just looked up from the phone and I was shaking. My boyfriend was there too but I turned to her and said: "Nana, it's happened! I'm in Vogue!" And she turned to me and just said "that's nice dear!"
Louise had known that there was a chance that the iconic magazine would use her images but she hadn't wanted to get her hopes up. After she won her second Cosmopolitan Award for her phenomenally popular fashion blog for larger ladies - StyleMeCurvy - last October, there had been huge interest from the international fashion press, and she'd felt that her shoot had gone well, but she knew of many models who'd had their hopes dashed by Vogue and she wanted to keep her expectations low.
She didn't tell anyone that there was even a possibility that she'd appear until the pictures were actually published in December. "It was just incredible, I was a bit emotional," she recalls. "After everything that had happened earlier in my life, it did feel extra special."
The "everything" was a baptism of fire that you wouldn't wish on any young woman. O'Reilly grew up in a fashion-conscious family. Her father, whose family are Sicilian, had met her mother through the mother's father - there is a 25-year age gap between her parents, and her father was married once before. "I grew up in Malahide", she tells me "My dad was in insurance. He went into consultancy. He worked in Italy for about 30 years. There is lots of French culture in my family too - my mother's family are all French. My mum was always really slim. I am the baby of the family and the only girl with two older boys. My dad's first wife died of breast cancer. My parents were introduced by my grandfather. My granddad and my dad worked together and my Granddad said, 'Listen, my daughter's 21st is coming up if you want to come along.' And he did. They were married about two or three years later."
Both of her parents adored clothes, her mother a chic size 8, her father "the straightest man in Ireland who also loves fashion". As a child growing up in Malahide, however, Louise tended to be a tomboy, refusing to wear the dresses her mother laid out for her and, particularly after breaking her leg in national school, showing a tendency to be quite heavy. In secondary school this got even worse. "I was kind of chubby and I was also always the type of person to be bullied," she recalls. "And one fed off the other. The more I was bullied the bigger I got. I reached 19 stone when I was in second year in secondary school. I was such an ugly duckling. I was like a child version of Bridget Jones. I wish I could have gone back to myself of then and just told myself it's all going to be ok."
The other kids could be cruel. "Valentine's Day, I absolutely hated it", she tells me. "I remember one year someone went and got me a McDonald's as a Valentine's Day present. I can laugh about it now, but at the time that really upset me". Another boy broke up with her because she was too fat. "He just said to me 'I can't do it, I thought I could, but I can't.'"
As her teens progressed, the situation got worse. "When I was in late fourth year, I got really sick", she recalls. "It took a year to diagnose what was wrong. It turns out that I had ME (chronic fatigue syndrome). It was horrendous. It felt like I was a 90-year-old in a 17-year-old's body. I had pain everywhere, I was always tired, even lifting my arm was so difficult. I was really stressed about my Junior Cert, and I got a flu and then a vomiting bug and it got worse and worse. I was on crutches. My mother had to spoon-feed me. You won't die from it, though, and that's why you're not taken seriously."
Her parents took it very seriously, however. "They were amazing", she tells me. "They weren't taking no for an answer. The doctors told them 'we think she's depressed' but they didn't believe that. It was just a really dark time. At that point I just felt regret at all the things I didn't do. I was thinking to myself that I'd wasted my life, why I didn't go on holidays, why wasn't I able to just go and have fun with my friends. I mean I'm not being dramatic but it honestly it got to the point where I thought I was dying. I thought, 'I'm 17 and this will be the rest of my life.'"
Her mum and dad took her to a private clinic in Thailand, where more investigations were done on Louise. "They did a lot of blood tests", she recalls. "I had acupuncture, iron injections, (vitamin) B12 injections. Finally, there was this kinesiologist called Brett Stevens (who also set up a practice in Dublin) and he basically saved my life. After he began treating me with a low sugar, low salt diet - it's very similar to the paleo diet. I stuck to it and on Christmas Day I walked down the stairs on my own and my parents just couldn't believe it. Ten days later I was able to go into town with my friends."
The ME did have one unexpected effect: it made her lose weight and get her body down to the size she is today. "I think the lowest I ever went down was a size 12, but it didn't suit me and I was uncomfortable", she recalls. "The doctors told me that might happen before I reached my natural plateau weight." She went on to gain a BA in international relations but set her sights on making a name for herself in the modelling world.
"People would tell me that I was pretty and that I should do modelling, and a Paris-based modelling agency did once approach me on the street in London. They asked me to lose three and a half stone, like the same size as a small child basically." She smiles ruefully at the memory: "I knew there was no way I could do that and I'm glad I had the confidence at that point to say no."
She had also gained considerable confidence from her relationship with her boyfriend - they've been together now for four years. "He's amazing and a great support to me."
When the weight fell away she noticed a change in the dynamic of some of her friendships. "All of a sudden there'd be girls I wouldn't hear from any more. I realised that to them I was the wing woman, the fat friend." Professionally, her weight would remain an issue. "I remember one photographer telling me, 'Sorry, I don't photograph girls like you, you're too curvy for me,'" she recalls. "But others did like my looks and I realised as well that there was a niche I could fill."
She was "discovered" by Gok Wan in a plus-size model competition. "It was a really exciting time. I was picked out of a few thousand curvy girls for the final and although nothing came out of it directly I got a modelling contract shortly afterward here in Ireland." She also began getting catalogue and catwalk work, particularly in Germany and the UK, and ironically, in the cut throat world of fashion, it was the example of other models which helped her gain in self-confidence.
"There was one very well known model and she had been in Sports Illustrated and Victoria's Secrets, and I remember getting changed beside her and she had stretch marks and she said to me, 'Those are from my children and I'm very proud I had them and I've no issue with my body, if photographers don't like them (stretch marks) they can just photoshop them out.' Meeting someone with that kind of deep-rooted body confidence did have a positive effect on me."
Getting the right representation was crucial as well, she says. "I'm with Rebecca Morgan at Morgan The Agency, and she's like a second mother, she's always watching out for me. It's important to have that because there's a lot of travel, a lot of early calls and a support is necessary."
Being a plus-size model, is not, she hastens to add about getting as big as you want. "You definitely still need a lot of discipline," Louise tells me. "I'm a size 14 to 16. I don't look my size. I do work out a lot. you have to keep your measurements, just like a straight model. you have to be able to adapt to any situation. I want to maintain the weight I am. I do 3-4 times a week in the gym, lots of weights, I do the cross-trainer a lot, I love swimming when I can. When I was on holidays I got into kickboxing but I'm careful about that because of bruising, which isn't good for modelling! I can't have wheat and can't have dairy, because I'm intolerant. But I love sweet potatoes and lots of fish. I don't really drink but I am a divil for coffee."
She started the blog, she says, because, "I remember being 22 and fat and not knowing what to wear to a wedding," and is full of helpful advice on how to to dress the fuller figure. "Actually more than size, the most important thing is shape", she says. "The bigger you are and the curvier you are the more you need to be aware of what shape you are to know how to dress yourself. In Ireland, apple shapes are the most common - that's where you hold all your weight around your middle. For those people, I'd say, depending on your age, fitted, flared dresses are good. Personally, I have a mediocre bust, but if someone is really busty they should avoid covering up too much - sleeves and neck - because that in itself draws a lot of attention back to the bust. It's all about working proportions in the best way possible. I'm always learning; I'll always ask the stylists on shoots if I can assist them."
The blog, she says, takes more work than people imagine. "People look at StyleMeCurvy and think I only post three times a week but there's a lot of stuff around that that has to be done as well. I answer all my emails. I'll scour the whole country for a dress for someone. Looking good is about confidence and I want to give that to people."
She says that even among established plus-sized models there is a lot of body dissatisfaction and she finds it depressing. "Plus-size model Crystal Renn paved the way for girls like me; she did the catwalk and worked for Valentino, she's been open about her eating disorders, which thankfully I never suffered from. I meet girls and they want to be a bit smaller here and a bit bigger there. They won't go to something until they've lost a little bit of weight. That upsets me because it's about body confidence and owning it." Binging and purging is not something she ever considered. "I can get away with 70pc dark chocolate and on a Friday night I will eat a few pieces of that", she says. "If I have been bold I'll have Ryvita instead of gluten-free bread."
She feels that the industry still has a long way to come in terms of allowing women of different sizes to be depicted in media and advertising. Of Victoria's Secrets, about which there was much debate earlier this year, she says, "I do think that if you're selling lingerie you need to show a diversity of shapes (otherwise) they send the wrong message to girls and to boys - who grow up looking at their brothers and dads swooning over that. That's where it's really important to send the message that women of different sizes can still looks good and still be sexy.
After the runaway success of the blog, she's had lot of interest from diet-pill companies who hope that she'll allow them to advertise on her site. It's something she's not interested in despite the big payday it would likely bring. "I would never want my name associated with the likes of weight loss pills", she says. "I started StyleMeCurvy on the back of inclusivity, so other than from a purely health perspective diets are something I don't talk about. It would just send out an entirely mixed message. The money is huge in it, but that's not how my parents raised me. People have pulled the wool over my eyes. There have been meetings set up and it'll be painted as if it's a fashion meeting and then it will turn out that they want to advertise these products. Now in advance I always say I won't go to a meeting if I don't know everything about the brand."
Now she hopes to keep building her own brand as one of the world's foremost plus-sized models, and the week after we meet she's involved in a photo shoot for Cosmopolitan, which is slated to appear later in the spring. She will also appear in a forthcoming documentary on RTE. She has a few strings to her bow and the wonders of social media have helped her exorcise some of the ghosts of the past.
"I saw a guy who broke up with me on Facebook recently and he'd put on a lot of weight" she tells me. Another boy who'd mocked her in school asked her out for a drink. "It's more funny than anything else" she laughs. "When I was in school I used to look up jokes on the internet to try to make boys like me. I didn't think I had any chance of being pretty so I wanted to be funny. Heavier girls actually have the best personalities because they don't take it for granted that people will like them. I've grown up a lot and grown to accept myself but I'm also still the same girl inside. I have a great work ethic and I always try hard and I think that stands to me."
Learn more about Louise at www.stylemecurvy.blogspot.com