Don't hide your sadness: why Thalia Heffernan shows her vulnerability
As she exclusively reveals her new project to LIFE, model Thalia Heffernan speaks to Liadan Hynes about body confidence, food guilt, feeling sad, and why she’s moving back to Dublin for good with her ‘Dancing With The Stars’ boyfriend, Ryan McShane
It would be easy, if you were Thalia Heffernan, to pretend that everything was OK all the time. Better than OK, even.
The modelling career, the TV-presenting jobs, the gorgeous dancer boyfriend, the loving family and, of course, her beloved dogs. On the outside, it could all look a bit picture-perfect.
But that's not the reality. And pretending is not the Heffernan way. Thalia began modelling when she was 15. The third and youngest daughter of former model Susan Ebrill and television producer Gerald Heffernan, she was a huge success from the start. Things were so busy, she combined an almost full-time modelling schedule with school. It created a dichotomy - a teenage schoolgirl in an adult world of work. At a time when you are only beginning to figure out who you really are, Thalia was constantly given a look, an image, by someone else. Putting on a face, literally and figuratively.
Now 23, Thalia is a thinker, an earnest soul, highly empathetic; a type often referred to in spiritual circles as a seeker. Chances are, she would have been the kind of person who would always have felt things deeply, modelling career or not. But it certainly accelerated the adult-ness of the brain on her still oh-so-young shoulders.
Early this year, Thalia moved to England to live with her boyfriend, Ryan McShane, a professional dancer whom she met when she competed as a contestant on RTE's Dancing With The Stars last year. The move to Birmingham was great for them, she says, referring to Ryan and their two lurcher dogs. But in other ways, it was tough. Out of her comfort zone and taking a step back from the somewhat relentless work schedule she has maintained for eight years now, Thalia struggled.
"I was fighting with every part of me for eight months," she explains as we chat over coffee in Dublin, days before the pair relocate to Thalia's home town permanently. It was the change of pace, rather than the new location, that was the challenge. "I really struggled with that. Ryan had to sit me down a few times and say, 'You are doing things, you are busy, and you're working.' But in my head, it's never enough."
In part, it's a drive to do everything she can as soon as possible in order to get her where she wants to be. Then there's the fear of the self-employed - never say no, can't be busy enough. And, partly, it's the expectations of others. What's she up to? What's the next big project?
"It's such a difficult environment to be in," she says of her line of work. "One month, I could have four jobs a day. And I'm dying for a day off. And then I might have a month of two jobs, and I'm going stir-crazy, freaking out, thinking, 'What can I do?'"
Taking the foot off, albeit only slightly by the sounds of things, gave her perspective. "I really fought with myself a lot; one part of me was going, 'You need to be doing more', the other part was going, 'Give yourself a bloody break'. That dynamic, for Ryan, was probably the most difficult. Because one day I'd be fine, and the next I'd be freaking out, getting up, cleaning the house aggressively, doing something to try to justify the fact that I've slowed down. Sending emails to everyone and anyone I knew about exciting stuff we could do when I come back. He was like: 'You haven't had a break since you were 15 years old. Calm down. You don't need to keep going; you're only 23'. But in my head, I was like, 'I'm losing time, and time is money, and time is precious'."
As it happens, right now she does have something big up next: her first major collaboration, a line of gym gear with Diesel.ie - Diesel x Thalia.
"This was such a perfect thing for me to veer off a little bit from the modelling and focus my energy on," she says. She has high energy levels, which she needs for long modelling days, she explains, but when work is quiet, all that pent-up energy is just coursing through her, "knocking about my head".
The project was her idea; having worked with Diesel.ie for years, she went to them with the suggestion of a collaboration. For a long time, she had been "wanting to do more, to have a voice," she explains. "Obviously that's why I did Dancing With The Stars; to try and break out and to stop the assumptions that I'm just that girl who just has pictures taken of her for a living."
This isn't just a line of jewellery, shoes or sunglasses that she's putting her name to. There's a sort of emotional element to it all. "For a long time, I would have lived in sportswear. At my worst, I would have lived in sportswear. Despite that being contradictory, because technically you can't find a more second skin."
There's a certain comfort to be found in gym gear though, when you're feeling low. It's a welcome, undemanding uniform. When you're having a hard time, who wants to have to come up with an outfit?
Thalia has never been shy about speaking out about the bad times. Ironically, the silence that comes with being a model seems to have only spurred on this articulate 23-year-old, who speaks with the fierce passion of a natural-born mental-health campaigner.
She's reading a book at the moment called Hardcore Self Help: F**k Depression by Robert Duff. "We don't give feelings a start, middle and end," she says. "We just go, 'Oh I'm sad, and I'm a sad person'." The book, she says, makes feeling down an entity: "It's not this intangible thing where you're like, 'It's just how I feel'." For Thalia, there's a reason for and a way around these feelings, and while that might not mean a definitive end to them, she says you can "help yourself get over those feelings in that moment".
She says she has had depression, explaining further: "I've had bad times. I think everybody does, and I think some people have the strength to associate the cause with what it is. Having depression doesn't mean that I'm not able to do things," she adds, explaining that a horror of sympathy, or pity, can put her off talking about it. Her perspective is that this is stuff we all go through; she's talking about it in order to normalise it.
"Feelings can go out of control if you do not understand them. That's why I think allowing yourself to feel sad is so important."
In the past, she has posted on her Instagram about feeling sad, and about body issues.
"I can sit on a train on my way into work and pour my feelings out into a [social media] message easily enough. But pressing that send button is absolutely terrifying. Because I know there'll be a response. I hope that it'll be a positive one, that people will relate to it, and understand. But you always question yourself when it's that raw. I'm used to people sending me messages that might be a bit negative about what I do. I can fob that off, whatever. But when you're opening up about your mental health, any negative response that comes back is much harder to brush under the rug."
She does it out of a sense of solidarity. "Somebody who might be hiding their emotions, pretending everything's OK, avoiding eye contact with people, not talking - I wanted to tell them that I've done the same thing. I've gone to work some days and had to put the biggest smile on my face when all I wanted to do was cry. And I've hidden that for so long. It's in your head. If you just cry, and you just talk to someone, you can make a weight lighter, by just releasing it. I felt lighter after sending that message."
In real life, she says, she's not actually much of a talker when she's feeling low: "It's strange that I'm relatively comfortable doing it in a mass environment to people I don't know. I think maybe it's because it's less personal that way. Maybe it's because I know what to do to make myself feel better if I'm sad."
What does she need to do?
"Cry. Or let go of a thought. Or get out of the house." She meditates regularly: "It does help, but sometimes my thoughts are too much."
In which case, she gets moving. She goes to the gym or boxing, or for a walk with the dogs, or does a bit of dancing with Ryan. "Anything that gets your heart rate up, your body sweating. There's no way that your mind can focus on something negative when you're exercising."
The gym has been a part of her life for years now. As a professional model who has worked in London, New York, and Sydney, it would be unlikely to be otherwise. That hasn't always been a positive. She recalls one foreign agency telling her to think of the gym as her nine-to-five. They didn't mean literally spending that amount of time there, but showing the same level of commitment one would to a full-time job.
"It's a double-edged sword, isn't it?" she reflects now, explaining that exercise had a negative association because the gym was a tool used to make her look how someone else wanted her to. "It wasn't the training part they were talking about when they said the gym is good, it was the weight loss. So that was a battle I always had to fight." With age, she has got better at handling the battles in her head. Now, for her, the gym is about bettering herself, whether that is toning up, improving her headspace, sweating out the stress, or being able to lift her dogs, who weigh 30 kilograms each. She enjoys getting physically strong because that is how she wants to be in her life, not simply as a part of her job.
"I didn't want to be a damsel. I didn't want to be someone who needed help. The gym gave me that power physically and mentally; that I didn't need anyone. I could do it myself. It's like a pseudo medication. Because despite it being a physical thing, [working out] does allow you to feel that your head is stronger." That was the spirit behind her new gym gear collection - "that just because I'm a girl doesn't mean I can't do what you can do".
Modelling, despite being one of the only industries where women are paid more than men, and which is, to a large extent, run by women, is still "also manipulated by men massively," she says. "Business people in my industry are mostly men." Knowing this, and thinking of the #MeToo movement, she felt a need to make her clothing line not just "girl power", but powerful, "full stop", she says. "It was finding a fine balance between sexy, comfortable and confidence."
The line, which goes on sale in the first week of January, will have approximately 10 pieces, including active pants, tops, and sports bras. There's a comfortably loose-fitting top, the design of which was inspired by a man's fitness top. Tapping into the athleisure trend, something that has gone beyond being a seasonal fashion trend and into an ongoing lifestyle trend, Thalia wanted pieces that would work in and out of the gym. Fabrics and fit were her main point of focus, and it's clear from talking to her, that Thalia, who visited the factories in Portugal where the line is produced, has been at the helm of this project, and brought a rigorous attention to detail to it.
For Thalia, her relationship with food has been a struggle at times over the years. It doesn't require a career as a professional model to experience guilt around what you eat. It's depressingly common among women - to the point where one could say some level of guilt around what we eat is just part of being female now.
"I've been that soldier where I've beaten myself to a pulp to get where I wanted to be in my head. I've never been happier than I am now," she adds, explaining that when she was being unhealthy in order to get thin, people would tell her she looked great. But she never felt great.
"No matter how restrictive I was, or skinny, or how little I was eating. And I was real proud of myself at that time. But my mental state didn't make me happy. You might have a minute of pride, but that minute of pride is never going to be outweighed by the hours of pain you go through to feel that way."
Once guilt becomes attached to food, it is hard to ever really, truly ditch that mentality. As a vegan, Thalia spends a large amount of time thinking about what she eats. That kind of thing can easily turn into an unhealthy relationship with food. How does she stop it becoming a source of anxiety? "I do and I don't," she says bluntly. "Depending on the day. I could have a day where I eat loads of bread and feel really guilty about it, but I don't even care, and then the next day, I'll beat myself up about it. I think it's a real struggle I've had for a long, long time; detaching food from its guilt factor."
To that end, she now never uses phrases like 'guilty treat'. "Eating something might make me feel bad, but now I think it has made me feel good in that moment, and there's some reason I have to do that, and then look at it at a later date, or go to the gym, or go for a walk," Thalia reasons. She experienced huge guilt around the eating of animals, so going plant-based has banished her guilt around food to "a huge extent".
Part of feeling good for Thalia is being at home in Dublin, and being near her family. Herself and Ryan have decided to move to Dublin on a permanent basis. He's from the North, so it means he is closer to his own parents. "We have had a wonderful eight months together, and our relationship has just gone from strength to strength, but Ryan knows my heart lies in Dublin," she says.
She fights with herself the most when she's not at home, she explains. Being able to walk to her mum's house, rather than just call from abroad, is a big source of comfort. If and when they choose to start a family, she says Dublin is where she wants her home to be. "It's been a difficult few months in terms of finding myself, because I've forced myself to be out of a situation I'm comfortable in, and into a place I've been so many times before; where work isn't normal, and I don't have my regular clients. If I had stayed in Dublin, I probably wouldn't have questioned myself as much."
What Thalia wants most is a safe, stable base for her little family with Ryan, and their two dogs, Leonard and Charlie. Her own parents separated when she was 19, and she has been somewhat on the move ever since. "I want the best life for my dogs. And I want them to know that they're 100pc comfortable and happy, because they've had a tough start. Is it a deflection?"
What she does to make her dogs happy will inevitably make her happy, she reasons. Deep down, it's also about that. "It's easier to say they need a place. But deep down, we all have a selfishness. You use things to make it seem like you're doing it for other people. Whereas everything you do, it has to be affecting your own self."
Travelling a lot for work, the only thing you want to come home to is a place where you feel safe and comfortable, Thalia explains. Her mental struggle over the last few months, as she terms it, was to do with making enough money to ensure a home that is comfortable, something unlikely to be possible in Dublin at the moment, she reflects.
Still though, they're coming home. They're looking at alternative options - we speculate over mobile homes, a garden room or log cabin; the alternatives that many of her generation are facing into. It doesn't really matter, though. As long as she has her three boys, and her family nearby, Thalia feels at home.
Photography by Jonny Wilson
Sunday Indo Life Magazine