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Former Miss Ireland Olivia Tracey talks to Andrea smith about love and fulfilling her acting dreams
Men don't fall over me at all, I think they're afraid of me," is the stunning Olivia Tracey's reply when I ask her if she gets much attention from men. I find it hard to believe, as when she glides across the drawing room of the Radisson Blu St Helen's Hotel in Stillorgan, all heads turn to look at the tall, glamorous former Miss Ireland.
And when she goes off with our photographer Mark for the photo, the three men at the next table immediately launch into praise about how amazing she looks. But the sad news for hopeful men on either side of the Atlantic is that the serene and friendly Olivia is now very much taken.
"I have a wonderful Irish man in my life right now," she smiles. "We met when I was home from California to mind my mother last summer, and he's gorgeous and handsome and gentlemanly and fun and educated and kind. He's very good to me and it's funny, but I get instincts about things, and I felt that I was going to meet someone really special that summer.
"And I met him, two days before I went home, so we had a long-distance relationship, and to-ed and fro-ed for a while. The great thing about my world is that although I have a responsibility to be around for auditions at certain times, I have the flexibility to go off for extended periods too."
As Olivia is based in LA, one would imagine the American men would be bowled over by her Irish charm, but she insists that Irish men are better fun to date.
"I was never that enamoured by the men I met in California, as they are a whole different ball game to Irish men," she says. "I find that the men here have a very soft centre and a sentimental side to them. They're fun and generous and want to give you a good time, whereas the American man can sometimes be watching his wallet. And don't get me wrong, I may look it, but I'm not someone that you'd consider high-maintenance and I really appreciate everything I get."
Now 54, Olivia probably wouldn't have dreamt that she would make her life in the US when she was growing up in Terenure as the youngest of Maura and the late Tom Tracey's five children. She went to school at Loreto, Beaufort, and is still very close to her three great friends, Marion, Annmarie and Bronagh.
So was she always that glam, or did she have bushy eyebrows and frizzy hair, like the rest of us children of the 60s?
"I was always very glam-conscious, although in a very natural kind of way," she says. "My friends still tease me about the Vaseline I always had with me for the glossy lips, and I used to roll my school skirt up to give it a bit of pzazz. I always wanted to grow up to look like Raquel Welch and become a model, as I was very taken by the glamour and the style and the elegance of it all."
Olivia didn't have the confidence to try modelling back then, so went off to UCD to study English and French with a view to becoming a teacher. Stylist Sonya Lennon was one of her pupils when she did her H.Dip at Loreto on St. Stephen's Green. Teaching jobs were scarce, however, so she decided to try modelling, encouraged by her mother, whom she says was a beautiful, elegant lady who would have made a great model herself if shyness hadn't prevailed.
"I found runway modelling terrifying initially, and would break out in a rash," she says. "We used to go to shows down the country, and they were brilliant times. I have great memories of us taking our make-up off on the bus on the way home, and stopping to get fish and chips at midnight. Who'd think it - models eating fish and chips? You didn't want to eat a lot before the show though, as you wanted to feel trim and not have a big stomach."
After a year and a half modelling, Olivia won the Miss Ireland competition in 1984, aged 24. She was shocked to win, but had an amazing year, and says that everything changed for her at that point. She is delighted to be returning to the 2014 pageant as a judge this Saturday night. "I love it because it always reminds me of a fantastic time in my life, and it's always such a great buzzy night," she says.
Olivia began working in RTE as a continuity announcer and a TV host, but had what she describes as a 'gra for acting.' After completing a course at the Gaiety School of Acting, she landed the role of Cinderella in the Gaiety panto. Acting was hard initially, she says, as while it went well, some theatre people were a bit suspicious of models-turned-actresses. She also wrote - at one point Olivia was fashion editor of Woman's Way.
"I probably could have stayed in Ireland and had a great career in theatre and TV acting here, but I developed a yearning to go to the States," she says. "It was scary, but I knew l'd regret it if I didn't go, and the one thing modelling taught me was to push past my fears."
Olivia went off to London, initially, and then to New York. She began working for the Irish Echo newspaper and was a girl about town, covering social events, which was great for networking.
She won her Green Card the following year and got roles that led to an Equity card, and says that she spent three wonderful years in the Big Apple.
However, when she was sent by the Sunday Independent to cover the Oscars in LA, she found herself standing on Rodeo Drive in the sunshine. She decided to move there in January 1997, armed with her savings and a list of 40 names culled from friends.
"It was very hard for the first two years, and I took a long time to settle," she admits. "I sometimes thought about coming home and wondered why I was putting myself through it.
It was a very lonely city, and quiet at night, which was strange after the fun and the noise and the honky-tonk of New York. People meant what they said there, but in LA, they would give you their number and tell you to call them, and would then avoid your call."
Olivia then settled in and began to get a lot of commercial work, which made life easier. She won a lead role playing the Irish mammy in the film, Red Roses and Petrol, directed by Tamar Simon Hoff. The part originally went to Blythe Danner, Gwyneth Paltrow's mother, and Olivia was playing a nurse, but Blythe backed out as it was too soon after her husband Bruce's death, and recommended Olivia.
"I loved playing the part and found myself sounding just like my mother," Olivia laughs. "I was only 43 and she was meant to be in her 50s, so they wanted to age me and I was willing to do that. That was where I started letting the colour go in my hair, but it was lovely to play non-glamorous."
She may not dye her hair any more, but Olivia's hair is, most serendipitously, a wonderful, strikingly fair colour. Although she hasn't had any work done, she looks wonderful - great genes, inherited from her mum Maura. She is kept busy between modelling, writing, narrating, being in TV ads or having parts in theatre shows, and has built up a great circle of friends in LA, many of them Irish.
She also spends a few months here every year, and loves to spend time with her mum Maura (94), who is in a nursing home as she has mobility problems, and is very happy there.
"My mum is so graceful and elegant and polite," she says. "She is very shy, but she is well able to chat to people."
While she has a sister Anne and brother Ciaran here, and is very close to both, Olivia's "charming Kerryman" dad passed away in 2001. She is very sad that her brother Ronan and sister Helen both died unexpectedly, aged 56 and 50 respectively.
As she is close to her family, does she ever regret not having children? "Yes, it is a regret, as it was something I always wanted, but I never met the right man at the right time," she says. "Some women will go ahead and have children anyway, even by themselves, but it just never felt right to me - it's an awful lot for a single person to take on by themselves. Now, would I want it? No. But if I could have had an opportunity to have children up to ten years ago, I still would have done it.
"But I'm really fine with it now and I have my independence and don't have the responsibility of being a parent," she adds. "My nephew Stephen has just had a baby that he called Oliver Thomas, so while Thomas is after my dad, I don't know if Oliver is after me, but I'm claiming it anyway!"
And now that she has an Irish man, can we expect to see more of her over here? "Well I'm a free spirit and I'm very happy at the moment," she smiles. "I have an open mind and a one-way ticket so we'll see what happens!"
Olivia Tracey will be a judge at the Miss Ireland 2014 pageant, in association with Mane 'n' Tail, at the Ballsbridge Hotel this Saturday night