The long way home: adventures of an Irish model in New York
For model Sarah Tansey, New York was never going to be home. She tells our reporter about the limits of the American dream, and the importance of knowing what you want, as she models Newbridge, perfect for Christmas gifts
'The first thing that was said to me when I landed was: 'You're a bit chubby!'" So says Sarah Tansey of the experience of moving to New York to pursue modelling a couple of years ago. We all know this kind of thing goes on - personal remarks that are dangerous as well as intrusive - but the casual, even proprietorial, rudeness of it is still a bit eye-popping.
So what did Sarah do? "I went outside and rang my boyfriend, and we had a right laugh. By no stretch of the imagination was I ever chubby. From my degree in pharmacy, I know every health implication of being stupid with your weight; on your bones, your reproductive health. So I've no time for that... but then you think, maybe if I was 15 and somebody said that to me, maybe I would have done whatever they said? I don't know."
Instead, Sarah took the agency up on their offer of free gym membership - "I've always been active, my whole life. Whenever I was stressed about my Leaving Cert, my dad used to say, 'Out on the bike, that's it', and we'd go for a cycle for an hour. So I went to the gym, ate normally and healthily for a few weeks, went back in and they were like, 'Oh, you look great…' I didn't weigh any different!"
It's for reasons like this that Sarah is glad she came to modelling late. She was 21, and started with a love of acting. "I won a few awards in different drama festivals. One of the adjudicators suggested I should do some commercial acting." The confidence boost inspired Sarah to approach an agency, and "they signed me that day."
For someone else, the excitement might have gone to their head, but not Sarah. "There's a lot of teachers in my family," she laughs. "Education is a top priority always. I was always quite strong academically and, from the start, my parents, when it came to modelling, were like, 'only when it doesn't conflict with college'. They're happy for me to do this, but they were never like, 'Oh yeah!' The amount of models I met in America who were cast when they were 15, and their parents were completely ok with them leaving school to model... That's ludicrous. You're not even an adult! It's a terrible idea."
And so Sarah, born in Donegal, and brought up in Dundalk, had her pharmacy degree before she went into the industry full-time. And she is convinced that she is "lucky" she did it that way. "Even though maybe I would have done better if I started earlier, but... my perspective, when anything goes wrong, has always been: this isn't life or death."
For all the opportunities and excitement, New York, she says, was never for her. "I was homesick," she admits. "I never had the travel bug. I love home. It was great, but when my lease came up [for renewal] after 18 months, I decided, 'This is it, I'm going home'."
Before she left, Sarah made sure to pay forward the help she got when she first arrived - namely, warnings around the many ways in which girls can get into ferocious debt with their agencies.
"Any Irish girls coming over, I would have contacted them, saying, 'I don't know you, but here's a list of things to watch out for...' When I arrived, Jude Nabney, who was on my first-ever photo shoot, called me and said, 'Come over and have a chat', and went through all this stuff with me. You have to pass that along."
What in particular did she find hard about New York? "It's a very different culture - more different than I thought. It's very monetary. I don't understand somewhere where you could be bankrupt and lose your house just because you got sick. I think that's insane. I don't understand it at all. I think, as a society, you should look after people when they're down. I don't think you can avoid being obsessed with money there," she reflects.
So she never fell for the American Way; that seductive feeling that your craziest dreams can be realised? "No." And maybe she doesn't have crazy dreams? "I don't think I do." she laughs.
Also - and of course this matters - her boyfriend of eight years, David, was in Dublin. "That was hard," she says. "We met when we were 22; in college, in the library, like all cool people! There was no question he'd go out to the States. He was qualified at that stage as a psychiatrist."
Of David, Sarah says: "I think he's amazing. When I worked in pharmacy, I would get so upset if anything happened to a patient. I would get so close to them. If somebody passed away... He's very good at coping with that. He loves his work, but he can leave it behind.
"I run stuff by him all the time. I'm getting free therapy, I think," she laughs, then adds, more seriously, "It's good for perspective as well. If ever I think I'm having a bad day, I know that other people have real troubles."
Given the various news stories of recent weeks, it is impossible not to ask Sarah about the darker side of an industry known for a power pyramid similar to the acting profession - an endless stream of beautiful young women, with a few men dominant at the top.
So has she ever found herself in a situation that felt wrong? "I had a few uncomfortable situations," she agrees. "But I'm well able to stand up for myself, so I did. I had very minor things - a hairstylist finished my hair one time and he kissed me on my head, and I said, 'What is this?' I kind of just jumped back and stared at him. I didn't make a big fuss about it. I just looked at him, and that was that. Sometimes people don't mean it, it's just the way they are, but..." But, indeed. However, she is quick to stress, "nothing horrendous. But I'm fairly argumentative, so I don't suppose it would..."
And, she adds: "I don't think it's exclusively the fashion industry. I think it's in every industry, I'm sure there are people in offices who have a hard time. In fact, as a model, you can say, 'I'm never working with that person again'. You're self-employed; you're in charge. Your agent isn't your boss, you work together, so you can say, 'Never book me on a job with that person again...'"
And of course, for Sarah, there has always been Plan B. "I've always had at the back of my head - 'If this doesn't work, I'll go home and do something else'."
Knowing what you want, who you are, is a huge plus in any business, but perhaps even more so in the modelling industry, and Sarah, clearly, knows exactly who she is, and always has done, right down to what she wanted for her Communion dress. "I wouldn't have anything put on that dress," she says. "No flowers, no frills, no fuss. I wouldn't wear a veil. I just liked plain, simple, classic things. That's why I loved this Newbridge shoot so much. I wore very plain, chic black outfits, and the pieces are so simple and so elegant, they really stand out."
She's right, the pieces are gorgeous, the kind of thing you'd buy for yourself as easily as for a gift. The shoot was scheduled for the day of Storm Ophelia, and had to be modified accordingly, something that was done easily and without fuss. "It was a really fun day," Sarah says. "In Ireland, people are lovely. If you weren't lovely, everyone would know about it very quickly."
As for plans for the future, she's ok with not really having any. "I keep trying to make a plan, but everything changes. The only downside of what is a very nice, very fun job, is that there is no predictability whatsoever. From week to week, I have no idea what I'll be doing. It took me a while to get ok with it, but I am now. I feel very blessed."
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