It's been more than a decade since I last spoke to Alison Canavan. On that occasion, we were both living in New York and we flitted from bar to bar in Soho, glimpsing celebrities - Ray Liotta, Lindsay Lohan with her girlfriend - as I tried, by osmosis, to soak up some of the fabulousness of Alison's life in the Big Apple. Earning thousands of dollars a week, living the New York dream, she seemed a million miles from the huddled masses yearning to be free from an Irish recession. From across the candlelit table at hotspot restaurant Balthazar, her circumstances looked fairly idyllic - she was living on Central Park West and had her own Mr Big. She spent her days going to castings on both coasts - she was on three flights a week, she told me - and her nights at glamorous parties. "I was very, very different then," she recalls now. "I didn't really think I had problems compared to some people, but I just wasn't really aware of my own problems. There was a lot of work, and a lot of self-awareness still to come."
And, boy, has it come. Now, all these years later, she has undergone a radical transformation. She still looks amazing, but the good-time girl is dead. In her place is a New Age guru, who proselytises for mindfulness and personal growth. Instead of Bellinis at lunchtime, it's yoga and communing with the dawn. Instead of Lindsay Lohan, it's Byron Katie. And instead of modelling and music videos, Alison has established herself as one of the most compelling self-help voices around today, and has a brilliant new meditation video series, available on Aer Lingus flights. The whole effect is admirable, but it's difficult not to look back at the old Alison and wonder how one person could change quite so much. She has, to borrow EM Forster's phrase, put away the animal for a set of ideals and principles.
She had to, she explains. The glamorous vision of happiness that she had presented to me on that cold winter day in New York had been something of a front. In New York, she had been drinking heavily and sometimes could barely drag herself out of bed to go to castings. At times, she would take a Xanax just to handle the hustle and bustle of the subway crowds. When she was drinking, she once wrote, "was the only time I felt relief".
There was heartbreak, too. Just after Christmas 2010 - around a year after we met - she broke up with her businessman boyfriend. In the aftermath of that, she came home to Dublin to be near her family and "heal myself". Unbeknownst to Alison, she was, at that point, carrying her ex's child. "I needed the support of my family," she tells me. "There is a big difference between single parent and a lone parent. Being a single parent, for me, means co-parenting, where you have assistance and help. I didn't have that from a partner. I'm a lone parent, I've always raised [my son] James with no help or support. I don't talk about James's father, for his sake; he's very aware of it now."
'I sacrificed every aspect of my life' In Dublin, she suffered from postnatal depression and pondered how her life had ended up so different to the one she had envisaged: "Married, happy, with two-point-four children."
Her solution was to go back to college, studying nutrition at the Irish Institute of Nutrition and Health (IINH), no easy feat when she had a small baby. "It was incredibly difficult at the start," she says. "When James was a baby, I crawled and scratched my way to work. I sacrificed every aspect of my life. I was in college two nights a week for eight years. They were years when my mother stepped into help me many times."
She also decided to tackle her problem drinking and, she says, her new, growing awareness of herself was key here. "It would have given me some sense of comfort. When you're really feeling bad, you feel like it's never going to end and that you're never going to come out of it. Once I learnt through mediation and mindfulness that emotions are transient and that they inevitably pass through, I think I finally started to understand," she says. "Change is the one thing that nearly all human beings resist, but it's the only thing we can be sure of."
She says prayer helped in recovery. "I don't mean religion, as such, because I think that is about telling people what to do, whereas I think the answers are inside you. But I said to God, 'I want to live my life fully every day and show up and do the work, and not be drinking'. And, in the end, that was what happened."
She was notably open about her recovery in interviews and written pieces. She feels, she tells me. that there was a price to pay for all this honesty, however. "It wasn't that I felt judged, I was judged," she says. "When I was on the Late Late [and spoke about my dark years], the following Monday morning, every client cancelled my work. Every single one. We have this stupid idea that prominent people should be open and honest but, then, when they are, we punish them."
At one point, she appeared on the TV news-discussion show, Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge, alongside singer Brian Kennedy. Kennedy reminded Alison of a conversation they had had one night when she was drunk. He said: "You just said to me, quite drunkenly, 'Do you think I drink too much?' You were kind of crying." Did she feel blindsided by that? "Brian was telling the truth," she explains. "Would I have done it the way he did? Probably not, but what he was explaining and observing was my deep sadness and I don't think he was being mean."
Now happily entrenched in recovery, she says she doesn't go to AA. "AA is the only first step we have for most people. It's a safe place when they are a danger to themselves. It's a really good first step. But after that, you've got to dig deep. I think medication was supposed to be temporary bridge. It wasn't meant to give you a pass to not do the work. You can't run away from your pain."
Growing up in Castleknock, Alison, who is one of five sisters, was something of a tomboy. In 1999, she lost her father to cancer, and the grief hit her hard. Throughout her teenage years, she suffered from sadness and low moods. "I wish during those years that I had been given the coping mechanisms to deal with everything that was happening in life," she says. "You learn all this other stuff in school, most of which you won't ever use again, but you never learn how to just be with yourself and be present."
She began modelling when she was just 15, after her mother, who sang in the RTE choir, entered her in a competition. Alison ended up winning and going to Las Vegas to represent Ireland in the Ford Supermodel of the World competition. While not yet 16, she was already living between Paris, London and Ireland. She was the face of Lux soap, did ads for L'Oreal and Organics Hair and appeared in music videos for Boyzone and Wet Wet Wet.
Too Much MeToo "When I look back on it, I think of a young girl who was doing her best, who was maybe a little bit lost," she recalls. "I was desperate to be accepted in an industry where what you look like comes before everything else. The harsh training was my greatest teacher. Girls are all insecure at that age. In an industry where people are just trying to get money out of you, there is no love or kindness or support." It was the split from her then-boyfriend which precipitated her move to New York. She intended staying for three weeks, but ended up remaining there for eight years.
She says that MeToo-type situations were very common in the modelling industry in those years and, at times, she bore the brunt of them herself. "People overstepped the mark all the time. It was the norm. Men were always making inappropriate comments or making me feel unsafe. It wasn't even that I thought I had to put up with it to get ahead, it was just to survive and stay in the industry. Even if you did speak up, you were told to shut up. I think we are going to see a very interesting time coming. This is not over, it's the beginning," she says. "The modelling agencies went into a state of panic after the MeToo stuff started happening. There is a lot going on behind the scenes that the public is not privy to right now. But we're going to see a lot more come out in the next couple of years. There is a darkness there that people would be absolutely horrified to learn about. Those who are at fault in the industry are going to tumble and fall."
The writer Joseph O'Neill once noted that the lives of those who live in Manhattan for any period, have "the taint of aftermath" but Alison did not feel that her dark years in New York had quelled her thirst for an American adventure. At the age of 40, she won a scholarship to study at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior in the University of California, Los Angeles, which qualified her to teach her own wellness and mindfulness courses. In LA, she has become a renowned motivational coach and author, and her client roster includes CEOs and private individuals.
"I work with people to build the life they deserve," she says. "It's hugely rewarding to me to be able to help people."
Part of that has been the development of her meditation series, which is available on Aer Lingus flights. "I had the idea after flying long haul for a full year to and from UCLA," she explains. "I really wanted a calming meditation to help me sleep and relax mid-flight. I have also included a landing meditation, and one for anxiety too. Both myself and James have created a 'kids corner' where we look at taking away worries, choosing things we are thankful for and doing some fun breathing techniques."
The coronavirus outbreak has had a huge impact on her work - she has had to do a lot of it remotely - but she says that in some ways, it hasn't changed much. "I'm still doing the same things I would usually do in my day-to-day. It's all about consistency. Until the corona virus we went hiking every day. Now we are doing online yoga videos and making sure we get outside for air, for a walk and take off our socks and shoes and ground each day on the bare earth, one of the most beneficial practices you can do for your health. The earth holds a natural frequency and when we connect with that it helps to bring us back into alignment and reduce stress. At this time we need to be malleable and change as our circumstances change. My mantra is always to do what I can, from where I am with what I have. The difference now is that I don't put pressure on myself. One day I'm going to write a book about the stupid things I used to say to myself."
Some of these things had to with food and eating. "I had a terrible approach to food and body image. Things happen to me still which can trigger me. For instance, a few weeks ago there was a big job I didn't get, and I was eating chocolate that night and I said to myself, 'Oh, this is interesting, I'm emotional-eating again'. Before, I would have said, 'Oh you're such a bitch, you're binging', but this time I was just able to observe it. That's one of the areas where mindfulness really comes in, in my life."
Despite having left modelling behind, Alison still keeps herself in phenomenal shape, but she says she has never had herself surgically or chemically tweaked to look good. "I don't feel that pressure because I feel good inside. If I hadn't done the work, I think I'd be Botoxed to the hilt. People put all of this effort into their external looks when the reality is that they're never going to be happy anyway. Although I've spent the last decade cleaning up my psyche, it doesn't mean I don't have days when I feel insecure. But at 42, I'm pretty content in myself."
The moves, both emotional and geographical, have seen certain friendships in her life fall by the wayside. "Yeah, friends lost me and I lost friends," she says. "When you shift your vibration and your energy, it's sometimes part of that that some people won't be in your life any more. You can hang on to relationships that are toxic and you have to let go of those to allow yourself to grow."
She lives alone with nine-year-old James, who has settled into school in Los Angeles. "He's a normal child in that if we're together for too long, he'll be like 'I want to watch this or do this', but we do everything together and he's a really great kid. I think kids like him are going to be so different from the previous generation."
She has been single for the past decade and she says that people are, these days, less judgmental about dating a single parent. "I don't think people are judgmental about it; at my age, everyone has a past and other people are the same. People here say, 'You've been single for so long,' but I've done a lot of work, and I tell James I do it all so that we have a better life in the future."
She says the coronavirus-induced self-isolation has meant that meditation and presence are more necessary than ever. "The whole world is having to sit at home, often by ourselves. Like being on a flight, there is nowhere else to go. And we have to just learn to sit with ourselves and feel what is going on."
Photography by Dylan Townsend
Styling by Roxanne Parker
When it comes to what we all now call wellness, LA is the mother ship; the fiery crucible in which the best new crazes are forged. Here are three that have caught our eye.
This could be of particular interest right now. The original HIIT recommended time was 20 minutes three times a week, rather than the hour-plus we’d all previously been blocking off for the gym. Now, there’s a vogue for two-to-three-minute sessions, to be fitted in anywhere — while waiting for your toast to pop or someone to return your call. The benefits, apparently, are: the healthy stress your body undergoes during intense exercise triggers autophagy, which rids the body of cellular debris and stimulates the production of stem cells. And the more stem cells you have, the better you are able to induce super autophagy.
As for what to do for your micro-HIIT, we’re loving skipping, but racing up and down stairs will work too. Apparently Chris Hemsworth, pictured above, is a fan.
Next-gen Meditation pods
Here’s another we like the sound of. For all those who find the switching-off part of meditation difficult (all of us?), these pods, which are now popping up all over and have taken quantum leaps forward in their use of smart tech, are a kind of cocoon using LED lights to help regulate the nervous system and the production of melatonin and cortisol. Guided meditation sessions are paired with a special soundtrack using binaural beats in varying frequencies to help direct the mind into the kind of brain state usually only achieved by master meditators.
You might need a leap of faith for this one. The latest reflexology trend to hit LA is the placing of delicate dots of pure gold onto strategic parts of the ear, something that will apparently positively affect kidney function, energy levels, sleep, anxiety and general mood.
These gold-plated ion seeds are left on for up to a week, and come with a diagram indicating which parts of the ear correspond to which areas of your body. The idea is you choose, depending on what problem you want to address and which part of your nervous system you’d like to stimulate. The recommendation is that you see a trained acupuncturist for a proper consultation first. Easy-to-use, pain-free — no needles, just sticky patches — Gywneth was apparently an early adopter. They may not change your life, but they are kind of cute-looking.
- Emily Hourican