Thursday 23 November 2017

'I couldn't protect Katy, but I was determined to reclaim her good name'

In her first interview, Jill French tells of her last night with her sister, and how the glamorous model died in her arms

Katy French
Katy French
Niamh Horan

Niamh Horan

THE cries of Jill French were audible in Court Number One as Kieron Ducie and Ann Corcoran walked past her and into the morning sunshine. They were free to leave Trim Circuit Court in Co Meath having each received a suspended sentence.

I had spoken to Jill several times since the death of her big sister, model Katy French.

A quiet, unassuming woman who speaks softly and sparingly but with the strength of her convictions, she had always been steadfast in her resolution that she would get justice for Katy.

An artist, she never let herself become part of the social scene that Katy had built her career on. Instead, she stayed out of the limelight and was someone theƒ model would come to in moments of quiet reflection.

To the public, Katy French was glamorous, headstrong, outspoken and confident, a modern woman who seemed to have it all; and if she didn't, she had the nous to succeed at whatever she wanted to.

But her sister saw the real Katy, the one who would come and ask the types of questions about boys and relationships and love and life that you could only ever really ask a sister without having to worry about looking silly.

She was the Katy who never quite had the confidence to walk into an event full of people. She would bring Jill along to parties, ever since they were little girls, and cling tightly to her hand for the first few minutes until she felt comfortable.

So with Katy lying unconscious in Navan Hospital, with her mum and dad taking her hand each side of her bed, it was fitting once again that her sister Jill was there to hold on to her when she needed her most.

"I asked if I could hold her when she passed," says Jill as tears fill her eyes. "My mom selflessly allowed me that in Katy's final moments. She gave me a lot in giving me that.

"They said it could take 20 minutes, but she went immediately. She became so heavy in my arms, I physically felt her go," she continues, almost out of breath.

We're sitting on the floor of Jill's apartment in south Dublin, and the evening is closing in. It's been four years since Jill said her goodbyes to Katy, but the pain in her eyes is as fresh as if she were seeing those last moments unfold in front of her for the first time.

"I think I was screaming. I didn't want to give up," she says. "I wanted to carry her with me forever and spend my entire life looking after her with all that equipment, even though it was against what I knew was best for her. I got no time. It was so short-lived."

Only days earlier, her sister was so full of life.

One of Jill's last memories of the bubbly blonde came among a year full of random nights in watching The X Factor with two of Jill's close friends. Katy and Jill laughed as they chimed in together when the James Blunt hit 1973 came on the TV. Katy indulged in the camaraderie by giving a running commentary and jokingly mimicked the perfect pout and catwalk strut when America's Next Top Model came on.

"It was a really nice period," says Jill. "Everyone was having their problems with their career or relationships, so we were all helping each other at that time."

Katy spent part of her last night at home, but the stress of exam work for Jill and the fickleness of life on Dublin's social scene had encroached on the sisters' carefree homely bubble.

Once again The X Factor was on TV, but this time Jill was trying to finish writing her thesis on her laptop and Katy was buried in her phone on the opposite couch.

"Katy was very upset about her birthday party the night before and the nasty rumours that were going around," says Jill. "I remember her constantly on the phone and talking to mom in the kitchen. She wasn't as tough as people thought.

"She was always respectful of my education, and it's one of my massive regrets that she didn't come to me to talk. If she asked me to go for a drink around the corner I would have said yes and everything would have been different."

As Jill was about to turn in for the night, Katy was standing in the hall with her coat on and her birthday bags in her hand.

"I will always regret what I said. I said, 'Are you going?' and she said, 'Yeah'. And I said, 'Good', and that was it. There was a lot of stress with the birthday party. I wanted space to write and I knew I would see her the next day as she was cooking us dinner for my aunt's birthday, so they were pretty much the worst words to part on," says Jill, smiling through tears and trying to make light of the painful memory.

But she is still wise enough to know, like anyone who has a sister, that meaningless words and run-ins are commonplace in any relationship and bear no reflection on the unparalleled bond sisters share.

"When the cards fell down, when everything went belly up, we would go out of our way to protect each other," she says.

Little did Jill know that when the call came at 10am the following morning, she would spend the next five years trying to do just that.

Driving down the M50 to the hospital that gloomy morning with the torrential rain battering against the windows, Jill remembers "being so f***ing scared".

"When I got there, I saw my mom," she trails off. "I've never seen such terror." But when she saw Katy "it was just like she was asleep on a Sunday morning".

"She had no make-up on, her hair was tussled and she looked really beautiful."

She takes a deep breath. "I've never allowed myself to think about that until now."

Dazed and terrified, Jill slept on the bed beside her sister, waiting and hoping for Katy to wake up.

"I kept telling myself that there was a good chance," she says. "She was going to come around and say, 'Oh my god, guys, I'm so sorry I had you worrying, I'm grand'."

Joined by her dad, the family prayed and waited, taking turns to get the smallest bit of rest in an empty room across the hall.

"In the beginning it was hard to walk in there and see her, but in the end it got harder and harder to walk away and give somebody else time," says Jill.

Outside, a sizeable media presence had begun to build. And then there were the members of the public. A contingent of what Jill describes as "honest, beautiful people" who had travelled down to simply offer their support.

In the midst of it all, Jill slipped into the tiny hospital chapel. "I was praying for a miracle. That miracle that everyone else seems to get. The stories where you hear how someone fell into a coma and doctors said they weren't going to make it yet they battled through despite all odds. But ours never came."

The family allowed some of Katy's former inner circle into the room to say their goodbyes. The French family based their decision on a maxim that would steer every decision thereafter.

From deciding to switch off the life-support machine to organising Katy's funeral and memorial with songs, poetry and photo montages, "we made all our decisions based on what Katy would have wanted".

The public's interest helped a lot at the time. "Looking back on it now, I'm so thankful for it," says Jill. "The amount of letters that found their way to us simply addressed to 'The French Family' was incredible."

She takes out a box of letters and cards, some of her favourites, and we read through them together.

"We've kept every one of them," she says.

The funeral, at St Patrick's church in Enniskerry, was an extremely public affair and Jill shook from head to toe as she tried to get through the day. Afterwards, she tried to etch her sister an eternal tribute, a design for a headstone on Katy's final resting place. But she was never able to bring herself to see it through. "It's like it's a done deal once we do that," she says.

Photos were snatched where she was described as looking depressed, and for a long time afterwards she would don heels and full make-up – "an armour" – every time she walked out the front door.

She took time out to work as a diving instructor in Thailand. Then someone recognised her as "Katy French's sister".

It is something she has battled with for years.

She dyed her hair and even thought about changing her name on her artwork. "Although I'm very proud to be Katy's sister, I was tired of being defined by what had happened and people treating me differently. From the moment people saw my name on pieces in an exhibition they would say, 'Oh, I know what this is about', and judge it based on what had happened."

Then a period of travelling abroad ended badly when she was attacked in a small town south of Durban while visiting her grandmother in South Africa.

She was walking into town one night for a meal when she was pounced on by two men and attacked at knifepoint, suffering a fractured jaw before they dragged her into a disused building site.

"There is a point if you have ever been through absolute terror or hell where you know your mind is not going to be able to cope, and you kind of leave your body," says Jill.

"The last thought I had was, 'I'm so sorry for my mom and dad losing another child'. I remember not being able to fight any more and that was fine by me. I don't know in those moments whether that's giving up the fight or whether I was physically unable to, but there were two against one."

She was rescued by a passer-by who heard her screams.

"You've been through a lot," I offer. "Perhaps your sister was there for you that night."

"That night was definitely my turning point," says Jill, "and I realised I couldn't keep trying to live my life like I used to. I returned home for good."

Back home, the aftermath of Katy's death – she was only 24 – was as cruel as the twists of fate that had snatched her away.

"It wasn't until after the funeral that we began to hear some of the negative stories in the media and on the internet," says Jill.

"The lack of empathy shocked me to the core. It lacked soul and scared me to think people could be like that and say such cruel things without a care in the world that we might hear it or see it. What transpired over the next year was a media war, and though it might have looked like we were blind to it, we saw it all."

None of them knew the real Katy.

"She had pain in her life, she was hurt in relationships, but it never stopped her from falling in love. She kept opening her heart to everything and everyone, and while it is dangerous it was hugely honourable to be able to do that."

If Katy had survived, Jill believes she would be writing now. "She always wanted to write a book," she says.

Would she be married? "I hope not. I hope she would still be exploring. She changed a lot in the last year. She was getting to know herself more, rather than defining herself by other people and relationships. She was finally tiptoeing into all those things she did want to do.

"When she called me from Calcutta I could hear it. I said to myself, 'She's finally doing it. She's finally sitting in the experience rather than thinking about it all the time. Too many people do that in life'."

Describing the years since her sister's passing, she struggles with the inaccuracies and mistruths that have been circulating.

"Not being able to protect my sister, to reclaim her name, to scream out, it's been difficult. We had to see the process through."

Last Tuesday, as Jill stood outside the courthouse flanked by her parents, she read out a list of unanswered questions.

She asked why there was an almost two-hour gap in the period between when Katy was discovered "rigid" and "bouncing" on the floor and was taken to hospital in Ducie's car.

She questioned the lack of an explanation as to why Ducie and Corcoran repeatedly changed their stories about what had happened on the night.

She rubbished reports that her sister had a "cocktail of drugs" in her system. A contraceptive pill, herbal weight loss tablets, medication for a recent kidney infection and a small trace of cocaine were found.

Despite the intimidating media pack, the flashguns and the questions shouted across the tarmac, she didn't flinch.

Her blonde tresses were back, there was no hiding today, despite not having closure or feeling justice had been done. She stood strong, and with an unwavering voice was back to reclaim her sister's good name.

Like she always said she would.

Irish Independent

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