'I wish I could stay here at this age and not move," says Celia Holman Lee (64). "I don't want to get feeble or forgetful or older looking. This is such a good time in my life, as I was always fighting difficulties and issues, but now I'm much calmer and at peace."
We're having tea in the Red Cow Moran Hotel, and the beautiful model agency boss, stylist, and first lady of Limerick is reflecting on her life at the top of the Irish fashion and modelling scene.
Over at another table, her husband Ger is working away on his laptop because, while Celia might be the creative face of the Holman Lee Modelling Agency, Ger has the business acumen and keeps the ship afloat when it comes to finances. Celia, by her own admission, barely knows how to send out a bill. "And that's the most important part," she laughs.
The former model started dating Ger when she was 16 and he was 18, and they were already friends as they lived on the same road – Carey's Road in Limerick. They have now been together 46 years.
Given that they are a very attractive pair and have worked together for decades in a notoriously fickle industry filled with beautiful people, how have they managed to achieve such a strong and enduring union?
"My husband says he puts up with me, and I say, 'Yes he does'," she jokes. "The two of us were so ambitious, and we met so young that we grew up together. He's an amazing man and a brilliant father, and his children and three grandchildren idolise him. He adores his wife and always has, so I'm very, very lucky. He's just a good person. Now, I'm not going to sit here and say that we're goo-ing into each other's eyes the whole time, because, Jesus, we've had some rows through the years, but it has all been a journey."
Describing their marriage as a friend, family and working relationship all rolled into one, Celia thinks that the key to it lasting was that they always managed their priorities, chief of which was the welfare of their two children, Ivan and Cecile.
"All we ever wanted was the best for them, so if we murdered one another, Ger wasn't walking out any doors and neither was I," she says. "We wanted to have the children better educated, improve the house and go on nice holidays. So just say you have murder and Cecile is getting married in a year's time. What are you going to do, split up? You don't, because you work out where your priorities are!
"Then Cecile gets married and she has a baby and now we're all consumed by him, so we're off on another journey. The journeys kept coming, and our marriage went through phases – great phases, funny phases, not-so-great phases, difficult phases and fantastic phases. And now we're at the other end, and we're in an amazing phase enjoying the three grandchildren."
The warm and entertaining Celia is known for her work ethic and drive, which she attributes to a working-class background and wonderful family that taught her all of her values.
She had two brothers, one of whom has sadly passed away, and her dad was a lovely, quiet man who worked in the workshops at CIE.
Her childhood had its difficulties, because her beloved mum Kathleen wasn't well, so a lot fell to Celia, as the only girl. She probably had undiagnosed and untreated depression, Celia surmises, adding that Kathleen wasn't able to cope with life, and existed in her own world.
"She is still always in my thoughts and I miss her so much," she says, with tears welling in her eyes. "I adored her, and was inconsolable for two years after she died."
On that basis, going on to further education wasn't an option, and Celia, then a noted Irish dancer, left school at 15 to work in retail. At that point, the 5ft 8in beauty was spotted on the street and approached by a model agency scout, even though she was unaware of her looks up to then.
"I was a good model," she says, "because you were almost judged on how you performed and moved with the clothes and I was good at that. Maybe the art of dancing stood to me. When I did my first fashion show, I ended up on the front page of the Herald, with a story about the Limerick Irish dancer making her debut as a model."
At that time, nobody had online access to the rest of the world, so the Irish girls were the ones that fellow Irish people held in high esteem. There was no way you'd be slouching around in jeans and Ugg boots in your down time like the girls today, laughs Celia, as models were expected to maintain an image and be meticulously groomed at all times.
"We would arrive to do a fashion show dressed like we were going on the ramp," she says. "It was very strict and your hair had to be perfect and your make-up impeccable all of the time. I was always very strong in myself and had a lot of cop on, and I think that the training that I got stood to me for the rest of my life."
Celia combined her modelling with retail work, as she loved selling and was good at it. After she married Ger at 22, they decided to open a boutique, Celia Lee's, which lasted for 19 years.
They started the modelling agency then too, catering for shows around Limerick.
"Nothing fell in our laps, because I was always watching and seeing if there were doors opening," she says. "I wanted to break out of Limerick and get into Dublin, and even though the roads between them were demented, I beat a path to Dublin. I knew I had to get the profile out there. I just love the industry and am passionate about it, and if something didn't go right I learned from those mistakes, and they were never made again.
"There's very little money in this business, and it's a little bit better for me now as I'm so bloody long at it, but you'll never see me driving my own Mercedes sports car. Ger and I started off in a small house, then we got a bit of land and built the house, and we've added this and added that to it over the past 35 years. We did nothing at all during the boom time, and I'm down on my knees thanking God for that now."
Raising the agency to a national profile took a lot of work, and by her own admission, she was very hard on herself.
"Aw I was deadly," she says. "When I think back, I was working, working, working the whole time, because I was such a perfectionist and was terrible at delegating. I look at my children, whom I adore, and I think to myself, 'How did they turn out to be such amazing adults?' A lot of it was down to Ger. He minded them so much, and if he hadn't, I wouldn't have been as focused as I am. I always say to women that you have to have the back up or it will tear you apart. You'll die."
While women such as Helen Mirren and Jane Fonda are in demand, Helen famously stated that opportunities for older women are limited because Hollywood film-makers "continue to worship at the altar of the 18 to 25-year-old male and his penis." Does Celia feel that older women are sidelined in Ireland?
"Some doors are opening for us," she says. "I'm the oldest presenter on Ireland AM, and they have no problem with me being the age I am, or if my wrinkles come out on screen."
Celia is a true beauty and looks a million dollars, but doesn't work out to keep her figure, although she has started using weights recently to help with toning her body. She hasn't had any work done, although she says she wouldn't rule it out at some point.
"I keep saying I'm going to have a facelift," she laughs.
"First when I was 50, then 55, and then 60, but I still haven't done it. I might eventually go there yet."
Celia gets the most pleasure in life from her three adorable grandchildren, Henry (4), Erica (2), and Ryan (18 months). She is very close to her daughter Cecile, who works in the business, and to her son Ivan, who works in a veterinary supply business and will shortly marry his fiancee. "I had a difficult childhood, and then God must have turned it around because this side of my life is really good with the grandchildren," she concludes. "l'm happy and at peace, relaxed in my soul."