'Seeing your image in shop windows in the high street is a surreal experience...'
Damien MacNamara is enjoying life modelling in South Korea and he is heading to the fashionista capital of the world, Milan, in 2019. He chats to Stephen Fernane about his work and how it has taken him on an amazing journey around the globe
It's been a long and fruitful journey from Tralee to Seoul for Damien MacNamara, who is living his dream right now as a male model. The 30-year-old from Oakview Village has spent the last few years donning the glad rags and modelling the latest in male fashion from Galway to LA, and Germany to South Korea. It's a passion of his for sure. But by the same token it's not a job he ever imagined doing when starting out in Tralee all those years ago.
Damien explains that modelling is the kind of career where opportunities must be grasped with both hands, if and when they arise, that is. Thankfully, Damien practises what he preaches as today he finds himself part of the hustle and bustle of life in Seoul working for the MDI Model Agency. Seoul is a city Damien describes as 'forward thinking' and one that is 'bang in trend' in terms of fashion.
A past pupil of Tralee CBS Primary School and Mounthawk Secondary School, Damien is the son of Michael and Marie who are extremely proud of their son's ability to chase down his dream and work hard for what he wants. Not everyone in life can be a model. But for those who are it's a journey few people on the outside can understand.
"It's not the kind of career that lasts a lifetime so my frame of mind is that I'm lucky enough to be in this business. I decided to make the most of it by working hard and see where it takes me," he said.
The origins of Damien's career owe a lot to a combination of happenstance and influence. His girlfriend is Erin Le Gros from Ballinprior in Ardfert, a designer for Puma at their head office in Nuremberg, Germany. It was Erin that noticed Damien's potential and kept encouraging him to take up modelling.
In 2016 he entered The Kerryman's 'Search for a Model' competition and won it. Following this he was given a job with a model agency. His ship had finally sailed.
"When I saw The Kerryman model competition I just said to myself 'what have I to lose?' so I entered it. After that I got involved with an agency in Ireland and it just took off from there. Modelling wasn't necessarily something I wanted to do growing up. But a few people had said to me 'why not give it a go?' I'd never thought about it much. Erin's influence in fashion also started to rub off on me and it spiralled from there. I started taking more interest in it and here I am in South Korea today, modelling."
Damien started his career in Galway for a year and a half and built up a strong portfolio. He was also travelling between Galway and Germany, where Erin worked, when another opportunity presented itself.
"This is how the agency in Germany saw my portfolio and expressed an interest in me. I signed with them. Germany was also a better market, which allowed me to step up by doing modelling for Puma and Adidas. This was a great experience. But I wanted to take it to the next level. South Korea is a fashion hotspot and is really trending right now. It's a very forward thinking country."
So what does a day in the life of Damien's job consist of?
"You start early in the morning and it is standard procedure to get hair and make-up done. Fittings are hugely important as the clothes must be styled to fit properly. Each day is different and it really depends on what kind of outfit you're showing. It could be clothes one day, or bags and shoes the next. It's all about working within a team to get the look they want. People have this perception that it's all about the glamorous side. But there are long days involved and it's a very competitive job."
Damien is enjoying life in South Korea. Seoul is a city he fell in love with instantly because of its blend of modernity and loyalty to its culture and tradition. But is Seoul a city leaning ever more towards the west given the shadow of its more hostile neighbour to the north?
"Yes and no is the answer to that. It did surprise me when I first got here just how touristy it had become. You do have some parts that are heavily westernised. But you also see parts of the country where native traditions are strong. English is quite a universal language here. I learn some of the basics in the native language out of common courtesy. People have this idea that people in the south are constantly looking over their shoulder at the north. I think much of this perception is a bit of a myth in the west. I've been here over four months and it's not something people wake up thinking about every day."
He continued: "Before I came here I didn't really have a perception of what it was going to be like. But it's definitely an experience I would recommend to anyone. The people here are extremely welcoming and they've a great culture. It's been a highlight of my life being here."
It's obvious that Damien's job is one predicated on image and appearance. Social media is a handy tool for promoting his work and Damien is currently documenting his time in Seoul through Instagram (damienmaca). Damien believes social media is a great way of connecting with people from outside the fashion world, allowing them an insight into the job and the daily requirements it entails. However, Damien is also cautious of social media and accepts that it can have negative consequences.
"I guess it plays both ways in my case. People on social media like to give the best side of themselves and it looks like their life is better than what it is. People can get hung up on how many Likes they get. In my case I'm probably lucky that I'm at an age where it's not as important. I do get images from the job and upload them online. But that's more to do with the career I have than any personal obsession to post photos of myself. As for my friends, it's actually been quite nice as people at home seem genuinely interested in what I do and want to know more about this line of work. I must say the reaction from home has been positive from day one."
Damien will head to Milan in the New Year where he has another agency lined up for work. He is excited at the thoughts of working in one of the major fashion capitals of the world. He knows modelling is a tough business as the opportunities are far fewer than the numbers seeking them. It's a journey that has so far been kind to him. He tells me he has nothing to lose, plus it's the memories and stand-out moments that keep driving him forward.
"In Germany I did a European campaign for Puma and to see your image in shop windows in the high street is a bit of a surreal experience. My work in Seoul has also appeared in shop windows. It's a feeling I can't really describe. Even though it's a short-lived career I plan to make the most of it and work as hard as I can."
He concluded: "After Christmas I'll be heading to Milan and like any job it too will have its pros and its cons. Obviously, there are parts of home I still miss. I've been travelling constantly now for the last eight or nine years. When you have that bug it's a kind of distraction in itself. I definitely get days where I have to remind myself that I'm just an ordinary guy from Tralee. When I put the last few years into perspective, yes I am quite proud of everything I've done. It's been exciting."