'Agents said they were too embarrassed to show me to clients when I was a size six' - Thalia Heffernan finds her voice
The last time I met Thalia Heffernan was just after Christmas 2017. Her boyfriend, dancer Ryan McShane, had returned to Ireland for another run of Dancing With The Stars and the couple were excited to be finally living in the same country again after six months apart.
All was to play for.
As it turned out, it was a tricky few months together in Dublin, Thalia tells me, as we sit over coffees in Portobello's Meet Me in the Morning, a local haunt for the 23-year-old. The two of them living in Ireland wasn't the instant solution they had hoped it might be.
Now, though, thanks to a decision made in the last few weeks, she is happier and more settled than ever.
Thalia has decided to move to Birmingham to live with Ryan in the apartment she helped him decorate when he bought it last year. It's where he spends half the year, teaching at his dance studio, and for those months Thalia plans to live with him - sharing a home together for the first time.
It wasn't an easy or a quick decision, she admits. Having modelled since the age of 15, Thalia has worked in Britain, Australia and New York. It hasn't always been a positive experience, so deciding to move again was not a decision she made lightly.
"When I travelled, I found it really difficult," she recalls of past experiences. "In Ireland, we're very lucky, the modelling industry isn't all that superficial. But abroad you're dealing with agents who have girls on their books who are literal supermodels. And if you're not willing to be of that calibre, regardless of what it takes, they don't want to put their time in. It's brutal.
"I remember being in New York when I had just finished my Leaving Cert," Thalia says, "and I went into an agency where I had to put a swimsuit on. They all came into a room and I took the robe off and they were literally just pointing at parts of my body, saying, like, 'Well, that needs to change.' I spent three months going to the gym, paying for a personal trainer and just trying not to eat. And you're actually rewarded for that behaviour. I was told they were too embarrassed to show me to clients; I was a size six. I remember coming home and just being alien to affection, alien to normality."
Now that she has found her feet, thanks in part to Ryan and to Leonard, her beloved rescue dog, Thalia's focus has shifted and she knows that going down that path "leads to destruction".
"I love modelling, and it's a self-expression in its own right. And I'm able to use it as a tool to do other things I want to do," she says.
The time apart from Ryan last year "was just painful," she says. "We went from seeing each other all the time to never seeing each other and trying to communicate through the phone," she explains.
When Ryan moved back to Ireland for the second, recently completed series of DWTS, it quickly became clear that being in the same city but different homes wasn't enough for them.
"It's been difficult," Thalia admits. "Having had six months apart and then to be in the same country but not see each other all the time was so hard. So we had a few tough weeks trying to figure that out. It was very stressful. I was tearing my hair out about what to do."
Her agent Rebecca Morgan reassured her that there was interest from agencies in England, but Thalia was unsure about the idea of moving over there with Ryan. "I think because of my past experiences I have been, like, 'No, no I'm fine. I've got the dog, and I'm settled.' But I knew I wasn't happy. I was on very turbulent ground."
Ryan sat her down and laid it out: there are agencies who want you, work is there if you want it. Most importantly, she would have a home, he told her. "It just took him to say that for me to think I haven't had one of those for a while. Not that my place wasn't home, but without Ryan and the dog, for me, it's not really home."
"We've been looking forward to having some sort of stability together for so long," she smiles. "This is one of the first times where it feels like I'm confident in my decision; the results can only be good."
A sense of home is something Thalia is particularly conscious of. Her own parents - former model Susan Ebrill and television producer Gerard Heffernan - split when she was 19, and the family home went in the separation. There were a few years that were "very turbulent," she says. "I think I chased home for a long time. Since I was 19 I haven't had somewhere that I could 100pc relax in. I think a lot of that is mental as well. Home is a feeling on the inside, not your surroundings."
I first interviewed Thalia when she was 15, arriving at a photo shoot still in her school uniform - knee-high socks, grey skirt and white shirt. In some ways she is still the same - articulate, never resorting to bland, PR-ish answers, passionate and very earnest, but also goofy and full of fun. Seeing Thalia with Ryan, whom she met when she competed in the first series of Dancing With The Stars, she seems more grounded than I've ever seen her. There's a quiet confidence to her. The pair are, she says, each others yin and yang. He boosts her up; she calms him down.
"It's a firm ground. A solid foundation," she says of her relationship. "I think for him the show is so incredibly difficult, it requires every ounce of energy and strength. He'd come home after rehearsals after five hours straight without a break. They had six lifts in one of their dances one week. When he stands up, everything's cracking.
"So for me, I need to be there for him when he's at that point. Ryan, he's so confident and sure of himself. And that's what I lack. What he has in ample amounts, I have none of. But then what I have in ample amounts, he has none of. I have the comfort, the ability to slow him down and cook him a meal and make sure that everything's ok. To turn him off. We both balance each other out in that regard. So he has a humbleness now, where he can go, 'You know what? It's fine. I'm not going to give out. I'm not going to get stressed'. He builds me up and I calm him down. It's a funny little balance. I just don't think I'd have had the confidence to do what I've done since I met him, without him there."
What she's done is gradually reveal more of the real Thalia. The contradiction of modelling is that she has had a huge profile from a young age but with no actual voice of her own. Highly visible but utterly silent.
"Maybe I connected with animals because as a model I felt that I had no voice for a long time," she reflects. "I had identity crises - going, 'What do I actually like to do? What do I wear? How do I feel?'" Understandable, when you're constantly taking on someone else's vision of what you should look like. "The path I've gone down now feels natural to me, like something I want to talk about, not something that's forced upon me," Thalia says.
Competing in Dancing with the Stars was the turning point, she reflects. "DWTS gave me a voice. Finally I'm able to go, 'Look it, this is who I actually am.' It's like having two faces. Almost like you're in this limbo mode, and then one thing just takes you out of it."
So far, she is most proud of, and most personally invested in, her recent piece on Ear to the Ground, in which she visited a dairy, beef and tillage farm to explain the reasons she decided to embrace a plant-based diet, and outline her ethical stance on farming practices to farmer Andrew Revington.
"I think when you go on an agricultural show, questioning what they do for a living, you have to do that head-on, or not do it at all, and I did it head on," Thalia says. "It was a discussion more than a debate; we weren't forcing opinions on each other. I was terrified. I had only a partial leg to stand on, anyway, because I had been eating dairy and meat up until a couple of years ago."
She now lives a plant-based lifestyle - she stresses she is not entirely vegan - a decision she made after studying animal psychology.
Thalia got "a lot of hate" on Twitter after the segment aired, she says. It was along the lines of, "Who is this young one, and she a model, coming on with her opinions."
"It doesn't bother me, because I went into it knowing that was a possibility," reflects Thalia, who is also an ambassador for the Dublin Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "But at the same time, just because I'm a model doesn't mean I can't read, and I don't write, and understand, and learn and study."
She is quick to clarify that her change of eating habits is a lifestyle, not a diet, a word the dangers of which Thalia, as a model, is all too cognisant of.
She's also wary of being termed an activist. Her aim, she points out, is not to preach or to judge how others live their lives, rather just to spread awareness.
"I'm not saying my lifestyle is the best or the most healthy for everyone on this planet. It's just something that I want people on a broad scale to understand. Who am I to judge? Who is anyone?"
"I went on DWTS to show the real me. To show that this square picture is not my life," she says referring to Instagram. "Doing the Ear to the Ground piece was the same. Going down to a farm, talking about how I felt - for me it was a really natural way to connect with people that wasn't just through a photograph."
Adopting a plant-based lifestyle also seems to have contributed towards putting to rest whatever body confidence issues Thalia may have struggled with. "As a model, be it from a third party or from yourself, you're always being told you're not good enough," she explains. "That's the industry in a nutshell. Not so much here. Here you get it more from within. Being on shows with girls who are younger than you, or I've been on shows with girls who definitely aren't well."
"Everyone has an insecurity of some description. It's difficult in this industry because they're highlighted. I don't think it's healthy to be so focused on your physical aesthetics. And that's what I have been for so long," she reflects. "So that's where I think giving yourself a break, giving yourself something else to focus on, is important.
"For me, it's the animals and keeping myself busy on other things, because it can be totally overwhelming," Thalia says. "I've had moments in my life where I've been overwhelmed by 'Am I good enough, am I not?' Ryan's had to literally sit me down and be, like, 'You wouldn't be where you are if you weren't able.'"
Now, she's relatively comfortable in her own skin, although this wasn't always the case. "When I was younger I would have straightened my hair religiously; worn a full face of make-up at any opportunity. I think for a long time you grow up wanting to look like someone else. And I was so far left of who that was."
Being feted as Ireland's top model was mortifying, she recalls. "I was so embarrassed," she admits with a smile. "There would be photos online and other people would love them and I would loathe them. When you start in an industry at 15, especially a physical one, it plays on your insecurities. It took me a long time to go, 'There's a reason why you're still doing what you're doing.'"
Body dysmorphia was something she suffered from as a result, Thalia says. "Modelling and body dysmorphia can, if you allow them to, go hand in hand," she admits. "For a long time I struggled massively with body dysmorphia. I've looked at photos and seen them physically change. Physically, the actual image has changed. As I've gotten older I'm able to say, 'Stop picking yourself apart. It's not the most important thing.'"
She found out about this job for Cocoa Brown self-tan only four days before it happened. The thought of a bikini shoot would once have sent her into a panic.
"Whenever I was told I had a swimwear or lingerie shoot, I would just go, 'Oh God', and that would almost stop everything from working functionally, because I was stressed out. To go on this Cocoa Brown shoot, I didn't diet, like I normally do. I just trained the night before my flight, and then I went on the shoot. I think a spray tan really helps with feeling confident. You know you always feel that bit more confident with a tan."
The shoot was to launch the company's newest product, an answer to the growing trend of customers applying two layers of self-tan to achieve a depth of colour.
"Up to this point we have shot separate Cocoa Brown campaigns for our largest markets - North America, Scandinavia, Ireland and the UK, with each model chosen for her indigenous appeal," says Marissa Carter of Cocoa Brown. "But Thalia's beauty is so striking and natural that we know she will be loved globally. We are excited to have consistent advertising internationally, from US magazines to Swedish billboards."
Cocoa Brown 1 Hour Tan Ultra Dark Mousse shows off Thalia's tawny beauty to perfection.
"For me, that shoot was great," Thalia says. "It shows me at my healthiest. For once, I'm not trying to restrict myself. I'm not trying to overwork myself so that I look a certain way. I used to yo-yo. Maybe not physically, but mentally I was yo-yoing. I would have thought, 'I'm up or I'm down.' And that's what body dysmorphia is like - you think, I'm bigger, I'm smaller, but there's no physical change.
"And then, I suffered with my thyroid so that fed into it, because for me it was almost like, 'No, no, I have put on weight.' It was like a crutch," Thalia explains. "So now I've found this happy medium where I don't feel like I'm all over the shop anymore. After adopting this kind of lifestyle, and finding a bit of a flow, having the dog, having a good partner, my body seems to have relaxed into itself."
Not just Thalia's body, but her mind, it would seem. Happier and stronger than ever. Confidently heading off to her future.
Cocoa Brown 1 Hour Tan Ultra Dark Mousse is a darker than ever shade, which will deepen your natural skin tone by up to six shades after one application. This exciting new product launches in all Cocoa Brown stockists tomorrow
Photography by Aaron Hurley
Sunday Indo Life Magazine