Alannah Beirne on the dark side of modelling: 'A photographer asked me for a sexual favour for my big break'
Ireland’s hottest catwalk star Alannah Beirne opens up to Niamh Horan about the not-so-picture-perfect world of modelling
Every woman has a story. That's the single greatest truth the #MeToo movement has uncovered.
Whether it's being forced to change a jogging route - as was the case with Michelle Hamilton, the journalist behind the Running While Female story - or a horrific account of child rape - as Naomi Wolf recently revealed she suffered at the hands of her male babysitter - what we discovered is that the 12m women who have shared a #MeToo story on social media, are only just the start of it.
For Alannah Beirne, it happened when she was asked to deliver sexual favours in return for a photo shoot.
Her initial instinct, which is to preface her story with the phrase "it was nothing serious", is the unfortunate disclaimer used by many women.
Alannah was 22 years old when she was put in touch with a very well-known photographer in the US.
It was a huge opportunity.
So big that she flew 3,000 miles to avail of it. It was the day of her birthday when she met the man for her photo shoot, along with his wife and children.
"I was delighted to be doing it," she says. "He was very professional and at the time it was just very much a professional shoot.
"I was so happy to have met with him, never mind to be photographed by him," Alannah enthuses.
Afterwards, she phoned to arrange picking up the finished shots. That's when things changed.
"He said, 'Well, if I give you these photos, then I need something in return," recalls Alannah, "like a sexual favour."
She was taken aback but tried to brush it off.
"I was very civil and kind. I mean, this guy had promised to get me in touch with agencies because he said he knows everyone, and he does."
But the man was insistent. He began sending her text messages: "He would say, 'I really want to see you again and that body of yours,' and I just wouldn't reply."
"I was a little bit sickened and upset. I just wanted my photos and for him to do as he promised, but, unfortunately, with some people in the industry, they want something in return. I was told afterwards that I wasn't the only one he has done that to.
"The only reason some girls get into these agencies is because they [give him] the sexual favours that he wants," Alannah says, "and I was even told that his wife knows what he is up to and she just allows it."
Alannah told family members what was happening and tried again to be as civil as possible with him. "I just dealt with it by saying I had a boyfriend, but that I still wanted to pursue a modelling career in America, if he could help me out," she says, "but still, to this day, he has never given me the photos and has never put me in touch with anyone."
Alannah says this is representative of the way things work for a small number of girls who get ahead in the international modelling industry.
"Its kind of a secret in the industry," she says. "It's a completely different world outside of Ireland. People will sleep with someone to get to where they want to go. You wonder if it is a power thing, or what it is that makes people think it is ok to treat someone like that."
Two years on, Alannah is wiser and holding her own in modelling castings around the world, and it's all down to her own hard graft.
Having recently being chosen from over 5,000 models to be a finalist in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit search, she says one of the characteristics the judging panel liked about her was her work ethic.
Notwithstanding her Brazilian-beach-babe good looks, Alannah says: "The reason why I probably got Sports Illustrated was because of my attitude and my personality. When I went in to the casting, they could see how much I wanted it and what I put across was the fact that I know how hard it is to be a model and what it takes to succeed. Really, Sports Illustrated is a platform to build your brand and part of that is all about your personality - they want someone who can put a message out there of body positivity and it's ok to be whoever you want to be and not to let anyone get in your way."
If the judges had footage of Alannah in the weeks leading up to the world's most competitive casting, they would have seen that her attitude is no empty rhetoric.
In fact, far from starving herself in preparation and spending the countdown to her big audition in the gym, this budding young model took a trip around the world's most indulgent food mecca: Italy.
"I was eating pizza and pasta because I was travelling all around Italy before heading to the shoot in Miami," she laughs. "I arrived two or three days beforehand and my body wasn't completely toned or looking super-skinny, but I didn't care. I was on my holidays in the run-up to it and, I'm sorry, but the best thing about Italy is their carby food, so I wasn't going to stop enjoying life."
She says her days of crash diets are over.
Alannah describes how, in the modelling industry, you can get caught up in "binge cycles".
"I have done it before, where it is bingeing and then not eating, bingeing and not eating. It took me some time but I learned that eating a healthy amount across the week is a far better approach," she says.
It was her time spent in London's cut-throat modelling scene that, she says, her unhealthy relationship with food took hold.
"I was around 19 or 20 at the time. I would have cigarettes and coffee and that's it. In London you have to be very skinny," she stresses.
You were having no food?
"Yeah, but then I would binge in the evenings and have really crappy foods. I would eat crisps and chocolate. I would go into a cycle of trying to give yourself sugar and drinks like cans of Coke to boost your energy levels after shoots and events, but realistically it was ruining my body."
Did your extremes ever extend to resorting to diet pills?
"Yeah," she says, "I took them once but they never work. I got them in the chemist, but I didn't stick with them, because I wasn't seeing any benefits."
The reason why London became her "binge phase" she explains, was because, in addition to doing castings and shoots during the day, "I was going out in the evenings, socialising and networking."
"I had friends in modelling and we would do a lot of socialising, meeting the Love Island stars and going to a lot of celebrity parties every night, a bit like what the cast of Love Island are doing now," she recalls. "You see models in the States doing it too. So with evenings out and early morning starts, and really mad weeks and months when I had a lot of things happening as a model, I tended to smoke cigarettes and not eat as much."
Alannah didn't resort to some of the extreme behaviour she says was going on around her, however.
She describes how some of the girls would eat cotton wool.
That's not just a modelling-industry myth?
No," she shakes her head, "I know girls who do it. They do it to trick their stomach into thinking they have eaten... or they would make themselves sick. On shoots it is not exactly an open conversation, but if you have a couple of drinks with someone, they will open up to you a bit more. I just wouldn't let myself get to that point, but it does happen, and to younger girls more so, because they want to make it in the modelling industry so badly that they will do whatever it takes."
For her own part, Alannah explains, "I have found my niche and my market and it is a healthy looking physique."
These days she has ditched the all-or-nothing mind-set and turned her diet around.
And it has paid off.
Alannah has made herself a household name by appearing as on Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model and RTE's Dancing with the Stars.
Of the latter, Alannah says the energy she needed for the gruelling competition was fuelled by her new-found whole-food diet.
"I am vegetarian," she explains, "so I would have a bowl of porridge or granola with a little bit of yoghurt in the morning and then a salad or lentil soup for lunch, anything that is filling and nutritious. I think bread is important too, as you need carbs, but I would only have it occasionally. Then, for dinner, I would have roast vegetables and a main with it."
She has also managed to bring her hectic lifestyle in line with her healthier ways.
"I still go to a lot of events in Dublin where there is a lot of alcohol, but I have realised you just tend to feel really crappy the following day if you have too much, so now I limit it to one glass of prosecco, enjoy the event, network and then go home to get in a good night's rest. I have discovered sleep, a good diet and exercise are the three main things to looking and feeling your best."
With the world at her feet you'd be mistaken for thinking Alannah has a deep well of confidence in reserve. She has, however, made it a priority to talk about her knocks at the hands of bullies - who focused on her Auditory Processing Disorder - with a view to helping other young people who might be experiencing the same.
One of the most poignant things about Alannah however is her demonstration of how - no matter how far you climb or successful you become - that little kid who was bullied is always there as part of you.
When she tries to explain how she still struggles, she has to pause for a few moments to collect herself, but it doesn't stop the tears breaking through to the surface.
"Even now it can still affect me in a crowded place or even being interviewed," she says. "It's like when you lose concentration. I'm afraid to speak and I get choked-up."
Why are you afraid to speak?
"I have come from a place where I was constantly made feel that I wasn't good enough and everyone disliked me. And, as a kid, you tend to believe these things.
"I remember being in the Ford supermodel search and I was asked a question in front of all these girls and I genuinely couldn't answer it," Alannah says. "I just got stuck. No words would come out. I was so nervous. It's anxiety. I felt everyone was judging and looking at me and that they thought I was stupid and couldn't make sense of what I was saying. That feeling can hit you like a ton of bricks. And I just freeze. You are so terrified. My hands go really sweaty. People tell me that it's fine and just to relax and be myself - and in other ways I am very confident - but it's just in these moments that all of these memories coming flooding back."
For Alannah, it's not just work that her childhood tormentors have had an impact on, but also relationships.
"I end things if I feel I am getting too emotionally involved," she says. "The person I am with at the moment, I ended things and then I went, 'Oh no.' It was only because I found myself opening up to him."
The man she is referring to is her boyfriend -handsome Australian rugby star Steven Cummins, currently playing for the Welsh Scarlets - whom she has been dating for over three months.
"We were on the phone to each other yesterday, because I guess I needed to tell him that I am a difficult person to open up. I think we are just going to take it really slow. I am not interested in anyone else."
With her brother, Tadhg, also a successful rugby player with Munster, it's surprising then that when the subject of rugby players recently getting a bad rap online and in the media comes up, she says, "I do agree with it."
Alannah says that she has been out socialising with many rugby players over the years has seen a lot. "I know how they treat women," she explains. "I know what they are like. I have seen how they would treat women in the past. But it's all changed now."
How would they have treated them?
"Just playing girls, cheating, being silly boys," she says. "They don't get to go out much, so when they get together, they drink and they are like animals and they run around the place and they just get really messy and do silly things. It's immaturity."
She concludes these recollections by pointing out that her own brother is "one of the good ones".
"I suppose with three sisters, we have taught him about how to treat women. Even the fact that my mum runs the Irish School of Etiquette, he has been taught all about good manners," she says, "and he wouldn't harm a fly."
She thinks about some of his friends that she has partied with over the years, and says: "You can't paint them all with the same brush. I know a lot of boys who play rugby but who are really good guys."
Alannah is also aware of how rugby players are treated like gods by some members of the opposite sex.
"Wherever the rugby boys go, the girls will follow. They will have girls falling at their feet. It is something that just happens, especially in Ireland.
"There are circumstances where girls become a little bit 'psychotic' and turn up to their houses, even. I've heard all the stories," she laughs.
So where does her own boyfriend fit into all of this?
"Tadhg introduced me to Steven a while ago, and he does not like me associated with any rugby players. He tells me to stay away all the time, so when he introduced us, it was weird. I was like, 'What's going on?' But Tadhg reassured me and said, 'Steven is one of the good guys.'
"Tadhg was best friends with Steven on the [Scarlets] team, and he is right: Steven is a pure gent and he comes from a really good family and he knows how to treat me. He has a good head on him and a good heart, and I know he would never do anything to hurt me. I completely trust him," she says.
Life is looking up for Alannah. As a regular on TV, she is currently fine-tuning her skills in a presenting course and, as LIFE goes to print, is due to have a casting with none other than Victoria's Secret.
It just goes to show: when you're true to yourself, things always come right in the end.
Photography by Patrick McHugh
Styling by Chloe Brennan
Hair by Laura Reid, Brown Sugar, 50 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 616 -9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Make-up by Eilis Downey, Brown Sugar, 36 Main St, Blackrock, Co Dublin, tel: (01) 210-8630, or see brownsugar.ie
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