Monday 23 July 2018

Barry Egan on Katy French: No angel, no icon - just a young woman who loved life

On the 10th anniversary of model Katy French's tragic death, Barry Egan remembers a beautiful and vibrant woman who went to her grave too soon

Katy French arriving at her high-profile 24th birthday party
Katy French arriving at her high-profile 24th birthday party
Katy arriving at her 24th birthday party Photo: Gerry Mooney
Amanda Brunker at Renards with Katy French
Katy French
Irish Model Katy French arrivng to be a guest on The Podge Rodge Show, RTE Studios, Dublin, Ireland - 07.04.07.
Late model Katie French
Katy at her 24th birthday at Krystle nightclub
Katy French at Lillies Bordello, Dublin in 2007
Katy was never shy about showing off her enviable body and unsurprisingly, became the most in-demand bikini photocall model in Ireland at the time. Here, she promotes the then-new Purty Kitchen.
COVER GIRL: Katy French graced the front of 'LIFE' magazine
LIFE THRU A LENS: A candid shot of the late Katy French during a shoot with LIFE magazine
COVER GIRL: Katy French graced the front of 'LIFE' magazine
Katy French and with her former fiance Marcus Sweeney
Katy French pictured by David Conachy in 2007

Ten years ago this Thursday, Katy French crossed the narrow plank of the present into the ever after. It only seems like yesterday that she was running around Dublin, seemingly without a care in the world.

She was emblematic of a time in Ireland: a time of bright, breezy ambition, a time of boom and bust, an era of excess, of endless hope and endless bottles of Champagne.

The beautiful blonde personified all of that.

And her heart-breaking death - only 10 days after she had celebrated her 24th birthday in Krystle nightclub - personified all that, too.

LIFE THRU A LENS: A candid shot of the late Katy French during a shoot with LIFE magazine
LIFE THRU A LENS: A candid shot of the late Katy French during a shoot with LIFE magazine

Reporting on her death, the BBC said: "In the space of less than two years, she had become one of Ireland's best-known models and socialites."

At her funeral in St Patrick's Church in Powerscourt, the grief was at once public and private.

Her mother Janet read extracts from an article in the Sunday Independent's LIFE magazine which Katy had written after spending some time with street children in Calcutta for the charity, Goal. "God doesn't require us to succeed, only to try."

We are only remembered for so long by the people who knew us; after friends and family are gone, we are forgotten.

I'd like to think Katy French will always be remembered for those words - God doesn't require us to succeed, only to try

The only slightly heartening aspect of the whole heartbreaking tragedy lay in a statement from her family that said Katy died in the arms of her sister Jill, with her mother Janet and father John alongside.

*****

"From London to Cape Town, from Monte Carlo to Marbella, the Irish have been spending their new fortunes with an alacrity that would have made their forefathers blush," Alan Ruddock wrote in The Observer in July 2001.

"Eight years of a remarkable economic boom have transformed Ireland. Its people are young and wealthy and have shed the traditional inhibition to flaunt their wealth..."

For many, Katy French seemed to stand for all the youthful brashness of that time. Indeed, her face could have been on the coat of arms of the Celtic Tiger. She and her equally glam blond beau, restaurateur Marcus Sweeney became engaged on the beach in Dubai in 2006 - Marcus popped the question on bended knee with a "50 grand ring" in his hand. They planned to marry the following summer in a lavish ceremony in the Eternal City of Rome.

Katy at her 24th birthday at Krystle nightclub
Katy at her 24th birthday at Krystle nightclub

Nothing was eternal about Katy and Marcus's relationship - their best-laid plans were torn asunder in January 2007 during Katy's photo shoot for the cover of the Sunday Independent's LIFE magazine at Marcus's former restaurant, No 10, on South William Street.

In a moment like a particularly imaginative passage from a Jackie Collins blockbuster, Katy was in mid-pose, in lingerie on a table top, when Marcus walked in, not happy, apparently.

Within 15 minutes, the spring wedding in Rome was off.

At 8pm that night, Katy moved her stuff out of their apartment in Citywest.

It was a fin de siecle moment in Irish so-called high society. It was certainly a metaphor for the beginning of the end of something in Ireland - something more than a engagement between two young people.

Even then, Katy's life seemed scripted by some Celtic Tiger ghostwriter.

After splitting with Marcus - who is, thankfully, now in a very happy place with his current partner - Katy continued to live the Celtic Tiger lifestyle.

She began seeing Jim Mansfield Jnr, son of the then super wealthy Jim Mansfield Snr. The late Jim Snr's property kingdom has long since been taken by Nama.

*****

Born in Basel, Katy moved with her family to Ireland when she was two. From the age of seven, she was privately educated and attended Alexandra College in Milltown, Dublin.

That a privileged girl like Katy, with so much going for her in life, died as she did is no more tragic or heart-breaking than a girl from a poor background who comes to the same sad end.

I am not trying to elevate Katy above the ordinary. It's just that because she was the subject of so much publicity, her life deserves to be put in context.

Or maybe it's that she deserves to have some dignity won back for her in death.

"Model buried as she lived - in media spotlight" was the gist of a lot of the reporting of her funeral.

Katy French pictured by David Conachy in 2007
Katy French pictured by David Conachy in 2007

"'I believe Katy is close by now, probably enjoying the show,' said her father, during an unconventional service," wrote Kathy Sheridan in The Irish Times on December 11. "He, Katy's mother Janet and sister Jill, all dressed in bright colours, attempted to reclaim their 'Katykins' from Brand Katy, the public persona she created for herself in the past 12 months."

In March, 2008, in an article headlined 'The French Connection: Cocaine in Ireland', the publication Irish America positioned Katy as a cautionary tale of a cokehead, while establishing Ireland as being in the midst of a drug Armageddon.

"The death of top model Katy French a few weeks ago from a cocaine overdose has finally woken Ireland up to the fact that we are in the middle of a cocaine epidemic. Cocaine use has now permeated all levels of Irish society, from the boardroom to the bar."

Some nasty things were written and said about Katy after her death, which made us appear sometimes like a nation incapable of empathy, incapable of not judging. For many people who loved Katy French, and for some who didn't, it is maybe worth recalling that she was human like the rest of us.

And more importantly, that a young woman is lying in her lonely grave, gone long before her time, at the age of 24.

Katy made her own choices in life - of what she put into her body, of whom she chose to call friends, of those she chose to go home with.

Katy wasn't an angel. But neither was she an icon of drug addiction gone wrong, a girl gone bad. She had her flaws. She was happy to admit them herself.

But her life and her legacy (a lofty word maybe for a 24-year-old model) deserves more than to be reduced simply to the unspeakable manner of her death.

On December 3, 2008, the musician Eamon Keane posted something beautiful on katyfrench.ie that still rings true today.

"After death, we tend to turn people into saints or devils. Katy was neither, but stood out for the warmth of her heart, her lightning fast brain and her lovely dark sense of humour. The word honesty is bandied about a lot but Katy had it in buckets. It takes a certain moral courage to reveal your flaws as well as your assets. Katy had that courage. We all have many selves, the public, the private, the soulful, the playful… while I am sometimes wary of revealing certain sides, Katy had no such fear," Eamon wrote, adding, crucially, that the reduction of Katy's life to the circumstances of her death do her and those who know her a massive injustice.

In her final interview, with the Sunday Independent's LIFE magazine, in the days before her death, Katy said she hoped to have kids one day.

It is devastating that Katy didn't get to realise that dream.

The inexpressible pain that Katy's own mother Janet feels must be a living hell. As it must be for Katy's father John and her little sister Jill.

Nothing can take away the agony the French family have gone through since Katy's death. Grief is the worst feeling in the world. It is worse than physical pain because it just keeps going on and on.

In Roland Barthes's Mourning Diary, which the French philosopher wrote after his mother Harriet's death in 1977, he recalls how "no sooner has she departed than the world deafens me with its continuance".

He added: "I seem to have a kind of ease of control that makes other people think I'm suffering less than they would have imagined. But it comes over me when our love for each other is torn apart once again. The most painful moment at the most abstract moment."

The New Yorker magazine's Ruth Margalit noted of loss that "grief keeps odd hours".

So it is when you lose someone you love. Grief keeps very odd hours.

So it must be for the French family every day. The tenth anniversary of Katy's passing will bring the pain flooding back again.

Katy French died in Our Lady's Hospital, Navan, on December 6, 2007, a number of days after collapsing at a friend's home. The inquest into her death found Katy died from hypoxic-ischemic brain injury due to cocaine and ephedrine. State Pathologist Marie Cassidy said the level of cocaine found was not particularly high or excessive. The coroner John Lacy delivered an open verdict. "There are gaps and unanswered questions," he said at the time.

Sunday Independent

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