Country Girl: How Tess O'Reilly went from Tipperary to Ireland's queen of lads mags
Tess tells Norma Costelloe about moving home, leaving behind a career where exploitation is rife - where the men want to sleep with you, and the women want to glass you
From small-town roots to big-city dreams, Tipperary model Tess O'Reilly has seen and done it all.
After years on beach shoots in exotic locations, this former glamour model has hung up her bikinis and stilettos for an altogether more provincial lifestyle.
A self-proclaimed country girl, 33-year-old Tess from Carrick-on-Suir in Co Tipperary says she never imagined becoming Ireland's queen of the lads' mags. The stunning brunette is refreshingly down-to-earth as we compare our childhoods in 1980s Munster.
"I was just an average kid, a bit of a tomboy really, climbing trees, beating up the boys, the usual country life," she says. "I never worried too much about how I looked, and I wasn't into things you'd describe as 'girlie' in the slightest. I think people might find that strange - they assume, as you're a model, you must have been a 'girlie girl', but that's just not true."
Tess reached her teens during an era defined by the Amazonian supermodel. Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss dominated the covers of glossy magazines, haute couture intertwined with the mainstream, while young girls covered their walls with images of these alpha females. A typical 1990s girl, Tess - who jokes she's naturally "a bit of a redhead" like myself - said she wasn't always the picture of glamour she is today, and laughs about her hardy country youth.
"I might have been a tough country kid, but I still remember the first time I saw Naomi Campbell," she says. "I was in awe. Something just clicked and I thought, 'That's what I want to do'. My family laughed it off as a phase, but I was determined. I was glued to magazines and collected pictures from different shoots. I think my family thought I was crazy; a small kid from Tipperary determined to become a model like the women from telly. I think I have that country determination, or maybe a touch of madness," she laughs.
Tess definitely fits the definition 'tiny but mighty' and, after a few years of working in the beauty industry, she got her break when she was scouted in a music shop in Waterford.
"My first shoot was as a Bond girl for Chris Doran's Eurovision entry, in 2004. I was chatting to a friend who worked in a music shop in Waterford and was randomly asked to feature in the promo work for his song. He was in a tux, an Irish James Bond, and I was in a tiny outfit. Thinking about it now, I must have looked like a rabbit in the headlights, I was so nervous," she says.
That encounter gave Tess the confidence to accept more work, which came in the form of car shoots for lads' mags.
"I got a lot of work in the car magazines doing glamour modelling," she says. "I've always been really comfortable with my body, so it was something I really didn't mind doing, but the big work was always in the UK."
Despite her family's initial worry, Tess turned her back on a conventional career and decided to make the journey to the UK alone to pursue her dream, a move she found both terrifying and exhilarating.
"Yes, it was scary," she says, "but I've always been a bit adventurous. I love travelling and living in different cities, and I was determined to follow my dream. It took my parents some time to get used to my career choices. I think it's because they're all quite academic. College was seen as really important in my family, and a lot of my cousins went down that route.
"My sister is an engineer, so I was the first in the family to choose a different path," Tess explains. "A lot of people initially think the academic route is the only way, but when you think about it, some of the most successful people in the world never went to college. So, while college is really important for a lot of people, it's not necessary for everyone. I think people are getting more used to that idea now. Alternative career paths are becoming more acceptable."
The world of glamour modelling is regularly criticised for its exploitation of young women, who are often underpaid, and can be at the mercy of unscrupulous photographers and agents. The girl from Tipp had to grow up fast, and Tess says that despite the facade of cocktail parties and exotic locations, life in the lads' mags involves running through a gauntlet of people trying to take advantage.
"When I started, I was quite naive," she remembers. "My first shoot was for a car magazine. The guy who introduced me to the photographer was really weird; it was a real eye-opener to the scene, what people will try to do. Another time, I was doing a shoot and the 'organiser' booked one hotel room for me and him. I managed to escape when he asked our taxi to stop so he could buy cigarettes. I explained the situation to the taxi driver, and he sped off and dropped me to my friend's house.
"You get a lot of people abusing the fact that girls are desperate to get into modelling. Guys are always telling girls exactly what they want to hear, then asking them to sleep with them. People can try to exploit you, so you have to cop on quickly," she says.
But it's not just men who have issues with glamour girls, and Tess says she has been threatened and attacked by women unhappy with her look.
"I was glassed and attacked by girls before for absolutely no reason," she shares. "Someone just decided they didn't like the look of me. You have to put up with a lot of abuse in modelling and it's a shame, because if people just talked to us, they'd see we're really normal people, even if they don't like our job."
For most glamour models, life in a bikini means adhering to exhausting industry standards on what the ideal body should be. The prerequisite is often so far removed from women's actual body shapes that surgery has become the norm. A size six, Tess doesn't seem to give two hoots about dieting as she asks for extra chips with her meal, but I'm surprised at her candour, and almost flippancy, when I ask whether she's gone under the knife.
"Yup, I had my boobs done. I blame Pamela Anderson! I adored her look. Even now she looks great, but, on the surgery phenomenon . . . well, I think it's changed.
"Now, I'd advise girls not to get them done. I think there's a move back towards a more natural look. That seems to be what photographers want these days. I never had any issues with it, or talking about it. For someone in my industry, I'm pretty open about that stuff. I just don't see the point in hiding it.
"As for dieting, nope, I never do it. Before a shoot, I'll drink a very strong green tea from China. It's a detox tea and it stops me from bloating. Obviously, I try to cut down on carbs, but I don't obsess about it, life's too short," she insists.
In contrast to her petite frame, Tess is now a towering social-media giant with over 55,000 Twitter followers, and a catalogue of magazine covers under her enviable belt.
Tess says social media is an integral part of being a model in the age of the millennials.
"I'm glad I got into it years ago, so I've been using social media since the very beginning," she explains. "I have built up a fan base over the years, and it might sound strange, but I think a lot of people that follow me on social media do it because I'm not your typical 'girlie girl'. I'm still a total tomboy at heart, and I'm all about the silly banter, so people feel they get to know you a little.
"Pictures are one thing, but you need to let people in, they need to get a feel of your personality - that's what people connect with at the end of the day. I think it's much harder for girls now; there are just so many photo-savvy, gorgeous girls out there; everyone is an Instagram model today.
"It makes it a lot harder to break into the industry."
Tess credits a lot of her success in the modelling world to being a no-nonsense Irish country girl, and says Irish models are known for their laid-back style and general 'soundness'.
"Being Irish definitely goes in your favour," she says. "People seem to warm to us, maybe it's the accent, I don't know, but people seem to genuinely like the Irish girls. I think it's because we're sound! Being Irish has definitely helped to move my career forward, especially in the UK. There's also something in our culture that makes us more easy-going - if you don't get a job, you just take it on the chin and move on to the next thing. Some cultures take rejection very seriously, but I think we Irish are pretty resilient.
"It's hilarious when St Patrick's Day comes around, when every paper is the UK is crying out for Irish girls; it's actually great crack," she says.
After a stint of TV presenting, Tess returned to her first love - music - and spent last summer DJ-ing in Ibiza for Cream and Ibiza Rocks.
"I was born in Chicago and my uncle was really into the music scene out there, and he introduced me to a lot of music," she says.
"My whole family are real music heads, so DJ-ing always felt like a natural progression for me. I love everything from 1970s rock to electro; I've a pretty eclectic music taste, and that shows in the sets. We ran events called Sin Sundays last summer in Ibiza and it was just electric - I really love the energy there."
Earlier this year, after some soul searching, Tess decided to make the move back to Ireland to pursue a career in the music industry on home shores. The country girl from Tipp says being so far from her family was the main driving factor for the move home, especially as her sister was just about to leave for a year in Australia.
I ask her whether she'll miss the bright lights of the city and the boys that go with it - she's been linked to footballers Andy Carroll and Nicklas Bendtner, as well as TOWIE star Peter Wicks - but she insists they're just normal guys and smashes the glamour girl stereotypes.
"People are the same everywhere, and I'm not that superficial," she laughs. "I think when people hear you're a model, they immediately assume you're bitchy, or a bimbo. The job invites pigeonholing, which isn't fair. I mean, you wouldn't jump to the same conclusions about teachers or nurses. I've met so many caring and intelligent women in modelling."
But Tess says the modelling lifestyle can be chaotic, and it's hard to find Mr Right when you're constantly travelling around for shoots.
"It's a hectic lifestyle," she admits. "You're always moving about and it's hard to get the time to invest. When I look at celebrities, I'm always shocked by how they manage to maintain relationships with their crazy lifestyles."
While she admits glamour modelling is no dream industry, Tess says she never imagined her work would take her to such exotic places, and says modelling opened up the world to the girl from Carrick.
"It's like any job, a mixed bag, but travel is definitely the best perk of the job. You get to see places you would never have a chance to visit otherwise. I remember one day, when I was on a shoot on a yacht in the Maldives, thinking, 'Wow, this is the greatest job on the planet'. I guess normal jobs don't allow you those luxuries," she laughs.
Her choice of career might give most parents the sweats, but Tess is very much a modern Irish woman carving her own path in unchartered territory, and while it might still seem an unusual career, the single-minded country girl insists her time glamour modelling taught her a lot of valuable life lessons and made her appreciate the small things.
"Growing up in a small town, I always felt a bit different," she says. "I had a different outlook on things. I was open-minded to things that weren't seen as 'normal'. My time abroad made me more confident, and now I feel totally happy in my own skin. That's why doing shoots in bikinis and lingerie never bothered me.
"I think women should all love who they are. Obviously, over the years, you have people knock you down, but you have to stay true to yourself. I have made mistakes in my life - who hasn't? - but I grew from them and learned, so I regret nothing.
"I think that's the key to being happy and secure with yourself. As long as my family are healthy, it's a happy day. I think I've learned not to take life too seriously and to value what's truly important."
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Claire O'Farrell
Hair by Kellie Keating; make-up by Dearbhla Keenan, both Brown Sugar, 50 South William St, tel: (01) 616-9967, or see brownsugar.ie
Photographed at Bel-Air Hotel and Equestrian Centre, Ashford, Co Wicklow, tel: (0404) 40109, or see belairhotelequestrian.com
Sunday Indo Life Magazine