How Thalia Heffernan finally learned to be kind to herself
'Only in the last nine months to a year have I started to say, 'Someone else's opinion of me, is not my opinion of me,'" says Thalia Heffernan, ending emphatically, "It's not the truth."
That might sound like an obvious step along the path to maturity, but in fact, it's massive. The ability to understand that your value is not in how others see you is massive for any of us, but even more so for someone like Thalia, now 24, who has been modelling since the age of 15. After all, what is modelling except learning to become, temporarily, for the camera, what someone else wants you to be? The danger - as she well knows - is when you can't get back from that.
"Because you're working off your self, using your body, or your face," she explains, "when you get turned down, or go to four or five castings a day, and nothing comes out of it, then you're running around on, literally, no income because there are no jobs coming in. I don't know if this is a personal thing, but I started to develop a sense that it was my fault. Because that's what you're told."
"I was 15 when I started," Thalia continues. "Legally, a child. At that age, you're so impressionable. If someone told me something, I believed it. You're still in school at that stage. If the teacher tells you something, you believe it. And that's what you're told, so you internalise it."
She elaborates: "Something that I'm insecure about, if somebody points that out to me, my subconscious takes that and goes, 'Oh, they're right,' because you thought about that same thing that one time. Those things start to kind of latch into your mind, they kind of settle. They can be there, and on a bad day, naturally, they all come back up. That's what I struggled with."
Thalia is very funny about the oddities of the modelling world, with a wry, deadpan humour that suggests she's tougher than she looks. Although, I suspect it is a toughness she's learned the hard way. "It's a really strange world," she says. "A fickle world, where you're only as good as your last job. You go to a casting and the client would have specified a certain look, and the agency will send out a package of however many girls they have that fit that look. They send them all out. It's so bizarre, sitting in a room full of girls who look similar to you, but better!
"You're looking at versions of yourself that you almost wish you could attain. It's bizarre. It goes so far that you're thinking, 'I wish I had legs like her.' Or even, 'I wish I had fingernails like her.' That's how much you start to objectify yourself. You micro-analyse everything. It's one of those industries that you need to have some separation from. My job is my job, and then I close the door. I have that now."
She is talking about creating distance, the ability to step away. And, given that she didn't always have it, how did Thalia begin to learn it? "It probably started when I put weight on," she says. "I had a thyroid problem. At 19, I came back from three months working in Australia with an underactive thyroid." It was, she believes, caused by depression.
"It was a case that my mental state had diminished so much that my body actually had to intervene to stop me from going over the edge. I was in such a bad place. It was crazy. I went to my doctor and he said, 'Your body is protecting itself from your mind.' It shut me down. I was quite bed-bound. I was faking illnesses: 'Oh, I think I've got the flu…' but I couldn't understand why. Then I came home, I was diagnosed, and I'm better now. I'm regulated, but I had to get my mind better before my body got better."
Rather than take medication for her thyroid, Thalia believed she could right it herself. "I went homeopathic," she explains. "I knew in myself, I was young, I was 19, I knew I could fix it. I was told, 'Your mind needs nurturing. You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anything else.' My homeopath gave me a remedy for my thyroid and I went on antidepressants, which are not homeopathic by any stretch. That's hardcore. I was only on them for a few months, then I came off them because I knew in myself that I didn't want to go down that road.
"There's nothing wrong in medication - it's an incredible thing and we're lucky to have it. But I also knew that I was so young and I didn't want to use it as a crutch. I'd seen people who were on antidepressants for 15 years. I always have concerns and I try to take as little medication as possible, so I stopped myself taking the antidepressants. Gradually I got my groove back. I still have to keep an eye on my thyroid, but I feel good."
During this time of illness, Thalia decided, "'OK, I need to change something. I can't continue the way I'm going.' I had three or four months' respite, where I had to get myself back together again, and, slowly but surely, I started to become myself again. And I think," she says, "that out of that, I became me. For a long time I was still very much of the impression that whoever's version of 'me', that was me. My reflection was what they said about me. I never knew what I looked like, I never knew who I was." Which, when you think about it, is really a bit terrifying.
"Yes," Thalia agrees, "but it's almost like they say: the phoenix comes out of the ashes. It was a time where I started to heal."
Initially, like so many of us, Thalia chased the familiar first. "I lost the weight, came back with a bang, and went to London," she says. But that wasn't the happy ending she might have expected. "Part of my problem with the thyroid was that I lost a lot of hair. My hair was coming out in clumps. I used to have hair down to my bum. When I was young, I used to pee on my hair," she laughs, adding quickly, "this is when I was two or three, not when I was an adolescent.
"Anyway," she goes on, "I was starting modelling again and my hair had started to come back. I went to England, and I just was thrown into it again. It was just one thing after another, and I knew in my heart that I needed to reassess. So I came back to Dublin and I did reassess."
At the moment, Thalia is living in Co Wicklow, with boyfriend, dancer Ryan McShane (the two met on the set of Dancing with the Stars, where it was "love at first sight"), and their two lurcher rescue dogs. "My dogs are pivotal in my change of mental state," she says, "They do it for me. They need me to be there for them, although thankfully I have Ryan, and he takes care of them when I'm away. The dogs gave me a sense of purpose that my job didn't."
And Thalia is still modelling - mainly in Germany at the moment - but it's different now. "I have distance from it now," she says. "I'm not so immersed. And of all the places I've worked, I probably love the Germans the most. The German industry loves my curves and they hate when I'm not smiling."
And, she says, she still loves the work. So what exactly does she love? "I remember one of the first shows I did," she recalls, "for Harvey Nichols in Dundrum. I got the Luas there, in my school uniform. I was 16 or 17, and I opened the show. I remember the fear and adrenaline walking on. It was staged in the car park, where they built a catwalk of grass and had a swing suspended from the ceiling. It was pitch dark. I had to walk, and sit on the swing, and I remember sitting there, knowing there was a crowd but not able to see anyone. I was like, 'This is terrifying.' But then the lights came up, and I went, 'This is amazing!' I remember leaving that show, getting the Luas home, with my homework in my bag, and thinking, 'I want to do this!' I guess I've chased that feeling for nine years now, and every so often it comes back - something clicks and I feel that again."
However, recently she has added television work to her career portfolio - starting with her turn on Dancing with the Stars in 2017. "I was at that point where I thought, 'I need to figure out what I'm doing,' and that's when DWTS came along. At first I thought: 'Reality TV, is that what I want to do?' Then I met the producers. I thought it would be for 45 minutes but I came out two-and-a-half hours later, laughing my head off and thought, 'This is something I want to be a part of.'"
She also thought: "Fuck just being a face. I'm not going to just be a face any more. The person you see in shoots, it isn't even me - it's a made-up version playing a role. I thought DWTS would be an opportunity to be the real me. And I got the spur of people going, 'We like you.' That was one of the most fulfilling things in my career."
From there, she filmed a segment for Ear to the Ground, looking at the growth of veganism in Ireland. This is something very close to her heart. Thalia stopped eating meat four years ago, starting with vegetarianism, before becoming vegan. And, no, it wasn't easy "I loved meat," she says. "Me and my dad would have gone and had steak every day if we could. But, do I love meat as much as I love the planet? As much as I love taking care of other things? No."
The a-ha moment came for her on Father's Day (Just by the by, I've always wondered if Thalia is related to the Dunnes Stores Heffernans - "sadly not," she says with a laugh. "There's pretty much only two Heffernans in the whole of Dublin, and I'm from the other side. Thankfully my family are really cool, so that's one thing I got.") So, back to the a-ha moment. "We were in a restaurant famous for its chicken wings, me and my dad and my sisters," she says. "We ordered chicken wings for the table, and I looked around the room and I saw, say, 19 people having chicken wings, with maybe 20 wings per bowl, and I started to calculate, each chicken only has two wings...
"At the time, I was studying animal psychology online. I was still in London, going to castings, and my hair was falling out, I needed something to ground me, and that was it. Studying that brought me back to my passions. Animals and music were always the things that were my anchor, the things that pulled me back. So I was studying animals and their abilities to survive and evolve, and then I look around the room and see 19 bowls of chicken wings, and I thought, 'Holy shit! One, I hate hypocrites. Two, I'm a living, breathing hypocrite.'"
And that was it. "I turned round and said, 'I'm going to try being vegetarian.' One of my sisters spat her drink out she laughed so much," she recalls. "From there, it's like anything - people say when you open your third eye, everything falls into perspective. I think stopping eating meat was my third eye opening and I realised, 'There is so much more here'."
From examining the meat industry, she began to look at the dairy industry, the egg industry, animal by-products industries, distancing herself from all of them. "The meat industry," she says, "is sickening. People say it's humane, but there's no humane way of killing something. If you look at the definition of humane, how can humane and slaughter be in the same sentence?"
"Now, I only use products that are vegan and cruelty-free," she says, "Like Cocoa Brown. I've been their campaign face for two years running. When I get to work with brands who are so transparent, it is such a bonus. Especially when they are Irish and run by such brilliant people. Marissa Carter is a real inspiration, and her choice to go cruelty-free and vegan-friendly with her products just makes me love her even more."
So back to her experience with Ear To The Ground. "I walked into that," she says with a huge laugh. "Me, a model! I walked in with a red hazard sign on, going, 'Take the piss out of me.' But there's beauty in that. I had something to say, I had a point to prove." How did it go for her? "It was met with very mixed reviews," she says frankly, "but it's probably one of the most fulfilling things I've done."
Thalia has very strong views around social media. "I really think that in a few years time we'll look back and think, 'God, we used to rate ourselves on a person we've never met double-tapping on a screen.'"
And be careful if you call her an influencer. "When I first heard the word 'influencer', I cringed," she says. "We used to use that word about presidents, about Gandhi, about men and women who changed the world. If I'm doing something I'm proud of, and feel that something I'm doing can give a bit of weight to something I believe in, then you can use that word. But do not use that word, influencer, about a jumper I'm wearing!"
Has she converted the people around her to a vegan way of life? "I haven't converted any of my family, but I'm not a pusher," she insists. "I'm not like I am in interviews! If I start saying this in front of my family, they would just tell me to shut up. And because I travel, I only get a certain amount of time with my family, so I don't want to be the preacher. I have social media for that. I am using those platforms to try and get it out to everyone, instead of sitting one person down in a corner and giving out to them. My boyfriend is now vegan, and he wasn't when I met him. Some of my friends are, too."
And this, now, is the thrill that Thalia is chasing. "I find more joy now in spreading a message I believe in, than I do in anything else," she says. "I love modelling. I get to go to amazing places and do amazing things, but when I go home at the end of shoot and get a message from one random girl in Kerry I've never met, asking what my favourite alternative to milk is, that's what I get joy out of."
Photography by Aaron Hurley
Sunday Indo Life Magazine