'I probably dealt with it the worst' - Roz Purcell opens up on sister's leukaemia diagnosis, her boyfriend Zach, and how she felt meeting Trump
Roz Purcell is Ireland’s healthy-eating domestic goddess. She talks to Barry Egan about life with her music promoter boyfriend Zach Desmond; feeling intimidated by Donald Trump when she was a beauty queen; how she learned to change her negative relationship with food; why she is less fearful since her sister’s cancer diagnosis, and why she doesn’t believe in God — or being broody
How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?) became a popular hit after World War I ended.
The song is about American soldiers from rural backgrounds reluctant to go back to farm life, having experienced the bright lights of Paris while stationed overseas, and I imagined the lyrics might reflect Roz Purcell's perspective on life: the country girl from a farm in Tipperary, who has modelled in Paris, New York and Las Vegas, and won TV3's Celebrity Come Dine with Me on TV3 in 2012. Yet, au contraire. Roz, who lives in swish Sandycove, with her boyfriend, Zach, could see herself moving back to work on the land one day...
"I always think I wouldn't, but then I spend a weekend down the country - anywhere down the country - and I feel so at home," the bestselling cookery author and blogger admits. But, she adds, "It would have to be a low-maintenance veg farm, because at the moment I can't even keep my herbs alive with this heat."
Environmentally friendly Roz is currently doing her best to keep the planet alive a little bit longer. She keeps a bucket in the shower to catch the water that most people would just let run down the drain. Every morning, after she has had a wash, she waters the plants and the herbs with the water from her trusty bucket.
Ireland's healthy-living domestic goddess does not, she says, believe in God. "It's simple why I don't. Evolution makes more sense."
Did you go to Mass every Sunday in Tipperary? What did that instil in you as an adult?
"We did, but I kind of just went to keep my dad or my grandparents company. Growing up, I didn't think much about it. My grandparents, Ida and Johnson, were very religious, and their values of treating everyone equally was something everyone spoke about after they passed. So I'd like to think I took that from them."
In 2015, Roz was forced to dwell more deeply on the meaning of life and death when her big sister, Rachel, was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia, a rare form of cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow.
"I guess after my sister got CML, I realised life is so short, and you only get one run at it, so I definitely changed a lot. My philosophy shifted towards being present, enjoying the small things, and not having so much fear about where I was going next," Roz says.
"It definitely brought us all closer together," Roz adds. "The first week felt surreal. We were all just a bit shell-shocked [at the diagnosis] but gradually, as a lot of Irish families do, we tried to make the most out of a bad situation and find humour in the smallest of things. I think Rachel was probably the most collected, and managed it really well. She was the one keeping us all calm. It's the worst thing hearing someone you love is sick. I probably dealt with it the worst. Rachel can tell you a few stories of how emotional I kept getting."
Roz tells me stories about when she modelled, involving people coming up to her to say that she wasn't "stuck-up" like they had imagined. Roz is neither stuck-up nor a diva of any worrying proportions. Traffic en route to meet her at the Alexander Hotel on a Friday evening in Dublin is awful, and I end up being 20 minutes late. She brushes off my embarrassed apologies. No doubt, a youth spent up at dawn, mucking out horse shite from the stables on her father John's farm outside Fethard in Co Tipperary, gave Roz an unique sense of the time, and, indeed, of life.
"I was forever working on the farm. My dad would kill me for saying this, but we were probably the Fawlty Towers of farms. There was always a cow escaping, and I was always chasing after them," says Roz, who had a cow named Daisy that she was friendly with when she was younger. "But I knew it was a food chain. I knew steak came from a farm," says Roz, who gave up meat last Christmas.
"I would have spent a lot of time with my grandparents," she says. "I loved them, obviously, but they gave me no chores. My mother used to have long lists of chores on the farm, including mucking out stables, feeding the horses."
Roz's parents built a house on the family farm and lived there.
Could she and Zach build a house one day on the farm?
"My days of chasing cows are over. And I couldn't imagine seeing Zach on a farm at all. I don't know how he'd deal with it."
As a child, Roz was either outside doing chores for her mother, or inside, with her granny - who lived next door - baking for everyone.
"I'm pretty much still like that. People can never understand, when they get to know me, that I can never sit down. I always have to be doing something. I think it is almost the mentality of growing up on a farm: that there is always something to do." Obviously, the downside of that is that Roz finds it "hard to relax and switch off, but I'm getting better".
How do you switch off?
"I find baking really helps, if I've had a really busy day. I find it really therapeutic. But also going out with Zach, who is completely the opposite of me, and is very chilled, really helps, because I am around someone who is not the same as me. 'Bring me down a notch!'" she says to an imaginary Zach, "'and I can sit down and relax for a while'."
And can you sit down and relax?
"I can, definitely. It is getting easier with age," says the 27-year-old. "I feel, in the last two years, I have given myself time to unwind, particularly in the evening; I'm feeling more OK about not doing anything."
As of this minute, Roz is writing her third cookbook, which is scheduled for release next year. A follow-up to Natural Born Feeder (published in January 2016) and Half Hour Hero (which came out in September 2017), the new book is, she explains, "similar to Half Hour Hero in that it's fast, easy recipes, but it's all veggie".
Roz believes the whole reason she started the Natural Born Feeder blog in 2013 - which led to the cookbook - was because she went through years of having such a bad relationship with food, trying every diet under the sun, and having a really bad image of her body.
The blog was about sharing simple, healthy recipes, but the message she wanted to emphasise was more important: that your relationship with food starts with your relationship with yourself and how you look at your body. "People starve themselves," Roz says, "and they binge at the weekend, and they are trapped in a vicious cycle. And I have been through it all."
How did she come through it and come out of it?
"I think you have to get to your really low point to realise that you have ruined a lot of things."
What did you ruin?
"I definitely ruined a lot of opportunities because I was always like, 'Oh, I'm not good enough, I'm not skinny enough'. I completely let food and my body image control me."
You were in an industry - modelling - where everything was based on how you looked. Which is a problem in itself.
"Oh, hugely. I honestly believe if I hadn't got into modelling, I would not have developed the negative relationship with my body and food, because as a teenager, I was absolutely fine. I had a really strong grounding. I think modelling chipped away at that, a bit," says Roz, adding that when she returned from modelling in South Africa, "It was probably the worst I've ever felt; I hated how I looked. I had been fluctuating in weight, and I had lost all my confidence. Keeping in mind I was only about 20 at the time, I was very grateful of having the chance to travel, and I experienced living in different places, but it was overshadowed by the fact that I felt I was never good enough for the industry.
"They are judging you on aesthetics and that's not easy to take, especially if you don't get the job, and you feel crap. I honestly don't need to be in the modelling industry to feel crap about myself, because social media is basically everyone judging each other, and it can make you feel kind of shit."
So how do you get the message to young people that beauty is inside, along with all those other trite but very important messages that young people need to learn?
"It is about reinforcing self-worth," Roz says. "There are definitely a lot of tools you can use to manage that and control it, because, no matter what, my mind is always playing tricks on me, but I manage it and I keep on top of it. Your mind is always playing tricks: 'Am I good enough?' 'What will people think?'"
Would you describe yourself as a feminist?
"Firstly, for me, a feminist is someone who believes men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. Therefore, I am a feminist. However, I don't feel the need to point it out. I'm pretty sure all women and men want that."
Were you a fan of feminist masterclass Love Island, or would you rather have pulled your teeth out with a pliers than watch the reality show?
"I am unashamed to say I didn't miss a day," she says with, frankly, admirable candour.
On the subject of highbrow culture, Roz placed in the top 10 at Miss Universe 2010, which was held in Las Vegas. The Miss Universe Organization was owned by a certain atrociously coiffed future US President. It has often been written that he took a shine to Roz and promptly signed her to his Trump Models agency.
I ask Roz what are her thoughts on this version of events, which seems to gets trotted out in every article about her - including this one.
"It's always written in articles. I guess it feels like another lifetime, sometimes. And when people bring it up, I think: 'Oh yeah! I was in Miss Universe; I remember all that!'"
What do you think of Donald Trump now?
"I don't agree with the majority of what he has to say; I'm not sure the majority of Ireland does. Donald Trump is exactly as you see him on TV when you meet him in real life. I think a lot of people think it is a persona that he is putting on, but he is exactly like that. I suppose sometimes when you meet someone, you might feel comfortable with them. But whenever I met him, I always felt really intimidated."
You were not entirely surprised therefore about some of his misogynistic comments about women?
"No. I am not surprised. But at the same time I can't believe that he would say them out loud. But then... have you watched any of the Netflix documentaries like Get Me Roger Stone? You just wonder was it all to get attention. But it is a bit extreme to get attention. When you look, in comparison, to our President," Roz continues. "Our President is so great. I'm so proud to be Irish. I think our nation is coming on so much - and then you look at somewhere like America, which we could feel has regressed [under Trump] and we are years ahead."
Equally Roz and Zach - who is the son of illustrious MCD music promoters Denis Desmond and Caroline Downey - seem light years ahead as the modern couple of modern Ireland. Seeing each other since early 2017, they are both tres hip and tres discreet.
I ask her to describe Zach.
"Very private," comes the reply.
What makes you and he work as a couple?
"Loads! We are opposites. I'm a bit hyperactive and he's really relaxed, so he helps me to bring a bit of chill into my daily routine and vice versa. He's super clean; I'm a creative mess."
You recently moved in together. Did that change the dynamic?
"No, we spent so much time together already, and most nights together, so it doesn't feel like anything has changed. The biggest thing has been sharing custody of Wilko [her Jack Russell] with my sister."
Are you the broody type?
Do want to get married one day?
"Possibly, but I don't feel pressure to."
Do you do all the cooking at home?
"Yes, and I wouldn't have it any other way! Although Zach makes great tea. I think he can cook, but he pretends he doesn't know much, so I'll just do it - I'm on to you, Zach!"
Photography by Kip Carroll; styling by Chloe Brennan
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