'It's devastating when your entire being is taken away from you'- Madeline Mulqueen
Madeline Mulqueen became the girl-of-the-moment when an appearance in a Rubberbandits video led to overnight fame, but when the world of selfies and social media began to feel soulless, she decided to change course. Now a photographer and hiking guide, she chats to Maggie Armstrong about the joy of nature and her life with fiancé Jack Reynor
Madeline Mulqueen is unleashing a little dog into the woods. The former Irish model (and fiancée of actor Jack Reynor) who once helped The Rubberbandits make their greatest hit, has quit the industry altogether to become a hiking guide and photographer.
We meet at a carpark by the Blessington Lakes, near her Wicklow home. "How are you?" I ask.
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"I'm just so upset," she replies, and launches into a breathless lament about the fires in the Amazon rainforest, capitalism, plastic water bottles, the Mercosur free-trade deal Ireland should get out of, and how the Irish Government needs to "step up". How? "Stop exporting our beef."
The plan had been to meet for coffee, but the day before Mulqueen suggested we take a walk instead, and now I can see why.
"The lungs of our earth are on fire. The rainforest creates the oxygen that we need to breathe," she continues. "We're literally praying for rain." And it isn't, she goes on, climate change anymore. "We are sugar-coating it to call it a climate change, this is a climate crisis."
We start walking through woodland, hot on the heels of her brown and white Beagle, three-year-old Dougie. Mulqueen spent the morning protesting outside the Brazilian embassy and she will spend the weekend camping in the woods with her friends.
"I wondered, what can I do? I can't go and put out the fire. I came to my forest and I sat amongst the trees and asked Mother Nature, what is it that I can do?"
She meditated and did tree pose. "And what came to mind for me is self-love, compassion. If we can all start asking ourselves the question, how do you want to live your life? What can you do in a small way?"
We pass streams and blackberry bushes. The air is fresh. Having got here by Go Car from the city centre, all this nature feels like a mild hallucination. Mulqueen leads the way, a kind of fairy person, but she wasn't like this growing up in Limerick. When she was 13 her family moved outside the city (to Kildimo) and she resented them. By the time she was 21 and a model in Dublin, she "didn't know nature existed". Her decision to leave modelling for good stemmed from a major physical trauma, and this is where her life seems to split into two neat parts, before and after. Now, at 29, she is so self-aware she's almost see-through.
"We all have our sh*t," she believes. "But things don't happen to you, they happen for you. So you can ask, what did I learn, how is this teaching me about myself?"
Her "reality slap", as she accurately calls it, came five years ago when she was moving apartment to join Reynor in their new rented house in his native Wicklow. She was, she says with almost sorrowful mindfulness, "moving too quickly". She was picking up boxes when a fire door hit her in the face and knocked her out. The blow left her with a black eye, whip-lash and chronic pain for weeks then months, which required heavy doses of painkillers and anti-inflammatories that ruined her digestion and made her lose dramatic amounts of weight.
She was couch-bound for weeks, unable to work and the London fitness agency she had just signed with ended their contract with a "nicely worded email". "I grew up my whole life thinking I'm gonna be a model, I'm gonna be successful, this is what I am. That's all I cared about. When it's your entire being and it's taken away from you, that's devastating.
"Depression kicks in, you feel like it's never going to end. I was so sore, and so angry, and really in a negative headspace. I'd go for a walk and an hour later come in and be like, 'why aren't I happy yet'."
But the recently engaged couple were living in the countryside by now, and Reynor was away filming any number of films. "I had so much time to think in nature, I felt I was stripped down to nothing and had to start again. That's how I fell in love with nature. It makes me breathe." You're lucky to know yourself so well, I tell her.
"I journal my brain down so much that I hope that I know something at this stage. And dude, I go to therapy a lot. Are you okay?"
A menacing tangle of brambles and nettles is covering the path ahead. Once we get through it, she describes how she had been scouted at age 14 and signed to an agency in Limerick, picked for school fashion shows. Everyone told her she was "beautiful blah blah blah", as she puts it, and that she should be a model. "I was kind of like, yeah, maybe I should be? You know, listening to everyone but yourself.
"I enjoyed modelling," she continues. "But it's all fake. It's all fake! I felt like I was being fake. I felt like I needed to keep up the, I don't know, lifestyle. Your ego is inflated. People invite you to all these things but when you think about it, they're using you to sell their product!
"This was at the height of my career in what I was doing at the time. I was 24, I was a city girl, the whole influencer thing was getting going. But everything inside me was going 'this is so wrong, this isn't you'."
We must be approaching water, because the ground is seeping underfoot. Something fast - a frog - hops in our path and disappears under some reeds. "Where are ya buddy?" cries the former model. "He's gone. Nature trail!"
We have come to a beautiful shore by the glassy lake. Mulqueen produces a blue roll-up foam board so I can sit comfortably on a rock, which is thoughtful. Dougie perches on my lap with prim obedience, and we move on to the Rubberbandits video. She was still studying childcare when one of the Limerick mischief-merchants (also her friend's brother) called her. She was asked to wear a dress and turn up at a church for a shoot. She did her own make-up, not knowing she was going to become the most seductive bridesmaid and that it would go native on the internet and relaunch her career. Chewing chewing-gum with contempt, mouthing her lines, climbing onto several men and finally jumping on a horse with a Spar bag over her head, she brought high-voltage attitude and humour to what might have been a completely vacant role, a clever mime act that stole the show.
Weeks after the video came out she was passing the Limerick boutique where she bought the notorious dress when she saw a sign saying: "Blue Dress from the Horse Outside Video is Back!" and a picture of Madeline Mulqueen. Modelling contracts, editorials and hair campaigns had followed, and she was signed to Distinct, who she loved and still does. She became serious about fitness, and a kind of Insta babe online. The words "who is the girl in…" also made her briefly the most Googled Irishwoman.
"It was very exciting," she concedes - adding that it didn't give her any wish to do what she did so well in the video, perform. "I kind of lost interest. It wasn't really for me. If all I'm seen as is the girl from the Horse Outside video… I didn't really know how to expand on that." Did she get any money from the YouTube hits? (Now over 19 million views). She shakes her head, surprised. "No, I don't think that's what I did it for. It was for my friends."
But it must have been fun to have the beauty thing covered? I mean it must be enjoyable being very good-looking, I put to her. As a start in life - it's a strike of luck. She sighs.
"Unfortunately, I think that's how we've been taught. And it's only getting worse now with social media." Does she like what she sees in the mirror? She pauses, and changes to past tense, the Before part. "I think it was a danger. Because once you get signed as a model, you instantly critique yourself. Like, your top lip is smaller than your bottom lip. Your eyebrows are off because you pluck them too much."
Is it you saying this, or other people? "Casting people. You stop seeing your beautiful features. The self-love isn't strong. Hey, I think I'm beautiful now. I accept myself.
"Now I prefer being behind the camera. When the camera is on me I feel I'm not in control." (Her Instagram account gives evidence of those two lives lived, Before and After. All the gleaming gym selfies were replaced as if overnight by lovely close-ups of flowers and leaves, tree branches, mushrooms and waterfalls, no people).
"It used to be all selfies. It used to be all selling myself." After she got smacked by the fire door she started bringing her camera on walks to distract herself from her pain and turmoil. "I used to find mushrooms, mushrooms blow my mind. They're the most fascinating things on this planet. They grow from death but they have such an interesting relationship with the trees! Do you know about the wood wide web?" (I hadn't, but now I do.)
She pats her Canon "beast" inside her rucksack. "I used to tell myself, I'm not good enough." She is now shooting weddings and, of course, dog portraits. And overcame "massive imposter syndrome", to film her own music video, this time on the capturing side of the camera for the band Contra's new song Your Darkness is Beautiful.
In the course of her questing, the girl from the Horse Outside video became a hiking guide, too, with Galz Gone Wild, an all-female hiking collective that takes women exploring. She does first aid, and knows secret trails and mountain skills and also plans and maps hikes for the app Hiiker.
"I used to think, I'd love a community. [Galz Gone Wild] brings me joy and happiness. You meet people from all walks of life, we all come out and talk about our lives. We come away feeling more connected to ourselves firstly. Then, with other people."
As we are talking about this we realise her dog has gone missing. He's gone, and soon we are running through tall reeds to find him as the fear is he has ended up in the river. The ground is a squelching morass and we are both in canvas shoes which get soaked. Ten or so minutes later we realise Dougie is far off in another direction, perfectly fine and barking. Don't bring him on a hike, I quip - and she regards me seriously: "He is the best adventure buddy."
Does she find it hard to trust new people, because, well, she's going out with Jack Reynor and everyone must want a piece of them? "I have a great sense of smell for bullsh*t," she says. "I used to try and make everyone like me, make sure that person had a good impression of me… I think I'm more in tune now with people who are on my level.
At home in Dublin, life for the couple is very quiet. They go to parties "once in a blue moon" and she likes to drink two pints of Guinness. Foraging and photographing mushrooms is more her idea of fun. She and Reynor fall asleep reading the books of Irish-Japanese author Lafcadio Hearn to each other, instead of sleepcasts. They are enjoying a "long engagement" (since 2014) and have not set a date for a wedding.
We walk past assorted rubbish - clothes and porridge packets, flung on the forest floor. "Makes me so mad!" she cries. "We are guests here. We need to visit and give it gratitude for what it gives us. This climate created us!"
We pause on the gravel path, because something preternatural is crossing in our way. A giant sleek caterpillar. Mulqueen springs to her feet to pick the creature up.
"Look at that! He's gorgeous."
"He's a bit creepy," I say.
"Why is he creepy?"
"Because he has so many legs."
"But that's how he gets around! This is what I'm talking about. Spend time in nature and you see these creatures, they're just trying to live too! Genuinely, I used to be scared of all of this too."
Staring at the black thing lumbering over her hand I notice she wears many silver rings. She collects them. She also has some tasteful dreadlocks in parts of her magnificent hair. Is she interested in fashion? She shrugs. "I buy what I need." But doesn't she need a whole lot of red carpet dresses - given she has another life which is on Jack Reynor's arm, attending premieres and promotional events for films like Midsommar and Transformers and his own directed short films? "I always had contacts. I'd ring and say can I just borrow something? It's nice to feel glam but it's not my identity." Her mother is a make-up artist who used Madeline as her guinea pig, and now works for No. 7, so she always had an idea of style.
Still, LA is a far cry from rural Limerick. What's it like to go around the world with him? "It's very exciting," she replies, and then her brow arches with thought. "It's just constantly teaching me about myself. There was a time when going to LA was so glam! And then I'm like 'oh, you all want to be famous, and you're all just thinking about material things'. Give me nature, please. No matter where I am in the world I'm like can I get trees around me, can I have a body of water?" If they "have to move to LA for a few months" she looks for people to go hiking with.
"It's about keeping constant in the madness of life.
"I used to be very much like, I'll do whatever you want to do, yeah that's cool! And you're left feeling kinda empty."
She is consumed by the crisis in the Amazon because she fears there will be nothing left for the next generations. "I would love to have kids, but what are we leaving for our children? It's not fair to leave our children to clean up the mess."
Apparently, we all have to research what we can do to become more climate conscious. "But first, it's realising what nature can do for you. Once you realise that you start to respect it so much more."
Before the carpark we find a mushroom in the earth, bright red with polka dots. She cries, "mushroom, mushroom!", but doesn't pick it up, just stands there admiring it. We take off our sodden shoes and drink tea, looking at the mountains and then Mulqueen drives, barefoot, back to her place with the movie star.