'It’s the only relationship I’ve ever had where that worry wasn’t there' - Nadia Forde on engagement to rugby star Dominic Day
She’s been a model, a singer, and a reality-TV star, but acting was always her first love. Due to the ‘carnage’ of her teens, she’s never pursued her dream — until now. Nadia Forde tells Donal Lynch about her debut acting role, dealing with catty Irish models, how she’s working on her relationship with her dad — and why she doesn’t worry about her rugby player fiance
Is there a case to be made that Nadia Forde is now the reigning nation’s sweetheart? The evidence is persuasive. Like a latter-day Vera Lynn, Nadia kept a country’s spirits up during a dark time — Vera during the war; Nadia during the dregs of the recession. Like a Celtic Cheryl Tweedy, she soared from working-class beginnings to end up the It girl of the moment, with records in the charts and the FHM seal of approval — the lads’ mag once voted Nadia one of the world’s sexiest women.
Her Wag pedigree is impeccable: she’s been linked to some of the biggest sports stars in the country, including Rory McIlroy. She’s also sung the national anthem in the Aviva. And somehow in the midst of it all, she lost a lot of weight — making her another kind of icon for the millions still struggling with body image.
She’s gorgeous, but not alienatingly so (except she is about twice as good-looking in the flesh, all olive skin and doe eyes). One part shrewdly scripted brand, one part girl-next-door — as sweethearts go, we could do worse.
She’s also at that delicate moment in a showbiz career when managers and agents see if the bright promise of a modelling and pin-up career can act as a springboard to acting. In a sense, it’s not that great a leap; reality stars and personalities not only play the role of themselves, but script the whole thing as well. But now the real acting begins in earnest. She’ll appear in a movie, for release in early summer, called Once Upon A Time In London. In the film, she plays the wife of the lead character, Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, a notorious real-life gangster who was a forerunner of notorious London gangland kingpins the Kray twins.
“I’m excited to see how it does,” she says. “It took so much work on everyone’s part. There are so many uncertainties in film, you never know what’s going to happen. This will be my first big role — I can’t believe I get to do this for a living. Acting has always been what I wanted to do. I get to lose myself in it a little bit.”
The instability of the nomadic showbiz life makes Nadia “nostalgic” for Dublin, she says. She’s just back for a few days from London, where she lives with her fiance, rugby uber-hunk Dominic Day, who currently plays for Saracens. They’ve been together for two years, and she’s followed him to Australia and Japan, where he had stints playing professionally. She talks of kids and forever; and, as a totally incidental bonus, he works perfectly in her Instagram feed.
A few weeks after we meet, she announces her engagement to Day on Instagram, and tells me: “To be honest, I debated whether to share the news or not because I want to keep the details of how it happened to ourselves, but obviously we are on cloud nine. Dom planned the whole thing. It was a complete surprise, and both of our families are incredibly excited for the future.”
They met through her best friend, Debbie Stringer, Peter Stringer’s wife, and, initially, Nadia was wary of dating another high-profile rugby player — she previously had a long-term romance with Leinster star Luke Fitzgerald. However, she decided to accept a date with Dom, and neither of them has looked back.
“Since day one, it’s just been effortless,” she says. “Before, I was thinking, ‘Oh god, do I really want to go down that road again?’ But it’s been amazing. I don’t worry about him, and I would say that it’s the only relationship I’ve ever had where that worry wasn’t there. He’s so laid-back, he’s basically horizontal.”
She dismisses the idea of a jersey-puller culture in Irish rugby. “If there are girls who have come from a not-very-honest place, well, I don’t know them. That’s not me.”
It was Day, she says, who helped her shed the pounds, urging her to look more closely into what she ate. She says she still gets lots of messages on Instagram asking her what she did to get in shape and, perhaps maddeningly for some, she says a lot of it was down to allergies.
“I never felt like I had to change my body, but I wasn’t looking after myself, and I wasn’t in a good place emotionally,” she explains. “I was eating the wrong stuff. I had intolerance tests done, and my health became more important to me than anything else. That was when the weight came off. I was able to figure out what worked for me and go to the gym and push myself. It was eggs and dairy that I was allergic to.”
She says that she used to break out quite badly, but that stopped, too. “Don’t get me wrong; I still have my chipper bag of chips with loads of salt and vinegar. It’s my treat all the time. It’s not like I’m at home eating lettuce leaves. Growing up, we ate whatever was put on the table, and there was no ‘realising what food groups work for you’ or whatever. It was Dom who said, ‘You can’t stay in this pain any more’.”
So entwined is Day in her life that Nadia has now taken a “back seat” to him in her beloved Nana’s affections. Bernie Paolozzi was “the original stage mom” and the key figure in Nadia’s life — she raised her after Nadia’s parents split up and Nadia’s mother began suffering from serious mental-health issues.
“I was living with my parents until I was about seven or eight. My mum just wasn’t able to look after us after my dad left. I don’t really want to divulge what she had, but she was ill. I remember there were terms flying around at the time, which I didn’t understand then. It just wasn’t a healthy environment for us; she just wasn’t able to raise kids. She was in a bad way for a very long time, up until she passed away.
“Our relationship… well, I don’t know what the term is… estrangement? It was like that for a very long time. The rest of the family got involved, it was like a village raising us, with Nana being the glue holding everything together. I really admire her, because she’d raised her own children, and she really committed to the extra 20 years of raising us.”
Oscar Wilde said that children start out by loving their parents, then judging them, and rarely, if ever, forgiving them. I wonder if Nadia ever felt angry at either of her parents for not being able to take proper care of her. “It’s a hard question to say who I held more to account,” she explains. “As I get older, I kind of understand more what my mother went through as a woman. I am going through phases in my life that she went through — I relate to the decisions she had to make about relationships.”
What about Nadia’s father? “My dad is my only dad. He’s in and out. I just want him to be happy. I have a relationship-ish with him. We’re working on it. You only get one father — it might not be that he talks to you every day or every week, but I approach it now with no judgment. Resentment can eat away at you. I think I was just confused and didn’t really understand, and it was more that.
“He doesn’t need to raise me now, so I’m coming at it from a different angle. You can’t control how someone treats you, you can only control how you react. If someone hurts you, it’s crap, it hurts, it takes time — but you have to let it go, because they aren’t necessarily going to walk through the door and apologise, but you can’t walk around carrying that with you for the rest of your life. I wouldn’t expect him to have done anything different to my mum.”
Berenice, her mother, died in June of 2015, and the grief came over Nadia in waves. It was during a modelling trip to Spain that she knew she needed a break.
“I was in Ibiza with Vogue Williams a few weeks after my mum passed away,” she recalls. “We were doing a job for a brand. I remember just finding it so hard. I thought, ‘I’m not ready for this yet’. It was a life-altering moment. When you lose your mother, you look at life differently. The people I worked with were great, and they encouraged me to take time off and travel.”
The time away made her think more closely about her own future and the prospect of motherhood — she’s previously said that she’d like five children, but now says that would be too many. “It did make me think about becoming a mother too. I want to be a mum one day, but I know I won’t be perfect even if I try my best. I hope my kids will have that understanding of me.”
Her own childhood was spent treading the boards at the Billie Barry School, but when she became a teenager her life became “just carnage” and the acting fell away. She got into modelling and almost immediately began to do well. For a while, it seemed she was everywhere — on the covers of magazines, singing the national anthem at the Aviva, popping up on Republic of Telly, where producers eventually trusted her enough to give her speaking parts.
Constant rumours of her relationship with Rory McIlroy — always denied — enhanced her profile. Her Italian heritage recalled the spirit of Michelle Rocca and, like Rocca, Nadia’s international profile quickly banished the memory of press calls and foam fingers, and disproved the notion that Irish models are somehow knock-off versions of the real thing.
The ensuing profile helped her win a place on I’m a Celebrity... where her hand-made tree-bark bikini inspired Cecelia Ahern to take up knitting. Nadia also had the dubious honour of being attacked by Katie Hopkins, who dismissed her as “as thick as a house brick and equally interesting”.
Catty comments like that rolled off Nadia, as did the private sniping from other Irish models, who resented that she was the one who seemed to always be the head of the pack. “Every industry has its bitchiness,” she says. “Media, modelling, it doesn’t matter. Of course I experienced it, but I don’t let it affect me any more. The way I look at it is: will this affect me in five or 10 years? If not, I let it go.”
She understands that there is a “symbiotic” relationship between her and the press — she gets coverage no matter what she does, but there is a price to pay, too. “Seeing photographers outside my mum’s funeral was a wake-up call to me,” Nadia says. “There was nothing I could do about it because it’s public and a church, but it was a moment where I was asking, ‘What am I doing to let this happen?’ Hearing the rumours and gossip about myself, well, people close to me know the truth, but I suppose some people will believe what they read.”
She says she knows exactly what she makes in a year, and is careful not to fall into the classic reality-star trap of overspending. She works at being squeaky clean — she says her only vice is “I curse and have a filthy mouth” — and her social-media feeds would lead one to believe her life is one long, gauzy dream. How closely does it tally with reality?
“Well, sometimes there are 10 shots taken for one pic I use, sometimes there’s 30,” she answers. “The people who post four times a day on social media? I admire their tenacity, but my attitude is that Instagram is a nice way to put myself across, but if it was gone in the morning I would still have a job. I love Instagram more than Twitter. Nobody cares about what I think about politics.”
Still, you would imagine that if anyone was primed to join the #MeToo brigade, it would be a model-turned-actress. Nadia is wary of burning any bridges, even those which are over her shoulder. When I raise the spate of recent accusations that have circulated on social media and ask her if she can relate, she says, “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble. This moment is important because from now on we’ll know what is right and what is over the line. If women had spoken up about this stuff a hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have been listened to.
I can easily say ‘no’ to someone, so I’ve never felt vulnerable to someone.”
And if she did, they would, no doubt, have a towering Welshman to contend with. After we meet, despite being “a bit of a granny”, she is off on a night out in Blackpool with Big Brother alumnus Brian Dowling and his friends — “it’s going to be mental” — and then back to London.
“My friends tease me because my house in London is full of, like, healing crystals,” Nadia says. “But, you know, I like good energy. That’s what I want for this year. I wouldn’t be the person I am unless I’d gone through everything I have. This feels like the prime of my life. I’m excited to see what comes next.”
Sunday Indo Life Magazine