Love and marriage: former Miss Ireland Aoife Walsh shares her wedding excitement
Two women are sharing the large table with us in the coffee shop where Aoife Walsh and I meet.
They are very obviously a mother and her grown-up daughter, and the daughter has her very tiny baby in and out of the pram in the time we're there. They are two women at a very specific moment in their lives: new motherhood, new grandmotherhood.
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And on our side of the table, former Miss Ireland Aoife is at a very specific moment in her life, too. Recently engaged to be married, she fizzes with delight and dreams of the future, and her mood is infectious.
I don't dare check too often, but the women beside us seem to pick up on Aoife's enthusiasm for love and life, and the future as it unfolds. They definitely take a peek when I ask for a closer look at the ring, a gorgeous piece that her fiance, Gary, designed and bought for her in New York, where he is based.
He bought the ring in New York, but the proposal happened in Paris, just before Christmas. You may have seen a picture or two in the papers soon after the event, or on Aoife's Instagram's feed, where, along with her blog, That Ginger Chick, she's carving out a niche as an influencer, in parallel with modelling.
Who took the lovely proposal pictures, is my first question to Aoife, and her answer sums up the special place she's at right now.
"Just before Christmas ," she starts with a laugh, "Gary came over from New York, and we were in Dublin. I was none the wiser that anything unusual was happening. Then he said, 'Pack a carry-on bag and dress for rain, we're going away on a last-minute holiday before Christmas'. I was, like, 'No, I'm going home to Clonmel for a Christmas night out with my girls,' but I suppose there were alarm bells ringing about what was happening. And we always plan everything together, so this was unusual, so I had a feeling, and I packed all my best outfits, just in case."
Aoife didn't know until they got to airport that they were going to Paris. The flight was delayed, and she observed Gary getting "jumpy" as the time ticked by. Then they got to their hotel in Paris, and the room wasn't ready, and they were delayed some more. Gary was obviously a bit bothered at this stage, but he suggested that it might be nice to go for a walk to the nearby Eiffel Tower, before it got dark.
Aoife recalls that she went to freshen up in the bathroom before they headed out, and Gary was practically banging on the door to hurry her up. "I didn't know that he'd organised a photographer for 3pm on the dot," she says. Nor did she notice Gary's thumbs-up to a strange man with a camera when they got to the plaza at the Tower.
"So we're just walking along and he started talking about us, and I was like, 'Oh my god, this is it!'" Aoife recalls. "It was like a moment I'll never forget, because it was like time stood still, and we were in our own little bubble. I think I even remember a crowd cheering when it happened, but they weren't even on my radar. So I didn't even notice the photographer, because I was so zoned in on Gary.
"It was amazing," Aoife continues. "There were tears, hugs, kisses. And then the photographer comes over, and Gary tells me he's been taking photos the entire time. I couldn't believe it at first, and then I was, like, 'Show me the goods!'"
The engagement weekend was like a romantic movie, the way Aoife tells it, all seeming to revolve around the Eiffel Tower, with Champagne and roses and beautiful restaurants and phone calls home. Then, the couple came home to Christmas and a deluge of well-wishers, followed by two engagement parties.
"One for our immediate family and friends," Aoife says, "because our two families hadn't met yet, and we wanted them to get to know each other before the wedding. And then we had one in New York for our American friends. So two parties, but why not? You only get engaged once."
Even from a short time in her company, you get the impression that Aoife Walsh throws herself at life with great enthusiasm and energy. When she went to college, she went for six years, and attained several qualifications. When she went into modelling, she aimed straight for Miss Ireland.
Her modelling career has, to date, produced a serious portfolio of work on both sides of the Atlantic, and she's throwing herself into her influencer ambitions with equal gusto. That Ginger Chick features saturated-colour shots of Aoife on her many travels; it offers make-up and fashion tips; and showcases her modelling work, including walking the New York Fashion Week catwalk.
A native of Clonmel, Co Tipperary, like former beauty-pageant winners Andrea Roche and Roz Purcell before her, Aoife Walsh got mercilessly teased for her red hair as a child. She finished school just before the summer she turned 18, and went first to UCC to study for a BA, then went on to do a business master's in UL. Then Aoife decided that secondary-school teaching was her dream, so she applied for the master's in education in Trinity, but wasn't accepted. Never one to be daunted, she volunteered with Youthreach in Waterford instead, and worked there for a year, before applying and being accepted to Trinity the following year.
"It was one of the best things I ever did," Aoife says of her year with Youthreach. And that tale of being knocked back but making something good of it was, she believes, what won her the Miss Ireland title in 2013, at the age of 23.
"I loved studying," the now-29-year-old says. "Loved the books. Loved teaching. But I viewed Miss Ireland as a bucket-list item. It was something I knew I'd love, and there's an age limit, so that year was the last chance."
"And I was right," Aoife says of the beauty pageant. "I loved the whole Miss Ireland-competition experience; I had a ball. But didn't believe I was going to win, so much so that I had a holiday booked with my friends to Croatia for the day after the final. I brought my holiday suitcase to the competition, and I'd even checked in online."
Aoife went to Bali for Miss World, and placed in the top 10 for the talent section, but winning there was not really her focus. Without a doubt, she says, Miss Ireland has opened so many doors for her in life since. "I wouldn't be where I am today, in any way, without having won Miss Ireland," Aoife says.
"I look at my career and it has been great," she continues. "I worked with Newbridge Silverware alongside Naomi Campbell and Amy Huberman. I was the face of Ryanair. I walked New York Fashion Week last year. I did a TV advert for L'Oreal last year - that was my career highlight. It was for their body-care brand, Mixa. They needed a redhead and they found me on Instagram, which shows the power of social media."
Aoife met her fiance, Gary, four years ago, in the summer of 2015, when she was flying high with her modelling career and on any guest list you'd care to mention. "I was invited to the rooftop summer party at the Marker Hotel," she recalls. "I went on my own, but that was fine. I'm a mingler, a social creature."
They were introduced by PR whizz Astrid Brennan, a friend of Gary's. "Not in a romantic way," says Aoife, "but we got chatting, and immediately there was a connection. We talked for hours. Normally, I'd be mingling and chatting to everyone, but I got totally drawn in, and I was exhausted afterwards, because it was three-and-a-half hours of pure chat."
Immediately after they met, Gary went travelling and though he texted her a few times, Aoife didn't think anything of it. She dated and got on with life, though the dating didn't proceed with any success.
"I told one of my friends I was done with dating. I wanted to focus on myself. I was giving up. Gary literally texted me the next day, so I thought, 'OK, one more date'. We started chatting and haven't stopped chatting since."
Very soon after, Sligo-born solicitor Gary moved to New York, to head the office of an Irish firm. The couple did the long-distance thing for a while, with Aoife based in the D4 apartment she has rented since college. After a year or so, however, Aoife put down tentative roots in New York. She got signed with a US modelling agency, and got her visa to work in the States.
"There's far more opportunity in New York," she says, "But there are thousands of models. You could go to 100 castings and get nothing, or 100 castings and get 20 jobs. You have to be able to take the rejection. I stopped taking it personally a long time ago."
The opportunities outweigh the rejections for Aoife.
"I walked in New York Fashion Week," she says. "Something that I thought would never happen to me. I'm not the tallest of tall models, so I thought it wouldn't work. I went to the casting with no expectations, but I was the look they wanted. It was a label called Pelush, promoting faux fur."
Work and family and friends bring Aoife back to Ireland a lot, and she has kept her apartment here.
"In New York, there's great diversity of work, and my [Irish] agency is great about it," she says of her ability to work in both countries. "I just communicate the days I'm in and out, and they're used to that with all their international models.
"I'm getting a lot more work opportunities here," she says, "and the blogging and influencing is really happening for me here now, which is really good.
"It's a new sphere for me, and I feel more challenged in that role. It's a lot more meetings with brands, and selling yourself as a brand. I'm now my own brand; my own business. I'm creating projects, hair and make-up, styling - I'm my own mini creator. It's really exciting, because I get to put my own touch on my own brand. I'm really into fashion, so I've worked with brands I love, H&M, Marks and Spencer, Primark - all the brands I wear all the time anyway."
The past few months since the engagement, Aoife says, have been a professional and personal whirlwind. The wedding has been put in the calendar for July 2020, and she has most of the big stuff in place already.
"I don't want to reveal the location yet," Aoife says, "but it's basically halfway between my home in Tipperary and Gary's in Sligo."
"I've set up a few meetings with, you know, the flowers, photographer, videographer, but I go back to New York next week and my mam and dad are going to come out as well, and I've booked my appointments [to find] my dress at various places.
"The dress is probably going to be the hardest thing to get, so I decided to start early. I've made an appointment at Kleinfeld, which is the place where they do [reality-TV show] Say Yes To The Dress, so I have high hopes for there. And I also booked an appointment at Vera Wang, for the experience, and you only get to do this once, so…
"I'm not going to bring my dad, because I want him to have the surprise element on the day. But I'll bring my mum. I imagine I'll do most of the hard work on the wedding planning," Aoife says with a laugh. "Gary did the proposal, so I'll do the wedding."
After the wedding, Aoife says, she supposes that she'll spend more time out of Ireland.
"Gary's job is in New York, so when we get married, I'll spend more time there with my husband," she says, trilling with excitement at referring to him thus. "And I'll keep all the balls in the air, like I always do."
It's an exciting time, Aoife Walsh says, and it's impossible not to get caught up in her joy. As the women - and maybe even the baby - sitting at the cafe table beside us could surely testify.
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styled by Chloe Brennan
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