Roz Purcell: A suitable girl ready for a second act
Roz Purcell is a former Miss Universe Ireland and was placed seventh in the international competition. She' s a regular on catwalks and TV screens; in catalogues, magazines and newspapers, with a baking column, celebrity boyfriend - musician Niall Breslin, aka Bressie - and model friends. Now, she tells Emily Hourican, its time for a second act. So is she set to become Ireland's answer to Victoria Beckham? Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Nikki Cummins
'My mum always said 'leave modelling before it leaves you.' I do not want to be that model where everyone says, 'Jesus, is she still around?' I'm just turned 24, and already people are saying, 'Roz, you've been modelling for years . . . '"
Roz Purcell is plotting the next stages of her career, something that she takes very seriously. "I never really thought about marriage or having children when I was growing up. The one thing I thought about was a career," she tells me at one point.
Certainly she has packed a lot into the six years she's been at this game - those who notice such things will know that Roz has been a regular in magazines, catalogues, newspapers, on catwalks, TV screens, at ceremonies and awards, and of course, the Miss Universe pageant (she is a former Miss Universe Ireland, and came 7th in the overall Miss Universe competition, having been hotly tipped at one point to win). Sometimes arm-in-arm with boyfriend Bressie (musician Niall Breslin), other times with various model pals including Rosanna Davison, Georgia Salpa and Vogue Williams, she has been well-nigh ubiquitous. It has been a very solid career by the lights of Irish models. That said, the most successful models are those who use their time in front of the camera as a springboard to something else. So the big question now for Roz is, is there a second act?
"I've always looked on modelling as a stepping stone to something else, never as a long-term career," she says over coffee in Balfe's in the Westbury Hotel. "I always thought, 'by the time I'm 30 I'd like to not be doing this," she says with satisfaction, "and it seems to have happened with ease. I'm gradually stepping into other things - the cooking column, baking on TV, the suits."
Ah yes, the suits. But we'll come back to those. First I want to find out more about someone who seems to have self-possession and drive way beyond her years, or certainly way beyond what I had at her age. "I'm at my best when I'm uncomfortable," she says with complete conviction. "When I'm in an uncomfortable situation, by myself, almost at the edge, I'm definitely Full-Potential Roz."
So what sorts of situations produce the Full-Potential version? "Travelling abroad, living by myself and modelling in New York, South America and South Africa, those were intense times for me. I was so alone, I really had to try and make something of it. Fortunately my parents never mollycoddled me growing up! I believe that when you're put in the worst situation possible, a really dark situation, your true character shows. Because then, you really push yourself to the hardest ability you can, you realise you have to be positive because you can't succumb to what's around you. I hate when I get too comfortable, because I'm not challenging myself anymore, not pushing myself. It's very easy to become too relaxed."
I ask for an example. "When I moved back to Dublin, to hand over the Miss Universe crown, I never intended to stay, but I did and I got very comfortable here. I had my family, friends, a great income coming in, I was working every day. Then realised: 'I haven't really developed myself, my brand, I'm just on a plateau right now.' And I don't like that. I've realised I'll never ever fully be happy or fully feel like I've reached my potential. I'm never going to turn round and pat myself on the back."
Does she not worry that she might be missing Now, through constantly striving for Later? "I am unfortunately one of those people," she says. "I'm like a goldfish, I go, 'well done you,' and then straight on to the next thing. I don't dwell on achievements. People say to me, 'you're never fully happy, you never congratulate yourself,' but I'm not going to sit around and do that."
So what is driving this relentless forward momentum? Is it fear of failure? "At the beginning, when I started out, definitely, fear of failing was huge for me. But now I realise, failure at something actually leads you into something better," she says cheerfully. "When I first entered Miss Universe Ireland, I came second, and I was really disappointed, because I came so close, and put so much effort into it. But then the next year, I won, and without that year of experience in- between, I wouldn't have done so well at Miss Universe internationally. I would have fallen flat on my face, because I had no confidence that first year. So I was really appreciative - I realised it was a blessing in disguise."
If experience is simply the name we give to our mistakes, I guess learning is the one we use for our failures. But it's not a bad one. Another example Roz gives is the time spent in New York, modelling, after Miss Universe, when she was signed to Donald Trump's agency. What could have looked like a career plummet was actually, she believes, a good thing. "In New York, they chopped my hair into a bob, dyed it red, because they wanted to make me 'more Irish'. But it didn't suit me. I'm a commercial model, they wanted me to be edgy Irish, I'm not built to be skeletal. It just wasn't going to work. So that was a little bit of a fail, and I wasn't getting the response I wanted at castings and so on, so I went to South Africa, and there, I booked all the jobs I wanted, I got to do GQ, loads of great shoots."
New York, she says now, "was a very, very lonely time for me. If someone said, 'which of all your times was the darkest', it was definitely living there, because I was in a house with loads of models, where no one ate - all the cliches were true. Some were naturally super-thin and would drink all the time, just burn the candle at both ends, whereas I was getting up at 5am to go to the gym, because I had to. When I think of New York now, I think of Starbucks coffee, and that's why I can't drink Starbucks anymore - it just reminds me that all I'd have would be coffee, coffee, coffee. Then at the weekends we'd all pig out together, and then on Monday we'd all be guilty, saying, 'I can't believe I did that . . . '" It sounds desperately grim, but from that experience, she says, came her interest in nutrition, in training and lifestyle.
"When I came home, I was quite sick, with an under-active thyroid. I was put on Eltroxin for about a year and a half, and that was hard because you have very low energy, you gain weight quite easily. So eventually I thought, 'screw this . . . ' I didn't want to do it for the rest of my life, so one day I decided, 'I'm not going to take it any more, I'm going to adapt the healthiest diet and lifestyle imaginable.' So I started training once or twice a day, short interval training sessions to keep rebooting my metabolism. I drank a lot of water, a lot of Macha green tea and I ate every three hours. Within three months, I had completely reversed my thyroid function. From that, I really learned how your body affects your mood and your health."
These days Roz does Iron Man competitions and triathlons. She is quite terrifyingly fit and healthy, with a very nice line in baking - often truly delicious recipes using all the good things, such as dates, raw cacao, coconut oil and so on - and has clearly embraced a virtuous lifestyle. "I'm pretty much like a granny," she laughs, "because I bake and I go to bed at 9pm."
I tell her I'm devastated to think she isn't living the rock 'n' roll dream with musician boyfriend Bressie. "We are the most un-rock 'n' roll couple ever," she laughs. "We do triathlons together, I cook the whole time, we drink loads of tea and don't really go out." Actually, she insists that, despite the nearly ten years between them - he's 33 - "I seem older than he does."
The fact that Bressie regularly tops 'Sexiest Man in Ireland' polls and gathers crowds of excitable girls around him whenever he makes public appearances doesn't bother her. "I just don't think of him that way at all," she says with half a shrug. "When I see girls crowding round him, I just go, 'Ok, see you in a few minutes,' and I go off. I'm the most unjealous person you can imagine. I'm very secure in myself. We both are." And of course they had a nice slow build-up to announcing their relationship - nearly two years during which they kept it firmly under wraps. "It was almost like proving that you can keep something private if you want to. And there was no need to tell anyone, it just puts pressure on something if you tell."
Was it love at first sight? "Not at all. I didn't know straight-away. I'm not someone who can be won over easily at all. You'd have to wait for ages. I'm really stand-offish with people. Even friends. I wouldn't fully trust someone until I know them a long time. Its not like I'm, 'you need to prove yourself . . . ' but I wouldn't be someone who's like, 'oh, just cause its Bressie, I'm going to text him back.' In fact, it wouldn't have been a plus for me that he's well known. I would have preferred to meet somebody who had nothing to do with the industry."
Whatever the connection between them is based on, Roz can't quite put her finger on it: "Maybe its that we're both very tall," and she goes off into peals of laughter. Then: "Really, I don't know. I don't think I ever would have put us together, and I don't think he would have either. But for some reason, we just gel. I can't think of one reason, we're complete opposites, but we get along really well. More than anything, we're just really good friends. I'd hang out with him like I'd hang out with my friend. It's nice."
Nice it may be, but that is no reason, she reckons, to rush. Despite the age difference, there is no pressure to start talking marriage and children. "We both appreciate each other. Even though he's ten years older, there's no rush. We both have careers we want to develop, it's not something we really talk about." And that's when she tells me she never thought about marriage and kids when growing up, only about her career.
And so, the suits. Roz wore a stunning tailor-made trouser suit in electric blue to the VIP Style Awards last year, thereby joining Emma Watson, Blake Lively, Rachel Zoe and Alexa Chung, who have all grabbed headlines recently by rejecting froth and frills on the red carpet in favour of something slim, tailored, slightly mannish. They do it because it works, and sure enough Roz created a stir on the night, and is now apparently, swamped with requests for the same.
"It really just happened," she says. "It's not something I set out to do. I wanted a suit for the VIP Awards, and I realised there's actually nowhere for women to get tailor-made suits here. You can go to the high street, but if you're getting a size eight top, you have to get a size eight bottom, and if you don't like the boot cut, for example, or anything else, you can't change it. The other option was going designer, but that costs too much for something you're only going to wear once. The last option was getting something made."
And so she asked around, among the boys. "Bressie would get a lot of his suits made by Pat Morley, who owns Lapels in Cork, so I met up with Pat, and he said, 'no problem.' In fact," she hoots with laughter, "they had bought in a lot of suits in a special size for Rob Heffernan (the race walker), so they took one of his and adapted it, because Rob is almost the same frame as myself - I always slag him, 'Rob, we wear the same size suits . . . ' It was kind of scary that Rob's pants were the perfect fit for me! Basically they made a man's suit into a woman's suit."
And the rest, Roz hopes, is history, back-story, the start of something big. She decided on leg length, the number and placement of buttons, lapel size, all the small but telling details that transform the ordinary into something more. "I said to Pat, 'if this goes well, we should think about collaborating.' But I still totally didn't think anything of it. Then that night, it was such a huge success. We started to get huge demand for them, and we weren't ready, because we hadn't planned it."
Two of Roz's friends, Vogue Williams and Sarah Morrissey, got suits of their own made, and various other people simply asked for exactly what Roz wore. "Pat said there was a girl who came in, the image of me, from Cork, and said, 'I want Roz's blue suit,' so he ended up giving her the very one I wore to the VIP awards and I got another one made. There were a few people who were like, 'I want one now and I don't care how much it costs . . . ' My email went crazy for a few days." She is getting interest from "female politicians, women who work in law firms and PR firms, who have to wear suits every day, and girls like me, wanting one for weddings or occasions."
And so Roz set herself to designing suits. So far, they come in a trouser version only - "I want to keep it really focussed for now" - in five colours, with a classic woman's fit as standard, but so many possible variations that each suit can be tailored for the individual.
"Irish women come in all shapes and sizes, and we cater for that. It's horrible being the person who goes into a shop and finds, say, the size 8 pants aren't fitting you, and you feel so sad for the rest of the day. So we're very giving with our sizes."
There will be fitting days in Dublin and Cork where women can come along and try various samples. Alternatively, by entering their details online, they can simply have a suit made and sent to them. At €495 for a suit, there is clear potential here, and indeed Roz reckons this could be It: "I'm in this for the long haul. I think it can grow and grow, and could become my main career."
For all his brooding good looks and undoubted talent as a musician, Bressie's most significant contribution to society has been his remarkable openness about his struggles with anxiety and depression. Something Roz is very conscious of. "He's become very comfortable with it now and knows how to deal with it himself. He's so open about it. Its not like I feel I have to walk on eggshells. It's just a really normal relationship. I get it, he gets it - what mood we're both in. Its like living with a family member - you know the moods and how to act around them without talking about it. But I think its great that he has talked about it. Wherever we go, people come up to him and thank him for speaking out. He has spiralled a roller-coaster in coming out and talking about it.
In fact," she says, laughing, "I'm quite jealous - I'm always saying, 'you've left a huge mark on Ireland.' Regardless of what he goes on to do now, when he passes away, he's left a huge mark on Ireland. Someone who has brought up the talk about depression and suicide, developed a huge community of people talking about it. I'm so proud, I really am." And clearly, she really is. It is probably her most unguarded moment.
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