Friday 18 October 2019

'When you've lost your mum, nothing else matters' - Pippa O'Connor Ormond on grief and being her own best advocate

Pippa O'Connor Ormond talks to Liadan Hynes about self-confidence, coping with grief, breastfeeding and being her own best advocate

Multi-talented: Pippa O'Connor
Multi-talented: Pippa O'Connor
Sunshine break... Brian and Pippa
Unbearable pain .... Pippa is still grieving for her mum Louise Mullen

It's hard to imagine now that there was a time when Pippa wasn't Pippa O'Connor Ormond, the brand, but Pippa the model. That she was, professionally anyhow, one of many, rather than one of Ireland's most successful influencers.

When you talk to women who were models at the height of the press call era (mid-noughties: peak Celtic Tiger, pre crash), a sort of self- deprecation tends to creep into their tone. They underplay their own success. Talk it down. Dismiss it.

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Modelling does that to a person. A brutal double whammy of your physicality being under painstaking scrutiny, both publicly if you were as high profile as Pippa, and by those employing you, while having little control or input in your workplace. It's enough to undermine the hardiest self-esteem.

It can make a person feel interchangeable, which makes it all the more impressive that nowadays, Pippa has built a business empire (her clothing line Poco by Pippa ships to over 40 countries) on the sheer appeal of her own personality. These days Pippa exhibits the quiet assurance of a woman who has built a hugely successful brand on her own terms. But back in her modelling days, Pippa O'Connor Ormond was no different in terms of confidence.

Unbearable pain .... Pippa is still grieving for her mum Louise Mullen
Unbearable pain .... Pippa is still grieving for her mum Louise Mullen

"You do get more confident with age," she says now, aged 35. "When I started in the industry I was only in my early twenties. I hadn't a clue about anything really. I thought I did at the time." She first got into modelling after winning Miss Kildare in 2003, the same year Rosanna Davison went on to win Miss Ireland. "It was the height of everything then, and I was just kind of riding on the wave," she continues. "And I wouldn't have said that I was confident then, at all. You were never allowed to feel that way either. By agents and people in the agency, it was very much 'get back in your box there'. It was definitely only once I went out on my own and didn't really have an agent as such anymore, and had a child, and Brian and I kind of thought 'OK, let's do our own thing now'."

Now, you get the impression of a woman who knows exactly where she and her business are going. "I definitely didn't sit down six years ago and go I'm going to be my own brand ambassador. That would have frightened the life out of me. It has just naturally happened. I know myself, no one is going to speak on your behalf, or promote something, as well as you can."

Professional success that could come under the title mummy blogger is often not given the full credit it deserves. As if it's some sort of hobby. When in fact, in Pippa's case, this is a hugely successful business story. Pippa now employs seven people, and there are others employed by the aspects of her business she outsources. What started with her simply posting pictures of herself on her blog and Facebook page is now a website with over 150,000 views per month (pippa.ie). When the original website Pippa set up herself with the help of a friend started to crash, they sought the professional help of iZest. It turned out the volume of traffic she was attracting was the reason the site was crashing. This was when Pippa and Brian decided to invest proper money into the business. Brands began to advertise on the site, although they still weren't making any real money, she writes in the book, that only really came when they began the Fashion Factories (one-day events with make-up, hair and fashion experts), and of course Poco, her clothes line. When they launched an online teaser about her new jeans range, reaction was such that Brian suggested they up their original order, already of 8,000 pairs. They did, despite advice to the contrary, and within weeks the 16,000 pairs of Poco jeans had all sold out. Now Poco by Pippa has grown into the largest independent denim brand in the country.

But Pippa.ie and all that has come with it, Poco, the Pippa Collection, the make-up palettes, the Fashion Factories, and now a second book, The Pippa Guide, didn't start with some sort of master plan.

Pippa and Brian had always had the kinds of careers that were dependant on the approval of others; modelling and TV presenting. When I interviewed her in 2011, shortly before they married, it felt like they were coming to a crossroads. At the time, she was considering what she would do after modelling, he was pitching for new shows. Having their first son, Ollie, now six, pushed the couple to go in an entirely different direction.

"It wasn't sitting down with a business plan and going this is what we have to do. It was literally I had no other choice because I wasn't getting any work," Pippa says with a wry smile, remembering her first year as a mother, when she was still modelling. "I hated that pang of anxiety when someone would ring you and say 'you have to be in Cork in the morning for a job'. And I would think 'ugggh, I don't really want to go to Cork in the morning'. But if you said no, that was that. You'd be struck off the list for a month. If you said no to something, you'd know you'd be bitched about. 'Who does Pippa think she is?' I just wanted to get away from that. It was like that Sunday night fear all the time."

Modelling was never her dream career, she reflects now. "When I was young, and I didn't have a child, it was fun, a bit of craic; I'd go here, there and everywhere." This all changed after she had Ollie. "I didn't want anyone just telling me what to do. It wasn't my dream job, ever, so I wasn't fazed whether I left it or not."

What started with Pippa posting pictures of herself on Facebook, and noticing the response to her outfits really took off when the couple launched Pippa's Fashion Factories, five years ago. It almost didn't happen; the first event fell two weeks after the death of her beloved mother Louise Mullen, from a heart attack. "It's five years ago, which is so weird, it feels like five months ago," Pippa says now, adding that her new book will launch just around the time of her mother's anniversary. You get the sense that her mother's unexpected death was the defining moment in Pippa's life, that everything is a before or after Louise's death.

"Year one was like, not that it was OK, but I was like 'OK, I'm coping OK here'," she says of the grief. "And then I remember year three, someone saying to me before that they found year three even worse than year one and two," she nods in agreement at this sentiment. "Because I think you're still processing it; you're so shocked in the first year, especially when someone wasn't sick or anything. It was just a complete shock. And I was only 30, I still feel like that's so young." Ollie was a year and a half at the time, she says, adding with a wry smile; "that's a bit of a foggy haze. You're still a new mum. You don't get to one and suddenly it's like 'oh, it's grand'. You're still in the depths of it. That was a blurry time."

The loss gave her an impetus she might not otherwise have had, she explains. A realisation that she has only the one life, which probably pushed her to go on to achieve everything she has since, starting with hosting her first Fashion Factory two weeks after her mother had passed. "That was mental," she says now with a smile. "When I look back I don't know if I was clever or not. But I did it. It was sink or swim stuff. I can't remember much of the day. Moments of it. I'm so glad I did it. Maybe if I'd rescheduled, I don't know if I'd have done it at all."

The fact that it was her own project made all the difference. And work gave her a purpose and a sense of hope when grief, as it does, took those away for a time. "It was something that I wanted to do, for myself. If I was working for someone else and I had to go away on a job, there's no way I'd have done it. This was my thing, that I was excited about."

Pippa and her mother were particularly close. Both her siblings, show jumper Cian O'Connor and sister Susannah who works with Pippa, are older. Cian went to boarding school. Pippa's parents had separated when she was one, so growing up she spent a lot of time at home with her mother. "My mum and dad were separated for as long as I can remember, and I don't feel like I came from a broken home. My mum would always say 'there's nothing broken about it'. It's how you deal with it," she says. "From my point of view as a child it was completely fine and normal, because I didn't see any different. I'm sure it wasn't easy."

As a mother herself, she reflects that she has brought a lot of her own childhood home with her in creating the house she and Brian now share with their two boys, Ollie and younger son Louis. Mostly, it comes down to creating somewhere that feels safe. "I love our house and I love making it cosy. Even when we rented 20 million homes, I'd always do what I could to make it feel nice. I think now they're the things that the boys notice, they'll say 'oh it smells nice in here'. I completely remember that, when I was a kid. Coming home from school and the smells of food, or seeing a fresh bunch of lilies. It makes you feel safe. I think that's what's important." She prioritises regular habits with the boys - homemade pizza and movie night every Friday evening. "Traditions like that are so important. Kids will absolutely cope with everything once you are OK."

Pippa's first book, Pippa: Simple Tips to Live Beautifully, was published three years ago. With this latest effort, The Pippa Guide, she aims to go beyond what people see on her Instagram feed, share more of herself. There's everything from interiors, beauty, shopping guides, to a Mr and Mrs quiz with Brian, how to set up your own business, dealing with grief, facing fear, cope with stress, and how to create boundaries on social media.

"Boundaries can be tricky," she smiles, referring both to the boundaries needed to prevent running your own business taking over every waking hour (she only contacts her staff during working hours for example), and the boundaries she needs to maintain online. "Obviously, I want to be involved in everything, and I want people to know that it all comes from me. But obviously because I'm so accessible online that can be tricky." She explains with a smile that sometimes she will get queries about the minutiae of customer orders. "I think sometimes people think I'm packing up the jeans at home. I've a customer service team of 10 people."

Sunshine break... Brian and Pippa
Sunshine break... Brian and Pippa

Despite the fact that so much of her business takes place online, you don't get the impression of a person obsessively clocking their quota of likes. "I don't class myself as just an influencer. I might feel more pressure to be posting everyday if I did. If I don't put up a picture for five or seven days, I don't really care. I just put something up when I have something to talk about, or something to show. My focus is on growing the business. I'm not thinking 'I need to get likes today'. I couldn't give a s**t." Brian, Pippa's husband, has been fully involved from the start. It was he who researched manufacturers for the Poco by Pippa line, as Pippa was pregnant and couldn't fly. Famously, they first met in Krystle, getting married in 2011.

"I always feel we've been in the same circle. And that's completely helped," says Pippa, adding with a laugh, "Yeah we want to kill each other some days when it comes to work, but that's normal, I think. He's probably better at date nights for switching off than I am. He'd say 'OK, tomorrow I'm going to book a babysitter'." Brian and her sister Susannah are her ultimate sounding boards. "Because I know they're both completely honest and I know they both have my best interests at heart. They're both very protective of me."

One of the most affecting sections of the book is when Pippa talks about the car crash of early motherhood, how it sort of breaks you open. "I remember being here with friends," she says, gesturing at the Avoca cafe in which we sit, "and one of them saying, just a throwaway comment, 'did you not just feed him?' And I'd be like 'yes, I did'." Ollie would feed for hours, she explains now. "I remember that day when Ollie was three weeks old and I took him back to Mount Carmel and the nurse literally looked at me as if there was something wrong. I said 'he just needs to be tested cause there's something not right'. And I was being deadly serious. He just wouldn't stop feeding. I was physically and mentally not able anymore. I was exhausted. I remember thinking 'he's only three weeks. How are you meant to do three months, or a year, of this'. It was constant, I would feed him for hours."

Now, with the perspective of six years of motherhood - she is also stepmum to Brian's daughter Chloe - she is more sanguine. "I wouldn't say I have mum guilt really, and I don't think I should. I think I'm OK with it. The only time when I feel concerned, and this probably happens only once a year, is when Brian and I go far afield for work.

"Sometimes we just have to go together, because there's so much to do. I miss them, and I feel a little bit hopeless when I'm two flights away. I don't like that feeling. But if I go to Portugal or Turkey on my own, or London, and Brian's at home, I don't feel guilty. Because they're absolutely fine. Brian is more than capable; they're grand. I'd miss them, but I'm fine. I think it's good that they see we're both going off and working."

With Pippa, you get the sense of a person who doesn't spend much time sweating the small stuff. "Of course I get overwhelmed. I think I'd be lying if I said no," she says about the work/life balance. However, a big fan of The Secret, she's always been the kind of person inclined towards the positive, but the last few years have served to emphasise that. "I've two healthy kids, I feel happy, confident, content in myself. When you've lost your mum, you kind of think nothing else matters."

The book is dedicated to Pippa's good friend Jenny Taaffe, who passed away this summer. The two women got to know each other through work: Jenny's marketing company iZest work with Pippa and Brian, but Jenny became a friend and a mentor.

"We have only recently lost Jenny, she was only 40 years of age. That kind of thing gives you perspective. What are you worrying about? It's only work. Or if someone pisses you off on the internet. It doesn't matter. It's not important.

"If something day to day mundane gets me, I'll instantly go 'deep breath, forget about it'. That has definitely only come in the last few years. I think I'm fairly good at coping. I always relate everything back to 'it's not the end of the world'. I always think everything is figure-able-outable."

The Pippa Guide, Penguin Ireland, €19.99, available to pre-order.

 

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