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The photocall era: Was the noughties craze for bikini-clad Irish models a celebration of women or a toxic culture?

Spray-tanned, bikini-clad and standing in the middle of Grafton Street, the Irish photocall model was the route to get word out about products and events in the pre-Instagram era. Looking back now from more woke times, we ask was it sexy marketing or sexist culture?

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Sara Kavanagh, left, and Karena Graham brave the January weather to mark the launch of the Holiday World Show 2008 at Charlotte Quay Dock, Dublin. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Sara Kavanagh, left, and Karena Graham brave the January weather to mark the launch of the Holiday World Show 2008 at Charlotte Quay Dock, Dublin. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

eorgia Salpa announces a 98fm promotion in 2009. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

eorgia Salpa announces a 98fm promotion in 2009. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Roz Lipsett for Repak’s Green Christmas initiative in 2007. Picture by Colm Mahady/Fennells

Roz Lipsett for Repak’s Green Christmas initiative in 2007. Picture by Colm Mahady/Fennells

Nadia Forde launches Euro 2012 tournament merchandise for Heatons. Picture by Paul Sherwood;

Nadia Forde launches Euro 2012 tournament merchandise for Heatons. Picture by Paul Sherwood;

Jenny-Lee Masterson, left, and Ruth O’Neill at a launch for Panorama Holidays in 2005. Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

Jenny-Lee Masterson, left, and Ruth O’Neill at a launch for Panorama Holidays in 2005. Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

Vogue Williams, left, and Karen Fitzpatrick pictured in 2008 to promote the Lotto jackpot. Photo: Iain White/Mac Innes Photography

Vogue Williams, left, and Karen Fitzpatrick pictured in 2008 to promote the Lotto jackpot. Photo: Iain White/Mac Innes Photography

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Sara Kavanagh, left, and Karena Graham brave the January weather to mark the launch of the Holiday World Show 2008 at Charlotte Quay Dock, Dublin. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

It feels like everywhere you look in popular culture these days the noughties are having a retrospective. Bennifer got back together and so did Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United. The Sex And The City reboot had us rewatching the original. On Instagram, Dua Lipa, Bella Hadid and Hailey Bieber are experimenting with millennial-era bandanas, halternecks, exposed thongs and hair clips. Low-slung waistbands are back in fashion, as we reassess the treatment of Britney Spears, their original poster child.

So perhaps the time has come to reevaluate Ireland’s abiding visual imprint from that same time in history — the photocall model, spray-tanned, bikinied and gorgeous, posing with an improbable prop on Grafton Street or in St Stephen’s Green, promoting everything and anything. Was the photocall a celebration of independent women or the toxic treatment of young models?

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It's a sunshine state and super sale of affairs for the launch of Panorama Holiday's Summer 2006 Programme pictured at the launch today 25th July 2005 were models Jenny-Lee Masterson and Ruth O'Neill. Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

It's a sunshine state and super sale of affairs for the launch of Panorama Holiday's Summer 2006 Programme pictured at the launch today 25th July 2005 were models Jenny-Lee Masterson and Ruth O'Neill. Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

It's a sunshine state and super sale of affairs for the launch of Panorama Holiday's Summer 2006 Programme pictured at the launch today 25th July 2005 were models Jenny-Lee Masterson and Ruth O'Neill. Picture by Jason Clarke Photography

Assets model agent Derek Daniels was not only there, he helped to create the phenomenon, he says, and supplied most of the “press-call models”, as he calls them.

“It went out of fashion maybe about eight years ago and I suppose for about 15 years prior to that was the era of the photocall,” he says, meaning it began in 1999 and ended in 2014.

Photographer Brian McEvoy, founder of Pictures in Publicity, narrows the era of the photocall down even further: “Looking back at the archive, it would have been really from 2003 to 2012.”

Daniels says: “It kind of started towards the end of the Celtic Tiger when there were new businesses opening — nightclubs, bars. That’s where the trend came from. There were girls who literally did nothing else but press calls. A lot of them wouldn’t have been that tall, so they wouldn’t necessarily have translated into high fashion, commercial or ramp. A prime example would be Nadia Forde. Georgia Salpa was another one. She was small but had a great body and was the most popular press-call model for at least three years.”

He names many others, including Roberta Rawat, Glenda Gilson, Jenny-Lee Masterson, Una Gibney and the late Katy French. Assets could have had 15 press calls in a day, he says.

It was a simple formula. Public relations (PR) companies hired models to promote brands, often by wearing bikinis and posing with merchandise outdoors in all weathers. They hired a photographer of their choosing and also extended invitations to media outlets, many of whom sent photographers and reporters along, especially if the model was popular.

“The hotter-looking the picture was, the more likely it was to be printed and that was the bottom line,” says Daniels bluntly.

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Roz Lipsett wearing fleece outfits made from Recycled plastic bottles. Picture by Colm Mahady/Fennells

Roz Lipsett wearing fleece outfits made from Recycled plastic bottles. Picture by Colm Mahady/Fennells

Roz Lipsett wearing fleece outfits made from Recycled plastic bottles. Picture by Colm Mahady/Fennells

Diane Negra, professor of film studies and screen culture at UCD sees the photocall era as “part of a late Celtic Tiger trend toward secularisation”.

It also chimed with the frenzy of attention given at the time to famous starlets such as Spears and Christina Aguilera on the global stage, she says. “Bikinied women on Grafton Street was an Irish version of that trend toward the hypersexualisation of young women.”

The models themselves encapsulated the “post-feminist zeitgeist of female exhibitionism as ‘empowerment’”. Negra elaborates: “These women weren’t seen as defying social norms, necessarily. They were seen as doing something that was very of the moment in terms of how post-feminism invited women and girls to think of themselves as confident, and to think about their bodies as something that could be monetised. These young women were often brand mascots and so they were also part of a massive surge in Irish commercial culture in the late Celtic Tiger. Everything was for sale.”

Valerie Roe, owner of the eponymous PR agency, remembers the competition to hire the most popular models, such as Rosanna Davison, Roz Purcell and Vogue Williams, who were often booked out for weeks ahead. “The papers favoured certain people and if you booked them you were almost guaranteed your photocall would land.”

With social media in its infancy at the time, photocalls were often the best vehicle to find out more about the models themselves.

Daniels says: “There would always be current girls that the
PRs would go after, and it wasn’t so much about the product they were advertising, it was more about what was going on in their [the models’] own social life.”

The formula eventually became a victim of its own success. “Every PR company was doing the same,” says Roe. “You could be standing around Grafton Street and there could be five other photocalls going on at the same time. You would try and get a sneak peek at what they were doing, going, ‘Jeez, we’re all issuing out on the same day. Who have they got that we haven’t got? Are there better girls in that line-up or have they got better props?’ It was quite competitive.”

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Sara Kavanagh, left, and Karena Graham brave the January weather to mark the launch of the Holiday World Show 2008 at Charlotte Quay Dock, Dublin. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Sara Kavanagh, left, and Karena Graham brave the January weather to mark the launch of the Holiday World Show 2008 at Charlotte Quay Dock, Dublin. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Sara Kavanagh, left, and Karena Graham brave the January weather to mark the launch of the Holiday World Show 2008 at Charlotte Quay Dock, Dublin. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

PRs had to be inventive. Roe recalls getting former Miss World Davison into a rickshaw on Grafton Street to promote a new Indian restaurant. She dressed models as ‘grid girls’ to promote Cannonball Ireland, and as sexy security staff in black bikinis with matching dicky bows and blazers, holding clipboards, for nightclub launches. For a campaign for Pink Lady apples, she had models in bikinis again, with the fruit in their hair. She hired three models to run through muck to promote Surf detergent.

These types of photocalls were not at all unusual. In fact, points must go to the relevance of the props and looks in each scenario; that wasn’t always the case.

Among the most popular models namechecked by photographer McEvoy is Sara Kavanagh, who recalls being asked to pose in the sea in Bray in a bikini to promote “something to do with pets; maybe pet insurance”. It was snowing. She was “beyond cold. So cold that I couldn’t even think”.

The ubiquity of bikini photocalls interests UCD’s Negra. “I think that the spectacle of young, beautiful models in bikinis in Ireland carries particular weight because of our weather. There is no time of the year in which you can confidently go out there and not expect to be seriously cold.”

Kavanagh was also seriously busy. She landed in photocall modelling for its heyday, from 2006 to 2012, when she left to open her business — beauty salon MudPie Beauty Cottage in Dundrum Town Centre.

“I was 19 when I went into Assets one day for an open day. About an hour later, I got a phone call and I had a job the next day. I don’t remember a lull, really. It was just jobs pretty much every day or maybe every second day.”

The process was always the same. “You got a phone call or a text the day before and it would say wherever the location was, Stephen’s Green or Grafton Street, or wherever you had to be, and what time. It would briefly tell you what was involved or what the product was or if you needed to bring anything.”

 

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eorgia Salpa announces a 98fm promotion in 2009. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

eorgia Salpa announces a 98fm promotion in 2009. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

eorgia Salpa announces a 98fm promotion in 2009. Picture by Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

Bikinis or costumes were provided; kits, if the launch was sports-related. Models brought their own selection of high heels — black, white, nude. “There was a lot of getting ready. You’d have to do your own make-up, your own hair. You’d have to be constantly ready, constantly have your nails done.”

There were no collaborations with salons? “That wasn’t a thing then. You did everything yourself. You might get your nails done, but that would be at your own expense.”

The selfie culture had not begun — “the only people taking photographs were the photographers” — and the phrase ‘on fleek’ had yet to be coined.

Perhaps there wasn’t the same degree of scrutiny of the girls’ efforts with the eyeliner and hair irons? “Oh, a million per cent. I definitely think that.”

Roe says: “If you booked a shoot with a photographer in the studio and models and stylists and hairdressers and make-up artists and all of that, it’s far more expensive — and some brands didn’t want to go down that road. A photocall would be a cheaper option.”

Models were paid an hourly rate that “differed depending on your popularity,” says Kavanagh.

Daniels elaborates: “Most of these girls at the time were students so a couple of hundred quid or whatever they were getting at the time was a lot of money.”

Former model Vivienne Connolly agrees that it was nice money for young women like herself and her contemporary Amanda Byram, who worked the scene before her TV career took off in the UK and US.

“You haven’t a care in the world, you’re excited, you’ve entered an absolutely brand-new world,” remembers Connolly. “The photocall thing was mad. It was absolutely mad. But the photographers were really nice to the models. They knew we were either freezing cold or embarrassed. Like, walking down Grafton Street with rollers in your hair or whatever outfit it was you were wearing.”

The models “had to be a bit of craic,” says Roe, “[willing to] jump in the air for joy or ride a bicycle.”

If they didn’t like it, Daniels points out: “There was nobody holding a gun to their heads.” In his experience: “They couldn’t get to Grafton Street or wherever they were going quick enough. That’s the reality. And a lot of these girls went on to fame and fortune as we’re well aware — actors, reality-TV stars.”

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Vogue Williams, left, and Karen Fitzpatrick pictured in 2008 to promote the Lotto jackpot. Photo: Iain White/Mac Innes Photography

Vogue Williams, left, and Karen Fitzpatrick pictured in 2008 to promote the Lotto jackpot. Photo: Iain White/Mac Innes Photography

Vogue Williams, left, and Karen Fitzpatrick pictured in 2008 to promote the Lotto jackpot. Photo: Iain White/Mac Innes Photography

The arrival of Instagram in 2010 precipitated a decline in the photocall. “I think people just got sick of them,” says Roe. “I think it ended up being overkill.”

Orla Diffily, owner of Upfront Model Management says, “Photocalls have developed as society has developed” in line with “the position of women”. The out-of-context bikinis are now considered completely unacceptable, she adds.

What has replaced them? “When we do press calls now we would take content first specifically for social-media channels. That might be where the model may not always be looking at the camera or smiling at the camera. We have talent booked all the time now to create content, and for fashion brands, they’d be filmed in the clothing. Or we might make short videos for hospitality, where they will be guests going to the spa. That kind of thing.”

Daniels says that it’s images centred around lifestyle rather than personality that are called for today, and that non-binary models and those from diverse ethnic backgrounds are most in demand at his agency in 2022.

So how do we assess the photocall phenomenon looking back from these more ‘woke’ times?

“I think maybe when we look back on this period there’s a cringe factor that relates to several different things,” says Negra. “One of them might be the sense of just how brash and crude the idea of selling things through these women’s bodies was. So it looks not only maybe creepy, but also unimaginative and unsophisticated. You might say that in Ireland in the last 20 years or so, there’s a sense that this is a more sophisticated country in some ways.

“So looking back on that moment when we see the over-the-top style of how these photocall models were presented, it feels not only icky in terms of how we think about sexuality now, but also it doesn’t seem to match the more sophisticated selling strategies of this moment.”

But perhaps the specific culture that activated the photocall era has simply shapeshifted into something else.

“I would say, as a feminist, that there’s still somewhat of a traffic in women’s bodies on Grafton Street, only it happens now through Victoria’s Secret and Lululemon,” says Negra, of the lingerie chain famous for its ‘angels’ and of the sports brand, whose founder, Chip Wilson, infamously said some women’s bodies “don’t work” for the brand’s yoga pants.

“I’m not saying they’re equivalent activities. But, you know, times have changed, but they also haven’t.”


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