'Bill and I have no need to get married -- I'm happy the way we are'
The Apprentice star Jackie Lavin on money, modelling and marriage... By Susan Daly
At a time where P45s are being scattered around the workforce like confetti, a TV show whose catchphrase is 'You're fired!' shouldn't be as popular as it is.
The Apprentice, however, with its formula of tough love, bitchfests and a glimmer of entrepreneurial hope, continues to do the business on TV3.
Ostensibly, all eyes are on Bill Cullen, the barrow-boy turned businessman who is offering a €100,000 job to the candidate who most impresses him. If the contestants were smart, they would be looking to impress the ice-cool blonde on his left.
An arched eyebrow, a flare of the nostrils, a slight puckering of those heavily glossed lips -- these are the signals that Cullen's advisor Jackie Lavin is not amused. Since she berated a male contestant last year for dismissing two bickering colleagues as "fighting like women", she has proven she has a tongue as sharp as any of her designer stilettos.
"I suppose I am a bit more vocal," she said as the latest series hit the screens. And how. In the second programme, she proved herself an equal opportunities critic. Asked by Bill for her take on the all-women team's strategy meeting, she said: "It was like a girls' tea party. Girls together having a little chat, no pressure, no stress. The only reason it only took three hours was because we had to break for lunch."
The hard-nosed straight-talking business woman is not just for televisual effect. Brenda Shanahan, winner of the first series of The Apprentice, has decided not to renew her contract after two years of working with Glencullen, the company run by Bill and Jackie, partners in both business and romantically for the past 31 years.
Shanahan became general manager of Muckross Park Hotel, which comes under Lavin's remit. Shanahan said last week that she and Lavin "clashed frequently".
To a certain extent Lavin, now 63, flew under the radar until she appeared on The Apprentice. Bill Cullen was already a national figure thanks to his Penny Apples rags-to-riches memoir and some might have thought Lavin's appearance as his sidekick on The Apprentice was a token gesture.
After all, the world of The Apprentice is a cosy affair. PR man Brian Purcell -- Jackie's nephew -- landed the job as Bill's other adviser. Prizes on the show have included trips to Muckross Park Hotel and the K Club, where Bill was a founding member; there was even mention of the Vit Hit drinks company owned by Jackie's son Gary.
Shanahan, however, was quick to point out: "People thought she (Jackie) was the blonde arm candy. People don't realise how heavily involved in the business she is. She makes a lot of the decisions."
Interviewing Lavin in 2008 as the first series of The Apprentice kicked off and she began to emerge as the real star, she told me: "Because you are suddenly cast into the limelight in such a different context, I suppose a lot of people are saying, 'Well where did yer woman come from?'"
Where she came from is perhaps the key to her ambition and drive. Jackie Purcell grew up in rural Ballyduff, Co Kerry, but moved out of the family home as a young teen to live with her aunt and uncle in the bigger town of Cahirciveen so she could attend secondary school there. 'Bettering yourself' was the theme introduced to her life and it stuck.
She was 17 when she came to Dublin but dropped out of the civil service after six months because she wanted a more dynamic job. That was pretty unusual for a teenage greenhorn, fresh up from the country.
'We were always taught in the country that when you went to Dublin you had to do other things at night," she told me. "You couldn't just do your job: you had to further yourself at night, do night classes ... I fell into modelling really and got married very young."
She married David Lavin, a fellow hard grafter who worked long hours establishing his Orchard pubs in Stillorgan and Rathfarnham. They separated when their sons Gary and Troy, now an oil broker, were relatively young. Jackie was modelling for Guinness and Harp ads and -- most famously -- launched the Sunday World with a poster campaign that featured her face and the logo, 'Are you getting it every Sunday?'
"It was just another job," Jackie told me. "I mean, if I sat on top of a washing machine and the ad read 'Are you spinning around every Monday' or whatever I wouldn't have cared. I didn't think the Sunday World ad was going to be as big as it was."
The second part of her career was no such accident. In her thirties she moved away from the modelling and into clothes boutiques. It sounds like a hobby horse project for a suburban wife but bear in mind that she was separated, working six days a week, seven days coming up to Christmas, juggling childcare arrangements.
The business was a success and she was headhunted for the new shopping centre in Blackrock from her first shop in Stillorgan. She introduced the Monsoon label to Ireland and was managing to sell £1,200 coats about a decade before the Celtic Tiger kicked in.
When she and Bill got together 31 years ago, their business interests -- as she puts it -- gradually "merged" and although they work together, they tend to focus on separate projects. They clash too, they have both said, with the inference that they both wear the trousers.
Yet is Lavin the hard nut we see on The Apprentice? She is known to adore her grandchildren (Troy is married to novelist Sinead Moriarty and they have three children). And she and Cullen take downtime in their holiday home in Orlando, Florida when they can. The 43-room Palladian mansion they own in Kildare is, by her own admission, a "party house", with a ballroom that seats 150 people.
An attendee at one of her annual bashes says: "There is an element of networking about it -- you meet all sorts of high achievers there -- but it's also always a very warm, very fun night. Jackie is the centre of it, really."
She comments that the very fact she is an ambitious person might not always go down well. "If you're pushy as a woman, you're seen as pushy. If you're pushy as a man, you're seen to be forthright and strong," she said wryly.
So why not, then, give her critics a soft-focus ending and get married to Bill? The pair must be the most famous unmarried couple in Ireland. Jackie wears a sparkling diamond on the ring finger of her left hand -- but she bought it herself.
"There is no chance whatsoever," she said. "Both of us had our families before we met and that was that really. If we had wanted to have a family, you would obviously have got married. We have no need to get married, not at all. I'm very happy the way we are."
At this point too, she has much invested in Brand Lavin, even if it is her original married surname. Now signed up to Noel Kelly talent management -- the same agency that looks after TV stars like Ryan Tubridy and Grainne Seoige -- she's unlikely to want to fly away from the sun.