Warrior woman: Britain's Next Top Model Finalist Alannah Beirne
After just a few minutes with Alannah Beirne, it's tempting to assume you have her pegged. Maybe it's the long legs, the highlighted hair, the successful, well-connected, rugby-playing boyfriend and the happy, supportive family life. Or the fact that, last year, reality television delivered her fairy-godmother moment. She was picked out of thousands of hopefuls to appear on Britain's Next Top Model, in which she stormed all the way to the final three. Or maybe it's her carefree confidence - the hallmark of the very young and very lucky. It seems reasonable to assume that at the age of 23, life has been a bit of a cakewalk for Alannah.
But appearances can be deceptive. That confidence, it turns out, is a Teflon-type coating that she's worked long and hard to lay down. Ask her about her early life and, apparently out of nowhere, she's struggling not to cry. Alannah was viciously and relentlessly bullied throughout her entire school years. And even now, though she's come such a long way since then, the wound is still raw. "Every time it's brought up, I get upset and I hate that," she says. "But I can't help it."
I meet her in Balham, her brand-new neighbourhood in south London. She is, quite literally, fresh off the boat, having hauled her way over from Naas the previous day by ferry, train, tube and on foot, dragging three enormous suitcases with her the whole way.
She's not hard to spot. She's six feet tall, for a start, and wearing a bomber jacket and spray-on jeans. Though she's too young to remember them, she reminds me of the have-a-go heroines of 1980s girl-power movies. All big hair and grand ambition - the kind of character played by Melanie Griffith or Molly Ringwald. There's no trace of cynicism or irony as she sets herself to the task of making it in the city.
She doesn't feign nonchalance, either. Alannah is not afraid to admit how much she wants this. But then, naked hunger is built into the Britain's Next Top Model format. The show, she says, was a good springboard and the production team were lovely, but, as soon as it wrapped, "You're on your own. They don't want any contact with us any more. I've emailed them a few times asking for my portfolio, and they just said, 'Sorry we can't' because they're filming the next series."
Things move fast in fashion and reality TV. She doesn't have long to make the most of her moment in the spotlight. Come October, she explains, there will be a new BNTM series on air and a new round of aspiring models for the media to focus on. "I have a very, very small window to make it here. There's a lot of pressure."
Her plan of attack is simple. "I have to work every single day, bashing out emails and getting in touch with people... talking to PR agencies who can get me invites to different events with different celebrities and different press, and they're the places that you need to go."
She has been doing everything herself, albeit with some help from her older sister Jen, who has worked in marketing in London for the last few years. "It's who you know, and what you know," she says.
Last October, shortly after filming on BNTM wrapped, she met her boyfriend, Paddy Davis, who runs an experiential marketing company in Dublin. They were at a Halloween party and Alannah was dressed up as a giraffe, "head to toe, covered in spots". It's still a relatively new relationship, and moving away from him wasn't easy. "For the last few weeks I've been saying it to him, but it didn't register with him," she says. "He keeps his emotions to himself. And I'd been getting upset and whatever. It didn't hit him until the night before I left. He was like, 'Wait, are you actually going?'"
She's not worried, though. "We'll be grand. It's only across the water. It's not far."
It's a calculated risk. One that she's been saving up for some time to fund. If all else fails, she has a degree in visual merchandising to fall back on. "In London, that's huge. I'd love to do visual merchandising in London. But obviously the dream would be full-time model."
"It is a massive step and I've no idea what I'm doing," she says laughing. "But I know if I work hard and do what I was doing before, it might work out."
If Britain's Next Top Model was judged on pluck alone, she might just have won it. "I've noticed, with all the rest of the girls in the competition, not many of them have had that determination to do well or make something from it - to take full advantage of the opportunity," she says.
The source of Alannah's burning drive is complex. In part it's been handed down by her parents. Her mother, Brenda Hyland Beirne, was herself a former Rose of Tralee before she joined the guards, where she met Alannah's father. And he used to insist that every night after school, his four children each write down five long-term goals and five short-term goals.
"I have diaries of when I was a kid and dad did sit us down every day after school; he'd be like, 'Right, do your goals'. The funny thing is, we're all doing what our dream was." Her brother Tadgh is a rugby player for Leinster. Her little sister Caoimhe is a "singer-songwriter now and an amazing musician. And Jen, she wanted to travel the world. Looking back on the goals, it's always been on the piece of paper - 'I want to be a successful model and marry a footballer'." Though Alannah rolls her eyes now at that last bit.
During the recording of the show, head judge Abbey Clancy offered to set Alannah up with a footballer. She hadn't yet met her boyfriend at the time, so was open to the suggestion. "Now, I wouldn't go near them," she says making a face of distaste. "I just know what they're like. Not trustworthy whatsoever. Not worth it."
If Alannah dreamed of the kind of behind-the-velvet-rope inclusion that comes with being a model on the arm of a footballer, it's not hard to see why. "I went to a lot of different schools growing up," she says. "I found school very difficult. I hated it."
In primary school, she was diagnosed with a learning difficulty called auditory processing disorder, a condition that causes disruption in the way the brain interprets auditory information. "It took me a lot longer to learn," she says. "If I'm reading a book, I have to read the page about 10 times before I register what it says. I had different special classes for learning. And I suppose in school when you are a little bit slower than others, you get picked on... I found it really difficult. I never wanted to go into school. I'd make myself get sick before I'd go in, because I wanted to stay at home."
Her parents tried "pretty much everything" in a tireless bid to help her. She had various forms of therapy and learning support, eventually finding a neurodevelopmental therapist in Dublin, whom she still sees. When things got too difficult, she'd move to a different school, hoping for a fresh start. "In every single school that I went to, it was the same thing. The same thing happened." She started to despair that she would ever be accepted.
"There was a point where home schooling could have been a possibility. As I got older, I went to Leinster College for fifth and sixth year... The first year there, I found it really hard. But eventually things started to turn. "In the second year, I made a lot of friends and it was great."
She's always loved art, and when considering her next step "ended up discovering visual merchandising, which is kind of both fashion and art". She went on to study for a degree at DIT, and it was there that everything changed.
"That's when I really started to blossom, and started accepting myself. Once I started building confidence, I was accepted by other people. In college, I joined the DIT fashion show and did that two years in a row. I made loads of friends; I really, really had a great time. I loved my course." Since then, she says, "Life's been good. And I've always had my family behind me as well, which has been really really important to me".
Though her own life has moved on, the hurt is still there. "I don't understand why people can be that cruel to somebody else. I know, as a kid growing up, it's all about slagging. To this day, I still get slagged, but I can take it now. And I can give it back. That takes time to learn. When you're that young and get so much and you get pushed and shoved and whatever... I don't agree with it, and I don't think anyone should go through that. Because it sticks with you. It does still make me upset."
The support of her family saved her from being crushed by the experience. "It's taken me a long time to be who I am. To gain confidence and build confidence. And now, I'm actually able to go anywhere, even to an event on my own, and talk to people. Before, I wouldn't talk to anybody. Even when I was signed to an agency, I'd go in to a casting and just hand over the portfolio and not open my mouth. I'd have to bring my mum everywhere with me. So I've come a long, long way."
She credits all "the help that I've had as well - public speaking classes and therapy and counselling. So much that I've done has kind of pushed me in the direction to where I am now. "
Perhaps, given what she'd lived through before, it's no surprise that she was relatively immune to the pressures of life in the BNTM house. Several of the others "found it very difficult and bitchy and intense in the house. I really enjoyed every day," she says. The only aspect she found hard was being cut off from contact with her family.
She's equally unaffected by the slings and arrows of social media. "There's only been one or two trolls. I don't mind that. I actually find it funny when you see these messages being like, 'I hate Alannah'. You're going to get that. The thing is, in Ireland, I was actually expecting a lot more negativity. But no, it was all positive. Everyone was delighted for me; everyone was really supportive."
She has learned through experience where her vulnerabilities lie, and how to manage them. "If I don't have structure... if I'm not working every single day or doing stuff, then I could fall very, very deep. And it runs in our family as well."
Does she mean getting into a depression? "Yeah. Because you're giving so much, and when you are not getting anything back... There was a phase during the episodes of about two weeks when I wasn't really getting much work, and I was like, 'Oh my God, maybe I should give this up now'. But then, when you have your family beside you, supporting you constantly, giving you motivation and telling you how amazing you are - you need that."
The Beirnes, she says, make a point of keeping an eye on each other. "So when somebody is down or somebody is not replying to messages, it's like 'no'." She mimes picking up a phone: 'What ya doing?'"
They are, she says, immensely proud of how far she's come. And as for the bullies who mocked her for her difference and made her school years such a hell, they're still with her in a way, spurring her on. She's motivated, she says, by the desire to "prove to people that you can do it. Because there's a lot of people that don't believe that you can. I came from this, I was that - but look at me now."
Photography by Kip Carroll
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