Rosemary Mac Cabe

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Interview: Erin O’Connor, model and mentor

I sat down in London with one of the three model mentors for Sky Living’s show, The Face

Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 09:49


Erin O’Connor and I are in the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden – y’know, just shooting the breeze like old pals. (This is, incidentally, how one should always refer to meeting celebrities. Like that time I was at a party with Gisele*.)

Of course, we’re there to discuss The Face, O’Connor’s much-anticipated reality television show that pits mentors and their models against one another, in the style of The Voice or a very well organised Roman gladiator session. The other two mentors are Victoria’s Secret model Caroline Winberg – and the Naomi Campbell. (Campbell is not doing face-to-face interviews as she’s given a UK tabloid an exclusive, but she does charm the pants off all and sundry at the earlier press conference. All bar Tyra Banks, perhaps. “I’ve never seen any other modelling shows,” says Campbell in an acid tone.)

“I seem to disappoint people a bit,” says O’Connor over coffee in a private room deep in the bowels of the Opera House. “They want the full regalia – but I don’t walk around in a corset the whole time.” For the record, she’s wearing a corset now, and I could very easily – although I don’t – wrap my hands around her waist.

For O’Connor, who’s always seemed to be rather cool, avant garde and alternative – in terms of modelling at least, where blonde hair and blue eyes are de rigueur – The Face seems an odd sort of departure into the mainstream. “In my career, which has been fairly two-dimensional, people make decisions based on your persona. So I was ready to do it – there’s such a huge departure from my alter ego to the woman I am on a day-to-day basis.”

If you’ve seen the show, you’ll know this to be true; O’Connor, this immensely tall, rather androgynous beauty, is the maternal one of the trio. Winberg is the happy-go-lucky girl next door, with the easy smiles who becomes her models’ best mate (and does fairly well in the competition as a result) while Campbell is, well, Campbell: determined and ruthless and fairly terrifying.

“We’re all so invested in the teams that we’ve selected,” says O’Connor. “And there’s a good bit of banter – especially with Naomi and I, we had to reboot a bit, because we have quite a friendly relationship. She’s got this thing about Brit girls especially; she looked after me quite a lot.

“But for [The Face] we had to put our mentor hats on. When you’re absolutely gunning for your girls . . . you’d be amazed at what goes on.”

Of course, advocating for models is not particularly new for O’Connor; more than three years ago, she founded The Model Sanctuary, a not for profit aimed at providing support to young (and not-so-young) models working hectic schedules, often miles from their own support networks.

Is modelling really so difficult that you need a dedicated support system? “I’m really glad you asked that,” says O’Connor, in a way that suggests that she’s not all that glad at all. “The model sanctuary was borne of a complex, political, societal debate. It was proposed to us from various bodies that we give models medicals once a year, and if they didn’t pass that medical, there’s a chance they’d legally lose their right to work. There was psychological analysis, urine samples, blood work . . . and if there were girls who had illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia, it was a hard position to be put in, with no follow-up.

“So the Model Sanctuary is not about self-indulgence – it’s about reminding and allowing them to become self-sufficient human beings. I wanted to alert people to the fact that we’re not the victims, but nor are we the villains. We want fair practice and positive, sustainable change, working with the fashion industry, not against it.”

I ask O’Connor if she would do something like The Face, were she to find herself, age 16, starting out again in the industry. “When I think of what they did . . . this infinite strength and determination . . .” She breaks off. “I didn’t really peak until two years into my career, because it took me that amount of time to break it all down, to remain the girl I am and to maintain the professional persona. I don’t know if I would have had it in me at their age.”

The finale of The Face is on Sky Living tonight at 9pm.

* Gisele and I were both at the same party, very far away from one another. She was very tall and extremely thin and looked much older than her (then) 30 years. (She’s now 33, information that would come in handy at a very specific fashion table quiz.)