'I don't know if I'm a feminist'
Reflecting on an eventful year, the model Rosanna Davison discusses posing for ‘Playboy’, the mini-marathon mini-controversy and whether the term feminism is still valid
Rosanna Davison arrives bang on time. There’s no drama or fuss, just a calm professionalism. We have met once before, as guests on an afternoon-television show, and as I walked behind her on to the set that day I got some sense of what it must be like to walk in her shoes, with male and female heads turning both to look and to judge what kind of person she is.
Waiters in the hotel bar where we meet, who have been happy to leave me to my own devices for the past 20 minutes, suddenly buzz around our table, having quiet nodding words in each other’s ears, once Davison arrives. She seems unaware of it, but isn’t it exhausting to be the centre of such attention? Does it mean she is always aware of how she acts and looks in public?
“Well, I won’t be picking my nose walking down the street,” she says, laughing. “I run around in my gym gear a lot, so I am not overly concerned. One of the nice things about Irish people is that they don’t bother you really. I am nowhere near the level of celebrity status as someone from, say, Hollywood coming in. If I’m out at two in the morning I get Lady in Red in my ear, but that’s about it.”
We are here to talk about Davison’s experience of 2012, an eventful year in which she has posed for the cover of German Playboy, been embroiled in a charity-event controversy, felt compelled to publicly defend her pop-singer father and become an agony aunt.
I ask first about her appearance on The Late Late Show in September, when she was a guest alongside Caitlin Moran, the London Times columnist and author. Did she feel she was there as a token counterfeminist?
“I am a big admirer of Caitlin’s work and read her column every week,” Davison says. “I would relate to a lot of what she writes about. There is no way I was ever going to disagree with what she was saying. I would see myself as a great supporter of women and someone who would absolutely stand up for women. I don’t know if I would use the term feminist. I don’t know if it is applicable any more.”
How does posing topless for Playboy fit in with her worldview? “One of my big worries doing Playboy was my responsibility towards women and towards feminism or towards the movement. I decided to do it based on my academic understanding of women’s writing and literature” – Davison studied sociology and art history at University College Dublin – “and the fact that I haven’t made a career out of glamour modelling or taking my clothes off.”
She won’t discuss how much she was paid for the shoot. She says she waited until she had the right management team in place who could secure a deal that was entirely on her terms.
She says she had been asked to pose three years ago, when she was 25. She turned the publisher down then because the deal wasn’t right for her.
To prepare for the shoot, Davison, who works out six days a week, added a two-hour weights and cardiovascular regime to her fitness programme. She ruled out alcohol and ate a lot of fruit and green vegetables. The idea was to make herself look “Amazonian” in the photographs, she says.
“I came up with the idea of a tribal beach theme, and I wanted to look both strong and feminine. I wouldn’t have done it if they said, ‘Lie back on a bed with silk and satin lingerie.’ I wanted to look strong and fit and toned and healthy.”
Will the average male Playboy reader have picked up on that intent? Are these images not likely, on some level, to further bolster the objectification of women by certain men, some of whom may have been more likely to be struck by her femininity had she decided on principle never to pose topless?
“I agree it adds to the objectification of women,” she says. “There are no two ways about it. Every other aspect of modern society, though, from advertising to reality shows, also fuels that. It seems one big cyclical objectification. I wouldn’t have done the shoot if I were not in control of the whole thing, from the location to the hair and make-up and the final shots. It was all down to me. There were 100 shots taken, and I picked 40 and I told them what to airbrush and what not to. What I was trying to put across is that you can be everything. You can be desirable and sexy and in control.”
Next April Davison will become the first Irish person to feature on the cover of US Playboy, following in the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe and Cindy Crawford, among others.
Mini marathon time
Davison also made headlines when she took part in the Flora Women’s Mini Marathon, at the start of the summer. Her reported time of 43 minutes for the 10km event would have put her in the top 60.
Online commenters and callers to a radio phone-in show speculated that Davison had joined the race not at the start line but at a later point. In subsequent interviews Davison rejected those accusations. She explained that the 43-minute finishing time had been registered because she had used another runner’s race number and had collected it only after starting the race. The race, she clarified, had taken her more than an hour.
The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which she represented, had to clarify the issue when her number and time were not on the list of competitors who completed the race. The ISPCA said Davison had taken the number of an ISPCA employee, Carmel Murray, to run the race, as Davison had not registered in time.
“It was bizarre,” Davison says of the media attention around the issue. “I think people in this culture – and I wholly understand why – but they need someone to blame and someone to be accountable for the situation Ireland is in. All I could do was clarify it and continue on. I did the Ironman Challenge in September in Galway for Irish Autism Action – we won the woman’s relay section – and I will continue to work with the ISPCA next year.”
I ask her about her father, the singer Chris de Burgh, and a recent article in the London Independent, which earned him some negative reaction for his opinions, especially the positive ones of himself.
“All I’ll say is that he is one of the most kind, generous and normal people you could meet. It is unfortunate this journalist decided to go at a certain angle. My dad is still touring in Canada, and all over Europe. He just finished dates in Russia. His career is so busy internationally, and I think people are a bit perturbed by the fact he does speak up for himself. These things don’t outrage me. I have seen it so much over the years. From what he has told me he feels he was misrepresented.”
Davison hopes to continue to model for several more years, and eventually to settle down “in a house in the country with kids and lots of animals”.
Next year she will qualify as a nutritional therapist, having studied for three years at Griffith College in Dublin and in the UK. She recently started an agony-aunt column, work that she takes seriously, suggesting solutions to problems posed in a way that involves as little personal conflict as possible. She also appears on TV3’s Come Dine With Me next month.
An hour in her company flies by. At the end, Davison asks if I have enough, adding, “It won’t be too sensational, will it?” I assure her that it will not, and as the photographer arrives she instinctively whips a hairbrush out of her bag and prepares for the lens.
Rosanna Davison On Johnny Ronan, models and marriage
Modelling: “I refused to do lingerie and bikini stuff. I did a little if I was away and on a beach, but I was always careful not to take my clothes off for anything. You see the shots of bikini models on Grafton Street in February, and that is something I always said no to, as I thought it was inappropriate. It is uncomfortable for people walking by, and it is most often unrelated to the product or service you are selling. My advice to younger girls would be to think carefully if you want to go down that route.”
Marriage: “I like the idea of marriage and kids and family life. I really do have to start thinking about it. Wes [Quirke] and I are together just over six years. We met when we were 22 years old, and so we have spent the guts of our 20s together. He doesn’t really come to anything public with me. He has no interest in being in the public eye. The relationship works better in that we give each other space.”
Cosmetic surgery: “I was quizzed about it, but I feel it is very much a personal issue. It is like someone who has an operation for a heart condition: you are not going to quiz them and ask where are their stitches.
“What happens to your body is very personal, but it seems normal now to talk about what surgery you may have had. It should be a personal thing. I just keep saying I don’t think it is anybody’s business and I don’t judge anyone who has had it done.”
Johnny Ronan, with whom she went on a spur-of-the-moment holiday to Morocco in his private jet: “I don’t know if it’s worth going back over. It is old news now. He is an old family friend, and I have known him for years. I really like him. He is a good guy. His situation is unfortunate in the way it transpired. It was a good story, but it became more than the sum of its parts and came to represent a shift in Irish attitudes, I think.”