Lieutenant-governor of the Weston world

 

WHAT are the current career options for an ex-model? She can ghost-write novels ex-model? She can and release albums like Naomi Campbell, produce pin-up calendars like Claudia Schiffer, develop a line of lingerie like Elle McPherson or express an interest in acting like, well, pretty much all of them really.

Or she can become lieutenant-governor of Ontario, which is the role assumed by Irish-born Hilary Weston next Friday. Last month, Canadian premier Mike Harris announcing the appointment of Mrs Weston to this 92,000 Canadian dollars a year position, described her as "a Canadian who has made an outstanding contribution to our province and country". A liberal member of the country's parliament Gerry Phillips described the choice as an inspired appointment," adding "and she has personal relations with the royal family which makes it unique".

Just 55 last weekend and married to one of Canada's richest businessmen Galen Weston, Hilary Freyne was born in Dun Laoghaire in much more modest circumstances than those she now enjoys. The eldest of five children, her father died when she was 16 so she left school to help support her family. Following a short spell as a receptionist at McConnell's Advertising Agency, she became one of the best-known faces at the Miriam Woodbyrne modelling agency and it was thanks to her work that she first met her future husband.

Seemingly, 22-year old Galen Weston, who had come to Ireland to set up an independent business venture, saw Hilary Freyne on an advertising hoarding in 1963 and a blind date was arranged by mutual friends. Three years later the couple were married in England.

In an interview with The Irish Times three years ago, Hilary Weston said she had no idea just how wealthy her husband's family were. "I thought I was marrying a baker. When I met Galen, I didn't know anything about him or his background. It was only when we were really dating seriously that things began to unfold. Even then, I couldn't conceive the extent."

The family empire, now divided between Galen Weston and his older brother Garfield and stretching across Europe - including Ireland - the US and Canada, started in 1882 with a baking and confectionary business established by their grandfather in Toronto.

Once married into the family, Hilary Weston began to lead a peripatetic and high-profile existence, moving to Canada with her husband and two young children in 1972. She has admitted that initially she found life difficult on the other side of the Atlantic: "I nearly died. It was freezing and so far away. It took me two years before I could feel like I belonged." Since then, however, she has become a Canadian citizen and when news of her appointment as lieutenant-governor broke, the Toronto Star quoted her saying "Toronto is our home. It's our children's home.

The Westons have always maintained their association with Ireland. While the Weston group controls Associated British Foods, including a number of Irish supermarket chains such as Quinnsworth, Penneys and Northern Ireland's Stewarts/Crazy Prices, Galen Weston also owns the Brown Thomas group here. It has always been suggested that he first became involved in the Dublin department store at the instigation of his wife and when Brown Thomas moved to its new site almost two years ago he acknowledged that his 25-year association with Ireland's best-known retail outlet had been "a bit of a labour of love from a purely financial basis". For many years, the Westons also maintained a house in Co Wicklow - Roundwood Park - but in 1983 an attempt was made to kidnap Galen Weston and subsequently the couple sold their Irish home.

The effect of the foiled kidnap was to make the family much less publicly visible during the 1980s than they had been during the previous decade. Although Hilary Weston was included in the international best-dressed list overseen by her friend in New York, Eleanor Lambert, it was not until 1990 that she publicly spoke of the trauma and its consequences.

In an interview with W magazine, she said "we wanted to keep the Wicklow house," but went on to elaborate: "obviously it's not very nice to go back to your own country and find you're under a lot of pressure". While the Westons still come to Ireland at least once every year, few outside a small circle of friends here would know of their presence. Their most visible visit of late was for last February's fashion show in the Point which was underwritten by Brown Thomas.

OVER the past few years, the Westons have become more tolerant of publicity, giving interviews to the likes of Vanity Fair - which devoted eight pages to the couple in April 1994 - in order to attract attention to the resort they have developed at Vero Beach, Florida. The 416-acre retreat is called Windsor, an obvious reference to the Westons' friendship with Prince Charles (a polo-playing companion of Galen Weston) and their home in England, Fort Belvedere, which used to belong to the Duke of Windsor.

This is by no means Hilary Weston's only venture into business. Aside from being on the Brown Thomas board, she is also deputy chairwoman of the Canadian Holt Renfrew department store group owned by her husband. In anticipation of her new position, on December 3 1st she resigned all her business directorships in Canada and Ireland.

Given that her voluntary charity work was cited as one reason for her appointment as lieutenant-governor, she may continue to act as founding chairwoman of the Ireland Fund of Canada, founding chairwoman for the Mabin School for early-childhood education and co-founder and chairwoman of the Canadian Environmental Education Foundation.

Speaking to Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper last month, she commented "as you know, I've been involved in community work and volunteer work over the years. This gives one the opportunity to do it on a much larger scale."

It is thanks to such efforts that her appointment has been widely welcomed in Hilary Weston's adopted country, where her personal flair is much admired. "I think it's fabulous," gushed one admirer questioned by the Toronto Sun. "She's wonderful. She's gracious. She's a woman." The wife of a local mayor commented of Mrs Weston, "if anyone knows about style, she does. I've been at many functions where she's been present and, I can tell you, we will all be proud."

Lieutenant-governorship of a Canadian province is a non-political position and Hilary Weston has never demonstrated any specific political interest. Indeed, outside the business and philanthropic community, she is probably known best for being a good-looking friend of Britain's royal family with a keen interest in fashion. Even she has expressed surprise at the appointment, remarking "it's not something I had ever dreamt about or thought about really . . . and I consider it a great honour to have been asked."

Not the first woman to be Ontario's lieutenant-governor - the precedent was set back in the 1970s - Mrs Weston recently told the Toronto Star she was nervous about the new role. "I have a certain trepidation. I think it's quite an onerous position but I'm looking forward to it." With her children, Galen Jr - who is involved in the family business - and Allanah, both now in their 20s and no longer in need of much attention, this looks like the perfect time for her to move into another field.