The Irish catwalk star on dancing jigs at auditions and meeting Harvey Weinstein.
Editor LINDA MAHER Fashion editor GRACE CAHILL Chief designer COLM CORRIGAN YOU is published by DMG Media Ireland Group editor SEBASTIAN HAMILTON Managing director PAUL HENDERSON YOU, Third Floor, Embassy House, Herbert Park Lane, Ballsbridge, Dublin 4, switchboard: 01 256 0800
MAGAZINES WERE WRITING ARTICLES SAYING I WAS GOING TO BE THE BIG FACE OF THE NEXT SEASON, IT WAS ALL TOO MUCH”
High fashion model Laura O’Grady, 23, from Castleknock, Co Dublin – who has been a Saint Laurent and Vivienne Westwood muse – recognised Harvey Weinstein immediately. ‘I was at a BAFTA after-party in London earlier this year and he came in. I said “hi” because he was standing right in front of me, though he is very creepy so then I just walked away.
‘ The first time I heard allegations about him was two years ago but I didn’t know if they were true or not. Stories about models who had aspired to become actresses, the kind of stories that have come out now. Then when I saw him I thought it wouldn’t surprise me if they were true.’
It was a close encounter – thankfully, not too close – with the disgraced Hollywood producer, just months before his spectacular fall.
Many victims of his alleged sexual assaults were models, including Filipina-Italian Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, who became part of an NYPD sting operation after filing a complaint about the mogul. You may have heard audio of their second encounter when he tried to bulldoze her into his hotel room.
‘I’ve been pretty lucky, I’ve never had any really terrible experiences in modelling,’ says Laura, when we meet in a Dublin hotel following her shoot in the windy Wicklow mountains. ‘I once did a shoot with a photographer where he was doing too much complimenting but in a creepy way. He was saying I was his ideal woman but he kept going on and on about it and it made me really uncomfortable. It was too much and I told him to stop and he did.
‘I spoke out about it straight away to my agents and they didn’t send girls to that photographer again. But I’ve never dealt with anything very serious where I’ve been touched inappropriately or asked to do something I didn’t want to do.’
Four days after finishing her Leaving Cert in 2013, Laura flew to New York to sign with top agency Supreme and move into one of their model apartments in the trendy Meatpacking District.
The only daughter of a banker father and legal secretary mother, she had attended Mount Sackville convent school for 14 years.
‘New York was such a shock to the system,’ she admits. ‘I’ve stayed in model apartments many times and it’s one of two experiences: it either feels like camp if you get on well with the girls... Then if you don’t get on with the girls it can be hell. Mess is a big problem sometimes with the girls. And people Skyping very loudly. Everyone has to Skype, we all have to maintain longdistance relationships whether they’re platonic, romantic, familial. Just sometimes it’s 2am and they’re screaming in their native languages at their boyfriends!’
Laura was still a gangly teenager finding her feet in this strange new world when she got the call all models dream about.
‘I was doing a show in New York, it was my 19th birthday and I was in the line-up to go out [on the runway]. I heard my phone ring because I was standing beside my dressing rail and it was my agent saying, “You booked a Saint Laurent exclusive! So you have to leave New York and go to Paris.” So I did and I met Hedi Slimane at Grand Palais,’ she says, of the French photographer and designer who had doubled YSL’s revenue before he left the fashion house last year.
‘ Then every day I would go there and change into a robe and sit on a couch and me and another girl would take turns trying clothes on. He was just styling the collection for the runway.’
Laura was one of the star models at the show itself, stomping down the catwalk to camera flashes and the admiring gazes of front row celebrities and magazine editors.
‘I think in that moment I naively thought, “I have arrived!”’ she says. ‘What I didn’t realise is that getting that first step towards a successful career is less important than maintaining it. It’s much harder to maintain momentum in modelling than it is to get it in the first place.’
Back then Laura was the fashion world’s ingenue du jour. ‘I was doing Vogue Italia, I was doing i-D, I was doing Dazed and Confused – every big magazine. I did a shoot for Vogue Italia shot by Miles Aldridge. They got this vintage bus and they dressed us all up like eccentric, extravagant ladies so I had a big curly Fifties-style hair and red lips and they gave me a pug. I never worked with animals before and it was then I realised how hard it is to get a pug to look through a window, down a camera. We were rubbing treats on the windows so he’d look. That was good fun.’
After a couple of whirlwind months in Europe Laura went back to London. ‘But I felt like I was under massive pressure as a lot of magazines were writing articles saying I was going to be the big face of the next season. I got so frightened of it all. It was too much, it was too big.’
She felt her agents at the time were trying to mould her into something she wasn’t – dictating to her how she should dress and come across to clients.
‘ They were marketing me in a way they thought was trendy that season. But my worry was if it wasn’t me and I just faded out after a season I’d feel so empty. I was afraid of hitting a peak when I didn’t know who I was or what my style was.’
So she did what many a young Irish woman has done before and since – she came home to her mammy for some TLC.
‘I took a break and then I went back to it. Since then I’ve really enjoyed it but I’ve been a lot stricter and stronger with how everything works. When I was in my late teens and even up to 21 whatever my agents wanted me to do I did it because I thought they were the ones who knew best. Whereas now I try and keep more control over it, otherwise it’s not going to work.’
Despite her newfound confidence, Laura has ➤
➤ still had to jump through unusual hoops to get jobs. ‘At the casting for a Vivienne Westwood campaign [in 2014] they asked me if I could dance an Irish jig. And I did it, just as I was. I was wearing these culotte shorts and my little legs were flailing about. I thought, “I can’t actually do a jig but they won’t know what a jig looks like so I’ll just fluke it.” I did a jig. Then they said, “Wait one second, can you do that again?” And they all took out their iPads and iPhones. It’s on the internet somewhere. A day later they said, “You got the job!” It’s a real “Dance, monkey dance” story,’ she chuckles.
Vivienne Westwood herself was not there ‘but I met her later in Paris. She’s really different to how you think. I thought of her as being really eccentric and open about her political ideas and she is all of those things but when you meet her she is very calm, very focussed.’
In person Laura is sensible beyond her years and she has grown into her classically beautiful looks.
‘Like every model I was definitely much quirkier when I was younger because there seems to be an appeal in high fashion for really scrawny, alien-looking girls,’ she smiles – and it’s true that her lanky limbs, saucer eyes and prominent ears have been much admired. ‘I guess I’m quite classic now. I book a lot of Fifties jobs.’
Later in the week of our interview Laura will fly to LA for meetings with model agents because the fashion world – once so snooty about ‘La-La Land’ – is belatedly embracing it.
‘Hedi Slimane moved Saint Laurent from Paris to LA and Tom Ford is living in LA and has started showing there,’ she says. ‘It’s such a social media-savvy place and such a health- conscious place and they are the two things that really define the industry right now. The fashion industry is not about the cocaine party girls that it was in the Nineties,’ she says. ‘Now clients are looking for girls who are really fit, really toned and lead a healthy lifestyle. They are the kinds of women that brands want to represent them – not bad influences.’
Modelling is no longer just about showing up on time and being beautiful.
‘ There is a massive pressure now because Instagram is controlling the industry. Instagram following is becoming so big. When you go to castings in New York you used to write the time you arrive, your name and your agency. Now you write the time, your name, your agency and your Instagram follower number. It’s crazy,’ says Laura, who has over 13,000 followers now on the photosharing site.
‘Nearly every agency has an Instagram policy. It’s a two-page policy on the kinds of things you have to post and how often. It’s usually at least one picture a day. Especially selfies, because they get a lot of “Likes”.
‘I would rather work in an era where social media was not that big,’ she sighs. ‘I remember being in Ireland and my agent saying there was a job going but I couldn’t be put forward for it because they were looking for girls with at least 10,000 followers. I was like, “Wow it’s even happening in Ireland”. So I started to build it up a
little bit. I haven’t bought followers or anything which I think happens a lot. I know some girls who sign up for this software that increases your follower count. I know one girl who’s got 100,000 followers but she pays someone €3,000 a month to manage her account.’
It’s not just models who bend the rules – apparently it’s the design houses too.
‘Sometimes in New York – I’ve never done a job like this – but they’ll pay in trade instead of money.
‘You do the job and then a day after the show they’ll open up their showroom with last season’s stuff and the models come in on a time slot and they can just pick something. Or else they are given a certain amount of credit for the store.
‘When I did New York Fashion Week, I had just finished school, I didn’t have any money. My agency had paid for my visa and my flights so the idea of doing something for trade petrified me: “Okay, I have a nice coat but I can’t pay it off”,’ she says, of the initial expenses incurred by agencies that must be repaid by their models. It doesn’t sound fair not to pay models? ‘I didn’t think so either,’ she agrees. ‘I have never done a job or show for trade but I do know girls that have. When I did Saint Laurent they don’t give any clothes to anybody. They pay cash and quadruple the amount of those people that give trade. It’s a way more respectful way to treat models. To treat them like they’re actually people who need to live.’
For Laura home is divided between Dublin, London, New York and Tokyo - she has agents in all four cities. And now she hopes to find representation in LA.
‘I’ve been getting a lot of job options out of LA but I don’t have an agency there so I’m going to go and do some meetings.
‘LA is becoming more and more important for modelling – I think a lot of it is because of the Gigis, Kendalls and Kaia Gerbers,’ she says, of Hadid, Jenner and Cindy Crawford’s daughter, who live in the city, and all of whom have massive social media followings.
Celebrities try to strike a balance between being relatable and aspirational to appeal to the masses – but Laura sees straight through it.
‘Gigi Hadid is this friendly, slightly goofy girl but at the same time you know you’re not going to be like her because you didn’t grow up in Bel Air and you’re not a supermodel.’
Now along with modelling, Laura is writing a thriller, looking into taking acting classes – and counting her blessings.
‘For me to be 23 and to have travelled the way that I have, I feel extremely privileged.’
LAURA O’GRADY photographed by Kenny Whittle
Laura in action on the catwalk and in client shoots
GREEN BLAZER COAT, €1,165, Stella McCartney @ Brown Thomas PRINT MIDI DRESS, €895, Marni @ Brown Thomas BERET, €15, Monsoon Pictures: KENNY WHITTLE Styling: GRACE CAHILL Hair: LUCY O BRIEN @ Brown Sugar, South William Street, Dublin 2, See brownsugar.ie, 01 616 9967 Make-up: LORCAN @ Make Up Forever, Clarendon Street, Dublin 2. See makeup forever.ie, 01 679 9043 Shot on location at Sally Gap in Wicklow. Special thanks to Powerscourt Hotel, Enniscorthy, Co Wicklow. Available for weddings and exclusive events, see powerscourthotel.com