A model life

Monaghan-born Caitriona Balfe was recruited shaking a charity box outside a Dublin shopping centre. Now she is Ireland's most successful international model. Based in New York and the darling of some of the world's top designers, she talks to Ailbhe Jordan


It's just after five on a Tuesday evening in Soho. Streams of harassed-looking people scurry in both directions along Spring Street, seeking escape from the mayhem of midweek Manhattan in the form of the nearest taxi or subway station.

Nobody but me seems to notice a tall, thin young woman leaning against the wall of a grey building. We have never met in person and a curtain of long, tousled brown hair obscures her face as she flicks through a notebook, but it's definitely her.

Since Derek Daniels of Assets Modelling agency spotted her six years ago collecting money for charity outside the Swan Shopping Centre in Rathmines, Caitriona Balfe has quietly strutted her way to the upper echelons of the fashion industry.

Nineteen years old and intent on becoming an actress at the time, Balfe modelled part-time in Dublin for a year until a visiting scout from Ford Modelling agency asked her to work for them in Paris. She decided to take a year out from her drama course at the Dublin Institute of Technology to pursue the opportunity.

In her six years as a model, Balfe has strutted down the catwalk for every big name from Gucci to Marc Jacobs. Vogue are big fans too; the fashion bible has put her on the cover of its US, French, German, Spanish and Italian editions.

After Paris, Balfe moved to Milan, where she became the darling of Dolce & Gabanna, who still hire her to work exclusively at their spring and autumn shows. Three years ago, she moved to New York to work for US based Elite Modelling agency. One of her first castings was for Cuban-American designer Narciso Rodriguez, who was so impressed, he made her his muse.

Balfe is, without a doubt, the most successful international model Ireland has produced.

On this evening she looks up and smiles, revealing a heart-shaped face, with sharp, pixie-like features and bright blue eyes. Wearing not a scrap of makeup, she looks younger than her 26 years. Her complexion is pale, clear and spattered with light brown freckles.

She is around 5ft 10”, but seems smaller because of her narrow, thin frame. Dressed in a loose, taupe-colored top, skinny blue jeans that are not as tight as they should be and red flats, she personifies that casual glamour look to which all the downtown hipsters aspire.

She suggests we go to Balthazar, a French Bistro beloved of New York models and celebrities.

As we walk, she assumes a posture so elegant and so straight it looks as though she is leaning backwards slightly.

Balfe's family comes from Tyvadet, a small town in Co Monaghan. Her accent is neutral from years of living abroad, but every now and then, the Monaghan dialect peeps through – when she says “cool”, for instance, which she says a lot.

Weekend reservations at Balthazar are nearly impossible to make if one is not famous and has not booked at least a couple of weeks in advance.

“Go on ahead,” she says, holding the door open. The hostess directs us to a small table at the window. Balfe glides into her booth without pushing the table out first. “I'm going to have some cake,” she says, lowering her voice.“I got my wisdom teeth out on Friday, so I've basically been eating soup all weekend,” she adds quickly, touching her jaws with both hands.

“I was supposed to go to LA today, but I cancelled that because my face was still a bit swollen.”

Conversations between any two people renting in New York City inevitably turn to apartments and – more importantly – locations. Balfe lives in Greenpoint, a trendy Polish neighbourhood in Brooklyn. “I was about three years in the city but I love Brooklyn,” she says.

“It's just really cute. It's kind of European, like most of the streets are all mom and pop stores, there's not one McDonalds. They've got all cute little vegetable stores, there's a meat market and a fish market.”

She pauses to take a sip of coffee.

“We've got the ground floor of a building. Its got like a back garden and a basement, which is really cool. My boyfriend has his studio in the basement.”

The boyfriend she refers to is Dave Milone, a guitarist with the band Radio4, who are releasing a new album in New York this week.

“I've been with him for three years, he's from New Jersey,” she says rolling her eyes as New Yorkers often do at the mention of their neighbouring and, in their opinion, less cosmopolitan state.

“It's a bit of a cliché, I know, a model and a rocker. It's good though.”

At 26, Balfe has said she considers herself to be one of the “grannies” of the modeling industry.

“Of my five really close friends whom I started with, there's only one whose still modeling,” she says.

“The rest have gone off to college or have real jobs. I still feel like I'm at college,” she says, stirring her coffee and putting the spoon down on the saucer with a loud clink.

“When I see some of these younger girls who are starting at 17 or so, it's like being at school, you know. You've a bunch of girls who are like, teenagers and of course everyone's like: ‘is she doing better than me?' and all that. I was a little bit older when I started, I was 19 and I never really experienced that. I mean, you're always going to come across a bitch but there's nothing you can really do about that. I'm getting older now and it does feel weird when you come across someone who tries to intimidate you in that really high school way. It's like: ‘why am I feeling insecure because of this?' And it's funny, because it's all based on weight, it's like: ‘you put on a few pounds,' or something stupid.”

At this point the desserts arrive.

“I feel like the girls are getting very skinny again,” she says, following the movement of the plate with her eyes as the waitress places it in front of her.

“When I started it was like, a lot of the Brazilian girls were around, it was all about being voluptuous and I think in the last couple of seasons there's been a lot of really, really skinny girls again. I mean, you can tell when somebody doesn't eat, you can tell by the big rings under their eyes or when they're kind of quiet, they're whole personality is kind of...” she slouches down and drops her tongue out in a display of lifelessness.

She picks up her spoon and digs it into the cake, then turns the plate around and spears the scoop of vanilla ice-cream that is perched on top.

“I've always been thin, you know?” she says, while her mouth is full.

“My aunts and uncles will be like, ‘oh do you eat?' but I've always been lucky that I can. I eat more than Dave. I go through very, very sporadic, once-in-a-blue-moon fits of going running and stuff, but I'm so lazy. When shows are coming up I just do some exercises at home and maybe not have so much chocolate cake the week before. A few more salads, that kind of thing.”

Next week, Balfe expects to be working in LA for a couple of days, from where she will fly to Miami for a photo shoot, before returning to New York on Sunday to do a shoot for Spanish Vogue.

“It sounds glamorous, it's not though, it really isn't,” she says, holding another spoonful of cake up to her lips.

“I am moving towards retirement now – from this,” she continues. “Every year I'm asked and I'm like, ‘oh another year or two.' But, if I'm still doing this at the end of the next two years, somebody shoot me, please. I mean, it's really good and it allows me to live a good life. I'm building a house in Monaghan, I can do stuff like that. I can set myself up for the future and stuff. But being an actress was the thing that I always wanted to do. Before I ever started modelling.”

Balfe has not yet found her perfect role, but played a convincing seductress in 2002 when she modelled for lingerie company Victoria's Secret during their catwalk show, an annual TV spectacle that that has propelled models like Gisele Bundchen and Heidi Klum to international fame.

“Oh God, my poor Da,” she groans, cradling her head in her hands.

“I think it was the Sun or the Mirror back home had this headline: ‘Garda's daughter goes und-y-cover.' I wondered what I was doing in there, this pasty little Irish girl amongst all these Brazilian goddesses. I'd gotten a spray tan and they put full body make-up on me but I was 10 times whiter than anyone there. It took very little clothes and quite a lot of champagne to get through that one.”

She shakes her head, smiling at the memory. “Its funny you know? Normally when I'm out, I don't really dress up. It's amazing how people will absolutely not even notice you until they hear the word ‘model,' and then they're like: ‘Oh.' And I'm like: ‘what?' Two seconds ago, I was nothing, you know?”π