Florist Kelly Anne McKendry: It's now my time to bloom
Kelly Anne McKendry, the granddaughter of tragic Jean McConville, tells Una Brankin why she has given up the high-life of an international modelling career for life as a florist in Co Down
Next Sunday, Kelly Anne McKendry will lay her own personally arranged flowers at her grandparents' grave in Lisburn. Her grandmother, Jean McConville, was laid to rest there, on November 1 2003, 31 years after her murder and burial by the IRA on Shelling Hill beach in Co. Louth.
Kelly Anne never met her granny, who was only 38 when she disappeared. But the heart-breaking circumstances of her abduction cast a shadow that the model and botanist could sense in her mother, Helen, Jean's eldest daughter, who would dream that Jean was telling her she was near water.
"I'm always told I look like her; my grandmother - I've the same bone structure and features," says Kelly Anne. "I don't think she was so tall; mum's 5ft 10ins though. As a child I remember my mum being very depressed and I really worried about her, growing up.
"She's doing a lot better now; we're ok. The whole investigation and civil case is something I can't comment on but I know, with the anniversary, it will come up.
"I'll make something for the grave, something quiet and simple."
We have been poking, disapprovingly, in a circular vase of fake pink roses and what looks like some shredded pasta strings, in the reception area of an otherwise tasteful hotel where we met. There's a wedding fair on, including a bridal fashion show, which brings back memories of the designer meringues Kelly Anne modelled in the early days of her international career.
Now 36, only two years younger than her grandmother at the time of her death, Kelly Anne has left the top London agency, Select, to go part-time with CMPR in Belfast.
There is no doubt she is as stunning as any of her younger colleagues, with her wide-set grey eyes, creamy skin and finely sculpted bone structure. At 5ft 11ins - six-two in her heels - she is extremely elegant and has the sultry looks of a sophisticated Parisienne. Co-incidentally, she has an affinity with France and is taking French lessons, in the hope of one day moving to le Midi.
"I'm slightly hungover today," she admits, settling her lithe frame gracefully into the corner of a sturdy couch. "We were celebrating the start of the business last night, maybe a little too much."
Not looking in the least under the weather, she compliments me on my pretend-vintage, high-necked lace top, which is a far cry - in the style and expense stakes - from her slinky Gucci number in slate blue and black. But she also has a thing for Victoriana, which extends to her beautiful floristry.
La Maison de Fleur, her new specialist florist studio in Killyleagh, is the result of extensive studies in floristry at Greenmount College, Co Antrim, and the UK School of Floristry in Liverpool, where she is studying under Joseph Massie, one of the leading floral artists in the world. She's planning to open a 'florist boutique' shop on the Main Street of the picturesque village, a stone's throw from her newly acquired home there, specialising in flowers for weddings, funerals and events.
"My grandfather and uncles on dad's side, and my two brothers are landscape gardeners - we all have green fingers," she explains, a hint of west Belfast still in her voice. "Dad always wanted me to go into it. Mum's wondering why I would walk away from international modelling, but I'd rather being doing something more creative, with modelling on the side.
"If you're doing something you love, it's not really work. I love flowers, especially lillies - classic white ones - and roses. I like the way the Victorians did their arrangements, loose, with lots of wildflowers. I don't like manipulated flowers; they're best left in their natural condition. I'm not into these funky ones, like Birds of Paradise or gerbera coloured daisies, at all."
Helen McKendry entered Kelly Anne into a Sunday Life modelling competition at 19. The two of them always watched the Clothes Show on BBC 1 together, and Kelly Anne had fallen in love with the idea of modelling.
"I had the height for it, although I hated being so tall when I was growing up," she smiles. "I used to hunch my back down to talk to people on the same level, but I love being tall now, don't you?"
As a finalist in the competition, Kelly Anne was spotted by agent Tracey Hall and travelled with the Covergirl style team and other finalists to Lanzarote for her first professional photo shoot. Hooked, she had the sense to finish her A Levels before heading to London and facing 20 rejections by agencies before she made it to the top 10 in the hit TV show, Model Behaviour, in 2003.
Although the judges, from the leading Select agency, praised Kelly Anne's languid walk, comparing it to a top class Gucci model, they ultimately eliminated her for looking "too sexy". It took an on-trend short hair-cut for them to change their minds and take her on.
"Despite what they said initially, I never got asked to do shoots in anything too revealing," she recalls. "I did lots of catwalks and met all the big names coming in and out of Select, like Jamie Dornan. He was quite shy and was always into music, just like Agyness Deyn. And Tom Hardy - he was so thin; but now he's quite muscular.
"I'd run into people like Sienna Millar and Sadie Frost all the time but it was no big deal. You got used to seeing them. I was called 'an Irish'! They liked my accent - thought it was American sometimes. There are similarities in the twang."
By this stage, Kelly Anne's eldest daughter, Tiegan, by her former partner, Jaime, was at primary school in Crossgar. Rather than uprooting the child, Kelly Anne commuted to London and came home at weekends.
Shoots for Grazia magazine and a cover for Cosmopolitan were soon added to her portfolio. Along the way, she partied with Enrique Iglesias and royalty - at a birthday party for Princess Beatrice in Milan - and dated playboy Calum Best. She earned £7,000 in one day, when Calvin Klein chose her as the model for a cast of a new mannequin for his collection, and the money just kept rolling in.
"I have expensive tastes but I've always HATED shopping," she declares. "I shop once a year and then really go for it. I've a Dolce & Gabbana coat that cost more than my car! Mum was astonished but, as I said, I'll still have the coat in five years, but not the car."
After years of exhaustive travelling, Kelly Anne had an opportunity to move the family to New York, but her former partner didn't want to relocate. Then, when Vogue turned her down for a shoot - saying her "boobs were too big" - she decided enough was enough.
"It was a great opportunity and I got to meet lots of people, but I'd go round the world and never have the time to see the different places," she shrugs. "In the end you're just a product - a clotheshorse. I didn't enjoy that side of it and I wanted to be there for Tiegan and my youngest, Felicity Boo.
"So, I came home and went from the potential to earn £30,000 a day overseas to £300. Ten years ago, you were collected by a driver and brought to the airport and travelled first-class, all expenses paid. Now there are no perks; you have to pay your own flights and have to work a lot harder. I'm much happier modelling part-time now."
Home is a 220-year-old dwelling in Killyleagh village, with high ceilings, roll-top baths and a studio for La Maison de Fleur.
"It took me 15 years to get this house - it's so special. I have flowers everywhere. I knew the previous owners; it has been on and off the market but I've got it at last. It requires some TLC to reflect my taste but the owner - thankfully - kept all the original features.
"I would love to say it's haunted but as soon as I stepped inside, it felt like a warm home, happy and inviting. I do believe in paranormal activity, though. I once lost my car key at a dear friend's cremation at Roselawn and it took three days to get a replacement key. As soon as I left the cemetery, the radio would go up and down and turn itself on and off, and the windows would do the same, and the alarm would sound when I was driving. I just giggle and told Gurty he could spook me, and have a chat.
"And I've been to the same psychic four times," she adds. "Last time, she give me my money back and told me to stop wasting it as she's told me everything! From my pregnancies, successes, twins and even my future husband - who apparently is a Frenchman called Alec. So unless I come across a guy with the appropriate name, I don't waste my time..."
Now 17, Teigan is the same height as her mother but is more interesting in writing than modelling.
"I think she's going to Queen's University and staying at home, thank God," says her mother, visibly relieved. "She won a prize for poetry and has started writing novels. I write too, and paint."
Hmmm. I just thought there were hidden depths behind that cool grey gaze; a very perceptive one, which takes everything in. It follows that someone so gifted at floral art can draw and paint, too, but even more impressively, she has written three full manuscripts - one screen play and two psychological thrillers she hopes to have published. The latter has echoes of the classic satirical novel The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin, and Denis Lehane's Shutter Island. It involves a bunch of creepy psychiatrists and their other halves - and I can't wait to read it.
"The premise of my first manuscript was written 10 years ago and has a name I'm pretty sure you couldn't publish - it's a fictional black comedy that would make Joan Rivers blush and my father cry. My second and third are a lot darker but with comedy - I'm so busy with all my courses and work, and all the kids' clubs and activities, I only get to write late at night, with a glass of wine - I know if I've had too much when I look back the next day!
"Actually, I'm constantly narrating in my head, all though the day. I narrate what I'm going to next, before I do it, if you know what I mean. Teigan's the same.
"And I can get carried away and get very dark sometimes," she adds, slightly alarmed. "It scares me sometimes."
Our troubled history, maybe?
"Yes, I think it has a subliminal effect and it comes through, even when you don't mean it to. I was 15 when my mum sat us down and told us about our granny. For me it made sense of everything. I always knew that my mum had this real sadness and very black attitude to the world and I could never figure out why. Growing up, we'd only been told granny was missing, and I would ask mum if she wanted me to look for her."
We get lost in a conversation about writing, until I remember that I've promised two of the mini models from the bridal show that I'd introduce them to this real, live international catwalk star. She graciously agrees and chats warmly to the awestruck youngsters, telling the smaller one that, sure, she can join the modelling club, and giving good advice to the 10-year-old on children's modelling opportunities.
Although she loves good clothes, the fashion world doesn't feature in her long term plans.
"I'd love to get a few shops up and running, then branch into writing - I hope my psychic is right about me having three best sellers! I'd write with a glass of Pinot Noir on the verandah of a house of my own in the south of France, near Grasse, the perfume capital of the world," she concludes dreamily. "That would be lovely. I'd be surrounded in flowers and I'd make my own signature scent, with lillies and roses. Classic simple and old school, not too sweet. Quite heavy and long lasting.
"Wouldn't that be bliss?"
Kelly Anne to share her skills
La Maison de Fleur will run weekly workshops for amateur florists from January. Kelly Anne is also planning to return to Greenmount College to study Level Four in Floristry, which will allow her to offer floristry courses for professionals in the future. See facebook/lamaisondefleur or tel: 028 448 22166.
Tips for the budding florist
1. Start with a very clean container to make sure your flowers are properly conditioned. Don’t put things like Coke or Paracetamol in the water; just keep it fresh.
2. Cut the stems at a 45° angle to open them up. When roses start to wilt, put the stems into boiling water, trim, and put them back into the water, topped up with cold.
3. Any big-head flowers are good at this time of the year. Nice red chrysanthemums and protea in a lovely antique pink shade.
4. For structure, use hardy foliage that catches onto the flowers and makes the presentation wider.
5. She prefers a hurricane vase for roses and lilies. Keep their stems as long as possible in the beginning, then cut them down as they age to their heads, and pop them in a bowl.
See facebook/lamaisondefleur Tel: 028 448 22166.