How businesswoman Alison Clarke has a drive of her own
She is a former beauty queen and has been a successful businesswoman for over 25 years. Just don't expect to see Alison Clarke hanging out with the other players' wives and girlfriends at the Irish Open today
Model boss, beauty queen and, more recently, wife to one of the world's most successful golfers, it would be easy to stereotype Alison Clarke, but given her formidable business track record, it would be rather foolish to consider her as "just a pretty face".
The savvy businesswoman, who is celebrating 25 years heading up her own model agency ACA, has also run the Miss Northern Ireland competition since 1986, after winning it in 1982.
And while her champion golfer husband, Darren, has been taking to the fairways of Royal County Down at the Irish Open, Alison has been doing what she does best - working.
She was noticeably missing from the photo shoot of the players' wives and girlfriends this week, who were heading out afterwards for a tour of Northern Ireland sights as part of Ladies Day.
But, while the other halves of the golfing pros are a tight-knit bunch, Alison is happier with her business head on: "I had better things to do. Very few of the other golfers' partners work, let alone run their own business, but we (ACA) have nine girls working at the Irish Open, so I had a briefing with them at 6.45am, then an interview to do at 9.30am before meeting other clients at 10am.
"After that, I returned to my office in Belfast - it's only a 45-minute drive up the road.
"This is one of the busiest weeks of the year for us, so I was able to get caught up on work for the week ahead."
She describes herself as "busy", which is something of an understatement, and looking back on her career, it is clear Alison has always been driven.
"I have always worked since the day I left school, even during summer holidays I waitressed at a hotel in the Isle of Man. I have always been self-sufficient and I like that; I have always liked doing things for myself," she says.
"I am stepmum to Darren's two boys, Tyrone (16) and Conor (15), as well as running my business and doing all the things I have to do."
It was while working at the Ulster Bank that Alison's life changed forever when she entered and was crowned the winner of the Miss Northern Ireland beauty contest.
The experience led to her narrowly missing out on the Miss World competition, but by this time she was enjoying a life of travel and modelling assignments, which was a far cry from the life she knew growing up in rural Co Tyrone, where her family were well-known dairy farmers.
"I never envisaged running my own business, or organising Miss Northern Ireland. It is overwhelming, but I still think of myself as I was 30 years ago. I'm no different now - except when it comes to business," she says.
Alison is also the Miss World licence-holder in Northern Ireland: "We (ACA) have had an association with the Miss World contest for 30 years now - that is longer than anywhere else in the world."
And experience such as this, she admits, has mellowed her management style. "I am probably a better boss now and a nicer boss than when I started out. I have learned how to look after people and how to get the best out of them.
"Twenty years ago, if I thought anyone working for me was stepping out of line, I would've fired them. Now I will take them to one side and ask them are they all right and explain what is expected of them."
In 2009, though, her life took another dramatic turn when she was set up on a blind date with Dungannon-born Darren Clarke, a champion golfer, who had tragically lost his wife, Heather, to cancer a few years earlier.
Prior to meeting Darren, Alison had been living at her family home in Ballygowan. She was divorced from her first husband, Arthur Campbell, who is the father of their two sons, Stuart (26) and Philip (23).
Sparks flew between Alison and Darren after they were paired up by golfer Graeme McDowell and one of the models at ACA, tying the knot in a fairy-tale wedding in the Caribbean in 2012.
"We will be married three years, can you believe it?" she says. Now living in Portrush, the pair are blissfully happy. And, while the world of the pro golfing circuit may look glamorous, Alison sets the record straight.
"It looks glamorous and, yes, of course, we have a nice life, but the people in the golfing world are real. I have met some wonderful people, but being a golfer is a solitary sport," she says.
"Darren spends a lot of time travelling, living out of hotels away from his wife and his family. To him it is a job and he has good days and bad days, just like the rest of us. A lot of the golfing wives travel around the world with their partners, so they all know each other very well. Sometimes, I travel with him and sometimes I don't, as I have a business to run and I plan to do that for quite a few more years. I have no intention of putting my feet up yet."
She is, though, his number one fan, taking to the course at Royal County Down with gusto. "I have just walked round 18 holes, up and down hills for about 10km, so hopefully the legs will be looking good," she jokes.
"I only watch Darren play golf and it's for the love of him, not for the love of golf. I have played a bit of golf, but I can think of so many other nicer things to do in four to five hours than spend it on a golf course. I wouldn't be at the Irish Open other than to support him."
Alison prefers a lunch date with a girlfriend, a gym session or some spa time to "knocking a little white ball round a course".
"I have only ever played golf with Darren once and it was just a lucky shot. I knew it could go either way and be a disaster, but I managed to hit it well. But I have never played golf with him since."
It's undoubtedly part of Alison's make-up to be occupied. "When I started my business, I had my two children and there is no such thing as maternity leave when you are self-employed. I am a worker and I like being busy," she says.
"Don't get me wrong: I like nothing more than having a half-day at home in my pyjamas watching daytime TV, but I couldn't do it every day."
She is rightly proud of all that she has achieved, pointing out how ACA has grown in spite of the recent harsh economic climate. "To keep a business going and continue what you start is amazing, but ACA is successful and making a profit. I wouldn't still be doing it if it wasn't the case."
While for some the idea of a beauty pageant is not a liberated choice, Alison is very clear about what such contests can do for women. "There will always be naysayers about beauty contests and beauty queens - I was a beauty queen and if I hadn't done it, I wouldn't be doing the business I'm doing now. I believe it was my entree into the industry."
She is the first to point out there is more to beauty pageant than "parading around a pool in a swimsuit and high heels".
"The industry in Northern Ireland has changed as there is now a marketing and sales element, which provides a lot of commercial opportunities for women."
She adds the building of ACA into a premium brand means it is well-placed to provide a service for this burgeoning marketing within the modelling industry.
"The agency, along with Miss Northern Ireland, has provided platforms for women here that they otherwise just wouldn't get."
A life so far
- Alison and Darren had their first date at a restaurant in Heathrow Airport when he flew in from Hong Kong
- The couple got engaged in December 2011, marrying in April 2012 on a beach in Abaco in the Bahamas
- Alison didn't have any boyfriends at school, or any long relationships before marrying her first husband, Arthur Campbell
- The Miss Northern Ireland competition final is held prior to the Miss World competition. Heats start in March each year
- ACA Model Agency provides models for fashion shows, showroom work, advertising and photographic sessions throughout Northern Ireland and the Republic