Model Nuala Meenehan past it? She's only getting started
Belfast model Nuala Meenehan tells Una Brankin about still strutting the catwalk at 50, partying with Prince Albert and the traumas in her life
Among the dozens of magazine covers Nuala Meenehan has appeared on over the years, there's a particularly eye-catching close-up of her lovely face at 30.
Her dark hair is swept back to accentuate those high, curving cheekbones and big hazel eyes, and with fresh summer make-up, her lightly tanned skin is flawless.
Yet one bitchy media maven took a look at the image, on the front of a 1996 edition of Ulster Tatler, and declared the stunning model was past it.
"I remember that well, it was a certain female editor," says Nuala, one eyebrow cocked. "She actually said: 'Oh look, it's all over for Nuala. She has lost it.' Seriously."
We're taking a trip down memory lane, sifting through old model cards and dusty fashion spreads, over lunch at Deanes at Queen's, off the University Road in Belfast.
Media savvy, Nuala knew the memorabilia would give us a good talking point on this, our first time to meet. Despite the fact we're the same vintage and moved in connecting circles for many years, our paths have never crossed, and I always assumed -wrongly - this sultry beauty would be rather aloof.
"I used to do sultry really well," she says, pulling a pouty pose. "Now I just look like I'm going to bite your head off. I'm an antique! Honestly, a lot of the people and things associated with me are dead, gone or obsolete."
She's only half joking. At 50, the east Belfast beauty has suffered much loss in her life, including the deaths of her mother, from Alzheimer's disease in 2009, and her first husband, who drowned while swimming. She also lost a brother, aged 11, and her adopted sister Caroline, who was two years older, to liver failure in 2014.
"My brother was knocked down in Finaghy when I was seven. We lived near there at the time, before we moved to the Ravenhill Road; I went to St Anne's primary school, down the road. I was only seven and I remember being astonished to see my dad crying.
"And Caroline, we were really close. She suffered from obesity, which I didn't realise could actually kill you. She had issues around being adopted ... but I'd rather not go into that. Sometimes I think her death is only really hitting me now."
The pain of the bereavements shows in Nuala's expressive eyes, which she averts at the mention of Caroline. Not one to wallow, however, she's soon joking again, comparing herself to the mythical Angel of Death.
"Honestly, my friends worry they'll be next," she chuckles. "But, there's my dad at 92, he's not a bit worried about it. He has planned his own funeral, he says he'll get buried in town to save us all traipsing to Bryansford in Maghera, where he grew up. He has even planned the lunch afterwards.
"He has a great quality of life. He has his Merlot with his lunch every day up in Ballyhackamore."
One of five girls, Nuala inherited the best of both her parents' looks.
"Dad was a civil servant, originally from Mayo - he has those big west of Ireland cheekbones," she explains, expertly mimicking the thick 'whestern' brogue. "Both he and mum were dark, but mum was finer featured. She was amazing, she looked like Rita Hayworth.
"I remember her telling us at an early age to always look after our skin, so I've been using moisturiser and eye cream since my early 20s. I dip in and out of various products, but I like Estee Lauder and Dermalogica. My skin has changed since I hit the menopause, though. I've never had Botox or fillers, but I'm going to go and get Fraxel laser treatments at the River Medical clinic, and start doing facial exercises to tone up the jawline. I hate that slackening thing."
Now working as an account manager with the outdoor advertising agency Exterion Media, Nuala models part-time with Cathy Martin's agency, CMPR, and - with the same 35/25/26 measurements she had at 20 - she stole the show at last year's High Street catwalk show at Belfast Fashion Week.
She admits to smoking and drinking a bit at weekends, but successfully completed Dry January and has recently taken up running.
"I didn't know what to do with myself with no partying in January - the house is very clean now," she quips. "And I'm up at 7.30am now for a run, on the training app Couch to 5k. I never ran in my life. I'm not a gym bunny, I like sitting - and talking. I'm basically lazy and don't move around a lot, but have started running gradually.
"You have to make an effort as you get older. I noticed a seismic change in my body when I hit 43. It was like, 'bloody hell'! Gravity suddenly kicked in, so I started doing yoga. Mind you, my favourite bit is lying down at the end.
"I also take B vitamins and all the omegas. My diet was pretty poor. I struggled with my weight in my early 20s. I don't like lettuce, I'm very picky. In Dublin I was slightly more curvy than the other girls. My diet's better now; I'm not into pasta, but I love bread. I used to eat a sandwich every day, but now it makes me bloated. Weight's harder to lose now, you have to work harder."
She's called away from our circular booth in Deanes to change for our fashion shoot, which was photographed by a former neighbour of hers, Peter Morrison. They've worked together often during the years, and Peter gets a squeeze on the cheeks from the tactile Nuala when they meet today.
"She's lovely, she knows what poses look good," says Peter. "She makes it so easy."
The stylist Zara Beggs agrees.
"I love Nuala, she's my favourite model," she smiles. "The way she wears clothes, she's very relaxed. She walks around chatting to everyone. Such a pleasure to work with."
At the relatively short - for modelling - height of 5'7", a pair of her own golden platform shoes add about five inches on to Nuala's perfect pins for the shoot.
Throughout, she rarely smiles, hiding the gap in her teeth, which - as an admirer of former supermodel and actress Lauren Hutton - she has resisted cementing over with veneers.
And with her full lips and quirky asymmetric haircut, she could pass for a woman in her late 30s. But even though she's a natural in front of the camera, Nuala never planned to become a model, and fell into the career by accident.
"After school at St Monica's, I was toying around with the idea of studying graphic design at art college or doing theatre. I acted a lot at school, mostly in men's roles," she recalls in a break from the shoot.
"It was the time Christie Brinkley did the video for Uptown Girl and my sister Claire desperately wanted to be a model. She was tall and had good, narrow hips.
"When she went down to Dublin for her first casting, mum insisted she have a chaperone - me. I was 17, she was 15. I was a bit of a hippie, I was a socialist and into CND. I thought models were too busy thinking about themselves, not 'saving the planet'. Anyway, I remember sitting there in Dublin, waiting on Claire, and the agent Nan Morgan spotted me and asked me to have my picture taken as she thought I'd work well.
"I wasn't interested at all and I was smaller and wasn't rake thin, but I did it for a laugh and ended up on Nan's books. After that, I did very well in Dublin and made great money. I always had fun with the photographers and got on well with everyone."
Suddenly, the young Nuala - then with long, wavy hair and a more rounded face - was earning a daily rate of Ir£800 for a two-day Aero ad - "sitting at a table pretending to play chess, getting Ir£1,600 for a quick flash of my face".
It was the height of the Lady Di era and Nuala was snapped in a series of fussy, shoulder-padded creations for the leading Irish designers. She scoffs now at the sight of herself in a hideous purple plaid, typically Diana dress, accessorised with matching tights and frumpy court shoes.
Regardless, she became one of Dublin's top models at the time, and caught the eye of a certain visiting royal.
"Yeah, I had some good times, not that I could let on about," she winks. "I went for drinks with Prince Albert at a club on Leeson Street once, with a posse of models. He'd spotted me somewhere and sent an invite. He was very charming indeed.
"Oh, and I stole Pierce Brosnan's taxi one time. I sort of elbowed him out of the way and said 'I'm in a terrible rush, sorry!' I jumped in and said to myself, 'oh my God, did I just do that to Pierce Brosnan?!'"
By that stage, Nuala was living in Sandymount and dating bass player Paul Bushnell, a music producer on the hit Alan Parker film, The Commitments.
She cut her hair into a spiky Sheena Easton style, which helped land her roles in pop videos - including one for a footballer that she filmed in London. She also worked in Japan and the US, and modelled in TV ads for Coke, Lux soap and Dunnes hosiery.
Contracted to the former Brian Massey agency in Belfast, she also modelled for former city centre stores Anderson & McAuley's and Robinson & Cleaver's.
"Belfast was like a village then compared to Dublin, and then I went to London, but I didn't enjoy it," she recalls. "At home, I was a big fish in a small pond. Over there, you're just a number. I put on weight and split up with Paul, the long-distance thing didn't work. It was then I got to thinking 'I'd better get a proper job'.
"I was 24 and thought I was too old to be a model - imagine. I thought I'd quite like PR or advertising, so I went to see a guy I knew in an advertising agency and the first thing he said to me was 'can you type?'
"So I had to go and learn; then I started in sales in the Belfast Telegraph, doing the death notices, 26 years ago. There was a great sense of camaraderie, we had our own sort of lounge upstairs. I daren't tell you what we got up to in there or I'd be in trouble!"
A black and white cutting from the Belfast Telegraph at the time announces Nuala's appointment, with a full-length shot of her in a smart shirt and sensible skirt. But her glamour days weren't over and she was soon back on the catwalk, appearing regularly in Gay Byrne's Late Late Show fashion specials on RTE.
"I continued on and ended up the only one, of the girls I started with, modelling at 30. I somehow just kept on modelling into my 40s when the other girls were raising kids. I never got around to that, I just kept putting it off. Most women are raising families between 30 and 50. I come from a big family myself, but I've no regrets.
"It's not going to happen now. The doctor said I was in the menopause, so the option was no longer there. I knew I was; I'd been getting all these funny sensations for a while. But I have godchildren and I'm a great aunt to three lovely nieces - I've high hopes for one of them, Ella, for modelling. She's 13."
As her career in advertising progressed beyond the Belfast Telegraph and into specialist agencies, Nuala lowered her profile for a while and used her wide experience of promotional work to her advantage.
Her long-term modelling has given her a good visual sense when it comes to advertising and marketing, a vital ingredient for an effective account manager looking after companies such as Sony Films, Coke and the drinks conglomerate Diagio.
"It can be a struggle to be taken seriously when you're a model," she admits, going a bit gloomier for a few seconds.
"Because I didn't go to university, I always felt as if I was trying to catch up, and you feel people are being judgemental, but I've managed to do all right.
"I've good blue-chip clients I go to see in Dublin a couple of days a week - the money's starting to come back a bit there and I love going down and catching up with my old friends [including the Lurgan-born former model, PR consultant Sonia Reynolds].
"I also have my Ulster Tatler 'Girl About Town column'. Girl - Jesus! But I'm social and I love going to all the events. I'm a bit of a workaholic as well."
When she's not working, Nuala likes to relax at home with her husband, media director Tony Axon.
"I have to admit, I like watching things like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. Tony hates it," she says, looking guilty. "But, yes, we're soulmates. He has never raised his voice to me, ever. He just walks away if there's an argument. He's calm and quiet, while I'm in hysterics - it's not my fault, it's the menopause!"
With that, Ms Meenehan is off to a high-powered meeting in town. But that girl really should be on a stage.
Nuala was styled exclusively by Candy Plum boutique, with hair by Jason Shankey Salons and make-up by Oonagh Boman.
Candy Plum will be showcasing their collections at Style Sunday in Deanes at Queen's on Sunday, March 13. The flagship FASHIONWEEK event is a four-course fashion luncheon with hair, skincare, style and beauty experts as well as a fashion show. It is in support of Action Cancer and tickets are £45pp. To book call Deanes on 028 9038 2111.