Claire Tully's breasts are marking out yet another milestone in the march of modern Ireland. She is our first and only glamour model (that's glamour as in the polite way of saying topless; it has nothing to do with fox fur and false lashes). And as the only Irish woman ever to have graced Page Three, she has become a bit of a media sensation.
She is now, arguably, the owner of the most famous breasts in Ireland. Which is, it has to be said, a pretty bold step in a country where one of the most abiding social orthodoxies is an almost pathological dread of what the neighbours might think.
Incidentally, and because I'm sure you are wondering, Claire couldn't really give a stuff what the neighbours think. But she's inclined to believe that, if they've been following the little media kerfuffle generated around her decision to disrobe (twice!) for the enjoyment of readers of the Sun, they would probably hold back on negative judgement. So far, most people she has encountered have been supportive. And as for her family, Claire knew they might take a little bit of convincing to come around to the idea, but now they are fully behind her.
"I didn't tell my family," she says of launching herself as a glamour model, "because I probably would have been told not to do it. Once you go and do something that isn't really that bad, people get over it. I remember my mother when I was small, I really wanted a fringe. I really wanted it. And she said, 'You're not getting one.' And I just went and got a fringe. And she got over it."
Ultimately, though, in taking this bold step, Claire considered no one's judgement but her own. Which is just the first thing about her that I find pretty impressive. When talking about her reasons for deciding to be a Page Three girl, she unravels a thesis that seems neither flaky nor trite. She has said in a previous interview that taking her top off is "like water off a duck's back", but that makes the decision seem less considered than it really was. To me, it seems more that, having consciously and deliberately decided to go ahead with this despite what people might think, she has now firmly determined to brazen it out.
Claire's video for FHM High Street Honeys in 2007
The whole thing began before Christmas last year. Back then, Claire had just qualified with a first-class degree from Trinity and was applying for her PhD. (She's always been a high achiever, and got 600 points in her Leaving). As her boyfriend at the time was a reader of FHM, Claire came across the magazine's High Street Honeys competition and her first thought was: "Some of these photos aren't great. I could do this and easily get in here."
When she made it through to the shortlist of 100 girls, the story was picked up by a few newspapers in Ireland. She didn't qualify for the following round, which she blames, in part, on the fact that she was at a "complete disadvantage" since the premium-text voting lines weren't accessible from Ireland. "I did think the picture that I had entered was a lot better than some of the ones that got through," she says. However, she had made enough of an impact here to be approached by the Irish Sun with an offer to become the first Irish Page Three girl.
"There were two reasons why I decided to go ahead with it," she says, pausing for careful consideration. "In Ireland, a lot of people tend to be a bit narrow minded. They have an idea in their head of what a glamour model is. I think because of my background and because I'm not someone who wants to be a WAG and who just wants attention for taking their clothes off, by doing this, it would make it easier. The public would see me and they would think: 'OK, she's done this, but isn't she also really smart.' People have an idea of what a top Trinity student is supposed to be like and they have an idea of what a Page Three girl is supposed to be like, but put the two together and it's very hard for people to reconcile. Of anybody in this country who might be able to break down people's prejudices, I probably have the best shot. I do know of girls who would love to do this sort of thing, but would be afraid of what their families would think."
Claire is, she reasons, uniquely positioned to "soften people's attitudes" and help erode whatever stigma surrounds Page Three.
Reason number two was more personal. "My mother had breast cancer, and obviously Page Three is about your breasts. I decided that I would make it my business in any interviews that I would do to mention this, and hopefully people would write about it and hopefully this would be a way of raising awareness."
Claire Tully is not a feminist. This is less because she doesn't bother to think in political terms than it is a result of being of a generation where gender struggle, in the Western world at least, has become a sideline issue. She certainly doesn't believe that in presenting herself for men's admiration she is doing any harm to women's cause.
"I think it is people's attitudes that are wrong, and I think that this is directly from the influence of the Church and religion. People are brought up with the idea that our bodies are disgusting and that we should be humiliated by them. And I think that is why people do not like it when a woman takes her breasts out. And I think it is the people who have a problem like that [who are discriminating against women] and not the people who put girls on Page Three. Because those girls are not exploited. They get paid well."
It has to be said, she makes a pretty convincing argument. The contradictions embodied by Claire Tully's fiercely intelligent, semi-naked package completely undermine the type of censorious moral judgement that holds portraying women as sex symbols is exploitative. She forces us to confront and question the prejudice that any girl who poses topless cannot also expect to be taken seriously. Or that women who serve up their sexuality for male consumption are bimbos and too stupid to realise the damage they inflict on their gender. Can we, in the face of the combined power of her nudity and her intellect, really give credence to the notion that through the simple act of getting her tits out, she is instantly reduced to either victim or commodity?
In a way, her mature attitude to sexuality makes an equal mockery of both those whose boorish tastes would seek to reduce her to nothing but a hunk of flesh, and those who, with prurient, hysterical disapproval, object on grounds of decency.
If she's fine with it, then maybe the problem does indeed lie with those attitudes that deem that anyone who openly trades on their sexual appeal can only ever be considered as worthwhile as they are sexy?
I wonder if, having made this step, on record now forever, she worries that she may end up falling foul of the very judgements she has set out to challenge. Does she ever feel concerned that having been a Page Three girl may undermine her standing as an academic and a scientist? She doesn't. For the simple, empirical reason that there is already a precedent. In response she asks me if I have ever heard of Polly Matzinger. I haven't, so Claire explains that Matziner is probably the top female immunologist in the world and the woman behind the Danger Theory. I can't claim to properly understand, but Claire launches into a description of the theory, which deals with how "the body recognises specific molecular danger patterns and then initiates an immune response". She finishes by stating, with a flourish that is loaded with both admiration and triumph: "Polly Matzinger was a Playboy Bunny. I believe," she goes on, "that she will often still give talks and goes into the room in thigh-high boots." Her next sentence goes without saying, but she goes ahead anyway: "Polly Matzinger would be a pretty big role model for me."
Like Matzinger, Claire's priorities are fixed. There in no question that being a Page Three girl is anything more than a diversion to keep her busy while she's killing time in between degrees. Her PhD is, much to her obvious chagrin, currently on hold. Though she was accepted to study the specialism of her choice -- HIV-host interactions and immunodominance as seen in natural infection, specifically HIV-specific, HLA A*0201 restricted immunodominant cytotoxic T-cells -- at Oxford, the plan fell through when it emerged that as a non-UK resident she wasn't eligible for funding. Now, she is in the process of applying to other programmes for which she may receive financial support, although all are in the UK because there is no lab in Ireland that addresses her very specific area of interest.
So she's capitalising on the coverage, building up a profile and weathering out the storm. It's a brave position. And, of course, any pioneering endeavour, even -- and perhaps in this case, especially -- Page Three brings with a it a certain amount of loneliness.
"There has even been speculation about the English that I've used on my Bebo page, and people saying that I've dumbed it down," she says of some of the flak she as been getting. Having seen her page, I have to agree that it is hard to reconcile the self-possessed person sitting in front me with the profusion of exclamation marks and inane chatter on her site. And when I clicked on a video link to Claire appearing on the SoccerAM television show, giggling about how she did "like, science and stuff" I couldn't help but feel pretty disappointed.
But then, I reasoned, perhaps such obvious frothery could be justified as a shrewd and savvy, Jordan-esque decision to tailor her brand to suit her target audience. Still, I can't help but feeling that this somehow slightly diminishes her message.
Overall, though, I think I can forgive her the giggling on SoccerAM because there is so much more to admire. From her ringletted curls to her white-tipped acrylics she looks every inch the northside blonde but in reality she's a girl who became a nail technician so she could support herself while also going about getting a first in college.
Apparently, when she first arrived at Trinity the other students didn't warm to her and gave her a hard time. It's easy to see that doing Page Three is probably not the first time in her life that Claire Tully has had to do battle with entrenched social stereotypes.
But as an exhilarating array of contradictions, she utterly confounds the notion of type itself, and exposes it as bogus. This surely, and not the act of getting her tits out, is what makes her a real trailblazer.
Certainly, its not an achievement to which any other Irish model in the country can lay claim.