As a top model, Kelly Anne McKendry worked with Agyness Deyn and partied with royalty. The Co Down mum-of-two tells Stephanie Bell how her family's tragic past gave her the determination to succeed in fashion’s cut-throat world
From A hard past to happy present family and friends: (From top) Kelly Anne’s mum Helen lays flowers in memory of mother Jean McConville (below with her young family); with Calum Best, and striking a poseShe has travelled the globe as a top model, mixing with royalty and gracing the covers of some of the world's biggest magazines. Co Down beauty Kelly Anne McKendry lived the dream for two years after securing a contract with world-famous London agency Select, where she worked alongside supermodel Agyness Deyn and lad-about-town Calum Best.
It was the very height of glamour, jetting off to exotic climes at the drop of a hat and rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous at all the hottest parties.
Yet in 2005, she gave it all up to spend more time with her daughter, Tiegan, now 10. Since then she has also become a mum again to Felicity Boo (2).
Kelly Anne (30) is still modelling full-time with top Belfast agency Style Academy.
But today she says that her heady days at the top of her profession, which saw her grace the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine, gave her a glimpse of a world which, ultimately, left her totally disillusioned.
“I got to the stage when I just thought it was very fickle and fake,” she admits. “One day they loved you and the next day they hated you.”
Kelly Anne provides a fascinating insider's view to the glitzy world of international fashion.
She also talks about her mum Helen, whose dignified public campaign to find the bodies of ‘the Disappeared' made her a household name in Northern Ireland.
Helen was just 15 and the eldest of 10 when her mum Jean McConville was abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972.
Together with husband Seamus, she led a high-profile campaign to have her mother's body returned to the family. She and her brothers and sisters were finally able to lay their mum to rest in 2003.
Kelly Anne says: “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.”
Helen also played a big part in helping Kelly Anne realise her childhood dream of becoming a model.
“I wanted to be a model for as long as I can remember,” reveals Kelly Anne. “I think it grew from watching The Clothes Show as a child with my mum.
“When I was 19, mum entered me into the Sunday Life Covergirl competition and I had no idea she had done it until I got a call from Tracey Hall of Style Academy asking me to come and see her.”
As a finalist in the 1998 contest, Kelly Anne travelled with the Covergirl style team and other finalists to Lanzarote for her first professional photo shoot.
She says: “After Lanzarote I was hooked. I just loved the whole experience.
“Fortunately Style Academy took me on and I started modelling part-time while finishing my A levels, but I decided I really wanted to go for it and that London was the place to be.”
Kelly Anne spent the next two years flying to London at every opportunity to knock on the doors of its many model agencies. Despite being rejected an amazing 20 times, she never lost hope of that big break and continued her single-minded pursuit of her dream.
She explains: “They weren't telling me I wasn't model material, just that my look wasn't right for them and so I just kept going back every chance I had, working my way through a list of about 30 agencies.” Her big break came after she made it to the top 10 in the smash hit TV show Model Behaviour.
“It was 2003 and Model Behaviour came to do auditions in Belfast for the first time and I think I was first in the queue,” she said.
“The judges were all from Select model agency and I remember one of the first things I had to do was walk for them, and they told me I walked like a Gucci model.
“I got through four different rounds with mock castings and fashion shows in London, only to be told I wasn't going to the house because my look was too sexy.”
While many others would have been crushed, Kelly Anne as usual was undeterred. She says: “I didn't take it as a bad thing. I had come so far and still felt I could do it.
“I had got to know one of the judges quite well and decided to ring her to see if she could give me some advice on how to find a good agency. She asked me to come and see her. I had just done a job at home for Toni and Guy for which I had to get my long hair all cut off.
“When they saw me with my hair short at Select they said they loved the look and wanted to take me on.”
With Tiegan and partner Jamie at home in Crossgar, Kelly Anne faced the dilemma of working out how to take up the post in London.
She says: “We decided that it wouldn't be good to uproot Tiegan and bring her to London so in the end we agreed I should commute, living in London during the week and coming back home at weekends.
“I am absolutely terrified of flying, so I got the coach every weekend which meant I was leaving London at 4pm on a Friday and only getting back to Belfast for 8am the next day. It was hard going but I stuck it out for two years.”
Kelly Anne found herself thrust into another world during her time with Select. She says: “It was a fantastic experience and such an eye-opener. I was constantly flying off to different countries.
“I remember one day I was at a job in London, when I got a call from the agency to say a driver was on his way to take me to the airport for a flight to Italy, where I was booked for a shoot for Grazia magazine.
“I set off with only the clothes on my back and about £10 in my purse. I didn't even know where I was going.
“The photographer who was doing the shoot had been invited to Princess Beatrice's birthday party that night in Milan and asked me along. I had to borrow a pair of shoes from the stylist on the shoot.
“I was at this party, mingling with all these very glamorous people and members of the Royal family and I remember thinking how crazy it was, I kept pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming.” One of her most memorable jobs was when Calvin Klein chose her as the model for a new mannequin for his collection.
Kelly Anne says: “The casting for that job was probably the most joyous day of my life. There were loads of girls there and when I walked in, the casting director immediately said, ‘The rest of you can go home, we've found our girl'. I was thrilled.
“The next thing I found myself with the tiniest thong on while three guys from Madam Tussauds covered my body in seaweed plaster to make a cast. It was very surreal and also very well paid. I got £7,000 for it.”
Having taken so many knocks to get to where she was, Kelly Ann finally reached her tipping point when she was sent home from a shoot for Vogue magazine.
She recalls: “I was one of a party of six models chosen for the shoot. One of the others was the supermodel Agyness Deyn who I was quite friendly with.
“It was just the biggest chance ever. Once you have shot for Vogue you really are on your way.
“When we arrived, they said my boobs were too big and sent me home. It was the most devastating thing ever and I just decided I couldn't do this anymore.
“I had given it a go and done my best. I had also become aware of how fickle and fake the fashion industry is.
“I remember seeing Agyness Deyn in tears because some people were on her case about having bad skin and just look at her now; she is one of the world's top models.
“Tiegan, who was always an A student, was starting to fall behind in school and so I just decided it would be best to give it up and go home.”
Much to Kelly Anne's delight, Tiegan got an A in her 11-plus not long after she gave up her career to come home.
Now a mum of two, she describes herself as “an overprotective parent”, something which she believes comes from her own experience as a child.
She says: “Mum was always checking on me and my sister and brothers. She would be constantly in and out of our rooms making sure we were ok.”
Helen McKendry's protectiveness towards her children is just part of the terrible legacy she has carried since that night when her mum was cruelly taken from her and murdered.
Kelly Anne says: “When we were small, mum would only say our granny was missing and I remember asking her as a child if she wanted to go and look for her.
“When she started the campaign, she sat us all down and told us the truth. I remember it was a shock but at the same time it made a lot of sense.
“As a child I remember my mum being very depressed and I really worried about her growing up.
“When the campaign was launched I saw her spirits lift for the very first time.
“When they found my granny's body buried on that beach, it was like a big weight had lifted off her shoulders.”
And Kelly Anne adds: “There were a lot of things my mum didn't get to enjoy with us because she was so sad and overprotective.
“Today her children and her grandchildren are her life. She spends her whole day running us about and doing messages for us.
“Life is precious and I suppose that might have influenced me when it came to my determination to get into modelling and do what I really wanted in life.”