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With wedding plans and a career as a top model, it’s set to be a great year for Belfast’s Jude Nabney

The model tells Ivan Little why she and her fiance Rob Rea are currently in South Africa ... and how fate intervened to save her life.

She’s a jet-set model who’s travelled thousands of miles to grace catwalks and to star in photo-shoots in glamorous, glittering hotspots all over the world. And as 24-year-old Belfast beauty Jude Nabney catches her breath to reflect on the last 12 hectic months of her fast-rising career, she’s knows she’s not just lucky to be doing the job she loves — she knows she’s also fortunate to be alive.

For high-flier Jude’s life could easily have ended last year if fate hadn’t intervened before one of her modelling assignments. Not in one of the world’s mega rich fashion capitals like Milan or Miami but rather in Cork.

Jude was supposed to be a passenger on the Manx2 commuter plane from Belfast which crashed in thick fog at Cork airport in February killing six people on board.

Her father Norman says: “Jude would have been on the plane if her bosses hadn’t mentioned to her that some other models she knew were going from Dublin to the same job in Cork. She said she was happy to drive and pick up the others on her way through Dublin. Her agency’s plan had been to fly Jude down on her own.

“Happily, she never boarded that plane.”

But the tragedy hasn’t put Jude or her fiancé Rob Rea off flying. And the duo — a model couple in every way — are currently taking the South African fashion industry by storm.

The easy-on-the-eye twosome who are getting married this year are now living in Cape Town, one of the world’s busiest modelling centres. And they’ve both been inundated with offers of work.

Jude has been in demand from top designers like Marc Jacobs, Harvey Nichol and Jimmy Choo for several years. She worked for a top model agency in Dublin but she and Rob moved to South Africa earlier this year after she fell in love with Cape Town 12 months ago.

She says: “During a trip to Germany I met a girl who was from Cape Town and she talked so enthusiastically about the place that I thought I’d give it a go. By coincidence I was scouted by a model agency from the city two days later and spent a couple of months there before Christmas last year.

“I liked it so much that Rob and I decided we’d come back for six months. The city is absolutely buzzing and the biggest and best agency — Ice Models — asked me to join them. Their client base is so wide that every day is a different experience.”

Such is the competition for modelling work in South Africa, that it’s not unusual for Jude to be up against 400 other girls in castings.

“I have been incredibly lucky in getting work,” says Jude, who first put a tentative toe onto the catwalk before she took her A levels.

“In South Africa, I've been doing a lot of catalogue work for French, Austrian, Swiss, German, English and American clients. I do mainly swimwear, lingerie and fashion shoots which take me to places that most people never normally get to see.”

Jude and Rob, who is 26, are planning to stay in South Africa until April when the modelling scene quietens down. But the world will then become the couple’s oyster.

“Now that Rob is modelling full-time too, it’s amazing. We can visit places together and work. We have Paris, Hamburg and Miami planned for the next few years. It's such an exciting time. But I can always see us coming back to Cape Town where the industry is so vibrant.”

However, Jude and Rob also have their sights on Australia. “The industry there is huge and neither of us has been there before. So we are waiting until we can find a couple of months gap in our diaries.”

Jude still relies on what she calls her ‘mother agency’ in Dublin — 1st Option — to help guide her to the right destinations. “They help me pick where I should go to find the best market for me and the place where I would make the most money. But I could never envisage not working in Ireland.”

For Jude’s fiancé Rob — a finalist in Northern Ireland’s sexiest man competition two years ago — the move to South Africa was a leap in the dark. He took time out of his job as a business analyst with the Ulster Bank to become a full-time model like his fiancée. But he’d never worked outside Ireland before and didn’t know how he would fare in his new environment.

“But the response has been incredible,” says Jude. “Rob is working as much as I am and loving every minute of it. He’s done his first TV commercial here and he's also working with a lot of European clients and as a result has signed to agencies across Europe.

“We’ve also been worked on a sports shoot together and that was brilliant.”

Jude adds that the couple spend their rare days off seeing the sights of Cape Town. The only downside of their otherwise dream jobs is homesickness.

Jude admits: “We are both total home birds and we’re so close to our families that it’s been difficult for us to leave them, and our friends, behind for six months.

We both have young nephews who are growing up fast but at least we get to talk to them and everyone else at home via Skype which has proved to be a wonderful invention.”

Rob and Jude first met — not surprisingly — at a fashion event in 2008. It was called Ireland’s Next Big Thing — which Rob had won the year before. They have been an item ever since and have bought a house together in Belfast which they are renting out while they are in South Africa.

They got engaged a year ago, with Rob popping the question when Jude returned home after her first working visit to South Africa.

Jude, a former pupil of Wellington College in south Belfast never aspired to be a model, even though she clearly had all the right credentials as a tall, thin, blue-eyed blonde. But it was her sister Sarah who realised she was cut out for a modelling career.

Seven years ago she read an article in the Belfast Telegraph about an international modelling competition and told her younger sister that she was taking her down to the auditions in a city centre hotel.

“Sarah told her that she would drag her down to the auditions if need be,” says her father Norman.

Jude who was only 17 at the time chided her sister and told her that the organisers would laugh at her. But she relented and out of 4,500 entrants who auditioned, Jude reached the final 14.

She didn’t win the competition but she was offered a contract by the 1st Option agency.

Her father says: “Jude told her mum and me that she would take a year out before going to university. But it’s funny — uni never gets mentioned now.”

Jude’s parents, who are both devout Christians, were initially wary of the youngest of their four children working in the model industry, having heard all the horror stories of girls starving themselves, taking diet pills and being exploited by seedy characters in the industry.

Businessman Norman says: “We had concerns obviously and one of the first things we did was to go down to Dublin to meet her agent Trish Fallon and she was very good with us. We were re-assured by her promises to look after her.

“Jude told us how some girls ate just tiny amounts of food only every other day and how some people told her she needed to lose weight which is ridiculous.

“But the first time she went abroad — to Munich — she rang us to tell us that everything was great and that there was a McDonalds at the end of the street!

“She eats sensibly but she will still have a burger. She goes to the gym and keeps an eye on her weight — but she just doesn’t get worked up about it.”

The fact that Jude is living — and often working — with her Northern Irish fiance in South Africa is another source of comfort for her parents Norman and Rosie back home.

“Yes, it does take a lot of worry off our minds,” says Norman.

Jude and Rob are getting married back home in Northern Ireland in September. And Jude has the wedding dress designer picked out already.

Having modelled wedding dresses so often before and being so at home in front of the cameras, it’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to say that Jude will look good on her big day.

But as a friend adds: “Jude looks great every day of the week ...”

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