Newtownards man Johnny Hamilton: 'I was living the dream as a model in London but homesickness brought me and my wife back to NI'
Newtownards man Johnny Hamilton hit the big time as a model, working for many luxury brands and as a celebrity body double. But the high cost of living, crowded streets and a trip to see Northern Ireland play made him realise home wasn’t so bad after all.
For 34-year-old commercial, fashion and fitness model Johnny Hamilton, just like so many others living and working in Northern Ireland, it all began with Game of Thrones.
Having decided against a career in the Royal Navy - "I realised quickly that authority was not what I needed" - the engineering graduate from Newtownards applied for an advertised position of "built, swarthy-skinned, bearded male" and hasn't look back since.
"It was about six or seven years ago," Johnny recalls.
"I'm an impulsive person, always have been, so I thought, 'Sure, why not?' I ended up being offered a featured role in season one as a Dothraki and I was hooked from then on.
"I realised that you can earn good money doing something that you actually enjoy, rather than killing yourself in a career that doesn't suit. Never before had I even thought that you could break into that sort of job in tiny old Belfast.
"From then I landed regular jobs, often playing the role of the cool dad. I signed with a local agent and got more work, mostly for hotels, weddings and tailors. I absolutely loved it."
By then, Johnny was already engaged to the love of his life, 32-year-old chartered accountant Lesley-Anne, from Dundonald, who he met at the gym.
"Our relationship blossomed and we got engaged in New York. We were married in 2012 at Crom Castle in Enniskillen - a fairytale setting and still a place we hold close to our hearts," he adds.
When one of London's biggest sports agents inquired about signing him up, Johnny was initially sceptical.
"I actually didn't believe it," he admits. Things moved fast, however, and within days he was on the books. A promising career in London beckoned.
"At that stage, I was signed in Northern Ireland with my current agent, CMPR, and I knew that I had to jump on this wave or lose it. Lesley-Anne and I both believe that you only live once and I was not going to sit back and watch my life slide by.
"The year before, we went on a road trip across America at the last minute. We packed a bag, rented a bright red Camaro in New York and drove 5,600 miles to Los Angeles via New Orleans. It opened our eyes to the fact that there is so much out there.
"So we asked each other if we wanted to make the move to London and within two months, we had our house packed and rented and were driving down from Scotland in a Mini fully laden with junk and a cute, grumpy bulldog stuck in the car as well.
"We had no children and really no ties. Obviously our friends and family are key to us but nowadays everything is so close - a flight can almost be quicker that getting stuck on a motorway. We thought it was better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all."
The pair settled in the leafy suburbs of Richmond, with Lesley-Anne quickly finding work in the city and Johnny returning to engineering on a part-time basis.
The modelling jobs poured in too. Before long, he was shooting "huge jobs" for Reebok, Men's Health and BMW, and bagging TV work in the first promotion for Love Island.
"It's a very tough industry and you get lots of rejections, but you forget that when you land a big job. When we arrived there, I realised that fashion and catwalk work wasn't for me.
"I didn't have the fashion look and I wasn't 6ft 3in, but that didn't bother me in the slightest. My Northern Ireland accent went down a storm.
"I always knew that commercial and fitness work was more suited to me.
"I was actually the fat kid at school. I was made to feel that way, too. Kids can be cruel. But rugby in secondary school changed it all for me. I loved the sport and played it for years. It started me off in the gym. I never wanted to be the overweight kid again so my training became serious. It fits that my modelling work reflects that."
Initially, both Johnny and Lesley-Anne enjoyed the fast-paced lifestyle that London afforded them. The main joy for Johnny, he reveals, was the freedom, anonymity and spontaneity of London living.
"It is very easy to get lost in London and find yourself walking aimlessly, listening to your beats and sucking up the cool vibes. I would regularly get last-minute castings. A call would come in and I would have to go and see someone about a potential job.
"From being measured up as a body double for a celebrity in a famous wax works, to getting a call back for an audition on a Hollywood blockbuster in a basement of a handbag shop, it was full of variety.
"London is very cool that way. I worked as a supporting artist on Holby City and was cancelled at the last minute as a model on Alan Carr's Chatty Man. It was great. London is epic."
Before too long, however, the dream existence began to turn sour. Paying for Richmond rent was expensive and stressful, and for Lesley-Anne, the packed tube ride into work each morning took its toll. Homesickness began to kick in.
Although Northern Ireland was a short plane ride away, work made it difficult to return.
It was during a trip to Lyon to watch Northern Ireland play Ukraine in Euro 2016 that Johnny and Lesley-Anne made the decision to leave London behind.
"When we got there, we saw a whole new side to our wee country," he says.
"The fans love for their team and the goodwill and backing they showed really hit home with us big time.
"We got a reality check that, although we were living in the hub of London, there was no reason that I couldn't travel to auditions and be based where our hearts lay. I saw that my wife was struggling a bit with the distance and her happiness was key to me - my career will always come second place to our marriage - so it was time to go home."
Since making the decision to return to Northern Ireland and settle in Bangor, Johnny and Lesley-Anne say that they have never been happier.
"Making the decision to move back was great. It has settled us and given me focus," he says.
As a result, he has found work as a personal trainer and signed as an ambassador for Better Bodies clothing. The modelling work hasn't dried up either.
"Modelling does exist in Northern Ireland," he adds.
"It will obviously never be as well paid as the likes of London or Dublin, but you can make a career out of it. For anyone interested in pursuing it, I would suggest forming an interest in something else as well.
"Don't give up on the dream but complement your modelling with going to the gym, YouTube videos, workout clips for social media and networking. Make it work. It's most definitely not going to be handed to you."
Interestingly, Johnny reveals that the older he gets, the more jobs he is offered. He cites the likes of David Beckham and veteran UK model David Gandy - the face of Dolce & Gabbana, as well as countless fragrances and commercial campaigns - as key influencers in that regard, two men who are seemingly more in demand in their 40s than they have ever been.
"I think men for once have an advantage in the modelling industry with regards to age," he says.
"Clients these days seem to prefer the weathered look, the distinguished look, the older gent look. I don't know why, but we seem to get away with it.
"I can't comment on the female side of things, but I have heard from many women friends in the industry that they are scared to get older in case work dries up for them, and I can understand that. It's not slowing up for me, so I guess I'm happy to get old."
He admits that modelling is a "fickle" industry governed by fleeting trends and often impossible expectations.
It is not the type of career suited to wallflowers and introverts, yet Johnny continues to enjoy it a decade after booking his first job.
"You do get very thick skinned quickly in this job," he says.
"It all comes down to whether you are right or not for the part. That's not your fault but the client often has a preconception of what they want, and if you're not it, who cares?
"It's not personal. Keep that in mind. Despite all the rejection and the challenges, I love everything about modelling. How else can you be flown around the world and be asked to do the most crazy of things and then get paid for it? It's fun."
With that in mind, Johnny heads off to his next personal training session, happy in the knowledge that moving back home has enabled him to combine modelling with fitness, and inspire clients to improve and change their lives for the better.