Bullied teen who became a beauty queen
Brittany Mason tells Sarah Caden about her difficult childhood, becoming a Miss America finalist and those DiCaprio rumours
Brittany Mason covers her face with her hands and shrieks with embarrassment when I ask if she really dated Leonardo DiCaprio.
"Ahhhh!" she yelps from behind her hands, before lowering them and clarifying. "I wouldn't call it 'dated'. We hung out. He was split up with Bar [Refaeli] at the time and we hung out one time, and after that weekend, he was back with Bar."
It wasn't anything Brittany did, she hastens to reassure me, it was just one of those LA things. LA is a weird place, she says. Dublin, on the other hand, this former Miss USA finalist is finding far from weird.
Brittany has been in the Republic since last New Year's Eve, having moved lock, stock and barrel from California, with her partner, Stephen, while he sets up his company's aviation-business office.
When Brittany describes herself as a "classic American country girl", she means it, and she isn't faking it. But she is, also, a classic American country girl who has come a long way, who dragged herself along that way to a great extent, and who has a hard-won belief that she has far to go yet.
And now, she's started to wonder if she could be the USA's gift to the beauty-queen scene here.
"I'm a midwest girl," Brittany explains, "from a very small farming town in Indiana. But I always knew there was more to life than Indiana, and I wanted to get out and experience the world, and of course everyone thought that I was crazy. I was the black sheep of the family. Most of my cousins married their high-school sweethearts and had babies, and that's great, but I wanted something different. I wanted to travel and I wanted to see what else there was."
There was more than itchy feet at work in Brittany's ambitions to spread her wings, though. Her childhood, as she explains it, was insecure and sometimes traumatic. She has talked in the past about abuse at one point in her childhood, and she was seriously bullied as a teenager, but the desire to flee took root earlier than that.
Her parents were never married and Brittany grew up without her biological father in her life. Her mother married while Brittany was still a child, and she loves her stepfather and calls him dad. But that doesn't make it a nice, neat, cosy story.
"Before my mom got married, there wasn't a huge amount of stability in my life," Brittany explains. "I moved around and lived with different aunts and uncles, and so one of my aunts, she was like a mom to me. I was very close to her and she always encouraged me to meet my [biological] dad, but my mom forbade it.
"She didn't want him anywhere near me or anything; there were drug-addiction problems, and other things that I found out later. I found out a lot of stuff as an adult, but back then, my mom wouldn't talk about it, and it was just forbidden."
The bullying of Brittany started when she began high school. It started with a small group of girls, and then escalated. There was no adult in her corner, she believes, no one grown-up on her side, and that played a huge part in how it all spun out of control.
She describes one of "the worst days", the homecoming parade during her high-school freshman year. All of the students were gathered in the school gym, competing to be the class with the loudest school chant. Then a few key girls began chanting something else and, gradually, everyone joined in and the adults did nothing.
"They had a picture of me and they drew all types of degrading names and they started chanting and pointing, 'You're ugly, you're ugly, you're ugly!'" Brittany recalls, as if it was yesterday. "I was 14 and these girls were older than me and I didn't know why they were doing this. It became pretty serious."
No wonder she dreamed of getting out, I say, though the drive she demonstrated in her desire to escape still comes as a surprise.
"Because of the seriousness of the bullying and the feeling that I had nowhere to go and no one to help me, I attempted suicide," Brittany says. Her attempt failed, and, maybe spurred her to try something else as a means of getting away from Indiana.
At the age of 14, Brittany Mason looked at models in magazines and thought, "I want that." They always looked so happy, she says, laughing at her naive interpretation of their posed shots. But, I suppose you could say, anyone looked happier than she felt back then.
Not that she really knew anything about how to become a model.
"I didn't even know that you needed to send these to agencies or anything," she laughs now, "but then I heard about this model search and I entered that and four agencies scouted me.
"And then, when I learned that, with Miss USA and Miss Teen USA, they pay for school, they pay for an apartment, you get a year's salary, you get to move to New York. I was, like, 'Ok, I want to be Miss USA'.
"So, I was 17. And I started working and waiting to do the 'Miss' division of Miss USA, when I was 20. So I competed for Miss Indiana USA for the Miss Universe organisation, and this was when Donald Trump owned it. And I went to Miss USA and I came in seventh."
Donald liked her, Brittany concedes. "He did stop to talk to me [in the line-up] and he doesn't do that with all the girls. He stopped and talked for a moment."
During the time she was getting ready for Miss USA, Brittany got a message from a girl who said she was Brittany's younger sister. She had so much going on at the time, and it was such an overwhelming idea, that Brittany parked it, until the death of her uncle and the reconciliation with her aunt.
A box Brittany's aunt had kept for five years and then gave to her contained details about her biological father, letters and photographs, among which were photos of the girl who had contacted Brittany; her sister. "So I got in contact with them and started to build a relationship with them. I met my biological father and found out the truth of where I came from and my background. It was massively healing."
Brittany's very whole life expanded to include Stephen, her partner, when they met two years ago in Las Vegas. Both were at conferences and, she laughs, he "head-butted" her. Accidentally, she adds.
Since then, they have been on an "adventure" together, with a lot of travel, a lot of romance and now a move to Ireland.
Brittany didn't balk at the idea of Ireland, despite the fact that she was not the kind of American who grew up with stories of it as "the old country". She thinks that both she and Stephen had great-grandmothers who were Irish, but she felt no ancestral draw to the place.
Brittany, as a model, has moved around a lot, and relocated to California from New York several years ago to see if she could extend modelling into TV and film work. She likes a challenge, she likes new places.
And, as she says, "if it all goes wrong, California isn't going anywhere. It'll still be there."