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Businesswoman Alison Clarke: How can our MLAs take their pay with a clear conscience?

Successful business: Alison Clarke at work in her office
Successful business: Alison Clarke at work in her office
Proud mum: sons and stepsons Tyrone, Philip, Conor and Stuart
Family life: Alison with her mum and dad
Alison and Darren with their sons on their wedding day in 2012
Rachel Dean

By Rachel Dean

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to Alison Clarke, the founder of ACA Models, who lives in Portrush with her husband, Darren. She has two sons, Stuart (30) and Philip (25), and two stepsons, Tyrone (21) and Conor (18).

Q. Tell us about your childhood

A. I was born in Strabane, Co Tyrone, and am the eldest of five. I have two sisters, Pauline Twaddell and Diane McIvor, and two brothers, Richard and Peter Smyth.

My parents are Jim and Helen Smyth, both fighting fit. My dad is a farmer and horse breeder and my mum was a nurse. She retired from nursing in the Royal Victoria Hospital and Altnagelvin in Derry after she got married.

My childhood was centred around living on the farm and riding ponies with all my siblings at shows all over Ireland, north and south.

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I guess single-handedly setting up my own business, ACA Models, from scratch back in the late 1980s - and continuing to become the longest-running model agency here, with recognised and continued success and awards to date, is no mean feat. The agency is now a well-known brand in the fashion, marketing, sales and promotion industries in Ireland, which I'm very proud of. 

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Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?

A. I don't have any regrets. Everything I've done has been for a reason and I have nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. I have made mistakes, like anyone, but I've learnt from them and used the experiences to move forward.

Life is a huge learning curve and it's the way we deal with the hand that we're dealt that makes us who we are. 

Q. What about phobias? Do you have any?

A. I do not like rodents. If there's a mouse in the house, I'm standing on a chair. From living in the country most of my life and outer city areas, I can confirm there have been occasions when they've got into the house and at the time it's the most traumatic experience for me.

However, now - not that I've come across any recently (fingers crossed) - I feel like, maybe, I could deal with them.

They are only little creatures who, realistically, wish me no harm and are probably more scared of me than I am of them. I used to have this irrational fear of them running up my leg or over my body when I was in bed.

As long as there is someone else to set the trap and deal with all of that business, I will survive.

Q. The temptation that you cannot resist?

A. Where should I start? I can't resist sweets - everything, please, and more. I like all types of sweets, apart from those sour ones.

I also can't resist ice-cream. I just love salted caramel, honeycomb and nutty ice-creams.

Chocolate is a strange one for me because I love all bars, bags and boxes of chocolate. However, I can't stand chocolate cake, sauce, brownies, puddings or ice-cream.

It's really weird. I can eat all the above in white chocolate, but definitely no milk chocolate desserts for me.  

Q. Your number one prized possession?

A. It has to be my two sons, Stuart and Philip, and my two stepsons, Conor and Tyrone. They're all doing so well.

Stuart has just bought his own house and has become quite the interior designer, moving on to gardening. He works in development for Queen's University Belfast.

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Proud mum: sons and stepsons Tyrone, Philip, Conor and Stuart

Philip is living in America. He works for Lidl and is part of their USA management team responsible for opening new stores throughout the east coast.

Tyrone is studying in college in Florida and Conor is off to university in Scotland this month.

I know they don't think they are my actual possessions, but I do own them - and I'm so proud.

Q. The book that has most impacted your life?

A. I would have to say probably the Bible, although I haven't opened it for years (sorry, dad).

I was brought up in Sunday school and the church every week and there are so many great lessons to be learnt from the Bible.

If we all followed the Ten Commandments, the world would be a better place. 

Q. If you had the power or the authority, what would you do?

A. There's a few things I'd like to do if I was given the power and they're in no order of superiority - they're all relevant in my world.

One thing I would do is sort out our politicians in Northern Ireland. I would like to get them all back to talking and get the Assembly set up again. In life we all have to compromise - it's all about give and take. For the sake of our healthcare, our education system and having our own budgets, I ask them to please stand back and take a look at themselves. How can they accept their salaries with a clear conscience?

Another thing I want is world peace... and yes, I know, as a former Miss Northern Ireland beauty queen, the sincerity of this has often been joked about with pageant girls, but if we had world peace, how great a place would this world be? No murders, no wars, no threats, the list goes on.

I would also end world poverty. I'd love to put a stop to the suffering around the world and make life better for those who don't have enough food or water to survive.

And I would improve world health by making sure there were available health services for all.

If I had the power or authority, the world would be a better place.

Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A. Lies. I know immediately when someone is lying. It's the worst thing ever for me. Just tell the truth and then deal with the consequences.

Q. Who has most influenced you in life?

A. My parents, to start with, because I had a great Christian upbringing and was taught the rights and wrongs in all aspects of life. They taught me how to work hard and do the best I could. Also, to always be respectful of everything, should it be people, property, possessions or money.

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Family life: Alison with her mum and dad

Then, when I worked in a bank, I worked with John Kenny, who was the PR boss at that time. He taught me so much about dealing with people, especially in the world of PR and marketing. John believed in me and gave me great opportunities. He opened so many doors for me into the media world - he really looked after me.

Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A. This is such a hard question because I love having dinner parties with so many different folk in my life. 

Aside from immediate family and my best friends, I would probably invite those who I feel I could have great fun with.

First would have to be Joanna Lumley. I love everything she does and has done - the comedy, the style, the recent documentaries and of course, the Bolly.

Next, I would invite Kim Cattrall, or Samantha from Sex and the City, as you might know her. I loved both the series and the films and I love her style. I think she's a woman who has aged very well and still looks glamorous - and she will know the best cocktails to drink.

Then, I would love to have Jackie Kennedy over for dinner. She was the epitome of elegance and I want to hear all the inside gossip from the Kennedy and the Onassis clan.

Q. What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

A. People are always giving me great advice, but there was one man, who was a customer of mine in the advertising industry, and he said to me: "Business would be great if we had no staff and no customers but still got the money."

Maybe not the best advice, but it made me laugh.

Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A. Every day in life I do two challenges. One is solitaire and the other is a word search.

They are apps on my phone that have a daily target challenge, which is sometimes very straightforward and other times it's not so easily worked out, so I leave it until later on that day and take a difference tactic. I always win - I won't stop until I get it.

You get a 'crown' when you complete each challenge and at the end of the month the crowns add up and you get you a gold cup if you've completed every day and won.

It's sad, I know, but it keeps my brain active, working out patterns. You can push yourself to the highest levels.

Q. The poem that touches your heart?

A. I'm not a poetry lover, sadly. I probably should be, but the last poem I read was in O-level English literature. I do love the messages on birthday cards, if that counts. I always try to send a meaningful message in all cards.

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Alison and Darren with their sons on their wedding day in 2012

Q. The happiest moment of your life?

A. Of course, when my children were born.

Q. And the saddest moment of your life?

A. When my Granny McCandless passed away just over a week before my 40th birthday. I was her first grandchild, and born on her birthday too, so I was the favourite. I shouldn't say that, but I had to be.

When I was little, I used to go and spend nights with her in Londonderry where she lived in this huge multi-story house, and I have such good memories from then. Getting the bus into the city centre and going to Littlewoods for their pick 'n' mix sweets was always a treat. I was never on a bus until then. Then, in my modelling days I used to get a lot of fashion shows in Derry and I would always stay with her on those nights. She loved hearing all my news.

Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?

A. Probably winning Miss Northern Ireland in 1982 because that sort of mapped out my life as the bank then moved me to their PR department, which was beneficial in my media work now. 

Also, it meant I did loads of modelling and that gave me the insight to open my own agency. It was the right time and I knew the business inside and out, together with the clients.

Q. What's the one ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A. I thrive on being busy and keeping ACA Models at the forefront of this industry. It's not always easy when your product is people ... but that's the secret - how to work with people. Knowing when to keep the right ones and let the weak ones go.

Success breeds success, but most importantly, it's hard work and attention to detail that makes ACA a success.

Each year, month, week and even day is an accomplishment for me and will continue to be. I have a great team in the office, led by Victoria and Lauren, who are super at keeping me right. I always tell them to make sure they tell me when I am wrong.

Q. What's the philosophy you live by?

A. To take one day at a time, really.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?

A. I can't answer this question as I won't be here to have any say in the matter. Those who really know me and those who see me from a distance may have varying opinions of me.

For more information about ACA Models, visit www.acamodels.com

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