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The Sixties model who joined the UDR - and was still turning heads at 75

Nikki Sievwright knew the risks of serving on the front line in Northern Ireland, but when her dashing cavalry officer husband was posted here, she didn't hesitate to enlist. Ivan Little recalls the colourful and courageous life of a woman who, years after she left the Army, couldn't resist spying on Hezbollah


Arresting looks: Nikki Sievwright was a former model who later joined the UDR

Arresting looks: Nikki Sievwright was a former model who later joined the UDR


Arresting looks: Nikki Sievwright was a former model who later joined the UDR

Her striking, saucer-like eyes, her head-turning radiance and her wispy blonde hair helped propel model Nikki Ross onto the covers of the world's top glamour magazines and made her a target for international playboys in the Sixties.

However, no one imagined that one day this unpredictable English beauty would be on a very different beat, strutting her stunning stuff in surreal surroundings, fighting the IRA along the Ulster border.

In London and Paris, the fashionistas had called her the girl with the million dollar looks, and insiders said she was destined to become a face of the swinging Sixties to rival the likes of Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy.

But Nikki Ross didn't play the fame game the way the model industry - and gossip writers - expected her to. The clean-living model even shunned the advances of French singer Sacha Distel who wasn't used to taking no for an answer to his amorous entreaties.

Perhaps it was her unconventional attitude to life at the top of the modelling tree - and an unlikely two-year spell in the UDR - which ensured that the svelte stunner from Sussex, who died recently at the age of 75, would still find her way onto the obituary pages of all the major newspapers in Britain.

No one else had ever before swapped the pampered existence of modelling for the perilous patrols of the UDR along the border, where attacks from the IRA were ever-present threats.

What made the model soldier so fascinating for the feature writers in England wasn't just that she had given up fashion for flak jackets, but also that she was the wife of an Army officer.

It simply wasn't the done thing for the spouse of a high-ranking soldier to serve Queen and Country too.

But people who knew Nikki said she didn't conform to the notion of the done thing in any sphere of her life.

She'd come to Northern Ireland with her husband, David Sievwright, a handsome career soldier she met at a party in a hotel in the United Arab Emirates after her 1974 divorce from John Venning, a property developer who she claimed had a wandering eye.

After the end of their six-year marriage, Nikki was still in big demand as a model, but it was said that she grew weary of over-eager photographers who wanted more than her picture.

David Sievwright, a dashing cavalryman, was an officer and a gentleman. He swept her off her feet in the Gulf and, after a six-month courtship, they were married, much to the pleasure of previously disappointed gossip writers in the red tops.

But her suspicions about the columnists returned again after one of them published a long lens picture of her wearing nothing more than a giant bandanna on a beach.

Life was to change dramatically for Nikki after her husband re-joined his old regiment, the 13th/18th Royal Hussars.

He proudly showed off his new bride, who gained the admiration of her female contemporaries for her non-traditional approach to the life of a wife in the cavalry.

But no one foresaw what Nikki Sievwright did next. After the Hussars were posted to Northern Ireland to Lisanelly Barracks in Omagh in November 1977 on a two-year deployment, she enlisted in the UDR.


Dark days: mourners at the funeral of Eva Martin

Dark days: mourners at the funeral of Eva Martin

Nikki would have been well aware of the risks. In 1974, UDR member Eva Martin died in an attack on her base in Clogher in Tyrone.

The late double agent Sean O'Callaghan later pleaded guilty to her killing.

If Nikki was frightened, she didn't show it, and she thought quickly at times to avoid embarrassment for herself and her husband. She and her UDR patrol once arrived before David and his quick-reaction force at the scene of a bombing near Omagh, and she swiftly took off her beret so that she wouldn't have to salute him.

Former colleagues say she was a fearless Greenfinch - the name given to women members of the UDR who weren't routinely armed but were trained in how to use guns.

The story goes that Nikki was an intuitive soldier who on one occasion helped her colleagues capture a wanted man in Tyrone in 1978.

Her patrol had apparently stopped a car for a routine check, but another vehicle came on the scene and, in the ensuing chaos shots were fired, though no one was injured.

Reports from the time said that the occupants of the cars convinced the soldiers that they weren't terrorists and didn't pose a threat to anyone.

But Nikki wasn't so sure and insisted on searching a female passenger, who was subsequently found to have hidden a passport belonging to one of her male companions in her underwear.

It transpired that he was on the security forces' list of terrorist suspects.

But even though she was a UDR soldier, Nikki Sievwright didn't give up her modelling work altogether.

The opportunities in Northern Ireland, especially during the stagnant Seventies, weren't quite the same as back home in Britain.

Nikki managed to find work in Dublin, but she didn't share the secrets of her other job with anyone.

One man who served alongside her husband in the Hussars said Nikki was very much her own person, a free spirit who couldn't understand why she should come to Northern Ireland and not be involved in the security situation. The former colleague said it mightn't have been in keeping with the bohemian world she had inhabited, but he sensed a patriotic streak in her.

Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the president of the Regimental Association of the UDR, said of Nikki: "She was an incredible lady who showed great commitment and courage by becoming a Greenfinch in an area where the security forces were regularly targeted both on and off duty."

Nikki was born in January 1943, the daughter of Charles Ross, an officer in the British Colonial Service in Sierra Leone.

Her father sent his wife, Nina, back home to Britain for the birth of the new arrival, but it was wartime and the seas off the west African coast were notorious hunting grounds for the German U-boats.

Happily, Mrs Ross made it home safely.

Mr Ross didn't return to Britain until 1947, and his wife died four years later. He later married his Spanish housekeeper, after which the family moved to Jersey.

But Nikki wasn't happy there, so, aged 18, she went to Paris where she was recruited by the Chloe fashion house.

Her modelling career really took off when, aged 22, she was chosen to take part in a no-expense-spared British fashion show in New York in 1965.

It was the biggest ever Government-backed event of its kind and was held on board the Queen Elizabeth liner under the direction of Michael Whittaker, who had famously designed Honor Blackman's costumes for the Avengers TV series.

Nikki's 34-25-34 figure and her allure helped the British delegation sell thousands of pounds worth of orders, as Whittaker predicted they would.

He'd sought out Nikki, who had been working in Paris fashion houses before re-locating to London in a bid to find her niche as a photographic model.

She was initially rejected by one of the largest agencies, run by Peter Lumley, who said she had no personality in front of the camera.

Her response was to shed a stone and don a wig for her next meeting with Lumley, who signed her up on the spot, ensuring her future in the world of international photographic modelling. It was estimated that her income increased tenfold.

After the Army, David Sievwright entered the realms of military intelligence and initially went to Madrid, where Nikki was said to have become friendly with King Juan Carlos and his wife, Queen Sofia.

Nikki's fluency in French, German, Spanish and Arabic made her invaluable to her husband as he travelled to postings across the world, with her ostensibly passing her time by reverting to her love of horses.

However Nikki didn't always play by the book in foreign climes. One obituary in the Times said she was once called before the British ambassador in Beirut and told to stop going into Hezbollah territory when exercising racehorses.

"It had been a useful means of intelligence gathering, but she was just too conspicuous. Even at 75, heads would turn when she entered a room," said the Times writer, who added that Nikki was still horse-riding and playing tennis up until the end when she died of sepsis in a hospital in Swindon.

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