Alison: 'I don’t know how I would spend my life without something to do ... I’ve worked every day since leaving school'
Ahead of next week's Dubai Duty Free Irish Open golf tournament at which her husband Darren will be playing, Alison Clarke tells Una Brankin how she has never been happier, why her modelling agency still dominates her life and her plans for the future
As Coleen Rooney was photographed on yet another luxury holiday, our most famous wife of a sporting hero, from the well-heeled world of golf, has been working a five-day week at her offices on the Beersbridge Road in east Belfast. Covering holiday leave at her modelling agency, Alison Clarke drives from Portrush and rushes back in the evenings to look after her stepsons, who are doing school exams.
The former Miss Northern Ireland, of 1982, could afford to take it easier these days but it's against her hard-working farmer's daughter's nature. When we meet at her busy agency, currently celebrating 25 successful years in business, the first thing I spot in her bright upstairs office is a vacuum cleaner.
"I empty the bins, I clean, I vacuum, I do everything," she says, without complaint. "I don't know how I would spend my life without something to do - I've worked every day since I left school.
"I can do a week off rightly, doing nothing, but that's it. I usually work from home two days a week but I'm on call 24/7. I try to take one day off but that rarely happens. Then there are things on at weekends… it never stops."
She's a sunny vision in white floaty layers and high espadrilles. A diaphanous top with vertical arm slits and cropped leggings set off her tan and long legs to glamorous effect, and she has a radiant smile, an easy one which reaches her eyes and illuminates that lovely, fine-featured face.
Her make-up is minimal and her accessories subtle, apart from her knock-out engagement ring, a huge rectangular diamond set in a bed of smaller ones on a platinum band, not unlike the dazzling construction Brad Pitt designed for Angelina Jolie.
"I think it's an emerald cut - I don't know much about diamonds," says Alison, not one to brag about her bling.
"I forget what you call the setting… baguette, I think. Darren chose it. He has good taste in everything. He had it with him when he proposed, down on one knee."
The price tag may have been dizzying but anyone who knows Alison would agree she's worth it. Belfast Telegraph columnist and broadcaster Lindy McDowell describes her as a highly intelligent, confident, gorgeous and extremely likeable woman, "witty, warm-hearted and down-to-earth. All that and elegant and gracious to boot. I can't think of a bad thing to say about her".
Lindy spotlighted Alison in her column ahead of Darren Clarke's captaincy of the European team at the 2016 Ryder Cup in Minnesota, a role which required Alison, as his wife, to entertain the players' other halves for a day.
Alison chose a photo-shoot to mark the occasion, and the impressive result is framed on her office wall, above the modest meeting table we're sitting across.
Beautifully styled and composed, the picture features the smiling group of women in white, all skilfully made-up by Belfast Telegraph beauty columnist Paddy McGurgan (of whom Alison can do an uncanny impression).
Signed by each one, it wouldn't look out of place between the covers of Vanity Fair magazine.
"Isn't it good? We made Ryder Cup wives into models," laughs Alison. "Paddy made them all look perfect. I styled it myself and I brought Kara Pringle to take the pictures.
"This one is actually two photos stuck together, as there wasn't enough room for everybody in one shot. The captain's wife's ladies day at the Ryder Cup is a tradition; I wanted to do something different, to reflect what I do.
"I'm sure some of them thought that was fluffy and some were a bit apprehensive, but when they saw how long it took and what was involved, you know, they understood, and they loved it.
"I got local hairdressers in but I refused to let them touch mine. Denise from Michelle International is the only one who understands my hair."
Although praising all the pictured WAGs as gorgeous, she singles out a few - "Sophia, Grace, Suzanne" - as model material, and describes Rory McIlroy's wife Erica Stoll as very naturally beautiful. Despite her protestations, Alison looks as good as those at half her age in the classy photograph.
"Flip, I'm the heaviest I've ever been," she confides. "When you're tall you can sort of hide it but I really am a little bit overweight, Una. Darren has put a little back on too, shall we say, and I'm constantly on a diet.
"It's not that I eat unhealthily but I do eat rubbish at times, and when Darren's home, he feeds me up. He loves to cook. He brings me breakfast in bed and I feel guilty if I don't eat it. He'll do bacon and egg or smoked salmon and scrambled egg, with a nice bit of fresh bread underneath.
"My friends laugh and say, 'where is he with that tray today?' If he's not there, I'll just run out and grab a piece of fruit but I can put on half a stone in a weekend; in one night.
"I don't know if it's hormones - I refuse to deal with hormones. I shut that out. I think the menopause has slipped past me. I've had no symptoms, so I think I'm fine."
The golfing legend and the former Ulster Bank executive became engaged in December 2011 and married in April 2012 on the beach at Abaco in the Bahamas, where they also have a home.
Alison (nee Smyth) had also been married before, at only 23, to Arthur Campbell, her first serious boyfriend. It was a time when couples settled down at a younger age, and all Alison's friends were getting hitched. The young couple had two sons, Philip (22) and Stuart (26), and were married for 19 years before they realised they were going in different directions and couldn't envisage a future together.
"I lost three babies between my two boys; it's called multiple miscarriage now," says Alison, not wishing to dwell on the trauma. "At the time it was tough, but that's all in the past. I haven't had anything major to overcome since. I have a very happy life now."
Darren and Alison met on a blind date set up by fellow golfer Graeme McDowell in November 2009, three years after the Dungannon man lost his first wife, former hairdresser Heather, to breast cancer, at 39. Darren was left to bring up their sons, Tyrone, then 12, and Conor, then 10.
He went on to help Europe win the Ryder Cup against the US just six weeks later, breaking down in tears at the final green at the K Club in Kildare.
Thereafter, his career went into freefall and he was at a very low ebb before meeting Alison. Friends and colleagues of Darren have since credited her for transforming his game and his "prickly" demeanour, which had earned him the tag, Prince of Darkness.
For that first dinner date, they met at Heathrow Airport; Alison was flying in to attend Eamonn Holmes's birthday party and Darren had arranged to collect her.
"I was a bit nervous, yeah," she remembers. "But we had been in contact a lot by text and joked a bit. We'd just never met in person.
"I thought, 'let's go for it, take it or leave it. If he's an a******* - fine.' But he turned out to be such a charming… gentleman."
"We really hit it off from the first night. He's down to earth - he's from Co Tyrone too. He probably had a much more privileged life than me but, to me, it's not about that."
With Alison in tow, Darren - who has admitted to being a "bit of a horrible prat" with "airs and graces" in the past - suddenly became the life and soul of the party, according to his friends.
He declared that life with Alison was "brilliant" and went on to win his first major tournament, the 2011 Open at the Royal St George's Golf Club in Kent.
After his win, with a supportive Alison looking on, he paid a moving tribute to his first wife and his boys, whom he had decided to move from London to Northern Ireland in the hope, he joked, that they'd lose their English accents at their new school in Ballymoney.
The new family unit set up home on Craigahulliar hillside in Portrush, overlooking Darren's home course, Royal Portrush Golf Club, and the Skerries.
For Alison, having two sons four years apart - as are Darren's two - becoming a stepmother was seamless. She met them on her second date with Darren and managed to forge a close relationship very quickly.
She says: "Tyrone and Conor are really like my own sons now. We get on great and I talk to them about everything. They have so much love to give. Tyrone's doing his A-levels and Conor's doing his GCSEs.
"I've been through it all with Stewart and Philip. In fact, I get their names mixed up and go through the whole list of four when I'm calling them or whatever.
"My two are like chalk and cheese, as are Tyrone and Conor. I'd be protective of them where girls are concerned, oh yes.
"But I don't interfere. My two said they'd never introduce me to a girlfriend unless they were getting married. Needless to say, I've never met any.
"Tyrone and Conor have introduced me to female friends, who are always lovely, and I just go with the flow. They're teenagers."
Would she have liked a daughter?
"I would have loved a daughter and the friendship that mothers and daughters can have. I still look at pink baby clothes, but I think I'm more suited to boys. And for me to bring a daughter into this industry, for instance, there would be a lot of expectations and pressure on her.
"I don't have a daughter and won't ever be having one, so it's hypothetical. A daughter-in-law? Yeah, I'll deal with that when it comes."
Darren is a few years younger than Alison, who doesn't like to give away her age, despite looking 10 years younger.
She has plenty of time to parade around her home in face-packs if she feels like it, as life with a professional golfer involves time apart on a regular basis. Darren has been away for a fortnight when I meet Alison for this interview, but she'll be with him throughout the Irish Open in Portrush next week.
"He's away maybe three or four weeks at the most. I don't want to admit it, but I love it. It does keep it fresh," Alison says, adding drily: "He's been away a couple of weeks now, but he's always on the phone to see where I am and what I'm doing and all the rest.
"He is romantic. I'm always thinking about work. He's 50 next year and I don't think I could pull off a big bash for him.
"I do have romantic ideas and fantasies and things, whether or not I put them into practice. But he's very caring, whereas I'm a bit more brash. He'd take the time to do something romantic, but I'm always running up and down the road. It's different for him, though. When he's home, he's off and just practising. I'm on 24/7."
Her work ethic and perfectionist streak harks back to her childhood as the eldest of five on the family farm in Strabane. Her father, still handsome at 80, kept pigs, cattle and horses, which he bred, and Alison took part in show jumping events until she was 16. Her two brothers are professional show jumpers and one of her nephews will represent the Irish show jumping team in championships in Germany.
Her sisters, Pauline, a former IT programmer, and Diane, a former children's nurse, are both now full-time homemakers, like their mother before them.
"Mum's just had a big birthday - she'd kill me if you said what age she is; she's as bad as me!" jokes Alison.
"Mum was a nurse in the Royal before she married dad and had us. She wasn't out cutting hay, but she always had men to feed and baking to do, and we all had to clean our own tacks and saddles.
"In work, I like to go the extra mile and give people what I'd like to be given myself. I like to give clients more than they expect. Like, you got a cappuccino today, rather than just an ordinary coffee!
"I'm a perfectionist. In my younger days, I was more highly strung and could fly off the handle, shouting orders. I'm still fairly adamant that things go well in events - I'm not a little mouse in the background. There's no talking backstage, no chit-chat, it's all about timing.
"But life throws lots of curveballs at you and you learn that it's the way you deal with them that's important.
"I think I can handle any situation and any personality now, because of my experience in life.
"Years ago, I was more uptight. Now I believe there's a reason for everything, good or bad. If you're just calm about things, they will work out well."
So, what for the future, when the youngest, Conor, has finished school and there's an empty nest on that Portrush hillside? Predictably, early retirement isn't an option for Alison.
"We'll have more free time when Conor leaves and I won't have to be based in Portrush when Darren's not there," she concludes.
"I haven't made plans but we may spend more time together. If Darren plays on the senior tour once he's 50, I might go with him.
"We have a house in the Bahamas, so we could spend more time there, but I'd still be on the email every day to ACA. It's still at the forefront of my life. I'm happy to do what I do as long as I'm fit and able."
- The Dubai Duty Free Irish Open, hosted by the Rory Foundation, will take place for the first time at Portstewart Golf Club from July 4 to 9. Rory McIlroy will be defending his title. For details go to www.dubaidutyfreeirishopen.com. Translink is putting on extra bus and rail services for the tournament. For details, visit www.translink.co.uk/irishopen2017
Q&A and expert tips from Alison ...
Botox or fringe? I have a fringe to cover my frown lines, which I've had for years. If it wasn't a poison, I might try Botox, but I've got to the age I am and don't look too bad, I think. Mum's a good age and she looks incredible, just with her Oil of Olay.
BB or CC cream? I wear a CC-tinted moisture from Paddy McGurgan's store. I add powder to matte it down, but I don't cake it on. A bit of eyeliner and that's me.
Cigarettes or vaping? Cigarettes. The odd social one.
Tipple of choice? A glass of Mateus Rose is nice. On a Friday, I'm ready for one, especially after five full days in the office.
A round of golf or a good walk? A good walk, although I don't do as much as I should. My sister played golf and I used to try to play a few holes with her, but I was far too distracted by work and I'd given it up by the time I met Darren.
Fashion likes? Less is more. I always love nudes, whites and creams as far as colours go. I hate trends that last for 10 minutes.
Your style? Elegantly casual for going out, leggings and floppy top otherwise.
What wouldn't you be seen dead in? Seventies comebacks.
Jeans or jeggings? Jeggings.
Heels or flats? Heels.
Best ever outfit? My one-off beach wedding dress by Una Rodden.
Biggest fashion blunder? I try not to have them now. The rule is, keep it simple - in black, white, blue or pink usually, and maybe red.