Alison Clarke tells Claire O’Boyle how the Covid-19 crisis meant she and her golf star husband were trapped on opposite sides of the world and why she’s delighted her model agency business is taking bookings again
It’s been an intense few months for everyone, and model agency boss Alison Clarke admits she’s had her tearful moments along with the rest of us. The former Miss Northern Ireland, who is married to golfing star Darren Clarke, hasn’t seen her husband since the beginning of March — and like many business owners across Northern Ireland and the world, she has feared for the future.
“At the very start of April I was thinking ‘how am I going to pay staff and all the costs that go with the business?’ I was wondering ‘will I survive this?’” says Alison, founder of ACA Models.
“I did worry the business might not survive. The promotional side of what we do is very much based on social interaction and all this meant there were no events, no big football events, no beer promotion in bars.
“We should have been working with the Belfast Marathon, the Balmoral Show, the Irish Open which was meant to be in May. We would have staffed all of those and we had to cancel all the bookings. Fashion events were cancelled too.”
And compounding Alison’s worries was the fact that she was so far apart from golf star husband Darren, who has spent the duration of the pandemic on the other side of the Atlantic, on the island of Great Abaco in the Bahamas where he’d been staying for work.
After returning to Belfast herself on March 9 from a trip out to see her husband, Alison had hoped to be back in the sunshine for some time together again at Easter. But exactly two weeks later, the UK went into lockdown.
Even now the couple, who married in 2012 in a glamorous beach ceremony attended by just close family and friends in the Bahamas, have no fixed date for a reunion.
“The lockdown meant Darren couldn’t get out of the Bahamas, and I couldn’t get in,” recalls Alison, who has spent the lockdown at home in Portrush along with her youngest stepson Conor (19). “The island he’s on has taken very strict measures from the start, and amazingly I don’t think they’ve had any cases up until this point.
“But it’s meant seeing each other has been completely impossible so it’s been hard. For such a long time everybody was talking about how they were stuck in the house all the time with their partner and there was my husband on the other side of the world.
“I got quite down, to be honest, and I had a few tearful moments.
“Especially at the beginning I just thought, ‘what’s going to happen from all this?’ It was so unknown and I did break down a few times on the phone.
“I remember seeing Darren’s schedule and it said he’d still be there in June, and at the time I couldn’t believe I’d have to wait until June to see him.
“But now we’re into July and I still haven’t seen him. We still don’t even have a date. As time has gone on I’ve got a lot stronger. I’ve been keeping myself busy and the reality is, everyone has gone through this in one way or another, so we’ve just had to get on with it.”
The sentiment is one that seems to have underpinned Alison’s approach for many years, having launched her business just as she was starting her young family with first husband Arthur Campbell back in the early Nineties, with the Troubles rumbling on in the background.
“It’s always been a balancing act,” says Alison, mum to Stuart (30) and Philip (26), and step-mum to Tyrone (22), as well as Conor.
“I was working in the bank when Stuart was born, but Philip was pretty much born into the business. Back then when you had your baby you could stay in the hospital for a week, which was bliss, and you were able to spend that time resting and getting yourself ready to leave with the nurses feeding and changing the baby during the night.
“But that was it. I took a week and then I was back into work. Philip was in a little carrycot in the office with me 26 years ago, and he more or less grew up along with the business. I just juggled it. Stuart had started into P1 and the childminder who looked after him started taking Philip for half a day, and gradually as he got older she was able to take him a bit longer. Their dad was there too when I was out running about, and you just manage.”
But with ongoing security issues as the backdrop to the early years of the agency, Alison’s challenges back then went beyond balancing her work and home life.
“The Nineties were tough,” she says. “The Troubles were still going on and workwise we were doing a lot of drinks promotions in various places right across Northern Ireland.
“Even then there were bombs and shootings, some awful atrocities still happening, and I always wanted to look after the girls.
“It was a case of sending the right girls to the right areas, to somewhere they felt — and were — safe.
“I wouldn’t send someone who wasn’t local and didn’t feel comfortable in a particular venue because the risks were definitely real.
“People wanted normality though, and this work brought a bit of life to the place. People really enjoyed it. Back then I would never have said ‘No, I can’t do that job’. When you’re starting out you just have to survive.
“I remember someone telling me, there’s no fool like a busy fool, because you only realise you’re successful when you can actually start saying no to things. Now, if a job doesn’t suit, and certainly if there was any risk associated with it, I wouldn’t go near it. I’m glad I’m past all that.”
Being a woman in business has never fazed Alison either, and the former model says any outdated attitudes towards her because of her gender were never a concern.
“It was never something I worried about,” she says. “My industry is full of creatives and artists, so it’s very relaxed and there are lots of women.
“At the start for many years I was in suits every day, but it’s very casual now and I only ever had very minor things like older, old-fashioned men who would have looked at you like you were a bit of a dumb blonde, but I just let them get on with it.
“It was their problem, not mine, so I just bounced along and it really didn’t affect me. My industry is extremely varied, so when it comes to someone’s colour or gender or religion, it’s always got to be the whole, diverse community in there in the mix.”
And as well as carving out her own extraordinary career, Alison, who has been organising Miss Northern Ireland since 1987, has worked with some of the biggest names in the Northern Ireland fashion scene, from Zoe Salmon and Lucy Evangelista to Gayle Williamson and Orlaith McAllister.
But does she ever wonder what might have happened if she’d ventured across the water to pursue her career in London?
“I remember back in 1982 going from working in the bank to becoming Miss Northern Ireland and then I went on to be a runner-up in Miss UK,” recalls Alison.
“It was like it all changed for me in a single day, because no-one from Northern Ireland had ever done that before and it was big news.
“I won £1,000 in cash, which I was over the moon about, and it was a really exciting time. I was friendly with Eamonn Holmes at the time, and he was working then for UTV, and I remember we were at the Eglantine bar in Belfast and we were talking about going across the water. He said he might go to London.
“Eamonn had the courage, and I didn’t. I’m sort of glad I didn’t in one way because I don’t know where I would have ended up, and things here have worked out for me. My life changed dramatically after I started the agency, and I’m really happy here.”
And through the challenges of the lockdown, as the weeks have rolled on, Alison has focused more and more on seeing her friends and family, staying healthy, and securing a positive future for her business.
“It was a struggle at the start,” she says. “It was just such a strange time, and there were mornings at the very beginning I’d struggle to get myself out of bed.
“But I’d give myself a shake and say ‘get up, get organised’ and pretty quickly I started to adjust.
“I spent weeks in the early days clearing out the house, and with the two girls in the office furloughed and the office closed, I thought if I was going to work from home then I’d need a proper place to base myself.
“It wasn’t the usual work, with no bookings coming in and no events to organise, but I knew there would be plenty of admin and paperwork to keep on top of so I spent days and days gutting out what has become an office in the house.
“And then gradually, over the last month or so, we’ve had more and more expressions of interest in the business and some socially-distanced bits of work booked in with just a model and a photographer, with models doing their own make-up and that sort of thing, so we’re sticking very clearly to the advice. But it feels a bit more hopeful now.”
And now that she’s seeing more people, with the holy grail that is a hairdresser’s appointment at Belfast salon Michele International in Fountain Lane, which she’s been visiting for 30 years already in the bag, Alison is looking to the future.
“We’ll see what the summer brings, but July is typically a quiet month for us anyway, so it’ll be a while before things pick up again,” she says. “But that’s okay, because Covid scared me, like it scared a lot of people and it wreaked a huge amount of havoc, so we need to be cautious going forward.
“I didn’t go beyond the driveway of my house for seven or eight weeks at the beginning of all this, so it was just me and Conor rattling about entertaining ourselves. Thank goodness he was there, but we don’t want all that to have been a waste.
“Gradually though, over the last little while I’ve seen more of my friends which has been such a boost. Things as simple as having a coffee or a glass of champagne in the garden have made a huge difference.
“I’ve been over to see my parents in Strabane as well, and because I’m not in the office in the same way I have been for such a long time, I’m not as restricted as I was.
“It’s actually been positive in some ways, which I think a lot of people have felt, and I’ve done lots of walks on the beach, socially distanced with friends, on my own or with Conor and it’s been lovely to have the space and time to do that.”
And her regular walks have served another function, helping Alison notch up her daily step count and keep an eye on her figure.
“This is how sad I am,” she laughs. “At the start I thought I’d probably put on weight through all this, so I started to weigh myself every day to keep an eye on it.
“Every day I write it down on a piece of paper which I have beside the sink. I’ve written it down every day since April 24, right up until this week, and I haven’t moved too much.
“I think I’m actually 5lbs lighter than I was that day, but right at the start I was doing silly things like eating a big tub of ice cream to treat myself. It’s easy to do, but after five weeks or so I thought I’d try to take control! I try to do a minimum of 10,000 steps a day, but with walks in Portstewart or the beach in Portrush, I can get it to about 14,000 which I’m happy with.”
In the meantime Darren has been getting in some serious golf practise in exile. A winner of 21 tournaments worldwide during a glittering career, his greatest achievement was capturing The Open title at Royal St George in 2011. He has been a winner in Europe, America and Japan and played on five Ryder Cup teams as well as being non-playing captain in 2016. And in an unexpected upside, Alison says she thinks her relationship with Darren might even have grown stronger through the challenges they’ve faced over the past few months.
“It might sound strange, but I think all this might have brought us even closer,” says Alison. “We do these video calls and we’ve got to spend all this time on the phone, properly talking to each other for all these weeks and months. In normal life you’re in and out, buzzing past each other in the house, busy with whatever’s going on around you.
“And who knows what it would have been like stuck in the same house together for four months,” she laughs. “That can’t be easy for couples either, although we don’t really have rows, I’d say we’re more a disagreements sort of couple, if anything.
“But having that set time to speak to each other, when we’re focused completely on each other, has been really important through all this.”
Alison adds: “He’s out there practising morning, noon and night, with all his work on hold like mine has been, but he rings at a certain couple of times every day, and it’s always great to speak to him.
“He’ll call in the afternoon, when his day out there is just starting, and then again at 8pm or 9pm so we get to have a lovely conversation before I go to bed.
“It’s been really hard at times, of course it has, but when we get to see each other again, hopefully in the not too distant future, it will be wonderful.”
Follow Alison on Instagram @alisonclarke381