Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Debby Armstrong on starting a new business venture, recovering from a broken kneecap and appreciating the quiet Spanish lifestyle

Debby and husband Gerry loved the glam VIP party scene in Northern Ireland but now, as she tells Stephanie Bell, they are happily settled in Majorca and will never come back to live in the province

Gerry and Debby Armstrong at their villa in Majorca
Gerry and Debby Armstrong at their villa in Majorca
Gerry and Debby Armstrong
Gerry and Debby Armstrong with daughters Caitlin and Marianna
Gerry and Debby Armstrong sampling the local nightlife

Before they moved to Spain three years ago, Gerry and Debby Armstrong were one of Northern Ireland's most glamorous couples, regularly photographed at all the hottest VIP parties in town. Today, their life couldn't be more different.

Living in the sunny climes of Majorca, former model and entrepreneur Debby (42) has found she is more content out of the spotlight. These days, she is more likely to be found in her favourite jeans and T-shirt, relaxing over dinner at a friend's house, rather than wearing a figure-hugging gown at the latest gala ball.

But those days of being part of a celebrity couple living in the public eye were the inspiration for her latest business venture - a formal dress hire and beauty service.

Debby, who trained in beauty, plans to offer dress hire and make-up for anyone attending special events in Calvia, her adopted hometown in Santa Ponsa.

"Gerry and I had so many functions to go to that I would always hire my dress because I didn't want to buy a new one every time," she explains.

"I had to go to a wedding last year. I Googled dress hire and was surprised to find there wasn't one here. Then, by chance, shortly after that I got a message from the girl who I used to hire my dresses from in Northern Ireland, asking if I wanted to buy any of her dresses because she was selling them all. I bought the lot.

"I'm trained in beauty, so as well as dress hire I will be offering to do make-up for special events. I'll be dressing them and helping them to get ready and look their best."

Running a business is nothing new to the former footballer's wife.

Over the years, Debby has dabbled in property development and ran her own catering business for six years. When she moved to Majorca, she opened her own restaurant, but then shut shop more than a year ago after finding it wasn't viable.

"Sometimes it was a 16-hour day, and with local taxes it just became a nightmare, so we closed it," she says.

Debby was working as an air hostess when she got to know Gerry. She opened her catering business when they got together 15 years ago.

The couple have been inseparable ever since. Despite their 20-year age gap, Debby has repeatedly referred to Gerry as her soulmate and has talked about the special closeness they share.

Gerry (63) is best known as the Northern Ireland football hero who scored the winning goal against Spain in a 1982 World Cup match.

He made his football debut for Northern Ireland against West Germany in 1977, and has played alongside some of football's finest stars, including George Best.

These days, he commentates for Sky football at the weekends and also covers other championship games when needed. He flies to London to cover matches on a Saturday morning, returning home to Spain on Sunday evenings.

The couple have two girls - Caitlin, who has just turned 18 and is back in Northern Ireland studying fashion at the art college in Belfast, and Marianna (11), who goes to an international school and who has become fluent in three languages since moving to Spain.

Debby and Gerry's is a classic love story, and over the years they have often talked about their special bond and how they are closer than ever.

She was just 12 years old when she first met him in 1987. Their paths crossed several times on flights over the years, with Debby working as an air hostess.

They got together after meeting in a Belfast bar. It was love at first sight for Gerry, who, after just 10 days of seeing Debby, told her he wanted to get married.

He surprised her with a stunning solitaire engagement ring in front of a packed Windsor Park stadium in June 2005 when Debby was 28 years old. They wed one month later in a romantic ceremony in Thailand.

"I was working as an air hostess, and when Gerry was working for Eurosport I flew him across a couple of times, so I was familiar with him," Debby explains.

"Then, a few years later, Alison Clarke had organised a fashion show in the Apartment Bar in Belfast. It was my very first modelling job. I met Gerry that night and the two of us just clicked.

"If anything, after all these years we have got closer. It is so funny, but when we first met I remember taking part in a series called the WAG show for the BBC. People were saying it (the relationship) would never last because of the age gap.

"Looking back now, we are the only couple who featured on the show who are still together. We are still very close. We just get each other and he is still the person I fell in love with."

Gerry's daughter, Caitlin, was just eight when she came to live with the couple. She has since been adopted by Debby.

Despite being told she would never have children of her own, Debby conceived naturally in 2006, giving birth to baby Marianna not long after Caitlin came to live with them.

The family recently flew to London to celebrate Caitlin's 18th birthday, and Debby is delighted that her teenage daughter is happy and settled.

"She has a boyfriend and she is at university now," she says. "She is 18 and you have to let them go and find their own way. It is only a short flight away and she has family back in Northern Ireland."

Debby and Gerry bought their house in Spain as a holiday home 11 years ago. Because of Gerry's weekend commute to London for his Sky Sports work, they didn't think they could make a permanent move to the country, but now, after three years on the island, Debby believes they will never return home to live.

It is just a two-and-a-half hour flight from Belfast, making it easy to get home and handy for friends and family who are constantly visiting.

The couple also fly to Northern Ireland often, but the quiet lifestyle and the warmer weather is something Debby can't imagine giving up now.

"A few years ago, we just realised that this is where we are happiest," she says. "Before that we didn't think it would work with Gerry's job, and that I would be on my own a lot with the kids.

"But it has worked great. Gerry flies to London for work on a Saturday morning and is back home again on Sunday night.

"We have made a lot of new friends here. It doesn't matter what you have or don't have - no one judges you and everyone is very down to earth.

"People are very hospitable and we would have dinner parties at our friends' houses.

"We also do a lot more with the kids since coming here. There is much more of a family lifestyle here and we don't go out partying any more.

"If I went out for dinner at home, I would have had to arrange a babysitter, get dressed up and put my make-up on.

"Here, is it much more casual, and Marianna can come with us. But I do enjoy getting dressed up occasionally, and for Mother's Day we went to a lovely beach club restaurant and I put on a dress.

"I don't miss that part of my old life at all. I don't miss having to put my make-up on all the time in case the newspapers would take pictures. Gerry and I would have been at an event nearly every weekend. I always had to be aware of what I was wearing and now I don't really care. I have a more easygoing life here."

Debby has always worked hard, and from the moment they moved to Santa Ponsa she was in typical business mode, wasting no time and setting up her own restaurant.

Closing it was difficult for her because she had put so much work into it, and it actually took an accident last summer to force her to slow down and embrace the new life that she and Gerry had moved to Spain to enjoy.

Although she has plans for her new dress hire business, as a couple, she and Gerry are now enjoying more quality time together during the week by taking their new golden retriever pup, called Sol, for walks along the beach.

"Life has always been so busy and I have worked from the day and hour I left school," Debby says. "I never sit down, I am always on the go and I had barely one foot on the island when I was busy preparing to open the restaurant.

"When I had an accident last June, I had no choice but to slow down because I had a plaster on from my hip-down for three months.

"We had been called for a flight to London, and in the rush to board I was pushed down and broke my kneecap. I must have a high pain threshold because I walked onto the plane.

"When we arrived in London, I went straight to hospital and was told that there was a clear break. They couldn't put a plaster on because I had to fly home, so they put me in a knee brace.

"I got the plaster on when I got back to Spain. It was my first summer here without having to work so hard, and for the first time I learnt to take it easier and just start enjoying our new home.

"Now Gerry and I drop Marianna off to school and go for long walks with the dog along the beach every day.

"We have also recently started to explore our surroundings more and drive to other towns or look for a nice beach and experience some of the local culture."

The couple own a three-bedroom villa with a swimming pool in Calvia. The brochures point to its easy way of life, describing it as "a resort popular with families due to a wonderful beach that shelves into a shallow bay, and its home from home atmosphere".

Debby takes Spanish lessons twice a week, but admits she is finding the language hard to master.

The girls love the relaxed way of life as much as their parents, and Debby says their ideal day is spending time as a family relaxing around their pool and listening to music.

Flying to London for Caitlin's 18th birthday celebrations earlier this month, they caught the tail end of the Beast from the East, giving them a whole new appreciation of their warm climate.

"The weather here, of course, is much better and I don't miss the grey days back home," Debby says. "It is 23 degrees here at the minute and it was in the 20s during Christmas.

"It is not the tourist season yet, so it is very quiet. The season begins at Easter, which is when the flights start, and we tend to have family and friends visiting regularly. Last summer, we had everybody out here staying with us, which was great.

"It is also nice to get home for a couple of days, and we were home for Christmas this year.

"I still keep in touch with all my friends at home and I am still good friends with Alison Clarke, who I was able to see last time I was home.

"I don't think that we will ever be back in Northern Ireland permanently because we love it here and enjoy the lifestyle."

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