Sonia Irvine: My mum's Alzheimer's is one of the cruellest things that can happen to a family and I am still struggling to come to terms with it
Businesswoman Sonia Irvine talks to Lorraine Wylie about her successful Formula One entertainment business, Amber Lounge, the joys of being a mum and the anguish of watching her own mother battle with dementia
Seated at her desk, munching a salad for lunch, Sonia Irvine is sounding stressed. On top of the myriad of things needing her attention, she's fighting a losing battle with technology. "My computer's crashed," groans the sister of former Formula One driver Eddie. "I've two major events coming up back-to-back and I'm trying to pull it all together."
Owner and founder of Amber Lounge, the Formula One entertainment business, Sonia lives in Monaco, a sun-drenched paradise for the rich and famous. It's a long way - in every sense - from Conlig in Co Down where she grew up. She doesn't have to contend with energy zappers such as damp and drizzle. Yet, trapped behind her desk, the view from her window is irrelevant. In her soft Northern Irish accent she repeats the mantra of all women who juggle a career with the pressure of family life.
Apart from a bad day at the office, living in such an idyllic setting, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, has a lot of benefits. "I do love it here. It really is beautiful," she admits. "In fact, it's also a very friendly place. Monaco is quite small and everyone tends to knows everyone else. It's a good life but like everyone else, I have to go to work and it's a high pressure job. Keeping the Amber Lounge experience fresh and novel is a challenge. It takes a lot of brainstorming to come up with new ideas. But somehow it all comes together and I get great satisfaction from watching everyone have fun. When the F1 crowd get together to celebrate, they certainly know how to let their hair down and enjoy themselves. We've had some fantastic times over the years."
Prior to Amber Lounge, Sonia worked for the National Health Service in London as a physiotherapist. "Yes, I enjoyed my work although, if I'd listened to my careers teacher, I may not have made it. She told me I wasn't smart enough to sit exams and suggested I join the Wrens instead. That only made me more determined. By 1996, as well as working with the NHS, I was running my own private sports injury clinic. Then when Eddie signed with Ferrari, he invited me to become his personal trainer. We'd always been close so I had no hesitation in accepting his offer."
Before long, Sonia had extended her client base to include the whole Ferrari team. However, within seven years, she'd discovered a new role and, as she took her first steps into the entertainment business, her title changed from Personal Trainer to the Ultimate Party Planner. At the time, no one could have guessed how successful she'd become.
Now, 15 years since she launched the first Amber Lounge experience, she explains how it all came about.
"The racing fraternity are a close-knit bunch. They form strong bonds of friendship and, after a race, when the adrenaline is high they like to let off steam and have a good time. Before Amber Lounge, it wasn't always possible for us to meet together in one place.
"So one time, while I was driving around Brazil after the finale, looking for a suitable place for us all to hang out, I had a brainwave. It suddenly occurred to me that we could form our own venue. I had some very definite ideas as to what Amber Lounge should look like. For a start, I didn't want it to be a black tie event. I envisaged something informal but stylish. In the end, I held my first Amber Lounge in Monaco and it was so successful, everyone kept asking me to do it again. It just grew from there."
Since then Sonia's events have become legendary. As well as the Formula One drivers and girlfriends, Amber Lounge attracts celebrities such as supermodel Naomi Campbell, U2's Bono, pop star Kylie Minogue and actress Jennifer Lawrence. Regular VIPs include Monaco's royalty, such as the reigning monarch, Prince Albert II, with whom Sonia is on first name terms. Prince Harry is also reputed to be on her guest list. So, apart from the glitz and glam, what is the appeal of Amber Lounge?
"Well, it's a mixture of things. Each Amber Lounge is a bespoke event where attention to detail is critical. Of course, some themes like big white sofas and various water features are obligatory. Everything else, including, lighting, music and DJ is considered and evaluated. Our guests have their individual preferences such as where they want to be seated and we make sure they get what they want. But I think Amber Lounge's main attraction is privacy. Our guests are high profile people whose lives are always in the spotlight. At Amber Lounge they like to feel they are in a safe environment where they can relax. At all our events, cameras are banned - although our job is made more difficult by today's phone technology and we need to be very vigilant."
When she isn't at the office or jet-setting around the world, Sonia likes to be at home, hanging out with her family. She has two daughters, Megan (15) and Katie (7), though she freely admits that when she was younger she didn't feel desperate to be a mum
"Motherhood was never a priority to me. I never really thought about it. But when I had Megan, I was totally smitten. I really love being a mum and doing things with the girls. During the week, I get up at 6am every day to get things sorted, then after school we'll do something like go to the bowling alley. Family is the most important thing in the world to me and when I'm home with my daughters I make sure it's special. I think there's only about six people who know my number."
Sadly Sonia's relationship with Megan's dad, Myles Mordaunt, broke down. Yet her status as a single mum didn't get in the way of having another baby.
"I really wanted a second child and decided to try IVF. I took the attitude that if it was meant to be, it would work. I guess I was lucky," she says.
As those who venture down this route know, IVF is an expensive option. "Thankfully, I was able to afford the treatment. Though, no doubt, even if I hadn't had the finance, I would have found a way somehow. I'm a very determined woman. Still, my advice to any woman who wants to try IVF would be to just to go for it. Be strong and ignore other people's opinions. Do what you feel is best."
Her youngest daughter Katie has made Sonia's little family complete.
"Katie has the face of an angel," there's no mistaking the maternal pride in her voice. "She's a great kid. But, yes she also has the determination of an ox. At the minute, I'm trying to keep her away from sugary food as much as possible. Like many kids, she doesn't do well with it. The dangers of sugar are very much in the news and something we, as parents, need to take seriously. To be honest, Katie's very good about it and really doesn't make a fuss."
Sugar isn't the only food banned from Sonia's kitchen. Gluten and dairy are also prohibited. However, her decision has nothing to do with the current food fads.
"I have Coeliac disease. It's an autoimmune condition that causes inflammation in the lining of the intestine. For me, a gluten and dairy-free diet isn't a lifestyle choice. My body simply can't tolerate them. They make me ill so I have to avoid them all costs."
Contrary to what some believe, Coeliac disease is not a food allergy. It's a medical condition that causes a variety of distressing symptoms, including stomach pain, bloating and, in some cases, it affects growth and can even influence moods. Unfortunately, Sonia isn't the only one in her family to suffer.
"Megan was diagnosed as grade four Coeliac last year. Admittedly, I did recognise some of the symptoms and had an idea what was wrong. But it's always a shock to get it confirmed. She's very good about it and is doing well. In fact, she made this salad for me!" Sonia says, through a mouthful of kidney beans and sweet potato.
The fact Megan's 'salad' has already been sold to others in her mother's offices, might suggest the teenager is a budding entrepreneur. Proudly, Sonia sets the record straight.
"Megan is fundraising for an orphanage in Kenya," she explains. "She was over there last year and met some of the people involved with the Happy House charity. Now, she's determined to raise seven thousand pounds to help them build classrooms for the kids there. Megan is keen to get involved and is planning to do a sponsored swim in aid of it."
Speaking of charities, there is one that's particularly close to Sonia's heart - her beloved mum Kathleen (77), a former home help, has Alzheimer's and is now in a North Down nursing home. The Irvines have always been a close-knit family and Sonia says that the decision to put her into care was one of the toughest that she, Eddie and dad Edmund Snr (77) have ever had to make.
She explains: "It's one of the cruellest things that can happen to a family and it's been devastating for all of us. I'm still struggling to come to terms with it. Some days are worse than others but I have to keep going. Sadly Jackie Stewart's wife, Helen, is also a victim so when he founded Race Against Dementia it was only natural I should want to help."
In May this year, the Amber Lounge Fashion Charity Auction united with Race Against Dementia to raise awareness of a disease that, according to statistics, will affect one in three of us at some time in our life.
Her father, who used to run a garage business, deals with the situation by keeping himself busy.
"My dad copes with it by travelling which is good because it means that he still has got a bit of a life. Then he comes back to be with Mum a bit, and heads off again," Sonia says.
Brother Eddie, meanwhile, now manages his worldwide property portfolio, which has made him fabulously wealthy.
Later this year, Sonia will turn her attention to another humanitarian project. This time, it's Make a Wish in Singapore. "This is an amazing charity," she explains. "They work with children suffering from life-threatening conditions and try to make their wish come true. I'm so delighted to be part of it."
With so much going on, does she ever manage to fit in a trip back to Northern Ireland? "I don't get back as often as I'd like. Although my brother does go over quite a bit. I do try to fly over about four times a year."
Now 53, Sonia doesn't show any sign of slowing down. "I don't have the time right now," she laughs. "I mean I know I should be doing something to help me relax and chill out but I'm far too busy."
So there's probably no point in asking about complicated beauty regimes or make-up? "No, not really," she says, still laughing. "I'm in work today with no make-up at all but that's normal for me. Apart from some moisturiser, I don't really bother."
Still, it isn't all work and no play. According to rumours, Cupid has been scoring bullseyes on the businesswoman's heart recently.
"Yes there is someone very special," she says, reluctant to be drawn into details. "We've been together a while now. It's still going strong and yes, it feels great."
Despite my gentle probing she will reveal only the smallest detail. "He's a fantastic cook and I'm very happy," she adds, making it clear that, for now, she intends to stay tight-lipped about his identity.