Glad to be grey: taking a model approach to ageing

Denise O'Neill, pic by Vanessa Mills
Denise O'Neill, pic by Vanessa Mills

When it comes to ageing for many people there is a constant quest to either stave it off or simply mask it completely.

From hair dye and anti-ageing creams to cosmetic surgery and more, the pressure on women to deny the passage of time is immense.

Denise O'Neill in her earlier modelling days

Denise O'Neill in her earlier modelling days

But one woman is hitting back. Model and well-known blogger Denise O’Neill has become an advocate for positive ageing in Northern Ireland.

Denise, 53, says that while for some women taking steps to look younger or feel younger can give them a confidence boost there are just as many more who feel pressurised and stressed by the idea.

In recent years Denise, from Lisburn, has taken to catwalks all over Northern Ireland and can be seen as the face of a number of media and advertising campaigns right across the UK.

However, it was Denise’s return to modelling and decision to embrace positive ageing that secured her a niche place in the local fashion and beauty market.

Denise O'Neill, pic by Gert van der Ende

Denise O'Neill, pic by Gert van der Ende

She explained: “I did some amateur modelling many years ago when I was in my late teens, early twenties for a friend who was a member of a local camera club.

“It was the 1980s and it was nothing serious - just a bit of fun but I remember him saying to me that it would be lovely for me to have the photos to look back on and show to my grandchildren.

“I have no grandchildren yet but he was right – I do treasure having them. I then discontinued with my modelling hobby when I got married and had my children.”

Thirty years later, when her children Claire and Mark had grown up, Denise decided to pursue her love of modelling again as well as launching her own blog Grey Is OK.

“When I was 50, it was a perfect time in my life to begin focusing on my own interests. I got an urge to model again which arose initially from my passion for promoting grey hair as a positive choice for women on my blog, ” explained Denise, adding: “The blog has been going since September 2011. I had observed that older women in general were under-represented in the world of advertising, beauty, fashion and the media and I wanted to contribute and show that older women could, and should, be part of this world.”

Although Denise is a strong advocate for going grey she is adamant about the importance of pointing out that she doesn’t believe women should not dye their hair either.

She said: “Dyed hair is very beautiful too. It’s all about choice and the choice to go grey should be a positive choice, just like any other colour.

“I had coloured my hair regularly since my mid-thirties with one of the well-known semi-permanent ‘do-it-yourself’ hair dyes, the products where you imagine that you could look just like the model on the box. And, though I never did look like the image on the box, for quite a few years I did feel confident in the way it made me look.

“I didn’t have very many grey hairs, just a few around my temples, but the dye hid them nicely whilst giving my hair a lovely rich colour and texture. I felt that my hair looked good until there came an ‘alarm bell moment’ when I began to notice that I didn’t look right—and some other factors came into focus too.

Denise admits that like many women she felt that hiding the grey was the ‘right’ thing to do, however, the time came when she realised dying her hair was worse than letting it go grey gracefully.

She said: “I was 45 and I began to notice that my dyed hair was becoming a harsh contrast against my face which was emphasising my wrinkles and paler skin. It was actually sucking the life from my complexion and making me look older, ironically the opposite of what I had been encouraged into believing by hair dye advertisements.

“I observed too that, as is normal for women of the peri-menopausal phase of life, my hair was getting a little thinner, especially at the front and my scalp was more visible through the dyed hair. The frequency of the colouring applications was becoming frustrating as I had to colour my hair every two weeks to hide the grey roots.

“I used to get three to four weeks duration from my hair colour—not any more. I resented putting chemicals onto my scalp which might not be a healthy thing to do. So, I said to myself, ‘stop fighting it, let the colour grow out and see what I really look like’. So I gave it a go.”

In recent years Denise has been included in billboard advertising campaigns for Forestside Shopping Centre and Translink as well as general advertising campaigns for Ciara Daly Makeup Brushes Nottingham-based company called White Hot Hair.

As a result she is celebrating her new-found career and a changing fashion and beauty industry.

“I think there used to be more pressure to look a certain way but I think times are changing and there is a message for women to accept themselves, and love themselves, as they are,” said Denise.

“We come in all shapes and sizes and I feel that is accepted more now – and that is the way it should be.

“I have always tried to look after myself. I don’t smoke, drink very little alcohol and I don’t over-expose myself to the sun. I try to eat a healthy diet and, although I don’t go to the gym, I do like walking. I find this easy as it’s just how I live – it comes naturally to me.

“For a long time, older models were invisible but I really do believe that attitudes by those who are in the fashion/beauty/advertising business are changing. Those involved in the industry are finally waking up to the fact that they need to connect and reach out to all consumers. It is necessary to expose the public to older models so that advertisers and sellers connect with everyone in society.

“Diversity is key to this connection so that everyone feels represented. I can see more mature models being used in advertising campaigns – and this is wonderful.

“We all want to look good and spend our money on fashion and beauty products – as well as all the other products and services to enjoy in life.”

Of course Denise’s husband Gerry and children Claire and Mark couldn’t be prouder.

“My family are the most important passion in my life and always will be.

“My interests include singing in a ladies choir (Lisburn Harmony Ladies Choir) which I adore. Facebook is another passion and I admit I am an addict. In fact, Facebook was the thing that helped kick-start my renewed interest in modelling as it enabled me to make connections and build up relationships with people in the modelling/fashion world. The wonders of modern technology and social media.

“My family, friends and colleagues are all very supportive of my modelling and I get very positive comments about it.

“My husband and children are very proud of me. They see it as something that I love to do and even though they give me a bit of ‘stick’ now and again, they are happy to see me happy doing something that I love.”

Next month Denise will take to some of the biggest catwalks Belfast has seen in recent years in four shows at the Belfast Alternative Fashion Week (BAFW).

Proof that Denise’s classic style, confident demeanor and elegant class has a place across a variety of platforms in the ever-changing fashion industry.

“When I was younger I had other aspirations and dreams ahead of me – getting married, settling down, working and being a mum,” she said.

“Now, at this time of my life I am eager to do things for myself. It’s my time.

“Although I enjoyed it when I was younger, I much prefer it now. I feel far more confident in my fifties than in my late teens/early twenties. As I have years of experience of living, I know what suits me in terms of fashion, colour, make-up, and hair. I feel a great sense of freedom and enjoyment modelling now – and it’s great fun.”

And the 53-year-old is looking forward to trying out some new looks.

“I am so excited about the forthcoming BAFW and I can’t wait to be involved. For one of the shows I am actually going to have my 53 year-old body painted – there is a first time for everything,” said Denise.

“I connected with the BAFW founder, Shelley Rodgers, earlier in 2016. When Shelley invited me to be one of her models I immediately said ‘yes’ as I love the ethos of BAFW.

“Shelley and I both believe in diversity, equality and inclusivity and she is a lady of great talent and artistic creativity.

“As a model with ACE/BAFW, I recently participated in the Crafty Belfast Urban Catwalk as part of Holywood Culture Night 2016. It was absolutely brilliant and I am so excited to be involved in the upcoming Belfast Alternative Fashion Week in November (and the finale in December)

“What I see as the main difference in between the BAFW crew and mainstream fashion is diversity. We ACE/BAFW models have all different looks: we are different ages, sizes, genders, tattooed/non-tattooed, tall/short, etc. The fashion we model is very edgy and exciting.”

For more information or to book tickets to Belfast Alternative Fashion Week log onto