She has run Miss Northern Ireland for 30 years, as well as her successful modelling agency, ACA Models, for almost the same period, and is married to one of the most recognisable faces in the golfing world. Her life is busy and exciting, but as Alison Clarke tells LAURA MCMULLAN, she has no plans to slow down
Alison Clarke stands out a mile as she makes her way through the throng of Belfast shoppers and commuters to my office, coffee cup in hand, soft blonde curls swinging (she tells me she had tonged them that morning but was less than happy with the results), her tall frame and confident stride identifying her as every inch the boss of the country’s longest running modelling agency and a former Miss Northern Ireland winner herself.
She’s tall, tanned and beautiful, impeccably dressed in a white shift dress with black trim, her golden glow the result of a few hours in the North Antrim sunshine, at the home in Portrush she shares with golf legend husband Darren Clarke.
“Life is busy, running from one thing to the other, to my job, to my husband, to my kids, to my house,” she affirms, although her relaxed demeanour and faultless appearance in no way gives any clue as to the hectic nature of her life.
As the boss of ACA Models, and the organiser of Miss Northern Ireland, Alison has been responsible for launching the career of a host of some of the country’s most well known girls, from Lucy Evangelista and Zoe Salmon, to Joanne Salley and Judith Wilson.
But she’s a household name herself, and is as famous for her prowess in the business and modelling world as she is for being the wife of one of the world’s most successful golfers.
“My hobby became my business, and no job is ever too big or too small for me to do,” she says. “You’ll still find me on certain occasions hoovering around the office or cleaning the bathroom or kitchen.
“I don’t have any qualms about doing that, nothing is beneath me.”
Ultimately, ACA Models is Alison’s baby, her creation, which she started just one day after leaving an 11-year-career with the Ulster Bank.
“ACA was born on November 1,” she says.
“It was tough at the beginning; it was the 90s, and there was still political unrest in Northern Ireland. I started off with zero and had to build it up.
“It takes you nearly the first three years to get anywhere when you’re starting out in a new business. Plus I had my second son in 1992, so I finished work one day, went into hospital to have him the next, and in those days you stayed in for maybe five or six days. I came out and went back to work with him with me.”
Alison Smyth from Strabane joined the Bank as an administrator in the bullion department after leaving school, enticed by the promise of financial independence and the end of exams and studying - for a while at least.
She spent three years separating Irish and British currency, sorting cheques, statements and ledgers, but it was when she won Miss Northern Ireland in 1982 that her career started to skyrocket.
“A lovely man called John Kenny was in charge of public relations, and he saw the value of the bank using me in their PR department, so he brought me in to work with him. I was his sidekick for quite a number of years until he retired.”
Alison was then involved in the marketing and sales departments, and eventually business development, and as her employer’s profile rose, so too did her own range of contacts in the media world.
Soon, crunch time came - and she had to make a decision if she wanted to stay and advance her career with the bank further, or break out on her own.
“I had joined the bank because I didn’t want to do any more exams. In the Ulster Bank, you had to do bank exams, and I just thought you know what, I‘ve gone as far as I can, I couldn’t get promotion unless I did these exams, and I thought I didn’t need to do them and could do the job anyway, but it was protocol.”
Since 1987, she had been organising the Miss Northern Ireland contest; her work was becoming more and more well known, and an increasing number of people were approaching her for her help in securing models for different jobs.
She realised there was, essentially, a gap in the market, and ACA was born. And being a former Miss Northern Ireland herself had helped her greatly in her journey to reach this point.
“If I hadn’t won Miss Northern Ireland, dear knows where I would be,” she tells me candidly.
“I probably would have stayed in the bank - I might have done my exams. I wasn’t prepared to sit at the bottom all my life, I wanted to get on.”
More than 25 years on, life at the helm of her own modelling agency is busier than ever.
“No two days are ever the same,” she says, as she fills me in on where she intends to be for the rest of the week.
Generally, that pattern includes three days in the office - a 1 hour 15 minute commute from her Portrush home - a day working from home, and a day off, although in reality, she remains connected with her office over that 24 hour period as well. And she’s connected to her business 24/7. That’s how she likes it, and that’s why she’s successful.
“I think the key to running a successful business is, don’t ever take your eye off the ball, become involved, and don’t leave to others what you can do yourself,” she says slowly and carefully in response to my question.
“I am 24/7, literally, even if I go on holiday, I am always working, I don’t ever switch off.
“It’s a way of life.”
When she gets five minutes, she says she loves to sit down with a cup of coffee and relax; no pavement pounding or visits to the gym for her, although her svelte figure would belie that.
“I hate the gym - and we have one in our own home,” she admits. “I just can’t apply myself. My life is non-stop all the time, so if I have 20 minutes off, I want to chill.
“I do have a fit lifestyle in that I’m not sitting at a desk all the time, and I do watch what I eat - I don’t let myself go overboard, though I have a very sweet tooth.
“If I feel that I’m tipping scales, I try and cut down during the week and have salads or soups for lunch and fish in the evenings etc.”
For Alison Clarke, her track record to date is certainly impressive, and her future is bright. And she has no plans to slow down just yet.
“We completed 30 years of Miss Northern Ireland there last month,” she grins, adding: “I don’t think I could be at home doing nothing.
“So as to the future, it’s just more of the same please.”
From young showjumping star to catwalk queen
When it comes to childhood memories, you couldn’t get more outdoorsy that those of the young Alison Smyth’s.
Along with her younger siblings - two brothers and two sisters - she was raised on a dairy farm in Strabane, where she spent long summers herding cattle, helping out, and riding ponies.
She was expected to muck in with the rest of the family, and it’s from these humble, hard-working beginnings that she learned that if you want something in life, you have to earn it.
“We all had jobs to do around the house. I got my own sons do the same, and now Tyrone and Conor as well. I think it helps them become a better person in life,” she says.
And she expects similar standards when it comes to selecting girls for her modelling agency.
There is no sugar coating of the work that is expected from her young protégés.
“We get so many letters from girls and from mothers who think that because you are tall, you can be a model.
“You don’t need to be five ft 10, but you do need to have the right character, you need a good work ethic, and you need to be thick skinned, because this is an image industry, and you’ve got to be able to take advice and constructive criticism from the likes of me.”
‘Darren is a perfectionist in every aspect’
She’s married to one of the most famous and successful golfers in the world, but there’s one thing Alison Clarke is keen to set the record straight on when it comes to husband Darren.
And that’s his cigar smoking habits.
“I read an interview that somebody did about him recently, and they said he was like the typically affable, cigar-smoking, Guinness-drinking, jovial guy,” she says.
“Now to put the record straight, I’ve only ever seen Darren smoke a cigar twice in our whole relationship!
Though he does have the odd cigarette!”
The Dungannon born man’s reputation as a sociable, fun-loving and friendly guy is one of the qualities his wife admits she loves about him.
“He’s great fun, he’s sociable, he’s great craic,” she continues.
“The other side to him is when he gets a bit frustrated about the way he plays, and he gets upset with himself. Because he is such a professional sportsman it upsets him when he doesn’t play well, and you’ve got to give him time in those cases just to come around. You’ve got to be there for him in the right way.”
She adds: “He is a perfectionist in every aspect of his life. He’s also very generous and kind, and he’s always so accommodating when people come up to him asking for pictures.”
Alison, who got married to Darren in April 2012 on the beach at Abaco in the Bahamas, where they also have a home, says that when he gets time off from his golfing commitments, the couple like nothing more than chilling at home and chatting over a glass of wine, or enjoying some “us time” at their sun-soaked holiday house.
“It’s very quiet; nothing happens, there is one restaurant, one beach bar and a golf club,” she says of the island they love to visit.
“The boys can fish as well. It’s paradise, and nobody can take pictures of you. It’s just bliss.”
Alison also enjoys a great relationship with Darren’s two sons, Tyrone, 17, and Conor, 15.
“They are absolutely brilliant boys, they are good fun,” she says.
“I spend a lot of time on my own with them. We have a great relationship and they’re very good to me.”
Her own sons Stuart and Philip are older, and have both left Northern Ireland to make their way in the world, Stuart, in San Francisco working for Invest NI, and Philip in London as a graduate trainee manager for Lidl.
She does herself accompany Darren to some of his golfing tournaments, and will be at the Ryder Cup as Lady Captain of the European team in Minnesota this autumn, but she insists that such expeditions are very much work for Darren, and not simply jollies.
“Going to golf tournaments is not like a holiday. People think I jet all over the world and swan about, it’s lot like that. He’s working, he’s such a perfectionist, so he’s always practising. It’s early nights and early mornings when he’s away. And he’s so committed to everything he does. At the minute he really is the busiest I’ve ever seen him with the Ryder Cup coming up.”
With their similar work ethic and Co Tyrone upbringings, it’s obvious that the pair are a match made in heaven, and Alison reveals that after their initial first date - the result of a set-up by Darren’s friend and fellow golfer Graeme McDowell - they gelled so well that the relationship moved forward quickly and naturally.
“We had been in contact first by text, and had quite a sarcastic, fun, relationship - plenty of banter.
“Then I was going over to Eamonn Holmes’ 50th party in Manchester one Saturday night, and Darren asked me to meet him in London the night before. That was where we had our first date, and the next night he came to the party with me.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
“We just obviously felt the same about each other. To be honest, I was just drifting through my life, I wasn’t interested in any relationship, I’d been through previous relationships and just wanted to concentrate on my business and have fun. I wasn’t looking for anybody at the time.”