Georgia Salpa, Catholic Guilt and Ireland's Weird Misogyny Problem

Ireland's models are the nation's sweetheart and national joke at the same time.

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Jul 31 2014, 5:00am

Irish models Georgia Salpa and Nadia Forde promoting something or other in the cold

The Irish media has a misogyny problem, one that smiles out from the pages of newspapers and wears a bikini. Individually, the words "Irish" and "model" retain their meanings, but together the words become something different. I’m not talking about fashion models who happen to be Irish, I’m talking about Page 3 girls who have wandered onto page four, occupying an uneasy cultural space between nation's sweethearts and national joke.

Only the brave and Amazonian bodied sign up to be Irish models. Replace the standard model pout with a maniacal grin, replace the flashlights with broad daylight. As an Irish Model, you won't walk on catwalks, you'll pose on streets and in public parks (if you're really lucky, you might get to pose beside a tractor). You'll hold up newly launched products at photo calls – things like tiny hammers and KitKat bars – or else you’ll end up chasing a man dressed as a giant chilli pepper, and of course you'll do all of it without many clothes on. The Irish model lives in her bikini, and is impervious to the cold.

The difference between the Irish model and other sexualised women in media is that the Irish models pretend to have a purpose beyond looking sexy. Their role is conflicted; they embody a peculiarly Irish brand of misogyny tempered by remnant Catholic guilt. Brought in to promote new food products, clubs and public initiatives, the Irish model’s mission is to be family-friendly, even when she’s posing in lingerie. Which leads to strange spectacles like the chairman of Ford Motors Ireland getting photographed while being served by an Irish model dressed as a sexy waitress.

This summer marks the Irish model's transition from print media to nationwide advertising, with three of them appearing on posters in a new campaign for Starbars (they're an Irish, rather mediocre chocolate bar with nuts in). Running under the slogan: "No Nuts, No Glory", the campaign is essentially a photobombing contest pitched at Ireland's apparently heaving sex and chocolate-starved lad market. The campaign dangles both in front of its target audience, asking them if they're "hungry enough to spend three nights" with the Irish models. (Those nights aren't for sex, obviously; they're for racing cars, watching Formula 1 and going shopping in London.)

A video follows Bernard, presented as the archetypal awkward Irish male, in his attempts to photobomb Georgia Salpa. He happily creeps on her, looking over her shoulder as she takes selfies, but clams up and hides when faced with the chance of a conversation. The "Leaderboard" section of the site is a wasteland, but includes a few lads trying to catch women out on their glammed-up group shots (extra points go to Cian for flashing his ass in a forest). As campaign mechanics go it couldn't be better suited to the Irish model: as ever, the woman and her cleavage are centre stage, but the end goal is to make her look stupid.

(Photo of Georgia Salpa via Wiki Commons)

Growing up in Ireland, Irish models have appeared in the Sunday papers for as long as I can remember. They’re quite hard to tell apart, with their hair extensions and uniformly self-tanned skin, but currently the most famous is Georgia Salpa. They date restaurateurs, or occasionally Brian O'Driscoll (though that's in the past: he's now settled down with Amy Huberman, Irish celebrity's first lady). The Irish models are the antithesis of the national stereotype of us all being freckly, spud-like people. They are rechristened upon launching their careers with exotic names invariably ending in "a": Glenda, Georgia, Rosanna, Teodora, Sara, Nadia, Thalia... They seem endless.

Perhaps most interestingly of all, they appear on the pages of magazines and female-orientated newspaper supplements. This is where things get conflicted: what's framed as a feature or fashion shoot will always result in lingerie pictures. Any excuse is enough: an up-close and (very) personal interview with the model, a look at the Autumn collections, which – inexplicably – are all swimwear. There's nothing immediately offensive about the Irish model. Their look is flirtatious but amiably goofy: why is this woman sitting on a deck chair wearing swimwear in the middle of a busy street? Why is this one cramming a plate of bread into her face? Why is this modelthis one and this one all posing with a cow? In Ireland, the line between sexy and silly is thin. 

Aside from Salpa, another Irish model attracting coverage beyond Ireland is Roz Lipsett, whose video "Model Bombing" was picked up by TMZ. It follows Lipsett, dressed in her bikini uniform, as she gatecrashes everyday situations populated with unsuspecting men. "Model Bombing" satirises the role of the Irish model even as it celebrates it. Those old familiar motions – pose outdoors, wear little, ignore passers by – are made doubly weird by showing us the mechanical movements between poses. Lipsett's steely eyes and cyborg walk are downright sinister.

"Model Bombing" video via TMZ YouTube

The video wouldn't be out of place on vintage episodes of Eurotrash. Note how the men are mildly flustered, but it's the model who looks like an idiot. As the willfully oblivious sex object, Lipsett embodies every Irish model over the years, dressed up and fake tanned to perfection only to be thrown to the bystanders, the cameras and the Irish media. The video also hints at Ireland's unique brand of kitsch misogyny, a Lovely Girls Competition with less clothing.

In Ireland we like our sex dumbed down and physically awkward, with the woman doing most of the work. And afterwards, we love to shame her. Witness the succession of scandals and “viral” videos we've produced about girls who have too much fun: Magaluf girl, Slane girl, even the less scandalous, more troubling KPMG girl. Along with Guinness and dairy products, we now breed slut-shaming for export. But in the lulls between sex tapes and blurred phone pictures, the Irish model steps in to publicly act the maggot. Irish Models offer a brand of safe, self-reflexive misogyny: a silly woman is a sexy woman, one who showed up to the photo call but forgot to put on her clothes.

One of the hallmarks of the Irish character is an intense aversion to hype. We love to watch someone get a bit self-important only to cut them down later (though to our credit, we've made self-deprecating humour an art form). Many of the same newspapers and magazines that routinely feature Georgia, Glenda and co will make fun of them on the next page. It's a clever measure on the journalist's part, to preempt criticism by ridiculing the same women they present as sexy. This was called out with the death of Katy French in 2007, from brain damage linked to cocaine use: within weeks of publishing bitchy accounts of her 24th birthday party, the same writers memorialised her as a casualty of the Celtic Tiger.

It's particularly ghoulish to consider how French's plot arc mirrors Catholic hagiography: a woman rises to fame, is objectified and attracts ridicule, then is canonised through suffering and an untimely death. For all our modernity, we are conflicted and self-censoring: inside the LIFE supplement two weeks ago, the contents page features Rosanna Davison in bridal lingerie next to a story about the perils of online porn. It’s the printed equivalent to crying after ejaculation.

Catholic guilt lives on in Ireland in strange ways: we can't be seen to encourage pornography, so we give the bikini girl an excuse, putting a product in her hand to promote. We can't bring ourselves to legalise abortion, so we quietly ship 12 women to the UK every day for abortions instead, another hypocrisy that has led to tragic consequences. Irish life is full of petty, corrosive misogynies: why was Slane girl's name revealed, and not that of the man raising his hands in victory, or that of the photographer? Why was it acceptable for a male TD (our name for MPs) to pull a female one onto his knee in the middle of our abortion debates? Is it our discomfort with discussing sex at home that leads us to act it out so aggressively abroad?

And how does all this connect to Irish models? They're by no means the biggest problem that Irish women have to contend with, but they are another misogynistic habit we've failed to kick, casual girl-bashing presented as wholesome fun. They're a byproduct of Catholic self-loathing, our culture's inability to grow the fuck up. They embody a fear of the female, and on the women's part a tacit acceptance. We like to let our problems linger: some Irish women die and all are denied their human rights. The world looks on and laughs at our provincialism, and who can blame them – while the Irish media is relentlessly sexist in its treatment of women, the joke remains on us.

@RoisinTheMirror

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