Celia Holman Lee reflects on her incredible career so far

Celia Holman Lee Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

Celia Holman Lee is an icon and a legend.

So it was very fitting that we sat down with her for our 25th anniversary issue.

We looked back at her incredible career…

Celia, 25 years ago, where and what were you at? 

I was working non-stop, doing a crazy amount of fashion shows. My kids were teenagers so that gave me a chance to dig in even more. Opportunities arrived and I took them. I went to Russia to do some shows and I did a big fashion show up north where I brought The BBC Clothes Show. Looking back now it was the heyday in my industry.

Do you remember when VIP launched? 

Yes, I do. To get VIP to come cover your fashion show was massive, it was like the Bible – huge! I remember the first VIP Style Awards too – and I’m going to say something now and probably land myself in shite but I don’t give a shite because I’m 73! – but I knew if the country could vote, that I’d win, and not because I was the most stylish woman in Ireland, but because I was everywhere. I was what you’d call grassroots; I’d work a show in some village outside of Cork, I’d be down in west Clare, up in east Mayo, out on the other side of Dingle. We were in every hall across the country. I recall walking the catwalk in front of 700 people in Thurles, in the hall where the GAA was first founded, and I remember standing up and waving the magazine and asking the audience to vote!

And it worked! Because you did win the very first VIP Style Awards for Most Stylish Woman!

And only because I was everywhere! I remember when Paul Sheeran, the jeweller, who was sponsoring it, called out the winner, he said ‘Celia’ but never said the second name and everyone, including myself, looked at Celia Larkin (stylish beauty salon owner and the former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s ex-partner), and then Paul was like, ‘no, no, Celia from Limerick, Celia Holman Lee!’ Another funny story from that night is that Nicky Byrne from Westlife won Most Stylish Man and I didn’t know who he was because he was only a baby starting out, and I said, ‘Darling, what do you do?’ [laughing]! And he says, ‘I’m in a boyband’! And I say, ‘Well, I wish you the best of luck, love!’ [roaring laughing]

Celia Holman Lee Pic: Brian McEvoy

Too funny! 1999 was the year that VIP published their first issue, also the year Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach and Bill Clinton was President of the United States…

And the year Nelson Mandela stepped down from his presidency of South Africa. I heard this only the other day on the radio! Having served one term from 1994 to 1999 in the country’s first democratic elections, he chose not to go for re-election, staying true to his word of serving only one term. His party the African National Congress (ANC) is still going today but for the first time in over 25 years is under pressure.

Also Vladimir Putin was making manoeuvres towards the presidency before he was elected in 2000. You were in Russia around that time… what was that like? 

I flew from Shannon to Moscow on an Aeroflot plane packed with the Russian army who were coming down from Newfoundland…but that’s another story! I arrived and Gorbachov at the time was in charge, there was a coup going on for Boris Yeltsin to take over and I remember protestors had set fire to part of The Kremlin. From Moscow airport, we got a domestic flight down to Estonia who were looking for their independence because Gorbachov gave it to all of them, but you had to have three or four countries to recognise you before you were recognised as a standalone country. On our flight to Estonia there were about eight men in suits from Canada, and they were going down to recognise Estonia as a country. I remember also seeing big massive boulders around the entrance to the city and I turned to someone and said, ‘What in the name of God are they for?’ And I was told, ‘We are frightened that the Russians might decide to invade’.

Same problems, different times – crazy…

Yes. And the peace that we have been fortunate enough to know is threatened now. I have often said to my husband Ger how lucky we are to have lived through the time we did because yes, there were struggles and financial crises, but nothing like the issues we face at the moment. It’s a different world now I can tell you.

What about you Celia, how different are you now compared to the Celia of 25 years ago?

I am definitely…older! [Laughing] I suppose I’ve gained wisdom, but nothing gains wisdom like age. I’m not saying I’m smarter, social media took that from me. But I am very astute and I am still out there and able to foresee things within my industry that might work. Have I changed? I suppose I have. Social media has changed us all in a way, I think.

Celia Holman Lee Pic: Evan Doherty for VIP Magazine

What do you mean social media took your smarts from you? 

I find social media very difficult. All the videos online you see, I create them. I am told 99 times how to post them but I forget, or I hit the wrong music or I do something wrong. I can make the content but after that, no!

Would you have imagined 25 years ago that you would still be where you are today, still working, still shooting for VIP?

I think I would have definitely thought I’d still be working. However, never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined I’d have the profile I have.

Celia, founder of Ireland’s longest running model agency, shares her top fashion tips online at @celiaholmanlee

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