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VIP chats with Celia Holman Lee about her incredible career and writing her memoir

Celia Holman Lee
Pic: Lili Forberg for VIP Magazine

Celia Holman Lee believes shoes can make an outfit. VIP believes shoes tell you about a person. It was only a few minutes into our very first shot set up on the jetty at Dromoland Castle, with this most glamorous grandmother-of-five, when VIP clocked the shoes. Bright orange leather with a kitten heel, they were utterly divine. But these were not the heels that Celia planned on wearing with any of the rig outs she has assembled for today’s spectacular shoot. These heels were simply Celia’s slippers!

These were the shoes that our 70-year-old supermodel put on after she had taken off her sky high stilettos as she traipsed from location to location – often across uneven terrain – around the breathtaking grounds of Dromoland. And never once did Celia wobble! Because Celia doesn’t wobble! “Maybe only after a few champagnes,” she laughs.

This may sound strange but in the flesh today, Celia looks as magnificent as the Lilly Pond and the Walled Gardens of Dromoland, especially when in full bloom. Her body is phenomenal (note: she never takes sauces on anything). Her facial lines are beautiful. And her hair – her hair, like her shoes, also says something about this model agency boss. Set to backcombed-and-hairsprayed perfection, Celia likes her hair to sit high. Her hair has posture. It understands deportment! It’s hair that holds, just as Celia knows how to hold herself.

To be completely upfront – and we really don’t mean to come across overly gushy – but in our 20 VIP years, we have never worked with anyone quite like her. VIP literally set the date for this most glamtastic of photoshoots, Celia did the rest. She arranged her own glam squad; searched and styled her own outfits; she even came up with the idea of wearing a gown on a rowing boat on Dromland Lough. Our photographer Lili Forberg just pointed a camera and captured this icon pulling poses. And all day people approached us; enquiring, commenting, admiring. And all day Celia was kind to everyone. There is so much we love about her. But what we love most is that even when in her dressing gown, she wears heels!

Pic: Lili Forberg for VIP Magazine

Celia, every picture, as we know, tells a story. What do these photos over the next 12 pages tell us about you?
They photos say, “We all can be fabulous at any age!” This shoot was a little bit magical for me. It was one of the days where I felt, “I’m 70 years of age and I’m having the time of my life”. I walked away thinking, “If I never do another shoot again, I’m happy.”

We couldn’t get over the orange heels you wore as you traipsed across the grounds of Dromoland. How do heels make you feel?
[Laughing] I’m a divil for wearing them around the house, too! My granddaughter said to me last week, “Granny, why are you wearing high heels with your dressing gown?”! [laughing] I just find flat shoes very…flat! Having said that I have graduated to the sneaker, of course though it has a rise in it! And diamantes on the back!

Do you know that we have never seen you in a tracksuit. Or a pair of jeans even!
[Laughing] Would you believe it I started to wear some athleisurewear in lockdown! I couldn’t be going out in the garden with my straight skirt and heels, and my dog Argo jumping all over me and breaking my neck [laughing]. I might go for a walk later and if I do, I will wear Sweaty Betty – that line is really good. And Oxendales too has fabulous athlesiurewear pieces. I especially like their soft knit two pieces.

Tell us, what is it about fashion you love so much? And do you wear colour because it lifts your mood?
I have always seen clothes as a huge helping hand. I have always felt that clothes make me feel and look much better. When I feel a little bit off I use clothes to lift me. Clothes make an incredible first impression. Some people may not feel that this is an appropriate thing to be saying, but your image is so important and unfortunately people do judge you on how you present yourself. I mean, how long were we all cooing over the Kardashians before we ever even heard them speak?

Celia Holman Lee
Pic: Lili Forberg for VIP Magazine

You really are a very beautiful woman, Celia. Has your beauty been an advantage in life? Has it opened doors for you?
I think it’s the whole package. I mean…I’ll tell you a quick story…I won the first VIP Style Award 19 years ago. I walked into that room and I didn’t know anyone and no one knew me. I had had a classic suit made for the occasion but I was certainly not the greatest beauty in the room, not by a long shot. But I was put together, if I do say so myself, the best. It was the package and the attention to detail. And I haven’t changed over the years. Like I changed my earrings coming down to yee earlier, twice! I could be rushing out the door and I’ll look in the mirror and go, “No, I’m not doing that”. And I’ll go back and change. It’s just me.

Have you found getting older hard? Or have you gone gracefully with it?
I have gracefully gone with it, but I do think… “I’d take 60”! And I’d be very happy with 60! I salute the likes of, as I call them, the old guards. The likes of Helen Mirren, Twiggy, Joan Collins, Jane Fonda, any of us out there in that age group who are still working and pushing forward. To be working still is wonderful. But my mum, God rest her, died at 81, and at Christmas I’ll be 71. The years do get a bit closer together and you do get a bit poignant. You’re inclined to look back and I hear my mum in myself now when I start off with my stories, “Oh, I remember in Russia…”. And my daughter and daughter-in-law are throwing their eyes to heaven as I go on and on. But I just have so many stories to tell…!

And these stories you are recording in a book. Tell all!
Yes, I have been doing a lot of looking back while writing the book. I’m finding it difficult to go back too much though. I get very weepy… I am putting it all together first before I go to a publisher because I am not being told what to do. I’d rather not do it all. I’m doing this because I think I have a story to tell because I have held on to the longest running modeling agency in the country.

We can’t wait for the book! Will you be giving tips on how to maintain your skin and the hair in such good condition?! Because this is a need-to-know!
[Laughing] Clarins I use and Boots No.7. Their serums and Vitamin E products are very good. I get up in the morning and I don’t cleanse, I cleanse only at night, because I find as I get older all that cleansing is not good for ageing skin. I do feel as you get older the things you have to mind are your eyebrows, your eyelashes and your teeth. Try to keep the teeth a bit white because it’s more youthful. Keep the eyebrows on because they always frame your face. Try get serums for the eyelashes because you can have, and forgive the term, but a very baldly looking eye! And if ever I’m going to anything important I’ll wear false eyelashes, but that’s as false as I’ll go. I have to make do with the wrinkles, they’re there, get over them! And keep the face dewy. Don’t have dullness, use those sprays that give you shine.

Celia Holman Lee
Pic: Lili Forberg for VIP Magazine

We must clarify this once again: you have never had any cosmetic work done.
Never. I’ve had ultherapy (it’s non invasive) around the neck area and face area and I really do see a tightening. But I do think at times, “Will I hand my face in somewhere and get me one back that’s been pulled and tightened?!” But at this stage, I wouldn’t put myself and my husband and my grandchildren through it.

We know you’re a fan of Jackie Kennedy’s pristine glamour and refined opulence. What do you think of the fashion today?
I think Covid has changed fashion and stolen our direction. We’re all a bit lost now. There is also no hair style at the moment. Apart from the fringe. But it will all come back. Hopefully in the autumn if the world – and the shops – stay open.

Has Covid changed you?
There’s nobody that hasn’t be affected or changed. Luckily I used it as an opportunity to get on social media and that kept me focussed. If I hadn’t had that focus I may be answering this question in a myriad of different ways!

Your garden is a haven now thanks to all the time you spent in it this past year. That must have been a tonic?
It was. For my 70th I put in a new garden and patio, that was my present to myself because I have everything I need. The garden taught me that I can slow down and that I don’t have to be doing everything. It gave me some kind of peace.

Celia Holman Lee
Pic: Lili Forberg for VIP Magazine

How did you feel the day you got your first vaccine?
I felt so grateful. But it was all very surreal. I wonder who’ll write the history books and get it right? Ger is mad to go abroad somewhere, but I won’t travel until I know that going abroad is safe, and that I won’t get stuck somewhere. I plan on staying a few nights here in Dromoland and in Adare Manor, and eating and drinking around Limerick because sitting out is gorgeous, I’m really enjoying it this summer. I hope this new culture continues, and I hope we build to adapt. Limerick over the past few weeks has been gorgeous.

And Clare is a dream today! Celia, your work ethic is quite something. It always has been. What has driven it?
I came from a working class background, which now I am so proud of. And my work ethic came from my background. Growing up everybody worked. My Aunty Maud would meet me and the first thing she would say to me is, “How’s the job going?” That was the old way. It was all about work back then. They would describe someone as “lovely girl, great worker”! To be a great worker was a badge of honour. It’s never left me.

You and Ger are married 49 years now. Any marital advice for us?
Ah Jesus…it’s been some journey and it’s had many highs and many lows. And, then as you become older it kind of plateaus. Things don’t matter that used to. And the focus kind of changes to enjoying each other’s company. In the early years you don’t get a chance to appreciate each other. You’re working, you’re trying to build a house, a life, a family. And then one day you look at each other and go, “Jaysus, you’re still there!” [laughing] Ger is very patient and he’s always adored me. Is that an awful thing to say? But he has. I think that is important. I look around me now and if he’s not there I’ll wonder where he is.

We’ll end with this because it feels fitting: you seem very grateful, Celia, for the hand life has dealt you…would we be right?
You have no idea…I think back to me running on Kerry’s Road to get the bus, or not able to get the bus because I hadn’t the fare. Twiggy said modeling was an elite profession. She felt it, I felt it too. But still I did it. And I hope people think I did a good job. I am very very grateful for the life I have lived. My mother must be so proud of me. My aunts and uncles, and my poor father, too. Limerick is proud of me also, and Limerick is very good to me. All the hotels and restaurants always welcome me. It’s such an honour. And my grandkids. I idolise them and they know it. The grandchildren can walk all over me and long may I be around for them to do that.

Celia Holman Lee
Pic: Lili Forberg for VIP Magazine

INTERVIEW: Bianca Luykx
PHOTOGRAPHY: Lili Forberg
STYLING: Celia Holman Lee
LOCATION: Dromoland Castle

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