Since an Irish scout discovered her in a Dublin shopping center six years ago, the 5-foot-10, 26-year-old beauty from Tydavnet, Co. Monaghan has strutted down the catwalks of Paris, London and Milan, working for some of the biggest names in fashion. For the last year, Balfe ahs been based in New York where she has never been busier.
For a girl who never even thought about being a model, Balfe achieved success that many aspiring fashionistas would give their right Manolo Blahnik for. As a teenager, Balfe intended perusing a career in drama, studying theater in the Dublin Institute of Technology in Rathmines.
“I was a total drama head, it’s all I wanted to do,” recalled the model, speaking to the Echo (between bites of a hurried sandwich) from her hotel in Paris, where she has working non-stop during Fashion Week.
“I was in college one day with my friends, they were collecting money for Multiple Sclerosis. I said I’d go along with them. Derek Daniels (of top Irish modeling agency Assets) was in there doing shopping. He gave me his card, it all sort of started from there.” She was nineteen at the time.
With her willowy, dark good looks, it seems surprising that the thought of modeling had never entered Balfe’s mind.
“My older sister used to model in a bridal fair for one of our neighbors,” she said. “She was taller than I was, I didn’t think of myself as a model.”
As a model, however, Balfe found herself in high demand, doing shows, press calls and magazine shoots around Dublin. At the end of a busy summer modeling in Ireland, Balfe met up with a scout from Ford modeling agency in France.
“She asked me if I wanted to go to Paris — I was gone within about four days!” Balfe recalled. “It never even occurred to me that I couldn’t speak French.”
She decided to take a year off college to pursue the opportunity and has never looked back since.
Her first months in Paris were tough, Balfe admitted.
“Things didn’t work that well for the first year,” she said. “I got a couple of jobs that tided me over, but then things started to pick up in the second year. I got into the Milan shows, where I worked for Miu Miu and others. In Paris, I worked with Chanel, Givenchy, most of the big names.”
The campaigns and magazine shoots soon followed, with Balfe appearing in spreads in British, Italian, German and, ultimately, U.S. Vogue.
Having been based in Paris, London and Milan, Balfe moved to New York last year. During one of her first castings, New York-based designer Narciso Roderiguez was so impressed by her that she became his muse.
“I’ve been working with Narciso for quite some time now,” said Balfe.
“I always do his show. We get on really well. He tries stuff out on me before his collections to see how it all works.”
Dolce & Gabanna are also big fans of Balfe; for the last two years, she has worked with them exclusively during Milan fashion shows.
“For me, it’s a fascinating side of the business to see,” she said.
“It’s fascinating to see where the clothes come from, where designers are coming form, what their inspirations are and how that translates into the finished garment. You get to work with Dolce and Gabanna, which is great, they’re such nice guys.”
By Balfe’s own admission, there are “some absolute rotters,” in the fashion industry too.
“At this point in my career, I’m looking towards retirement,” said Balfe. “It’s so much nicer to be able to choose the designers you want to work with. They can be very tough on new girls. I was relatively old when I started, but I don’t know how 15 and 16-year-olds handle it all.”
Ireland has never produced a high output of international models, but Balfe said the perception of Irish people is as warm in modeling as it tends to be in all walks of life.
“People always get excited when they hear you’re Irish, especially in New York,” she said.
“There is a high opinion of Irish people abroad, in many regards. In modeling, it seems like a different country is in fashion each season. When I started, it was all about Brazilian models, now it’s all about Russian models. Being Irish, I’ve always managed to slot in somewhere, it’s never been a problem.”
Balfe believes that training in Dublin helped her to develop a positive attitude, which she believes is key to succeeding in the notoriously fickle and often vicious world of modeling.
“Irish people are a lot more forgiving,” she said.
“It’s nice to learn the ropes in a nice atmosphere. Irish models don’t tend to go travel — I don’t think that has anything to do with beauty, I think many models have very close ties with home and don’t want to travel. The Irish fashion industry is very insular in that way, but it works well.”
What is her advice to budding Irish models?
“Go for it, enjoy it, don’t hesitate if an opportunity arises,” she said.
“There are lots of sleazy types in the industry, but if you use common sense when dealing with people, you should be fine. You will get to travel, you will see great things and you will meet very interesting people. Just go for it.”