As one of Ireland's most popular social media influencers, Roz Purcell talks to Janice Butler about using her platform for good, overcoming her own battles and feeling in a positive place as she enters her 30s.
 
Roz and I start our chat with the two big stories of the day; International Women’s Day and the Meghan and Harry interview. "I can’t wait to watch it later," she says gleefully. "I watched all The Crown last year so I feel very invested," she laughs. It was nice, for a change, not to start a conversation about something other than Covid and lockdown, but of course, that comes later. 

Roz Purcell, former model, current blogger, cook, influencer, creator of Hike Life and all round sound gal from Tipperary, has just reached the milestone of half a million followers on her Instagram page when I talk to her; a cause for celebration no doubt, but to Roz it’s not about the numbers.

"I’m not really into social media numbers and I know people might read that and think 'Of course you are’. But if anything, seeing numbers like that makes me a little bit anxious because what comes with it is more of a pressure to perform or post a lot. I’m coming from a background of an eating disorder where to get better I had to not concentrate on numbers and not define myself by numbers so I try to bring that into every aspect of my life." 

We need your consent to load this Instagram contentWe use Instagram to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

It’s exactly this attitude to life and her well-being that made Roz an easy choice as our cover star for this wellness special. Having had a serious eating disorder in her early 20s, she’s recovered with the aid of expert help and has made the decision to show her life as it really is on Instagram – every lump, bump and untouched photo – a breath of fresh air in a digital world of perfection. 

Lockdown hasn’t changed her life that massively, she tells me. Having started her food blog, Natural Born Feeder while still modelling five years ago, she’s been adjusting to the working from home schedule a lot longer than most of us, so when the country closed down this time last year, her work life stayed pretty much the same. 

"I sometimes feel bad saying this because I know some people are really struggling but I’ve been so fortunate in that I can work from home and I’ve always worked from home. I feel I adjusted to it very quickly because it wasn’t too different to my normal day-to-day. The part I do find really difficult is not seeing my family," she says. 

We need your consent to load this Instagram contentWe use Instagram to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

She lives in Dublin, by the sea, with her boyfriend of over four years, Zach Desmond and her two dogs, Wilko and Myla. Zach works for the family run live music company MCD so his work is completely on hold at the moment. "Living with someone whose industry isn’t happening at the moment does make me really appreciate that I can still do my work," says Roz.

While she says they always spent a lot of time together, at the start of the pandemic they had to get used to being in the house so much more. "At the very start of lockdown, there was a bit of an adjustment period. We had to invent a fake person; every time he would leave the dishwasher open, we'd say 'Oh Linda left the dishwasher open’, so we weren’t giving out to each other. I have turned a store room into my office, so we have our own space." 

Roz has always had a love of food; having grown up on a farm in Tipperary near the Slievenamon mountains. As a child, she would say she wanted to be a ‘cooker’. Her life took a very different path when she went to college in Dublin at 17 and began modelling part-time.

We need your consent to load this Instagram contentWe use Instagram to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

At only 19, she became Miss Ireland and went on to represent Ireland at the Miss Universe competition, coming seventh. Her modelling career took her all around the globe with various agencies, but behind all the glamour and flashing lights, Roz was suffering hugely with an eating disorder, constantly thinking she needed to be thinner.

She remarks that she thinks she would have had an issue with food regardless, but that modelling didn’t help the situation. "I was someone who was very impressionable; I watched a lot of TV and looked at a lot media and magazines. It probably didn’t help that being a model, people were telling me to lose weight or saying if I was a little bit smaller I’d get better jobs. But that probably just sped up everything for me. Even as a teen, I was a little wrapped up in diet culture. I was conscious of my weight and didn’t like parts of my body. Modelling definitely allowed me to prolong it for longer."

She admits she would spend most of her time in Dublin, avoiding going home too much in fear of losing control of what she was eating. "Food is a massive topic in our house," she laughs. The youngest of three daughters, she says that her eldest sister, Rebecca, who is eight years older, once commented that her personality had changed and that she didn't seem to be the happy teenager she once was.

"She thought I had grown up into a very isolated, cold person. I was very closed off from people and everything was so negative, especially when I was at home because I was around food and I’d feel out of my routine and out of control." 

We need your consent to load this Instagram contentWe use Instagram to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

At 24, she decided to get some professional help but she says she relapsed during this time. It wasn’t until a year later, when her sister Rachel was diagnosed with CML (chronic myeloid leukaemia) that she became determined to get better. "When Rachel got sick, it was the first time in four or five years that I wasn’t thinking about my weight. That was the catalyst for me wanting to get help and being committed to it.

"After about a year of implementing what the experts recommended, I did start to feel a lot better but now, four years on, I realise that I’m now on the other side of it. I now have complete food freedom which is incredible." 
She teamed up with eating disorder groups like BodyWhys to encourage people get expert help. "All I can really do is tell my own story and promote the fact that getting expert help actually did work. So I try not to give too much advice apart from relating to my own personal journey."

As she fell back in love with food, her blog Natural Born Feeder became more and more popular, as people wanted to know what tasty, mostly plant-based, food she was eating. From it came three cookbooks, Natural Born Feeder, Half Hour Hero and No Fuss Vegan.

We need your consent to load this Instagram contentWe use Instagram to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

She continues to share her food and recipe ideas through her blog and her Instagram page and promotes body confidence in her content, choosing to share the sometimes not-so-flattering pictures from her day. "I show myself as I am and don’t worry that people aren’t going to like me because of it or because I don’t look how I did as a model," she says. "People need to be able to relate to you; being aspirational is fine, but it’s not real life." 

She shares that she went back to therapy last year after the pandemic began. As someone who spends a lot of her time in the outdoors, especially hiking, she found it difficult to channel her anxieties while stuck inside her house.

"I’m such an anxious person and a people pleaser. If I get a bad message, it would ruin my day. I needed to be able to separate myself and who I am from what someone else is telling me who I am. The biggest part of why I went back is that I use a lot of external things to deal with anxiety, like hiking, meeting friends, going home to my family and I haven’t been able to do that in the last year. Like everyone else, I’ve been stuck in the house with my own thoughts; it’s a recipe for disaster. So I had to find solace in the silence and being able to manage it without getting those external hits or highs." Has she managed to do that? "I use my 5km more now, to go to the sea and for walks. I try and take time off during the day to get outside," she answers.  

We need your consent to load this Instagram contentWe use Instagram to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

Having turned 30 last year, she comes across wise beyond her years. She’s at a very content stage in life and remarks that she doesn’t feel under pressure to hit the life stages that society suggests we should.

"I think society puts this pressure on women to be off-the-shelf perfect with work and relationships, saying at 30, it’s time to get married or have kids or have a house – that is not how things work and I almost have to remind myself or retrain my brain because that’s how we’ve been brought up to think." 

She has plenty more ambitions for her next decade, perhaps another cookbook, but she’s also setting her sights on other ventures; maybe a hiking book, she says, to tie in with her successful Hike Life campaign, getting young people out walking the mountains of Ireland. She’d also like to help young girls with the pressures of life. "I’d love to do something for younger girls who are struggling with aspects of life, be it relationships or body confidence.

"But I’m only 30; I might need a few more years of learning for that one."

Photos by Joanne Murphy, from No Fuss Vegan (Penguin Ireland)