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A response to the Sydney Rose: We never had to pretend

2015 Galway Rose Olga Lee responds to Brianna Parkin’s piece, which described the Rose of Tralee as a ‘Kate Middleton impersonation competition’.

Olga Lee

AS A FORMER Rose, I have never been prouder to be associated with the Rose of Tralee than when the 2016 Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins spoke on stage about her beliefs regarding women’s reproductive rights.

Whatever side of this incredibly complex and sensitive debate one falls on, there was an undeniable power in seeing the issue addressed by a woman so perfectly positioned to have an opinion, given that the debate almost entirely centres on young women.

I was also especially proud of the supportive response to Brianna comments by the festival’s CEO, Anthony O’Gara.

Does not reflect wider experience

However, in recent days I believe that support for Brianna’s comments regarding the Repeal the 8th movement has become synonymous with the belief that the Rose of Tralee festival is outdated and somehow derogatory to women.

The two are not inextricably linked, and to state that they are dismisses the relevance of the very platform that has brought this issue to renewed prominence. Brianna herself has said that she stands by the festival, despite the fact that there were aspects of the process that she disagreed with.

While I respect that Brianna wrote truthfully about what she experienced at the Rose of Tralee, the experience that she has described does not accurately reflect my experience as the Galway Rose of 2015. Nor does it reflect the wider experience of many of my fellow Roses who also participated in the festival last year.

I acknowledge at the outset that there are differences between what the Roses from 2016 experienced and what the Roses from previous years experienced.

Traditionally the 32 Roses who were chosen to progress to the TV nights were selected in June, in contrast to the new format where all 65 Roses went to Tralee. We were not filmed at any point for a documentary, and so we were not subject to any of the insensitive filming tactics described by Brianna.

But nonetheless, I can speak from my point of view of what it feels like to participate in this festival.

No pretence

I personally never felt that the women around me were trying to impersonate more demure or ladylike public figures. In fact, if there is one thing that sets the women from the Rose of Tralee apart, it’s their authenticity.

It is only natural that when you are in the public eye, you seek to put your best foot forward. But the women I met on tour in Tralee last year are, without exception, the same women in personality and character that I know today, more than a year later.

We never had to ‘pretend’ we were having fun because we genuinely were having an absolute ball. Whenever I am asked about the time that I had in Tralee (which is frequent), I tell people that I honestly cannot think of an alternative experience that will ever compare.

There were so many moments when I thought to myself that life couldn’t get any better. The real joy in participating is how happy it makes those around you; your family, your friends, your community, that random child whose eyes just lit up because you remembered meeting them earlier in the day. In a world so burdened by negativity, it was thrilling to be part of a rare force for positivity.

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Real friendships

There is no denying that it is an exhausting and at times emotional week, but the energy and friendships from the amazing chaperone team, escorts and fellow Roses (coupled with sheer adrenaline) pulls you through.

Since the festival last year, not a single day has passed when I have not spoken to a Rose or escort from the class of 2015. We are not merely people who know each other through a shared experience; we are real friends. We meet up regularly. We know each other’s families and partners. We support each other.

Our 2015 Escort of the Year, Shane Kenny, started a campaign called ‘Unmask for Pieta’ where we each publicly disclosed deeply personal details of our struggles with mental health in the hope of inspiring other young people to open up too.

Being a Rose or escort is about so much more than smiling and waving for a week in Tralee. It’s an experience that has enriched my life beyond measure.

Participating in the Rose of Tralee has improved my self-esteem, allowed me to get outside of my comfort zone, and inspired me to leave a job that I was unhappy in, in order to follow a career path that I am far more passionate about. If that doesn’t count as empowerment, then what does?

Not perfect

Does my exceptionally positive experience mean that I believe the festival is perfect? Of course not. Is there an existing Irish institution that cannot improve in some way? But ultimately, I believe its merits far outweigh its shortfalls.

I agree wholeheartedly with Brianna that the festival can strive to do more to empower women. While Roses have discussed controversial topics as part of the interview process for years, I would view it as positive if Brianna’s comments served as a catalyst for Roses to feel more comfortable discussing these topics openly.

The festival has always progressed and evolved in alignment with the women who participate in it, and I have no doubt that this will continue to be the case following this year’s festival.

Whether people care to acknowledge it or not, the publicity surrounding Brianna’s comments in the past few days have proven that the Rose of Tralee is one of the most influential platforms for women in this country.

It will always have its detractors but I, for one, am proud to be associated with a festival that at its core seeks to celebrate Irish women, and whose potential to act as a vehicle for positive change is unlimited.

Olga Lee was the Galway Rose in 2015.

Read: “You let me down” – Sydney Rose lifts lid on festival reaction to her abortion remarks

Read: ‘Why would an adult woman want to parade herself around a Kerry tent?’

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Olga Lee

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