Women We Love: Maria Walsh, Entrepreneur & Former Rose of Tralee

Four years ago this month Maria Walsh was selected to represent the city of Philadelphia in the 2014 International Rose of Tralee competition.

On the final night of the event, in a stunning ceremony watched by close to a million people worldwide, the American-born Irish-raised, 27-year-old went on to capture the hearts of the nation and the coveted title, to become the 56th Rose.

Her coronation garnered even more attention when, shortly after winning the festival, Maria announced that she was the first gay Rose of Tralee, and had been living as an openly gay person for nearly three years.

Maria Walsh IndulgeMe.ie

Since then the she’s swapped her job as a studio manager for the clothing brand Anthropologie in Philadelphia to become a regular face on our TV screens, an advocate for LGBTQ rights, the founder of Juniper & Ruby, an international events agency, and has found love along the way, with Emmy-winning tv producer Shauna Keogh .

We chatted to Maria about why she thinks the Rose of Tralee represents modern women, the challenges she’s faced as a young female entrepreneur, why she chooses to be a pioneer, and how she keeps (seriously) fit.

Why did you apply for the Rose of Tralee?

I grew up with The Rose of Tralee, as many did. I watched it from the summer when I moved to Shrule, Co. Mayo when I was seven.

I remember in 1998, when I was twelve/thirteen, Mindy O’Sullivan was crowned the International Rose of Tralee and I was mesmerized that a Rose lives thirty minutes away! And from that moment on I put it on my bucket list of ‘to do someday’.

My only stipulation for myself was I wanted to represent an area I was proud of; Mayo or the next place I called home. And that became Philadelphia for me.

Do you think the Rose of Tralee festival is still relevant and represents modern women?

I very much believe, think and support that the International Rose of Tralee Festival is as relevant and modern since it began nearly sixty years ago.

I met influential people who drive their own communities from the President of the United States Barrack Obama to a six-year-old who cut ten inches of her hair and donated to Little Princess Trust just because it was the “right thing to do”!

Each and every year we see a vibrant, energetic, outspoken woman and her fellow Roses’ from across our Diaspora showcase their chapters, their passions and dreams.

Every year Roses’ challenge the status quo of others expectations, and that in itself is relevant and modern.

What was the highlight of your year as the Rose of Tralee?

My 2014 International Rose of Tralee year was filled with travel, with people, with conversations, with brilliance.

It was work, but I loved every minute of the busy hectic life I lived. I was fortunate to have travelled to India, South Africa, Africa, Belarus, parts of Australia and the United States.

I met influential people who drive their own communities from the President of the United States Barrack Obama to a six-year-old who cut ten inches of her hair and donated to Little Princess Trust just because it was the “right thing to do”!

But for me the highlight of my 2014 International year was traveling to each of our thirty-two counties. What a beautiful place we call home.

How do you think your life might have been different had you not won?

Such a difficult to answer! I am a different person given the year I experienced. As would anyone be.

 
And that’s not just because I traveled the world but because I was fortunate to meet people, hear their stories and connect our ever-growing Irish Community.

Since when did you know you were gay?

Sexuality is so fluid, we are fortunate to meet people and sometimes something clicks.

For me, I met a person in Philadelphia who was in the city to play Gaelic Football with the team I played for also. We connected and it ‘just made sense’.

Being a member of the gay community never created any feelings of negativity for me or within me. I have met amazing people in my life and fortunate to be comfortable in my own skin to enjoy meeting them.

You came out in public following winning the contest. Do you think the process might have been different had the public known beforehand?

I get asked this many times ‘what if’. Perhaps the announcement of ‘Philadelphia’ may have been different but I would hope not.

Sexuality is so fluid, we are fortunate to meet people and sometimes something clicks…being a member of the gay community never created any feelings of negativity for me or within me.

And given I had the pleasure of meeting the five judges pre and post the public knowing of my sexuality, I don’t believe it would have changed.

Gay marriage was introduced two years ago now, but last year one in five young LGBT people said they still face bullying and harassment. Do you think there is still a long way to go achieve equality in LGBT rights in Ireland?

I believe we as a community have immense work to do. We still have young people feeling their life carries less worth because they align with the gay community.

We need to work harder at ensuring those who are feeling this negativity have a secure place to call, to visit and to feel comfortable in their own skin.

We have even more work internationally but here in Ireland, even two years on, we all need to open our eyes to not just two people holding hands in the street or a couple saying ‘I do’, we need to support those who are still struggling, young and old, to feel that comfort in themselves.

How did you and Shauna meet?

Shauna and I met late 2015, we both we running the 10K Fun Run in memory of the International Roses’ and Escorts’ who had passed away.

 
It was brief encounter. Then, later in the Fall, we connected again in TV3 while I was filming with the Six O’Clock Show. We were friends long before it became romantic.

What challenges have you faced in business as a young female entrepreneur?

There are many challenges both male and females’ entrepreneur’s experience. When I speak with young people I often share the difficulty I still have to figure out what it is I want to pursue in the future, who I want to be, and what my passions are.

I am so frustrated at not knowing my purpose(s). Transition periods are difficult but required. And that is the same for both sexes I imagine.

From the grassroots perspective, having more support in smart banking, better tax incentives for people to begin a business, rent controlled spaces would allow emerging companies to expand organically.

I also wish more and more career coaches like Jane Downes at ClearView Coaching Group are on hand to support females. I have worked with Jane several times as a gift to myself.

I still have to figure out what it is I want to pursue in the future, who I want to be, and what my passions are. I am so frustrated at not knowing my purpose(s).

What events have you curated with Juniper & Ruby that you are most proud of?

Juniper & Ruby was created to support and explore the creative work. I have been fortunate to have years of experience working with leading brands, photographers and stylists who are passionate about their craft.

Juniper & Ruby is navigating into what I know best; supporting brands. To date the event I am most proud of curating is my sister’s wedding.

A family engagement, the first in the family, larger numbers of guests, evolving designs allowed me to learn – quickly! And as we all know family speak openly and honestly!

You studied journalism and worked as a runner in RTÉ and TV3 all through your student years. Was being on camera and in the public eye something you always saw yourself doing?

I studied Journalism & Visual Media in Griffith, and sadly was just informed it’s been a decade since I graduated – how did that happen?

 
I was fortunate to ‘fall’ into a production company who were busy and the more and more I worked the more my network grew.

For me, being front of camera was never a foreign concept to me but I loved working and supporting teams. Being Studio Manager for Anthropologie or working on creative photoshoots for BHLDN fitted my personality.

But given the immense experience I had allowed me to feel comfortable in front of the lens. I had built a comfort with it.

Would you like to do more TV and presenting work?

I would love to do more TV and presenting work. It’s a path that offers many learns. Under the media umbrella there are many facets but I love to talk to people, learn, investigate and their experiences.

I have a passion for exploring, asking questions, being investigative both here and aboard. I would love to push myself to be a Stacey Dooley, Louis Theroux, and Christiane Amanpour.

What women in Ireland, as well as women abroad, do you admire?

I admire former President Mary Robinson. I have never had the privilege of meeting her but as a fellow Mayo woman she is an advocate for drive, grit, excellence.

Internationally I admire Samantha Power, Former UN Ambassador, Hillary Clinton, Minister Katherine Zappone.. the list is endless.

 
You’ve been a pioneer since the age of 12. Has this been a challenge at times?

I spoke about this over a weekend in April as I was presenter for the National No Name Club Awards.

Being a Pioneer was never a difficult challenge, but it did offer some tough questions with myself, with ‘close’ friends, with peers and a lot with people who didn’t understand why I decided to abstain for life.

Being a Pioneer is my greatest accolade. It’s the one achievement that I regularly mention.

Last year you made a dramatic change to your hair. Tell us, do blondes really have more fun?

After the International Rose of Tralee year a change to my hair seemed like it would fun.

I had always wanted to dye my hair but over the years I never had the excuse to. Given the fun-filled year I had as Rose, when better to keep the fun going!

I do love it. I am often told to go back to my dark roots and someday I will but for now the blonde is here to stay.

What are your top three beauty essentials?

Charlotte Tilbury Magic Foundation (in shade Medium- 7), her Cheek to Chic Blusher, and Inis perfume. I won’t travel anywhere without Inis.

What are you favorite ways to keep fit?

I love classes to keep me fit. I had big goals for my thirtieth birthday last year, some I made some I didn’t!

I love adventure and challenges and completed both a Sprint Triathlon and Sea 2 Summit in Westport, Mayo last year.

I was working a lot in Limerick last year and fell in love with The Training Room in the City.

To keep me on track I’ve work with CoachPact to keep me accountable for my sometimes lazy actions!

I believe we as a community have immense work to do. We still have young people feeling their life carries less worth because they align with the gay community.

What’s your morning routine?

I travel quite a bit so my structure varies. I always start with a coffee – who doesn’t?

I am catching myself more and more checking emails/social media as soon as I wake, which I hate. I’m always eager to find balance so ask me this question in a month.

Where are your favorite places to eat and drink in Mayo?

Favorite places to eat and drink in Mayo are; Café Rua and Dining Room in Castlebar, and Ashford Castle – any food or drink beverage here, or even a stroll in the grounds will always be a favorite.

Do you have a favorite quote?

This is probably the HARDEST question to ask as I am a love of quotes.

I walked the Camino de Santiago in June 2016. Over thirty days I walked five hundred miles from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela.

 
It’s the most beautiful place to ask the questions of yourselves, and where you are in life.

I fell in love with a quote along the route and lead back to it often; “we’re all just walking each other home”.

Regardless if you walk, run or stroll, what a powerful line of humanity.

Can you share any plans you have in the pipeline?

I am an Ambassador for Plan Ireland, and will be apart of their International Day Against Homophobia. Transphobia, and Biphobia on May 17th to highlight that today in more than 72 countries still criminalize same-sex relations.

The Campaign ‘BE ME’ will feature a number of notable LGBTQI+ faces showing via a photoshopped image what situation they could face if they lived in one of the 72 countries where ‘BEING ME’ is illegal.

Empire Elite Limited (Shauna’s production company) and I co created a female sports documentary for TG4.

The documentary will air mid-September and follows Cora Staunton (from Mayo) who signed as the first international signing to join an Aussie Rules Team The Sydney Giants.

Regarding the Rose of Tralee, I am fortunate to present the Kildare Rose of Tralee Selection and judge the Regional Roses’ at this year’s International Rose of Tralee Festival.

You can follow Maria Walsh on Twitter (@MariaWalshbiz), Instagram (@honorawalsh) and Facebook.

Article by Erica Bracken, Editor at IndulgeMe.ie. You can follow Erica on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.