Despite her recent fame, Irena insists she's a "normal person like everyone else" - but acknowledges it's a little weird now that she's back to work as a nurse in WA. And yes, there are patients who recognise her.
"It is strange when I have situations like that, I even get taken aback because I’m not a big deal. But it’s nice that we do get some beautiful comments from people," the 32-year-old says.
We caught up with Irena to chat about her return to the health industry, raising awareness for the Know Shingles campaign, and her life with Locky two years on from The Bachelor.
Let's get straight into the latest fan freak-out about your relationship: Locky called himself your husband on SAS Australia. People went a bit wild messaging you...
Oh my god, yes! We get it all the time. The thing is, Locky calls me wifey or Mrs Gilbert already. He's like it's weird, boyfriend seems so teenagery so he just says husband. And when I heard it in the trailer I didn’t think twice about it, but then people were like oh my god are you two married? But then I came down to Melbourne and everyone is like did they break up? We're married one second, broken up the next. Believe me if he was to propose I'd be letting the world know, I would be screaming it from the roof tops. We have definitely not been secretly hitched. And then when it does happen no one is going to believe us [laughs].
The fan speculation is a lot to cope with. You've been open about the struggles you faced in those early days post-Bachelor. How are you going now?
It's so strange because after we did our interview with WHO about our miscarriage, I was really overwhelmed by the messages of support. And I read every single one of them and there were hundreds of them. People were kind of like, we look at you and think you live this happy lifestyle and don’t go through these things. And I'm like no, at the end of the day I'm a normal person like everyone else… just because one part of my life was on TV doesn’t make my life easier.
I think that's why I have been so open and honest with my struggles about my mental health or stress, because I've been given this amazing opportunity of having a platform and I want to help as many people as I can. I'm not here to show off my life and act like everything is happy and great, we all go through struggles. If I can help someone else by sharing my story then I’ve done a good job.
People are able to see the "real you" now beyond reality TV and they're obsessed with following your story, why do you think that is?
I think because it's relatable, we're everyday people not mega stars with a different lifestyle. We’re just normal people who happened to fall in love on national TV, so we’re very fortunate we got to share that with everyone. But it’s nice that we do get some beautiful messages from people.
What comes next for you and Locky?
I'm hoping borders will open up and I can go to Melbourne [to see my family] a bit more often. We both really just want to get down to work this year and we've been thinking about what we want to do. We hope to have kids in the next year or so, but we would like to travel a bit more and we also are hoping to buy our first home together.
So, hopefully buy a house and do a little more travelling, not as much as before, but we are hoping to get to Bali this year to check on Locky's business over there and we’re hoping to get to Europe to see all my family. My grandmother can't wait to meet Locky, she's like "I need to meet him before I die, bring him over here." All my aunties, uncles, cousins can't wait to meet him, so hopefully we can do that in the next year because things are harder once you have a baby on board.
We've been so fortunate, I feel like we have been together for 10 years because we've done so much together in such a short time. And we just want to enjoy each other’s company before we start having children.
You worked as a nurse for more than 10 years and you were in the thick of things in Melbourne in 2020, before taking a break when you moved to Perth. How does it feel to get back to work now?
To be honest I've actually had a hard time going back. When I left Melbourne and left nursing I was going through a really rough time during COVID, but I was also very burnt out in general. And then going back I was so excited... but I’ve actually started to get anxiety going back, because when I got back to nursing in Perth they were just at the beginning of the pandemic. I felt like what I had gone through in Melbourne two years ago, they were going through now.
I went into full panic mode because everyone in Perth is so relaxed. It was quite stressful because I knew what was about to happen, whereas everyone in Perth has been in their bubble and they're a little oblivious to the suffering that healthcare workers went through. Two years ago healthcare workers around the world were thrown into it and it was sort of like fend for yourself and good luck, so at least this time I know what to do and what not to do. It’s about channeling that anxiety into preparation I guess.
Going back to work after being on The Bachelor, do you find people recognise you when you're working as their nurse?
Oh my god, it’s so funny. In Perth people don’t come up to us as much as they do on the East Coast but they do sometimes. When I started at work some of the nurses were whispering and I was l like oh god what are they talking about and they kind of said "we know who you are." It was so embarrassing.
But the funniest moment was I was looking after a patient who was in recovery. He woke up and looked at me in shock and started going "oh my god you are Irena?" and I’m like "yes?" and he’s like "my wife and I watched The Bachelor and we love you and Locky." He was just so excited. He was like can we please do a face time with my wife? Am I allowed to put that on Instagram? I’m like you can do whatever you like, he was just having the best time. It is strange when I have situations like that, I even get taken aback because I’m not a big deal.
At the moment you're raising awareness as part of the Know Shingles campaign. Why is it important to you?
I did a campaign about shingles last year and was overwhelmed by the number of people who reached out to me. Because our bodies have been under such an immense amount of pressure the last two years, and shingles is mainly triggered by a low immune system and stress, there has been a big spike in shingles cases. People often think it’s something that impacts older people, but I’ve had so many young people reach out to me.
It affects a lot of people and unfortunately it can turn into a chronic illness if not treated really quickly, and the only way to prevent that is early diagnosis and early treatment. So, I’m glad people are talking about it now and that it’s not something we should be ashamed of talking about – at the end of the day, it’s a rash, it’s nothing shameful. It’s linked to the chicken pox virus and so many Australians are going through it at the moment.
If staying on top of our stress levels and immune system is super important here, what's your advice to people right now?
I think we all need to get back to basics, there's always some new fad diet or exercise regimen coming out. It’s literally just making sure you’re eating right and eating what’s good for you, everyone is different, eating lots of fruit and veg and just being outdoors. Just going outside even for a walk every day is so important, you don’t need to spend money on expensive food or expensive gyms – I think what the lockdowns have shown us, especially in Melbourne and Sydney where lockdowns were happening and gyms were closed, is that you don’t need the gym to be healthy. You can go for a walk, or a run, or go in your backyard and meditate. I think we realized we could all just get back to the basics and spend more time outdoors getting our Vitamin D.
I think it’s important that what we take from the last two years is really that our health is so important and we all need to look after ourselves, and each other, a little bit better.
Find out more about the Know Shingles campaign here.