The other Bleakley sister
For her 18th birthday, Nicola Bleakley wore a maternity top and a pair of men's trousers. But the 18-stone teenager was not happy being a comfort-eating size 22. So she changed her life. Now the other Bleakley sister is the happy, healthy beauty you see here today, says Emily Hourican, every bit as gorgeous as her famous sister Christine. Photography by Kip Carroll
Was there ever a supermodel who didn't claim to have been an ugly duckling? Too tall, too thin, awkward, geeky; freaky, even. They all tell the same tale of metamorphosis, of changing unexpectedly into a swan. And mostly it seems faintly unbelievable -- a bid for sympathy made by someone too beautiful, a bid to be interesting by someone boring, a conventional conversational gambit.
So, when 29-year Nicola Bleakley first tells me that she used to weigh 17st 7lb, and was a dress size 22, it seems impossible to believe, just so much bogus revelation. Except Nicola has the pictures to prove it. In fact, she has a life-size cardboard cutout of herself in the bad old days, and a vast pair of trousers, flapping like a sail, that she used to wear pretty much every day because they were the only thing that fitted her. "And even then, they didn't really," she says, with a peal of laughter.
Today, Nicola is radiant. Tall and perfectly proportioned, "a healthy size 10-12", she weighs 10st 7lb. Exactly seven stone less than her largest self. The weight that she lost has been matched, stone for metaphorical stone, by a corresponding increasing in self-confidence and what the French call joie de vivre, although to this Co Down lass, that sounds too fey; with her, it's something altogether more raucous -- sheer lust for life.
Nicola is, clearly, still in love with her new self as well as the new life she discovered after the weight loss, and this translates into an infectious enthusiasm to help others achieve the same success. Now an ambassador for Unislim, the organisation that helped her reach and maintain her target weight, Nicola works hard to reproduce the journey that led her from an unhappy, self-conscious teen to today's happy beauty. And, because she's not just gorgeous, but also warm, sympathetic, sunny and hugely positive, she's remarkably good at it.
"If I can say one thing that can change somebody's life, it's worth it," she says when I ask if she isn't sick of talking about the whole 'hey, look at me, I was once really fat' thing. "If I can say one thing to inspire someone to get off the settee, to join a class and to lose weight, or be a fitter, happier person, then it's worth talking about it all day, every day. I'm really passionate about it," she adds, somewhat needlessly, because that much is patently obvious.
It's the been-there-done-that aspect of Nicola's approach that is so convincing; the genuine empathy she has access to, because of her own unhappy years. A normal, healthy child, she began to put on weight, as so many girls do, around the age of 15. This accelerated rapidly from about 16 onwards, when she started going to college. "That was when I was in control of my own eating habits. Before that, we would have had good, wholesome meals -- my mum's a fabulous cook -- so it was whenever I went to college, I'd be having chips and crisps, and between 16 and 18 was the stage where you would have seen a massive difference in weight. We weren't so health-conscious 11 years ago, and that's all there was to eat in our canteen. It just reacted completely differently with me than it did with my friends." The weight began to pile on, but Nicola was in denial, and was locked into a cycle of emotional eating, which is very hard to break: consuming calories to compensate for feelings of stress or worry.
In retrospect, does she feel annoyed that her parents didn't spot what was happening and try to nip it in the bud? She insists not. "No. My mum and dad would have said a few times to be more healthy. They would have talked about it in that way, as opposed to saying, 'You're overweight.' My mum's fear would have been in case you'd go the other way." It's a justifiable fear with every teenage girl, where the spectre of anorexia and other eating disorders tends to overshadow the opposite fear, that of weight gain. Anyway, Nicola's parents -- her mother is a book-keeper, her father a retired musician -- were too kind to want to draw attention to what was happening. "They probably didn't want to hurt my feelings, more than anything else," says Nicola. "I would have been very conscious, although I didn't want to admit it to myself. Because, once you admit it, you have to do something about it then . . . and I don't think I was ready at that stage. I did know, because I wasn't happy. But I wouldn't have let anybody else see that." And so she kept up a brave face -- the cliched jolly fat girl, in fact -- until, finally, she could avoid reality no longer.
"There comes a moment when you realise you have to do something about it. It's like a light switch, a trigger. My trigger was coming up to my 18th birthday -- we went shopping, and I had to buy maternity wear, because that was all that fitted me. I was thinking, well, I'm buying maternity wear, and I've never even had a boyfriend ... That's not right." She hoots with laughter, slapping her thigh, even though that moment was obviously one of sheer misery. "I remember crying about it in the changing room with my mum," she recalls, "and her saying, 'OK, we're going to do something about this.'"
So, for her 18th birthday party, Nicola wore a maternity top and a pair of men's trousers. "It was really sad," she says now. But it was also the end of the old road. A chance meeting with an old friend led her to Unislim, and a bright future. "I took control of my life, I started eating more healthily, because I put myself first. This wasn't anything to do with my friends, or college, or my family, this was about me. I concentrated on myself for a whole year, and nothing got in my way." The way she says it makes me think that perhaps this was the first time she had really put herself first. Is that so? "When you're younger and have weight on like that, you don't appreciate yourself," she says, slowly. "I didn't like looking at myself, didn't like going shopping." Did you actually dislike yourself, I wonder? "Oh yes, whenever I looked in the mirror."
Even now, she is sometimes surprised by her own reflection. "You don't ever really lose that vision of what you looked like," she admits. Long after she had dropped to a size 10-12, she still bought trousers that were far too big, because she couldn't quite believe in her new, slim self.
And yes, the fear is always there. Like any addict, it's a question of being in recovery rather than having recovered. "Anyone who has ever had a weight issue, they'll always have that little thing in the back of their minds, but it's a good thing, because it keeps you in control," she insists. "It's not obsessive, it's very important to have that. That's why I live and breathe Unislim. The changes I've made are lifestyle things, they're not quick fixes. They are things that I'm doing that I'm enjoying." Which means three hearty, healthy meals a day, two sensible snacks in between and -- crucially in Nicola's case -- the substitution of an exercise high for the old sugar rush. "I used to always eat when I got stressed -- Yorkie bars, full-sugar drinks and Tayto salt 'n' vinegar crisps were my vice. Now I get my trainers on and go for a walk. I use exercise to relieve stress."
Life can be miserable for any fat teenager, but in Nicola's case a couple of things made it all that bit worse. The first, paradoxically, was the fact that she was obviously, and despite all the extra weight, very pretty. "I used to get that all the time," she hoots now. "People saying 'God, Nicola, you've got the most beautiful face ... ' It's somebody trying to be so nice, but it's the biggest insult, the worst thing you could say to anybody who carries any weight. In a subtle way, what that person is saying is, 'You're beautiful, but you're fat.' It used to hurt my feelings so much. I suppose a compliment is better than no compliment," she muses, "but I didn't like that."
The other added burden, I suspect, although Nicola won't quite admit it, were the inevitable comparisons with a slim, beautiful older sister. These days Christine Bleakley is a bona fide celeb, host of ITV's Daybreak and girlfriend of Chelsea player Frank Lampard. Back then, she was just another young woman, albeit a remarkably pretty one, at the start of her career, working as a floor manager at BBC Northern Ireland. All the same, with just two of them in the family, comparisons can't have been far away, I suggest, but Nicola refuses to be drawn. "It was not like that at all," she insists. "There was never any difference made between Christine and myself, ever. I never felt like that when I was growing up."
She claims never to have felt jealous of Christine: "We've always been 100 per cent supportive of each other. Obviously when you're younger, growing up -- I used to steal all of her stuff, and break it. Christine is really tidy, whereas I'd be like a bull in a china shop, and I'd go in and steal all her things, then put them back, broken," she laughs mightily. "That's the only time we would come to have an argument."
She's clearly uncomfortable talking about her older sister, but from a sense of decency, not resentment -- a simple unwillingness to in any way, even inadvertently, add fuel to the already slightly fevered speculation around Christine, her career and her romance. "I don't know what the problem was at all," she says when I ask about the initial negative media reports surrounding Christine's move from The One Show to Daybreak. "It takes a while. She loves doing what she's doing. She's good at it, a natural at it. When you're in the limelight, you're always going to have people who criticise you, you just have to let it run off your back. And she's seriously cushioned with people who are supportive and love her: my parents, myself and her good friends. She just concentrates on doing her job to the best of her ability. I think she's a great ambassador for Ireland," Nicola says loyally. "She comes from a very humble background and she has still stayed very humble over there; with everything she could do and have, she still is very much an Irish girl at heart. She loves flying into Belfast City Airport, coming home to her little house and sitting on the settee, having her fry-ups, putting her jammies on and enjoying that. When Christine comes home, you very rarely see her out. She's there to relax and enjoy her mum's home cooking." About Frank Lampard she will say only, "He is a lovely guy. An absolute gentleman. I'm very, very fond of him. I couldn't think of anything bad to say about him. He's a nice, down-to-earth fella, and we'd all be very fond of him."
Disarmingly candid about her own life, Nicola is clearly not about to be drawn into any indiscretions on the subject of Christine, who apparently demonstrates exactly the same kind of family feeling. She was quoted as saying last year, "I'm ambitious in the sense that all I've ever wanted was to be able to look after my family. It's not like I have my own children -- I'm talking about my sister, my parents. I think of them a lot."
But did Nicola really never detect even a shadow of the type of over-compensation that kind parents might deploy when confronted by two daughters so physically different? "Not at all," she says, again insisting that, because she never talked about her weight, her parents wouldn't have known it was an issue. Perhaps not, although I wonder if the whole family wasn't rather carefully skirting around each other on this one.
In any case, the Bleakley parents must be very relieved not to have such a visible mismatch between their girls any more. And yes, Nicola agrees, they were very supportive of her desire to change. "Yes, they were relieved. As soon as I started to lose weight, everybody was so supportive, Christine and Mum and Dad, I couldn't have done it without them."
Not all her friends were as pleased. As she shed the excess weight and emerged into the butterfly she was meant to be, Nicola noticed a few girls in her circle were less than delighted by the transformation. "Not my true friends, they've always been great, but some, yes. They were so used to getting all the attention, then when I lost weight and maybe people were paying me attention, they just couldn't handle it. Or if they had a fella, and before you were never ever an issue, then suddenly they start to see you as a threat -- but that's just the realisation that they're not true friends," she says with conviction. Men, on the other hand, had no such complicated reaction; their appreciation was open and honest, and suddenly, at the age of 19, Nicola began to date for the first time.
"Before that, I didn't even entertain it. I'd shy away from anything like that. I had friends who were guys and got on very well with them, but there was never any emotional . . ." she trails off. "I obviously fancied people myself, but I would never, ever have shown that; I never talked about it. I didn't have the confidence in myself, let alone in a relationship, so there wasn't much point. I know I would have felt uncomfortable and I know I would have been thinking every time they were with me that they were looking at somebody else. And what's the point in putting yourself through that?"
Poignantly, she claims that even if a guy had shown an interest in her, she simply wouldn't have believed it. "I just didn't have the confidence. Somebody may have made advances on me, but I would not have taken it in that way, I would never have believed in that." So how did it feel when she did begin dating? "It was great!" she says, with a huge laugh. "I started going out with somebody just as I got to my target weight, then I met my husband in the gym, and nine months later we got engaged." She and Jonny, a fire-fighter, have been married almost four years now.
Did she ever resent the shallowness that meant that guys who might have known the old Nicola, and never considered her a potential girlfriend, were now asking her out? "Ach, no! You've got to fancy the person you go out with. I don't blame anybody for not asking you out if they don't fancy you, and I don't blame them for not fancying you for your personality alone. There is an attraction you have to have, and that's visual."
Given the Christine factor, and her own obvious talent as a Unislim ambassador, it is impossible not to ask if Nicola is considering TV presenting as a career. But she's adamant -- "No, thank you. That gives me a panic attack," she hoots, then adds seriously: "I think a lot of people think that job is easy, but it's not. Christine has so much technical experience, it is so much harder than just going on air. Being so natural as well is just a gift that you have. You either have it or you don't, and, personally speaking, no."
Anyway, she loves what she does far too much, and gains constant satisfaction from the triumphs of those who come to her class, whipping out her phone to show me photos of one girl, now in New Zealand and posing happily in a bikini. "She would never have done that before," says Nicola cheerfully. "And that's why I just love doing what I'm doing now. There is nothing more exhilarating than seeing someone coming into your class, seeing them so unhappy, and knowing you can actually change that around for them. This is the most exciting and exhilarating experience for me."
It is the zest of Nicola's approach that is so winning -- the wholehearted adoption of new and helpful habits to replace the old bingeing, the frank admission of all those miserable emotions she kept hidden for so long, and, crucially, the robust appreciation of life's pleasures, an appreciation that means she will never bother trying to slim down further. "I love my treats," she laughs. "If I stopped eating all the wee treat things that I love, I could get down to a size 8-10, but I like to live. It would worry me if I thought I was putting weight back on, but it would never worry me enough to stop eating. Life's for living!"
Dress, Givenchy, Brown Thomas Dublin
Dress, Halston Heritage; shoes, Miu Miu, both Brown Thomas Dublin and Cork.
Tights, Nicola's own
Dress, Diane von Furstenberg, Brown Thomas nationwide.
Shoes, Giuseppe Zanotti, Brown Thomas Dublin
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Assisted by Rachel Hathaway and Emer O'Hanlon
Make-up by Kate Synnott at Dylan Bradshaw, 56 Sth William St, D2, tel: (01) 671-9353
Hair by Ross King @ 28 Lower Ormond Quay, D1, tel: (01) 874-8520
Shot at The Casting Couch, see www.thecastingcouch.ie
Sunday Indo Life Magazine