Miss Positive Mental Health
By this morning, Cailin Ni Toibin will, or will not, be the first-ever Irish Miss Universe. The final of the competition was held last night (our time) in Las Vegas, and was the culmination of a 15-day judging period, in which anyone from the photographer who takes your headshot, to the janitor who empties the bins, can be a secret judge.
Win or not, Cailin, who was Miss Cork before she became Miss Universe Ireland (and is also a Great Lengths Ambassador) is immensely proud of having come so far - of representing her country. This is something she, as a native Irish speaker, takes mighty seriously, and she is also proud of beating her own particular demons, the anxiety that threatened to hold her back and about which she speaks candidly in the hopes of helping others.
"If, fingers crossed, I bring the crown home, if I become Miss Universe," she says, "I'd love to shine a light on mental health, not just here in Ireland but all over the world. It's a huge issue worldwide."
For Cailin, who is an endearing mix of funny, passionate and sincere, it has been a huge issue personally, too. "It's been a big part of my life since the day I was born," she says candidly. "My father was schizophrenic and bipolar and he passed away when I was two. I didn't know him very well, of course, but at the same time, it's a big part of my life. I have suffered from panic attacks. I was about 16 when they started. When you're a teenager, something bad happens, and you go into meltdown. You think the whole world is ending. The attacks started just after my Junior Cert. I thought that everyone had decided what they wanted to do in college. I hadn't a clue what I wanted to do, and it put me into a complete panic."
The stress and worry triggered what Cailin describes as "a meltdown". She started to get panic attacks, which she describes thus: "It's horrible. It feels like someone is standing on your chest. It's this wave of 'oh no!' It's the fear of 'what if?' What if this happened? And this? And this...?"
The panic attacks still happen, but now, she says, she knows what to do: "sit down, focus on a point on the wall and just breathe and get myself through it. I still get that sense of panic, but it's not as bad now because I'm an adult and I can deal with it, but when I was a teenager, I used to feel it coming, and straight away I'd be getting palpitations".
Out of the blue
So what brought the attacks on? "Sometimes it would happen out of the blue. Other times... I used to row, and I might have a rowing competition at the weekend, and it would be me over-thinking it. When you're doing sports and stuff, it's meant to calm you down. At that age, it made me panic, because I was so committed and I wanted to prove a point; I needed to win the medal. I loved rowing. It was my release, but at the same time I used to worry so much coming up to it, that it became a vicious cycle - 'I love doing it, but what if I fail?'"
For a time, the anxiety seemed to be winning out. "I never wanted it to restrict me, but it did for a time. I didn't want to go rowing, dancing, to school. Any excuse not to interact with people. I remember my mam asking me one day, 'Are you OK?' And I threw an absolute strop and slammed the door in her face. That was the point where I went, 'Wow, I'm slamming a door in my mam's face...'" That was a turning point.
Cailin's relationship with her parents - her mother married the man who is technically Cailin's stepdad when Cailin was three, although she speaks of him and thinks of him as her father - was a saving grace. Both were, she says, "so open. I was able to sit down and have a chat with them," adding that her mother is "my best friend. There's no other unconditional love except your parents; whether you're a newborn, four years of age, or 60, you're still your mam's baby; your dad's little gem. It got to a stage where my mam was like, 'You need to figure this out. You need to find what helps you to relieve it'."
And so, aged 17, Cailin went to her doctor and said, "I have something wrong with me".
"I learned how to breathe properly, how to relax, and I took up meditation, which is just the best," she says. She also goes to the gym - "my place to go and get an hour of clearing everything out of my head" - and tries to keep some kind of routine, even a loose one, in place. "There are some days where I still have a meltdown, but it is what it is and I have my ways to cope with it."
What has helped enormously, she says, is the new openness with which we acknowledge mental health in this country. "We're really progressing. We're becoming very accepting around mental health. Years ago, if you said you had depression, you were told you were mad, and you were signed into a mental hospital and given electric shock therapy. To see how far we've come in 20 years, it's huge."
But it's far from perfect. "It's great that we have charities - they are the driving force behind de-stigmatising the whole thing; the likes of Pieta House - but it's the Government that needs to have the services. There is such a long waiting list for someone to get assessed, and that's not even someone to talk to, that's just an assessment. They say, 'We need to get into schools early, we need to help teenagers', but it doesn't happen. They need to be teaching mental-health well-being in schools from a young age."
Ideally, Cailin would like to see drop-in centres in every county, of the kind that they have in San Francisco - where she has visited and spoken with the mayor - "where everyone can go, and figure things out. And all their details and information are there, in the one place. We're so technologically advanced, but we're still lugging giant files around the place. People can't read each other's handwriting... everything in black-and-white on a computer screen is much easier."
Funnily, what got Cailin to pageantry is very much part of her battle with anxiety. After school, she went to study psychology and social science for a year - "I didn't enjoy it. I didn't hate it, but I'm of the mindset that if you don't enjoy it, how are you supposed to pursue it as a career?" So she left and got a job in Brown Thomas. "I thought, 'Right, this is my time to figure it out, save up and go back to college. This is a point where I can see what I want to do'." Part of this was challenging herself personally.
Modelling had been suggested to Cailin at the age of 16. "I was like, 'Me, model?' Not a hope. Are you mad? I can barely walk out on the street, let alone anything else." Then I was 17 and I was asked to walk in a fashion show, and I was like, 'Oh my god, no!' Then I was 18, and I was like, 'Right, what I'm going to do is do it now. This is going to be part of me figuring myself out'.
"So I walked in one of my first fashion shows - it wasn't a big show, but it was a big thing for me. I was proud of myself. It's been a huge confidence boost for me to be able to say, 'I can do it'. I may only be a hanger, but I can strut my stuff. Stand out there and do my thing."
In 2015, she competed in Miss Cork - "I said to my mom: 'This is not something I want to do, but I want to frighten the life out of myself and do something that makes me feel so confident in myself', so I jumped straight in."
And she won. She says: "It was genuinely the most terrifying thing ever. I was like, 'Oh my god, I'm representing my city.' Little did I know then, I would go on to represent my country!"
She went to Miss Universe that year, and came second runner-up. "To be honest, I was really happy that I did," she says. "I don't know then if I would have been able to go. I was really young - 21. I wasn't sure who I was."
But when she re-entered this year, and won, she knew the time was right.
So given her interest in metal health and self-esteem, how does she answer the charge that beauty pageants are outdated and sexist?
"Actually, it's a place for women to actually have a voice for their opinions. The women who competed with me for Miss Universe Ireland, they wanted to talk about puppy farming, mental health, epilepsy - so many other topics. People think we just stand on stage, and we're just a pretty face. I actually have a brain in my head, believe it or not." I totally believe it, because it's obvious she does. As well as a sharp sense of humour, and a determination to do some good in the world.
"Anybody who thinks beauty pageants sexualise women," she continues, "I don't feel sexualised. If anything, I feel empowered to feel I can stand up and make a change. I know that sounds cliched - 'make a change' - but I really want to get involved with charities; go into schools and talk to teenagers; get them talking. That's what I want to do. It's as simple as that."
It's easy to believe her, as days before we meet, contestants for the Miss Peru pageant took to the stage and, instead of listing their vital statistics - shoe size, waist measurements - they recited statistics for violence against women in Peru.
So what did Cailin make of the Miss Peru contestants? "It was amazing," she says. "They are using that stage as a protest against what's happening in their country, and they have the world talking about it now. That goes to show the impact."
And so, she says, the preparation for Miss Universe has been mental far more than physical. It wasn't about going to the gym and dieting - not for her, anyway; but more about thinking through her position on mental health, and what it means to be Irish.
"You're on a stage with half-a-billion people watching worldwide. Half-a-billion pairs of eyes on you... no pressure," she laughs. "So you have to mentally prepare - I need to get the voice of Ireland across, not just my voice. I have to take other opinions into consideration. Anything I say, I have to be 100pc certain of."
"You have to have answers when they ask why you want to do this," she says. "You can't just say, 'because I think it would be really nice...' I'm proud to be Irish. I really want to show that Irish people are proud of their culture and their heritage, and of that fact that Ireland has always been a peaceful arbiter in the world, and we have never tried to annoy anyone. It's amazing to be able to say that. Because we're such a peaceful country, I hope we can influence the likes of the US in that way."
The point of a pageant, she says, "is to make women feel confident in themselves, make them feel confident to think, 'Right, I may be wearing a beautiful dress, but I have a voice'. Make them confident enough to stand on stage and say what they think. With modelling, you're a clothes-hanger and you don't have a voice. With a pageant, you can stand there and have an opinion and voice it and be really passionate about it."
So, what does she hope for in Las Vegas? "Hopefully, we'll win. Ireland's never won, so hopefully we'll bring the crown home for Ireland. We've made plenty of stamps in the world, hopefully this is another one."
'We', I ask, not 'you'?
"No, definitely 'we'," she says.
Photography by Alex Hutchinson
Styling by Liadan Hynes
Sunday Indo Life Magazine