If the crown fits...
Irish beauty queens are much more than just lovely girls, as Caomhan Keane discovers. Photography by Mark Nixon
'Doesn't Mary have a lovely bottom?" Ever since Father Ted uttered those immortal words, beauty pageants in this country have been dismissed as lovely girls competitions. Yet when Weekend spoke to eight of Ireland's reigning beauty pageant queens, we discovered that some sisters are doing it for themselves, others are doing it for their community, but most of them are just doing it for the craic.
Miss Hillsborough Oyster Pearl, Louise Hillman, 21
"I was doing it for my own benefit," Miss Hillsborough Oyster Pearl Louise Hillman says. "Exposure and recognition for the future. I am studying PR and I want to work in fashion media and advertising. The title gives me more credibility as somebody who has been in the public eye and allows me to meet the people I will work with in the future."
Louise won the 21st title on her 21st birthday and was awarded not only the coveted pearl necklace but also a yearlong Style Academy modelling contract. "I got make-up tuition, free hair for the year and my nails done free for three months.
"It's a great boost for the confidence. I was competing against a 16-year-old girl from Lithuania, and it was a big thing for her as she wouldn't have spoken to many people here. I think she got more out of it than anyone."
Think beauty pageant and you think glamour. But for Louise, one of her first duties as Miss Oyster Pearl meant standing on stage, being pelted with shells as she observed the world-renowned oyster eating contest. "They were absolutely mauling them, 200 in three minutes. The smell was a bit much, but it was brilliant craic," she says.
Did she indulge herself? "I'd never had oysters before, so I had one in the morning, when I could be sure they were done right. The last thing you want is the Oyster Pearl getting sick or choking!" styleacademy.co
Miss Carlingford Oyster Pearl, Michelle McGrath, 24
"I can't understand why people make such a fuss over it," Miss Carlingford Oyster Pearl Michelle McGrath says. "No one who entered it with me this year took it the least bit seriously. It's a bit of craic. And there's nothing wrong with getting done up. Sure, girls do it every Saturday night."
Michelle's role will see her represent Carlingford at festivals around the area throughout the year. "The next one I'll do will be the turning on of the lights at Christmas," she says. "And the one I'm looking forward to most is the Leprechaun Hunt in March, when I get to lead the kids through the village. We pride ourselves on our tourism, and it's a brilliant destination."
While there are ballgowns and escorts for the last night, Miss Carlingford Oyster Pearl is a little less reserved than other contests. "I was shearing a sheep while wearing my shorts and jumping off trampolines into the water and then there was the welly hunt along the shore."
After she won, there was a big party. "I was nervous that my tiara was going to get ruined. People kept pulling it off my head to get pictures with it. They had to send it off to get fixed," says Michelle.
"By the end of, we were trying to stay in our sashes so we could do it all again next year. People can think what they want, but if you don't take part, you can't really have an opinion."
Miss Africa Ireland, Osuemhe Ugonoh, 19
"I used to think that pageants were all about beauty," says Miss Africa Ireland Osi Ugonoh. "But then I competed in one in Poland and it totally opened my eyes. These were girls with master's degrees who had achieved so much. It's not only about how you look, but how you present yourself. I felt inadequate at first, but competing boosted my confidence, and when a friend's mother told me about Miss Africa Ireland, I leapt at the chance."
Osi admits she did come across some nastiness when competing for the crown. "If something involves women and they want it really, really badly, that competitiveness can seem bitchy," she says. "But there is no point in being mean or trying to hurt someone else. It just comes back on you."
As African Beauty Ambassador to Ireland, Osi promotes African heritage and multi-culturalism, attending events that promote the empowerment of women and Africans in need. "I sometimes have to give speeches, but I wouldn't prepare. I will research beforehand and speak to people on the day. Then I will be spontaneous."
She has met the Minister for Justice and people who are fighting for immigrant and refugee rights, and encourages girls to follow in her footsteps.
"They approach me at events, asking how it works and how it has changed my life. I hope I have changed their opinions on it in the same way mine were changed."
Miss Simply be curvy,
Lyndsey O'Neill, 25
"The average Irish woman is size 16," says Lyndsey O'Neill, 2012's Miss Simply Be Curvy. "But magazines constantly promote the skinnier girl. We're comparing ourselves, thinking, 'I could never wear clothes like that'. Simply Be Curvy is a beauty pageant that shows us that women are curvy and should be shown as such."
The bootcamp alone boosted Lyndsey's confidence. "We got to work with industry insiders like Celia Holman Lee, Michael Leon and Lili Forberg. It was like 'America's Next Top Model'. I am better at applying my make-up, and when I dress to go out now I don't cover up in the way that I used to."
Part of her prize was to be the cover girl for Simply Be Curvy's Spring/ Summer catalogue and to represent the brand on Xposé and Ireland AM.
"After you do a photo shoot or a fashion show, you feel even better about yourself, and I [like most previous contestants] have been picked up by a top modelling agency."
Pageants are often run like the Stasi. Everybody is listening. "We didn't realise that the make-up artist, the hairdressers, everybody we worked with was taking notes. We were constantly watched, but never realised it, so if you behaved badly it got back [to the judges]."
As for people who say pageants are an affront to women, Lyndsey says: "You can't please everyone. Any criticism comes from people who wouldn't have an interest in beauty or fashion. Perhaps that's where the negativity comes from."
Miss Nigeria Ireland, Deborah Olayinka Gabriel, 20
"Being Miss Nigeria Ireland makes you keep in touch with your heritage," 2013 title-holder Deborah says. "As a role-model, different people are looking up to you. How you dress, your hairstyle. There are strict rules on the type of photos you post on Facebook, and you are encouraged to dress with modesty."
Deborah inherited the crown when her predecessor was fired for, among many violations, dying her hair blonde and posting swimsuit pictures online.
"It's so easy as a young person to lose your way and get distracted by different things," she says. "If you have someone you can look up to, someone you would like to emulate when you are growing up, it will help keep you on the right track."
Deborah acted as Miss Nigeria Tourism Ireland, promoting their homeland as a holiday destination to Nigerians here, some of whom hold great bitterness towards it. "There is a better side of the country. We encourage people to not forget the good," she says.
Deborah visited Nigeria in July, taking food, toys and books to orphanages and villages, gathered after she organised a collection in Ireland. She has also helped organise events for sickle cell anaemia and cancer research.
Miss Toned Figure Ireland, Julija Laurusonyte, 27
Some people say that bodybuilding isn't that different from a beauty pageant. It's all about appearance. Miss Toned Figure Ireland Julija Laurusonyte thinks they're missing the point, and shouldn't take such a simple view of what she does.
"You go not to show off your body but your enthusiasm and passion towards the sport and the training. It's not about the body itself. It's about the dedication that goes into creating it," she says.
"You diet for 15 weeks, slowly but surely decreasing carbs and increasing cardio and weights.
"Three weeks out your diet gets very plain. No salts, spices or sauces. Literally dry – it's disgusting."
Think Evian water, chicken breasts, rice, oats and egg whites. "And in the last week we introduce vitamin C, a natural diuretic. The night before the competition, you are not allowed any water at all, which causes dehydration that manifests as a banging headache you can't take a tablet for, as you don't know how it might retain water.
"In my specific category it's about having a lean physique with muscle tone, showing slight vascularity.
"I'm very competitive. When you see the changes in your body and you make it into the final six, money can't buy that feeling."
Maybe not, but as a fitness instructor and trainer at BodySculpt she has noticed an increase in client numbers because of her placing and the impressive results that she can deliver.
I ask her if it's women or men who react best to her crown.
"Men more than women recognise and acknowledge the dedication," she says.
"Women might be a little bit more intimidated by it."
Queen of the Land, Teresa Brennan, 24
"When people talk about the lovely girls competition, I think, 'Where's the negativity in that?'" says Queen of the Land Teresa Brennan. "Twenty-seven really nice girls competing for a title that will allow them to find out about themselves – to become the ambassador for Macra Na Feirme, representing the views of young farmers both internationally and nationally."
World peace isn't on the agenda, and it's unlikely that those who look down their snouts at the sash-and-sceptre brigade would have as fine a grasp of topics such as the Common Agricultural Policy as those competing here.
"They are looking for a modern country lady with a good knowledge of rural issues who can have fun, get dressed up and present themselves in an appropriate way," says Teresa.
While she got dolled up for the Tullamore Agricultural Show and judged events such as the National Culchie Festival, she also got to travel to Ethiopia with Vita to observe sustainable development on an agricultural level.
"I brought word back to Macra groups around the country to raise support and awareness for the projects they were doing out there," she says.
She also got to promote the Irish language, which she is passionate about. But it isn't all work and no play for Teresa, and she isn't one to polish her halo...
"My branch of Macra kept filling the cup up with all kinds of drink the night I won," she says. "I was terrified it would rust. The next day I met the judges who gave me such odd looks as it was so sticky!"
miss macra na feirme, Gemma Goulding, 28
Queen of the Land Teresa Brennan's crown will grace freshly coiffed curls tomorrow when Macra select their newest queen, but Miss Macra Na Feirme Gemma Goulding is only three months into her role. Both from Laois and both teachers, they carry out similar duties.
While the Queen has the higher profile (lunching with the likes of Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney), Miss Macra is more community-focused. "I would go to the Ploughing Championships and the like, talk to young people, let them know what Macra is and what it can do for them," she says.
This sense of community is seen in the way the girls live with host families during the International Miss Macra festival. "It's over 40 years old, so it's tradition," says Gemma. "Joan, the lady I was staying with, baked me a tart to keep my energy up and had my Laois sash ironed for the final on Sunday."
There's more mucking about involved in selecting Miss Macra, and there are outdoor activities including a raft race, a beach-themed party and a field day. Most of the judging is skewed towards involvement and knowledge of the organisation rather than appearance. The girls also attend Mass on the Sunday. This is partially in keeping with the past, when the church would have been the focal point of the community. But Gemma admits: "It's really just a point where people can see us all together."