'I love the swimsuit round...' - Miss Universe Ireland Grainne Gallanagh is proud to be a pageant queen
She loved the girly environment, thinks the swimsuit section is fun, and she wants to use her title to advocate for women’s health. Emily Hourican meets nurse and Miss Universe Ireland Grainne Gallanagh
'It was literally like Miss Congeniality!" So says Grainne Gallanagh, Miss Universe Ireland, of the 67th Miss Universe pageant, held in mid-December in Thailand. I was the one to bring up Miss Congeniality - so hard not to, right? - but she instantly agrees, laughing. "It's a competition, but at the same time, the girls were always there to help you with things, like putting tan on each other's backs. They were very supportive. If someone was having an off-day, they were there to gather round and support."
Had she expected that? "I wasn't sure how everything would be, how other girls might be," she admits, "but I was surprised at how well I did get on with some of them. They were very nice, very friendly." In particular, she tells me, she bonded with her roommate, Miss USA - "from Nebraska, she was lovely. So fun" - at which stage I'm starting to think it all sounds like a giant two-and-a-half-week slumber party.
But of course, it's not. It's real. And the stakes are high. "Miss Universe means different things to all the girls," Grainne says, "and it is really taken very seriously by some countries in Asia and South America. But saying that, we all wanted it so badly. We were all there to do the best that we could. Even though in countries like Ireland, there are other routes to take to achieve our goals, still everybody wanted to win. We were all trying to put our best foot forward."
And so, Grainne admits to feeling the pressure at times. "I think nothing can really prepare you for the intensity of it," she says. "There were moments when I was like, 'Oh my god…' You do feel a little bit overwhelmed. The environment is so different, and you're in the limelight all the time. You do feel like you're always being observed, because you are. There's a huge following for Miss Universe, especially in Asia, and the fans were just so passionate about it all. It's just crazy when you're there."
How did she stay sane? "You try not to compare yourself with other girls," she says, "because you don't want to do that. It just makes you feel bad about yourself, so I try not to do that, but it's hard. You're seeing what they're doing and thinking, 'Oh god, should I do that?' But I think the main thing was to try and think, 'We're all here together'. Yes, it's a competition, but you just have to focus on yourself, doing what you do, being who you are."
What did she do if she felt a bit wobbly? "I tried to do it when it was just me in my room, or me with my roommate. When I was at events, I tried to keep everything professional." And what helped the most was having so many of her family there. "My family all came - I have four sisters, I'm the youngest - and a couple of cousins, so I felt the support, and that was really nice."
Grainne, who is also an ambassador for Great Lengths hair extensions, finished in the top 20, and the top five of European countries - which is a very good result. Is she happy with how she fared? "I was very happy," she smiles. "It was such a tough competition."
Tall, athletic, and blonde, there is something of the Bond girl to Grainne - an aloof kind of glamour - until you talk to her for any length of time. Then, she's too honest and committed to be aloof. From Buncrana in Co Donegal, she grew up with an outdoorsy kind of life - her father was a farmer, her mother was a primary school teacher; both are now retired.
"I had a lovely childhood," she says. "Growing up with all the girls in the house was amazing. We borrow - sometimes steal - each other's clothes and make-up. My older sister taught me how to apply make-up and do my hair, but, more than that, they helped shape who I am. Now don't get me wrong," she laughs, "We fight a lot and argue like normal siblings, but I know they're always there for me and I am aware I have a lot to thank them for."
At school, Grainne didn't know what she wanted to do - "you know some people have this idea of what they want to do their whole life? I didn't have that, but I knew I loved working with people, and I loved biology, and I loved the elderly. I did work experience in the nursing unit in my home town and I loved that, so I decided it was for me. It kind of just clicked, nursing. And I love it. Though it's very difficult," she points out, "very stressful, mentally and physically. I started very young, and it was a difficult adjustment. After the Leaving Cert, I went straight into nursing, in Letterkenny, so I was 18 when I started. When I was studying, I was very stressed about it, but when I qualified, I settled very quickly. It came together."
Grainne moved to London for work - "Leaving home was hard, I'd never really been away before, and I knew I would miss my parents," she admits, "but I loved the busyness of it. I loved the staff, the patients, and it was such a novelty being in London." Her boyfriend of six years, Ryan Coleman, is also in London, where he works as a fire and security officer in Westminister.
What does she miss most about home? "You do miss the country air," she says with a laugh. "At home in Donegal, I live on the coast, and that was the thing I really missed - not being able to go to the beach or go into the water. When I'm home, I love swimming in the sea. That's my favourite thing. I swim from March to October, and I love it. It's a lovely feeling, you feel so refreshed."
Gradually, Grainne found that her true passion within nursing lies with women's health. "We know there is a certain stigma around some women's health. On my social media, I try to educate women on things I think they should be aware of - for example, stories on endometriosis. After that, people were writing to me, some of them - I couldn't believe this - didn't even really know what it was. It's one of those things that isn't discussed a lot. One woman told me she was nine years before she got diagnosed. When I get feedback like that, I feel I'm going in the right direction, trying to let people know about things and look out for things that they should be doing, and not to be afraid to ask for help. As Miss Universe Ireland, I wanted to utilise the title to advocate for women's health."
What did she think of the recent, appalling cervical check scandal? "I feel it breaks trust for a lot of women with the health system in Ireland. It's so heartbreaking, especially being a healthcare professional, that that happens; that, in this day and age, this should be an issue. It was so sad; you think, 'How did this happen?'"
As for Donegal being the only county in Ireland to vote No to repealing the Eighth Amendment, "I was disappointed," she admits. "I can't speak as to why anyone voted the way they did, and people have their own opinion, but for me, being a nurse, I was disappointed, because as a medical professional, you can see the risks of that."
So how did Miss Universe Ireland come about for Grainne? Had she done much modelling before entering the pageant? "Not really. I'd done a couple of charity events, catwalk - but nothing, really. It was new to me. But people always told me, 'You've got a good personality, you've got the look, the passion - would you go for something like that?' So I entered Miss Universe, but it didn't happen the first year. So I entered Miss Ireland in 2016, and I loved the experience, I loved the girls." I get the impression that, with her four sisters, Grainne is wonderfully comfortable in all-girl settings.
She watched the Miss Universe finals that year, and was very impressed by Miss Universe Ireland, Cailin Aine Ni Toibin. "She had a great platform to talk about mental health, and she did a really good job. She really promoted her cause. I saw her, what she did, and I thought, 'I want to do that!' I watched the show - she was in Vegas - and I was thinking, 'I'm going to be there next year. I will do that!'"
And she did. "I committed to it, and I went for it. It was such a whirlwind experience. I couldn't believe it when I won. I was in shock. All my family were in Dublin then, 13 of them were in the crowd, screaming. When I looked down I could see them, and I couldn't stop crying. It was so lovely."
Since then, Grainne has been working part-time in order to allow herself to take up all the opportunities Miss Universe Ireland offers. "My schedule happens as it happens," she says. "I'll get back to London, back to nursing, continue to be an ambassador and attend any events along the way."
So, the ever-thorny question: pageants in the #MeToo era? "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion," Grainne says, "but I think a lot of people who have the opinion that pageants are outdated, they haven't really been involved in one or watched one. I think when you're there and you're in the midst of it, and you see all of the girls and the commitment they've put towards it, and what they're doing for their own communities, the work they're putting in, the ambition they have. They're not silly girls, they're intelligent.
"I know people do have an opinion, but, to me, a pageant is something that really helped me - helped me to have a platform for female health, and I think that's more important than a lot of other things. I love what they can do, the platform they can give you, the girls you meet." She shrugs. What more is there to say, really?
As for her own position as - like it or not - a role model for young women? This is an easier answer for her: "I think it can be very daunting, at that age, when you are looking up to people. I would like them to see that I am me. I'm not trying to be anyone else, not trying to imitate anyone - I would like them to see it's OK to be yourself.
"And I hope they can see that I didn't just stumble upon this. It's something I worked really hard for. I hope they can see it does take dedication; it does take commitment. And I hope they can see somebody who is trying to make social media a nicer place to be, because I try to utilise my social media for my cause."
They will also see, if they choose to look, someone who, as a New Year's resolution, chose to worry less. "I have this thing," Grainne says, "I worry what people think of me. Not just what people think of me; I worry in general. As my New Year's resolution, I'm trying to just combat that, and stop worrying about things I can't control. Sometimes I can see that I'm worrying about things too much. I need to take a step back and realise that I can't control that. And if it's something I can control, I need to take a step in the direction of what I need to do. Either way, I need to stop worrying."
What does she worry about? "Everything. And anything," she laughs. "I was worried today about driving in Dublin. I hate it."
How does she manage the worrying? "I tend to write everything down. I'm quite a visual person, so I know that if I've got a lot of things to do, and I'm starting to feel it's becoming overwhelming, I start to make a list. I get a sense of satisfaction ticking off what I have done. I think writing down how I feel about certain things does help. I think I feel it's not just on me, then. I'm getting it out. It's hard to explain, but that's how I feel. Being able to see, and visualise, what exactly I'm thinking about, that's what I find helps."
Does she find meditation helps? She laughs, "I would love to be able to meditate! But I can't. I feel my mind wanders. The whole point of meditation is to stop yourself thinking about things. For me, I can't seem to be able to stop. That's why I prefer the method of writing things down and talking them out. But I know some people find it brilliant."
As for talking to someone: "If I felt my worry was getting out of hand, I would definitely see somebody or talk to somebody, whether that was someone in my family or friends, or a professional. Definitely speaking to people, letting other people know how you're feeling, helps."
As does a healthy lifestyle. How diligent is she about that? "I do try. I try and be healthy, take exercise. I definitely think it makes a difference to how you feel. During Miss Universe, I tried to be very strict - eating mostly salads, vegetables, protein, not as many carbs. I still ate carbs, but tried to cut down when it got close to the competition. That was hard. I love chocolate! I love all the bad food. When it was over, I had a little blowout - I had doughnuts, a pizza. I couldn't wait to have it! But I feel sluggish when I'm not eating well and exercising, so I will go back now to it."
When it comes to exercise, what's her poison, apart from sea swimming? "I go to the gym, and I like to run. I was going to the gym five times a week, then coming up close to the competition, it was every day. It was intense. But I haven't been back now in a few weeks," she laughs.
Was she disappointed that Miss Universe isn't televised in Ireland? "I was. I think it's disappointing, because you are an ambassador for your country. I'd love it to be shown in the future."
Grainne believes the Miss Universe pageant is changing, albeit slowly. "I think that they are really trying to modernise themselves and fit with the modern woman. There is a lot more focus on who the girls are as people - their cause, their passion, what they advocate for - and a lot less about what they look like."
Although all, still, are very much the recognisable beauty-queen type physically? "There is more diversity, but there should be more again. No one looked the same, but there is still room for improvement. There could be a lot more different-sized women. Everyone was still in the smaller sizes - eight, 10, 12. I'm a 10. There is certainly more room for more body diversity."
What about the controversial swimsuit round? "I love the swimsuit round," Grainne says with a laugh. "I can see why people think, 'Why is that still there?' but I think you have to have fun with it rather than think, 'Do I look my best?' You have to let those worries go. Everyone still has their flaws. There are things I don't like about myself." Name one, I say. "I don't want to name one because I don't want to put focus on it," she very smartly responds.
Once her Miss Universe Ireland year is up, in July, Grainne plans to go back to nursing full-time. Would she consider a move into modelling? "Maybe part-time, but I wouldn't [do it] full-time. I've got other things I think I'm more passionate about."
The 'other things' she is so passionate about are, of course, issues around women's health. "Voting Yes in the referendum was a move in the right direction, in terms of women having control over their own bodies, but there are things that need to be improved on. There is still a stigma with women talking about their health, menstruation, the menopause - they don't feel comfortable talking about it. I'm not going to be the person who will change everything, but for me to be a voice - it's a step."
Great Lengths is the official hair extension partner of Miss Universe Ireland. The luxury hair extensions are 100pc ethically sourced and loved by some of Ireland's biggest names, see greatlengthshair.ie
Photography by Kip Carroll
Styling by Chloe Brennan
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