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I didn't feel like an outsider at Miss Universe, I belonged there

Londonderry beauty and Cara Delevingne double Joanna Cooper on her hopes for a career in journalism and that pageant controversy

By Una Brankin

Published 09/01/2016

Joanna Cooper
Joanna Cooper
MODEL: Joanna Cooper of CMPR Models HAIR: Kerry Beck at Bill Harris Hairdressing MAKE-UP: Jordan Humphries at Oonagh Boman School of Make Up STYLING: Grainne Maher, Vault LOCATION: Café Vaudeville, Belfast
Joanna Cooper
Joanna Cooper
Joanna Cooper with her parents

Under the fingertips, Miss Universe Ireland's delicate shoulder makes the oddest popping sensation. "Touch me here," she instructs and thereupon retracts the bone, amused at my reaction.

The broadcast media student can dislocate every bone in her flexible body, a quirk from years of gymnastics and ballet. Although relatively short in height at 5ft 5in, the disciplines have given Joanna Cooper the posture of Olga Korbut or Darcey Bussell, a bearing that stands out in Belfast's Avoca café on a busy Monday afternoon.

And there's something very familiar about that cherubic face. Already gaining a reputation as a doppelganger for Cara Delevingne, she could also easily pass for American Beauty actress Mena Suvari. With a dark wig and a lopsided, right-arm-hidden pose, she could also take off Victoria Beckham. Throw in Natalie Portman in her Black Swan role, and there's an icons photoshoot in the making for the gorgeous 21-year-old.

For extra super-modelling points, she even has a well-placed, tidy mole to the left of her full lips, more Niki Taylor than Cindy Crawford. Naturally dark, she dyes her hair a natural shade of ash-blonde. It sets off her gamine features and enviably flawless skin, attributes which have made her one of the CMPR's most popular photographic models. Known for her pro-diversity approach and willingness to use all shapes, ages and sizes on the catwalk, agency owner Cathy Martin contacted Joanna immediately after spotting her pictures on social media.

"I'm pro-diversity so a petite model also made sense, given the average height of a UK woman is under 5'4"," says Cathy. "Joanna is only 5'5", but she has succeeded in an industry which is full of 5'10" glamazons."

Having been turned down for modelling jobs in the past due to her height, Joanna went on to star at Belfast Fashion Week in 2013 and last month represented Ireland in the glitzy Miss Universe pageant in Las Vegas. The Londonderry girl won out over 21 other contestants in the local heats, having earned her place in the competition through a Wild Card pass, after she submitted her photo to the competition organisers via Instagram.

"I didn't know whether to enter or not - I wasn't sure about my height, but mum said 'do it' and made me to go for it," she says. "The other contestants in Vegas were all towering over me, but I didn't let that intimidate me.

"I was the smallest, I always am, but I came back more confident in myself. I was always with these amazing, tall glamorous girls, but I still felt I fitted in. I didn't feel isolated, I felt I belong. The president assured us we all deserved to be there."

Watched by millions, the Miss Universe 2015 contest made headlines all over the world when the host, American Steve Harvey, wrongly crowned Miss Colombia as the winner after misreading his cue card. Ariadna Gutierrez Arevalo was basking in her short-lived glory on stage as the mortified Harvey returned to announce the error.

"Ok, folks, um, I have to apologise," he bumbled, while Arevalo was beaming to fans in the Miss Universe sash.

"The first runner-up is Colombia," he went on. "Miss Universe 2015 is Philippines."

The camera panned straight to a wide-eyed Miss Philippines, Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach, who started slowly walking to the front of the stage.

For a few awkward moments the two women stood side by side, in front of an agog audience, before Harvey explained that he read the card naming the winner and runner-up in the wrong order.

As he apologised, a former Miss Universe winner quickly removed the crown from Arevalo and placed it on Wurtzbach. "Fail of the decade" summed up the prompt reaction on Twitter, with some speculating the whole thing was a publicity stunt by the new Miss Universe organisers, entertainment company WME-IMG, who recently bought the franchise from Donald Trump.

"It definitely wasn't a publicity stunt, he just got it wrong," counters Joanna. "The organiser, Paula, was in tears, she's the nicest woman. She showed us the card and how he got mixed up. You should have seen his face when he realised. We were all standing on the stage, looking at each other. It wasn't handled the best; Miss Colombia should have been whipped off stage, but nobody knew what to do.

"She was a lovely girl, really nice. She was in it to win it and she was a front runner from the start, but it has worked out well for her as she's in the spotlight. I didn't get to know the winner, but I met a lot of girls I was on the same wavelength with. Miss Spain's a surgeon and there were a lot of lawyers.

"The organisers are really trying to change the image of beauty pageants, to attract educated, professional girls."

Along with the other contestants, Joanna was put up at a casino hotel Las Vegas during her three-week stay, but was not allowed to gamble or go out at night. Chaperones were provided for the round of pre-contest events, a non-stop round of photocalls and promotional work.

Her mother Mary, auntie Janice and boyfriend David Murdock (24), flew to Nevada for the final in December. A fitness instructor and lifeguard, Murdock met Joanna when she was just about to turn 17.

"It's so typical of this day and age - it all began with a friend request on Facebook," she explains, in a soft Derry lilt. "We had our first date after talking and he tried to woo me by putting on The Notebook - seriously, The Notebook. He still denies crying at the end 'til this day, but I know I saw a wee tear. Since then he's become my best friend and supports me in everything that I do."

Sounds like a keeper, but isn't she a bit young for all that?

"I think he is [a keeper], but I still live my life like any young girl," she protests mildly. "I travel - I was in Vegas for three weeks, for example - and do my own thing too. I'm happy enough with things as they are."

Away from the glitz and glamour of international beauty pageants, the Belfast Met college student is dressed like any other, in radically ripped black leggings, a chunky jumper and flat boots, her small hands bedecked in big black-stoned rings. And despite a diet of takeaways and no exercise, she looks as fresh as a snowdrop, with perfect teeth and calm, pale green eyes.

Focused and mature, she admits she wasn't always so serene, having had to undergo counselling after the youngest of her four elder brothers was almost killed in a road accident, when she was five.

"I suffered from anxiety when I was younger; I didn't know what it was at the time," she remembers. "It started when my brother Paul was knocked off his bike by a car when he was 10. He was in intensive care on life support. I got really panicky and insecure. I was afraid it could happen to me and everyone else in the family.

"But I got treatment and learned how to do mental exercises to calm myself down. I don't really want to go into it, but I learned how to think positively, instead of with fear. Staying positive got me through, instead of being negative the whole time.

"I'm a big fan of self-help books - look, I have The Secret [Rhonda Byrne's positivity bible] in my bag. I have a strong belief in the law of attraction and positive thinking. I believe we attract all our experiences to us through our thoughts and actions, so that's why I always try and be as positive as I can. I like to try and find the good in every situation."

The late one in a family of five, Joanna grew up in the Culmore area of Derry City with her four brothers: Tommy, a welder; Paddy, a tailor; Rory, manager of the local City Hotel, and Paul, a solicitor. Her mother Mary stayed at home to mind the children while her father Tommy, now retired, worked in retail management.

"People always assume I was a tomboy, growing up with four brothers, but I was quite girly. I was into dance and gymnastics and I wanted to be a ballerina at one point, but then I got lost in the outside world.

"My brothers tease me all the time. They're always trying to outdo one another with their jokes. It's both a blessing and a curse; although it's annoying, growing up with the four of them has definitely left me with a good sense of humour and a very thick skin.

"I'm in and out of their house all the time, I've a really good relationship with all of them."

Currently living at home - "I can study better there" - the trainee broadcaster gave up digs in Belfast to commute an hour and 45 minutes per day to college in Belfast.

"I won't lie - the only exercise I get is on and off the bus," she laughs.

"I eat anything that dad cooks. I don't watch what I eat at all and I love Chinese.

"People say I'm like dad; I think I'm a mix of both. My eyebrows are completely natural - I didn't touch them until Miss Universe. I was strongly advised to get them tidied up for that."

A former Thornhill College pupil, Joanna has A levels in drama, psychology and English literature. She's determined to succeed in broadcast journalism and admires MTV presenter Laura Whitmore, from Dublin. For the time being, though, she's in demand for photographic work, but draws the line at glamour modelling, which is typically the domain of girls too short for high fashion.

"I've done lots of beauty shoots and some body ones, but I would never do glamour work. It's different if it's artistic nude shoots like Gisele Bundchen has done. It's amazing when it's done right, but it's not for me.

"Modelling and taking part in Miss Universe has been a brilliant experience for me, but it's a career move," she concludes.

"I really want to get my HND and then go into broadcast journalism. I can do my degree later - I want to push myself as far as possible right now.

"I really think that if you believe in yourself you'll get there. Positive thinking should be taught in primary schools. We need to learn how to love ourselves."

On that breezy note, she's off to class. Watch out Laura Whitmore.

Miss Universe Ireland’s favourites

Personality type: I think if you asked my friends about my personality they’d say if I was anymore laid back I’d be horizontal. But in reference to my career and things I’m passionate about, I’m quite driven.

Fashion trend: I don’t really have a set style. If I see something that catches my eye, I’ll wear it. I commute for class so I’m usually wearing something comfortable during the day, but I love to get dressed up if I’m going out at night.

Online: I’m an Instagram-aholic.

Celebrity: Angelina Jolie, I find her fascinating. Not only is she absolutely stunning, but she has so much substance beneath.

Animal: Penguin.

Film: All of the Harry Potter films.

Book: All of the Harry Potter books, ha! If I was on a desert island and could only bring one thing, it would be a Harry Potter book.

Food: Chinese.

Drink: I feel like I should be really responsible and say green tea or something, but everyone loves a gin and tonic of the odd weekend.

Personal character trait: I like to think I’m a really positive person.

Time of your life: As clichéd as it sounds, the whole Miss Universe experience really was amazing.

Motto: The one I live by is: ‘If you can dream it you can do it.’

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