Just look at me now... bullied beauty queen Julie-Anne Cairns turned entrepreneur in message of defiance to her tormentors, and message of hope to kids in same situation
Julie-Anne Cairns (26) suffered misery in school at hands of a gang of thugs. Many have made little of their lives, while she is building a business empire, as she tells Stephanie Bell
With her model looks, multiple beauty queen titles and numerous successful businesses, it is hard to believe that Julie-Anne Cairns was taunted by school bullies for being a geeky teen.
Just 10 years on from sitting her GCSEs, Julie-Anne is living the dream. About to turn 27 next month, just a few years since graduating from university, she has achieved the kind of success many aspire to in a lifetime and is in the enviable position of being able to design and build her dream home, mortgage-free.
But while her life is full and rewarding, Julie-Anne will never forget the four years of "hell" she suffered in her mid-teens at the hands of a gang of school bullies.
Today she has a defiant message for her tormentors - and an inspiring one for any young person who has found themselves on the receiving end of cruel taunts.
Julie-Anne says: "I was bullied at school because I was a 'nerd' and a 'geek'. I kept good company that would encourage me in life, rather than drag me down, and that was one of the reasons I was singled out.
"I wasn't part of that gang who had no interest in doing well at school. I was told I was 'ugly', because I didn't go to school plastered in make-up. I had fierce ambition and wasn't going to let them stop me from achieving my goals.
"It was hard and there were times when I was in tears and went home at night and wondered what was the point, but I just kept focused on my goals and believed there would be light at the end of the tunnel - and there was."
While Julie-Anne is running several successful businesses and is bursting with plans to continue to build her empire, she is aware that many of the gang who took pleasure in making her life at school miserable are now on the dole.
It is a measure of the impact those years had on her that she still thinks of the bullies today - and you can't blame her for feeling some satisfaction as she issues a direct message to her tormentors: "This 'geek' has her degree, started her first company at 23, and under that company now owns two successful businesses and a further two joint-businesses. I am an extensive landowner and am now in the process of building my own home, mortgage-free and with no help from anyone.
"As for being ugly, I am a five-times beauty queen, run my own successful model agency and have enjoyed a successful modelling career. I would just say to the bullies: how is your life now? I bet this 'ugly geek' has it better."
She adds: "To anyone smart and intelligent, who is being picked on for showing promise in life, I hope that what I have achieved gives you inspiration - you must learn to have a thick skin and realise it is only for a few years; you have the rest of your life to show them how it is actually done and you can thank them later for helping to make you the strong person you are."
Julie-Anne grew up in Broughshane, Co Antrim, the only child of David, a mechanic, and Heather, a special needs schoolteacher, and was inspired to go into business by two of her dad's cousins in Scotland, who own a wedding dress design business and a chain of bridal boutiques.
She studied fashion and textile design at Ulster University and graduated with a BSc Honours in fashion management.
After university, Julie-Anne took a year out before launching her own bridal boutique.
She is now owner and CEO of Julie-Anne Cairns Bridal Boutique, Julie-Anne Cairns Online Boutique and a joint-owner and director of Cumberland and Cairns Publications Limited, which is shortly to publish its first all-Ireland wedding guide, plus joint owner and director of her own model agency, Impact Management NI. She is also in advanced negotiations to launch her own perfume and fashion brands.
The Ballymena-based Julie-Anne Bridal Boutique has been recognised by world leaders in bridal and fashion and has been recommended by British Vogue five times. The Conde Nast group recommended the boutique in the UK's biggest bridal magazine, Brides, three times.
While she was always driven to succeed in life, Julie-Anne believes her experience of being bullied at school also drove her to achieve.
She says: "I was really inspired by my cousins and from about the age of 14 I always wanted to be a designer. I was focused at school, because I knew what I wanted to do and that's why I was bullied. I think I was looked upon as a Miss Goody Two Shoes, because I wanted to do well.
"I always had respect for myself and I learnt in school that comes at a price, as the bullying was very bad.
"Now I am glad I did have that respect, and while it was tough, at the same time I had this attitude of 'I will show you all', and that's what I have done.
"I was always brought up to treat people the way you want to be treated. I was so determined to prove them wrong, that I always knew I would open my own business. I was very determined. I now know that the majority of them are on the dole and one of them actually came into my business recently with his CV asking for a job."
As well as her entrepreneurial flair, the young teen, who was taunted for being "ugly", was just 15 when she took her first beauty title, Miss Teen Ballymena. She went on to win Miss Teen Ulster and also become a finalist in Miss Northern Ireland when she was 19.
This led to part-time modelling with leading Belfast agency ACA Models and eventually the launch of her own agency in Ballymena.
She says: "I'm very grateful for the modelling experience I got at ACA and the people I met, all of which has really helped me in my own businesses. It was a good start and a good springboard for what I am doing now."
Julie-Anne hopes her experience will inspire other young victims of bullying, as she knows just how difficult it can be.
She described her own experience as a nightmare and, although it was confined to school, it made her years at college in Ballymena "a living hell".
"Some violence was threatened, but it was mostly name-calling and trying to put me down," she says.
"I was called a nerd, a geek, ugly, it was horrible and I would have been quite scared to go into a room where they were, because I knew they would try and make a fool out of me.
"It started in second year and went on until fifth year. They did try to make you feel you weren't good enough and you weren't popular. It was made out to be a bad thing to be good in school.
"In school, the popular people were the ones who didn't care about their education.
"I was very stubborn, but I did worry why people didn't like me, and you are made to feel bad because you cared about yourself.
"Sometimes, it did feel like the end of the world, but I just kept thinking that, in a few years, I will never have to look at them again. I just kept focused and kept it in my head that I knew what I wanted to do when I left school."
After graduating Julie-Anne was determined to follow in her cousins' footsteps and open her own bridal boutique, which she did at the age of 23.
While having natural entrepreneurial skills, she says she was able to jump straight into the business world with help and advice from her family, who were already running successful companies.
"I just love it and we are currently getting ready to launch our first wedding guide and, this year, I have been in talks to launch my own perfume and fashion label, but that has had to go on the back-burner until the magazine is launched, but it will be something to focus on next year.
"In a way, the bullying gave me a purpose and I couldn't be happier now. I am currently building my own house, which I have designed to my own specifications, and it will be mortgage-free.
"I just hope what I have achieved can inspire other victims of bullies and let them continue to believe in themselves and know that it will come to and end."