Leanne McDowell: Miss NI's beauty more than skin deep
As Leanne McDowell prepares to enter the Miss World Contest, she tells us about running her own charity, her lifelong love for all things glamorous, her battle with eczema and how she hopes to help others - proving the natural beauty is no dizzy blonde.
It is three months since marketing student Leanne McDowell's life changed overnight into a whirlwind of non-stop fashion shows, photo-shoots, VIP events and charity work and she still feels like she is living in a dream.
"It just doesn't feel real, even now, I just can't get over it," says the still very excited and thrilled Miss Northern Ireland 2015.
Every day as a beauty queen is like living in "girlie" heaven for the 20-year-old, who has had a passion for beauty, make-up and fashion since she was a child.
But the natural beauty is no dizzy blonde. Her enthusiasm for glamour is endearing but this is a young woman who has real depth to her personality.
While she has wholeheartedly embraced her role as Miss Northern Ireland and is clearly enjoying every single minute of it, she still finds time to run her own charity and her own online fashion business.
Her charity Clear, which she runs with her mum Elaine, has enjoyed a higher profile, thanks to Leanne winning the coveted beauty title. Clear aims to help people suffering with chronic skin conditions and in the two years since its launch, Leanne and her mum have welcomed dozens of people into their home to advise them. In almost every case they have helped clear up the symptoms, largely through changes to diet.
As well as helping to run Clear, Leanne is ambassador for the year for the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice, a role she has also taken to her heart.
In the short time she has reigned as Miss Northern Ireland, she has become a ray of light for the sick children who look forward to their new friend popping in to chat, sign autographs and share snippets of her enchanting new life.
She says: "I love it. I love going up to see the children and sharing things with them.
"It is nice to have that side to the role and show that it is not all about lovely dresses.
"The children get really excited when I go in and the girls in particular get quite attached and some of them are following me on Instagram which is great. I try to visit as often as I can and really enjoy it."
Leanne grew up in Cookstown but recently moved to Glengormley, where she lives with her mum.
As an only child she shares a special bond with her mum Elaine who works as a partnership development manager with the charity Age NI.
The girls are enjoying a fashion shopping trip to London when I catch up with Leanne this week.
She is on the lookout for some bargains in the summer sales and hopes to pick up daywear for the Miss World competition in China in December. Even though it is still a few months away Leanne is already carefully planning for it - her way of ensuring she gives it her best shot.
It is how she approaches most things in her life and even her preparation for Miss Northern Ireland started many months - in fact years - before that special moment in May when she was crowned this year's winner.
She talks first about her home life and the lovely relationship she enjoys with her mum.
"Mum goes everywhere with me, she is here in London with me now shopping," she says.
"We are very close. My mum is like my best friend. I always go to her for advice, especially if I am buying new clothes.
"Mum loves clothes too and she still thinks she is 20 years old, she tells everyone she is my sister which is hilarious. She was crying her eyes out when I won Miss Northern Ireland.
"It is really girlie in our house. I've always loved fashion and make-up and even when I was in Primary three at a parent/teacher meeting mum was told that I was bringing her high heels and make-up into school to show to the other children in the playground."
Since her early teens she has been an avid follower of Miss Northern Ireland and fantasised about winning, although she never quite believed it would really happen.
In fact she followed every move of past winners on social media to the extent that she felt that she knew them personally.
She made up a dream board which she put on her bedroom wall, featuring pictures of last year's winner Rebekah Shirley and other winners in their bikini shoots.
As this year's winner she is now in her element meeting and getting to know the girls for real. She first decided to enter in 2014 but at the time was so tortured by her eczema that she didn't have the confidence.
When she did decide to enter last year she started to prepare months in advance.
She says: "I decided in October I was definitely entering and I started to revise early and prepare for my exams as I knew the competition would coincide with my them.
"I actually sat my last exam four days after winning and I passed which was good and no doubt because I had revised early. I was still so excited I don't know how I got through that exam.
"I've literally followed Miss Northern Ireland for years and even when I did enter I really never thought I would win.
"I wanted to enter in 2014 but I didn't have the confidence because of my eczema. Thankfully it has cleared up now because I have followed mum's treatments. I now know I am allergic to dairy and pork and avoiding those is helping to keep it under control."
Her eczema and the launch of Clear have played - and still do play - a big part in her life. She is genuinely committed to helping others because she knows the trauma of living with the condition.
It was in her mid teens - at a time when most young girls are becoming more aware of how they look - that her eczema was at its worse, making her life a misery. She recalls: "If it hadn't been for mum I wouldn't know how to clear my eczema. She had psoriasis very badly and even had to be hospitalised for two weeks.
"Mum was prescribed steroids but didn't like taking them and she researched alternative medicine and discovered new treatments and also that a lot of it is down to diet.
"I had allergy tests and now know that eating diary and pork causes my eczema to flare up so by avoiding them it is keeping it under control.
"It really knocks your confidence. Mine was terrible. My legs and arms were covered in it and I didn't have it on my face but I had one spot on my cheek which you couldn't cover with make-up or tan as it all puckered up. It was horrible.
"I used to cry about it and I had to cover myself up all the time, even in summer I couldn't wear tee-shirts."
She adds: "I've never really talked about it before Miss Northern Ireland and it's good that people know because they now ask me about it and I can give advice and you wouldn't believe how many people who know someone with it.
"We set up the charity two years ago and we have people who come to our home and mum will talk to them, mainly about making changes in their diet. We've had people of all ages but most of them are over 60. I think young people haven't the confidence to approach us and I hope that will change."
Leanne is living her dream at the moment. Her days are filled with engagements and it is a hectic schedule but one she thrives on.
Her title automatically gains her a place in the 2015 Miss World competition and she will travel to China in November to spend a month representing Northern Ireland as one of 130 women worldwide vying for the ultimate beauty title. Like everything she does of any importance she is approaching it with great care and meticulous planning.
She says: "I am eating healthily and exercising and learning to do my make-up and hair.
"I am so excited and I can't believe I am going to be part of Miss World. It doesn't even feel like it's happening, it still doesn't feel real.
"I've followed it on social media as well although I have never actually seen the final as I don't have Sky TV.
"I can't wait to meet all the other girls. I'm lucky that most of my outfits are sponsored by Blush and I haven't picked them out yet but I can't wait.
"I will need gym gear as there are sporting events, evening gowns, cocktail dresses and there is a local designer round.
"I want to go and try my best but I also want to enjoy the whole experience without putting too much pressure on myself. I am not even thinking about winning, being part of it will be great and if I am lucky enough to get placed that will be amazing."
She has been dating her boyfriend Matthew, who is also a student, for four years and hopes that he and her mum will make it to the Miss World final.
She says: "Matthew knows how important it is to me because he has watched me following Miss Northern Ireland for years and listened to me talking about it so much. He was thrilled for me when I won.
"Although I will be going to China on my own I will be fine as I have always been independent but it will be lovely to have Matthew come over for the final along with my mum."
The past few months has seen a great variety of new experiences for Leanne who has attended a wide range of top events from the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards to the Irish Open as well as model and photographic work.
She has also enjoyed meeting former Miss Northern Ireland winners and she loves the social side of the role.
She says: "It seems like I am busy all day everyday and I love it. I am getting to try so many new things and meet so many new people, it's amazing. I keep running into people who ask to get their picture taken with me because I am Miss Northern Ireland and it is so strange. It all feels like a dream."
When her year comes to an end Leanne hopes to continue to model part-time while finishing her marketing degree at Jordanstown.
She runs her own online fashion shop which came about after she started selling her clothes on eBay as a young girl.
Selling fashion, accessories and make-up, Pretty Dolly is described as "young, fast fashion" which aims to bring catwalk fashion direct to your door.
Her ultimate dream is to design her own fashion label. The sky's the limit for this talented and driven beauty queen, who has already achieved so much.
She says: "I feel so fortunate to be given this opportunity and I just have to pinch myself everyday to make sure it is real."