Lucy Evangelista: 'I cried like a baby when I found out the cancer test was negative -I was just so relieved'
Former Miss Northern Ireland Lucy Evangelista speaks exclusively to Claire McNeilly about how a cancer scare and ongoing mystery illness means spending time at home with her two kids and why creating a baby products business makes her happier than her cover girl days in London.
Lucy Evangelista has a smile so radiant you'd be forgiven for thinking she doesn't have a care in the world. Her baby clothing business has taken off, she's married to a former rugby star with whom she has two wonderful children - and she still boasts a figure that women 10 years younger would kill for.
But you wouldn't have wanted to be in the 30-year-old's shoes a few weeks ago.
You wouldn't have wanted to be the one sitting at home, terrified, with a solitary word - cancer - relentlessly pinballing through your brain.
The former Miss Northern Ireland feared the worst when doctors started investigating why a supposedly fit and healthy young woman had suddenly become so lethargic that she almost fell asleep at the wheel of her car - with her baby son Luke James and four-year-old daughter Leila Grace in the back seat.
That was the moment she knew something was badly wrong - but how bad? The tests began, and so did the worry - because the dreaded 'C' word could not be ruled out.
The subsequent months were peppered with anxiety, fear and hope - and, not surprisingly, Lucy burst into tears of relief when the results finally came back negative for cancer.
But she still doesn't know for sure what's wrong with her.
Lucy says: "To be honest, I hadn't been feeling well for four months but I kept it to myself.
"It was frightening, but I didn't even tell my husband Matt at the time because I knew he wouldn't allow me to leave the house after that...
"I realised how serious things were that day in the car, when I was driving to Ballymena with the children. I didn't tell anyone what had happened because I was so worried. I just went to the doctor and a series of tests began."
She recalls: "At one point they thought I had bowel cancer... from starting to feel ill to getting the results it was the longest three and a half months of my life. I only got the results back a fortnight ago. Those weeks of fearing it could be cancer were awful.
I cried like a baby when I found out the test was negative. I was screaming down the phone. I was so relieved. I know Matt was panicking deep down too but he wouldn't let it show. "
The Portglenone native says her doctor had adopted the approach of "let's start at the top and work our way down" in order to pinpoint her ailment.
Cancer has, thankfully, been ruled out, but the busy mum has more results to fret over in the months ahead.
"Now they're testing me for coeliac disease (a serious genetic autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine)," she explains.
"I'm on an iron programme for the next three months and after that they'll take more blood tests to see where we are."
We're sitting in the elegant Belfast family home of someone who, 11 years ago, was voted the seventh most beautiful woman in the world, but modelling is far from Lucy's mind at this moment.
Since turning 30, she says, health and other issues have dominated large swathes of her life.
There was the cancer scare, of course, but her husband - the former Ulster and Ireland lock Matt McCullough - hasn't been well either, and neither has little Luke, who turns two next month.
Not only that, but there was the profound shock and grief after her cousin and close friend Rhonda suddenly collapsed and died while on a family holiday in Florida.
"It happened in June, she was only 40 years old," says Lucy, fighting back tears. "Rhonda was out there with her husband and two young daughters when it happened. She collapsed - and that was it. I couldn't get over it, I was stunned, devastated. They think it was heart problems, but we're still waiting to find out exactly what happened."
She adds: "That was a really bad time for me. My great granny, Eileen Elizabeth Alexander, had passed away five weeks before Rhonda died. She was 93. She and I were very close and talked on the phone all the time. She was the queen bee of a family that had five generations of girls."
The 2005 Miss World finalist - who once harboured ambitions to be a social worker but was told she was "too soft" - is still in demand as a model but being a wife and mother takes precedence these days.
Matt (35), who retired from rugby through injury eight years ago and now works in corporate finance at Deloitte, had a health scare himself earlier this year when he was hospitalised with viral meningitis, an inflammation of the lining around the brain and spinal cord.
Thankfully, the burly ex-forward was back on his feet before long. "I joke that it was just a little holiday for him to go into the hospital for two or three days, just to get away from us," the magazine cover girl says.
Matt and Lucy haven't been apart too often since they first met in a Belfast bar a decade ago.
Although both had attended Ballymena Academy, their paths hadn't crossed at school. They "knew each other to see" because Lucy often attended Ulster Rugby press calls in a promotional capacity.
"I'd come home for my sister's wedding. We just got talking and that was it," she says.
They got married on April 30, 2010, honeymooning at the legendary Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan and then went to Los Angeles for three months, where Lucy was doing a TV presenting course.
They are now settled back in Northern Ireland after five years in London where Matt, who had graduated with a masters degree from Ulster University, landed a full-time job with RBS and Lucy was forging ahead as a top model.
"My London agencies are still sending me video castings to do but everything is revolving around my children and working from home at the minute," she says.
Her fledgling "hobby business" came into being this time last year, after teenage cousin Bethany gave her a crash course in her how to use a sewing machine she had bought a couple of months earlier.
"I started posting photographs of things I was making - a lot of them were for Leila, including little rag dolls - and then people began asking me to make things for them," says Lucy.
"Although I was no expert, I tried anyway. It just grew from people asking me to make toy dinosaurs, baby rompers, bibs, blankets, dolls, pillows, cushions, robes and duvet sets."
The preciousness of life is also brought home to Lucy when she is asked to make tiny dresses for babies at Antrim Area Hospital who, tragically, didn't live long after birth.
People donate fabric and Lucy does the rest. She's made 10 so far; sadly, there are more for this young mother to do.
She remembers what she went through when Luke was born on December 23, 2014.
"He was really sick and what made it worse was that we didn't know what was wrong with him," she adds.
"He was a C-section so he had a lot of build-up of mucus and had breathing problems. We thought he was lactose intolerant.
"Basically he screamed 12 hours a day for 12 weeks. He picks up every bug going. To be honest, we haven't had a lot of uninterrupted sleep since he was born."
After a busy Christmas last year, Lucy now wants to focus more on what she wants to make - keepsake Irish linen clothing and fabric-based 'quiet books' for young children.
"That's my main goal for 2017," she says.
"I was making the quiet books by hand but it just takes forever so I've been looking at a few companies who could help with that."
The Evangelista order book, which is "piling up", includes bonnets for £18, and gift sets from £35 to £50; baby shoes, baby bonnet, a pair of bloomers, dressy linen bib, for example.
"I devote around 20 hours a week to the work, but that will go up to 40-plus around Christmas time," she explains.
"Modelling isn't my priority any more... my focus has totally changed."
It's hard to imagine, but the woman who has strutted catwalks for years, has dabbled in acting, has walked the red carpet with legendary film director Jackie Chan and has appeared in TV commercials all over Europe, admits to lacking in confidence. And she freely admits to shying away from meeting people she doesn't know.
"It was fun doing commercials because I was playing someone else, not me," she says.
"Winning Miss Northern Ireland (in 2005) changed my life and gave me a confidence boost so people don't expect me to be shy - but I like hiding in the background.
"It's like when I take Leila to school, and other mothers would come over to talk.
"They'd say things like 'you're that girl with the funny surname' (Lucy is of Italian ancestry), and I would just say yes. But really I'm just trying to hide, so I avoid them every morning."
She adds: "I actually became more confident about myself when I had Leila. That was my wee happy place, my wee bubble."
Although she "doesn't pay attention to the modelling any more", Lucy still does fashion shows for her good friend and mentor Alison Campbell.
"I'm always going to love Alison," she says.
"She does look after her girls. I left her and went with other agencies, but when I came back from London she put me back on her books. We're friends.
"She knew I was getting tested for bowel cancer and said she'd be there for me."
Lucy has worked for brands such as New Look, Peroni, Magnum, Mothercare, John Frieda, Diet Coke, Nokia, H&M and Very.co.uk, and been cover girl on magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Take a Break.
And even when she was pregnant with Leila, 'mum and baby' magazines came calling.
But Lucy admits there were only so many times she could walk into a shop in London and see her face on the cover of 'Take a Break' magazine.
"It was fun, but I had to stop," she adds.
"I love London and there were some great jobs," she says. "But I'm glad to be back home in Northern Ireland because the thought of Leila and Luke not growing up with their grandparents and relatives close by is unimaginable."
Mum Vanda (51), works for NISRA, and father Trevor (53), is a driver for Hendersons. Lucy also has two sisters, Laura (32) and Linda (27).
Despite her ongoing health problems, she is positive about the future - but you're unlikely to see her face on the front of Take a Break again any time soon.
"It got to the point where I actually had to stop doing that job because they kept booking me," she recalls.
"I was like 'are there no other models in London?' and they said 'with your smile? No'."