Miss Northern Ireland Emma Carswell: 'I don't think pageants are all to do with being pretty - they're about inner beauty'
The newly-crowned Miss Northern Ireland 2016, Emma Carswell, a psychology student from Gilford, tells Stephanie Bell why the competition is not all to do with looks, her work with a suicide prevention charity and raising money for the Children's Hospice
Having enjoyed an idyllic childhood growing up in the quiet Co Armagh village of Gilford, newly crowned Miss Northern Ireland Emma Carswell feels compelled to give something back through volunteering and her choice of career.
Not only does the 21-year-old psychology student bring beauty and brains to her new role, but she also has a heart for helping others.
Emma volunteers three days a week with the Portadown-based charity, Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention NI.
And as a keen cyclist she is currently training for the Giro d'Italia which she is taking part in to raise funds for the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice.
The stunning brunette was still very much on a high yesterday morning after being crowned the new Miss Northern Ireland at a glamorous final in the Europa Hotel on Monday night.
Having finally made it to bed at 2.30am yesterday, she got a taste of just how busy the year ahead will be when she was up bright and early for Press interviews and her first engagements.
Clearly still shocked to win, she told the Belfast Telegraph: "I'm so excited. I still can't believe it and it means the world to me that I have won.
"I entered the competition to make new friends and to experience new things - and I never expected to win, it is a real shock.
"I will give it 110% and make the most of it. So many girls want to win, and I feel so fortunate and so grateful to be given this chance."
Emma grew up in a quiet village outside Lurgan with her younger sister Amy (19) and parents Trevor, a structural engineer, and mum Lynda, a housewife, who were all in the Europa on Monday night to support her.
Her boyfriend of two years, Johnny McCarthy (23), a mechanical engineer from Moira, was also there to witness Emma's big moment when she took the most coveted crown in beauty here.
Emma is in her third year studying psychology at the Ulster University and opted this year to work three days a week on a voluntary basis for a local mental health charity as part of her course.
She says: "I love the area of mental health and helping others, and I want to be an occupational psychologist when I graduate. I studied psychology at A-level and just loved learning all about how the mind works, about body language and looking into all the different areas of psychology which is why I chose it for a career.
"I volunteer full-time Monday to Wednesday with the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention and am on-call the rest of the week for emergencies. Although, since I started in September I have never been called out.
"The role involves providing support for depressed people who may think about taking their own lives. It is a supervised role as I am not yet qualified.
"It is tough but it puts life in perspective and, at the same time, I get a lot of satisfaction out of it."
Emma describes her childhood as "quiet", but living in a village she enjoyed a close community with good friends.
"I had a wonderful childhood and it makes you realise when something is going on in your own life that it really isn't that bad. It makes you very grateful for what you have and I feel so lucky to be so well off," she says.
Emma loves to keep fit and enjoys cooking, adding she likes to "try to bake, but I'm not very good at it".
She went to Tandragee High School where she was head girl, and then on to Portdown College where she was a member of the rowing team.
Good friends made during her high school years are still very important to her. And the new Miss Northern Ireland likes to get together with them as often as she can for a girls' night out.
Emma met her boyfriend Johnny two years ago through mutual friends while on such an evening out.
"I was on a night out when I met Johnny who was with a group of people I knew as well," she explains. "We just got talking and that was it - and we have been together ever since."
Outside of studying and volunteering, she loves cycling and is embarking on training for this year's Giro d'Italia.
The beauty queen plans to do a 32-mile leg of the race from Strangford, and will be flying the flag for the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice for which she is now an ambassador during her year as Miss Northern Ireland.
"I love cycling and would go out two or three times a week for a 20-mile cycle, though I haven't been going recently and need to get back into training for the Giro," she says.
"I took part in the Co-operation Ireland cycle from Belfast to Dublin a few years ago with my dad, also for the Children's Hospice, so it's a charity close to my heart. Now, I am very excited to be ambassador for it this year."
Emma grew up watching model reality shows on TV and says since her early teens she wanted to be a model but didn't have the confidence to go for it.
She recalls: "I have always loved fashion and modelling, and watching programmes like Victoria's Secret - it all looked so glamorous.
"Growing up, people were always telling me that I should get into the industry but I never had the confidence. And that's one of the reasons why I decided to enter Miss Northern Ireland, and winning really is a dream come true for me."
Emma initially won a heat in Co Fermanagh to become Miss Devenish.
As part of her prize she will now get to fulfil her dream with a modelling contract with competition organiser Alison Campbell's ACA Model agency in Belfast.
She does intend to go back to university after her year as Miss Northern Ireland and finish her degree. And while she is passionate about working in mental health, if her modelling career takes off she plans to make the most of it.
"I think it is important to finish my education but at the minute I don't know where the modelling will take me. If it works out and I do get the chance to do it full-time, I would definitely take the opportunity while I have it," she adds.
Yesterday, she also visited competition sponsor Therapie Clinic where she will be treated to a VIP-tailored treatment package, worth over £5,000, as part of her overall prize.
It was then on to the Donnelly Group where she picked up the keys to a new Fiat car which will be hers for the year. Living at home in Gilford, she will need the car as she travels the length and breadth of Northern Ireland, attending launches and functions as Miss Northern Ireland.
Her bumper prize package worth thousands of pounds is every girl's dream.
It includes dresses from local boutique Blush on Belfast's Lisburn Road, a bespoke personal training package from Think Fit, free hair dressing, manicure and pedicures for a year from Michele International, a model portfolio by Brendan Gallagher Photography and lots more.
"I can't believe the prizes, it is just amazing. I was at Therapie this afternoon discussing my treatments and I am so excited, then I am picking up my car which is a Fiat and that is my dream car, I've always wanted one," Emma says."I just feel so incredibly lucky."
One of the biggest opportunities which lie ahead is the chance to compete in the Miss World contest, to be held on the beautiful Indonesian island of Bali later this year.
She says: "I'm not even sure what all I have won, it is all amazing.
"I am also very excited about Miss World. Bali looks fabulous as I have been looking up pictures of the Indonesian island online. It is a wonderful country.
"I don't know yet when it is but hopefully my parents will be able to come along to the final."
Even though beauty pageants have their critics, as a modern young woman Emma believes there is still a place for the contest in 2016.
"For me it is something I have always wanted to do and this year I just decided to step up and do it - which is why I entered the competition," she says.
"I don't think beauty competitions are all about a woman just being pretty. I think today there is much more to it and it is more about the beauty within and not just about how people see you on the outside.
"I know it is going to be a busy year and I have already arranged to take a gap year from university.
"I don't know what all is in store for me, but I know it is a wonderful opportunity and I will be making the most of every minute.
"My family are behind me and really supportive, as is my boyfriend Johnny.
"His cousin Angela McCarthy won Miss Northern Ireland in 2001, so he knows what's involved. He was there on Monday night and is really excited for me.
"I'm just trying to take it all in and I am really looking forward to what lies ahead."