Plus-size model Derry model Charlotte Coyle says that beauty comes in all shapes & sizes
Charlotte Coyle, who is back in her native Londonderry after a highly successful career in the US and UK, tells Stephanie Bell why being healthy not thin should be the next big thing
Even if she wasn't classically beautiful with her long blonde hair and eyes of green, Charlotte Coyle would captivate on personality alone. Happiness radiates from her as she speaks, and she exudes an alluring self-confidence so that you can't imagine anyone more comfortable in their own skin.
But it wasn't always that way for the successful plus-size model.
Throughout her teens, Charlotte suffered from low self-esteem, and says she loathed her body because she was bigger than other girls.
She battled with her weight for years, hating what she saw in the mirror and yearning to be thin.
Still a sassy, sexy size 18, she now not only embraces her curves, but celebrates her size and beauty. In what she describes as her "journey" to self-acceptance, she has emerged as a modern-day role model for women and young girls.
Now 31, Charlotte has just returned to her native Londonderry after almost a decade as a top model in the US and UK.
In an industry where being thin is prized, Charlotte stood out because of her size and was in great demand for fashion photo shoots.
She was signed up by the Wilhelmina Agency in New York and became the face of one of America's most trendy plus size fashion labels, appearing in magazines and on billboards across the country.
During a brief spell in the UK in her mid-20s, she worked for a London-based model agency and appeared on a number of top TV shows, as well as making her own documentary for Channel Four.
Originally an art student, she was drawn to the creative side of the profession and four years ago retrained in New York as a make-up artist working on the other side of the camera.
Homesickness and a weariness with the fast pace of New York life brought her back to Derry last year, and she is now combining modelling with her career in make-up artistry in Northern Ireland.
It has been a fascinating journey and, as she tells it, it's hard to reconcile the cheerful, self-assured woman of today with the desperately unhappy 21-year-old who left home 10 years ago for what became an amazing adventure in the US.
"To go from not liking myself to being the person I am today was a journey – it didn't happen overnight," she says.
"But I feel better now than I have ever done and I am comfortable with myself. When I was a teenager, I believed if I was really thin, I would be beautiful.
"I was in pursuit of what I thought was beauty. I hated myself. What has happened to me shows that you can dream and if you have a dream, there is nothing to stop it coming true."
Charlotte grew up as the middle child in a family of six. She was tall for her age and by her teens, was towering above her friends at almost six feet.
She describes herself as always larger than her contemporaries and she endured being bullied at school because of her size.
She says: "When I was growing up I felt so different to everyone else because I was always so much bigger than other children.
"I had no self-confidence and no self-esteem and I felt less of a person. Being a teenager was horrendous, the worst experience ever.
"I tried every mad diet there was – the brown rice diet, the juice diet, you name it and I probably tried it. I would starve myself and I would lose weight but even when I was slimmer, I always felt fat.
"In my mid-teens I was a size 16, which is not big, but I had this distorted image of myself and I always felt there was something wrong with me."
Charlotte heard about a new US visa system launched as part of the peace process to give young people in Northern Ireland the chance to experience a new life in America.
She applied and secured a job as a receptionist in a top beauty salon in Washington DC.
Just a couple of months after arriving in the States aged 21, she was scouted by a model agency. She recalls: "A girl who worked for a model agency in New York came into the salon one day. She just came up to me and told me that they were holding castings and that I should go and be a plus size model.
"It was my 21st birthday and my auntie who lived in America said she would take me to the casting in New York as my birthday present.
"I was sitting with all these other girls and they called out my name and signed me up there and then.
"It was so exciting and just amazing that here I was, a wee girl from Derry, working for a model agency in New York. It all started from there."
For her very first photo shoot she was whisked off to glamorous LA to model for the fashion label Torrid, which she later became the face of.
She explains: "Torrid is quite a trendy plus-size label in America. The shoot was so cool – there were all these high fashion people and then there was me.
"I was told not to tell anyone it was my first shoot and to play it like I had been doing it for years.
"I was so nervous, but it was one of the best days of my life."
Charlotte continued to fly between New York and Washington for the next two years and when her visa ran out, she decided to go to England, where her brother lived.
She signed for a London agency and her story was picked up by a national newspaper.
After it appeared, her phone was red hot, and the next day she found herself on the sofa of This Morning and the day after that she was interviewed on Channel Four.
Afterwards, the station signed her up for a documentary on plus-size women, which she spent the next few months filming.
She was gutted when at the end of what she thought was a very positive programme on bigger women, the channel decided to call the programme The Fat Beauty Contest.
"I still squirm at that title," she says.
"I was mortified by it. It was a real shame, because it could have been so good, but there were so many things filmed that didn't make the programme.
"It wasn't a bad programme in the end and I did get positive feedback, but the title just ruined it for me, as I felt really hurt by it. It was as if they were just interested in the shock value.
"I wanted it to be about empowering bigger women and celebrating their beauty and I felt that the title degraded it."
She also fronted a campaign for Marks & Spencer's plus-size clothing range and did a number of magazine shoots, but yearned to return to America and live in New York.
She moved back and for the next five years lived in the city that never sleeps, enjoying what she describes as "an epic adventure".
She continues: "I was so blessed in this life that I got living in that city.
"It was so amazing and the people are crazy; they are really free in an exciting kind of way and have so much energy.
"It was fabulous and I worked really hard and enjoyed every minute."
As art was her first love, she felt drawn to the creative side of the industry and enrolled in a college in Manhattan to study make-up.
Using her modelling contacts, Charlotte was soon working flat-out on the other side of the camera.
"My modelling experience meant that as a make-up artist, I knew exactly what I was doing and what was needed.
"Both careers worked together so well. It was just a new adventure."
The fast pace of New York life started to take its toll, however, and Charlotte yearned for the more relaxed way of life back home.
She says: "I knew I'd had enough of living in New York and as amazing as it is there, everything is complicated and I wanted a more simple life. I needed to see a tree again."
Last June, she decided to come back to Derry – where she is now settled – and recently signed up with CMPR agency in Belfast as a plus-size model.
She also wants to continue her work as a make-up artist and would love to get involved in working on movie sets in Northern Ireland.
She arrived home as Derry was celebrating its year as the UK City of Culture, and was amazed by the changes to her home city.
She says: "It was epic. I left one home and came back to a brand new one. There was so much going on and so many opportunities and I was so just happy to be here. The change to the city is amazing.
"I just feel now that I want to share with people here everything that I learned in the US.
"It was brought home to me just how far I have come when I came across a diary I had kept when I was 16, shortly after I got home.
"In it I had written that I hate myself.
"The irony is that if I hadn't been bigger, then I wouldn't have had the opportunities I have enjoyed in America.
"I'm so proud of myself and I have achieved so much. I just think it goes to show young women that they need to love themselves no matter who they are and if they have a dream, then they should believe in it because it can come true. Anything is possible."
Charlotte is happy with her size 18 figure and now can enjoy feeling sexy and attractive.
She looks after herself, walking every day, working out and eating a healthy diet.
She also meditates and looks after her skin.
She has had a number of relationships and says her size has never been a barrier to attracting a man.
For now, though, she is content being single, but hopes to one day find someone special.
"I want a partner, someone to share my life with, but right now I am focused on me and my career, so hopefully when the time is right it will happen," says Charlotte.
Working in the model industry she glimpsed first-hand the unhealthy pressure on young girls to be thin.
She says: "Some of the girls were naturally thin and it's beautiful, but some of them are starving themselves. Some just don't eat at all – it is shocking.
"You are constantly being measured and your physical appearance is being critiqued all of the time.
"You are under a lot of pressure, even being plus-size."
And Charlotte adds: "I think when you are younger, you just want to be like everyone else and you don't want to stand out.
"But I have learned that you need to embrace who you are and that every one of us is beautiful, regardless of how we look.
"There are people who are not physically attractive but who have a self-confidence or certain sexiness and that is their beauty."
Sending out healthy image
Young Editor Kate Umphray (18,) from Comber, an A-Level student at Strathearn Grammar in Belfast, gives her thoughts
Plus-sized models are on the rise in the UK and in my eyes, that can only be a good thing. ASOS has its brilliant Curve range, while Very has made the gorgeous Holly Willoughby the main face of its brand.
Using women with real body shapes and sizes is a fantastic – and vital – way to show young girls that they don't need to have a size eight waist and a petite frame to stand out from the crowd or to be considered beautiful – the sort of stereotype that used to dominate years ago.
I feel it's important that people appreciate that everyone is different.
Yes, there are some women who happen to be just naturally slim without even having to try, yet in the same way, there will be others who are naturally, say, a size 14, with amazing curves. It all depends on your BMI. The emphasis on promoting a healthy body image has really improved, and that can only be a good thing.
However – and here's the rub! – I also don't agree with glamorising curves just as much as I don't agree with glamorising stick-thin women with protruding rib cages. There's always a risk that some people may take the attitude of, 'I'm just curvy', when actually their weight is putting their health at risk.
Yes, people need to feel comfortable in their own body – but health needs to come first.
A body image should come secondary to how you are going to keep yourself fit and well.
And a person will only feel more confident when they know what they are doing is right for them.