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Revenge of the beauty queens following Miss Ulster controversy

After the Miss Ulster controversy, two women tell Una Brankin why pageants empower rather than exploit

Long before the controversy over the proposed Miss Ulster competition at Stormont, Shaniece Nesbitt (18) hit the headlines when she caught the eye of Harry Styles at a One Direction gig.

The well brought-up south Belfast girl took the old-fashioned approach and brought a chaperone to the Culloden to meet the star, after she was approached – in the typical rock star tradition – by one of the band's security team.

"I didn't think it would be right to go on my own so I brought my friend Matthew," said Shaniece.

"I don't know whether he fancied me or not; he was very friendly and down-to-earth but it was surreal and I didn't stay very long as I had my driving test the next morning at 10am."

But neither Shaniece nor the Miss Ulster organisers expected the outcry over the holding of the event at Stormont, or the objections to the size and age restrictions for the contestants, which led to the withdrawal of two of the judges, MLAs Dolores Kelly and Jo-Anne Dobson, and the change of venue to the Titanic Centre, where original compere, NI21 leader Basil McCrea, was replaced by Cool FM's Connor Phillips.

"I think there was a complete over-reaction," said Shaniece who lives at home with her mother Tamara, who's half-Jamaican and a mature student, her father Darren, who works for a property rental company, and her sister Jessica (12).

"The guidelines were clear – the competition was a way into Miss Universe so it was obvious there would be restrictions.

"There's no way I or any of the girls felt exploited. It was really good for my confidence and we all felt like a million dollars. It's a great feeling to walk down that catwalk looking amazing – it makes you feel so good. And the competition was sponsored by American Holidays so I won a trip to New York and will appear in their ad campaign."

The A-level student doesn't believe beauty contests send out the wrong message to young girls watching who may feel they have to match up to the beauty standards set by the contestants. Miss Ulster entrants are required to be size 8-12, at least 5ft 7in and aged 18-24. Shaniece is 5ft 9in and size 10.

She says: "There are other contests that can be entered without those specific restrictions. The critics have their own views but the fuss they created led to a lot more publicity for the competition, which is a good thing.

"For me it was a way to get experience and to see if modelling could be a career for me, which I hope it will be. But I'm re-sitting my A-levels because I like writing and hope to be a journalist one day."

A regular marathon relay-runner and jogger, Shaniece had the full support of her family and her boyfriend of two months for the Miss Ulster competition.

"My mum and her friends were all there on the night and that really helped – I'd never been on a catwalk before and I was really nervous," she says.

"My family were there for me too when I was getting the hate-mail online over the Harry Styles thing. I had to shut down my Facebook page and Twitter for a while. My boyfriend just laughed off all the rumours. He's just so happy for me and really proud."

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