One young Northern Ireland woman tells Maureen Coleman how she conquered an eating disorder to walk tall on the catwalk
When Laura Wilson steps out onto the catwalk at the Magners Light Spring Into Summer shows next week, it will be with a sense of pride and achievement. For just a year ago, this healthy, size-eight model with bright eyes and glowing skin was battling anorexia and dressing her skeletal frame in the clothes of a seven-year-old child.
At the height of her illness, Laura’s weight plummeted to a frightening five stone and those around her were terrified she was going to die.
A self-confessed exercise addict who never missed a session at the gym, Laura survived on a daily diet of five green beans, a spoonful of salsa and a cup of coffee.
But with the love and support of her family and husband Phillip, Laura pulled herself back from the brink and is well on the road to recovery.
And though she admits she still has some way to go before she is completely healed, she is determined never to slip back into the old habits which almost destroyed her.
The 24-year-old Style Academy model from Ballymena is now on a quest to raise awareness about anorexia and to campaign for specialised help for Northern Ireland’s young women — and men — who are battling the disease.
“There is nowhere in Northern Ireland where people like me can go for help,” she explains. “I was taken into Holywell Hospital, but I was surrounded by people suffering from schizophrenia and depression and although the nursing staff were brilliant, I really needed to be somewhere where I could get specialised help.
“With the support of my local health centre, Cloughmills Medical Centre, I’m now receiving counselling and along with my mum Edna Cushenan, who has been a rock to me, we have set up a self-help group for other young people suffering with anorexia.”
According to Laura, there was no one trigger that sparked her condition, but it was a gradual process that escalated over time.
“I guess, looking back, there were always signs that something wasn’t right,” she explains.
“When I was in my sixth year at school and then again, later, at Queen’s University, Belfast, I became quite picky about my food and very regimented about going to the gym.
“I was modelling at the time but I can honestly say that wasn’t a factor. In Northern Ireland, there isn’t that pressure that you would find at the high fashion end of the market, like on the catwalks of Milan or Paris. So I wasn’t trying to be a size zero or anything like that.
“There was a lot of stuff going on in my life at the time. My boyfriend Phillip and I had just got engaged, then we were building a house together, then his father died and my granny died.
“I can remember the month of July in 2007 as particularly bad. That’s when everything seemed to combine to send me on a downward spiral.
“After we got engaged, I think it got worse. I know I should have been at my happiest, but everything in my life suddenly seemed to be in freefall and I had no control over anything. Except food.
“My exercise routine never wavered, no matter what the circumstances. The day Phillip’s dad died, I went to the gym, the day my granny got buried, I went to the gym.
“My mum even rang up the place and told them not to let me in, that there was obviously something wrong with me, but they told her there was nothing they could do to stop me. As far as they were concerned, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.
“I should never have been near that gym. I wasn’t eating and was exercising all the time. My heartbeat was so irregular, it’s a wonder it kept going.
“My poor family were at their wits’ end.”
Watching her daughter’s health drastically deteriorate was heartbreaking for Laura’s mum Edna, but when she tried to reach out for help, she was met with brick walls.
Laura says: “Mum kept going to doctors but she felt they weren’t taking her seriously.
“Both she and Phillip knew there was something badly wrong with me, but the thing is, I wouldn’t admit it myself.
“I was in constant denial. I refused to say the words ‘eating disorder’.
“I kept telling everyone I was fine, that there was nothing wrong with me. But of course they could see it. Everybody could. People would even stare at me in the street.
“I was working as a legal secretary at the time and doing some modelling as well, and one day my boss called me into the office and asked if I was ok, if I was looking after myself.
“But still I refused to accept that I was ill.”
With a wedding to plan for that November, Laura kept herself busy, but the weight continued to fall off.
Her search for the perfect bridal gown became an exhausting challenge. Finding a dress that fitted proved impossible and in the end she had to have a special one made.
“My dressmaker told me she had made larger dresses for flower girls,” she says.
“That’s really scary to think, but I was wearing the clothes of a seven or eight-year-old child at the time.”
Things came to a head when Laura and Phillip set off on a two-week honeymoon to Thailand. What should have been the happiest fortnight of their lives turned out to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
“I don’t now why things were so bad when we were away,” she says.
“I’d been with Phillip for six years and I really loved him and here we were on honeymoon in Bangkok and Phuket, supposed to be having the time of our lives.
“But the whole two weeks we were away, I survived on one slice of pineapple and cans of Diet Coke. When I tell people that, they don’t believe me. But it’s the truth.
“To be honest, I’m surprised I made it home alive. I’m 5ft 9, and I weighed five stone when we got home.”
The newly weds returned back to Northern Ireland and within weeks Laura was admitted to Holywell Hospital.
“For such a long time I had felt so unhappy but, bizarrely, I couldn’t really contemplate life without this illness,” she says.
“There was nowhere else for me to go except Holywell. I didn’t want to go to England because I didn’t want to leave my mum or Phillip, so this was the best option available to me.
“I did start to put on a bit of weight, but the underlying causes for my eating disorder weren’t tackled. Hospital was a short-term fix, I needed something more long-term, so I agreed to cognitive therapy.”
During her illness Laura had lost interest in her modelling work, but as she started to feel stronger in herself, she decided she wanted to give it a try again.
Was she not concerned that a career on the catwalk was not best suited to someone with anorexia?
Laura replies: “Funny enough, no. In fact, it’s kind of the opposite.
“When I signed my contract with Style Academy, Tracey Hall, the boss, told me I had potential and that I could have an international career. But she wanted a healthy model and that was a natural motivation for me.
“Yes, there have been very tough times for me, and a lot of tears and tantrums, but I really believe I have turned a corner.
“I don’t think about things as much now because I’m out and about and meeting people. I get a real buzz from modelling and it’s really boosted my self-esteem.
“I’m now up to seven stone and getting better. And I can’t wait to get onto that catwalk at the Magners Light Spring Into Summer shows. It’s been something to aim for and I really believe it’s helped me.
“I’m not saying I’m completely cured, I do still have the odd bad day, but for that one bad day, I have 10 fantastic ones.”
Laura, who appeared on ITV’s This Morning last week to talk about her battle with anorexia and the self-help group, now wants to support other people with eating disorders.
“I plan to go around schools and colleges, talking to young people about my illness and telling them that there are far more important things in life than being slim.
“I’m still receiving counselling, though not as often as I was. But I’ve been able to step back and look at the bigger picture and I think I’ve got things in perspective now. My modelling is taking off and I’m married to the man I love.
“To be honest, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been and I’m very proud of just how far I’ve come.”
Tracey Hall, who runs top model agency Style Academy and co-directs Magners Light Spring Into Summer with Michelle McTernan, said: “Laura is now a small size eight — we have asked her to try and put on some weight, which we are confident she will do in her own time.
“None of our catwalk models are below a size eight — there would simply be no work for them in Northern Ireland. Most of our fashion shows feature high street retailers and boutiques, the majority of which don't stock below a size eight.”
Tickets for Magners Light Spring into Summer on Tuesday and Wednesday, are available from fallforfashion.com and Belfast Welcome Centre 9024 6609. They cost £10 and include a complimentary gift