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Brains behind a beauty queen

The newly-crowned Miss Northern Ireland is intelligent, modest and drop-dead gorgeous. Jane Hardy meets Finola Guinnane and finds out the secrets behind her success.

Last Sunday, like the rest of the province, Miss Northern Ireland was watching Rory McIlroy’s victory in the US Open with her father. As Finola Guinnane (22) explains: “My dad is a total golf fanatic. He plays every Sunday at Ardglass, so it was inevitable he’d been hooked to the TV screen.

“And I have to say congratulations to Rory McIlroy — he’s somebody I’d love to meet.”

Before that, Finola enjoyed a big Sunday roast at home with her family to celebrate the moment on Tuesday, June 14, that she took the beauty queen crown from Lori Moore.

“We were all round the table, with my boyfriend Diarmaid and my four nieces and nephews, Niamh (9), Caolin (6), Eineann (2) and Lucas who’s just one-year-old. My brother Mark is father to the first three and my sister Anne has just had the baby.”

Clearly part of a close-knit Belfast family, Finola relates to Lucas’s position as baby of the extended brood. “I’m the major baby of the family — my brother is 32 and my sister’s 34,” she laughs. “But being the baby is quite enjoyable. I’d like to say I wasn’t too spoilt, well, spoilt with love but not with material things.”

With her endless legs, height (1.7m), glossy Kate Middleton-style hair and the good cheekbones she has inherited from her mother, Finola probably shouldn’t have been that surprised that she won the title.

Still, like all Miss Northern Irelands, she insists that she was indeed stunned when her name was called out.

“Oh, I was very shocked. Miss Northern Ireland is a competition, after all, and the standard is so high. Oh my goodness!”

Finola’s avoidance of the ubiquitous youth punctuation OMG, or rather the way she substitutes “goodness” for “God”, also tells you something.

This is one clean-living girl who enjoys herself on her own terms and has a mature philosophy of life. “I look after myself, don’t drink or smoke or do anything I shouldn’t. That’s my beauty preparation, and I think you get out what you put in.” Certainly, Finola’s clear skin bears witness to the effectiveness of her approach.

Of course, the 22-year-old is only human, and bubbles with excitement as she recalls the first moment a member of the public recognised her.

“I was working in the entertainment tent at the Dalriada Festival in Glenarm last Saturday and two men were nudging each other and saying, ‘Is that Miss Northern Ireland?’ I just said ‘Yes, nice to meet you,’ and posed for a photo.”

As Finola explains, the pace since she took on the job — and make no mistake, living up to the title is hard work — has been “hectic, but good hectic”.

Unusually, the route that brought Finola to her current position was unplanned. In fact, you could say she almost got here by accident.

As an A-level student at St Louise’s College in 2009, Finola was in her Specsavers opticians in Ann Street, Belfast, when she was talent-spotted.

Finola recalls: “They were holding their annual Specsaver of the Year competition and asked me to enter. Initially I thought it wasn’t my kind of thing, but then I thought ‘You only live once, so sure’.”

After winning the Northern Ireland heat in Connswater, Finola went to London for the European final. “I did the catwalk thing and hair and outfit changes, and was competing against a load of European models. I felt like a fish out of water.”

Yet in spite of being a novice at this game, Finola came second overall.

Having this success under her belt made it harder to say no when her best friend Aisling suggested she go for the big title, Miss Northern Ireland.

When Finola went to see the careers advisor at school, she definitely didn’t want to discuss beauty contests, preferring to concentrate on education.

And Finola says frankly: “I’ve always wanted to be a teacher and really stumbled across Specsavers without any experience of the modelling industry. Teaching in secondary school remains my ambition.” Asked what she thinks her students of the future might make of Miss’s glamorous past, she giggles, then says: “They’d be interested, but I can’t think they’d have anything bad to say ...”

Economics is one of Finola’s college subjects at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, where after her year out as Miss Northern Ireland she’ll continue working towards a degree in business studies.

Our conversation covers a wide range of subjects and somehow we find outselves discussing the economy and the coalition’s determination to cut the budget deficit fast.

Does Miss NI think, with her economist’s hat on, that might prove a bad move? “The current climate is very volatile but if rapid cuts affect families and lead to redundancies, that would be hard for families here.”

Marketing is another of the brunette’s skills and, asked how she would describe herself as a product, she says: “Well, my unique selling points are that I am always punctual, am good at detail and have quite a good sense of humour.”

So what tickles her funny bone? “Lee Evans — he always makes me laugh. Plus silly things ... it’s important not to take life too seriously.”

Finola’s TV tastes extend to The Apprentice, and she has been following Cookstown entrant Jim Eastwood’s progress. “I think Jim’s fab and if a really good business depends on personality, he’s got what it takes. Most recently, I watched the show where they had to sell make-up. I think the competitors needed a bit more panache. You always need personality to sell things. I think I’d have done ok as I used to have a part-time job at Molton Brown.” When Finola adds that she finds Lord Sugar an “inspiration, from a business point of view”, you sense she could be mentally filling in an Apprentice application form.

Returning to the beauty side of things, Finola reveals that she uses an old-fashioned standby as her moisturiser. “Astrid Cream, if you can remember that, in the blue tub. And in terms of make-up, I go for GOSH cosmetics, particularly their lip gloss and eye shadow.” Which is handy, as her Miss NI prize includes a year’s supply of their make-up, plus a modelling contract with the Alison Campbell Model Agency and a car.

Finola believes in emphasising her large, dramatic eyes and the one product she won’t leave the house without is mascara. “It’s my must-have as it really brightens your eyes. I like GOSH Exaggerate mascara best.”

So which side of the family is reponsible for Finola’s prize-winning looks?

Finola still lives with her parents, John and Susan, a builder and school secretary, and they’ve supported her throughout the contest.

“Well, dad is bright ginger and my mum is blonde. But I do have my mother’s cheekbones and my father’s eyes.” Finola has also inherited their metabolism and doesn’t really have to work at staying slim. Smiling ruefully, Finola says: “Yes, my friends let me know I’m lucky.”

In between her Miss NI duties, Finola is hoping to celebrate with her long-term boyfriend Diarmaid McPhillips (23), the quantity surveyor who is her childhood sweetheart.

“We’ve been together over five years, and he was nice before the contest, saying he thought I should win. We will be celebrating and probably going for a meal at one of the restaurants we like — Horatio Todd’s or Tony Roma’s or Wagamama.”

During the year, Finola’s main tasks will include fundraising for the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice, a cause she has supported since her schoolmate Christopher Smith died at the age of 15 from a brain tumour.

“He was helped by the hospice, and I have done a couple of walks for them,” she explains.

And clearly passionate about the project, she immediately asks: “Have you visited the children’s hospice? It has an amazing atmosphere, not at all gloomy.”

Finola will also be representing Northern Ireland at the Miss World competition in London in November. She admits that she gets nervous before stepping onto the catwalk, but says she’s ok once the adrenalin kicks in. “That’s what happened at the Europa Hotel in the Miss Northern Ireland final.”

Finola is a natural ambassador on the charity side of the Miss NI role. She’s multi-talented, speaks Irish (“Well, dad’s from Galway.”) and plays the trumpet and French horn. You can’t help wondering whether the bikini modelling side of the role will faze her, but she’s adamant that it won’t.

She says: “I am very comfortable in my body and if you feel good inside, you feel good outside. The view of beauty contests as anti-feminist is very outdated.”

Jolene from the Alison Campbell Agency adds: “As long as it’s done tastefully.”

With Finola Guinnane facing the lens, that’s not in doubt.

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