If you didn’t know that Nicola Bleakley was One Show host Christine’s sister, it wouldn’t take long to work it out. For not only do the pair have similar striking features, they sound identical and have the same effervescent, warm manner.
“We sound really alike,” Nicola laughs. “On the phone we get confused all the time. When I’m in London I sometimes ring mum on Christine’s phone and pretend to be her. But actually, when you see us together we don’t really look alike.”
I meet Nicola (28) at Jury’s Inn, Belfast, where she runs a Unislim drop-in centre every Thursday — and the restaurant even cooks a special Unislim menu each week. And as I arrive she’s giving an overjoyed client a big hug after telling her she’s lost three pounds in the past week. Nicola makes her feel like she’s won a million pounds and, like many people who meet Nicola, I suspect, she goes away on top of the world.
Supermodel-like, 5ft 11in Nicola has recently become Northern Ireland ambassador for Unislim — and with her own astounding success in losing seven stone in one year, there’s no better person to encourage others to beat the bulge.
For the Newtownards girl, the pivotal moment came when she was buying a new outfit for her 18th birthday party — and ended up getting a maternity dress.
“My problems started when I went to college and became in control of what I could eat,” she says. “Before, I was restricted with what my mum made — really good wholesome dinners. But 10 years ago there wasn’t so much focus on healthy eating and the canteen at college just offered chips.
“Everybody’s metabolism is different and unfortunately the weight just crept on to me and I got bigger and bigger. I found myself full of bad habits, going to bed every night with a full-fat fizzy drink, a bag of crisps and some chocolate. I wasn’t doing any exercise either, so the maths are pretty simple — I was 17 and a half stone!
“My friends were so petite and tiny, and because I was tall as well as overweight, I was very overbearing looking. I was very self-conscious, I couldn’t get anything nice to wear, I felt sluggish, I didn’t like looking at myself, and didn’t want to do anything. It’s a horrible way to feel.”
But having been through the experience herself, she wants to get the message out that you can change — and that achieving your ideal weight can change your life.
“For my 18th birthday my mum and dad took me out to buy a new outfit,” she remembers. “I had to buy a maternity outfit and I cried in the changing rooms.
“Then one day I saw a girl I recognised and realised she’d lost a lot of weight. I simply went over to her and asked her how she did it and she said ‘Nicola, just stop talking about it, come with me to a Unislim class’. It was a Thursday night, on February 2, and I was so nervous going into the class, but everybody was just so welcoming. I never looked back.”
Her family and friends were a great support and are very proud of how she showed dogged determination to succeed.
“I couldn’t have asked for more support,” she says. “At the beginning I got out of puff walking up the stairs. But Christine went out with me for walks, as did my two best friends Rachael and Carly. My parents, too, were brilliant.
“Christine and I still go for walks — I drag her out on a Sunday morning whether she likes it or not! I really love exercising now. I go to the gym five days a week and walk every day.”
And it was a year almost to the day that Nicola succeeded in reaching her ideal weight and size — dropping from a 24 to a 12 — and her amazing achievement was marked with her crowning as Slimmer of the Year 2004.
Now, having taken on her new role after working in finance for 10 years — first at Bank of Ireland and then at Bradford and Bingley, which later became Santander — she’s inspiring scores of others to take the healthy lifestyle route.
“For anyone who comes to the classes, I’ve hit every brick wall that they’ve hit,” she says. “I’ve used all the excuses that they’ll throw at you. But you can have a bit of fun with it too. And that’s what it’s about — people have to look forward to coming every week.”
Nicola says the secrets of success are knowledge and willpower.
“We advise a healthy lifestyle — eating the right dish, making the right choices. It’s not about being on a diet as such, it’s about eating healthily, fuelling your body with the right food and exercising, which is excellent to accelerate weight loss and maintain weight loss. And it’s the same principle whether you want to lose five pounds or seven stone like me.”
Losing weight changed Nicola’s life in more ways than one, for it was through going to the gym that she met her now husband, Jonny, a fireman.
“We knew a mutual friend and got talking, and then he asked me to go to the cinema and I said yes. We’ll have been married three years in August,” she beams.
“He works for the specialist Water and Mountain Rescue team and even though it’s very stressful he absolutely loves it. There’s great camaraderie in the team and they’re massive supporters of Christine, too — I don’t know how many autographs have gone out to them!”
Nicola is bursting with pride at the success her sister has achieved as a TV presenter in London. Widely thought of as one of the BBC’s biggest rising stars, her down-to-earth manner and skill have had much to do with the popularity of the One Show.
“It is just amazing how well she’s done,” says Nicola, who cheered Christine on when she appeared in Strictly Come Dancing and more recently when she waterskied across the English Channel for charity.
“But I’m as proud of Christine now as I was when she was floorman at the BBC in Belfast. I still get flabbergasted when I realise how well she’s doing. Sometimes when people come into the class and talk about her I suddenly think, wow, that’s my sister you’re talking about. She’s just always going to be my big sister no matter what she’s doing.
“Everybody’s so proud of her — our parents, our friends, and she’s really flying the flag for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland should be proud of her.
“She hasn’t changed and never will. She’s a real home girl — she hasn’t been able to get back as much recently because of work — we get text messages every day from her saying ‘I miss home’. She loves her job and what she’s doing but she still loves getting breakfast at our mum and dad’s and letting them spoil her.”
And Nicola, who talks to Christine on the phone ‘10 times a day’, is very approving of her big sis’s boyfriend, England football star Frank Lampard. The trio were snapped together outside the Radio 1 studios in London just when Christine went public with the relationship.
“He’s really lovely,” she smiles. “I’m very fond of him. My dad hasn’t met him yet but my mum has, and she’s very fond of him too.”
And with Christine and Frank a paparazzi favourite now, does it bother her being photographed everywhere she goes?
“It’s part and parcel of the job I suppose,” says Nicola. “It’s probably a bit intrusive but what can you do? You have to take it with a pinch of salt. I find it really funny. I was over when Christine was doing the waterskiing challenge and the photographers were there waiting for her. I went out and told them, ‘we’re not coming out for three hours — do you want to go and get a cup of tea and come back later?’ — I felt sorry for them!”
Sounds like a very Bleakley attitude indeed.