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Sean Hillen has worked as a newspaperman in Washington, Kansas, Romania ... and also Carrickfergus, so why has he based a novel about his biggest scoop among the seaweed of Donegal's Wild Atlantic Way?

The globe-trotting Belfast-born reporter covered the United Nations and started the first journalism school in post-communist Romania. Now the book of his most significant story - the scandal of unregulated cosmetics in the US - has won plaudits from Senator Ted Kennedy's widow, Victoria, writes Ivan Little


Sean Hillen, originally from Belfast, has written a book about unregulated cosmetics

Sean Hillen, originally from Belfast, has written a book about unregulated cosmetics

Ted Kennedy and his widow, Victoria

Ted Kennedy and his widow, Victoria

Christopher Lee as Dracula

Christopher Lee as Dracula

The Wild Atlantic Way, which stretches along the coast of Donegal to west Cork

The Wild Atlantic Way, which stretches along the coast of Donegal to west Cork


Sean Hillen, originally from Belfast, has written a book about unregulated cosmetics

A Belfast-born author has been praised by the widow of former US Senator Ted Kennedy for his new book, which accuses the US cosmetics industry of the ultimate cover-up.

Sean Hillen, from Ballymurphy, who once famously penned a fun book about vampires, has sunk his teeth into an all-too-real horror story. This is the story of unregulated cosmetics in America causing major health problems for women and men. These claims had also been made by Kennedy before his death in 2009.

Sean's novel, Pretty Ugly, is a fast-paced thriller that brings together medicine, the media and a beauty queen, starting off in America and taking a diversion to the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland, with a sub-plot focusing on seaweed and turf.

Sean (62), who divides his time between Co Donegal and Romania with his wife, Columbia, has worked as a journalist in Washington, Kansas, Romania and Carrickfergus.

He says Pretty Ugly is fiction, but it's pretty accurate, too.

He says his concerns about the risks associated with cosmetic products date back to his time in Missouri, when he wrote about how some suntan lotions could cause cancer because of their chemical make-up.

He discovered that the issues went deeper and wider, but tackling them is still anything but straightforward, because, he says, manufacturers have no legal obligation to report health problems from their products to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA.)

He adds: "I was shocked that the authorities weren't doing anything about it, but then I found out that the power of the cosmetic lobby in Washington DC is almost as strong as the tobacco lobby was years ago and the oil lobby is today.

"The industry is so rich - with wealth running into billions of dollars - that they can prevent the authorities examining their products before they go on the market."

Sean says the last law regulating the sale of cosmetics in the US was passed in 1938, but he adds that controls are tighter in Europe, where watchdogs have banned many of the more toxic chemicals.

Sean says he is backing organisations like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which is trying to raise awareness of the dangers of chemicals in cosmetic products in the US.

He adds: "It's estimated that as many as 13,000 different chemicals are used in cosmetics. We're talking about colourants, preservatives, fragrances, moisturisers, emulsifiers - a whole range of things.

"More of what are known as nanoparticles are being introduced into products, as well. They are thousands of times smaller than a human cell and there's not enough research to know what damage they can do."

Sean says he decided to write a novel because he thought it would be a "sexier, more popular" way of highlighting his fears, rather than outlining them in a medical article for newspapers.

He invented the character of a Belfast-born journalist, living and working in the US.

The figure is loosely based on Sean himself and he probes an injury inflicted by cosmetics on a former Miss USA beauty competition winner and model called Patricia Roberts.

She is left partially blind, and to expose her ordeal, the reporter, Colm Heaney, teams up with a worried American skin specialist named Dr Gray.

To keep the beauty queen away from the clutches of the cosmetics lobby, they encourage her to go into hiding in the wilds of Donegal.

There, she collaborates with an exiled Romanian scientist, known only as Ivan the Terrible, who has been trying to develop cosmetics based on seaweed and turf, which Sean says are the oldest skin preservatives known to man.

He backs up that claim by pointing to the unearthing of well-preserved bodies in a number of bogs in Ireland.

In Pretty Ugly, the narrative in Donegal quickly brings in foreign hitmen and paparazzi, as the journalist, the skin expert and the beauty queen try and smash the web of secrecy surrounding a powerful American cosmetics company intent on concealing the health hazards in one of their main products.

Sean says that, in the real world, a number of prominent US politicians have tried to take on the might of the cosmetic lobby - with only limited success.

One of them was the late Irish-American Senator Ted Kennedy, who called for new regulations on products which were being sold over the counter in the States.

He told Congress that every American routinely assumed that cosmetic products were safe, but he added that the confidence was often unjustified, because of the FDA's lack of power in relation to the industry.

He said that a study by the General Accounting Office in America had found links between chemicals in cosmetics and cancer, birth defects and problems with the nervous system.

Ted Kennedy's widow, Victoria, who has continued her husband's crusade for safer cosmetics, recently wrote to Sean, thanking him for his book, which he dedicated to her husband.

Campaigners who want controls on chemicals regularly cite a survey of 2,300 American people that showed that most respondents used nine cosmetic products daily. One man in 100 and 25% of women surveyed applied 15 or more products every day.

They included shampoo, toothpaste, soap, deodorant, hair conditioner, lip balm, sunscreen, body lotion, shaving products for men and make-up for women.

"The need for action is obvious," says globe-trotter Sean, who took his first tentative steps into journalism as a youthful columnist with the then equally youthful Andersonstown News in the 1970s, before working in Carrickfergus on a weekly newspaper in the Belfast Telegraph group.

Sean emigrated to America in 1981 after gaining a fellowship to the United Nations Media Centre in New York. He moved for a time into broadcasting before going back into print journalism with the Kansas City Times, where he became the paper's medical and science correspondent. Literary giant Ernest Hemingway was a cub reporter in Kansas decades earlier.

Sean stayed in the city for 10 years, but swapped the US for eastern Europe immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. As a volunteer with the Human Rights League, he helped to establish the first post-Communist journalism schools in Romania.

But it was later as a foreign correspondent for English newspapers while he was in Bucharest that he first encountered Dracula.

He says: "I was asked to cover the first ever World Congress of Dracula, and the stories ran for days. I soon realised that people were fascinated with vampires, so I wrote a tongue-in-cheek travel book, Digging for Dracula.

"I went to Transylvania to research the legend of Dracula, along with dozens of vampirologists looking for clues."

Sean, who says some of the guests slept in coffins while others had their teeth artificially sharpened, also went to Dublin to find out more about Bram Stoker, who wrote the Dracula novel in 1897.

Sean later travelled to Hollywood to meet actors and actresses who have appeared in vampire movies.

Back in Romania, Sean set up a national publishing company and produced his own newspaper. He also formed an events company based in Bucharest that helped to organise Romania's first St Patrick's Day celebrations, with Irish musicians flown in from Donegal.

In post-communist Romania, however, life's most basic commodities were difficult to find, never mind the luxuries.

"Even getting something like a photocopier was difficult and making international phone calls was challenging," says Sean, who after 20 years in Romania decided to come home to Ireland, where he'd bought a house in Co Donegal.

Sean now divides his time between a home on the Black Sea and one at Bloody Foreland in Donegal, where he and his Transylvanian-born wife, Columbia, run what they call their Ireland Writing Retreat.

The creative writing school operates twice a year for budding writers from all over the world. Later this year, the Hillens will hold their first writing retreat in Romania.

Sean and his wife, who's a photographer, also produce travel articles for magazines.

But Sean hopes to pen more novels. And such has been the positive response to Pretty Ugly that he plans for his journalistic sleuth, Colm Heaney, to feature in a series of follow-ups to the book.

Pretty Ugly is available from Amazon

Belfast Telegraph