Apprentice star Grainne McCoy: 'It was a shock to have a baby at 15 ... but now I make up stars on TV, in videos and even at the Cannes Film Festival'
Northern Ireland makeup artist Grainne McCoy's family have been her rock since she became a teen mum and helped her find her dream career, as she tells Claire O'Boyle
Grainne McCoy’s star is on the up. The Northern Irish make-up artist made a huge impact on The Apprentice, from her famous ‘resting bitch face’ going viral on Twitter to landing Lord Sugar in hot water with industry experts for saying her business idea wasn’t a goer.
And now, with her profile higher than ever, things are going from strength to strength for the Co Armagh mum.
Not only are plans for her make-up masterclasses taking off, but the 31-year-old is in talks with two major TV shows about a role as their resident beauty expert.
“It’s all gone a bit crazy,” says Grainne, from Dromintee, near Forkhill. “I don’t want to get too carried away in case things don’t work out, but I’m hoping some of it will come off. It’s been a very long slog to get this far so I’ve got to keep going.
“I’ve spent years scraping my pennies together, spending a fortune on flights back and forth to London and working to build up a profile. Finally though, fingers crossed, things seem to be coming together for me.”
And if anyone deserves a break, it’s Grainne.
Aged just 15 and in her fifth year at St Paul’s High School in Bessbrook, the pretty brunette found out she was pregnant and any dreams for the future were thrown into turmoil.
“It was a major shock for everyone,” recalls Grainne. “At the time you think, ‘Oh God I’m pregnant, it’s the end of the world’. But after a little bit of time, when things calm down, you soon realise it’s not. Not if you put your head down and get on with doing exactly what you want to do.”
And that’s exactly what she did. Even as a terrified teenager Grainne didn’t take long to make up her mind that motherhood wouldn’t spell the end for her future.
“I stayed in school most of the time I was pregnant,” she recalls. “But by the time the exams were coming up I was showing far too much to stay on and things with the baby were getting very close. I was okay leaving because I knew I’d be back.”
And to the surprise of her teachers and classmates, she was, the very next term. Just four weeks after giving birth to her son in August 2001, Grainne was back in her uniform and at her desk to retake her GCSE year with baby Ryan settled in a creche across the road.
“It wasn’t easy,” says Grainne. “But I knew straight away — once the shock wore off — that I didn’t just want to sit at home with the baby for the rest of my life. I wanted to do something. I wanted to do well. Luckily I had great help at home, great support from my mum and I was able to carry on.
“I’d be absolutely lost without her and all these years later I still phone her 10 times a day. We worked it out between the two of us so she went to work, I went to school and Ryan was looked after. We organised an amazing creche for Ryan right across the road from my school and even though it was really hard, I did it.”
Disappointingly, academic success wasn’t on the cards for Grainne. After a year juggling motherhood with schoolwork she packed it in with a grand total of four GCSEs.
“I didn’t do amazingly,” she admits. “But I tried, and I’m glad I did. Even after that, even knowing I didn’t do brilliantly in my exams, I knew I’d keep on going and do well one way or another. I didn’t take my results to mean I wouldn’t make something of myself.”
And while her own determination and self-belief were obviously key to Grainne’s perseverance, she insists it was the people around her who made everything she achieved possible.
As well as her mum Siobhan, she counts Ryan’s bricklayer dad Felix McCourt among the greatest supporters in her life.
“Felix is my best friend,” she says. “He’s always been on the scene all these years, and been brilliant to me and Ryan. We might have been young, but we decided when the baby was born we wouldn’t put him through a lifetime of fighting over him — and believe it or not, we’ve never had an argument.
“I guess that was quite grown up of us, considering we were only teenagers at the time. But I’d be lost without him. He’s helped me through all this, through me working so much over the years and being away from home a lot. He’s been absolutely brilliant and at the moment, while I’m in London as much as I am, Ryan stays with him. He’s a great father and a brilliant friend to me.”
With football-mad Ryan now 15 — the same age Grainne was when she got her pregnancy bombshell — the impact the news had on her own mother feels more real than ever.
“It must have been so difficult for her to take that in,” she says. “When I think about it now from her perspective, having a child that age myself, it really hits home. It would be such a shock if Ryan came to me and told me he was going to be a dad — I don’t know how I’d react. But take it from me, that’s not going to happen. We’ve had this conversation and he knows I do not want to be a granny.
“Even thinking and talking about it after all this time, I know it must have been a lot for my mother to deal with. I thank her every day for taking it so well when it happened to me.”
Because, says Grainne, if her mum hadn’t been so hands-on through the years, she’d never have achieved all she has.
With few qualifications to her name and a young child at home, it really was a case of grit and graft, with the solid backing of her mum.
“After my GCSEs I went straight to work at Boots in Newry,” she recalls. “I worked at the No 7 make-up counter in the Buttercrane centre for a while doing really basic stuff before I went on to River Island and finally to a manager’s job at shoe shop chain Aldo.
“By the time Ryan was at primary school I would organise my lunch around him finishing at 2pm so I could pick him up and take him to the creche, get back to work and finish in time to pick him up and take him home. It was a lot to manage but you just get on with it. It’s human nature, you get organised and do what you have to do.”
By the age of 20 and already living away from her mother with four-year-old Ryan, Grainne’s ambitions had grown and she set her sights on a career in the make-up industry.
“I signed up to a course in Dublin and got the bus there and back every day,” she recalls. “I’d get poor Ryan up at 5.30am every day, drop him in to my mum and then jump on the bus to Dublin.
“God love Ryan having to be dropped off that early every day but he was great with my mother.
“I got back home about 8pm at night and even though I was exhausted with it all I was happy because I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
It was after completing her make-up qualification that Grainne first ventured in the direction of London. She made contacts right across the industry, working in events, TV, music videos and even feature film special effects. She had stints at Selfridges and even Cannes film festival.
And even though the work opportunities across the water and beyond seemed so much greater, she never tried in any serious way to put down roots in the big smoke.
“My roots have to be at home,” says Grainne, who this week, is based in London. “Ryan’s there, so I’m there. I travel back and forth all the time, in London for a few days, then home again. I just go where the work is but I have to get home and see Ryan.
“At the minute I’m doing a bit more work than I was in London because I’ve got appointments and meetings, trying to arrange my work plans.
“But Ryan understands. We’ve always been very close and we talk about everything. He did say to me once that when he’s older he hopes he has the ambition I have, which means a lot, because I was literally scraping money together for a long time.
“People thought I was over here having the high life, but it was far from that. I was paying for two or four flights a week on top of everything else, so it wasn’t easy.
“It was all to build a profile, to get established.”
And then came The Apprentice.
Far from meaning Grainne can rest on her laurels, it’s spurred her on even more. “I’ve got to work even harder now to make the most of the opportunity,” she says, “otherwise it will have been for nothing. It’s not an easy option and it’s not cheap but I’m lucky because all my best friends are in London now working in TV and film so it’s like having another wee family while I’m here.”
And while she might be the picture of confidence and the jet setting lifestyle now, it wasn’t always that way for Grainne.
Until just a year ago the single mum couldn’t face even her local bar without a few vodkas to warm her up, but now she’s taking on red carpet events and networking with industry bosses without so much as a sniff of alcohol. And she’s nailing it.
“It’s crazy,” she says. “I never thought in my wildest dreams I’d be able to do that. If you’d seen me at 25 I wouldn’t even have shown up at my local without a quarter bottle of vodka in me. But it’s a just a confidence thing and now I’m going to all these events sober as a judge, I’m having a much better time.”
Grainne quit alcohol last year as she decided to get her head down ahead of the BBC1 show.
“I decided I needed to focus on myself and work if I was going to really start getting somewhere,” she says. “To be honest I only thought it would be for a couple of months, but I just carried on. A hangover would kill me for about two days so I just didn’t have time to feel like that, and it wasn’t long before I realised you don’t actually need to drink.
“Everyone says it, that you don’t need to have a drink to have a good time, but honestly, take it from me, it’s true. I’ll have the odd one now and again, but really not much at all and at these big events I won’t have anything at all. For someone who used to always need a drink on a night out, I’m having more fun than ever without one.”
As well as her make-up and beauty work, Grainne has been asked to speak at inspirational talks for young women and girls facing challenges in their lives — something she’s really keen to explore.
“I think people have taken an interest that way because I didn’t just give up when I had a baby young,” she says. “I’ve been asked to talk to girls about how to overcome things like poor education and a lack of confidence, to work hard and try something they’re good at and interested in.
“The majority of my followers on social media are young girls, so I’m taking that seriously and I want them to know you can do well if you work hard and keep focused. The alcohol thing is important there too because for lots of young girls it’s that confidence thing again, they think they need to drink to feel brave enough to get out there and talk to people. It’s such a common thing, but it’s not the case.”
And alcohol is another thing the hands-on mum has discussed with son Ryan.
“A lot of my son’s friends are drinking already but I know he’s not in that frame of mind,” says Grainne. “I know that for a fact because when he goes to discos and things he’s home, sober, by 11.30pm. He’s still one of the lads, but he’s just not interested in drinking because he’s pretty sensible and I’ve never put him in the environment of alcohol.”
And despite the shock that came with his arrival to the world, it’s clear Ryan could not be more loved by his mum.
“He was a blessing,” she says. “He changed everything and as soon as the dust settled I knew straight away he was the best thing ever.”
With Ryan due to turn 16 in the summer, Grainne would love for him to spend a bit of time in London.
“He’s massively into football,” she says. “Huge into it. I’d love to get him into a football scheme or school here in London in the summer. Ryan really is great lad, and I’m as proud of him as he is of me.
“Apparently all the boys take the mick out of him because I call him so much. I’m one of those clingy mums. If I could Facetime him all day, I would. I admit it, I’m clingy.”
And as much as she’s loved her experience of motherhood with Ryan, Grainne has no plans for any more.
“Definitely not,” she says. “I’ve been there and done it, I’m happy with my little bambino. I have no man in my life other than him and for now, I’m all about work.
“I’ve been single for years and since The Apprentice my phone has gotten even quieter — maybe the men are all scared of me. But I’ve got so much to concentrate on, I’m so busy, that suits me down to the ground.”