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How Miss Northern Ireland changed our lives forever

As the beauty pageant celebrates its 30th anniversary, some former winners look back at their experiences and reveal the positive influence the contest has had on them

By Una Brankin

After 30 years of running the Miss Northern Ireland competition, Alison Clarke could easily rest on her laurels and tour the pro-golf circuit with her husband, Darren Clarke. But the vivacious modelling agent still enjoys the buzz of the pageant and taking her winners - along with many other entrants - under her professional wing.

And as the winner of the title back in 1982, Alison - who went on to become runner-up in Miss UK - is a very successful role model for the contestants to emulate.

"It has been 34 years since I won it - I'm giving away my age and I'm still trying to hide it," she laughs. "I don't care really. I'll be getting to the point where I'll be starting to blow about it.

"I took over running the competition in 1986 and since then we've created a corporate business brand, with big sponsors like Therapie and Magners on board. Since 2000, our winners have been going straight to Miss World without having to go through Miss UK. That's been the biggest change. I'd have given my right arm - or any body part - to have had that experience."

Given our small population, Miss Northern Irelands have done very well in the Miss UK contest and Miss World sub-categories. Model Gayle Williamson (Jim Corr's ex) won Miss UK in 2001; Lucy Evangelista in 2005. The current Miss Northern Ireland, Leanne McDowell, made the final 20 in Miss World last year, and Miss World Sport was won by Miss Northern Ireland 2010, Lois Moore.

Miss Northern Ireland 2006, Catherine Milligan won Miss World Talent, and Tiffany Brien made the top 10 in Miss World Beach Beauty in 2012, as well as first runner-up in the sport category.

Here, four former Miss Northern Ireland title-holders look back on their reigns and the impact of the competition on their lives.

1987 - Majella Byrne

Miss Northern Ireland 1987 was bank executive Majella Byrne from Newry. Now an events manager, Majella (48) has lived in London for the past 24 years and is married to James Lloyd, who works in risk-management in the City. The couple has a baby boy Paul-Patrick, who was born in December. Majella says:

I got involved in Miss Northern Ireland mainly because of the encouragement of my mother, Mona Byrne. I'd won quite a few competitions before, including Miss Newry, Star of the County Down and, of course, Miss Belfast - which gave me entry into Miss Northern Ireland.

My most special memory of the competition was meeting Alison Clarke, the organiser. What a lovely lady she was, and is. I'll never forget being crowned and walking down the catwalk to the Stevie Wonder song, Isn't She Lovely. That song still makes me smile to this day, 30 years later.

On the night of the competition, I wore a cream satin dress that my mum designed and had someone make. It was quite an innocent dress, looking back. Not slinky like what we see nowadays. My swimwear was an orange and gold one-piece bought in Paris - it cost mummy a fortune. Looking back, I was dressed and came across as quite innocent, but classic - which I was.

My hair was blow-dried with big curls. Very Eighties, but my make-up was as it is today - quite natural. My hair nowadays is much straighter and not so old-fashioned. I don't not have any anti-ageing procedures - just the odd facial and massage.

When my name was read out, I was shocked, as I thought that the girl who got second, Debbie Greenfield, was going to win. She was very beautiful. I was over the moon. You would have thought I'd just won Miss World. I was so excited and proud.

All I remember was crying, and lots of photographers taking pictures. I loved it. The morning after was breakfast in bed and photoshoots.

The only low point of the whole experience was having to hand the crown back at the end of the year.

Miss Northern Ireland changed my life. I was offered a job with the Northern Bank as a result of my win, which in turn opened lots of doors. Now I'm in event management and work at all the sporting events, including Wimbledon, and manage teams throughout the country.

I met so many wonderful, influential people, which give me the opportunity to travel to London to work. I was offered lots of work not only in the UK, but all over the world.

I would not have changed a thing then or now, although I'd like to have dinner with my dad one more time. [Majella's dad Patsy passed away from cancer last year.] He was a great supporter of my work and drove me everywhere.

Life is different now. Back then, it was all hustle and bustle. I loved that, and I miss it sometimes. I'm now happily married and much more content, with a 13-week-old baby. I'm an older mother - I was in no rush and, yes, he's my little miracle.

My life in London is great and I have lots of special friends here. I love going home to Newry, though - I'm Irish through and through.

2008 - Judith Wilson

A granddaughter of the late Enniskillen Senator, Gordon Wilson, Judith Grey won Miss Northern Ireland, as Judith Wilson, in 2008. Now 30, Judith works as a part-time teacher and also with her husband Gareth in their Tickety Moo ice-cream business at their home in Killadeas, Co. Fermanagh, and their second branch in Rossnowlagh, Co. Donegal. The couple have one son, Wilson (4), named after Judith's grandfather. Judith says:

It still gives me goose-bumps thinking back to when my name was called out. I remember being backstage and the cameras being trained on the top seven girls. I just closed my eyes and waited for the announcement, holding hands with the other girls, and then it came: 'Our new Miss Northern Ireland is Number 7 - Judith Wilson'.

I wore a green dress on the night, which was the first one I had picked. Two weeks before the final, I was shopping with my mum and we saw it in a shop window and we both knew it was perfect. I loved and still do love the dress. It still has pride of place in my wardrobe. My swimwear was multi-coloured - plenty of tan was applied.

My hair is naturally straight and, on the night, I had rollers in it before hand to give it some volume. The straight look complemented the dress well. I still wear my hair in the same way.

When my name was read out, I just began crying and shaking. I went on stage with tears down my face. Alison Clarke was there, thankfully, to keep me calm and guide me in the right direction. I looked down at my friends and family and just couldn't believe I had done it. The next few hours were just a blur of excitement.

After all the pictures and interviews, Gareth and my mum [Ingrid] and stepdad Hamish came backstage to help me organise my things. They were so happy for me. I will always remember them being there for me.

I spent the night in the Europa. The next day I went down to breakfast with Alison and we spent the day driving round Belfast doing interviews. Looking back, it was all just incredible and I feel so lucky to have experienced it all.

The highlight of my reign was travelling to Johannesburg in South Africa to represent Northern Ireland in the Miss World contest. A month with the world's most beautiful girls is quite a surreal experience. It was an incredible month and one I will never forget. I made good friends with Miss Norway, Miss Malta and Miss New Zealand - we are still close. I've been over to see Miss Malta and am heading to Norway in the summer for Miss Norway's wedding.

After my year as Miss Northern Ireland, just before I handed over the crown, Gareth proposed to me on the Belfast Wheel. I then got to announce on the stage of Miss Northern Ireland 2009 - just before I handed over the crown - that I was engaged. It was a really emotional day.

Being a Miss Northern Ireland did change my life in such a positive way. I made new friends, experienced new things and travelled all over Ireland. When I won the title, everyone in my hometown of Enniskillen was so happy and proud - they threw a reception in the Town Hall to mark it.

Looking back, I wouldn't change anything. I loved my year.

I've had the same beauty regime since I won, but after my 30th birthday, I've added a few firming creams to help. Being a mum now, I'm always on the go and I try to keep make-up quite minimal during the day to let my skin breathe.

I was always naturally tall and slim, but I now enjoy running and keeping fit.

My life now is being a mum and working part-time, which I love. I still enjoy keeping up to date with the Miss Northern Ireland contest, judging at our local heat and going to the final. It is a fantastic achievement for Alison that it is in its 30th year.

2007 - Melissa Patton

Former air hostess Melissa Patton - now Ferris - won Miss Northern Ireland in 2007. An only-child from north Belfast, Melissa (28) now works as a learning support assistant for children with special educational needs, and as a part-time model. She lives in Belfast with her husband Andrew Ferris. Melissa says:

I never used to have the confidence to enter beauty contests but I'd followed the Miss Northern Ireland competition.

My friends, who I worked with as an air hostess, always told me to go for it. I eventually plucked up the courage and entered the Belfast heat in Cafe Vaudeville. It was so daunting arriving and seeing 30 other beautiful women.

I loved every minute of the whole experience; it just felt where I belonged. Luckily, I was crowned Miss Cafe Vaudeville that night, which automatically got me through to the final in the Europa hotel. I went home wearing my crown and banner that night - it was amazing to see the expression on my parent's faces, as no-one knew I had entered.

The biggest moment in my life was undoubtedly being announced as the winner of Miss Northern Ireland, overall. It's a feeling I will never forget and a moment in time that changed my life. I was stunned.

I heard my number and name getting called out and I couldn't even move.

When I walked up the steps onto the stage to presenter Christine Bleakley, She hugged me and I wouldn't let her go. Then Alison put my crown on - it was so surreal.

My final dress was a full-length peach, sweetheart neckline frock. It was fitted right down to the knee then it puffed out quite a bit at the bottom. Looking back now, I think I would have chosen something more simple as opposed to big and puffy, but I felt great wearing it on the night.

All the contestants also wore the same swimwear from Pretty Woman. It was very striking - brown with bright yellow polka dots. I still have this in my wardrobe now and still get the odd turn out of it when on a summer holiday.

I'll also never forget travelling to compete in the Miss World pageant in China. It was simply breath-taking. I was in among girls from countries from all over the world. I can't even describe the feeling of walking out on that Miss World stage wearing the Northern Ireland banner in front of millions of people watching all over the world. It was incredible.

It gave me goose-bumps to know that my mum and dad where in the crowd supporting me, their only child - I'll never forget it.

I have made friends for life. One of them being Alison herself, who has been there and encouraged me since day one.

On the other hand, sometimes it was tough getting a closer view of the struggles in people's lives, for example the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice.

I worked with this hospice throughout my year and it was extremely challenging, yet by far the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. I became the person I am today because of Miss Northern Ireland. Honestly, I wouldn't change a thing.

Back then, there was no HD brows or fancy eyeliner. It was just apply-and-go.

Now I like a natural look with glowing skin and a bright lipstick.

I'm still very much involved with Miss Northern Ireland competition and this year I am extremely excited to be a chaperone and mentor at the final, which is sponsored by Therapie beauty clinics.

1991 - Eileen Logan

Eileen Carson - then Logan - won Miss Northern Ireland in 1991 when she was a 20-year-old student. Still based in her hometown of Donaghmore, Co. Tyrone, Eileen's now 45 and married to solicitor Feargal Carson, of Corry Solicitors, and the couple have three children: Conor (13), Michael (10) and Marie-Claire (8). Eileen teaches in her youngest children's primary school in Donaghmore. Eileen says:

To be honest, winning Miss Northern Ireland didn't change my life, in that I still lived at home and was still Eileen from Donaghmore. My friends and family just treated me the same and I didn't expect them to do otherwise.

I was involved in local fashion shows in the early Nineties and it just went from there. I entered the Miss Kings local heat and won it. The final competition was only one day, so it was really pretty much as it is now.

It was a busy, exciting time. There were new opportunities which I embraced and enjoyed.

I wore a long dress in light pink chiffon and silk, and a black-and-white swimsuit. When I looked back at the photos for this interview, I was happy enough. I thought it was funny, as I still have the same hairstyle. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. And my make-up has not really changed either.

When they call your name out as the winner, it really is amazing. It was very exciting and it was even more special that my family and friends were there to share it with me.

The next morning, I woke up and it was really busy. I had a champagne breakfast, which was wasted on me, as I don't drink. I did a photoshoot and was just in shock, but still enjoyed it all.

I got the opportunity to do fashion shows and fashion shoots, which I particularly enjoyed.

At this stage of my life, 25 years on since I won, I'm very happy with my life. I have a great husband, three lovely children and a great family. My job really is as a mummy and I love living in Donaghmore, in the village that I grew up in. So I think the path I've been given is ok.

Physically, I haven't really changed, apart from looking a little older. My skincare routine is ... I wish I could say something very exciting but I really only cleanse and moisturise.

My life is quite different now and I don't do any modelling. I'm busy with the children and at work. My husband is very busy with his work and is currently the Tyrone Under 21 manager, so life in our house is very hectic. I'm happy being a mother and wife.

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