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Joanne Salley: Love, life and the lessons I have learnt

Former Miss Northern Ireland Joanne Salley bounced back from a topless scandal that left her suicidal to forge a successful career as an artist and model while stepping in to the ring for charity fundraisers. By Una Brankin

The Belfast Fashion Week launch party isn't the best place for your self-image, unless you're as confident or as beautiful as the models swanning around. I wished I hadn't worn a sensible storm-proof anorak and a minimum amount of make-up. But I forgot about all that the minute I met Joanne Salley, who is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the exterior.

The Dungannon-born artist was there to help her PR agent Cathy Martin publicise the annual showcase for our local designers and fashion brands, four days of razzmatazz kicking off on Thursday, March 10. A vision in slinky cream lace, she stood out among girls 20 years younger (she's 39) and half a foot taller.

"People always think I'm taller from my pictures, but I'm not a catwalk model. I've always been more commercial and recently the eyebrows have helped," she explains cheerfully, gesturing to her smooth forehead.

"They're natural - I never plucked them into a thin line, thankfully!

"And I've this mole (at the side of her unobtrusive nose). I've done some shoots where it has been Photoshopped out. It's annoying as I'm quite attached to it! Cindy Crawford was my hero at school. I used to get teased about my mole, but then I thought to myself, if it's ok for this supermodel to have one, it's ok for me.

"I have a different one here, on the side of my neck, though - I have to watch out for that one."

It's like being hit by an express train of super-charged charm - and it's a relief.

I thought she may have been guarded with the press, given that in many quarters, she is still referred to as "the topless teacher of Harrow", the stunning school mistress who resigned from her much loved job at the £30,000 per annum fee-paying institution in Middlesex in 2011, after some photos of her, scantily clad, were circulated among the ogling, all-male pupils.

For someone who was always too shy to go topless on a beach, it was an ordeal that left her feeling suicidal.

We're not long into a free-flowing conversation in a cramped side-room off the glitzy event hall when the subject comes up. Open and engaging, the Cambridge graduate - who dated former England rugby star Matt Dawson for six years - is telling me about an art project she began as a result of the debacle, while "hiding" in a cottage in the Cotswolds.

"It's huge and I don't want to jinx it by saying too much yet, but I have a working space in London and I'm working towards an exhibition, hopefully this year," she says, her lovely features animated. "It's not what people will expect; it's very emotional.

"It's what I was feeling at the time, and true art comes from the soul; the subconscious. I had left teaching at that point and it was a turning point in my life."

We're standing in earshot of make-up artists and stylists, with a deafening boom-boom from the speakers in the adjoining hall blasting in the background. Although the former Miss Northern Ireland strikes me as someone who couldn't care less about being overheard, I suggest we move to a quieter corner. She leads the way in small steps, evidently restricted by her figure-skimming sleeveless dress.

It's clear to see why Fiona Corthine, the head of photography at Harrow and a friend of Joanne's - "I loved her very much" - wanted her to pose for some pictures. She had modelled since the age of 19 and had posed previously for her colleague, for her website and her portfolio.

On this occasion, after taking approximately 200 photos of Joanne fully clothed, she persuaded her to remove her T-shirt. Being self-conscious, it was a decision the art teacher immediately regretted, but she believed the images would never be made public. Just two months later those photos - which had been stolen from a memory stick apparently left in the school's photography room - began to circulate via email and text message.

For Joanne, her teaching career was over.

"I haven't met her since. What happened changed the course of my life and my career. I was an art teacher and I did lot of extra-curricular activities - lots of sports like running, polo and hockey. I worked hard and I absolutely loved it. I even rode the Queen's horses and the cavalry!

"Harrow was home and I missed it incredibly. It was so painful for me to have to walk away from Harrow. I ran away to a cottage in Cotswolds for six months and hid. I didn't know what to do or which way to turn, but eventually I realised there were other things I could do."

Good qualifications helped. Educated at the Royal School Dungannon, Joanne studied ballet for 15 years and graduated from the University of Ulster with a degree in art and design, and from Cambridge with a post-grad teaching degree.

After winning Miss Northern Ireland in 1998, a reign she didn't enjoy, she went on to become the runner-up in the Miss UK pageant and co-hosted The Big Breakfast with Johnny Vaughan, starred in an advert for the Peugeot 106, worked for Comic Relief Does Fame Academy and the BBC's Hard Sell, before going into teaching.

All the while, Joanne retained close links with home - and her soft Tyrone accent. She recalls an idyllic childhood in the countryside with her older sister Nicola, but admits she was hit hard, at 16, by her parents' divorce.

"After mum left, it made me crave security and to have that, I needed to become as independent as I could," she remembers. "I got this job in a shop in the school holidays, from 9am-5.30pm for £30, then I followed Nicola to the Moy Park chicken factory."

She waves her toned, tanned arms above her head.

"The chickens would be in shackles overhead and I'd take them down and fold their wings in for packaging. It was £2.28 an hour. I was just determined to be independent and earn my own money - and save and save. It taught me tenacity and about money, and how to work with other people and value them.

"I look at kids now and they have it so easy. I was always very driven. And I worked hard, and always applied for the best school, the best university, the best job. It had to be Cambridge for my teaching qualification, for example."

In the year of her parents' break-up, Joanne earned her own spending money to go on holiday with her sister and mother to Ayia Napa in Cyprus, a quieter spot back then. In what was to become another turning point in her young life, she almost drowned while scuba diving there.

"Nicola decided to go, I wasn't that keen at first. I'd been a late swimmer; I only started at big school, when I was 11, so I wasn't a confident swimmer. I'd done ballet for years and I was this tiny thing, with all the weight of the diving gear on me, wading into the water. We had a crash course and did some exercises, but I wasn't confident with it and I didn't want to dive deep, but I'd paid for it with my own money and I didn't want to waste it.

"So I swam around in the flippers and got preoccupied, seeing all these fish, and ended up quite far out on my own. Then I made the mistake of panicking and lost my respirator, and felt the coral cracking beneath me on the sea bed. I remember coming to the surface with the bubbles all around me and calling for help, and swallowing a huge amount of water."

As in most accounts of near-drowning, Joanne came to the surface three times before losing consciousness.

"Each time I had a clear flash of an image - the first was me on a tricycle with my dad, the second was of mum at the kitchen window, the third was of playing with my toys, with Nicola," she recalls.

"I got this intense pain in my chest and knew I was drowning. My mum was further up the beach, but she instinctively knew I was in trouble and when she saw the commotion, she knew it was me.

"The next thing I knew, I was coming around on the beach, with all these faces looking down at me. Apparently, a red-haired guy had come out of nowhere and pulled me out of the water, then just disappeared.

"I remember people asking where had he gone to, but no-one knew, or had ever seen him before.

"I think he was someone - maybe an angel - sent to save me because it wasn't my time.

"That was a pinnacle in my life; it strengthened my faith. I began to realise what life was all about: love.

"It was a long time before I could get into a pool again but I did the PADI scuba diving course eventually and got over the fear," she adds. "I believe in facing up to fear."

Now I'm stiff standing, and know the photographer has been waiting patiently elsewhere to start the shoot for this feature, but this girl is a very good storyteller and I want to hear more. Especially about her strong faith.

"We always went to church every week in our best outfits, the whole family together," she smiles.

"We even had our own pew, but it was just a routine thing. For me, faith is more about a moral code of conduct, and how your treat others.

"I travel a lot, but every Sunday, no matter where I am, I seek out a church, of any religion.

"It's a chance to think and reflect on the week ahead. And I wouldn't discount the existence of angels.

"I see little white feathers all the time and I think of my granny. Having faith has definitely helped me through trauma."

Another angel, of sorts, came to Joanne's rescue after she left teaching, when he offered her some work in his London art gallery.

"That was another life-changing thing. I was surrounded by happy positive people there. After that, I set up my own little business, just buying art for people's houses and some selling. Then, mum said: 'You shouldn't be ignoring the talent you've been given.' So I started painting murals in kids' rooms and then in corporate spaces. You know, where there's a white, mundane office, I'll make it more stimulating so people will want to stay longer. I've got some good feedback from that."

She remains based in London, but comes home often to Dungannon to see her family and to Belfast to see friends. Recently she signed up with the international modelling agency BMA Models in London - no mean feat given that she hits 40 next year.

"Oh no! I don't want to think about THAT," she exclaims. "Mind you, there's Nuala Meenehan (the Belfast model) still working at 50. You'd never believe it - she's beautiful. I remember her from way back, before I started.

"But I'm so broody, I can't tell you. I'm dying to have kids, that's my next challenge. But I'll have to find a man and get married first. I'm traditional that way."

Having witnessed the difficulties that some of my friends, of a certain age, have encountered in the dating game, I tell her she might have a hard job finding a suitable guy here.

"Oh dear! I love coming home, though. The people are really warm and welcoming. In London, you can be just a number, one of 50 girls going to a casting for one job, travelling 20 miles across this big city, only to be turned down, invariably."

At this stage, it must be noted that this former Miss Northern Ireland has sculpted arms that would make Jennifer Aniston envious. Always sporty, she added 'white collar' boxing to her list of talents eight years ago, after being inspired by the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby.

Last October she trounced her opponent Danielle 'The Grim' Raper in the 54kg weight category, in London's upmarket Boodles club, raising more than £5,000 for the Gordon Ramsay Foundation supporting cancer research to fight the rare children's brain cancer, neuroblastoma.

"I'd seen the film Million Dollar Baby on the plane to a holiday in Miami and then I was walking down the street and heard the ding-ding-ding ring coming from a ring, and wanted to have a go.

"Another beginner cried when she was hit sparring, but it didn't faze me at all. The fight or flight response kicks in. It's all about survival."

Even for a gentle wee thing like you?

"It's funny, I am a gentle person - I'm such a lover, not a fighter! But it's all about tactics rather than aggression, like a game of chess. It's about skill, and it's the best form of exercise, even better than dance.

"Dad's not happy about it, he's afraid I'll get hurt. I have been, I got a black eye and a cracked jaw and whiplash, but injuries are just part and parcel of sport. I'm 50kg and the first girl I fought was 60kg. I was ready to win at Boodles. The opponent was 54kg and we are the same height, so, yes! I ran away with it.

"But it took four months of solid training, a really intensive six-day week of sparring with a boy my size to push and challenge myself. It was full on from 8am to 10pm. I just ate, trained and slept. It was a lot of work, but I'm always running about. I can't stand still. I'm always on the move. I've done five marathons in under four hours."

I'm exhausted thinking about it, and that's not even the end of it. Joanne is currently in the throes of organising a 40-day cycle from the top of Chile to the bottom, to raise funds for James' Place, a charity named after an ex-pupil of hers, who took his own life at 21, after a minor operation led to an irrevocable change in his mood.

"The charity is for parents to get help," she explains.

"I taught James and his brother. I was a second mother to him at the time, in the boarding environment. He was on top of the world and had everything going for him; he was at university.

"It has been too painful for me to return to Harrow, but I loved those boys and I'd like to do all I can to help anyone affected by suicide, and also by cancer, through the boxing."

As her favourite saying goes: 'Better to light a candle than curse the darkness'.

  • To help Joanne reach her £10,000 fundraising target for the Gordon Ramsay Foundation and Cancer Research UK, visit her Just Giving page

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