Northern Ireland mum Louise McCandless emerges as fitness world star
How did Louise Jane go from being overweight and depressed to a size 8 fitness queen inspiring hundreds of other women? It was a walk in the park, she says
A Northern Ireland mum has battled obesity, depression and an unhappy relationship to emerge as the new international star of the fitness world. In just a few months inspirational Louise Jane McCandless, known to her friends as LJ, has shed seven stone to not only transform her figure but her life.
Last month, the new super fit, super slim and super confident LJ crowned what was already a magnificent year by picking up a hat trick of awards, including the Northern Ireland Fitness Model Association (NIFMA) Miss World title in Dublin.
An unknown in the highly competitive fitness model scene before November, she also wowed the judges and audience at a national competition in Kent to win the Pure Elite Miss Transformation title and the overall audience award.
And just a week before that she won the Northern Ireland Yummy Mummy title at the NIFMA championships at La Mon House in Castlereagh, Belfast.
LJ (31), who this time last year said the only thing that kept her going was her three children, is also now an internet sensation after charting her journey to fitness on Facebook.
Her exciting debut on the fitness model stage has already secured her a sponsor for next year's shows and the lucrative offer of a fitness video which she is due to record in London in January.
LJ's incredible journey to the top of the world has captured many hearts because of her sheer determination to pick herself up after hitting rock bottom this time last year.
Brought up not knowing her own mum after her parents' relationship broke down when she was a child, she was determined to turn her life around for the sake of her three children, Macauley (6), Poppy Rose (4) and Holly, who was one in October.
She had been struggling with her self-esteem after enduring a difficult on-off relationship for a couple of years.
She says: "This time last year I was in the worst place and at the point when my only option was to go on medication for depression.
"I just decided I am going to get myself out of this. I have never been thin, not since I was a child of about 10, but last Christmas I was probably at my heaviest at 16 stone 10lbs.
"I was wearing a size 16/18 and I have a picture of myself in a Christmas jumper last year and even I can't believe the difference.
"I just started walking every day and then going to the gym and I set myself goals and decided that I would never let myself be unhappy in a relationship again.
"From being in a bad place I now have a new outlook. My life has completely changed.
"My children Macauley, Poppy Rose and Holly are also my motivation - I want to be fit and healthy for them."
Now weighing a healthy nine stone 10lbs and fitting into a size eight, LJ, who lives in Donacloney, Co Down, is not only slimmer but feels more confident and happier.
In the past LJ said she was taunted about her weight which made her feel worthless, but taking control of her life this year has given her a new found self-belief.
She says: "I think I put up with it because I was weak. As a child, growing up I missed out on being part of a normal family unit as I only had my dad.
"I tried to brush off all the remarks about my appearance. I think you put up with things because you feel you don't deserve happiness.
"You do get into a rut but now I know that you can get out of it again. You can be happy. If you are not happy then you need to make changes.
"I have pushed myself and it hasn't been easy, but I feel really fulfilled in life now.
"I'm enjoying my independence too - I don't care about being in a relationship or having a man.
"I just want to be happy within myself and for the sake of my children and it has really worked."
LJ says that a year ago, just getting through the day left her exhausted. But now she feels full of energy and works out in the gym every day as well as holding down a full-time job at the Tan Stand in Lurgan and Banbridge, and being mum to her three children.
Her road to fitness came when she started walking in January of this year. She walked between eight and 10 miles every morning in her local park.
She started to share her progress with friends on Facebook and was inspired by the encouragement she received.
Her amazing progress soon saw many followers added to her social media site and, having benefitted from the support, LJ is now using the same page to encourage others.
She says: "After walking every day and seeing the weight come off, I then started doing weight training and going to the gym.
"When I started training I got so much support through friends on Facebook. I got such positive comments. I learned to cut out all the negatives - and there were negatives.
"I have found that people like to put you down even when you are trying to pick yourself up.
"After I won my competitions last month I got a nasty post on Facebook but my attitude is that anyone who is being negative must have issues themselves and that's who they are and not who I am.
"For me, the difference between what I'm able to do now and what I was able to do before is night and day and that's what matters to me now."
Entering the world of fitness modelling came about as the result of a whim and has now opened up a whole new career for LJ.
She spotted an advertisement online for the Pure Leaf contest in England and decided to enter.
She says: "I had lost my weight by July and needed to up my game and keep myself focused and when I read about the competition online I just decided there and then to enter.
"I had come so far in such a short space of time and I wanted to keep pushing myself.
"I thought I could go over to England where nobody would know me and do it and then maybe try it at home.
"Also, because everyone following my progress on Facebook was so positive I just decided to enter the Northern Ireland competition as well the week before.
"I couldn't believe it when I won the Yummy Mummy and then going to England the week after and winning two awards and then the Miss World.
"In England there were about 250 contestants and for the audience to vote me their winner was very special.
"The organiser of the Northern Ireland contest told me that in the two weeks from entering it and Miss World, that the difference in me was incredible and that I looked twice as good. It's all about working at it and putting in the effort.
"The feedback on Facebook has really surprised me.
"I got a message from a leading fitness model in America congratulating me and I was contacted by a company in England who choose one model to sponsor every year and they have chosen me for next year.
"I've also got the offer of a fitness video which I am recording in January in London."
A big help for LJ has been the support of Keris Weir, who won TV's Great British Hairdresser show. Keris, whose salon MG Hair is based in Lurgan, not only did LJ's hair and make-up for the local contests, but also sponsored her fabulous dresses.
Making such a huge impact on the competition circuit has given LJ the taste for continuing to compete on the worldwide fitness stage.
After winning the top prize Miss World in the NIFMA, she has her sights set on competing next year in Miss Europe and in the World Beauty Fitness and Fashion contests which are held in London, Denmark and Las Vegas.
She says: "The WBFF is the highest competition you can do in fitness modelling and aiming to compete in them means I know I will have to work harder. I'm only getting started and there is so much more I want to do.
"I've found the more I push myself, the more I feel fulfilled."
She has received messages from people worldwide saying they have been inspired by her story on Facebook.
As a result she has set up a new online group called We Are All Wonder Women, which she hopes will inspire women who have been bullied or have felt down because of their weight, like she has in the past. She says: "At the minute, I'm inundated with messages. I have around 100 women contacting me a week and I'm trying to keep up with them all.
"My aim now is to do motivational coaching and a personal training course. I try and message everyone who contacts me.
"I just tell them how it is for me and try to encourage them.
"I know what it is like for other women to be in a bad place and feel that they don't know how to get out of it. Just this week I was contacted by one woman who felt very down because of her weight. She had no confidence and was struggling with being bipolar.
"I have been talking to her and encouraging her and she started to eat what I suggested and has lost 3lb in four days which has really given her a lift.
"I hope the new website Weareallwonderwomentogether.com will be a platform for women to keep in touch and motivate and encourage each other."
For LJ, who knows what it is like to feel worthless, her life now is all about being positive.
She adds: "The amount of people who have told me that they're motivated by my posts on Facebook is so encouraging.
"People don't know how I do all this when it's just me and the three kids. My children are involved in every aspect of my life. They are so happy and settled.
"I wouldn't have it any other way right now. Getting fit has turned my life around."
Meals that put health first
Below is a typical daily menu from LJ's new healthy eating plan
1 cup of slimming tea
Egg white omelette
1 slice of wholemeal bread or natural yogurt with half a banana
Glass of pink grapefruit juice and some unflavoured and unsalted nuts or a few pieces of chicken
Chicken pieces with cabbage and a few nuts or steak pieces with vegetables
Tuna salad with Walden's sauces (Caesar, Honey, Dijon etc) with salad or vegetables with chicken
Walden's chocolate dip on rice cakes or wholemeal bread
Cup of weightless tea with lemon