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Our crowning glory: Miss Northern Ireland winners

With the final of this year's glamorous Miss Northern Ireland beauty pageant taking place tonight, Una Brankin meets four past winners to find out how donning the famous tiara changed their lives.

It's an incredible 60 years since the late Eric Morley held the first Miss Ireland event in Belfast's former Mecca ballroom - making that competition older than Coronation Street and The Sound of Music, to put the years in perspective. Since then our own separate Miss Northern Ireland pageant has become a firmly established fixture and has made household names out of several of its winners.

Tonight's finale of Miss Northern Ireland 2015 competition has been in its current format for 29 years - with our girls having automatic entry to Miss World for the last 15.

Organised by former winner Alison Campbell's ACA agency, the glamorous red carpet event will be hosted by TV presenter Zoe Salmon, who won the title in 1999, before going on to find fame on the BBC's Blue Peter children's programme.

Of course, the competition has had a major impact on many of its winners, from Alison herself - now Mrs Darren Clarke - to last year's winner Rebekah Shirley, who has since worked on the major Universal movie, Dracula Untold.

Ahead of tonight's extravaganza, Alison and three of her Miss Northern Ireland protegees reveal how the competition changed their lives for the better.

'It started as fun and became my career'

Alison Campbell was crowned Miss Northern Ireland back in 1982. Alison owns ACA Models and runs the Miss Northern Ireland Contest. Tonight's winner will be the 29th she has crowned. She is married to Northern Ireland golfer Darren Clarke and has two sons from a previous marriage, Stuart, now 26, and 23-year-old Philip. She says:

Beauty contests were still televised live on British TV when I was growing up and I did love watching them, but didn't actually think of - or aspire to - entering until the opportunity fell on to my lap, when I started working in the bank in Belfast. I started modelling then as a part-time hobby and found out how to enter. Otherwise, I would've had no idea, as the profile of Miss Northern Ireland wasn't big in those days.

I worked in the Ulster Bank and continued to do so during and after my reign, until 1990, when I set up my own model agency and had taken on the license from Miss World to actually run the Miss Northern Ireland contest. There was no such thing as a year out in my day. I went from typing bank statements and sorting cheques, to running out to do a quick PR picture, and then back in to the bank.

Backstage, it's true - you do look around and see how the other girls look. I felt very country bumpkin when I went to Miss UK in London, as all the girls were very polished and experienced; all in nice cocktail day dresses and they all had long hair part from me - I turned up in a khaki green casual jumpsuit with wee green-elf flat boots.

Luckily enough, I had no preconceptions at all that I may win or come close, so when I came second, it really was a shock. It was the icing on the cake and I won £1,000, which was like winning the lottery to me.

Miss Northern Ireland that year was in the Europa Hotel and compered by the late Diana Dors and local musician Trevor Kelly. It was good fun; we waited in the Europa kitchens to go on stage.

I think it takes someone with a bit of wit to win Miss Northern Ireland, especially nowadays … it's a big role, with going off abroad to Miss World and working with 120 other ambassadors for their country. I would've loved to have gone to Miss World but in my day you had to win Miss UK to get direct entry and I was second - close but yet so far.

I was always a size 12 and still am, but I know I'm not as skinny as I was. There were no restrictions in the competition on height and weight then but you had to be unmarried, with no children.

I loved the buzz of the whole thing. There were no tears, shock and delight when my name was called out. My friends, who were my flatmates - Judith Quinn and Hilary Lovell - were there in the audience and couldn't wait to have a party to celebrate.

I won a Zandra Rhodes dress - I still have it and wore it to the Miss UK final. I also won a bikini designed by a University of Ulster fashion student and a weekend in Amsterdam - I took my friend Hilary with me.

Looking back, the competition was a fun thing that I did through the part-time modelling, which was a hobby but became my career and my livelihood. So I guess if it wasn't for winning Miss Northern Ireland, I would not be doing what I do now.

As for men, yes - they were certainly always scared to ask me out. I did intimidate men I think, as I was the life and soul of parties and social events with my friends. We were a gang to be reckoned with.

My advice to tonight's winner would be to take it all in her stride, don't panic and work as hard as she can. You only get out of it what you put into it."

'I didn't want to have any regrets'

Meagan Green (24), who grew up on a farm outside Hillsborough, won the competition in 2013. The business management student had come second in Miss NI 2012. She is dating Belfast Giants ice hockey player Craig Peacock. She says:

As far back as I can recall, I've always had an interest in the Miss Northern Ireland contest. I had been scouted to take park at the tender age of 16 and found myself sucked into the whirlwind of Miss World, Miss Northern Ireland and all that the role involves.

I had followed the competition closely from that age, until 2012 when I finally plucked up the courage to take part, placing first runner-up. I loved everything about the experience and coming so close to winning the title, so I came back for more the very next year, and walked away with the crown. It's the most surreal experience, something I will never forget.

I had never experienced the modelling world and all the opportunities it offers, until being signed to Alison Clarke's well known modelling agency, ACA Models. Since then, countless doors have opened and opportunities have arisen that a normal, country girl like myself would maybe not have been lucky enough to have - being a cover girl on numerous occasions, taking part in Belfast Fashionweek, filming national TV commercials, and, of course, taking part in Miss World.

There really is a sense of family among the Miss Northern Ireland club. All the former Miss Northern Irelands I count as very good friends. They all had so much advice and encouragement, so you never had a moment of doubt or hesitation. Someone was always on hand, and that goes for our next Miss Northern Ireland - we will all be on hand to help and guide her and helping where we can, even if it's just to ask whether 12 suitcases are too much for Miss World, or whether a particular dress goes with her new shoes.

In 2013, I was a bag of nerves the night of the final, honestly. After being placed second the year before, I felt I had extra pressure, I only had myself to blame for that. I just really wanted it and knowing it's only moments away after months of preparation. You could drop a pin backstage among the 28 girls and hear it.

But there is such a sense of friendship among the girls and once my name was called out, a stampede of beauty contestants came my direction for hugs, kisses and a lot of high-fives and congratulatory messages.

The winner cannot only offer a pretty face, it's more than that. They must be confident, enthusiastic, charming, charismatic, intelligent and very hard-working. It's not just a role - it's a full-time job. The stage will be filled with beautiful, glamorous young women but they must have a certain something that makes them stand out from the rest.

I'd say "embrace every moment" to the new Miss Northern Ireland. I remember thinking, "I have 365 days and I am going to make the most of every opportunity". I didn't want to have any regrets. This is really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I loved my year and everything it had to offer - the variety of work, the opportunities, the people I met and the hands-on experience with the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice. No two days are the same. This opportunity will never come around again and it's something you can tell your grandchildren and great-grandchildren. What you put into it, you get out of it."

'It was a life-defining moment for me'

Zoe Salmon (35) took the Miss Northern Ireland crown in 1999. Best known for hosting the children's television show Blue Peter from December 2004 to June 2008, the Bangor-raised blonde also appeared on Dancing on Ice in early 2009. Now based in London, Zoe currently co-hosts Compete for the Meat alongside comedian Al Murray, on the Dave channel. She says: 

I always remember being excited to see the new Miss Northern Ireland on the front of the Belfast Telegraph, with the sparkling crown. It brought it home that we had our own beauty queen, from our own country, out there representing us.

I was studying law at Queen's University in Belfast, before I entered the competition but I'd done bits and pieces of modelling, too, in the run-up to it. I was really, really nervous though. It's such a massive event, huge - the biggest occasion on our social calendar and there was me, this little girl from Bangor in the middle of it. My family had a table in the audience and I didn't want to let them down. I wanted to do it for them and for Bangor and to make them proud.

The competition itself was a lot of pressure, but it was really enjoyable, too. I was genuinely so shocked when I won - the Belfast Telegraph has a classic picture of me, taken at the very moment it was announced, with my hand to my mouth. I literally couldn't believe it.

I took a year off from law to concentrate on the Miss Northern Ireland events then went back and qualified as a solicitor, before entering the mad world of media. I don't regret not going into law, though - it's very useful to me still and has come in handy for things like going over contracts and so on.

As for who'd play me in a film, I'm pursuing an acting career myself now, so it's hard to say, but I'd love a young talented girl from Northern Ireland, ideally. Other than that, I think Lily Collins is really talented, and I love Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie.

Winning Miss Northern Ireland would have to be a big part of my life story, if it ever came to that. It was a life-defining moment for me and I'll be forever grateful for it and the impact it's had on my life."

'I totally froze and forgot my speech'

Lucy Evangelista (29) won the competition in 2005. She is married to former Ulster rugby player Matt McCullough and has two children, Leila Grace (3) and Luke (five months). She says:

Growing up, I'd never heard of the Miss Northern Ireland competition - I'd never even seen Miss World. I suppose I was a sort of tomboy. When I left school I studied health and social care, and beauty therapy - but I never dreamt of getting involved in the industry.

My mum and my sister had entered me into a Specsavers competition when I was 17. I won the local round but didn't get through in London; then they entered me for Miss Coleraine. My aunt was a photographer, so I wasn't camera shy, but I was very, very shy in public in other ways. I could never ever have done public speaking or anything like that.

Speech and drama lessons really helped me with that though, so when Miss NI came around, I just went along for the craic. It was a stab in the dark really; I didn't know anyone involved or anything about it, so I had no advice to go on.

If I think too much about things I can't cope, so I blanked out the nerves. I didn't take it as seriously as some of the other girls. Some were quietly confident, some were just there for the experience.

My dress was terrible, brown satin sitting above my ankles. In my year, you had to go on stage and make a speech. I just went out there and said "Hi", looked out into the audience - and froze. I just blurted out "I'm sorry; I've completely forgotten what I was going to say", and walked off. They all laughed, so it wasn't that bit or my dress that won it for me.

As for the swimwear part - well, I hadn't as many issues at 17/18 as I have now, so I just got on with it. I was a size eight then; I'm a size six now. There were no real height restrictions then - the ideal is 5ft 6ins or over but if you're a 5ft 5ins stunner, they wouldn't turn you away. I'm 5ft 8ins.

On the night, we couldn't hear a thing backstage and I thought the girl who came second had won, so I'd no idea why they were calling my name out after that. I walked out just as dopey as before. I was in my own little bubble. It didn't hit me until Alison Campbell was driving me round the interviews the next morning. I was very scared and pretty excited at the same time.

I won £40,000 in prizes including a Ford Focus, which I needed as I crashed my car going to the Down Royal. I had a boyfriend at the time but he didn't last the year - that happens a lot with Miss NIs, I think. I spent the next four years modelling in London - TV commercials and so on. I wouldn't have had the confidence to do that if it hadn't been for the competition."

Success and career controversy

  • Dungannon-born Joanne Salley (38) lifted the Miss Northern Ireland crown in 1998, then was runner-up in the Miss United Kingdom pageant. The trained ballerina has taught at Harrow School and once co-hosted The Big Breakfast as well as other TV work
  • In 2011, topless pictures of Joanne, which were taken by a professional photographer and part-time teaching colleague, were found on a memory stick and distributed around Harrow School by a pupil and also to Merchant Taylors' School in Hertfordshire, where she had previously taught
  • Polo-playing Joanne is a keen endurance athlete, having run the New York marathon for charity, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and visited the world's highest active volcano in Ecuador, where she helped build a school for isolated communities
  • Zoe Salmon (35) shot to fame in 2004 when she became a Blue Peter presenter, following her Miss Northern Ireland win in 1999. The Bangor beauty is a qualified solicitor and was 20th in FHM's Top 100 sexiest women poll in 2009
  • While on Blue Peter she earned a fearless reputation for attempting dangerous or embarrassing tasks. Despite her popularity on the children's show, though, there was controversy when the BBC was accused of only advertising the job in Northern Ireland and Scotland.
  • During her time on Blue Peter Zoe, who also appeared on Dancing On Ice in 2009, made headlines for the wrong reasons when she chose the Red Hand Of Ulster to be used as Best of British logo for use by British Airways. More recently she took to Twitter to voice her opinion on the flag debate, speaking out against the removal of the Union flag from Belfast City Hall on all but designated dates

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