People thought Gemma Garrett looked great as Miss GB, but she was 'binge drinking, going on crash diets and so unhealthy'
Gemma Garrett, from Belfast, looked radiant in her beauty queen heyday, but she tells Una Brankin that she felt under constant pressure to lose weight and was worn out by the toll of her party lifestyle.
It's impossible not to like the amiable Gemma Garrett, yet she has faced bitching and back-stabbing since her primary school and Bloomfield Collegiate days, all down to jealousy over her naturally stunning looks.
Now 36, the former Miss Great Britain is still getting flak, this time over her appearance in BBC NI's new dating show, Beauty Queen and Single. Squeezed into an unforgiving pink bandage dress for the opening credits, the ex-model is noticeably more curvaceous these days. But although she looks lovely even without make-up in the dating segment of the programme, the trolls have been out in force online to criticise her and some of the other five former beauty queens in the series.
"We had to wear the sort of dresses we wore as beauty queens - I told the team I don't have anything that would fit," Gemma laughs. "The bandage dress was the only one I could get into. We were all horrified but it was meant to look cringey, so people would talk about it, and it worked.
"People were going on about me putting on weight and not looking like a beauty queen, and they said the same sort of thing about some of the other girls too. There's been a backlash and some of it has been nasty and cruel. I feel like the mother of this group, it's a bit like girls being at school. But I'm healthy and strong, and I'm happy with the way I look now. I don't binge drink any more. I eat well and I work out with a very good personal trainer, Ian Young. I'm a size 12 now, sometimes a size 10, depending on where I'm buying clothes, and I'm happy with that."
Gemma grew up in Belfast with her older sister and younger brother, and parents Margaret and Stephen, a security firm manager.
She'd planned on becoming a physiotherapist before being discovered by a photographer while out shopping, which led her into lingerie and swimwear modelling. She went on to win Miss Great Britain in 2008-2009. At the time, she wore a dress size eight to fit her frame, but the clothes would hang off her, due to her extreme diet. While she didn't succumb to an eating disorder, her weight fell to under eight stone.
"At 5ft 7in I was too short for the catwalk and I'm naturally curvy, so I had to work really hard to look good in photos," she recalls. "I was constantly being told to lose weight by a team of people around me. To look really lean in pictures, in real life you look like you're dying of starvation. The pressure on me was crazy.
"I basically would starve myself all week. I'd survive on bits of chicken, then binge drink Champagne at the weekends. I didn't have a drinking problem but I was away from home at 26 and I missed my mum and I didn't have any solid friendships in London. So you'd go out in a group, drinking - and it didn't help that it was all free.
"I was also offered drugs but that was never an option for me," she adds. "I was brought up well and I was too scared to take them, besides."
During those partying years, Gemma was photographed in a taxi with comedian Russell Brand and played Sienna Miller's double in the gangster thriller Layer Cake, starring Daniel Craig. She also had a role in a Dolph Lundgren movie and played Martin Kemp's wife in the film Assassin, starring Danny Dyer, of EastEnders fame.
But, after suffering tonsillitis and being unable to eat even her meagre chicken portions, Gemma ended up very weak and lethargic.
"I looked terrible," she admits. "My mum was very worried about me. I had a personal trainer and I'd tell him lies and say I'd had porridge when I hadn't.
"Then, you'd have to go out with an amazing bright face. I got really down and homesick. I won't slag anyone off - the Miss Great Britain company was great back then and very good to me, but once your year's up, it's 'bye'. There's no nurturing. I didn't know what to do. It's so different here with Alison Clarke of ACA Models - she really looks after her former beauty queens like a family."
To make matters worse, Gemma gave into pressure to have breast implants, when her reign as Miss Great Britain was over, to increase the chances of photographic modelling work.
The implants used turned out to be the potentially dangerous PIP silicone, which have since been withdrawn from the market. Following a consultation with her doctor, Gemma made a documentary on her surgery to have them removed. "That was another pressure I could have avoided if I'd had more confidence," she says. "The doctor said there was a chance of them rupturing so I had them removed.
"Now that I'm fuller figured, I have a good size chest but I'd love to be flatter, like the top models. You always want what you can't have, don't you? I don't want to be hypocritical about cosmetic surgery though. If something's making you unhappy, and if you do your research properly beforehand, I've no problem with it."
Lonely in London, Gemma moved back to Northern Ireland in 2010 and married her long-time friend Andy Cosgrove.
They split in 2014 ("I don't like to talk about it; he has moved on") and Gemma now lives with her two cherished bulldogs, Stella and Buddy in the south Belfast house she bought after winning Miss Great Britain.
"I came home to my mother's good Irish food, got my energy back and started a showbusiness column with Sunday Life. I got offered a really cool job with Newcastle United, working a week on, a week off, and Paddy McGurgan offered to train me as a make-up artist when I was home," she says. "I love everything about it," she adds. "I have my own wee salon on the Belmont Road now and I'd love to expand."
She wasn't allowed to wear as much as a primer on Beauty Queen and Single, and admits that it was daunting to go make-up free on the show, even though her chosen date, Paul, a 50-year-old businessman from Dublin, didn't notice she wasn't wearing any and thought she was beautiful - as does her current boyfriend, whom she's determined to keep under wraps as a 'mystery man', for the time being.
"It was scary but since I've started looking after my skin, I've got more confident without make-up, and I'd been in Portugal, so I had a bit of colour," she admits. "It didn't work out romantically with Paul, but I've stayed in contact with him and he's a friend of mine now. He'd be a good catch for someone. I'm in a new relationship now and all loved up. I can't tell you who - I've learned from the past not to go into all that, but it's not someone from the show.
"Even though I'm no longer single, I want to carry on with the show, giving advice to the other girls. It's good fun and it puts a positive message out to young girls, not to be judgmental. Image isn't everything."
So how does she look so good?
- My biggest secret is having Paddy McGurgan as my best friend. He gets sent so many samples to try out and he doesn't believe in masking the skin with make-up.
- I get an IP5 facial with Therapie every six weeks - it's a harsh exfoliator, not relaxing at all.
- Rather than taking supplements I get vitamins from food and get plenty of sleep. My family laugh at me - I can literally drink coffee all day and fall sleep the minute my head hits the pillow.
- As for inner happiness, if I could stay looking the way I did at 26, I'd be a billionaire. But we all age and change. You just have to get on with it.