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Rachel Dean's Big Ask: Apprentice winner Dr Leah Totton on how Omagh bombing inspired her to become a doctor


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Dr Leah Totton

Dr Leah Totton

Happy couple: Leah with her South African boyfriend Justin Harding

Happy couple: Leah with her South African boyfriend Justin Harding

Close family: Leah with mum Lorraine

Close family: Leah with mum Lorraine

Dr Leah Totton

In this week's interview Rachel Dean talks to Dr Leah Totton (31), originally from Londonderry, who founded three cosmetic clinics in London after winning the BBC One show The Apprentice in 2013 and securing an investment of £250,000 from Lord Sugar. She has a boyfriend, Justin Harding (33), who is a professional golfer from South Africa.

Q Tell us about your childhood

A I grew up in the Waterside area of Londonderry, near the hospital. I'm the eldest of three siblings - my sister Jodie is four years younger than me and my brother Dale is nine years younger.

Mum and dad had very normal jobs. My dad Trevor has always been a taxi driver and my mum Lorraine is an administrator.

I had a really nice childhood. It was a modest upbringing, but it was still very fun and we were all really close. I'm particularly close with Jodie. When I won The Apprentice in 2013, Jodie, who's a dental nurse by trade, left Northern Ireland and moved to London to set up the business with me. Now, she's a manager of one of my London clinics.

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Close family: Leah with mum Lorraine

Close family: Leah with mum Lorraine

Close family: Leah with mum Lorraine

I was about 10 years old when the Omagh bombing happened in 1998. At that point, I realised I wanted to do something that could help in that type of terrible scenario. So, it was from quite a young age that I knew that I wanted to become a doctor. It helped me to then focus my academic work on getting the grades to actually become a doctor, because the biggest challenge with medicine is obviously that you need the grades to get into university.

At school, I was very fortunate that I was naturally academic. I got an A in my transfer test and went to Foyle College, where I was streamed into the top class. Then I went on to win awards during my GCSEs and A-levels for academic excellence. I did very well at university, too - I studied at the University of East Anglia in Norwich and I was the top student in my year in medicine. Academia was something that came very naturally to me and my memory was a bit photographic, so I was fortunate in that I didn't have to work particularly hard to get my grades.

Q What are you most proud of?

A I think I'm probably most proud of my career achievements. It's really hard to pick between becoming a doctor, winning The Apprentice or being successful in business. They are the three career accolades that I hold most dear and, overall, my biggest accomplishment to date is my career.

Q The one regret you wish you could amend?

A I really don't have any regrets. I've learnt and grown from any mistakes I've made, in both my personal life and my professional life - and I don't regret any of it.

Q Any phobias?

A I actually don't. I'm not amazing with mice or rats - in fact, I don't like rodents at all. I'm not great with heights either.

Q The temptation you cannot resist?

A For me, it's takeaway food. I have such a weakness for Indian takeaway.

At the minute, I'm on a health kick for January and I do quite a bit of running, but it's my weakness for Indian takeaway that lets me down. I would eat anything off the menu, but I would normally go for butter chicken with mushroom rice and garlic naan - that's my favourite order.

Q Your number one prized possession?

A The bangle my granny and granda got me for my 30th birthday. My granda is no longer with us - we lost him last year to cancer. So, that's probably my most special possession.

Q The book that's most impacted your life?

A I actually don't read. I did so much reading at university that it's really given me an aversion to reading.

But the one book that impacted my life would probably be the general medical textbook Clinical Medicine by Kumar and Clark.

I knew that book from front to back. The way my memory works, I could close my eyes and see pages out of the book.

Q If you had the power or authority, what would you do?

A At the minute, if I had the power, I would swiftly oversee Brexit. I'm obviously living in London and I'm trading with three clinics now which is a pretty big business. The impact on businesses in London and I think UK-wide too from the stagnation of the economy - as a result of the disaster that the UK has made of Brexit - is something that is deeply impacting my business. If I could do anything, I would oversee the Brexit negotiations so we could have the best possible exit without the economic turmoil that our delayed exit is causing.

Q What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A The thing that I really don't like is when people don't take responsibility or accountability for their actions. I think I'm a very responsible person and if something is my fault or I get something wrong, I will be the first to hold my hands up, take responsibility and put it right. I could forgive everything if a person is honest, self-aware and can recognise their failing or the failings in their actions, but when people are delusional or ignorant towards their role in something, I find that difficult to be around.

Q Who has most influenced you in life?

A In my personal life it's my dad and in my business life it's obviously Sir Alan Sugar. My dad's not in business and isn't interested in business, but he very much moulded my personality and my attitude towards life. Then, from the age of 24, when I became Alan Sugar's business partner, he's mentored me for the past six-and-a-half years to become the businessperson that I am. For me, they are my two most influential people.

Q Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A My first choice would definitely be Winston Churchill. He's someone who led Britain through a world war and who, I think, won that war for Britain, so I think he'd be really interesting.

Then, Eleanor Roosevelt because she's a shining example of feminism and, as a feminist myself, I'd love to have a conversation with her.

And Nelson Mandela. My boyfriend Justin is South African and just hearing the influence Nelson Mandela had in that country is astounding and I'd be very interested in hearing it all from his perspective.

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Happy couple: Leah with her South African boyfriend Justin Harding

Happy couple: Leah with her South African boyfriend Justin Harding

Happy couple: Leah with her South African boyfriend Justin Harding

Q The best piece of advice you ever received?

A I think it was business advice from Alan Sugar. He told me, and it's so true, that in business you must always watch your bottom line. Don't get caught up in how much your turnover is, how many staff you have, how fancy your office is or fancy your product is.

Keep an eye on the most important thing, your bottom line, which shows you how profitable you are as a business.

Essentially what he was saying was, don't let the ego of having 20 sites overshadow the reality that the point of a business is the bottom line to make it profitable.

As a business owner that was the best piece of advice I've ever received and it's something I've really stuck by. Initially, we both planned to open eight clinics and we've stopped now at three. I think that's with the focus of making those three highly profitable as opposed to having eight that are running at a loss, simply for the ego trip of saying "I own eight clinics" - it's pointless if they aren't making any money.

Q The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A I'm really into politics and I don't think a lot of people know that. It goes hand-in-hand with business, so I follow everything to do with politics and current affairs, both here and in America. I find Donald Trump's rise to office there very interesting.

Going into politics is something I would consider as a career option further down the line. I know politicians get a lot of flack, but I believe that a good politician can have a fantastic impact on the lives of their constituency or, on a wider level, their country.

Q The poem that touches your heart?

A If by Rudyard Kipling. I find the opening words intriguing: "If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too".

Q The happiest moment of your life?

A Getting my degree results. I really wanted a distinction in medicine and I was obviously working towards that for five years. When the results were published, I was on holiday in Dubai at the time and I remember loading it up on the laptop and it saying I got a distinction - that really was the happiest moment of my life.

Q And the saddest?

A Losing my granda Derek last February. That was a very difficult and sad time for us all. He was sick with cancer for some time and we nursed him at home. It's coming up to the first anniversary of his death and I feel for my granny because they were married for nearly 60 years. It must be even harder for her.

Q The one event that made a difference in your life?

A Winning The Apprentice in 2013. It completely changed my life and put it on a totally different path. It opened so many doors, it gave me a platform and a profile that I obviously wouldn't have had without the show. That for me, by far, was the most important and life-changing event.

When Alan Sugar first said I was hired, I was delighted, but I'm very pragmatic so I immediately started thinking, "Right, how am I going to make a success of this business?" The hill that you have to climb after winning the show is tough. The challenges of starting a new business - with one out of 10 failing in the first year - are difficult enough. To do that in the public eye, faced with scrutiny and public interest, made it even more pressure. Almost immediately I was delighted, but also filled with fear and apprehension about what the future would hold.

Q What's the ambition that keeps driving you onwards?

A To ensure that my family are financially comfortable.

Q What's the philosophy you live by?

A You are accountable for your own destiny.

Q How do you want to be remembered?

A As someone who came from a very normal, Northern Irish, working class background and was able to achieve - in terms of both becoming a doctor and building a business - a career successful on a national level.

See more about Dr Leah Totton's clinics at www.drleah.co.uk

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