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Rachel Dean's Big Ask: The Voice winner Andrea Begley on her passion for inspiring others with sight loss

'I have a phobia about dogs which is quite ironic given my sight problems. One belonging to my Granny bit me when I was a child and many people wonder why I use a cane and don't have a guide dog'

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Andrea Begley at the Island Arts centre in Lisburn. 21-09-2019

Andrea Begley at the Island Arts centre in Lisburn. 21-09-2019

Star quality: Andrea with Danny O’Donoghue

Star quality: Andrea with Danny O’Donoghue

Andrea with her country star aunt Philomena

Andrea with her country star aunt Philomena

Andrea Begley at the Island Arts centre in Lisburn. 21-09-2019

In this week's interview, Rachel Dean talks to singer and The Voice UK 2013 winner Andrea Begley (33). Andrea, who lives in Belfast and has gone home to Co Tyrone to isolate with her parents during the coronavirus crisis, reveals why she's passionate about inspiring others with sight loss.

Q. Tell us about your childhood.

A. I grew up in a small village called Pomeroy, and it was a good upbringing. With the village being so small, everything was local and nearby.

My dad, Kieran, owns a grocery shop and my mum, Ann, was a nurse, but she's retired now. I have two younger sisters, Hannah and Lucy.

I suppose I just got up to the typical things that children would, but with a big emphasis on music and singing. I sang in the local choir and the school choir - I was always very involved in things like that.

My parents were very encouraging; they got me piano lessons from a young age. I'm afraid I never turned into any kind of Mozart, but it did give me good discipline for learning music. I suppose, especially now, I like doing more freestyle things, but it was good to get the background in the early days of the more disciplined, classical music.

I partially lost my sight during childhood. I was about three-and-a-half when I first developed a condition called juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (a type of arthritis that causes joint inflammation and stiffness and can also affect the eyes). From that, at the age of five, I developed an eye condition, glaucoma, which resulted in me losing most of my vision. I have less than 10% vision. That means that I use a white cane to get around and a lot of access technology.

In a way, I suppose it is easier to go through something like that at a younger age because you don't really understand. It was obviously very traumatic for me going in and out of hospital for a lot of ops and other things, but, I was very lucky to have such a strong family behind me and sisters who were always trying to keep my spirits up.

It was definitely a challenging time and thankfully I've got all that behind me now.

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Close family: Andrea Begley with (from left) dad Kieran, sister Hannah, mum Ann and (front) sister Lucy

Close family: Andrea Begley with (from left) dad Kieran, sister Hannah, mum Ann and (front) sister Lucy

Close family: Andrea Begley with (from left) dad Kieran, sister Hannah, mum Ann and (front) sister Lucy

Q. What are you most proud of?

A. I'm very proud of everything that I've achieved to date, with winning The Voice, but also my academic achievements as well. I've been to university and I have a master's degree in Law. And I'm proud of the fact I have a good, strong group of friends.

Q. What's the one regret you wish you could amend?

A. My biggest regret - and it's not something I can really do a lot about - is not being able to drive. It's definitely a big setback when you live in Northern Ireland, especially if you live in a rural area and are going to visit people elsewhere. It's challenging. I can't drive due to my sight loss, so that's not something I can fix. I'm holding out for one of those Google driverless cars!

Q. What about phobias? Do you have any?

A. Yes, I actually do - dogs. It's quite ironic and people always wonder why I don't have a guide dog. I do trust guide dogs themselves; I don't think they're particularly dangerous. But, my granny's dog bit me years and years ago when I was child and it did put me off a bit. I'm a bit wary of them. I know I need to build a bridge and get over it but, so far, I'm afraid I haven't quite managed it.

I always remember when I started working in the Civil Service, my first senior manager told me that she was keen to get me into her particular division because she thought I was coming with a guide dog. I'm sure she was majorly disappointed when I arrived with a white stick instead! It's definitely a phobia that always surprises people.

Q. Which temptation can you not resist?

A. I could say all the obvious ones like chocolate and things like that, but, actually, one thing I can't resist is bubble wrap. I love bursting bubble wrap. It's like you can't help it - once you start popping even one of the bubbles, you just have to finish the whole thing.

Q. Your number one prized possession?

A. It would have to be my voice. I can't really take any chances with it so I have to look after it as best I can, with hot drinks and other things.

Funny thing is, people are going mad for hand sanitiser at the minute because of coronavirus, but I've always been one for hand sanitiser. As a singer, you don't want to be picking up any bugs or sniffles, especially if you have a performance coming up. I always try to protect my voice.

Colds and flus can have an effect on your tone. I often joke - and not that there's anything wrong with Rod Stewart because he's known for his raspy voice - but it's like, "They booked Andrea Begley, but they got Rod Stewart" because I had laryngitis!

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Blind Musician, Andrea Begley pictured at her home in East Belfast.

Blind Musician, Andrea Begley pictured at her home in East Belfast.

Blind Musician, Andrea Begley pictured at her home in East Belfast.

Q. Which book has most impacted your life?

A. There are so many. I mean, I love reading. Unfortunately now I can't read ordinary books anymore, but I would listen to audio books quite a lot.

I suppose from my childhood, one book that really stands out to me is Under the Hawthorn Tree. I just found it really nice, and it's sort of weird how much it's reflecting current events. The kids had to find a way around things, like if they didn't have any food. It's about building resilience and finding a way around huge challenges.

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

A. There are loads of things I'd love to do. I suppose, just for the fun of it, I'd want one of those watches that stops time. It reminds me of a TV show years ago called Bernard's Watch in which the guy could do just that.

You could have a bit of fun with it and mix people up or take the hand out of them. Or, you could do something really dramatic like signing some property over to yourself - no one would know!

Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?

A. One thing that really irritates me at the minute is when I'm out and about - especially for me and it doesn't matter if I'm on my own or someone is guiding me - and people sometimes have their earphones in or their nose stuck in the phone and they'll just be charging along and won't see that you're there. I've had several instances where people have almost knocked me over.

They've been very apologetic and everything, but the problem is, they would have avoided it if they had actually been looking where they were going. For me, I can't do it the other way around - I can't see them and avoid them.

Q. Who has most influenced you in life?

A. My parents have been a huge influence in my life. They've always kept me very grounded and practical. They never let me get too carried away with myself, especially during The Voice.

They've always been a real rock for me too - if I have any difficulties I know I can call them night or day.

It's nice to be home with them during the lockdown and I'm sure they're delighted too. I am eating them out of house and home, but of course they're delighted!

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Star quality: Andrea on The Voice with Danny O’Donoghue and Holly Willoughby

Star quality: Andrea on The Voice with Danny O’Donoghue and Holly Willoughby

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Star quality: Andrea on The Voice with Danny O’Donoghue and Holly Willoughby

Q. Who would be your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?

A. My choices are quite random. The first person I would invite would be Mo Mowlam. Primarily because she would have some interesting stories to tell about Northern Ireland politics and maybe she would tell me some of the 'backstage stories'. She was a very strong and influential woman who achieved a lot, and I think I would have a lot to learn from her.

The next person I would go for would be Robbie Williams because, first of all, he could sing me a song or two and I also think he'd be great craic. He's a bit of a cheeky chappie so I think he'd be a fun dinner guest.

The other person I would invite is local comedian Paddy Raff because I think he's hilarious. I've seen him a couple of times live and he's brilliant. If you got Paddy to come to dinner, you'd potentially also get Nigel (one of his characters) coming along too. I don't know if my cooking would be up to Nigel's standards though - might not be 'BT9er' enough!

Q. What's the best piece of advice you ever received?

A. "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." My mum would definitely have been one for drumming that into my sisters and me when we were young.

Q. The unlikely interest or hobby that you love?

A. I love to travel. The reason I'd argue that's unlikely is that when I tell people I like going to different countries, they're always surprised, almost as if to say, "Well you can't see them, so why do you bother going?" That always fascinates me because there's a lot more to going to other places than just seeing stuff.

I do really enjoy travelling and I've been lucky enough to experience different places. I've been to a couple of different places in South America, I've been to a few countries in Europe, and I've been to China and Russia as well.

I went on a number of those holidays with a company called Traveleyes. Their whole ethos is trying to make holidays more accessible for people who are visually impaired. If you go on a city tour of somewhere in Argentina or wherever, they will train the tour guide so that they will provide a better description and explanation of the sites around you.

Sometimes they'll take you over and allow you to touch things that would normally be off limits to other tourists. So, you get a better feel, for want of a better phrase, of what the place is really like.

A lot of people are travelling for that perfect 'Instagram moment' and it's almost like they aren't actually present where they are. It's like, "If I don't take a picture of it, I was never there".

I mean, pictures are important to me too, but my memories are gathered in a different way and travel is a big part of that.

Q. Which poem touches your heart?

A. I'm not really a poetry person, which is slightly ironic given that I'm a singer. The one poem that I will always remember, and it's a sad one, is Seamus Heaney's Mid-Term Break because it's so poignant.

One piece I really like, and it's not really a poem but it's something similar, is Baz Luhrmann's Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen). It's a spoken word song that was based around an essay someone had written when they were graduating. It's basically a whole list of advice for life, and Luhrmann put it to a song. I love the line, "Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance the 'Funky Chicken' on your 75th wedding anniversary". If you haven't heard it, you need to.

Q. The happiest moment of your life?

A. Shortly after winning The Voice in 2013, I performed in The Royal Albert Hall, London, and that was a really amazing experience. It was part of BBC's recording for Songs of Praise. There were five thousand people in attendance, and a full orchestra and choir who I got to perform with. They were obviously running on a really tight schedule, so you only had about two goes to get it right. Doing that and cracking it within the short timeline was just brilliant. The atmosphere was fantastic.

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Star quality: Andrea with Danny O’Donoghue

Star quality: Andrea with Danny O’Donoghue

Star quality: Andrea with Danny O’Donoghue

Q. And the saddest?

A. Going back to one particular time in my childhood, when I had to get an urgent operation on my eyes. I was eight at the time, and the eye I had the most vision in had unfortunately started to go rapidly out of control. I had to go to Glasgow to get emergency surgery and unfortunately it didn't go particularly well, and I was very unwell after it.

The eye that I had the most vision in just went and it never really recovered. I knew enough to know things weren't right, but I probably didn't know the true significance of it, which, looking back now, was probably a blessing. I think as an adult, you nearly know too much sometimes, whereas when you're a child you learn to adapt, even if it is something really complicated or traumatic.

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

A. Getting my Law and Politics degree from Queen's University, Belfast. Coming out of the end of that three-year degree was a huge achievement for me because it had been really hard-going with a lot of reading.

It's complicated for anybody, but particularly so for me because it just takes so much more time to do anything. Getting that degree really made a difference because I think once you get to that level of education and you're able to get a job - that was a great asset for me.

I used speech software on my laptop to read all my university material. Because I went to mainstream school, I was never taught Braille. When I was younger, I could read large print, but as I got older and my vision got worse, I started using the speech software. It sounded quite robotic, but that was what carried me through my A-levels and my degree. They've updated it since and it doesn't sound quite as mechanical, but I had great fun with it in the early days. I used to write curse words and get the software to read them out. I'd tell my mum, "It's not me, it's the machine!"

Q. Which ambition keeps driving you onwards?

A. I've been volunteering with Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) since I was 19. At the minute, I'm their chairperson in Northern Ireland. My one ambition with the charity is to improve things for other blind or partially sighted people.

I try to support and promote a lot of the RNIB's campaigns around getting access to information, transport, employment and education.

Technology has broken down a lot of barriers for people like me, and the world is a much friendlier place than 30 or 40 years ago for people with sight loss. But, there's still a lot of things that need done. I want to improve things for others so that they don't have to face some of the barriers that I faced.

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Andrea with her country star aunt Philomena

Andrea with her country star aunt Philomena

Andrea with her country star aunt Philomena

Q. What's the philosophy you live by?

A. Where there's an obstacle, there's a solution. There's plenty of things that upfront might seem like you can't do as a visually impaired person, but with a bit of thought and a wee bit of help from others, there's usually a way around it. For example, travelling independently, which I was able to do with a bit of support and planning ahead. I can and have travelled to the other side of the world. That's my main philosophy: if there's an obstacle, there's a solution.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?

A. Not any time soon of course! But I suppose I hope people would remember me because of my music, but also maybe for making a small difference in raising issues about disability and sight loss. You might have limitations, but you're only as limited as you allow yourself to be.

To find out more about Andrea's music, visit andreabegley.com

Belfast Telegraph