In this week's interview Stephanie Bell talks to former Miss Northern Ireland and Miss UK Gayle Williamson (40), who is engaged to Richard Bell and lives in Crawfordsburn, Co Down with her 14-year-old son Brandon Corr. Gayle and her fiance Richard (44) are opening their new business, Whinney Doggy Daycare, in Holywood this month.
Q. Tell us about your childhood?
A. I was born in Dollingstown and we moved to Lurgan when I was three. My parents separated when I was young and even though I lived with my mum, Olga, my dad, Noel, was very involved in my upbringing and I saw him regularly.
My stepdad, John, has been in my life for as long as I can remember and he and mum married when I was 18. He has been a great support throughout my life. My dad also met a lovely woman, Dorothy, who equally has been a great support to me and my son, Brandon. Both of my parents are very happy. I am an only child and missed out on brothers and sisters but I spent a lot of time with cousins and always had friends round at the house. My dad had a younger brother called Mervyn who was only 10 years older than me and we were very close growing up and in a way he was more like a big brother.
I went to Kings Park Primary School, then Lurgan Junior High and, after that, the Senior High. Apart from the usual subjects I loved art and design and got a diploma in textiles. My first job was working in a fashion shop in Portadown.
My love of dogs stems from getting my first puppy, a six-week-old golden retriever called Ben, when I was 10 years old. I can still remember the day my dad took me to collect him as this was the first time I fell in love. Since then I've always had dogs - now, I have a cocker spaniel, also called Ben, and for my 40th birthday in May I got an English bulldog called Frank. My partner Richard and I recently came up with the idea for a new business venture - Doggy Daycare - which came from our lifelong love of dogs. Our business is looking after dogs during the day when their owners are at work.
Q. What are you most proud of?
A. Without hesitation it has to be my son Brandon. He is 14 now and becoming a young man. He is an extremely talented musician which runs in his dad's side of the family (his dad is Jim Corr who with his three sisters Andrea, Sharon and Caroline make up the famous The Corrs band). Jim was dangling Brandon over the piano and running his wee fingers along the keys from a very early age.
Brandon can play the guitar and piano - and he recently started playing the drums. He gets a real kick out of playing the guitar and even though he is really talented, he has no ambitions to follow in the footsteps of his dad and aunts in The Corrs. At the moment he wants to be a rescue pilot as he is obsessed with the work of the Air Ambulance. Brandon is a great boy - he has always been very well behaved, is very caring and also is very involved with the dogs. He has a great outlook on life and every day I feel even more proud of him.
Q. The one regret you wish you could amend?
A. I guess I am lucky because I don't have any regrets. I firmly believe that your life is mapped out for you and we should learn from mistakes which will stand by us in later life.
Q. What about phobias, do you have any?
A. Frogs! Something must have happened when I was too young to remember but I can't even look at a frog in a book or talk about them.
Q, The temptation you cannot resist?
A. Chocolate. I am currently looking at a bar of Cadbury Dairy Milk Wholenut thinking I cannot even have one square or I will finish the whole bar. I have a sweet tooth and I try not to have too much chocolate in the house because if Brandon doesn't eat it, I will.
Q. Your number one prized possession?
A. I am not a materialistic person but Richard gave me a beautiful ruby ring for Christmas last year and I suppose it would currently be my favourite possession.
Q. The book that's most impacted your life?
A. I don't normally read books as I tend to lose concentration after a few chapters. I much prefer to watch movies. My one favourite book/film from my childhood would have to be The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe from The Chronicles of Narnia series by CS Lewis. I always found it magical.
Q. If you had the power or authority, what would you do?
A. I would change the how many young girls today think they have to have surgical procedures to make themselves beautiful. I worked in the beauty industry for two years after I won Miss Northern Ireland and Miss UK and now I think social media has put too much pressure on young girls who are getting cosmetic procedures which they don't even know the long term implications of. Everyone needs to feel comfortable in their own skin as everyone is beautiful in their own way.
Q. What makes your blood boil every time without fail?
A. Cruelty to animals. I particularly detest it when people buy puppies without realising how much care they need and then abandon them. The Assisi Animal Sanctuary is a charity close to my heart and I visit when I can with old blankets and curtains for the bigger dogs' beds. They also have a great charity shop in Bangor which welcomes donations.
It is also one of the reasons why my fiance Richard and I decided to open a doggy daycare centre. We have a wonderful site of 14 acres on Whinney Hill outside Holywood with a huge warehouse with underfloor heating which is kitted out for the dogs' comfort indoors. We also have outdoor pens and lots of room for the dogs to run about and socialise with other dogs.
Q. Who has most influenced your life?
A. My mum, Olga. She's been my biggest influence and has taught me a lot. She is the most grounded person I know. I remember when I won Miss Northern Ireland, the final was on my 22nd birthday and I was a bundle of nerves. Mum told me to make sure and enjoy my birthday - to her that was more important than the competition. She has also been a brilliant grandmother who has helped me to bring Brandon up. Anything I need, she is always there.
Q. Your top three dinner party guests, dead or alive, and why?
A. First and foremost would be Brandon's late grandfather, Gerry Corr. Sadly Gerry passed away five years ago and we miss him dreadfully. He was always there with a listening ear when I needed him and we had a regular Sunday date in the Crawfordsburn Inn when he would drive from Dundalk to meet me.
He was a very wise man who didn't say a lot but when he spoke you listened as he always had something interesting to say. I would love to do it one more time.
I would also choose my best friend Sarah Callan. We have known each other since I was 14. We don't get to see each other very often now as we live so far apart but we always have a great time when we manage to meet up.
And of course, my fiance Richard. He is good fun and great at cleaning up!
Q. The best piece of advice you've ever received?
A. When you become a mum everyone has advice for you but I remember being told that happiness and love is the most important thing you can give a child - much more important than what school they go to and what grades they get!
Q. The unlikely hobby or interest you love?
A During the lockdown I took up running. As I live in Crawfordsburn I have the most beautiful coastline to run along. I never realised how much I would enjoy it - in all weathers - as I was never a great one for exercise before.
Q. The poem that touches your heart?
A Shortly after Brandon's grandfather Gerry died I was staying in my old bedroom in my mum's house. It was still very much "my room" and when I was looking for something in a drawer I discovered this letter with a poem in it called The Letter from Heaven. I asked Mum where it had come from as neither of us had ever seen it before. It still remains a mystery to this day but I like to feel it was from Gerry as I find it very comforting. He was also a very talented poet.
Q. The happiest moment of your life?
A. Again, it has got to be when Brandon was born.
Q. And the saddest?
A There have been two major losses in my life. Firstly when I was 16, my dad's youngest brother Mervyn died when he was just 26 from a serious illness. He was like an older brother to me and it was my first big loss and it had a huge impact on my life.
Secondly was when Gerry died. Brandon and I were both with him when he took ill and we travelled to the hospital with him. He was 82 but a very fit and active man and he had suffered a heart attack. He passed away three days later and we miss him dreadfully.
Q. The one event that made a difference in your life?
A. I was working as a manager in Paranoid boutique in Portadown when a customer called in to try and persuade me to enter the Miss Northern Ireland competition.
Apparently he had seen a photograph of me and thought I should enter. I had never considered a career in beauty at any time but then thought "why not give it a go?" as a couple of my friends were also entering.
The local heat was on a Wednesday night at The Coach Inn, Banbridge. I remember I bought a new pair of shoes in the sale and wore a dress I had got for my 21st birthday the year before. It was free admission to The Coach on Wednesdays so we had nothing to lose!
I won the heat that night and then went on to win Miss Northern Ireland on my 22nd birthday. I began working with Alison Campbell's modelling agency and had so much work the year I was Miss NI that I wanted to focus on it and do my best so I left the shop I'd been working in for a year.
I went to Nigeria for five weeks to Miss World and I was selected out of all the UK contestants - this got me sent off to another pageant, Miss International in Japan, to represent the UK. So one year became two years as I had a second year as Miss UK.
In the middle of it all I met Jim and we were together for a year and then Brandon came along. When I had Brandon I was a full time mum for the first few years. Winning Miss NI and Miss UK was the most amazing experience. It means more to me now as I have such great memories. I think when something like that happens to you you have to be careful not to get carried away and it is important to stay grounded. It is not something I ever thought I would do but I am glad I did. I love showing Brandon my scrapbook pictures from that time.
Q. What's the ambition that keeps driving you forward?
A. The fact that I am about to start my own business with my future husband doing one of the things that I love most. Richard and I currently have two dogs each and it was our common love for our dogs that got us together three years ago. Richard's dogs are the Glen of Imaal breed, and are called Bramble and Merlin. After Richard and I met almost exactly three years ago, he proposed on Crawfordsburn beach the following Valentine's Day. We hope to have a very quiet wedding maybe some time in the next year.
Q. What's the philosophy that you live by?
A. Always treat others how you want to be treated yourself.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A I would like to be remembered as someone who enjoyed life and was grateful for all the opportunities sent my way.