Belfast Telegraph

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'We trust each other, we are straight with each other, our husbands are good friends and our families go on holiday together... and we get to wear sparkly dresses!'

They are best friends, full-time working mothers and successful singers - and now The Leading Ladies are celebrating 15 years of making melodies. Michelle Baird, Ceara Grehan and Lynne McAllister tell Mairead Holland how it all began, and how they manage such busy lives

Success aside, it is the laughs, friendship and sheer joy of what they do that has kept The Leading Ladies on the road for so many years. The vocal harmony trio of Michelle Baird, Ceara Grehan and Lynne McAllister are celebrating not only their 15th anniversary, but what has been their busiest year yet.

They were brought together by chance in 2002 when singer Peter Corry invited them to be his main backing vocalists at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast.

The women, all talented singers who had performed in dozens of musical theatre productions, got on so well and their voices blended so seamlessly that they officially formed the trio a year later.

Michelle says: "There were no other female vocal groups in Northern Ireland then and we feel so lucky to still be out singing and doing what we love.

"Despite the ever-growing number of female groups, we can still claim to be the original one."

Performing everything from classical to country, Celtic to swing, and musicals to chart hits, The Leading Ladies have appeared at venues across Northern Ireland and the Republic, and in July were guests of Ireland's The Three Tenors at the National Concert Hall in Dublin.

And in the process, they say, they have become best friends and have been there for each other during some of life's most important milestones.

All three somehow manage to combine their Leading Ladies engagements with their own musical commitments, careers and looking after young families.

Ceara (46), who lives in Derriaghy with husband Steven and sons Luca (eight) and Enzo (six), is a speech and language therapist, a career she considers more of a vocation than a job.

Having worked with the South Eastern Trust for a number of years, she has recently been appointed head of the Northern Ireland office for the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, and is due to take up her post next year.

She also runs The Ceara Grehan School, teaching music, drama, mindfulness and life skills to help children lacking in confidence or suffering from anxiety "find their voice".

She says: "I wasn't the most confident child, but becoming a performer has enriched my life in so many ways.

"My youngest little boy didn't have the same confidence as his brother but he had the same ability, and I couldn't find the kind of school I wanted to help him, so I set up my own.

"Singing is one of the greatest joys in my life. It is the most incredible gift to have been given," she says.

"When I sing, I forget all my worries."

As a child, Ceara loved singing and at primary school had a "fantastic" music teacher who encouraged her to join the City of Belfast School of Music.

"After I sat my A-levels I had a decision to make," she explains.

"Back then it wasn't the done thing to choose music for a career, so I went to university to study speech and language therapy, which I have never regretted."

Ceara's musical career has seen her perform leading roles in more than 19 shows across the country, including The Merry Widow, Hello Dolly, South Pacific and The Sound of Music.

She won the Association of Irish Musical Societies' (AIMS) Best Female Singer in Ireland award for the role of Mrs Anna in The King and I at the Grand Opera House.

Her husband Steven is a guitarist with The Leading Ladies and the couple, who have been married for 24 years, met in the church folk group at St Anne's in Derriaghy, where they still play.

She says: "When we perform as The Leading Ladies we build a rapport with the audience and we share ourselves.

"We have also adapted our music to suit changing tastes. We recently did a new Celtic programme which we have been working on a lot this year and it has been really successful."

Lynne McAllister (54), who lives in Waringstown, recalls how she met husband Brian Trainor when she played his guardian angel in a production.

The couple have been together for 24 years and married for 21, with a nine-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. "Brian's my guardian angel now," she jokes.

Theirs is also a musical partnership, with the couple being respected singers on the church circuit. Lynne hails from a musical family. Her late father, the Rev Billy McAllister, was a well known Methodist minister and her mum Dorothy, who has a wonderful singing voice, took the Shankill Methodist Youth Choir.

Lynne says: "We toured the province in what were more troubled days, but we had a great time. We used to put on church pantomimes and dad starred in them."

Her dad, who died of motor neurone disease in 1998, was also a teacher and chaplain of Methodist College, Belfast, and Lynne has wonderful memories of living in the house at the front of the school and their home being an open doors for countless students, some of them from overseas who were feeling homesick.

"We always had lots of dogs and cats and every bird that was injured in Methodist College ended up in our house," she laughs.

Faith is very important to Lynne and she has a strong conviction that if you are given a talent you should use it.

She and her husband are members of the Waringstown Community Players dramatic group.

At the moment, they are preparing for The Bethlehem Village, an ambitious event on December 14 and 15 which is already sold out.

She adds: "We had a piano at home and I was quite a shy person and found it difficult to stand up in front of people. My dad thought it would be a good idea for me to get involved in some of the operatic groups, so I joined the Ulster Operatic Society.

"The real you comes out when you are performing - it's a chance to release and let yourself be who you really are."

But it was another family passion - cooking - which inspired her to study hotel catering and institutional management at university.

"My mum had her own catering business, and then we ran a cafe in Botanic near the Arts Theatre, so our lives were always about two things - food and singing," says Lynne.

Today, she gives private singing lessons and also works in schools where she takes singing workshops and is involved in school musical productions.

As for being one of The Leading Ladies, she adds: "I love singing with the girls. We have been together so long and we make up all our own harmonies. We still have so much fun.

"After we got together at the Peter Corry show, it just grew from there. We really trust each other, but we are straight with each other at the same time, our families go on holiday together and our husbands are good friends, too. And we get to wear sparkly dresses!"

Michelle Baird (45) lives in Bangor with husband Matthew Forsythe, an actor and singer, and their two-year-old daughter Isla - and has a schedule that would make some women want to lie down in a darkened room.

As well as her part in The Leading Ladies, she does solo work and is in a Fifties rock 'n' roll band, Soda Popz, with Matt and five musicians.

Michelle says: "I was raised on rock 'n' roll and country music. My parents loved listening to it and when we started Soda Popz five years ago we just wanted to do two or three shows a year, but this year it's been double that."

In her "day job", which she also describes as her "dream job", she is director of marketing and communications at the Ulster Orchestra. She points out that the trio got their name after asking for ideas from the audience at the first concert they gave, and with each of them having played leading roles it seemed the perfect choice.

"We have often said that even though we are really busy with family and work, and sometimes we don't feel like putting on the fake tan and going out, once we are together and getting ready, it's such a good time and such fun," she says. "We just switch off. It's so uplifting if you are performing to an appreciative audience and making people happy."

Michelle started ballet, tap and jazz classes when she was three and was introduced to singing by default when her ballet teacher entered her for a singing and dancing category at a festival.

"I won and after that my mum signed me up for singing classes too," she says.

"Ceara and I used to compete against each other at school and when I was at university I did a show with Portrush Musical Society, which I loved.

"When I came back to Belfast I joined the Belfast Operatic Society, in the chorus and as a dancer, but I never had the courage to audition for a role."

It wasn't until nine years after her Portrush debut that she plucked up the courage to play Mabel in The Pirates of Penzance in the Waterfront Hall, winning an AIMS award for best female singer.

In fact, she went on to win another AIMS award and is the only female singer in Northern Ireland to have won it twice.

And it was during Guys and Dolls at the Grand Opera House with New Lyric in 2003 that she first met Matt.

They became romantically involved in 2012 and married in May this year, and didn't have to look too far for a musical act, with The Leading Ladies providing the entertainment.

"They're like sisters to me," she adds.

The Leading Ladies will be at St George's Market in Belfast on Sunday from 11.30am. They are also guests of Donaghadee Community Choir tonight at Bangor Elim. For more information, visit www.leadingladiesni.com or their Facebook page

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