Meet the Northern Ireland plus-size model who beat depression and anxiety to win a top beauty contest
A young mum who has battled mental illness and the challenges of her son's autism is to compete in London in an international beauty contest. Jennifer Taylor (33), who lives with husband Kris and son Zachary in Londonderry, tells her inspiring story to Leona O'Neill
A Londonderry mum who has overcome severe depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts, and navigated her way through her son's autism diagnosis is hoping to be crowned the Mrs International Curve beauty queen later this year.
Scottish-born Jennifer Taylor (33), who lives in Newbuildings with her husband, Kris, and her six-year-old son, Zachary, will represent Northern Ireland in the global competition to be held in London in October.
The Richmond Centre marketing manager and plus-size model, who is the current Mrs Ireland, says showing women they can be whatever they want to be, regardless of the challenges they face, is the most important message she wants to get across.
She says she is proud to be an advocate for curvy women and speak for those who are struggling with mental health issues.
"It is very important to me to show women that just because you're married, just because you're a mum, just because you're struggling with depression and anxiety and just because you're a size 18 and not a size six, doesn't mean that dreams are unachievable," she says, "When I was 16 years old, my dream was to be a model, but that never happened for me. Now at 33 I am, even though I have mental health issues, stronger and more capable to work in the industry than I would have been at a young age.
"I have life experience in my favour now and really want to inspire women to be the best they can be - to accept that no one is perfect, but that it is your imperfections that make you you."
Jennifer's mental health issues began in the year following her son's birth.
"My depression and anxiety started after my son Zachary was born," she says.
"About a year after I had him, I realised that I had a couple of issues and I reached out to my doctor.
"I was really lucky in that I had a good doctor who specialised in mental health.
"I have anxiety also. I get panic attacks quite often. They are not too bad now because I have had good medication and I've gone through therapy, but sometimes the problems can be quite hard to deal with.
"At my lowest ebb, and I still get a bit frightened saying it, I was suicidal. I used to, what my therapist calls, catastrophise. If I made a normal mistake at work, in my head I went from A to Z really quite quickly. Because I've always had issues with finance from growing up I would think I was going to lose my job, lose my house and end up homeless.
"I'm not proud saying it, but my thought process at the time was if I could make my death look like an accident, then Zach could get life insurance money. I thought my son would be better off with money than his mum.
"It made me take a good look at myself. I said to myself, 'If you think your son would rather have money on his wedding day than his mummy beside him, then you are completely wrong, Jennifer'. That kind of talked me out of it.
"But unfortunately, once you get that awful thought, it just comes back all the time. But I am able to fight it, thankfully enough.
"But once you have thought it once, you can't stop it - it always seems like an option. But I would never take it. I would just have to look at Zach and think that it would not be fair and that I could never do that to my child."
Jennifer says one of the special aspects of competing in beauty pageants is that she gets to learn from other strong and inspirational women.
"In the six months leading up to my first competition, I had a very difficult time with the idea of being judged, deeming myself not beautiful enough, not young enough, not slim enough," she explains. "This stems from a six-year battle with mental health issues, including depression and anxiety.
"I told myself countless times I wasn't good enough and had no chance of winning, and at times I wanted to drop out of the competition. However, the pageant director, Jennie Lynch, the other contestants, my family and friends were always so supportive and gave me the confidence to push forward until the end.
"One in four people will suffer from some sort of mental health issue in life, and I think it is important, especially in this city, to make sure there are proper, well-funded and functioning services to help those struggling with problems."
As well as raising awareness and funding for mental health awareness, Jennifer also used her platform as Mrs Ireland to highlight the need for faster diagnosis of autism.
"My darling six-year-old son was diagnosed with autism in the summer of 2017," she says. "We always knew that there was something a little different with him because he was delayed in his speech compared to other kids in his peer group.
"His diagnosis came two years after initially being put on the assessment waiting list. This caused difficulty in his first year of school, where he only could stay half a day at school as, without one-to-one supervision, Zachary could not remain there due to his condition.
"This was due to lack of funding and a severely long waiting list for assessment, and meant that he missed out on half his education in that early year. But he is flying now at school. We are so proud of him.
"When he was diagnosed, 25% of me was grieving because I knew his life would be harder than most because people will see him differently and he's not.
"To me it's not a disability, it's an ability. I just wanted him to be able to have everything and achieve everything he wants to in life without having anything holding him back.
"But essentially, the other 75% of me was happy that we have a diagnosis and he can get the support that he needs so that no matter what he wants in life he will be able to achieve it because he's got the support there.
"People ask me a lot, 'If there was a cure for autism would you take it? I honestly wouldn't because it is what makes him who he is. All his little traits that are due to autism are what make him a fantastic, amazing little boy.
"I always call autism superpowers because I think it is, and it's just that society doesn't quite understand it."
For the London pageant, Jennifer has linked up with local company Solely Sewing to upcycle her wedding dress into an evening gown for the final.
"My brilliant designer, Traci Anderson - a fellow Scottish woman living in Derry - is literally ripping my wedding dress apart and putting it back together again to create a one-off really special dress for the night," she says.
"I'm all about recycling and reusing material and environmental issues. Being able to reuse something that was so special to me goes along with my ethos.
"The fact that I can reuse a dress that was simply gathering dust in a wardrobe, and now will be used to hopefully help me win an international title, is amazing. Traci has been a beacon of creativity, abundant in ideas to make the perfect dress, one that shines on stage and makes me feel confident and comfortable in my own skin. I know it will show my progress from me 10 years ago as a bride, to a mum, to a beauty queen."
Winning the Mrs International Curve pageant would be a "dream come true" for Jennifer.
"Being in the first pageant and subsequently winning it has really helped my confidence and made me realise that I am fine just as I am, and I hope to emulate that success this year on the international stage," she says.
"No matter your size, shape, age, marital status, or background, you can achieve anything you put your mind too, and I hope to be a role model to women out there to show that, despite my mental health issues, I too can be a beauty queen, even as a size 18-20, even as a mum, even at 33. Anything is possible.
"It would literally mean the world for me to win this. I have had some successes in my life, but being able to be comfortable with myself is amazing.
"The fact that it is a curves competition and embraces the differences in people and the way normal bodies are, means everything because I can go and be myself. I don't have to worry about being a size six.
"I'll be competing against women from all over the world. I'm 33 and a mum, so it's quite a feat and I'm really looking forward to it."