Former fashion model and Big Brother contestant Orlaith McAllister on her plans for her wedding next year... and how a school run almost ended in tragedy
The Belfast woman tells Leona O'Neill she has no regrets about her life in the limelight and how she and her husband-to-be Neil, a lawyer, clicked on their first date
Former fashion model and Big Brother contestant Orlaith McAllister says she has a lot to be thankful for. The 40-year-old Belfast mother-of-two will next year tie the knot with her beau, lawyer Neil Logan; her kids are happy and healthy; and she is about to embark on a new chapter of her life as a personal trainer.
The north Belfast native says her life has changed dramatically since her 'colourful' Big Brother days which saw her propelled to stardom, grace the covers of national magazines and move in London's glittering celebrity circles.
Today she is more content in the gym or hanging out with her children Eva (12) and Anthony (10) in their north Belfast home, a stone's throw from where she grew up.
"I am north Belfast born and bred," she says. "We lived on Duncairn Gardens off the Antrim Road. My mum would always say that I was a quiet child and a really good baby. I have four sisters and we had each other to hang around with, so we never really went out. We were a very close family.
"We would have gone to my granny's at the weekend and I would flick through the Enquirer magazine. I would have seen all the supermodels like Cindy Crawford and the like and thought they were amazing. That's when I started to get interested in beauty and make-up.
"I was just a quiet, normal child. We were really, really well-behaved in school. I hung around with a lovely crowd and I was really studious. I went to Ulster University at 18 years old and did a business studies degree. I ticked all the boxes and I had an amazing time at uni. That is what I try to drum into my kids, that the uni days are the best of your life, with the opportunities that you have and the people you meet. I believe that the people you meet at university are the ones who are going to be with you through life."
Living in the area newspapers daubed 'the murder triangle', Orlaith says the Troubles were tough on her family - a relative was shot and injured near the peace line - but looking back, it seemed like "normal life".
"We lived on the peace line between Tigers Bay and the New Lodge in Duncairn Gardens," she says. "We were quite impacted during the Troubles, which is why my parents were very protective of us and kept us in, at home, and under their watchful eye. And it wasn't a bad thing for them to do that.
"We experienced quite a bit of aggressive behaviour like riots and you would have had the odd petrol bomb. A family member of mine was just walking home one night, he lived in Newington, and he was shot. He survived, thankfully.
"I think now, when you think back on it, it was just a way of life. You were used to it. You lived it and it was normal. Maybe I remember at the time being frightened, but I think it was just a normal life for us because we were so used to it.
"My kids now get shocked when I tell them stories of growing up or when they see the murals on the walls we drive past. They can't understand that stuff like that happened. It's a different way of life now, thankfully, but you just accept what happened and are thankful that no one you knew close to you was seriously hurt or killed.
"It was a tough time and now, being a parent myself, it was tough for my parents, when you think about them having five girls to keep safe. The Troubles were scary."
Orlaith left Belfast for London and entered the Big Brother house in series six in 2005. She says she has "no regrets" about that chapter of her life. "I was 25 years old when I went into the Big Brother house," she says. "I absolutely loved that experience. You have different chapters in your life and that was just one of the chapters of my life that I would never change. You had no worries or responsibilities or worries. That was my life then. I lived in London afterwards and that was a chapter in my life which was very, very colourful.
"We had Channel Four, Davina McCall, Russell Brand and Dermot O'Leary. It was just one of those moments that I look back on and think, that it was a real 'wow moment' for me because the people that I met and the circles that I mixed in was amazing. I had an incredible experience. I had a lot of opportunities and I chose to fall in love and had a baby and my life then changed and that chapter in London closed. And life became motherhood in Belfast for me."
She says the Big Brother experience taught her many life lessons.
"After Big Brother I had a feeling like I just wanted to run away at one stage," she says. "I wanted to go somewhere that no one knew me and start a fresh, new life. It was quite a suffocating feeling. I didn't accept then what I had done, my life then, whereas now I accept everything that happened in my life and this is just another chapter of my life.
"There was the whole situation of people knowing who you are and you don't know them. And then there were tabloids writing stuff. Your life was never private. I suppose I'm thankful that there was no social media back then. We were quite free to have a normal type of life compared to the reality stars now, and what they go through with the trolling and challenges they face. It's quite serious. I think that you need to have a level of thick skin to put yourself out in that industry.
"But I loved it, and it's just accepting your life and growing from that. Times goes on and people forget and then it crops up again. I accept it and I loved every moment of it. I wouldn't do anything differently. I have no regrets in life at all."
Life is completely different these days compared to then. She is now engaged to Neil Logan, a partner in a Belfast law firm. The couple are planning to wed next year. "I am due to be married in May 2020," she says. "Neil is very different to me, I think that is why we are getting married. They say opposites attract. We have been together for over a year now. He is 35 years old and I am 40 and we get on really well.
"We met via a mutual friend maybe three years ago. We didn't really stay in contact at that stage, we just messaged each other a few times. And then we hit it off, started messaging again in June of last year and we got together in August of last year.
"On our first date we went to Deanes Eipic and it was so lovely. There was no awkwardness. He is just so easy to get on with. We just clicked, really. He is lovely.
"He has seen the BBC reality show Beauty Queen and Single which I was in. He doesn't really talk about my previous career in TV. He knows and he gets it and I think he just accepts it. He accepts people coming up to me and asking for photos or whatever. I think he found it a bit strange initially. I'm just me and we just really clicked and I think he just fell in love with the 'weird and wonderful Orlaith' as he calls me. I told him on our first date that I was weird and I think he has noticed now that I was right. I was not selling myself to be this amazing beauty queen. I just told him I'm weird and if he was into a weird person, you've got one."
Orlaith says the couple's wedding will have fewer traditional elements than most ceremonies.
"It's the first time getting married for both of us, so it's really special," she says.
"I have two kids and Neil has a little boy so we are a nice blended family.
"The wedding is at Lough Eske in Donegal. It is really stunning. I've got my dress already. I went to Blush on the Lisburn Road and they were amazing.
"I told them everything I didn't want and they persuaded me to try on a selection of dresses. And everything that I didn't want, I chose. It was just so weird.
"But I am just really excited to be 40 and to be getting married. I'll be 41 by the time I am actually getting married.
"I never thought that I would ever get married. I was very happy being a single mum with two kids and just living life.
"And then Neil came along at the right time and we hit it off. We get on amazingly well. It's like I've known him for years.
"Because I am in my 40s, I am not a young bride. I have been to a lot of weddings before and they were lovely and every one has their own personal touches for the day.
"I just never wanted a traditional wedding. I always wanted to go away and get married. So, I think I am so relaxed about it because I can't go away due to us having a lot of family and the cost of things would be extortionate for our families.
"We want a lot of people to be there to celebrate our day, but at the same time I just want to give some little traditional things a miss. I am not really fussed on a wedding cake, for example. I think they are very expensive and they are never eaten. But that's my personal opinion.
"We are obviously getting married in a chapel so we are going to do the traditional vows, which is fine because we are all about the actual sacrament of it. It's just the little things that I am not going to be overly traditional about."
Orlaith says at a young age she had never imagined herself as a mother, never mind a bride, but she is grateful and delighted to be both - and grateful for the blessings of every single day.
"I didn't even think I would have kids," she says. "I always said that I would be the auntie, never the mother. I am a great believer in living your day as if it is your last. And I grew up and went through a lot of life changes in order to accept that. Because you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow. Instead of planning for the future, it is about living for the day that you are alive and appreciating everything around you. It sounds weird but I suppose that has come from life experiences for me, where I came from to where I am now.
"I am very grateful to be a mum with two beautiful, healthy children. I would love more children, but now with my age, I have to be mindful of hormonal changes. And it's not as easy as when I was 28 and 30 years old.
"I suppose I never thought that I would be a 41-year-old bride. But I am just all about being healthy and happy."
Orlaith says her desire to embrace everything life has to offer was borne from the tragic death of her cousin Fiona, who was killed on the Antrim Road.
"My cousin Fiona died 13 years ago this November," she says. "She was knocked down on the Antrim Road and her life was taken at 34. She had no children and she had never been married. You just think of life and how precious it really is. That changed my perspective massively. I was pregnant with Eva when Fiona died. Something like that makes you sit back and appreciate life an awful lot more."
Orlaith says taking part in the BBC's Beauty Queen and Single series - in which she and five other Northern Ireland beauty queens got 'make-unders' before going on a date - took her out of her comfort zone and made her look at herself in a different way.
"We were really under the microscope," she says. "We were going on dates with absolutely no make-up on, totally put out of our comfort zones. It was a challenge for me and I absolutely loved it. It was an amazing concept for the BBC and something I think a lot more shows should be about. Hiding behind a mask of make-up is not what a person should have to do. It was about looking at yourself in a different way and that is what I have done now.
"It's not that I don't care how I look, but I am very accepting of how I look. I look after myself, I go to the gym regularly and I eat well. I have a balanced diet. I always encourage my daughter to look after her skin. I have a beauty regime at night to cleanse, tone and moisturise and look after the skin and then maybe compliment with make-up.
She adds: "I had breast implants removed a number of years ago and then had them replaced. That was something about me. Everyone has a body image and what they are used to. I had my boobs for years then lived without them for three years. I then had them redone because I wanted to. It wasn't a fashion thing, it was more a self-confidence thing. They are part of me. I do love them.
"They are small and suit my body shape. I wouldn't be a massive promoter of anyone having cosmetic surgery done just for a fashion statement, because mentally you have to be so strong. Because it's a massive change. There are so many cosmetic procedures these days, it is quite scary. And there are a lot of botched jobs out there and people need to be careful out there. I have my Botox done by my amazing friend Tanya Khan. She is fantastic and honest about the face, the bone structure, and knows what she is talking about. She is not one of these people who will inject just for the money. I do have a little a couple of times a year.
"I don't ever want to change what I have been blessed with. But when I look tired, I looked tired. I have hereditary dark circles and I get tweaked, a little bit of help. I am all about growing old gracefully, but let's be honest, there are all these different things that you can have done, and why not?
"I like to feel good about myself, because then you are more motivated in your everyday living and job."
Orlaith says a horrifying experience last year, in which she and her children escaped serious injury during a school run crash, left her terrified but thankful they survived.
"I was on the school run and it was Eva's birthday," she says. "I had just left the house, it happened practically outside my front door. The car all steamed up and there was a side road. I don't know why, I think I just panicked and went across the lane to the side road and didn't see another car coming up. It hit me and the car spun three times.
"I remember the airbags deployed and the car was just spinning and Eva was screaming. The airbag had knocked out her tooth. The impact of the airbags had made my hearing go all funny and there was dust everywhere. I honestly thought I was in another world, I was so disoriented. I think I said a Hail Mary at that stage. I didn't know where we were going to end up.
"Anthony was sitting in the back seat and he wasn't making any sound. I didn't know what I was turning around to. Obviously you don't care about yourself at all. As soon as the car stopped spinning Eva got out screaming because she thought the car was going to go up in flames. I just took my seatbelt off and spun around. I was pleading, 'Please, wee man, be alive.' He had hit his head off the window at the back and was blanked out. He doesn't remember any of it. That was the scariest time of my life. We were really lucky to be alive."
Orlaith says she is strong-minded and doesn't like to think of 'what ifs', rather of the future. And the future for her is becoming a fully qualified personal trainer and setting up her own business.
"I'm finished my course to become a personal trainer," she says. "I have a little more coursework to do then I'm going in all guns blazing to start. I want to get a bit of fitness into people. I just love it, I love getting up and getting a training session in the morning.
"My goal is to empower women about their bodies and embrace what they have been blessed with. With me being a mum, now in my 40s, I believe you can still look good. You can still have an amazing diet, without having to go on these fad diets. It's just about feeling good mentally and physically.
"I know what fitness did for me mentally and physically and I want to be able to help young women and mums that you can actually do it. It's just about women being more motivated and looking at themselves and being happy with what they own and what they have.
"Opening my own fitness studio is down the line for me, with classes more than a gym environment. I have a business studies degree, so I might as well put it to good use.
"I am more comfortable in myself now than I was at 30 and I embrace the fact that I have had two children and my body isn't the way it looked 15 years ago.
"It's all about embracing what you have and building on that. And I just love the fitness industry and there is so much more to come. It's all good."