‘When I tell young people that I was pregnant at 15, chose to go back to school and then set up a business with zero education, they find my story inspiring’
Grainne McCoy has turned her back on television fame to mentor young women who, like her, became teenage mothers, writes Stephanie Bell
Grainne McCoy turned down a chance to become a reality TV star to instead follow her dream of mentoring teenage mothers. Her appearance on last year's series of The Apprentice could so easily have set her on a very different career path after she was encouraged to go on Celebrity Big Brother.
But, true to herself and her passion, the make-up entrepreneur from Co Armagh rejected the opportunity in favour of creating an academy that specialises in helping young people who lack the confidence and qualifications to pursue a career.
This year, Grainne (32), a single mum to 16-year-old Ryan, teamed up with a number of local youth and community charities to launch two-day workshops designed to give young people the tools and self-belief to turn their lives around.
After becoming pregnant at 15, she understands the challenges facing teen mums. As part of her successful make-up school, she mentors young women who have struggled to secure work after an early pregnancy.
Grainne, who made the final five in The Apprentice, enjoyed a career in film and TV make-up in London and could easily have been carried away by the celebrity circles she found herself in.
But growing up in Dromintee, near Forkhill, and stunned to find herself pregnant while studying for her GCSEs, she never forgot the support she received. Now, she dedicates herself to helping young women in the same position she was.
"It would have been so easy to get caught up in the five minutes of fame, but the reality is it wouldn't have lasted," Grainne says.
"After The Apprentice, I had two options. I had a management company during the show who wanted me to do Big Brother, which I am sure would have been fun, but it's just not the type of person I am.
"I wanted to combine my experience with make-up with helping single mums. I love working with young people.
"Having a teenager myself, I can see the pressures they face, especially with social media, and so it was a combination of having my son, Ryan, wanting to help young girls who are single mums and my love of make-up that led me to concentrate on my business and developing the academy."
Grainne is an incredible role model. She single-mindedly pursued her career goals, enjoying great success as a make-up artist. This year, she also established the Grainne McCoy Make-up Academy, which runs workshops across Northern Ireland for unemployed young people, as well as laying the groundwork to open similar schools in Manchester, London and Birmingham next year. On top of that, she's just launched her first beauty product, Lashes by Grainne McCoy, which is available in pharmacies throughout Northern Ireland.
It is just the start of what she plans to be a full range of make-up products, details of which she is for the moment keeping under wraps.
Grainne has never been the type to stand still and pours herself into her career with passion.
The businesswoman uses own experience to inspire young people to believe that they too can achieve their goals in life.
She grew up in a very tight-knit family, headed by mum Siobhan Carragher, and has an older brother, Peadar (33), sister Bronagh (27) and brothers Thomas (24) and eight-year-old Sean.
"We are so close as a family, it is ridiculous," she says. "I live right behind my mum, and the path to my house leads to her back door. I'll never move away."
Grainne was just 15 and studying for her GCSEs when she became pregnant. It came as a massive shock to her family when she came home one day and announced the news.
"I didn't tell anyone for six-and-a-half months and had my first scan at 30 weeks," she explains.
"Within a week of getting the scan, I looked like I was ready to give birth - the weight just seemed to come on all of a sudden.
"I don't know why I didn't tell anyone. I think there was a fear factor because I knew I wanted to keep the baby.
"It was a shock to Mum because she was so young herself and was going to become a grandmother at 33. I think I would pass out now if I was told I was going to be a grandmother.
"She was so supportive and has been from day one. I was very fortunate to have her. I couldn't have done it without her.
"I know that a lot of teenage mothers don't have the benefit of that kind of support, and that's why I feel so passionate about the academy."
Grainne was determined to finish school and returned within four weeks of giving birth to repeat her final GCSE year.
She wasn't sure what career she wanted to pursue when she started working in Aldo shoe shop in The Quays Shopping Centre in Newry after her exams, but by the age of 20 she had been promoted to manager.
After a production company came to film an advertisement at the mall, Grainne got talking to the make-up artist on set, after which she decided to change her career.
She gave up her well-paid manager's job to study for a diploma in make-up at the LA Make-up Academy in Dublin.
It was a tough year, but one that changed the course of her life. "I would have gotten up at 5am to get Ryan ready and then gotten the bus to Dublin to study all day, returning home around 8pm," Grainne says.
"I was literally scraping the pennies together to get by. It was a very tough time, but I enjoyed every day of it because I knew it was what I wanted to do.
"I was always thinking ahead. The course finished on a Friday and I had lined up a new job to start on the Monday on the make-up counter of what was then the new House of Fraser store in Belfast."
During two years at House of Fraser, Grainne again worked her way up to management level, but she felt the job was more to do with the day-to-day running of the department than her love of make-up.
Soon, she decided to take another risk and gave up her job to become a freelance make-up artist in London.
"I didn't know anybody there, but I just felt something would happen if I went there," Grainne says. "There weren't many make-up artists in Northern Ireland at the time.
"It was 10 years ago and Mum looked after Ryan while I rented a room and got a job handing out flyers on the streets of the city while knocking on the doors of companies, looking for work."
Her persistence paid off and she landed a role with Google and YouTube doing make-up for online shows, in the process working with a number of famous people including the Backstreet Boys and John Legend.
The position was hard work and Grainne was still travelling back and forth to Northern Ireland to spend weekends with Ryan.
Despite the pressures, she loved the position and decided she wanted to work in films. While she had no contacts in the industry, she soon worked out a way to get them.
"I wanted to work in film and I just used my head and thought, 'Where better to make contacts than at one of the biggest film festivals in the world?' So I went to Cannes," Grainne explains.
"I met a film producer there, who to this day is a good friend. He helped me find work on some feature films in England and I also worked for a while on Emmerdale and EastEnders. I also did a six-week feature film on zombies in Ibiza, which was brilliant."
While she loved the work, with a young son still at home, she realised she couldn't keep flying back and forth to London, so she decided to return home and open a make-up studio of her own.
Grainne renovated a vacant building at the back of her mother's house, watching online videos to learn the skills needed. "Thank goodness for YouTube," she says. "I levelled the floor myself, knocked down the walls and created a studio all by myself."
Soon, however, she wanted a new challenge. After watching a hairdresser on The Apprentice, she decided she would apply to the show.
"I just thought, 'If she can do it, so can I,'" Grainne says. "I was bored and needed another challenge. I applied for the show, never thinking for one minute I would get through.
"I spent three days filling in the application form as I wanted them to know who I was as a person. I posted it on Boxing Day 2015 and was called for an interview in January."
In what turned out to be a long process, Grainne attended up to five interviews before receiving the call to say she had been accepted, beating thousands of other applicants in the process.
"I remember taking the call and giving Mum the thumbs-up," she recalls. "She nearly passed out because she is a huge fan of The Apprentice and never misses an episode. Now her daughter was going to be on the show.
"I loved it. I wouldn't change anything I did on that show. I was 100% myself. You are watched that much that there is no way you could be anything else.
"It takes a lot to faze me. If something doesn't work out, I just move on. I didn't take anything to heart - I just kept my head down and got to the final five."
Grainne made such a big impression that in August of this year she was asked to fly to England and spend two days mentoring the latest contestants.
Ever since, she has been focused on building up her business and following her passion to mentor young people.
The entrepreneur developed a kit that allows her to take her studio on the road and set up one of her make-up workshops wherever she likes.
Working with a number of local organisations, including the Prince's Trust and Youth Action, she created two-day workshops aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds. The classes were held in Belfast, Fermanagh and Newry during the summer.
"People would question what you can achieve in make-up workshops, but only about 30% of what I offer these young girls is about the make-up," Grainne says.
"A lot of them feel they are not good enough to work, and I use my story to help show them that they are. When they hear that I was pregnant at 15 and chose to go back to school and set up my own business with zero education, they are inspired. Of 70 young people who attended my workshops in the summer, 43 are now back at school or in training.
"My mother always said I looked at everything through rose-tinted glasses and had no fear of trying something new, and that's what I am trying to get across to these young people. I want them to have the self-confidence and belief that they can do anything they want.
"At the start of the course, they are coming into the room and don't want to speak, but by the end of the second day, they are able to make a presentation and are completely different people. My heart melts whenever I watch them."
In conjunction with Youth Action, she devised workshops aimed at teenage mums where childcare and transport to the studio are covered to free them up to attend.
Two of the first 15 people to take part in the workshop are now studying for careers in the beauty industry.
Grainne has also put teams together to run three academies that she plans to open in England next year, offering up to 70 young people the chance to study for Level 1 City and Guilds in Make-up. She has also created a student loan system for anyone wanting to study for Level 2.
"It's a bit crazy at the minute, trying to get it off the ground," she says. "It has been my dream for some time to run a make-up academy, and now that it is happening it feels a bit surreal."
When she is not working, the single mum likes nothing better than spending time with her son, who is already proving to be a chip off the block.
Still at school, he works part-time and is developing a logo for a clothes line he hopes to design. Ryan also has aspirations to be a hairdresser.
"He is a great child," Grainne says. "I am his best friend as well as his mum. We are very close. He works part time and loves the fact that he has his own money in the bank.
"I think schools put a lot of pressure on kids now and I am delighted he knows what he wants and is already working on designing his own clothing label."
For Grainne, who has ambitious plans to expand her make-up academy and launch new make-up brands under her own name next year, life couldn't be better.
"I just want to keep going," she says. "I am a very happy woman and I've done better than I ever thought possible and I just want to keep doing more."