Zoe Salmon, who won Miss Northern Ireland 20 years ago, took to the stage at the 75th anniversary of Miss Great Britain to mark turning 40 and also to highlight charities she supports. Amira Graham, Miss Earth NI in 2013, wants to make the most of every day after a serious cancer scare. They talked to Claire O’Boyle before facing the judges
It's 20 years since Zoe Salmon was catapulted into the world of celebrity with her stunning victory as Miss Northern Ireland.
Since then, the model and TV presenter has done everything from fronting the iconic Blue Peter children's show to star turns in Dancing on Ice and Celebrity MasterChef - as well as some incredible work for charity.
And last night, just weeks after passing her milestone 40th birthday, the Co Down beauty set off for another challenge, as she entered the first ever Ms Great Britain beauty contest for women aged over 28.
"It's really exciting," Zoe tells me just before the contest in Leicester.
"It's the 75th anniversary of Miss Great Britain this year, so they've launched this new competition for the anniversary. It's perfect timing for me."
This is because Zoe is using the national beauty contest as a way to mark her big 4-0 - and to mark the remarkable four decades of her life.
"I know a lot of people don't always love to mark getting another year older," says Zoe. "But this is a big one. It's such a blessing to have been here for four decades - and I really mean that.
"I've watched as friends haven't made it this far but I'm the opposite of that. I think it's a blessing." And as she gets older, Zoe also embraces the changes that have come - and continue to come - with age.
"I love the fine lines and the wrinkles, you just need to embrace it," says Zoe. "I think I'm definitely a different person to who I was when I was 19 and won Miss Northern Ireland.
It used to be that women over 40 were considered old, but not any longerZoe Salmon
"I think you obviously learn a lot over the years, and life experience teaches you so much.
"I've had a lot of challenges, like everyone I guess, and I'm going into this competition a lot wiser - but I guess sometimes ignorance is bliss too.
"I know so much about it all now, it can feel a bit terrifying putting myself out there again but I honestly feel that things can be most rewarding when you're pushing yourself to do something you're scared of.
"But on the other side of fear I always think there can be something really exciting. There's a lot to be said for not resting on your laurels. For having a bit of fear - and doing it anyway."
When it comes to her appearance, Zoe says her stunning looks are down, in a big part, to hard work and dedication.
Right up high on her list is excellent skincare.
"When I was a teenager I had really dreadful acne," she recalls. "It was so bad I was on really strong medication for it, and I got really badly teased for it too. It was a horrible time in my life and I dreamt of the day I'd have clear skin.
"All those years, and for a long time afterwards I hid myself behind my make-up. I remember once being on the Tube in London putting my make-up on and this woman told me I was nicer without it. I was stunned, and thought people who said that were mad. But somehow, honestly, I'm now at the stage where I'm really not a fan of make-up. The skin is the biggest organ in your body and I'm really dedicated to taking care of it. I go to the Beyond Skin Clinic in Belfast regularly, and they've been fantastic.
"I get treatments there like peels and LED treatments, and I follow their advice with a really good skincare routine in between. You have to be pretty dedicated, but I'm so happy now with my skin. I actually get quite emotional about it, because I never thought back when I was having such an awful time as a teenager that I could ever feel like that."
Taking care of her physical health has gone hand in hand with staying fit mentally, too, says Zoe.
"I'm fitter and stronger now than I was 20 years ago," says the star. "Mentally and physically. I go to the gym on a regular basis, usually at least four times a week. It's not just the physical stuff, which is obviously really important, but it's a great mental release and helps you work through any negativity.
"I think I have a better muscle mass, and probably better body fat, than I did back then. But it isn't easy. I have to really work at it.
"It used to be that women over 40 were considered old, but that's not the way it is any longer. Look at Jennifer Aniston. She's 51 and she looks incredible - but I'm sure she's working at that all the time."
I'm happy to lend people my voice if I canZoe Salmon
And as well as diet and exercise - Zoe says she loves her spinach and steamed salmon - the star, who lives in Newtownards with husband Will Corrie, is a big advocate of getting plenty of sleep.
"I'm really serious about that," she says. "People almost laugh it off and say, yeah I survive on three or four hours, but we really need to be getting our eight hours a night.
"It feeds into everything else. Without being properly rested you're starting off completely on the back foot. Everyone knows about five fruit and veg, getting regular exercise. But from my point of view, it all starts with sleep."
And along with her health and fitness, a major focus for Zoe over the past few months has been fundraising for Ms Great Britain's associated charities, Alex's Wish and Cancer Research UK, and she couldn't wait for the chance to meet more like-minded women through Ms Great Britain last night.
"Some people look at these competitions and don't get what they're all about," says Zoe. "I get that, but honestly some of the best people I know, some of the closest friends in my life, I've met through Miss Northern Ireland.
"I can't see what could be wrong with meeting such brilliant people. They're some of the smartest, talented people out there. It's lawyers and CEOs and entrepreneurs. It's the Head Girls from school who were high achievers and wanted to help people. That's what it's all about.
"Life's not easy for anyone, no matter what they do for a living, whether they're successful in their work or if they're in the public eye. Everyone's got their things to struggle with.
"I just think it's about bigging each other up. The platform you get through these competitions gives you the chance to speak up for charities and organisations, and for people who need your support. I'm happy to lend people my voice if I can, because every one of us needs a bit of support sometimes."
1. Sleep: It's not always possible, but aim for eight hours a night. That's the foundation for everything else.
2. Mix up your workout: I aim for four sessions a week, some cardio, some weights and some HIIT sessions. I also try to get some hobbies that will be exercise and fun too. I've done different tennis, ballet and boxing at different times.
3. Wear what you like: There are all these ideas about what you should wear when you get to a certain age, but I think that's ridiculous. Who says you shouldn't wear a skirt above your knee if you've got amazing legs? Find the clothes you feel confident in and go for it, because confidence is key to looking and feeling good.
4. Take care of your skin: It's the same as diet really. You can't just have a salad one day and then eat pizza the rest of the week and expect to look your best. You have to be consistent. One face mask every now and again isn't enough. You need to find a routine and products that work for you and try your best to stick to it.
5. Go for treatments. Your skin is your body's biggest organ, so it's worth looking after. It doesn't have to be every week, but whatever you can manage. I'd say one a month would be great, but at least one a season to give your skin a real overhaul and get you starting fresh and feeling great again.
At just 19, Amira Graham was named Miss Earth Northern Ireland and her place in the beauty pageant Hall of Fame was secured.
Seven years later - with a law degree from Dublin's Trinity College under her belt - the Belfast model was set to do it all again as she headed to Leicester for the 75th Miss Great Britain competition last night.
Now 26, and almost finished her professional legal training, Amira can't wait for the opportunities the contest could bring her. "I'm really excited about it," says Amira, as she prepared to set off for the contest. "It's my first pageant in seven years and I'm overwhelmed by the support.
"There's a misconception about beauty queens, that they're bitchy or false. But that's really not true. The difference is they're not just models, they're role models, and they take that part of it really seriously.
"They have to be well-rounded people, not just someone who's pretty. They share a charitable ethos, and they're someone young people can look up to.
"It's a great way to meet like-minded people and you'll find everyone from doctors and lawyers to teachers and nurses, people who have a common goal to help other people and to use their platform for good. I can't wait to see what this opportunity brings."
They found this 15cm growthAmira Graham
And since her last experience in a pageant, Amira has experienced some major challenges personally, with a cancer scare aged just 23, which means her drive to get a positive message out there is stronger than ever.
Three years ago, the stunning brunette was having a scan for endometriosis - a condition she'd had since her teens - when doctors discovered a worrying growth on her pancreas.
"It was a really horrible time," recalls Amira. "I'd had absolutely no symptoms whatsoever, and it was during a scan for something totally unrelated they found this 15cm growth.
"As difficult as endometriosis has been for me at times, I'm grateful for it because I think it saved my life." After doctors discovered the growth, Amira underwent lengthy surgery to remove it - and she was warned she could lose as much as half of her pancreas, as well as all of her spleen.
"It was a very traumatic experience," recalls Amira. "It was four or five hours in theatre, and eight days in hospital, and in the end the growth came away so the doctors didn't need to remove any of my organs - but I was very, very lucky. They told me someone was looking after me."
Amira's health scare made the young woman take stock of her life - and more determined than before to make the most of it.
"I was the youngest person in my ward by about 40 years," she says. "And something like that really makes you think. It became a real turning point for me and made me realise I want to make the most of every opportunity that comes my way.
"For a long time, like so many other people I'd been concerned with looking a certain way. That's how it is for young women, you feel you need to be perfect. But things could have been so much worse for me.
"If the growth hadn't been detected at that point, it could have developed into something a lot more dangerous over the years, and I have no idea what would have happened."
Left with a 12-inch scar after her surgery, Amira is now on a mission to help other young women feel confident about their bodies - whatever imperfections they feel they have.
"I'd done quite a bit of modelling and would have been in pictures in my bikini," she says. "Once I realised the scar would be there I was worried about it, of course. But I've come to realise that none of us are perfect, and we're all perfect at the same time in our imperfections. It's OK to have things about you that are a bit different.
"Some people have scars on the outside like me, but other people have inner issues and I just want to help get the message out there that we're all perfect in our own way, whether our scars are inside or out. We're our own critics in a lot of ways and we need to give ourselves a break."
After everything I went through, I just really want to embrace every opportunityAmira Graham
Incredibly close to her mum Patricia, a nurse, Amira quotes her words of advice when it comes to feeling good.
"My mum always tells me we should speak to ourselves like we'd speak to our best friends," she says. "You'd never say anything to talk them down or make them feel bad, so we shouldn't do it to ourselves either." But of course Amira takes care of her appearance, too. Meticulous about her skincare, she has worked with Belfast's Beyond Skin Clinic for years.
"They look after you so well, and do a really bespoke service depending on your own needs," says Amira. "I've been going to them since one of my very first pageants and the girls are so lovely."
She also works out, usually along with boyfriend Ben Banerji (26), who works in finance. "We go to the gym together and he keeps me right and teaches me when it comes to a lot of the workouts," she says.
And what does Amira - who once appeared on BBC One's Beauty Queen and Single - hope to get from the experience of appearing in Miss GB?
"I have no idea at the minute," she says. "After everything I went through, I just really want to embrace every opportunity that comes my way, and I'll take it for what it is and enjoy what comes."
1. Find and embrace your style: I'm not a big one for following trends endlessly. Figure out what suits you and go with it. I like timeless pieces, like a Karen Millen coat I own and love. I think buy less, but buy well and you've got a great foundation for your look.
2. Stay decluttered: I try to live by the rule if you buy something new, get rid of something else. Tidy wardrobe, tidy mind. I give stuff I don't need any more to friends or my sister, or to a charity shop. If there's too much stuff in my wardrobe I can't see what I'm doing and can't figure out what to wear.
3. Skincare first: I'm really serious about this, I cleanse, tone and moisturise very diligently. And always take my make-up off before bed - even if I've been out. And I use a lot of natural products like rose water, which are gentle on your skin.
4. Mix up your exercise: I try to be active five or six times a week. That doesn't have to mean the gym. I used to row when I was doing a post-grad diploma at Queen's in Belfast, and I do a big walk with the dog and my boyfriend Ben on a Sunday.
5. I eat well most of the time. Pizza and chocolate are my weaknesses but if I'm good most of the time it's OK to indulge now and again. I find if I'm going to the gym quite regularly, I eat better because it's in my mind.