Emma Carswell: 'Miss World is more about character now - I don't care if my bottom is two inches wider than the next girl's'
Miss Northern Ireland Emma Carswell talks to Una Brankin about her time at the beauty pageant in the US and why she wants to work with those battling mental health issues
Classic beauties are often said to look more exquisite in the flesh than in photographs, flattering filters or not. A case in point was the iconic actress Rita Hayworth, whose fresh good looks - with no studio make-up - bowled over her future husband, Prince Ali Kahn, when they first met in Cannes in 1948.
Emma Carswell has been required to slap on the warpaint for our photographer's high-powered lens when we meet for an interview in Belfast. Her young face is flawlessly enhanced with expensive cosmetics from make-up artist Paddy McGurgan's studio, but it's immediately plain to see that the 21-year-old is a natural beauty, even more attractive in the flesh than she appears in the dozens of images taken of her since she was crowned Miss Northern Ireland last May.
You just can't fake wide sweeping cheekbones like that, even with all the contouring and highlighting products available these days. Add perfect skin, big dark eyes and a genuinely warm smile to the mix, and you have a real head-turner on your hands. Last month, however, the coveted title of Miss World 2017 went to the arguably more photogenic Miss Puerto Rico, Stephanie Del Valle, a 5ft 10ins tall law student who could pass for a supermodel.
At 5ft 6ins, Miss Northern Ireland is an inch too short for the designer catwalk shows, and probably too curvy - at a healthy size 10 - for the leading fashion houses. Along with her fellow UK entrants - Miss England, Miss Scotland and Miss Wales - Emma didn't make it to the Top 20 of Miss World but she got a three-week, all-expenses-paid stay in Washington and a trip to New York for her trouble.
"We got a tour of the White House and we were brought to see the School of Rock musical on Broadway," she beams.
"And we had lunch on a fabulous cruise ship in New York. I didn't actually get to meet Miss Puerto Rico but I met Julia Morley (co-founder of Miss World).
"She's lovely. She advised me to think of the competition as a job interview, rather than a night out."
We're having tea in the Europa's comfortable upstairs lounge. From the quiet Co Armagh village of Gilford, Emma has a country freshness about her. She forgoes the tempting mini pastries that comes with the tea, citing Christmas over-indulgence at home with her younger sister Amy (19) and parents Trevor, a structural engineer, mum Lynda, who encouraged her to enter the Miss Northern Ireland competition and, of course, her cherished dog Amber, a Jack Russell-Pomeranian cross
"My father and mother are my biggest role models," she says. "They inspire me to go after my dreams and motivate me to push on in the hardest of times.
"I was very shy growing up - my nan can't believe I went ahead and entered Miss Northern Ireland and got up on a stage. I'm still shy in certain situations but I've got a bit more confident as I've got older.
"Being made head girl at school in Tandragee helped give me confidence. We used to get lilac cards for being good; yellow ones for the opposite. I got a lot of lilac ones."
Currently on a year out from her psychology degree at the University of Ulster, the beauty queen is very close to her family and describes her parents as caring, a characteristic she has inherited. She was deeply affected by a shocking spate of suicides in her local area in 2007, when she was at high school. A young mother took her own life in nearby Richill and four died by suicide in nearby Laurelvale, including three students. Another two in Portadown, both immigrants, and a further three - one Armagh, one in Tandragee and one in Craigavon, all died tragically by their own hand.
"There was a copy-cat element to it and I remember this atmosphere of dread at the time," Emma recalls.
"When I look back, I feel sad that no one understood or intervened to help them.
"I had a wonderful childhood and it makes you realise when something is going on in your own life that it really isn't that bad. It makes you very grateful for what you have and I feel so lucky to be so well off."
Feeling compelled to help, Emma chose occupational psychology as a degree subject, with a view to counselling in the future. As part of her course, she volunteers three days a week with the Portadown-based charity, Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention NI.
She has also worked as part of a three-student team, led by a qualified psychologist, in Portadown's large Tesco store, helping managers there to recognise potential mental wellbeing issues among their staff.
"I never wanted to go into medicine but I'd like to help people with their mental health," she explains.
"I want to have a meaningful career and help people with depression, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, panic disorders and so on, through things like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and talking therapy.
"During my course, I've been working with people going through various issues, like marriage breakdown, and trying to calm them.
"I'm fairly calm myself but I do have my moments from time-to-time."
She would like to become an occupational psychologist akin to the one played by Maggie Siff in the slick American stock-broking drama Billions.
The former Mad Men actress starts as a hot-shot in-house performance coach for a ruthless billionaire, played by red-headed Damian Lewis, who was a star in hit show Homeland.
"I couldn't take Damian Lewis seriously in that - he'll always be Brody (from Homeland) to me," she remarks. "But yes, to be a psychologist in a big firm, sorting out all those traders' heads - that would be a dream job for me.
"I've always wanted to be an occupational psychologist, rather than clinical. I like to get out there among people. I'm fascinated by interpreting body language but I can't read your mind!"
She heads back to university in September. Although forays into the worlds of beauty and modelling are becoming more common among girls in third-level education nowadays, there will also be those in academia who will sniff at the sheer superficiality of it all.
But apparently this undergraduate didn't encounter any cynicism or feminist disapproval of her glamorous adventures. She wasn't even aware of the recent advice published on a Queen's University website urging female students to emulate the classy Grace Kelly rather than the racy Kim Kardashian for their graduation get-ups.
"I haven't run into any of that at all - the girls on my course are quite girly girls and they were excited for me," she says.
"There were no protestors or anything like that at Miss World in Washington. There's no swimsuit section now and everyone was really nice.
"It's more about character now. I don't care if my bottom is two inches wider than the next girl's. I'm size 10 - I like my food."
She brought in the New Year with a group friends and her boyfriend Johnny, a 23-year-old mechanical engineer from Moira, playing Scrabble and Monopoly. She and Johnny started going out three years ago, when she was 18.
I wonder aloud if that's rather young to be entering a serious relationship but she reckons Johnny could be Mr Right.
"I think so… it's been three years and two or three months. Time will tell. He's very supportive of me; he encouraged me to go for Miss Northern Ireland and he came to Miss World with my parents. His cousin Angela McCarthy won Miss Northern Ireland in 2001, so he knew what was involved. He was really excited for me."
A keen cyclist, Emma's is currently training for the Giro d'Italia, which she is taking part in to raise funds for the Northern Ireland Children's Hospice. She plans to complete a 32-mile leg of the race from Strangford, and will be flying the flag for Children's Hospice, where she is an ambassador during her year as Miss Northern Ireland.
"I love cycling and would go out two or three times a week for a 20-mile cycle, though I haven't been going recently and need to get back into training for the Giro," she says.
"I took part in the Co-operation Ireland cycle from Belfast to Dublin a few years ago with my dad, also for the Children's Hospice, so it's a charity close to my heart. Now, I am very excited to be ambassador for it this year."
She and Johnny are joining eight friends on a skiing trip before the end of the month. After that, she'll be busy attending the Miss Northern Ireland 2018 heats and imparting advice to the hopefuls.
"I'll be telling them not to be nervous and to be themselves.
"To stand out rather than blending in, without forcing it. To bring out their personality - that's the most important thing. Be confidently beautiful in your own body, with your own self and individual look."
The best beauty tips I’ve picked up as Miss Northern Ireland ...
1 A nude eye pencil applied inside the lash line gives a bright-eyed look, hiding the appearance of fatigue and redness.
2 Contouring doesn’t have to be complicated. Use a concealer that’s one shade lighter than your skin tone in the centre of your face, below eyes and on forehead. For contour, choose a foundation that’s one or two shades darker. And remember, less is more!
3 Julia Morley, the Chairperson and CEO of the Miss World Organisation often emphasised the importance of each lady embracing their own self at Miss World. She stressed the less is more approach when it came to make-up, advising that we should never let anyone change our appearance to conform to what society tells us is beautiful.
I have always preferred a more natural look when it comes to makeup, but I can now embrace the ‘less is more’ approach in everyday life confidently when not in front of the camera.
Why Emma loves Kate’s effortless style
“Consider me royally obsessed with the Duchess of Cambridge and her wardrobe,” says Emma, in awe. “Kate is elegant and chic, always sporting glossy curls and flawless makeup.
“Taking care of my skin has always been very important to me. My regime is anything but complex. I follow a three-step rule: cleanse, tone and moisturise using the Murad Essential C line, morning and night.
“They have a good antioxidant-rich cleanser and toner all in one product, which is handy, with vitamins A, C and E — great for removing impurities. The Essential-C Day Moisturiser hydrates and protects my skin against environmental ageing and gives me a nice glow. What I love the most about it is the burst of citrus — it smells divine.
“I also love treating myself to a monthly jet peel facial at Therapie Clinic NI. It’s like a power-wash for the face. Nivea Express Hydration is my ultimate favourite body lotion, and Nivea Sun Protect and Moisturise is my go-to sunscreen during the summer months. I always use a foundation which includes SPF to protect my face.
“When it comes to hair products, Tresemme is my number one brand for shampoo, conditioner and hairspray. And as Miss Northern Ireland, it’s important to always look my best and Insanity Tan gives me that perfect summer glow. Before a big event, I would get their spray tan at my local Bronze Salon. At home I use Insanity Tan mouse or tinted moisturiser.
“My all-time favourite beauty product is Make-up Studio 4D False Lash Mascara, from Paddy McGurgan’s Make-up Pro store. It’s unbeatable. “I don’t take vitamin supplements at the minute. I try to get all the vitamins and minerals I need by eating a healthy, balanced diet. Breakfast would include Weetabix, porridge oats or granola with fresh fruit.
“Lunch, when I have time, would be chicken salad or a wrap, but when I’m busy I grab a piece of fruit. Evening meals can range from a homemade chicken stack with my favourite spring onion mash, to spaghetti Bolognese or chicken stir fry. I’m currently off red meat which I’m finding really difficult, as I love steak.
“For snacks, I have apples, bananas and grapes. Digestive biscuits and shortbread are my all-time favourite sweet treats. I drink water mostly but I love breakfast tea and Earl Grey. My favourite tipple is Magners Light — it’s low calorie and tastes great. I’m normally in bed around 10.30pm, as I like to get eight hours’ sleep, but sometimes that’s not possible, with work or socialising.”