Six Northern Ireland beauty queens have stepped their stilettoed heels out of their comfort zone to take up the ultimate challenge of looking for love sans make-up for a BBC NI-six part series which starts on Monday.

Beauty Queen and Single – back on our screens after a pilot episode last year – follows the adventures of the bare-faced beauty queens as they ditch the eye-liner, strip off the fake eyelashes, shake off their glittery heels and go au naturel to see if beauty is just skin deep when it comes to finding the perfect partner.

Former Miss Derry and Big Brother contestant Ashleigh Coyle, beauty queens Karen Montague, ex-Miss Great Britain Gemma Garrett, ex-Miss Ireland Rebecca Maguire, Amira Graham and Orlaith McAllister hand over their precious make-up bags and carefully constructed images for the highly entertaining series which charts their dramatic make-unders and search for natural love.

Maghera model Karen Montague (29), a contestant in Miss Supranational and Miss Multiverse, says she felt “totally outside her comfort zone”, but that the whole experience changed her perspective on appearances.

In between modelling shoots Karen spends her time studying for a make-up qualification at P Louise Make-Up Academy in Manchester, one of the most prestigious academies in the UK. She says that she has specific qualities she seeks in a man, not least that he is taller than her. At 5ft 11ins, that’s no easy task.

“I have had three long-term relationships,” she explains. “One relationship lasted three years through university, and the others for a year. I’m seeing someone at the moment. It’s early days.

“As I’ve got older the qualities I look for in a man have totally changed. He needs to be taller than me. He needs to be hard-working and have ambition and drive. He also needs not to get jealous easily. I like to dress up and enjoy myself. He has to be able to accept me for who I am and not take himself too seriously.”

Having worked hard at a successful career in the modelling industry, Karen, who says she would spend up to £200 a month on make-up products, has no time for those who are critical of beauty queens. “People who say models and beauty queens are airheads are really narrow minded,” she says.

“These girls are educated, many of them have their own businesses. They are extremely hard working and ambassadors for young girls. They are role models and are out there trying to better themselves. They are no airheads, that label is so wrong.

“The show definitely put me out of my comfort zone, for obvious reasons,” Karen reveals. “I would never have gone on a date with someone, never mind a blind date, with absolutely no make-up on. But at the end of it I thought it was so nice to be able to do something like this and have someone see you as you are. Doing something like this takes away the mask that you put on.

“Obviously when you’re going on a date you want to feel your best. But whenever you’re stripped back and you don’t have that to fall back on, it’s totally different.

“I think the show will be good for young girls in particular. In this day and age, it is crazy how much people put into themselves, with make-up and cosmetic surgery and all sorts. So I think the concept of this show is really good. I know that is sounds a cliche to say that it was rewarding doing this, but it was. It did really make me feel good afterwards, doing something that I was not used to.

“I wouldn’t say that it changed my life, but it certainly changed my perspective. Even now I tend to wear a lot less make-up, that is genuinely the truth. I felt like I was just me, and it was nice to let people see me how I was. During the show and afterwards I toned down my make-up. You can see in the show as it goes on I gradually kept wearing less and less make-up. I think all the girls felt the same. Ultimately, I think it was good for my self-confidence to be bare-faced and just yourself.”

Karen freely admits she was extremely anxious about bearing her make-up free face to the world for the TV show.

“I was so nervous,” she says. “And to make things worse, when I get embarrassed I get a really red face – and I mean blazing red.

“Even at the start of the show, coming out with no make-up on to the other girls, I could feel the heat of my face.

“And then on the dates I felt so self-conscious about that. I’m sitting in a bar with no make-up on and I’m meeting this guy I don’t know and the cameras are there. And I kept thinking, ‘What if I am meeting someone I really fancy and I’m sat there in the bar with a big beaming red face?’ It was just things like that, that I might not usually think about if I had make-up on. But when you’re completely bare-faced, not even an eyelash on, it’s different. It was eye opening and it was also funny.”

Karen says she found the experience “nerve-wracking” but refreshing. Interestingly – and something that will surprise many female viewers – she also found that the men didn’t even notice her lack of make-up.

“Since I’ve been 17, I’ve always done modelling and things that I’ve had to be glammed up for,” she says. “Even if I was going out for something to eat with the girls I would like to be fully done up. So this was a very daunting experience.

“But the reactions of my various dates were weird. No-one seemed to pick up on the fact I wasn’t wearing make-up. My hair was scraped back in a high pony tail and I hadn’t a scrap of make-up on, no tan or anything. But no one said ‘Oh God, look at you’. Maybe they just didn’t want to say. All of them were just nice.”

And she adds: “Sometimes, I think that guys don’t really care. I don’t think they even notice.”

Karen is, however, keeping the outcome of the show under her very glamorous hat. “I had five dates,” she said. “The guys were really lovely. Some of them I had a better connection with than others. I really thought ‘how are the producers of this show going to find five guys for me back in Northern Ireland and I can’t even find one?’ But they did. I’m seeing someone now. But you’ll have to tune in to see if I found love on the show or not.”

Ashleigh Coyle, of Big Brother fame, is a former Miss Derry and a former contestant on Miss Grand Ireland.

The 22-year-old, who when not travelling for modelling assignments, owns and runs the Sass by Ash nail and make-up bar in Londonderry’s Waterloo Street, says that despite what her mum thinks, her love life has not been a total disaster zone.

“My mum says I have bad taste in men,” she says. “I have had two long-term relationships before the show. Obviously they didn’t work out.

“My mum says I haven’t got great taste in men. At least my exes know what she thinks of them! But I think my love life hasn’t been too bad, I’ve been pretty lucky, with no drama.

“As far as dating disasters are concerned, I think the worst has been going out on a date with a guy and he spent the whole time looking out the window appearing to be bored.

“I am quite animated and like to talk. We were out for coffee and when I was talking he just sat and stared out the window, totally not interested in what I was saying. Afterwards he texted me and asked me out again. That was a no.”

Ashleigh would spend less than £50 on make-up each month and is as big a fan of high street brands as the more expensive products.

“I wouldn’t spend an awful lot of money on make-up,” she says. “It really depends on what I run out of, month to month. I would spend a lot on foundation, maybe £40 a bottle, because you need a good base. But with regard to eye shadow and lipsticks, I’m high street all the way – very low maintenance, really.”

On the TV show Ashleigh says that she enjoyed the camaraderie with the other contestants more than the dates.

“It was hard to do this, but I think the other girls made it a bit easier,” she says. “They were so supportive. I don’t really wear an awful lot of make-up every day anyway so it might have been a bit easier for me than for the other girls who never leave the house without it.

“Having said that, previously I would never have gone on a date with no make-up on. I would always make an effort if I was heading out to meet someone. Always. First impressions are really vital, despite what people say. People say don’t judge a book by its cover, but they do. If a book has a boring cover, you’re not going to pick it up and read it.

“On the show I was nervous anyway going on a first date, especially as I didn’t know the person. It was a complete blind date. That’s not something that I would usually be up for. But I found the fact that I had no make-up on made it 10 times worse.

“Make-up definitely makes me feel better, it helps me feel confident. It’s a bit like armour.

“I had to go on dates with five different guys.

“Some of them were good, some of them were, well, a bit different. It gave me a few stories to tell afterwards with the girls. I got on with them all. I was very conscious too about the fact that it was going to be on TV and I didn’t want to be making an eejit out of anyone.

“I knew that their families and friends would be watching and they might get slagged forever about it. But on a few instances, I privately thought to myself, you might be a bit rare!

“Of course, there was the pressure that goes with being on a blind date with someone, but to be on it with no make-up was double the pressure, and then to be on national TV with no make-up on and on a blind date, that was just something else.

“It wasn’t actually that bad after the initial meeting. After we sat down, we both kind of got used to it. But it was the same conversation over and over again, as you try to get to know them even briefly. Once we sat down I could see that they were really nervous too. And they actually said that they were nervous, so that made me feel a bit more at ease.

“Whether they noticed it or not, nobody actually mentioned the fact that I wasn’t wearing any make-up. It wasn’t talked about. They all told me that I looked lovely, but that is pretty standard and they probably felt that they all had to say that.”

Hitting back at online criticism about the show, Ashleigh said that what all the girls were trying to do was promote the notion that inner beauty is what’s important.

“Some people have criticised the girls online over how they look without make-up. It’s really quite embarrassing. I know that my mum would be ashamed of my brother if he had criticised a girl brave enough to bare her natural face on television.

“I think the show sends a message to young girls that we all have imperfections and things we don’t like about ourselves and that is perfectly okay. We are trying to promote the fact it is inner beauty, who you really are as a person, that matters most. I don’t think we should be criticised for that.

“People have said we are self-obsessed because we wear so much make-up, but I don’t think that’s the case at all. In fact, it shows that in some cases girls are more insecure. When I was younger I was insecure about myself and my facial features and would have used make-up to help with my confidence. But I realised I have to accept myself and I’d never be happy until I did.

“As well as looks, I saw a number of people slagging off my accent. They said things like they couldn’t listen to me. I’m a proud Derry girl, what can I say?”

Asheigh was equally coy about whether she is still a single beauty queen. She adds: “You’ll have to wait and see if I found love on the show. I’m not giving anything away.”

Beauty Queen and Single, BBC NI, Monday, 10.40pm. In a first for BBC Northern Ireland, all six episodes of Beauty Queen and Single will available on the BBC iPlayer, as a box set, after the first episode is broadcast

Belfast Telegraph

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