First Published January 2021
A NEW QUEEN REIGNS
Ever since model and entrepreneur BRITTANY MASON took the helm at the organisation, the annual crowning of the new MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND has become one of the most glamorous events on the Irish social calendar. Up until this year, the event has always been held in the famous Round Room at Dublin’s Mansion House, where the first Dáil Eireann met in 1919, and which has also been graced by the presence of Pope John Paul II and Princess Grace among others. In August of 2019, under that same spectacular domed roof, FIONNGHUALA O’ REILLY was crowned Miss Universe Ireland, taking over from the 2018 Queen, GRAINNE GALLANAGH.
Fig, as Fionnghuala is affectionately known, made history that warm summer’s night by becoming the first woman of colour to take the Miss Universe Ireland title. Little did anyone know back then that perhaps the strangest of all possible years lay just up ahead. When the time eventually rolled around to crown her successor, Fig had gone on to make more history by becoming Ireland’s longest serving Queen, being an elegant, inspirational, and always amazing ambassador for Ireland for an incredible 508 days. However, on December 21st – in a magnificent virtual ceremony for which Brittany, Jscot Reid and their team must be commended – Miss Universe Ulster, NADIA SAYERS, was finally announced as MISS UNIVERSE IRELAND 2020, the fourth Queen of Brittany’s Moxie Era (CAILÍN TOBIN was the first in 2017).
Only a few days later, on New Year’s Eve morning, we had the pleasure of spending some time in conversation with Nadia. And, as you would expect, we began by saying good morning to Nadia, but equally so, of course, we could just as easily have said, ‘Good morning, Miss Universe Ireland’, because that is officially Nadia’s new title. But, is that fact something which Nadia has started getting used to yet, and is her family under orders to only address her as such from now on?
“[Laughs] Oh I’m so not used to it at all! [laughs]. I think because of the lockdowns obviously, we haven’t been seeing people as much. But all of my family did have great fun writing me cards that said Miss Universe Ireland, and that was really strange to see, and it gave me butterflies. So I’m still not used to hearing it, not yet [laughs].”
I wondered if Nadia felt like it’s something that she will ever get used to? Because, whatever about right now, it’s definitely going to get to a stage where she will be hearing it a lot. But might it always feel something like an out-of-body experience of some kind?
“I don’t think I ever will [get used to it]. The day after I was announced as the winner, I was messaging some of the past winners, because thank goodness, they all took the time to send me a message and congratulate me. And I was just saying to them that this all feels so strange. It feels like a dream, but I don’t know if it will ever not feel like a dream! And every one of them said that you’re in a bubble right now, but it will never ever not feel like a dream [laugh].”
As if to prove that you should never give up on a dream when it’s something that you really want in your heart of hearts, this was actually Nadia’s second time to enter Miss Universe Ireland, having also finished in the Top Ten – alongside eventual winner Fig – in 2019. But before we came back to why she decided to enter a second time, I wanted to find out how her Miss Universe Ireland journey had first begun…
“Miss Universe Ireland had always been a goal that I had looked at. But in all honesty, when I was younger I thought it was a goal that I was never going to achieve. Then it kind of died down for a few years here as well. But then whenever Brittany and the Moxie team took it over, I straight away bought tickets and went and watched it that first year, the year that Cailín won (Cailín Tobin, Miss Universe Ireland 2017). And it was just because I had always seen the likes of Joanna Cooper and other Miss Universe Irelands who had always done so well, not only within the pageant, but they seemed to grow so much as a person throughout and then afterwards. And I really respected how much was invested into them, and how much people reached out to support them. So obviously, to cut a long story shorter [laughs], whenever I saw that it was coming here, I bought tickets straight away, me and a few friends, to watch Cailín that first year. And I was in complete awe. Of one, the range of girls who were in the Top Thirty. They were not, by any means, carbon copies of each other or moulds of what a particular pageant girl should look like, which is sometimes dictated by society. They were all backgrounds, all ages, all shapes and sizes, all their own unique beautiful. And that was the first thing that really struck me. Then obviously the production of it all. You really got a feel for the family that was Miss Universe Ireland, even from just sitting in the audience. So I became very attached to it then. When Cailín was crowned, I followed her journey that year. And again, I saw how she had grown as a person. And at no point did it seem that they had tried to put her into a mould. They just simply helped her to embrace herself more. That really just struck me. And I thought that again then the next year with Grainne. So, I just sucked it up eventually, and I thought I have to apply! Cos’ I’m never gonna get there if I don’t give it a go!”
So it sounded very much like Nadia had probably made her mind up that first year, even just sitting in the audience watching Cailín, that she was going to enter herself some day?
“Yes, it was more like a goal. Like, I would love this, but I don’t know if I’ll get there. If that makes sense? But it was definitely something in my head, I’m gonna try this. I need to. Because otherwise I’m gonna regret it.”
In 2019 Nadia did enter, and it obviously lived up to her expectations. I asked her to tell me what that first year was like…
“It was great! I’d seen, again, how much Grainne had come on as a person because I’d actually competed with Grainne the year before, so I’d known her before she became Miss Universe Ireland. Again, the same kind of thing had happened, I’d seen how much she had grown, but how much she had stayed true to herself, but highlighting that and embracing it. So whenever I applied – I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was – of how much time Brittany and the rest of the team actually give to you one-to-one to try and teach you on all aspects from interviews to styling, even just having check-ins with you to see how you are and what you want to achieve. It was phenomenal the amount of personal growth I went through in that time-period. It was surprising to me. The team were so welcoming and friendly, and all of the girls were lovely. It really did seem like a little community.”
Until just a few years ago, I have to confess that I was never aware that you could enter a pageant like Miss Universe Ireland twice. So what prompted Nadia to go for it again in 2020?
“After last year, I kind of took a step back. I was like, ok, I’ve done it…am I done? [laughs]. My family were like, well give it a month or two and have a think about it. Have a rest first. But as the time was going on, and especially coming into 2020 and how the year was presenting itself, I kept seeing the Miss Universe Ireland stuff popping up on my social media. And every time I saw it I got a little bit of butterflies in my stomach. Do I go for it? I very much live along the lines of am I gonna regret it more if I try it, or if I don’t? Because who wants to pile on the regrets?! Obviously we’ll all have some, but you want to try and have that amount be as little as possible [laughs]. So I just went for it. I actually applied and I told nobody! It wasn’t until I found out that I’d made it into the Top Twelve that I actually told anybody [laughs]. I kind of said to my fiance, ‘So, what would you think if I thought about doing this…’, but I’d already applied [laughs]. My mum actually found out on Facebook! [laughs].”
Right now, of course, with the way everything remains due to Covid and all of the health restrictions associated with it, making plans of any kind is quite the challenge. So have Nadia, Brittany, and the Miss Universe Ireland team been able to put any shape on what might be happening next?
“Well like you said, it’s just so difficult. Because even with the competition, there were four, five, six, seven versions of everything because things kept changing and restrictions kept changing. We have had a few initial meetings, brainstorming ideas and the goals we want to reach before the end of my reign, and what we want to reach before going to Miss Universe too. So we have a few things in the pipeline, but again, we’re just having to be flexible, and roll with the punches as Brittany always says, because we don’t know what’s coming around the corner. There’s nothing else you can do at the moment. So it’s just about keeping the goals clear, and keep moving forward.”
Although Nadia isn’t actually in possession of the Miss Universe Ireland crown just yet, as the official crowning by and handover from Fig has yet to take place, this won’t be her first crown either, as Nadia was Miss Intercontinental Ireland in 2017…
“Yeah, I held that title in 2017. And there was one before that, the Miss Earth Water crown, which was a runner-up title. They crown Miss Earth, and then three runners-up. That was the first pageant that I’d ever come across that was kind of available to me. So I decided to enter because someone had said, ‘Sure imagine you up there on stage in a big sparkly dress, you’d look ridiculous!’ So I said ok then…and I went to my Uni room and applied! [laughs]. Yeah, cos’ I wasn’t always the girliest of girls, and I would still be the same. That goes along with that stereotype that if you’re gonna be a model or gonna do pageantry, then you’re going to love everything that’s pink and sparkles, and that’s that. So yes, that little bit of stubborness kicked in and that’s what started me in pageantry! [laughs].”
My next question was going to be just that: what had actually got Nadia started in pageantry in the first place, but according to herself…it was basically stubbornness?!
“Basically, yeah! [laughs]. I’ve been modeling since I was sixteen, and I come from Tyrone, so none of my friends had really come across anyone who was going out to try and do modeling at that time. I had a lot of friends who were guys as well, and I was quite…tomboyish. Well that’s what you would have said then, but I just like my Converse! [laughs]. And I like my rock music. So yeah, they were just like, imagine you up there in a big sparkly dress, you’d be ridiculous up there! And I was like, right, well I’m just gonna show you that I would NOT be ridiculous! [laughs].”
Going back to what Nadia had said about knowing Grainne since before she was crowned Miss Universe Ireland in 2018, I asked her about when the pair first met…
“We actually met in that Miss Earth competition. In that year, a girl called Maire Lynch won, and Grainne was I think the first runner-up, and I was the second runner-up. So we had met while we were competing there and had just kind of kept in touch ever since. So obviously when I saw that she was competing in Miss Universe Ireland, I was very excited to follow her journey in that. And even still, her Instagram cracks me up every day! [laughs].”
Having seen what Grainne has gone on to do since her time as Miss Universe Ireland, and indeed, everything that Fig achieved during her reign and everything that’s about to happen next for her, how excited does that make Nadia feel about the opportunities and the challenges that could be about to come her way?
“It’s unbelievable. And that’s a part of the whole I still can’t believe this is really happening thing [laughs]. Like you said, I competed with Fig, and I knew Grainne beforehand, and both were amazing girls, lovely girls. And now I’ve seen how far both have come in a relatively short space of time. It seems like a phenomenal jump and phenomenal growth. So I just cannot wait to meet the team in person and get working as soon as we can, and especially after the holidays, because with Christmas and New Year’s and everything they all deserved a break too! [laughs]. I cannot wait to see what comes along. I was actually writing out a little list of goals and stuff before our call.”
Nadia had mentioned that a lot of people assume that pageants are all about pink, and all about sparkles, and how there are just so many assumptions like that which exist. Something that most people probably wouldn’t put pageantry alongside is psychology, but Nadia is actually a psychologist-in-training and working with the Hope 4 Life charity. Part of the work Nadia is involved in centres around comics and what I think is one of the most fascinating , innovative, and praiseworthy concepts I’ve ever heard of. I’ll let Nadia explain…
“Hope 4 Life is, in basic terms, a mental health early intervention charity. So they specialise primarily in training in early intervention projects. They aim to give people the skills to support themselves and help themselves to look after their well-being, so they don’t get to the stage where they’re in crisis. One of the projects that they do is around youth work because after my boss had met with teachers from all over the country to see what would help them, their primary issue was that they were worried about the mental well-being of our students. And we can’t do anything about it because we’re not trained to. We don’t know what to do. They had basically said that the best thing we could do for children across the country was to develop something for the children that can help them. The team was amazing, and before I joined them they had come up with this concept. They got a group of young people together into a forum, and said look, this is what we aim to do, how best should we do it? Go away for a few weeks and think about it, and come back. The Hope 4 Life team, as well as these young people, both came back and said superheroes! Superheroes will work because kids agree that superheroes represent good things. They represent justice. They represent saving the day. And supervillains represent all these negative, external things that aren’t a part of you, but are an external influence that affects you. So they took that then and decided well, if we’re going to do comic books and superheroes, we want them to actually be relevant. Because even me, at twenty-six, I can’t tell a thirteen year old I know exactly what they’re going through, because I don’t. Society and life is constantly changing. So when I was thirteen is very different to when someone is thirteen now.”
Nadia continued, “So basically, they decided they’re going to use real stories. So people who have maybe been through their own difficult times, and come through it, or who are coming through it, and want to share their stories – because sometimes it’s closure for them, sometimes it’s cathartic, sometimes it’s to know that out of a tough time – they’re drawing a silver lining which is giving hope to other people that they will get through their tough times too. We developed a comic, and there’s thirteen now. The most recent one is a lockdown comic. What we do, and what I do, is we go into primary schools and secondary schools and community youth groups, and we’ll go through the comic. In non-Covid times, kids would get up and they’d role-play the comic and then we’ll talk about some of the issues that might have come up in it, and come to solutions and find tools that will help the kids in the future should they come across these problems. Now, normally you could break up into little groups and have a more intimate conversation, but because of Covid we can’t do that. But it tends to work really well. One of the key things that the charity always does is we never put a child on the spot when we’re talking to them. So for instance, the lockdown comic – which is all about lockdown and was written by young people for young people – is based on their experiences of lockdown, their fears, anxieties, confusion. Instead of asking them, ‘Why were you scared during lockdown?’, which, in the middle of a classroom can be terrifying for a child to have to answer, we say – the lead character is called Sophie – so we say, ‘Why might Sophie be scared? What might have been goin’ on in the comic that might have been making her scared?’ And so often then, the kids come forward with THEIR answers, but in their mind it’s just what Sophie might have felt.”
One of the things that Miss Universe Ireland director Brittany Mason always puts a very strong focus on is that each year’s winner uses their platform to highlight a cause or an issue that’s very personal to them. With Fig in 2019 it was about concentrating on women in S.T.E.M. With Grainne the year before, it was about womens’ health. It sounds like Nadia’s focus in this regard will be on mental health, and if indeed it is, does she have any ideas on what ways she might be able to use her platform over the next year?
“I would say mental health, and in particular, early intervention [will be my focus]. There’s amazing people working out there in mental health at the moment, and they’re saving lives. But waiting lists are still growing. Services are still feeling the pressure. So we need to start putting in the foundations now for the future, by teaching people how we might be able to stop you from getting to that stage. This is what we might be able to do ourselves, and then, if you still need to get more help, obviously go and get more help. But it’s just about trying to be pro-active as opposed to being constantly reactive. That’s something that I want to highlight a little bit more. I think, again, this stigma [that exists] around talking if you’re not feeling ok, and just saying, ‘You know what, I’m not having a great day.’ And the stigma around journaling and mindfulness, the way people find them a bit airy-fairy but no-one really understands them practically or how to do it. I want to have meetings with some of the smaller grassroots charities that are there that can provide help, and highlight what they’re doing, and create awareness for them so that people can go to them if they need to. But also to spread the word and learn more about what is going on in your own area for young people, and what can we provide or what can we teach to help them in the future. And as well, I think, just in general creating a little bit of hope that if you are struggling – like we all have, like I have, and I talk very openly about it – that’s not going to be your struggle forever. So I’m working my way through a potential check-list of things that are fully dependent on restrictions, but we’re very lucky to at least have the technology that means I can still reach out to people and to organisations, and start having those conversations.”
Even though we’re all back in another lockdown right now, I think it’s fair to say that Nadia probably has happy enough memories of the first one last year seeing as how she mentioned her fiance a little earlier in our chat. She said yes back in May…
“Yeah [laughs], he’s called Calvin, and bless him [laughs], he’s doing really well! His phone blew up as well, with people kind of having a joke with him. I think he’s very proud and he’s very excited. To be honest, I was at one of my lowest points whenever we got together, so he’s seen me come through that, to where I could say I want this, and this is what I’m gonna go get. And now I’ve done it! He was a bit speechless, as much as I was, after it was announced, but I think he’s just proud. And God bless him, now he has to take on more wedding planning responsibility because I’m a busy bee! [laughs].”
As it was New Year’s Eve morning when we spoke, I had to ask Nadia what kind of a New Year’s Eve person she usually is, and what were her plans for later that night?
“I’m very big on traditions, and sticking to traditions, and trying to make my own. I’m a real sucker for them! So, typically, in every other new year for the past…maybe ten years…, myself and a group of friends that I went to school with – I’ve known them since I was ten – we all would get together at one of our friends houses and just have a little new year’s party, because that way we actually got to spend time together. And every year on New Year’s Day, we set out what we think is going to happen. We make predictions for the next year. That means that every New Year’s Eve at 11.50pm we read out the predictions, and you have a good laugh at them because some of them are just ridiculous. And some of them might have come true. We make the predictions for each other, for our wee group as a whole. So it could be that someone is going to meet someone, or someone is going to get a house, and there’s always some random ones in there. But it’s always funny to look back and think what were we thinking a year ago at this time?! [laughs]. Tonight is going to be a lot quieter than every other year [laughs]. We’re just going to get in some indian food, and me and Calvin are just going to chill out in the living room with our cat, Espresso, and just ring in the New Year together and be grateful for what we do have, even though this year has obviously been so unprecedented! Nobody could have imagined what it was going to be like, but I know I’ve taken in and learned and reflected a lot this year. So yeah, I think we’re just gonna sit-in, chill-out, and be grateful for everything that’s happened, and all the little things that we have, and hope that next year we can…go out and have a cup of coffee! [laughs].”
~ You can follow Nadia’s Miss Universe Ireland journey by following Nadia and Miss Universe Ireland on Facebook and Instagram.