FIVE of the 24 Miss Northern Ireland 2022 finalists are from Co Armagh.
The Orchard County representatives are Aoife McGurgan and Sarah Maguire, both of whom are from Armagh city, Richhill’s Lucy Johnston, Newtownhamilton’s Beth Preston, and Portadown’s Poppy Smith.
And as Meagan Green, the senior booking manager of events organisers, ACA Models, was keen to point out, “Things have changed a lot since the days of what used to called beauty contests when it was largely about how the participants looked.
“Today’s women – as well as looking great – are also highly qualified and have fabulous minds and beautiful hearts, too.
“They are talented, they’re clever and they’re genuinely caring. And when you look at the qualifications they have, what they’ve already achieved in their careers, and the subjects some of them are now studying, you get a good idea of what sort of people they really are.
“It has been a wonderful experience getting to know them all during the heats. Each of them has so much to offer, so I think that whoever ends up winning the title, we know that Northern Ireland is going to be very well represented on the world stage.”
The standards set by the quintet of local high-flying can be seen in the following pen-portraits:
Sarah Maguire: the 26 year old from Armagh is a Technical Sales Manager. This is her second bid for the Miss Northern Ireland title having also made it to the Europa in 2021.
Aoife McGurgan: the animal-loving 24-year-old, also from Armagh, has a degree in Law and a Masters in Software Development. She works as a Technology Consultant for Microsoft.
Beth Preston: the 20-year-old from Newtownhamilton is studying Bio-medical Science with Pathology at Ulster University (Coleraine),
Lucy Johnston: Just 19, the talented young Richhill woman is a Style Director with Toasted Wood, the Portadown company which specialises in the manufacture of articles made of wood, cork, straw and plaiting materials.
Poppy Smith: The 21-years-old Portadown woman is a student at Queen's University where she is studying Bio-medical Science.
The five will be joining the other 18 finalists on the stage of Belfast's Europa Hotel on Monday, May 23.
Aiofe told the Gazette, “I'm over the moon – can’t wait until the final.”
Given that, at first glance, there appears to be no obvious common ground between the worlds of Miss Northern Ireland participation and space-age technology, I asked about her decision to enter.
She replied, “I feel the competition is about more than simply showcasing beauty. I want to encourage and empower other women to follow their dreams and believe that they can achieve whatever it is they want to do.
“I want to emphasise the idea of women being in tech, seeing beyond the gender gap and re-imagining our futures.
“My hope is to educate and mentor young females and provide them with the tools and mindset required to enter the world of technology.
“I feel this competition will also help me with my confidence when it comes to beauty, so that I, in turn, can then help other women when it comes to beauty and the world of technology.
“That’s why I applied to get into the competition - and I’ve no regrets.”
She was studying law as an undergraduate at the John Moores University in Liverpool when Covid struck the UK.
As a result, she finished her final year at home, online. After that, she undertook her Masters at Queen’s University Belfast.
“I’ve always loved computers; I’ve always been fascinated by them,” she revealed. “So I decided to go back to that and follow my dreams.”
She duly added that Masters in Software Development to her impressive list of qualifications and having already discovered that NI Direct was staging an Assured Skills Programme, in tandem with Microsoft, she threw her figurative hat into the metaphorical ring.
With the guarantee of an interview with Microsoft upon completion, 200 people applied.
“I was one of 15 who was lucky enough to get the job with them,” she said modestly. “Only a few girls did, so we all work together now with Microsoft, which is great. That’s how I got into the world of technology.”
Having succeeded in securing a job in the competitive tech market, I asked how that compared with things in the woman versus women world of 'beauty pageants'?
“The great thing about this has been that all 24 of us have got on like we’ve been lifelong friends,” she said.
“We come from a variety of backgrounds, but we encourage one another, so the atmosphere among us all is great.
“We give positivity to one another and I think that's really important. So I’ve loved the whole experience so far and I've made a lot of new friends as a result of it.
“People looking in maybe think it’'s about modeling, dressing up, make-up and hairstyles, but there's far more to it than that.
“You’re raising money for charities – we did a fashion show on Sunday to raise awareness for the Northern Ireland Hospice, for example, so it’s very different to what people sometimes might imagine is the case.”
Asked about her objectives, she said, “I just want to encourage other women to follow their dreams and go for it, which all that I’ve done.”
Last year’s winner, Anna Leitch, is in a position from which to be able to give those hoping to succeed her some timely advice and encouragement.
She returned recently from the Miss World final in Puerto Rico where she not only made history by reaching the highest-ever position ever achieved by a Miss Northern Ireland, but also was crowned the new Miss World (Europe).
As a result, she will be undertaking a humanitarian tour of the continent.
In a bid to give those from amongst whose ranks the next Miss Northern Ireland will be chosen some idea of what they can expect, she said,. “My year as Miss Northern Ireland has been a dream come true. It's something that I will treasure forever, and I cannot thank event organiser Victoria Withers and ACA models enough for having given me this life-changing opportunity.
“I’d also like to thank all of my amazing sponsors for everything that they have so generously provided for me during my year as Miss Northern Ireland - and it certainly has been a busy one!”
She added, “As well as being excited about getting to know all of the girls in this year’s final, I'd just like to wish them the very best of luck.”