Helen O’Callaghan talks to the dancer who’s adorning billboards for a campaign shouting Strong is Beautiful
“It’ll be surreal to see little old me up there” — the words of Cork woman Laura Walsh as she contemplates seeing herself on outdoor advertising billboards over the next few weeks.
Pantene and Dunnes Stores teamed up with EVOKE.ie to find the Face of Pantene Ireland — and 27-year-old Laura from Douglas is it.
Inspired by the campaign strap-line ‘Strong is Beautiful’, the Cork dancer was one of 120 women nationwide to share stories of becoming stronger for having overcome obstacles. The list was whittled down to 10 and Laura won, after telling about the struggles she surmounted at 19 when hit by Bell’s Palsy — the disorder affects facial muscles and nerves and causes paralysis or drooping of one side of the face.
Eight years ago, Laura had just completed her first year at prestigious London dance school, The Centre — Performing Arts College. “It was the happiest day of my life when I got accepted there,” says Laura, who currently works as assistant manager at Karen Millen in Brown Thomas, Cork.
One July Sunday during her college summer break, she woke, unable to feel her face. “It was completely numb. My left eye was frozen open. I couldn’t blink. I honestly thought I’d slept funny. I expected it to wear off by the time I got to work.”
But the problem persisted through the 45-minute Tube journey to Laura Ashley, where she worked as a team leader. And it didn’t go at work.
“It was very uncomfortable. I had to move my eyelid down with my hand because my eye was getting quite dry.”
Thankful she was only in for a few hours doing training, Laura stuck it out and kept a lunch appointment with friends.
“They asked what was wrong with my face. I couldn’t eat properly because I couldn’t control the left side of my face,” recalls Laura, whose left arm — numb when she woke that morning — was getting increasingly heavier.
With GPs closed on Sunday, Laura sought help in a pharmacy. An emergency doctor was called and wondered if she’d had a stroke. “When someone’s face droops, people automatically think ‘stroke’. My face was drooping.”
Prescribing high dose steroids, the doctor insisted she call her GP next day.
“The GP thought it might be MS.” Laura phoned her parents, Gerard and Assumpta, and they got her an appointment with a Cork-based neurologist within days. Over the course of a few days, medics concluded she had Bell’s Palsy, though arm numbness isn’t generally associated with the disorder.
Faced with the crushing news that there was only a 50% chance she’d regain full movement and with doctors reluctant to allow her back to dance training, Laura nevertheless returned to college, albeit a little late after the summer holidays. To her delight, movement was returning.
“I could feel the muscles in my face starting to move. I was in constant pain but I was absolutely delighted. But I struggled with my arm. I had trouble with co-ordination — obviously not good if you’re a dancer!”
It was a time in Laura’s life when she needed inner strength in spades. She had to put up with physical realities like taping her eye shut at night to prevent infection, as well as social and emotional fallout.
“There was a lot of pointing and staring and comments like ‘what’s wrong with her?’ It was all strangers — I’d be on the Tube or out walking and it came from anyone at all: young kids or older ladies. It was the frequency of it that upset me. If it had been a once-off, it wouldn’t have been so bad but it happened everywhere I went. It was like people didn’t think I could hear them, like I wasn’t there.”
Laura recovered fully, finished college and worked for five years as a dancer at Disneyland, Paris. She attributes her resilience to strong women role models — her late grandmothers, Eileen and Myra, and her mum.
“I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers. Myra lived with us from when I was seven. They were strong women in an everyday sense more than anything dramatic. They were the sweetest, kindest people and would do their best for others no matter what they were going through.”
The Strong is Beautiful campaign appealed because it celebrates inner strength, not just external beauty. “There’s so much focus today on external beauty and feeling you have to conform to some sort of ideal,” says Laura, who admits — as a red-haired, pale-skinned, five foot 11 teen — to wishing she was “a little shorter, tanned and had brown hair”.
It took a while to embrace her looks, she admits. “Now, I know how important it is to embrace all our little quirks and individuality.”
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