IT’S been a whirlwind of press events, photoshoots, interviews and travel for 23-year-old Cobh native Cailín Áine Ni Toibín since winning the title of Miss Universe Ireland 2017 in August at The Mansion house in Dublin.
Cailín will serve as an ambassador for Ireland when she competes at the 66th Miss Universe which takes place at the Axis Theatre at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas this Saturday. The impressive venue has previously showcased global resident superstars such as Brittany Spears and Jennifer Lopez.
Cailín’s destinations since winning her Miss Universe Ireland title have included a trip to Toronto where she walked the red carpet at the city’s International Film Festival 2017, and the US, where earlier this month she attended a photoshoot for gown designer Sherri Hill in New York.
After winning the crown back in August, Cailín is still coming to terms with the fact that she will represent her country, something she feels very passionate about.
“When I heard my name announced, it was just so surreal. I’m still just pinching myself thinking ‘wow, I’m representing Ireland’. It’s pretty amazing to say the least! I’m thrilled to be representing my country. Ireland has never had a Miss Universe winner. We’ve made it into the top 15 but have never actually won. I just think, wouldn’t it be truly amazing to be the first Irish winner of Miss Universe? To be the first Irish woman to bring home the crown would really bring Ireland onto the international stage and showcase what we have to offer as a country and as people,” she said.
It’s evident that Cailín, a gaeilgeoir and past pupil of Coláiste an Phiarsaigh in Glanmire, is proud of her country and heritage, particularly when I ask what her highlight as titleholder has been so far. She said: “You know the way we always say ‘Oh, we must go to the Cliffs of Moher or the Giant’s Causeway’ but we end up flying to Spain or somewhere on our holidays? We rarely get to enjoy our own culture and all the beautiful and natural locations around Ireland.
“Last month, US photographer Nessa Bartlett flew over from the US to shoot in some amazing places all over Ireland and, honestly, that has been the highlight for me so far. It’s easy to fall into the habit of wanting a vacation rather than a staycation. It was great to explore the natural beauty of my own country.”
Model, actress, activist and now creative director of Miss Universe Ireland, Brittany Mason took over the franchise in Ireland earlier this year, determined to breathe new life into Miss Universe Ireland. Pageantry in Ireland has traditionally garnered some criticism for being out-dated and irrelevant but Brittany begs to differ.
“What is wrong with celebrating beauty and intelligence? As women, we are multi-dimensional. Why can’t we be all things? We can be all things.”
Cailín continues to be mentored by Brittany while preparing for the main event in Vegas and says she is overwhelmed by Brittany’s expertise and support.
“I think Brittany taking over the franchise this year is exactly what we needed to get Ireland back on the map in terms of pageantry. Brittany has so much industry experience behind her and is a fountain of wisdom and knowledge.
“In just two short months since I was crowned Miss Universe Ireland 2017, she has been with me every step of the way, advising me on what to expect. She has been really fantastic and supportive. She is like my ‘pageant mom’ at this stage!”
Cailín has also been busy as an advocate for mental health awareness. Earlier this year, she participated in Darkness into Light for Pieta House and recently she visited her old school to encourage and advise young students to take care of their mental health.
“It was great to go back and be a spokesperson for mental health awareness, which is so important for young people today, and also to promote the Irish language and our culture to teenagers so that they keep it going.
“It was so nice to meet with all the teachers and to see the students who were just starting out when I was in 6th year. Looking at them now, they have grown up so much, which means I must be really old!” she laughs.
Cailín has been outspoken about her struggles with anxiety in the past, but says she has learned strategies to deal with it which will undoubtedly help her on her journey ahead.
“In any situation when you are facing the unknown, you are always going to feel a little anxious from time to time, especially when looking ahead, you wonder ‘what’s to come?’ and ‘what’s going to happen?’ I’ve learned how to deal with that and not let it get to the stage where I am going to have a full-on panic attack and lose my focus.
“I’ve learned to focus and breathe through any situation. So many of us tend to hold our breath and wonder ‘Oh my god, how am I going to get through this?’ instead of actually breathing.”
In preparation for Miss Universe, Cailín continues to maintain her own health and wellbeing through exercise, a lifestyle she credits with helping her to stay focused.
“It sounds like a cliché but going to the gym really helps. It’s a place where I find I can really clear my head; there is also the added bonus that I’m staying in shape.
“I’m also reading a lot and keeping focused on the main goal which is to represent my country well. For now, I am just trying to keep a clear head and exercise definitely helps me to do that.”
Cailín’s parents, Sonya and Julian, will be in the audience in Vegas as her chief supporters and her best friend will be there with her too, though not in person, as Cailín explains.
“My best friend, Tom Kiernan from Cork, of Tom Oliver Designs, designed my gown for Miss Universe. We are keeping it Irish and the fact that he made it adds that personal touch. It will be like having him there with me on the night. I have to say, I am really happy with my gown as it’s a real representation of Ireland.”
Although Miss Universe is not broadcast in Ireland, it is televised in 191 countries with a global reach of over half a billion viewers. The Miss U mobile app is freely available for download on both Android and IOS. Cailín’s supporters can vote for her using the app and can keep up-to- date with news, videos, bios and all things Miss Universe.
“By people in Ireland downloading the app, they can vote for me. So even though it’s not broadcast here, they can still show their support. It’s great to have the public involved so that they can have their say.”
Cailín isn’t short of supporters, including her Nana who has been lighting candles for her from the start.
“I’m surprised she hasn’t burned the house down at this stage!” laughs Cailín
“On a serious note, the main thing I’ve learned throughout this process is that I’ve grown up and figured out who I am. I feel like a have a voice.”