Burn survivor Rochelle Barrett launches first beauty pageant for survivors: 'Feel the fear and do it anyway'
In a world where outer beauty is still valued more than the beauty of your inner self, Rochelle Barrett is a beacon of hope for many young women who continue to feel rejected due to their physical appearances.
The 30-year-old from Sheffield is providing the much needed confidence to succeed in life to a lot of women through her Miss Unique Beauty Pageant, the "FIRST ever beauty pageant for survivors of disfigurement and visible differences."
Rochelle was just eight months old when a childminder tripped and tipped a kettle over her, burning her face, torso, arm, and thigh. Doctors at London’s Guy’s Hospital even told Rochelle's mum Sharon that she might not survive.
After the terrifying incident, Rochelle spent six months in hospital and underwent three skin grafts.
The dance instructor was bullied as a teen because of her scars and, in her 20s, she needed more surgery on her skin and breasts which had not fully formed because of the burns. But, after she had her first child, La-Raiya, now 10, she began changing her outlook on life and overcome her self-consciousness to win Miss Personality in the Miss Caribbean UK pageant.
MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) recently caught up with the working mom, where she discussed her journey from being uncomfortable in her own skin to helping uplift thousands of other young women suffering from the same plight via her unique beauty pageant.
What exactly led you to the field of beauty pageants? How did you land up with the Miss Unique Beauty Pageant?
I have always been intrigued, fascinated and attracted to the world of beauty pageants from when I was a young child, however, I always felt my appearance would be unwanted in that field. I always viewed my burns as ugly, disgusting and something no one wanted to see until having my children. I would spend so much time encouraging them to love and embrace themselves as they are, yet I wasn't following my own advice when I looked in the mirror. I knew this had to change especially for my daughter who was looking up to me.
I came across a pageant called Miss Caribbean UK and thought this looks great, would really help to increase my confidence as well as provide a platform for disfigurement in beauty pageants. I had no idea the pageant would involve a carnival round that required me to wear a bikini. I had never worn a bikini in my life and at 28 years old I was terrified. I wanted to quit there and then as all my insecurities came flooding back: 'Would people laugh at me? What if they felt sick at the sight of my body?' But I’d come this far, so I couldn’t give up now.
Leading up to the carnival round I was a bag of nerves and incredibly emotional, but as soon as I stepped out on that stage I completely forgot I had burns. I felt empowered, elated and free! I felt wow I’ve faced my biggest fear and shown my burns to a crowd full of strangers; if I can do this I can do anything! I walked away with a Miss Personality crown and title. I then started to think about how the positive effects of pageant could have on fellow survivors like myself. I researched into different types of beauty pageants and found there were a variety of them catering to genders, sexual preference, disabilities but none for disfigurement, tube feeding or any other visible differences.
I was in shock and could not believe that in 2018 there were no celebratory platforms for survivors from a beauty perspective. This led me to create Miss Unique Beauty UK. I had no money, no investors, nothing. But I knew this had to be done. Now over a year later, it’s finally happening and i cannot wait to celebrate, empower, strengthen and remind these amazing women that their uniqueness deserves to be crowned!
Was there ever a moment in your life where your physical anomalies came in the way of your wishes and happiness? How did you deal with the adversity?
There have been a number of moments where I have felt held back by my burns. Swimming has always had negative connotations as I've got older due to memories of children pointing, laughing, staring and avoiding being next to me when I was a child. It meant I've found it very difficult taking my children swimming and have felt extreme anxiety on the very few times we have gone.
However, I have continually had to remind myself that it's not about me, that I have got to be strong for my children and show that no matter what mummy has on her body it’s not going to stop us having fun.
What were some of the initial hurdles you had to overcome while making a mark with the Miss Unique Beauty Pageant?
Unfortunately there is a negative stigma for some when they hear the word pageant and immediately think of men exploiting women or an event for “world peace.” Miss Unique Beauty UK has completely turned the pageant world on its head showing this is not for sexual gratification of men but to show that real beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, shades, appearances and should be celebrated collectively.
This is a pageant with a purpose with women empowering women! Also financially Miss Unique Beauty UK has proved quite challenging. No funding or investment has been given which has resulted in me working three jobs to make this go ahead. Has this been worth it? 1000%!
You have been very vocal about the strong women who have been around you throughout your life. How has your interactions with them affect you professionally?
The strong women around me have influenced my career by teaching me patience, understanding, effective communication, professionalism and to be personable and respectful to everyone you meet.
Who do you see as a major competition in your line of work, and why is that?
Miss Unique Beauty UK is the FIRST ever beauty pageant for survivors of disfigurement and visible differences, therefore, there is no competition. We are all in this together and it's about providing support, empowerment and self-love for each other.
Was being a part of the fashion and glamor world always part of the plan for you? If not, how did the decision come by?
I will always be a dancer at heart and love teaching children and instilling confidence and self-worth via the arts. However, I have always had a passion for fashion, beauty and empowering women so to be able to fuse all of these passions together is a dream come true.
What's your biggest fear when it comes to putting yourself out there in front of the media and the general public?
It is always scary to put yourself out there to strangers. I received no counseling or therapy on dealing with my disfigurement so I still have waves of insecurity or the question 'what will people think or say?' However, I’ve been called so many horrible things since childlike like burnt toast, disgusting, ugly and diseased, but I’m still here so I live by the motto of 'feel the fear and do it anyway'.
You are an outspoken advocate for empowering women. Could you tell us a little bit about your activism and what your goals with regards to this in the future?
Wow, I’ve never been described as outspoken before. Ha! I love seeing the transformation of women from cocoons to butterflies. From the moment we enter the world we are taught how to look, act and feel a certain way, yet we become so unhappy shells of who we want to be.
We give away so much of ourselves to our children and our power to men. What’s left for us at the end of it all? To add even more pressure we are fed false images of the way we should look in order to be accepted in society and deemed attractive to men. But none of those images are 100% real so we are chasing something that does not exist and wonder why we are so depressed, lost and repulsed by the way we look.
I want to help women and men realize that the real us with scars, jiggle, cellulite, mental adversities, exhaustion and everything else is OK! We are still beautiful, we are still sexy and we ALL deserve to be loved, embraced and celebrated. My aspirations are to take Miss Unique Beauty global and celebrate survivors all over the world as well as set up my company Empowered Sanctuary to help both women, men and children become their best selves in the most powerful, uplifting and transformative environment.
Have you worked with any of the contestants in the past? If so, How was your experience?
I met Lauren-Marie at a model search and she shared her story of living with a cleft palate I was so inspired and wanted her to come on the journey of Miss Unique Beauty UK.
If you had to model for a particular fashion designer, who would it be?
Now, this is a hard question! I would have to say Umar Kamani, CEO and Founder of PLT, for his inclusivity, body positive and diverse approach to fast fashion brands.
View this post on Instagram