Queen of the glammed: The beauty queen who beat the bullies
I got bullied because I was so small and skinny," says Shelley-Marie Sumner in her soft Black Country lilt.
"I've been a dancer all my life so I've always been small but in secondary school I was extremely skinny. They used to call me Anorexic Annie and it was really upsetting. I had a lot of trouble with it and I had no confidence whatsoever.
"I have eczema too and I was so self-conscious. On the bad days, people would stare at me as if I was from a different planet just because my skin was red and blotchy. I couldn't wear certain clothes and I used to sleep in bandages."
Looking at Shelley-Marie, blonde, beautiful and the current Miss Black Country, it's hard to believe she ever had self-esteem issues. "It's true," laughs the 22-year-old dance instructor. "I was shy, really quiet and I had the worst time with the bullies.
"The only thing that ever gave me confidence was dancing: I'd do shows and solos and never worry about a thing but as soon as I was off stage, I was completely different. My mum always said to me 'you're a totally new person when you're on stage – it's the only time you ever seem confident'."
After leaving Willenhall School Sports College, Shelley-Marie was awash with anxiety – and it stopped her from following her dream of moving to London and eventually pursuing a career in the West End.
"I thought about going to London to study dance and drama but, to be honest, I was crippled by a lack of confidence and didn't feel grown-up enough to move out.
"So I decided to stay at home and go to the University of Wolverhampton on a performing arts course and that's where things started to change. In secondary school, everyone has their cliques but at uni, everyone was more open and this was the first time I started to mix with people and feel accepted. It took me all the way to uni to get any confidence.
"It also finally gave me the boost I needed to audition for West End shows. I went for Wicked and Moulin Rouge. I didn't get through but that didn't matter – I never would have had the guts to do this previously."
Despite becoming more self-assured, it was actually a persuasive grandma that led to Shelley-Marie applying for Miss Black Country – her first ever experience of pageant/beauty queen life. "Miss Black Country came about through Facebook," she explains.
"I have quite a few online friends involved in pageants and I saw one of their posts for Miss Black Country. But it was actually my nan who said I should go for it. She has worked in the Black Country's leather trade all her life and she said it would make her so proud if I went for it. My grandad was a real Black Country man too so I decided to do it for him.
"But I had no idea what to think. I had all these misconceptions about the American pageants – the false teeth, the massive hair extensions, the meringue dresses – and I was thinking 'oh God, this is not me at all'.
"Luckily though, it was nothing like that. It is the opposite in fact. It's so much more than just how you look: it's about charity and health and education. All the girls are in the same boat and you're all from the same area so there's no divas or bitchiness. Well, the odd one or two but they are in the minority.
"I remember a few days before the final I was speaking to the other girls and they were talking about getting their hair, nails, spray tan and stuff done and I wasn't really doing anything. I can't have spray tans because of eczema and my mom was doing my hair. I didn't want to be too OTT. If I was going to win Miss Black Country, I was going to win it as me."
The grand final featured more than 20 competitors from around the region and took place at Wolverhampton's Arena Theatre in February. "On the day, I turned up in a onesie with my hair up in a hairnet and no make-up," giggles Shelley-Marie from Bentley, Walsall. "I was totally myself. The other girls were tottering around in heels and dresses and they were coming up to me going 'ha! you're brave!'."
Shelley-Marie had no expectation to win. In fact, she was more than happy with coming first in the charity category. "That felt like winning to me. I raised the most money – £900 for Variety, the Children's Charity through a dance show – and it felt like I won because that meant the most to me. My little sister has been in and out of hospital since she was born with a dislocated hip so raising money for children meant a lot.
"In the overall competition, everyone thought Ruby Bowater was going to win. She was Miss West Midlands and she's just stunning. Everyone thought she was the winner so when she was announced as second, the whole room fell silent and everyone was like 'who's it going to be?'. Everybody's faces dropped, she was the favourite."
And then came the moment that changed Shelley-Marie's life. "They started to play R Kelly, The World's Greatest – I still get goosebumps when I hear it now – and they announced my name. Everyone just started screaming and crying. I was shocked, I was flabbergasted and my family were going crazy. My nan was clutching a box of tissues and crying; my mum was screaming; my boyfriend just couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. There are no words as to how shocked I was. I only entered to get a bit more confident."
Ever since then, Shelley-Marie has been attending events all over the region, including supporting this week's Black Country Day celebrations and Birmingham Children's Hospital's Big Bandage campaign.
She also automatically went through to the Miss England final, which was eventually won by Miss Cambridgeshire Carina Tyrell. "I didn't expect to win. I just wanted to make the most of it and enjoy it. My mum was more nervous than me! She kept texting me going 'I feel sick'.
"Again, I did my own hair and make-up and the whole experience was unexplainable. The organisers held a little quiz beforehand to break the ice and the other girls were all so stunning and gorgeous – I was starstruck by all their crowns and sashes. I didn't know anybody but we all got on.
"However, none of this feels as good as when I get reaction back from other girls saying I have helped them overcome a lack of confidence or other issues. I write about bullying and eczema on blogs and it means the world to me that girls read them and feel better about themselves.
"It's the best feeling in the world and the best thing that could have ever possibly come from me entering Miss Black Country and Miss England.
"I might go for another title in the future, but, to me, it's not how many titles you win, but what you do with the one you have."
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