With the lights blazing and all eyes on her, this was Candice Osman’s moment to shine.
As a contestant in the Miss Swimsuit UK competition, she is within touching distance of the final.
But instead of pointing out her bust or curvaceous bottom, emphasised in a multicoloured bikini, Candice, 23, saw her moment on the stage as an opportunity to highlight other parts of her body – her stretchmarks.
Candice, from Waterlooville, is on a mission to make women feel good about themselves, whatever their size and shape.
And she should know because her difficult relationship with food once saw her lose a stone in a week – leading to those stretchmarks.
In the past decade she has gone from a tiny 7st 5lbs to a healthy 9st 2lbs.
After signing to a modelling agency this year she’s starred in clothing shoots and music videos but she wasn’t always this confident about her body.
She suffers from a condition which blighted her life and left her so underweight she could not get out of bed. Candice has emetophobia – a fear of vomiting which made her too scared to eat.
At one stage even hearing gagging noises or the word ‘sick’ being uttered would send her into an extreme panic attack.
She says: ‘It’s the first thing I tell people when I meet them. Because if they become ill I will have a panic attack.’
After counselling and support from her mother, Maxine Rivers, she now has the condition under control and her weight is healthy for her 5ft 1in frame.
And she’s proud of her body, stretchmarks and all.
Here she explains what triggered the phobia.
‘I remember the very day it happened. I was eight years old and I was off school because I wasn’t feeling very well.
‘I was on the bus with my grandmother, right at the front, and I was sick. The driver had to take the bus to the depot to be cleaned and everyone had to get off and onto a new bus.
‘They were all moaning. I can still feel the intense embarrassment I felt all those years ago.’
The phobia affected every aspect of her life. At stages she was too fearful to eat in case she vomited. Aged 16 she could not get out of bed for a month after losing a stone from her already tiny frame in just one week. She was threatened with being hospitalised.
She says: ‘Obviously with that going on I had a lot of anxiety and depression. My mum knew how to make me feel better, even if it was just a cuddle.’
But not everyone was so supportive.
‘Some boyfriends haven’t understood and even made gagging noises which brought on panic attacks’, says Candice, ‘just because they thought it was funny. I had a lot of anxiety and depression and for a long time I thought I was the only one who felt like that.
‘Now I’m just happy finding out about myself and who I am. Sometimes you just need time to be you. I’m slowly building myself up again.’
Candice still has the condition but she’s learned to manage it. And she’s now at the stage where she is proud of her body and had the confidence to sign up to Star Now casting and modelling agency earlier.
She says: ‘I’ve never done anything like that before and it was such a big thing to me. I entered Miss Swimsuit UK to make myself more body confident. It was so girls can see people who have stretchmarks. I’m doing it to show people how far I’ve come. Along the way I’ve met some really nice girls and it makes me feel so much better standing on stage.
‘I pointed to my stretchmarks to show people I’m not perfect. I have three stretchmarks on my hips which are really deep, and some on my legs. People shouldn’t be ashamed of their bodies.’
Candice also credits her dance group, Neptune Girls, for boosting her confidence. The group teaches empowerment and body positivity through dance, and is a place for men and women of all abilities to dance and feel fabulous, whatever their age and size. ‘I don’t think I would have been able to do this if it wasn’t for the Neptune Girls. I’ve been so much better since I joined the group.’
Supporters have until midnight on Wednesday to vote for Candice at Miss Swimsuit UK.