It was a moment of true courage as burns victim Rochelle Barrett stepped on stage in a beauty contest – wearing a bikini for the first time in her life.
As the applause thundered in her ears, all the self consciousness and shame that had burdened her since her terrifying childhood accident fell away.
And Rochelle, now 29, proved to her two children that true beauty comes from within by being crowned Miss Personality at a Miss Caribbean UK pageant.
“I didn’t know how people would react and I felt really exposed,” says Rochelle. “But the response was really great – and I forgot about my scars.”
Rochelle was eight months old when she was burned on her face, torso, arm and thigh after a childminder tripped and tipped a kettle over her.
Doctors at London’s Guy’s Hospital told her mum she might not survive. “Luckily, I pulled through and the cells in my face regenerated quickly,” says dance instructor Rochelle. “But I was left with 70 per cent burns everywhere else.”
She spent six months in hospital and needed three skin grafts. Growing up, Rochelle was bullied and called ‘burnt toast’ in the playground.
She recalls: “As a teenager I never wore low cut tops or T-shirts. I was afraid people would stare.”
In her late teens Rochelle fell for a man who treated her badly.
She says: “He told me I looked disgusting and said I’d never find anyone else to be with. I’d always think, ‘Why did this happen to me?’”
But her mum Sharon kept her spirits up. “She’d remind me it’s what is on the inside that counts,” says Rochelle. But it was still difficult. In her 20s she needed more surgery on her skin and breasts which did not fully form because of the burns.
After she had her first child, La-Raiya now ten, she began changing her outlook on life.
Rochelle, from Sheffield, says: “I wanted my daughter to realise there are many different forms of beauty, not just what you see in magazines.
“I wanted her to see her mum doing something to show this was the case.”
So Rochelle, who now has a son Romarve, six, with a supportive partner, began performing in ballet, street and dance shows to build her confidence.
When she heard about the 2016 Miss Caribbean pageant she knew it was her chance. “It was a really emotional moment,” she says.
“But a pep talk from my mum, best friend Claire and contestants who said how proud they were of me made me feel, ‘Rochelle, you can do this.’”
“I’d never worn a bikini in public – the organisers had to lend me one.
“Being crowned Miss Personality gave me a massive confidence boost. I’ll never forget walking on that stage. I felt empowered, confident, free.”
Now Rochelle is training to be an ambassador for Changing Faces who support the disfigured. She is also working with Miss Caribbean UK to launch her own pageant, Miss Unique, for people with disabilities and disfigurement.
She says: “I believe I survived my accident and lived for a reason – that it’s my job to show you can embrace your body no matter what it looks like.”
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