Life

Bernadette Hagans: Going for (rose) gold – The Girl With The Colourful Leg

West Belfast model Bernadette Hagans thought her life was over when diagnosed with a rare form of cancer which meant she had to have her right leg amputated. Here, ahead of a new TV documentary charting her inspirational progress, she tells Gail Bell about learning to live life to the full with a new leg that is forever changing colour

Gail Bell

 Bernadette Hagans

BERNADETTE Hagans, 'The Girl with the Colourful Leg', is not easy to spot, even in a half-empty hotel lobby on a quiet Thursday morning.

Her rose-gold coloured prosthetic is hidden under long, fashionably torn jeans – a style decision, it seems, more to do with a fake tan mishap rather than any conscious decision to cover up – and with her black baggy sweatshirt and black trainers she is just another pretty blonde girl sipping coffee in Belfast city centre.

Except, of course, for the fact she isn’t. Bernadette Hagans will never be ‘ordinary’ in any sense of the word after being diagnosed in 2018 with synovial sarcoma, a cancer which develops in cells around joints and tendons and which is so rare – she says her chances of contracting it were around a million to one.

“I wish I had those kind of odds in the lottery,” she quips good naturedly when we meet to talk about her life-changing, life-inspiring journey so far, a snapshot of which is captured in new BBC1 documentary, The Girl with the Colourful Leg, being broadcast next week.

Opening with a moving self-video filmed on her phone just minutes after being given the shock diagnosis as a 22-year-old student at Queen’s University in Belfast, the programme follows her progress from brave amputee to model, actress, Miss Northern Ireland finalist and cancer charity ambassador now using her experience to help others.

Bernadette Hagans had her right leg amputated after being diagnosed with cancer in 2018

Living with disability or, as she sometimes prefers to call it, 'limb difference', has certainly changed this west Belfast girl for the better, she believes – taking her out of her “comfort zone” and making her live life to the full while being part of a wider “diversity revolution”.

She views her 'robot foot' as a piece of art, customising it and regularly changing its colour to suit her outfits, with the help of a vinyl car-wrapping company – in particular calling upon the skills of Carson Perry, proprietor of Art in Motion in Lisburn.

A sort of artistic collaborator, Carson is shown in the documentary expertly wrapping Bernadette’s prosthetic leg in her next colour of choice – the current favourite of rose-gold was chosen to complement her dress in this month’s Miss Northern Ireland final (in which she finished third) and she is still buzzing from the excitement.

“It was so much fun and I made friends for life,” she enthuses.

“It was the first time there has ever been a girl with a prosthetic leg in the final so I think we made history. It was good to show that a disability shouldn’t hold you back.”

Ironically, it has taken a cancer diagnosis – and possible death sentence – to make her fully live. “Before, I was really quiet and wasn’t doing too much,” she says.

“I didn’t even use social media.

“When I film myself after I was told the news, I was strangely calm and okay about it. I was so shy before, so it was kind of weird for me, going on camera like that and recording my raw reaction, but I didn’t know if I was going to live or die and I wanted to create an information source for other people. I knew it was the right thing to do.”

The Girl With The Colourful Leg tells the story Belfast model Bernadette Hagans, the first contestant with a physical disability to reach the final of Miss Northern Ireland

Cameras – her own as well as those of professional photographers – have followed her around, documenting her transformation ever since. See-sawing between a desire to blend in and an even greater desire to show off her leg and encourage inclusivity, she has grown used to the media attention which began with the Kurt Geiger ‘People Empowered’ campaign in 2020.

“That was a big one and still follows me,” she says. “It was in the middle of Covid, so the photos were actually shot over FaceTime from my Belfast apartment, but they ended up launching the whole campaign.”

As well as launching her face – and leg – to the world, there were fringe benefits from the luxury footwear and accessory retailer too.

“I have a bookcase in my apartment and it’s filled with shoes instead of books,” she laughs.

“I love shoes which is so funny because of my one foot. It’s great, though, because on my prosthetic I have a little button which adjusts to different shoes. There is even a space between the toes so I can wear flip flops.”

A photo shoot with Elle magazine in London soon followed – results will be in the next glossy edition – and she was offered an acting role as Orla in new BBC drama, Hope Street (filmed during the summer). The composed 25-year-old, first approached by Zebedee (inclusive) model agency and now signed to ACA Models, also features in a new TV advert for a top clothing brand – she’s not allowed to talk about it – which is set to hit our screens soon.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, less glamorous but worthy work continues with charities including Clic Sargent, the Cancer Fund for Children and the Boom Foundation – the only charity in Northern Ireland dedicated to supporting patients suffering from sarcoma.

Always a 'bit of a petrol head' (she has four brothers) and now driving an adapted car – she insisted on using her feet and not having manual hand controls – it seems there is nothing this engaging, resilient, remarkable young woman can’t do. But behind the warm smile, good humour and positivity she deals stoically with pain on a daily basis.

“It’s weird, because some people don’t get the phantom pains, but I have mine every single day,” she says.

“At the worst, it feels like someone is ripping out my toe nails, but today it just feels tingly; there is a sort of heaviness there. During the day, I try to keep my brain active with different things but at night I take painkillers or else I don’t sleep.”

 Bernadette Hagans 

Pain first alerted her to the fact that something was wrong, but initially she put it down to sore muscles from climbing stairs to her student flat.

“I played every sport there was when I was younger,” she recalls.

“Gaelic, netball, tag rugby, football, Irish dancing, ballet… I did a bit of everything. I thought initially maybe it was an old injury or something, but then a lump started to form and that was the first time I thought there could be something more serious going on.”

After her live-saving amputation, Bernadette was offered chemotherapy as extra back-up protection but refused.

“My scans were clear, I was feeling great and I just wanted to learn to walk again – which I did in 10 days,” she says.

“One of the chemo treatments for my type of cancer is known as the Red Devil – it is so debilitating, so I felt I needed to keep my energy just to walk.”

Today she is not just walking but learning to run – with the help of a new runner blade she is keeping for competitive 100-metre sprints in the future. A fundraising sky dive for the Cancer Fund for Children is also planned over the next few weeks.

“I didn’t think this would all happen to me,” she says, happily.

“People will be sick of me – but maybe not of my leg because they always seem to want to know what colour it will be next.”

The Girl With The Colourful Leg is on BBC1 on Wednesday September 29 at 7.30pm.

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