Michelle Kerr is looking good and feeling better
Michelle Kerr will walk a mountain for cancer charity, Look Good Feel Better - she tells Gail Bell why her glamorous mum inspired her to help cancer patients and survivors look in the mirror and face the world again
AS a beautician, Michelle Kerr has always believed in the 'feel good' factor, but as lead volunteer with UK-wide cancer charity, Look Good Feel Better, she sees the transformative power of make-up transcend to a whole new level.
The Belfast mum-of-two was busy during the lockdowns, delivering free online skincare and make-up tutorials as well as nail care workshops from her home in Glengormley, encouraging women across Northern Ireland and England to look boldy in the mirror and feel good about themselves again after cancer treatment.
Helping people take a new look at themselves for 26 years, Look Good Feel Better (LGFB) works in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support in Northern Ireland and, pre-Covid, was involved with 141 hospitals and cancer support centres across the UK.
"We were actually just in the process of expanding in Northern Ireland and about to open workshops for cancer patients in the Omagh area when the pandemic hit, but we're hoping to re-start the extension programme soon," explains Michelle, who runs her own business, Michelle's Beauty Boutique on Belfast's Oldpark Road.
"The aim is to cover all geographical areas here, so people don't have to travel too far when the 'live' workshops return, hopefully in September."
Only one of a handful of LGFB volunteers responsible for the workshops which went online due to restrictions, she has missed face-to-face chats with her ladies, but it hasn't been all bad.
"I have completed about 40 virtual workshops, both the skincare and make-up tutorials and the nail care workshop, which is a fairly new one," she says.
"What has been good about moving online is the support they have offered to those who have been going through cancer treatment during lockdown and who have been feeling especially lonely and isolated.
"My audience certainly became bigger online - I got chatting to people from all over England - and it was great to hear such positive responses; some maybe hadn't seen anyone for a while as they were self-isolating and they were just so happy to be taking part, learning how to look after their skin which had maybe become over-dry due to chemotherapy or radiotherapy, learning how to draw on new eyebrows or apply eye liner to look like eyelashes which had fallen out, or learning how to look after their nails and how to keep them attached.
"Also, I think a lot of people felt more comfortable talking while sitting in their own home and being honest about how they were feeling. There were tears but there was also laughter and while there was a readiness to joke about bald heads and wigs, chatting about the day-to-day stuff was important too. It was great to see how everyone lifted each other up."
Her views are reflected by Look Good Feel Better's own survey carried out in May this year which found 88 per cent of recipients felt more confident after taking part in one of the workshops - among them skincare and make-up, hand and nail care, headwear and wigs, chair yoga and skincare and grooming for men.
The latter is a relatively new addition and was just starting to make an impact when restrictions knocked it off course.
"Men also can struggle with confidence issues caused by the visible side effects of cancer treatment which can actually change your skin type - people can go from dry to oily and vice versa, but there are always tips and products to help," enthuses Michelle who juggles her charity commitments and beauty business with looking after young sons Marcel (4) and Louis (3).
"The great thing too is the 'goody' bag - each person on a workshop gets one and they contain over £200 worth of free, quality products donated by companies that support us throughout the year. It means you don't have to worry about trying to find special products or purchase them at your own expense."
Now back working at her salon part-time, she still takes two workshops each week, ever-ready to entertain, embolden and educate up to 12-15 nervous new 'students', always with model, mirror and make-up at hand.
A natural empathy and passion for the role are rooted in personal experience, with Michelle having lost her beloved mum, Amelia, to cancer and also an uncle, grandfather and, more recently, an aunt.
"I hate cancer," she says with feeling. "I hate what it does to people, to families, so anything I can do to help, I am happy to do it.
"I lost my mum to the disease nearly six years ago and she was my best friend. She was only 60 and was glamorous and loved to wear make-up - she actually came to one of my workshops as I started getting involved with LGFB after my uncle was diagnosed.
"I saw at first-hand how make-up helped her feel better on the inside too. She loved learning how to put her eyebrows back on when she lost them through treatment and her skin had really dried up, so she felt good learning how to look after it better. And she really loved her goody bag."
Praised for its unique holistic approach in treating the physical and emotional effects of cancer treatment, Look Good Feel Better has supported over two million people across six continents to date and Michelle is proud to play her part.
In addition to taking and helping out at pre-pandemic workshops in Belfast, Antrim and Newry, she recently walked a mountain for the charity - striding up Cave Hill every day "for about a month" as part of a Facebook fundraiser which raised over £2,500.
Now, with the help of fellow lead volunteers in the north, Janet Potts, Olwyn Wright and Michelle McStravick, she is planning further fundraisers in the future.
Reaction from those she has helped along the way keep her going: one woman, a teacher from England, asked if she could mention her in a book she was writing and another, who had attended a 'live' workshop at Antrim Hospital, got in touch to say the event had really "lifted her spirits" after a "bad weekend" of hair loss.
"It has all been a bit hectic with two small children, but my partner, Thomas, who worked in the hospitals throughout the lockdowns - he is training to be a mental health worker - has been a great help," Michelle concludes before dashing back to babysitting duties for her sister.
"Sometimes, when I look back at my family's history with cancer, I do worry about my own health and what the future might hold, but when you sit back and just listen to other people's stories, you realise how fortunate you are.
"I have lost a few clients in work through cancer over the years - one lady who has been a client for 20 years is now in a hospice - so I know how important it is, putting on a 'face' each day.
"For me, it is just great to see the joy on someone's face when they look in the mirror and recognise the person looking back. Helping people with cancer look and feel better makes me feel better too."