There is no disguising how thrilled Jennifer is to have walked away with the title, nor how astonishing her transformation is. With tumbling blonde hair, an impressively lithe figure and brilliant Hollywood smile, she looks every inch the beauty queen
Seeing the judges walking towards her, bearing the coveted silver crown and announcing that she was the new Miss Great Britain, Jennifer Atkin’s knees buckled and her big brown eyes swam with tears as she asked: ‘Me? Are you sure?’
Although she wouldn’t be the first beauty queen to do so, the 26-year-old from Grimsby, Lincolnshire, was neither being coquettish nor displaying false modesty.
This was not just about winning a beauty contest. Far from it.
If anything, this was a life contest and the only competition was with herself. And she’d won. Really, really won.
Lampooned as anti-feminist, anachronistic and long past their sell-by date, beauty pageants aren’t the most obvious place for a woman nowadays to find empowerment and self-worth, but Jennifer is a fan.
‘I see myself as a role model, not a supermodel,’ she says.
‘I’m living proof you can achieve whatever you want to achieve if you put your mind to it.
Standing on that stage with everyone looking at her, Jennifer was sending a message to every self-loathing, frightened, lonely, self-destructive woman out there, slowly eating herself to an early grave, that there is another way. You do not have to waste your life.
And if she had to wear a silver crown and a sash to do it, then so be it. For not so long ago, Jennifer was one of those women.
Dangerously obese at 17st 9lb, and struggling to zip up a size 22 dress, she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t feel ashamed of herself.
Bullied at school for her size, then mocked by strangers in nightclubs, leading to the final humiliation — being dumped by her fiance — that moment on the stage in Leicester represented a new beginning for Jennifer.
‘All I could think was ‘Little old goofy me from Grimsby, Miss Great Britain? Noooo!’,’ says Jennifer, throwing back her head and flashing brilliant white teeth.
Although she wouldn’t be the first beauty queen to do so, the 26-year-old from Grimsby, Lincolnshire, was neither being coquettish nor displaying false modesty. This was not just about winning a beauty contest. Far from it. If anything, this was a life contest and the only competition was with herself
‘It gives me goosebumps just imagining how my teenage self, who other kids called ‘Jenny Fatkin’ and teased: ‘Who ate all the pies? You ate all the pies!’, would have felt knowing that one day I’d win this title.’
So unexpected was Jennifer’s moment of glory that none of her family, including her husband, Chris, nor her friends had gone along to the Athena conference and banqueting centre to witness her coronation last Friday.
‘I didn’t want to put people out and make them think they had to come and support me,’ she says.
‘The tickets were £75, which included a three-course meal, so I’d have felt bad if they’d spent that, for me to let them down.
‘I rang my husband afterwards to tell him and he said: ‘Well done. The plumber’s coming at 9am tomorrow.’
I said: ‘You did hear, I’ve just won Miss Great Britain?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, you need to pick what colour grouting you want for the bathroom.’ ‘
Dangerously obese at 17st 9lb, and struggling to zip up a size 22 dress, she couldn’t remember a time when she didn’t feel ashamed of herself. Bullied at school for her size, then mocked by strangers in nightclubs, leading to the final humiliation — being dumped by her fiance — that moment on the stage in Leicester represented a new beginning for Jennifer
Far from being hurt by his astonishing nonchalance, Jennifer is highly amused by it and grateful that, in stark contrast to the teetering heels she teamed with her glittery gown for the contest, his attitude helps keep her feet firmly on the ground.
Still, she couldn’t resist reminding Chris, 30, a mechanical engineer, that he was ‘sleeping with Miss Great Britain’ that night.
For his part, he’s just happy to see his wife so overjoyed.
There is no disguising how thrilled Jennifer is to have walked away with the title, nor how astonishing her transformation is.
With tumbling blonde hair, an impressively lithe figure and brilliant Hollywood smile, she looks every inch the beauty queen.
‘When I decided five years ago, after years of failed diets, that I was finally going to get slim and fit, there was no one in the public eye who had started out as a size 22 and achieved what I wanted to achieve to inspire me,’ she says.
‘I’m determined to do that for other people.’
When she describes her ‘old’ life, you wonder how she’s still alive — let alone wearing the Miss GB crown: a full English breakfast every morning, a bar of chocolate as a mid-morning snack, a lasagne supermarket ready meal for lunch, fizzy drinks, crisps, pasties, takeaways, wine most evenings . . . the list goes on.
‘The local Chinese restaurant knew my order off pat: two duck spring rolls, beef chow mein with chicken fried rice, battered chicken balls, chips, curry sauce and prawn crackers.’
They were shared with her then fiance, but it was still a horrifying list. ‘Then I’d round the evening off with a family-size bar of chocolate,’ she says, with a sorry smile.
Rather than merely someone satisfying everyday hunger, the image she paints makes the old Jennifer sound like an addict.
When I ask if some early trauma might be behind this need to gorge herself, leading to her body mass index reaching 40 (anything over 25 is considered overweight while 30-plus is obese), she says: ‘I was brought up in a family that loves food and we were expected to eat everything on our plates.’
Jennifer’s earliest memory of being conscious of the effects of her over-eating was when the school nurse asked her to step on the scales, aged eight.
‘She said: ‘You’re a little bit heavier than you should be, you know’ and I was quite embarrassed but remember, even then, trying to laugh it off saying: ‘Well, it runs in the family’ — which wasn’t true,’ recalls Jennifer.
‘I have a twin brother who has always been very slim — he’s a runner and part of Team GB, in fact — and I was known at school as ‘Sam Atkin’s fat twin’.
‘I love Sam to pieces but I’ve always lived in his shadow, dragged along to his running events as a child. Although always proud of him, I’d think: ‘I wish I could be as amazing as you Sam.’
‘And here I am now, poking my head above the parapet in my Miss Great Britain crown.’
Aged 18, when she started dating her ex, Jennifer was only a size 16, the average for a British woman, so not obese. The couple bought a house together and it was as they settled into domesticity that the weight really piled on.
Jennifer, who admits she was ‘clueless about cooking’, spent her evenings after work either in the gym, walking on the treadmill, or trawling supermarkets studying the nutrition information on food packets to build her knowledge
Only one friend ever pointed out the potentially deadly implications of being so large, telling Jennifer that she was worried about her health. Although shocked at the time, she is grateful to this friend for her concern.
Then came the ultimate blow, when her ex-fiance — whom she politely declines to name — ended their relationship, partly, she believes, because of her size.
Tempting as it must be, she insists her transformation has not been to spite him.
‘People want me to say: ‘I hate him, this is the biggest revenge, he shouldn’t have left me.’
But I can’t — I still love him as a person, it just didn’t work out,’ she says. ‘It was my first relationship and, at the time, it was devastating that he didn’t want to be with me.
‘Was it because of my weight? There were a few comments I’d rather not mention, but it could have been.
‘Within a few months, I knew it was the right thing for it to end and I’m so pleased it triggered my healthy lifestyle.’
In the early weeks after the break up in March 2015 — the couple had planned to marry at the end of that year — Jennifer admits to indulging in some serious comfort eating.
Her epiphany came as she sat, alone, in the living room of the home she’d once shared with her ex, surrounded by the detritus of her latest binge — crisps, chocolate, ice cream and cake wrappers.
‘I’d been on the phone to my auntie and she’d said: ‘I must go, the kids want me’ and afterwards I thought: ‘Gosh, I’m alone and I don’t want to be alone for ever. I’ve got to make a little bit of effort.’
Rather than following a particular diet, Jennifer cut out all takeaways, crisps, chocolate, sweets and fizzy drinks and joined a gym.
She had yoghurt for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and a piece of chicken with a baked potato and cheese for dinner every night. The weight dropped off, initially at the rate of eight pounds a week.
Jennifer, who admits she was ‘clueless about cooking’, spent her evenings after work either in the gym, walking on the treadmill, or trawling supermarkets studying the nutrition information on food packets to build her knowledge.
‘The gym was like a sanctuary,’ she says. ‘At home I felt alone.’
Her hard work paid off and, by the end of that year, Jennifer was down to 12st 7lb and a size 14. It was at the gym, in November 2015, that she bumped into Chris, whom she’d known at school, where he’d been three years above her.
There was a spark and, thanks to Jennifer’s newly discovered confidence, the couple started dating.
They would go to the gym and cook healthy meals together. By the middle of 2016, she weighed 9st 5lb and was down to a size 10.
It was in late 2017, while Jennifer was volunteering at a local homeless shelter, that someone suggested she enter the Miss Grimsby contest the following March.
No longer is it enough to look great and have a yearning for world peace, modern-day beauty queens must also be committed to charity work.
Jennifer fit the bill perfectly, but came second to the woman crowned Miss Grimsby that year.
‘The dressing up and the photographs and people watching me on stage, not because I was overweight but because I looked good, made me love the experience so much,’ says Jennifer.
‘I also made great friends with the other contestants.
‘It’s like running a race (something her twin brother knows all about, of course) — you always want to beat your personal best.
The first year I did Miss England I came eighth. I’d had so much fun and wanted to do better and the year after, 2018, I came second.’
Her hard work paid off and, by the end of that year, Jennifer was down to 12st 7lb and a size 14. It was at the gym, in November 2015, that she bumped into Chris, whom she’d known at school, where he’d been three years above her
Jennifer and Chris married in the Lincolnshire village where they grew up on August 3 last year.
‘I don’t hate the girl I used to be — she genuinely made me who I am today, someone who can openly talk about weight troubles and help others.
‘Winning Miss Great Britain was just the cherry on top of the cake — and I still love cake.’
Although she says she was ‘constantly tired and down’ while at her heaviest, Jennifer’s joie de vivre, and sense of humour, have clearly been huge factors in her success.
So what’s her message to those who made her life a misery in her teens and early 20s?
‘We all have thoughts about other people but to say things you know will upset them is horrific,’ she says.
Then a devilish grin lights up her face, and she can’t resist: ‘Look at me now, who’s got the crown?’