You'd never guess by looking at them, but these ordinary women all have extraordinary stories to tell, from climbing Everest to fighting cancer, and even travelling to Mars...As part of our new monthly You'd Never Guess That feature, we're asking inspirational women to tell us their extraordinary life stories. Share yours with us on Twitter @marieclaireuk using #MCshare for the chance to appear in the magazine.
‘I was in prison, now I have an MBE’
‘After being arrested for petty crime at 21, I turned my life around, volunteering with teenagers affected by gangs. Seven years on, I was the youngest black woman to get an MBE – for services to young people. I also set up the West Midlands Women of the Year Awards.’
Justice Williams, 34, Birmingham
‘I live life as a modern-day nomad’
‘I don’t own or rent, so I house-sit for strangers. I’ve stayed everywhere from Costa Rica to Panama and Nicaragua. The houses are a real home from home. House-sitting helps boost my income as a writer and I get to travel the world.’
Charlie Marchant, 23, Brighton
‘I started a viral selfie campaign’
‘I started #getyourbellyout to raise awareness of inflammatory bowel disease. We urged people to post pictures of their stomachs on social media. As a Crohn’s sufferer I wanted to end the taboo of colostomy bags. We trended worldwide.’
Lorna Haymes, 33, Manchester
‘I’m a mechanic at a nuclear power plant’
‘People are shocked when they find out what I do. At weekends I dress in a really girly way, which is very different from my day-to-day hard hat and overalls. No two days at EDF Energy's Torness nuclear power station are the same. One day I can be focussing on safety, the next fixing of diesel engine.’
Stefany Chrisholm, 24, Dunbar
‘I rebuilt my life after fleeing Iraq’
‘When I was four, my parents fled Babylon and brought my four siblings and me here, leaving everything behind. We’ve never gone back because it hasn’t been safe but I’ve kept my roots. I speak Arabic and have launched the UK’s first melon-juice range – it’s a traditional drink in Iraq.’
Rose Aldean, 27, Manchester
‘My job as a textile designer for Alberta Ferretti was very high pressure. We didn’t know who’d be wearing our designs until afterwards. Seeing Gwyneth Paltrow on the 2008 Oscars’ red carpet in my dress was seriously surreal.’
Lorna McGinnigal, 31, Glasgow
‘I’m a plasterer and bricklayer’
‘I used to help out my dad on building jobs, then, as part of my degree, I wrote a business plan for a female-only building company. Inspired, I set up Female Builders & Interiors in 2007. I’ve had funny looks when I’ve turned up on a job; it shouldn’t be about gender but skill.’
Philippa Tuttiett, 31, Cardiff
‘I’m married to myself’
‘After a bad break-up, I started writing a novel about a woman who marries herself. Then I wondered if I could do it, too. My wedding was a real celebration; my loved ones watched me commit to myself. I changed the traditional vows to be about one person, but the meaning was still the same. It was empowering.’
Sophie Tanner, 36, Brighton
‘I’ve had eight major organs removed.’
'Last year, my partner and I were struggling to conceive so I was referred to a fertility clinic. Various tests revealed I had a rare cancer called Pseudomyxoma petritonei (PMP), which starts in the appendix and quickly spreads through the abdomen. In November I had to have eight major organs removed, including my spleen, stomach lining and diaphragm – plus a full hysterectomy and chemotherapy to get rid of the cancer. Going through early menopause has been tough, especially as I really wanted children – but I’m back at work and waiting for a scan to get the all clear. I’m looking to my future.'
Kirsty Reid, 31, West Lothian
‘I was an Ebola nurse.’
'When I found out the Red Cross were looking for volunteers to fly out to Sierra Leone to spend a month caring for Ebola patients, I jumped at the chance. I quit my job as an A&E nurse and after intensive training; I flew out in February to work in a treatment centre. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared spending every day working in a high-risk situation, but I wanted to help people in need. There’s no real treatment for the disease, it’s mainly about keeping sufferers hydrated and prevent it from spreading. Thankfully all confirmed Ebola patients I looked after survived and I’m going back out there for six months later this year.'
Clare Hill, 35, Brighton
‘I’m a firefighter.’
'I’ve been a firefighter at Springfield Fire Station in West Belfast for three years. I was one of the 33 people who got a job with the fire service out of 7,000 applicants. Everyone is shocked when they find out what I do – they expect firefighters to be burly men. I do a lot of work trying to change this though, by going into local schools and promoting the job to young girls. Some said they didn’t even realise women could do this, which shows there’s still a bit to be done. But we have skills men don’t, we can crawl into smaller spaces, and we’re naturally more compassionate, so can provide better emotional support to people who have just lost everything.'
Mary Kate McKevitt, 30, Belfast
‘I learned to fly a plane before I could drive a car’
‘My parents didn’t know what to get me for my 15th birthday, so they bought me a flying lesson. From then on, I was hooked and practiced flying every Saturday, alongside school. I got a pilot’s licence when I was 17, strangely enough I couldn’t even drive a car yet! At university, I volunteered with the RAF and learned to do aerobatics. Now I fly private jets for London Executive Aviation. It’s such a privilege being able to see the world and I wouldn’t do anything else. Being a woman hasn’t mattered, I’ve always had a positive response and been made to feel welcome.’
Danni Stoney, 31, Woodstock, Oxfordshire
‘My blindness hasn’t stopped me becoming an illustrator’
‘I was born prematurely and my optic nerves didn’t develop properly – I’m completely blind in my right eye and only have 10% sight in my left. Since I can remember I’ve loved drawing – but I prefer to use pencil as it’s more precise; I find I get paint everywhere. People are shocked when they realise my art was created by a blind person and question how it’s possible; I simply work using the images I see in my mind. I’ve exhibited my work to the public and last year I won the RNIB’s Young Illustrator of the Year Award. My dream is to illustrate children’s books - I won’t let being blind get in the way of that goal.’
Kimberley Burrows, 26, Manchester
'With £2,000 i've helped 12,000 people'
‘When my dad died in 2008 he left me £2,000 and a note saying ‘do something good with this’. He was a humanitarian; he sponsored a Tibetan refugee called Deki Dolkha. I met her and learning of the hardships she’d faced I was inspired to set up a charity named after her. Through our crowd-funding system people can give microloans to people in developing countries, so they can set up sustainable businesses and become self-sufficient. Since then, Deki has given out £500,000 in loans to 12,000 people, changing lives across the world. I think Dad would be very proud of what I’ve achieved.’
Vashti Seth, 37, Bristol, deki.org.uk
'I'm a coder and a part-time model'
‘I started building my own websites when I was 11 and from then on I knew I wanted to be a software engineer. After studying computer science at university, I began working in the industry. I realised there was still a lot of stereotyping – female coders are expected to look and be a certain way. I’m a part-time model and people get confused about how I can do both things. In 2012 I set up a branch of the US start up Women Who Code in Belfast – we’ve grown from 30 to 350 members since then and we’re working hard at getting more women into software engineering.’
Sheree Atcheson, 24, Belfast
'I've found mentors for over 700 girls'
'My friend Charly Young and I started The Girls' Network while teaching at an inner-city school in London. We aim to improve schoolgirls' self-esteem by giving them a female role model. We now have a 1,400-strong network of girls and professional women across the country. Our plans are to expand to rural areas that are in real demand and reach the girls that really need our support - we're excited to be working with housing associations this year as well as schools, which will allow us to reach more girls within their communities.'
Becca Dean, 26, Portsmouth
'I'm rowing across the Atlantic'
'More people have gone into space or climbed Everest than rowed the Atlantic. Our team Atlantic Endeavour is participating in the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge 2015, a race which sees around 30 teams row from La Gomera in the Canary Islands to Antigua in the Caribbean. United by a passion for adventure and surviving in extreme conditions, we aim to be the first women’s four to cross the finish line in English Harbour in early 2016 and break two world records in the process. We want to inspire other women to push their boundaries and show that with hard work and determination, anything is achievable.'
Kate Hallam, 31, London, atlanticendeavour.com
'Doctors said I'd never walk again'
'After a brain haemorrhage at a festival a year ago, I was told this devastating news. But I had physio every day and was back to work at Royal Mail after four months. My delivery route is seven miles - there isn't really much I can't do now. Royal Mail have been amazing, they help a lot of stroke victims. The Stroke Association was chosen as their Charity of the Year and over the next two years, they're aiming to raise at least £2 million to support 10,000 stroke survivors with Life after Stroke grants. They fund equipment to give stroke survivors more independence and support as they take their first steps back into the community.'
Hayley O'Leary, 32, Bedford
'I've won two Baftas for gaming'
'My friends and I won a BAFTA Ones to Watch Award in 2012 for our student game called Tick Tock Toys, a colourful puzzle game for iPad aimed at children. In the following year, I was named a BAFTA Breakthrough Brit, which provided a year’s worth of mentoring and access to the BAFTA events. My passion for games has always been there; I love planning and defining all the elements of a game and seeing it come to life.'
Sophia George, 24, Norfolk, sophiageorge.com
'I'm on a mission to Mars'
'When the chance to be part of Mars One - a one-way mission in 2024 to create a human colony on Mars - came up, I knew I wanted to be a part of history. Spaceflight is risky; it's also a privilege. I'll never see my family and boyfriend again, but I'll still speak to them from space. Life's too short to not go for it.'
Hannah Earnshaw, 23, Birmingham
'Cancer inspired me to stop dreaming and start doing'
'Getting diagnosed with cancer at 27 was devastating but I've now been in remission for nine months. Remission brought relief as well as an overwhelming fear of, 'where do I go from here?' Returning to work, getting back to my social circles and picking up my fitness and hockey seemed daunting, so I began Project 30 - a list of 30 things to achieve before I'm 30, including taking part in a parachute jump. Over the past year I have grown close to two charities, Cancer Research and Maggie's. It's been an emotional roller coaster but thanks to Maggie's I'm back at work. I also recently ran a half marathon and I got married in April! Everyone on this planet has one job and that is to make your life the best it can be. I refuse to let cancer take that way from me.'
Heather Williams, 28, Edinburgh, blogs at hevewilliams.wordpress.com
'I was the youngest person to have climbed Everest'
The morning after I attended a lecture about Everest, I woke up and thought, "I'm going to climb that." The reality was much harder than I expected, but sitting on top of the world aged 22 was worth the pain. If you're too afraid to try something new, you'll never know what personal achievement feels like.'
Bonita Norris, 27, Wokingham
'I had a baby for strangers'
'Watching friends struggle to have kids was heartbreaking. So, after I'd had my own family, I joined Surrogacy UK and became a surrogate for a male couple. I gave birth to Lola last August and now we're planning her sibling.'
Elizabeth D'Sa, 29, London
‘I was the first priest at London College of Fashion’
“I always felt the church needed a better conversation with fashion. I think being creative is part of our spiritual DNA, so I approached LCF and became their Chaplain in 2006. Fashion students have the same pressures, spiritual needs and anxieties as anyone else. People expect me to look like a Vicar of Dibley, cardigan- wearing type, but I enjoy playing with fashion and challenging stereotypes.”
Joanna Jepson, 38, Cheltenham
‘I’m the UK’s youngest Mayor’
“Young people don’t have enough presence in politics, so I decided to do something about it and stand for election. I was 18 when I voted for the first time, and I voted for myself. I won a seat on the Selby Town Council in 2014, and became the Mayor of Selby at 21, with the aim to improve life for children and young people. Of course people are skeptical. A young male politician I know grew a beard to be taken more seriously. I’d rather let my actions do the talking.’
Rosie Corrigan, 22, Yorkshire
‘I’m an engineer at Rolls royce’
“People expect me to wear oily overalls and spend my time beneath car bonnets, but I’m more likely to be at my desk or meeting with the production team for Rolls Royce. Right now I’m working on nuclear vessels, but I’ve also worked on jet engines and marine deck machinery. Only 8% of engineers are female so we need to communicate that this industry is for everyone. It’s a brilliant place to be and any woman who likes problem-solving should consider it.”
Lara Small, 28, Jersey
‘I’ve never had sex’
“I’m not religious, asexual, or hideously unattractive, I simply haven’t met the right guy. I’m picky and I’ve only had one boyfriend, who I met at university. We split before things reached the sex stage. Everyone is different, but I have no desire to be physically intimate with someone who doesn’t mean a lot to me, so one-night stands don’t appeal. I get mixed reactions when people find out I’m a virgin, and some are critical. But just as slut shaming is unfair, why do people think it’s okay to judge me? My body, my choice.”
Alice Riley, 23, from London, blogs at fairofface.co
Have an interesting story you'd like to share? Head to Twitter @marieclaireuk and tell us something surprising about yourself using #MCshare and you could appear in a future issue of Marie Claire