LEANING on a stick, and waiting for special assistance from specially trained staff, Paula Graffin looks up at the destinations board at the airport - and she won’t lie, it’s daunting.
Some days she can barely make it out of bed because of the pain, or the vertigo.
But not every day, and not on this day.
She knows that there are people who believe in her and want her to get on that flight - her friends, her Mum, who comes to her home and helps take care of her, on the bad days.
And, more lately, top names in the fashion and make-up industry, who want and need Paula on their team, come what may.
While she may struggle day to day, Paula knows that getting out there - and getting her artistry into major fashion publications worldwide and on models strutting the catwalks of New York, London and Paris - helps to give hope and inspiration to others struggling with chronic illness.
If just a fleeting glimpse of an Instagram story, a blog or a YouTube video, can help her followers fight on for another day, she knows her hard work has all been worth it.
“I don’t know whether I am lucky, or I am blessed,” she said.
“A lot of people put their faith in me, they could get anyone else, but they seem to want me, and sometimes I still wonder why!”
A decade ago, Paula had been living and working in the Republic of Ireland, including for Peter Mark hairdressing, when she first became ill a number of years ago.
She had been commuting weekly to see her family and the travelling was starting to take a toll, particularly after a traumatic family bereavement.
Paula eventually became semi-paralysed and bedbound for a year.
“I had been very fit and active and athletic, I was always working, so it was a real shock for me,” she said.
“I had a great life, I was so independent.”
She was eventually diagnosed with ME, and more lately, Meniere’s Disease - which can make travelling hard for her.
“As I began to recover my strength, I set myself goals, to redo some of my courses in hair, beauty and make-up, to give me something to focus on,” she said.
Paula worked for a number of stylists and salons in the town including for her good friend Catriona Channing, but because of her illnesses, found it hard to commit long-term.
Thanks to a good network of models, photographers and make-up artists in Northern Ireland, she found out about a Mastered seminar in Iceland in 2016 and submitted her portfolio.
The event linked industry experts, mentors, models and sought-after press.
There she met Northern Ireland man Chris Sutton, a photographer and creative consultant, who has worked with the likes of Marilyn Manson, Lady GaGa, Beyonce, Dior, Chanel and Fendi.
She also made contacts with photographers Tony Webster and Nick Knight and major make-up artists Isamaya Ffrench and Val Garland, as well as local model and acress Michaela Lindsay.
“We were given a brief of ‘Policitian or Criminal and we had a real Vivienne Westwood vibe.
“Everyone was really friendly and supportive, we were all like minded people with the same goals.”
The following year, despite having little experience, she attempted to get on one of the teams at London Fashion Week.
“Even if just to clean the brushes!” she said.
“However thanks to the contacts I had made, I got onto a team and got to work on two models.
“The amount of planning and preparation is unbelievable.
“The fashion houses are working on their collections for months, so everything has to be perfect.”
Later that year she worked with Chanel Joan Elkayam, who was then studying at Central Saint Martins, on a project in collaboration with Balenciaga, the Victoria & Albert museum and the Balenciaga Museum in Spain.
The shoot took place at the V&A.
“That was phenomenal,” said Paula.
“Through that, in 2018 I was invited to Milan, although my health was not great, people were very considerate.
“I do struggle with anxiety attacks and in some of the very busy environments, it can be tough to cope, but people are very respectful and good to me.”
In the interim, she was also working closely with local big names, including Rebecca Bryson, Cathy Martin and Paddy McGurgan.
Another big local inspiration is Belfast artist and stylist Marc Neill and others involved in the MELT Collective collaboration of professionals.
She also linked up with British make-up megastar Pat McGrath, described as ‘the most influential make-up artist in the world’ by Vogue magazine and other commentators and a trip to Milan beckoned.
Her health fluctuated in this period, but in 2019, as her 40th birthday approached, she set her sights on a trip to the Big Apple.
“I loved Sex and the City,” she said.
“I’d always wanted to go to New York, but health got in the way.
“I loved the fashion and I wanted to walk down the same streets as Carrie, I had all the DVDs.”
As if by magic, a ‘random email’ appeared in Paula’s inbox, from a man called Marcello Costa.
Born in Brazil, Costa moved to the USA to pursue his career and studied cosmetology and special effects in New York Tish University.
He now works with well known fashion houses, at red carpets, celebrities and cinema.
His main highlights at red carpets and backstages include the Oscars, Grammys, Golden Globes and Cannes Festival.
He has had his works published in magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan and has been part of beauty teams on the runways of high fashion like Dolce & Gabanna, Cavalli, Versace, Armani, Tom Ford and Moschino in Paris, London, Milan and New York.
“He said he had seen my name on a list of people in the industry and wanted me to come over and work on a project in New York.” said Paula.
“I don’t know whether it was fate, or destiny, or what, but I couldn’t not take the chance.”
When she arrived, she discovered that she would be working alongside none other than Emmy-winning Sex and the City stylist and costume designer Patricia Field.
“I was like ‘THE Patricia Field?,” said Paula.
“I couldn’t believe it, there was a real Studio 54 vibe going on, the theme was 90s supermodels, there was a dancefloor and lights - it was everything I had ever dreamed of, I thought, this is what it’s all about.”
That trip brought Paula onto the radar of designers including Adam Lippes, Sergio Hudson and Romeo Hunte - and even Mel B, formerly of the Spice Girls.
“Marcello really believed in me and remains a huge inspiration,” she said.
“He is so reassuring and calming, he speaks so many languages, none of his looks are repetitive or the same, he has a new idea each time - he is a bit of a genius!
“It’s amazing to be part of a tight-knit team, we all look after each other and we all get together and pray before each show, no matter what denomination or religion we are, or none, it’s just us all coming together and supporting each other as a unit before we do our work.”
Paula is now a valued member of ‘Team MC’.
While she enjoyed her first visit to New York, it is Paris which really holds her heart.
“Visiting Paris was a dream come true for me,” she said.
“The style and the fashion is amazing, there is so much history there, the museums and the art.
“I feel free in Paris, being able to go to a cafe and get a croissant and a coffee just means the world to me, I really fell in love with the place.”
In Paris, she has worked with hip men’s brand Riot Hill on an ‘edgy’ shoot for Men’s Fashion Week in the Palais du Tokyo and brushed shoulders with many celebrities.
Paula grew up as an avid reader of Vogue and idolising the looks of the 90s supermodels.
She is proud of the fact that her work has now appeared in Vogue all over the world - even as far away as Thailand.
“For me, make up art is quite literally that, art, I always loved going to museums and galleries, like the V&A, the Lourve and the renaissance art in Rome, looking at paintings, to libraries, looking at the books.” she said.
“You never ever stop training, as fashion is constantly evolving, trends come and go but you have to be up to speed.
“If you are asked to do a treatment or a look, you need to know your designers, know fashion and beauty icons/models like Audrey Hepburn or Kate Moss, and the big photographers.
“Know fashion and make-up through the decades and what was used as alternatives to the products we have today like rouge or Soap Brows.
“I have a collection of Vogue and other fashion magazines and books as I find them inspiring when I go to do a mood board.
“Nature is also the biggest inspiration of them all, colours, shapes and plants for example.
“The likes of Naomi Campbell, being shot by David Bailey, those were my icons when I was younger.
“The models’ face is their bread and butter, if they are worried about a product they can be accused of being a diva.
“But if an artist has damaged their skin, they are right to be nervous and I spend a lot of time reassuring models that the products I use are safe and I have done a lot of research into what products to use on what types of skin.”
She added: “On social media, I like to name-check and support and use the products of local companies and ethical companies.
“As make-up artists, a lot of what we do is experimenting, mixing different products and colours and adapting everything to suit the model.
“Knowing your history is important, some of the tips and tricks I use go back to the 1950s.
“One great thing about what I’ve been doing in the last few years is the opportunity to work with so many ethnicities and age groups, there is so much diversity out there - every skin type is different
“I’ve had some great opportunities to hone my skills -you can’t learn this sort of thing on YouTube.”
In December, Paula was invited to LA for the Cinémoi Network’s CinéFashion Film Awards at the famous Saban Theatre.
The event honoured Pierre Cardin, Zandra Rhodes and Sister Sledge, amongst others.
“I really wanted to go and see the Hollywood sign, but I had a bad attack of vertigo and had to stay in bed,” said Paula.
“But it was such an amazing experience. I did make-up for some very famous people, but I do have to sign a lot of non-disclosure agreements and have to respect people’s privacy.”
Just a couple of weeks ago, Paula assisted Marcello in London for a show by Aadnevik, a husband and wife team who have dressed the likes of Rihanna, Kendall Jenner, Kylie Minogue, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and many more.
The swanky event took place at the Royal Horseguards Hotel as part of London Fashion Week.
“Kristian Aadvenik trained under Alexander McQueen and he and his wife Hila dressed people for the Oscars, it was amazing to be in that sort of atmosphere,” she said.
“When I look back on the last couple of years, it’s crazy, staring out the window of Spring Studios at the paparazzi, because Miley Cyrus was in the building, then going home to Antrim!
“I do have to strike a balance between make-up artistry and my health.
“I set myself tasks and try and organise everything in terms of what I can cope with.
“None of us are doing this for money - some of the time we are sponsored, some of the time we get given products to use - it’s a passion and a vocation.
“For younger people trying to get a foot in the door, all they want is exposure and contacts.
“I could have an easier life, I could stay at home and do nothing, but I think it is important to show other people who are struggling with their health, what can be possible.
“It is hard, I do take a long time to recover.
“Sometimes I wonder why people want me on their team at all, they could pick someone who doesn’t need assistance at the airport or someone who doesn’t need to go out and take in air when they are having an anxiety attack.
“But when I get a message from someone who follows me on social media, saying they have been in bed all day, and watching one of my blogs or stories inspired them to get up and do something, then I know I am doing the right thing.
“I am doing this to help other people as much as I am doing it for myself.”
Paula said that her Antrim upbringing has also helped open many doors for her in a hyper-competitive field.
“My Mum always taught me to be polite and respectful and to talk to people with respect,” she said.
“When you are in a room full of people and the models are nervous, speaking calmly to them, just a simple thing, can be very calming.
“When you’re being instructed or given a brief and you stand up straight with your hands clasped instead of slouching with your hand on your hip - people notice that.
“I have been told I have a good way with people and I think that’s because when I was growing up, I had that instilled in me.
“Reputation is really important in this industry and I do like to come across well.”
She added: “It’s a way of making myself feel useful, doing this type of thing.
“I do sometimes have to get a cab called for me, or go home early.
“But gives me something to focus on, it takes me away from the stresses and strains of everyday life, it’s like being in a different world, even if it is just temporary.
“I like to be able to show people who maybe can’t get out of the house, a little bit of the world, the places I go to and the people I meet.
“It takes me away from being Paula for a while.
“When I am really focused on a mood board or am up against the clock to get a model in front of a photographer or on the runway, I don’t have time to think about all the other stuff.”