By Jack Colwill and Leah Fox
A former heroin addict turned farmer is now a beauty pageant contestant after turning her fortunes around – but still prefers mucking out the animals to strutting down the catwalk.
Atlanta Wilsher is set to compete in the final of Miss England just months after spending eight years squatting in houses across London after developing a drug problem aged 18 – after first starting drinking as a nine-year-old.
The 25-year-old, from Harlow, Essex, knocked her habit on the head once and for all after spending a month in rehab and was persuaded by doting mum Jane Penfold to enter the beauty pageant.
And the former tearaway, who once appeared on the Jeremy Kyle Show after Jane, 59, forced her to appear to face her heroin problem, said her fellow contestants never believe her dark past – or her love of getting muddy feeding the pigs.
Atlanta said: “My drug problem began when I was grieving after my boyfriend died.
“I spent eight years squatting in different houses – I went from my life before where I had lots of qualifications and was doing well for myself, to being on the streets begging and injecting daily.
“My mum came and brought me home one year ago, like she’s done so many times – I weighed just five and a half stone.
“I don’t know what it was, but this time I just found the strength to change things.
“As I recovered, my mum randomly entered me in the Miss England pageant because every mum always believes their daughter is the most beautiful girl in the world.
“I just thought ‘okay Mum, go on then’; I mean, all mothers love their children, don’t they? I never thought anything would come of it at the time, it seemed like a life for someone else.
“Then we just got this phone call to say I’d been selected. We were screaming down the phone.
“It was only a blurry mobile phone photo shot of me that got sent but it worked – it’s a weird world.
“Since then, I’ve actually had to practice wearing stilettos, for ten minutes a day! I am still more used to wearing my wellies.”
Atlanta credits her recovery with volunteering on a farm in Sawbridgeworth, Herts run by family friend Marlene Brunt.
Her duties at Kecksy’s Farm include mucking out, feeding and training highland cattle, donkeys, chickens and goats, as well as no less than 63 dogs.
But she also knows a thing or two about being on stage from taking part in shows in her younger years, and from mum Jane’s career as a dance teacher and past as a former showgirl.
But while she admitted fellow contestants are surprised when they discover her day job, she is determined to use the pageant as a platform to show other addicts how they can turn their lives around.
Atlanta, who won South East semi-final to bag her place in the final and has not yet revealed her former addiction problem to her pageant peers, said: “It’s so informal on a farm, they’re not exactly glamourous places, but being around animals has helped me so much.
“When you’re recovering it’s like you’re is treading on eggshells.
“When you’re not doing anything constructive, your mind plays games which makes you want to go out and use.
“But volunteering on the farm takes my mind off everything because the animals are so loving and affectionate.
“Going from there to having your nails done and being on the catwalk is really strange. It can be a bit dazzling when you’re not been on stage.
“The other Miss England girls don’t know that I used to be a heroin addict, but they know about me being a farmer and they’re really interested in that.
“Other girls have done lots of pageants and there are so many beautiful contestants – I was an outsider coming into the group, but we all help and support each other.
“Everyone at the farm was amazed when I told them I’d got into Miss England – but now I’m in the finals they’re delighted.”
Atlanta has never let herself forget about the life she had, as she sees so many people still dealing with the problems she herself faced.
She has praised Open Road in Harlow, a drug and alcohol recovery service, and West Essex Specialist Treatment and Recovery Service (STaRS), as helping her with her recovery.
And Atlanta sees her time on Miss England as a chance to carry on the work she’s benefited from by those charities and has a fierce desire to make sure other people in her situation have someone on their side.
She added: “Don’t look down on addicts and the homeless, that’s my message.
“Everyone has problems and we all try to deal with them in our different ways, but it shouldn’t make anyone less than someone else.
“I want to support people in addiction because there’s not really anyone else out there for them. We have such a bad name and people tend to walk past people like us in the street, but we are all good people in pain who never wished to end up in that situation.
“It only takes one person not to be ashamed and say ‘I was an addict’.
“Those still out there need a voice, and I want to be that voice.”
The final of Miss England 2019 will take place on Wednesday, July 31st and Thursday, August 1st at the Newbridge Hotel in Newcastle.