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Courage on the Catwalk and Brave: Aberdeen events highlight real people fighting cancer

Courage on the Catwalk will be returning in 2022 following the pandemic which has brought it to a halt.
Courage on the Catwalk will be returning in 2022 following the pandemic which has brought it to a halt.

Jimmy Milne grew up on a farm in Aberdeen, where he was used to being woken at 2.30am and told “the coo is calvin” and working in the fields “with the neeps and cold water pouring down your neck.”

There was nothing remotely glamorous about those early days in the 1940s for the man who subsequently went on to establish the Balmoral Group and become one of the north-east’s most influential business figures.

Yet, even in the cut-throat, dog-eat-dog world of commerce, Mr Milne has never been dissuaded from maintaining his Christian tenets of looking out for other people and doing whatever he could to help those who needed it.

He has never forgotten the anguish of losing his first wife, Jill, to cancer when his daughters were aged just eight and three. And, as he walked regularly into the oncology ward in Aberdeen, he saw so many people of all ages struggling with various forms of the insidious disease.

Jimmy Milne and Sarah-Jane Hogg have backed Courage and Brave.

It was the catalyst for his company becoming the key sponsor of Friends of Anchor, the charity set up in 1997 to support the Anchor Unit.

And that was the prelude to the organisation launching Courage on the Catwalk in 2013; a unique venture to put the focus on the resolve and resilience of those facing a cancer diagnosis – past and present.

Looking back on a million-pound success story

Jimmy Milne.

Mr Milne, 81, joined forces with his daughter Sarah-Jane Hogg, who heads up the fundraising team, and the duo originally made the decision to shine the spotlight on women with cancer, allowing them an escape from the relentless grind of chemotherapy and treatments they faced in hospital.

A male version of the catwalk event at the Beach Ballroom – Brave – was introduced in 2017 and it has also proved an outstanding success.

Both shows have thus far raised more than £1m for FoA and while Covid-19 has meant the cancellation of the shows in 2020 and 2021, both Jimmy and Sarah-Jane have been heartened by the manner in which they and their colleagues have forged friendships and camaraderie between hundreds of models, stylists, family members and those who treat and care for them at the Anchor Unit, or in the wider environs of Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.

As Mr Milne said: “I lost my mum to cancer, my brother to cancer, my first wife to cancer and there can hardly be a family in Scotland that has not been affected by it. Whenever I went into hospital, I kept thinking to myself ‘What can I do?’ and ‘How can I try to improve things for some of these people?’.

“I felt I had to do something to help. When the charity was born, I knew I wanted to ensure all its running costs would be covered, so any money raised could make a real difference to those who needed it most.

“There are so many people who work tirelessly behind the scenes and we resolved that every penny we raised would go to Friends of Anchor.

“Some charities don’t do that; they maybe only give 60p or 70p of every £1 they raise to the actual charity. We give £1.

“The fundraising team behind Courage and Brave is funded by Balmoral and I have never been more proud of becoming involved with any project in my life.

“I’m always there at all the shows and to see the smiles, the families coming together, the tears – of joy, not despair or frustration – can’t help but raise your spirits.

“When it started out in 2013, the event was pretty basic. It was a catwalk, just a catwalk and not a lot else.

“Since then, it has developed. It has become bigger and bigger, with a full production team and a level of volunteer support that has grown ten-fold.

Brave has been a big success since it started in 2017.

“But the reason we do it hasn’t changed. We know cancer has negative impacts on people’s lives, but so many of these people who take part in the shows are heroes. I don’t use that term lightly and I have the same opinion of those doctors and nurses who go the extra mile all the time to make their patients’ lives more bearable.”

The models are inspirational people

As somebody who has met and talked to many of the participants in both Courage and Brave, and witnessed their exhilaration at taking centre stage for positive reasons in front of their family and friends, there is no questioning the impact which these events have made on boosting their positivity and self-esteem, even as they push themselves to raise funds for FoA.

There’s Jacqui Gray, for instance, a self-employed dance teacher from Bridge of Don in Aberdeen, who took part in CotC in 2019, which was the same year that she celebrated her ‘21st birthday’ – the number of years that had elapsed since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998.

Jacqui Gray was inspirational in Courage on the Catwalk.

You get style and grace aplenty with this redoubtable individual. As you do with Les Forman from Buckie, a member of the Brave line-up in 2018.

Diagnosed with the illness at the age of 45, he decided to get involved in the event after being impressed with the treatment and staff in the Anchor Unit.

FoA described him as “a superb ambassador for the charity in his local area” and added: “Les has encouraged some of the town’s businesses to support the cause through charity collection tins at their tills.

“A year after taking part in Brave, he continued to do his bit to support others by sharing his experience with people in a local cancer support group.”

Les Forman, from Buckie, is among the men who have appeared in Brave.

Even those no longer with us, such as the remarkable Joe McGunnigle, a Tartan Army stalwart who followed Scotland round the globe and sashayed on the catwalk in Brave in 2018, left an enduring legacy.

He once told me: “I never thought that I would end up on a catwalk.

“But it has been one of the highlights of my life.”

Catching up with Jimmy and Sarah-Jane

In normal circumstances, the last-minute preparations would be underway for the latest CotC and Brave festivals at the Art Deco Beach Ballroom.

Yet these, of course are far from normal circumstances.

However, when I caught up with Mr Milne and Ms Hogg this week, it was obvious they are determined to keep flying the torch for FoA as long as they possibly can.

And, when asked about how inspirational the venture had been in both their lives, they provided stirring responses.

Sarah-Jane said: “When we first discussed the concept of creating an event like this, we hadn’t imagined the level of deep-rooted connection it would bring for all those involved.

“The word ‘family’ isn’t used lightly, but the relationships between the models, ourselves and the suppliers, the volunteers and sponsors, not just financially but on a personal level as well, really is special and, for many of the models, it is a life-changing event to be a part of.”

Mr Milne, for his part, said: “It has been a great honour to see these events grow from a fledgling idea to special occasions that capture the hearts of so many people.

“It takes a village to make the shows possible and months of hard work each year, and every time I’m amazed at the outcome.

Westhill man Matt Huntington is raising money for Friends of Anchor.

“Each year, the models are rightfully the stars of the show, but they also represent our friends, neighbours and family members, who inspire us every day with their own strength of character.

“I am very proud of what has been achieved over the years and every model, audience member, supplier, sponsor and volunteer who has made the events possible should be proud as well.”

Different family members have been involved

When I asked them both if there was any one anecdote which had left a major impression on them, they thought hard before pooling their memories.

Jimmy recalled: “To make it back from the OTC [Offshore Technology Conference] in time for the show, it is a case of catching the first flight back from Houston or leaving earlier now that Brave is in the mix.

“In 2017, I was in the airport lounge when a guy approached me to share how his wife had been one of the models in Courage the year before and she absolutely loved it. And they were all excited that their son was due to have his time in the spotlight that year as a model in the very first Brave show…”

Sarah-Jane picked up the thread: “I remember Dad telling me this story and that he couldn’t help but be overcome with sadness, that one family could face two diagnoses in such quick succession.

“And yet, despite that difficult and painful time for the family, these shows had become a light in it all. Brave brought that family fun, a reason to laugh and smile and lavish love on their family, as well as an opportunity to share their sheer pride at the strength their loved ones had shown.

“Courage and Brave are about exactly that – no one would wish a family member to be on that catwalk, given the reason that brings them there.

“And yet, although cancer affects far too many families and brings with it utter heartbreak and cruelty, we, as a community in the north-east, can say that it can’t break the spirit of what the events are all about – love, strength, resilience and the chance to dare loved ones to take to that catwalk to show cancer what for.”

Courage and Brave will come back in the future

The models had already been selected for both events when the Covid curtain descended on the world in Match 2020.

But, although it has brought the shows to a halt until at least 2022, Sarah-Jane Hogg is determined this isn’t the end of the road.

She said: “We contemplated time and time again bringing a hybrid-style, Covid-compliant version of the event but each plan we sat down with just never felt right.

“The events are a celebration, first and foremost, with no holds barred. With an energy in the room that calls out for spontaneous embraces, dancing in the audience, a room filled to the brim with people celebrating our models.

“To host an event that would be anything less just felt like a disservice to our models. However, when the time is right, we hope to give our models who are waiting in the wings a very special show weekend.”

That’s not a hope; it’s a promise!

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