Like all the best fairy godmothers, Margo Cornish is kind, capable and blessed with a capacity for transforming young lives with a sprinkling of stardust.
Margo, 56, a chatty Scots-born mum-of-four, could have settled for a self-indulgent life as a wealthy ‘corporate wife’ in Cheshire’s affluent stockbroker belt.
Instead she strives to bring magic and glamour to the lives of teenagers and young women who have endured devastating cancer treatment, by arranging for them go to their school proms and parties looking like fairytale princesses.
Margo set up The Cinderella Project six years ago and, enlisting help from hair stylists, make-up artists and clothes shops, she arranges makeovers for girls whose illnesses have often left them without hair, bereft of confidence and isolated from their peers.
Margo Cornish (centre) set up The Cinderella Project six years ago and, enlisting help from hair stylists, make-up artists and clothes shops, she arranges makeovers for girls whose illnesses have often left them without hair, bereft of confidence and isolated from their peers
Margo, who has devoted 16 years of her life to volunteering, has raised £650,000 for charities, notably the Teenage Cancer Trust, for which she is an ambassador.
She is married to Charlie, 59, CEO of Manchester Airports Group, and they have four children — twins Eilidh and Calum, 26, Katie, 22, and Fiona, 19.
The Cinderella Project — a small, community-funded scheme — is her brainchild.
The idea for it formed when she met schoolgirl Emma Cosgrove in 2012 through her charity work.
Emma died of a particularly rare and aggressive form of bone cancer, osteosarcoma, five years later, aged 19 — but during their short friendship, her courage and selflessness left an enduring mark on Margo.
‘Emma was inspirational,’ she says. ‘She was so beautiful it took your breath away. She was also clever, strong, articulate and caring.
‘At Manchester Children’s Hospital, where she was treated, she was known on the ward as “the angel” because she was so good with the little children who had cancer, reassuring them about their treatment and chatting to them. She was also great fun and full of mischief. She touched my heart.
‘When she missed her school prom and 16th birthday celebrations because she was too ill to go, she was devastated. She’d been having particularly gruelling treatment, and even if she’d been strong enough, at that point she’d have felt too anxious and self-conscious to go to a ball.
Margo, who has devoted 16 years of her life to volunteering, has raised £650,000 for charities, notably the Teenage Cancer Trust, for which she is an ambassador
‘But, as her next birthday approached, her mum Cheryl wanted her to have a surprise “Sweet 17th” birthday party instead, so that’s when I stepped in to be her fairy godmother.
‘I arranged for her to have her hair and make-up done and a lovely dress to wear so she looked her absolute best for the party.
‘She was so happy on the day that she told me: “My face aches with smiling.” That’s when I thought: “If I could do the same for other girls with cancer, wouldn’t it be wonderful?”
‘I’d come across so many who told me: “I feel horrible and I just want to look like all the other girls at school.” They’d been robbed of their self-esteem and just wanted to look their best again.
‘Their friends were going to proms and it seemed so unfair that they were missing this special teenage milestone.
‘I know how much they mean — I have three gorgeous daughters who had all enjoyed the excitement of their proms.
‘Chemotherapy treatment can be so harsh on young bodies — patients can lose their hair, and have bloating and sickness to deal with as well as extreme tiredness.
‘Most young cancer patients have to take time off school as their immune system is vulnerable, and they experience isolation and loneliness. Going to a prom can feel like an impossible dream.
‘I decided to help them go to the ball, just like Cinderella, and it has meant the world to them.
‘They’ve loved having their hair and make-up done and wearing such beautiful dresses. It has made them feel special, after everything they have been through.
‘We have a collection of Sherri Hill and Little Mistress dresses for them to wear, and we’ve teamed up with evening-wear boutique Diamante, Harvey Nichols Manchester, Benefit Cosmetics, Trevor Sorbie salons and BK Limos to make sure all our Cinderellas go the prom in style.’
Margo, who is still in touch with all of the 20 Cinderellas she has helped get ready for a prom or special event, says: ‘I’d rather do this than be a typical corporate wife going to the gym and getting my nails done.
‘It’s so fulfilling, but I laugh as I rarely have time to pay attention to my own appearance, so while my Cinderellas go to their proms looking gorgeous, I invariably turn up to black-tie events looking as if I’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.’
She smiles, adding: ‘People ask me if I’ve got a magic wand. I wish I did! If I had one I’d be using it all the time to make people well and happy.’
ALEX GARDNER, 22
Alex lives in Stockport, Manchester, with her parents Julie and John and sister Olivia, 19
Alex lives in Stockport, Manchester, with her parents Julie and John and sister Olivia, 19. Doctors diagnosed her with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in 2011. She had chemotherapy for nearly three years and is now in remission.
She says: ‘Chemotherapy made me feel really unfeminine and when I did go back to school I was bald and people stared at me.
‘I was still having treatment at the time of my prom — I had doubts about even going — and my hair was very short. But the stylist from The Cinderella Project put sparkly pins in it and made me look really glamorous.
‘The chemo also left me with bad acne on my face, so to have my hair and make-up done made me feel a lot more confident. I loved the long, strapless dress I wore and got quite a few admiring glances.’
LUCY BRIGGS, 17
Lucy was diagnosed with a brain tumour, aged 11, in 2012
Lucy was diagnosed with a brain tumour, aged 11, in 2012. Now recovering with the support of her mum Adele and her four siblings, she lives in Blackpool, Lancashire. Her condition is stable.
She says: ‘I went to the optician’s for a routine appointment and they discovered that I had a swollen optic nerve.
‘I was immediately sent to Oldham Hospital, where a CT scan showed I had a brain tumour. The next day I had an 11-hour operation to remove most of it.
‘After ten weeks in hospital I had to learn how to walk properly again. In June 2014 I went to the U.S. for more treatment, and in 2016 I had chemotherapy to try to shrink the tumour more.
‘I’d been through a lot when it came to the school prom. I kept trying on dresses that didn’t feel right. My body didn’t feel as if it belonged to me.
‘But then Margo came along and helped me choose a gorgeous fitted dress. I felt like the belle of the ball thanks to my fairy godmother!’
CASEY JONES, 17
Casey, from Manchester, lives with parents Carol and Les, and siblings Dylan, ten, Ady, six, and Seana, 13
Casey, from Manchester, lives with parents Carol and Les, and siblings Dylan, ten, Ady, six, and Seana, 13. She was diagnosed with stage-four Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2016 after discovering lumps on her neck and under her arms. She’s now in remission.
She says: ‘Ever since I was a little girl I dreamt of looking and feeling beautiful for my prom, but being diagnosed with cancer knocks your confidence.
‘You feel less attractive and much more insecure. And during six months of chemo I was weak and tired all the time. I felt such a boost to my self-esteem when Margo and her team took over. Thanks to The Cinderella Project I had my hair and make-up done, wore a gorgeous bottle-green-coloured dress. I arrived at the venue with my best friend in a fancy Mercedes. I felt like a princess.’
OLIVIA CORK, 22
Olivia lives in Stockport with partner Sam Shaw, 26
Olivia lives in Stockport with partner Sam Shaw, 26. She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in January 2011. She’s now in remission.
She says: ‘A swelling in my right calf seemed to come up overnight. At first doctors thought it was caused by a cut on my leg.
‘They gave me antibiotics, but a week later a scan showed a cancerous tumour. It was such a shock.
‘I had four months of chemotherapy before having my right leg amputated, and then had another seven months of chemo.
‘Losing my leg didn’t affect how I felt about my femininity, but losing my hair did. The Cinderella Project made me feel beautiful again.’
LAUREN WILDE, 18
Lauren lives in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, with parents Jacqui and Phil and brother Sam, 20
Lauren lives in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, with parents Jacqui and Phil and brother Sam, 20. She was told she had Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2013, after finding a lump on her neck. Following seven months of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, she is now in remission.
She says: ‘Chemotherapy made me feel really poorly. I couldn’t walk because I had no energy and leg pain. I felt very lonely because all my friends carried on with their lives without me. I couldn’t go out with them any more.
‘Being with friends is a massive part of a teenage girl’s life, and all that was taken away from me.
‘The Cinderella Project gave me back my confidence and that’s a fantastic thing, because cancer treatment robs you of it.’
KATIE MacRAE, 16
Katie lives in Preston, Lancashire, with mum Nanette Weeks, dad Callum MacRae and sister Ella, 14
Katie lives in Preston, Lancashire, with mum Nanette Weeks, dad Callum MacRae and sister Ella, 14. She was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer of the liver, pancreas, spine and lung in September 2017, after showing no initial symptoms. Chemotherapy has reduced the size of the tumours, but left Katie with compression fractures of the spine.
She says: ‘I’ve got to have a scan in June to see if I need to have more chemotherapy treatment. The doctors are really interested in my case because my cancer is so rare.
‘During chemo, I was so ill I didn’t even want friends to come round, let alone think about prom.
‘As I began to feel a little better and the prom was in sight, I began to think about what to wear. The Cinderella Project was fabulous.
‘Margo is my fairy godmother! She found me a dress that made me feel and look amazing. I was so pleased to be able to go to the prom with supportive friends. After everything I’d been through during the last six months, I really felt like a princess.’
MEGAN BRICKLES, 19
Megan lives in Manchester, with mum Janine, dad Alan and her four brothers
Megan lives in Manchester, with mum Janine, dad Alan and her four brothers. She was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia in October 2013 after suffering from headaches, dizziness and difficulty breathing. She’s in remission.
She says: ‘I initially went to the doctor because I was getting bruised all over my body and I didn’t know what was causing it. Even a slight bump would cause a massive black bruise.
‘It was a big shock when I was diagnosed. I never thought it would be something as serious as cancer, but after seven months of chemo I’m now in remission.
‘I felt so fantastic in my dress. When you’re going through treatment with no hair or eyelashes, you feel ugly and horrible. It made me feel normal again.’
LAURA SHERIDAN, 19
Laura lives in Bury, Lancashire, with parents Cath and John
Laura lives in Bury, Lancashire, with parents Cath and John. She was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in 2013 after a tumour developed in her left leg. Her cancer also spread to her lungs.
She says: ‘I had chemo for six months, then had to have my left leg amputated below the knee, before having another six months of chemotherapy. Then I had radiotherapy to treat my lungs. In January last year, after five years, I got the all-clear.
‘During my treatment I lost all my hair and a lot of weight, too — it took a big toll on my body. I had to drop out of school for a year and I was sick and tired all the time.
‘I didn’t feel like myself for a long while. All my friends were going to birthday parties which I couldn’t go to, and I had to stop my dance classes which I loved.
‘At the prom I felt comfortable in my own skin for the first time since my treatment began. It really helped boost my confidence in my own body after the toll the cancer had taken on me.’
CHARLOTTE JENNINGS, 16
Charlotte lives with parents Lynne and Paul and brother Mike, 24, in Stockport, Manchester
Charlotte lives with parents Lynne and Paul and brother Mike, 24, in Stockport, Manchester. She was diagnosed with a rare form of acute myeloid leukaemia five years ago. After a bone-marrow transplant, she spent two months in isolation due to the risk of infection. Her treatment continues.
She says: ‘I was absent from school for about 15 months, and although I’ve got a really strong friendship group, it felt like all my friends had moved on without me, as I wasn’t well enough to do the things they were doing, such as going shopping or hanging out at each other’s houses.
‘But The Cinderella Project made me feel like a princess. Margo helped me pick out a prom dress — I was worried about the scars from my operation, but she chose one and said “It looks gorgeous”, which made me feel so comfortable in it. Then we chose a necklace that hid the scars on my neck.
‘Dad gave up work for a year to look after me and we’d never have been able to afford such a lovely dress.
‘I was named Prom Queen, which was an honour I wasn’t expecting. I got to keep the dress, too, and I wore it to my 16th birthday party.’
MELISSA SUTTON, 19
Melissa lives in Rochdale with mum Alison, stepfather Jason, brother Daniel, 23, and boyfriend Dale, 24
Melissa lives in Rochdale with mum Alison, stepfather Jason, brother Daniel, 23, and boyfriend Dale, 24. She was diagnosed with a rare form of bone cancer, Ewing’s sarcoma, in July 2014 after suffering pain in her left rib. She’s now in remission.
She says: ‘Chemotherapy just wiped me out. I was so sick I couldn’t eat anything. I kept getting nosebleeds, too.
‘All my hair fell out so I got a wig, but I never really wore it. I decided to embrace my baldness.
‘But I just wanted to be like every other teenager again. The hardest part about chemotherapy is knowing the world outside is carrying on without you. Seeing friends out partying while I was stuck in the hospital was tough.
‘I didn’t want to go to my school prom because I felt so low and lacking in self-esteem, but Margo stepped in and got me a beautiful white dress with a jewelled top.
‘I had my make-up done, too, and prom turned from something I was dreading into such a lovely occasion. I appreciate everything in life more now.’
To donate to The Cinderella Project visit runwayontherunway.co.uk