The sky is the limit for Jess Gagen, but she likes to push the limits.

The 27-year-old aerospace engineer from Skelmersdale is the first redhead to be crowned Miss England and is using the title to encourage more young girls into careers in science, technology and engineering.

She is also keen to become the first beauty queen in space.

But the Miss England title is about so much than beauty, says Jess. ‘Miss England is a role model contest. Everyone there has a campaign to raise awareness around; mine was STEM, others are raising awareness of health issues or whatever is important to them. It’s a platform. It’s about beauty with a purpose. I would love it to come back on the television, that would show people how it has changed and what it’s all about.’

Great British Life: Jess has a passion for encouraging more girls into aerospace engineering. Photo: David DresserJess has a passion for encouraging more girls into aerospace engineering. Photo: David Dresser

Jess was crowned last October, having finished second in the contest the year before, but the thrill of her win was contrasted by the harrowing stories that appeared in national newspapers which detailed bullying she suffered at school because of her hair colour.

But while she was the victim of some taunts, her time at school wasn’t all bad. ‘Primary school was no trouble and I had a lot of good experiences in high school,’ she says.

‘In years seven and eight I didn’t really have a group of friends and I had no confidence. I used to eat my dinner on my own in the toilets. There was some name-calling but I realised those people didn’t know the weight of their words.

‘The tabloid papers made it seem like the bad stuff happened all the time, but I had good times as well. I was assistant head girl and sportswoman of the year and I got 10 As and A*s in my GCSEs. There has never been a redhead Miss England before and I want to empower children. I want to prove to young children that a bad chapter doesn’t last to the end of the book.’

Great British Life: Visiting the Hans Raj Children's Home on her visit to IndiaVisiting the Hans Raj Children's Home on her visit to India

After her A levels at Wigan’s Winstanley College, she was unsure what her next steps should be. She had signed with a modeling agency as a 15-year-old but applied to study optometry at university.

‘I had no idea then what I wanted to do. I withdrew my uni application because I realised I was doing it to please my tutors. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with myself, but I wanted to give modelling a go and I just took off.’

Aged 19, she signed with an agency in Milan and worked around the world for a couple of years before she returned home for a university course she felt would keep her options open. She studied physics in Salford for a year before switching to a course in aerospace engineering – or rocket science – at Liverpool.

‘In my first year I realised mot a lot of girls were picking aerospace engineering – only about 10 per cent were female and I couldn’t understand it,’ she says. ‘I made it my goal to advertise opportunities in engineering for girls and started posting about it on social media.

‘When I was younger my dad said he thought I’d be a good engineer but I didn’t think I wanted that, because I didn’t really know what it could mean. Now I go into schools and talk to young girls and boys about the opportunities.

‘A lot of people think models just turn up and wear clothes for a day, but there are girls there with law degrees and lots of qualifications. I want girls to realise it is possible to do more – my Instagram is full of glamorous pictures of me but I’m an aerospace engineer as well and I want to get girls interested in the industry.

‘Modeling and engineering complement each other, and each is a break from the other. There’s a lot from modelling that can be applied to engineering – from the age of 15 I would have to walk into rooms full of people I don’t know and pretend to be confident, and when I was 19 I was doing that abroad and not speaking the language. Now I’m confident in speaking to large groups of people of all ages – modelling has been so beneficial to me. I’m not going to burn my bridges, I’ll keep it going in the background.

Great British Life: She gives talks to young people across the country She gives talks to young people across the country (Image: Jess Gagen)

‘My mum and dad have always been very supportive and told me and my younger sister Georgia to go after our dreams. She’s in the West End now. My parents were understandably apprehensive about me going into modelling because it’s a world they didn’t know but I was with a good agency and I was always safe.

‘I’ve done a lot of commercial modelling, selling clothes or products, but I have done the odd few fashion shows. Primarily I’m in the studio or on location at anything where they need an English rose: hair, make-up, skin care, bridal, outdoor wear.’

She still models part-time and during the pandemic she tried to encourage young people away from their phones and to foster a positive body image.

‘I thought if they saw a professional model out running and looking daft it would show them that you don’t have to be looking pristine and perfect all the time. Looking flawless takes a lot of work,’ she says. ‘For a time during lockdown I was known as Fancy Dress Jess. I did a 5k every day in fancy dress to raise money for charity.’

After winning the Miss England title, she continued with her Masters for a month or so, but it wasn’t possible to give both the attention they each require, so she will return to complete her studies when time allows.

Great British Life: Jess was crown Miss England a month after she started her MastersJess was crown Miss England a month after she started her Masters

Jess now visits schools, youth groups and other organisations for young people across the country to open childrens’ – and particularly girls’ – eyes to the possibilities of careers in the STEM industries.

‘I go anywhere I can speak to groups of young people and show them it’s possible for a girls to thrive in a male dominated career,’ she says. ‘There’s nothing better than that moment when they realise there’s another option.’

Earlier this year she travelled to India and used the opportunity to spread that message of opportunity to girls who have already faced challenges beyond the imagination of many in this country.

‘The India trip was incredible,’ Jess says. ’We visited orphanages, charities, hospitals and schools with the aim of empowering young girls. A lot of girls are abandoned as babies simply because they are female but they had such confidence and I want to use my voice for them. By chance I was born here and they were born there but they could still become the leaders of the future.’

Great British Life: Jess on the beach at the Cinnamon Resort Velifushi Maldives. Photo: Alan StruttJess on the beach at the Cinnamon Resort Velifushi Maldives. Photo: Alan Strutt

As we went to print, the date had yet to be confirmed for this year’s Miss World contest, which will take place in the United Arab Emirates. But Jess is already looking beyond that. ‘Given the opportunity I would go to space, absolutely.

‘Commercial space flight is coming closer. There are two routes into the European Space Agency – as a test pilot, like Tim Peake and with a Masters and three years’ experience. I need to get my Masters and then we’ll see. I’m not interested in going to the moon, but I’d go to the International Space Station.’