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HLN’s most inspirational women of 2022

High Life North was created by women to inspire women, and we’ve interviewed another swathe of incredible women this year – from Golden Age Hollywood icons to political history-makers. Here are 13 of our standout sit-downs…

Written by Becky Hardy
Published 26.12.2022


It’s not often we get some time to chat with BAFTA-winning actors and Hollywood legends here in the North East, but back in April Virginia McKenna OBE was gracious enough to turn that dream into a reality.

We sat down with Virginia (of Born Free and A Town Like Alice fame) and her son, Will Travers, who is now president of the Born Free Foundation – which Virginia first established with her late husband (and born-and-bred Geordie), Bill Travers – to chat about the huge exhibition they brought to Newcastle’s Exhibition Park, designed to save lions worldwide.




Tragically, we were never able to interview Ella in person. But this year did provide us with an opportunity to speak with her family about the inspiring legacy Ella left behind.

At 24 years old, Ella was an aspiring artist and an avid adventurer, with an infectious love of life and the people in it, when she was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer. Refusing to be defined by her illness, Ella set up her own art business to follow her dreams while partnering with blood cancer charities to raise awareness and much-needed funds.

That business has since become the Ella Dawson Foundation, which continues to provide physical, psychological, emotional, nutritional and wellbeing support to young adults with cancer across the UK.




In May, we bore witness to a significant moment in our local history: Josephine Mudzingwa becoming North Tyneside’s first black, female councillor in the council’s 48-year history.

The Labour candidate was elected to serve the Benton ward following a landslide victory over her competitors, winning 1,577 votes in the local election. But behind her success lies more than just a desire to improve the future of her ward for her constituents. She remains committed to representing her diverse community on an ever-growing scale…



In our experience, we’ve found that when politics meet passion, real change can happen. Which was why our chat with Catrina McHugh MBE continues to stand out in a long list of incredible interviews we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy this year.

Because Open Clasp isn’t your average theatre company. They create plays to empower; to inspire change, personal growth and to reclaim lost narratives. And they create them alongside some of the most marginalised women and girls in our society.

As the company’s founder and Artistic Director, Catrina has seen her work performed in every kind of venue – from schools and prisons to New York’s Times Square – as she’s relentlessly promoted social change on a global scale. And all from Newcastle’s West End.



Sunderland-based Hays Travel have become known as ‘the heroes of the high street’, having grown from humble beginnings to become the largest independent travel agent in the UK.

And then Covid came along. For all of us, that meant extra challenges. For the travel industry, it spelled disaster. At least, it could have. But Hays Travel remained centred on their passion for people to ensure their workers kept their jobs and their customers kept their faith.

As if navigating the previously unchartered waters of a global pandemic wasn’t painful enough, the tragic loss of Dame Irene’s husband and business partner, John, would be enough to test anyone’s resolve. But through her grief, Dame Irene continued to support her customers and workforce through Covid and beyond.



It was earlier this month that we introduced you to Ellen Stephenson: the remarkable swimmer who, at just 18 years old, has not only become the first swimmer from Newcastle to ever compete in the World Down Syndrome Swimming Championships, but scored a gold medal for Team GB, too.

Not that it’s her first, mind you. Ellen has a cool seven gold medals, one silver medal and 15 world records to her name, having already competed in the sport around the world for 10 years.

And now she’s on a mission to fight for equality for swimmers with Down Syndrome in the Paralympics…



It’s a tale that goes back to Biblical times with David and Goliath, but that’s perhaps best optimised by Harry Wormwood in Roald Dahl’s Matilda: “I’m big, you’re little; I’m right, you’re wrong; and there’s nothing you can do about it”.

Or so people think. But it’s when these “little” people fight back against injustice that tales of triumph often follow. And such was the case with Amber Kotrri.

Having spent years of hard work building her dream business – Darlington fashion brand, House of Zana – from the ground up, Amber suddenly found herself in a court battle head-to-head against with one of the world’s largest fashion retailers…



As Townies, we often take our home comforts for granted. Like easy access to the internet or hopping on a bus into the city centre; watching the rain pour outside and not worrying if we’ll be left without power for days.

But that’s not the case for our compatriots who live in more rural areas. They face unique challenges in their day-to-day lives simply because of where they live. Which is what the Rural Design Centre Innovation Project [RDCIP] is hoping to change.

Spearheaded by eight local women, RDCIP aims to help every rural business help themselves by encouraging SMEs, communities and organisations to get creative…




They say it’s never about the destination; it’s all (in the words of Miley Cyrus, anyway), about the climb. Which is always made more difficult when you’re afraid of heights.

But Shareen Qureshi didn’t let that stop her conquering 19,341 feet above sea level to become the first Geordie Muslim to climb Kilimanjaro this year.

The only woman on the expedition, which was organised to celebrate the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee as well as honour a friend’s legacy, Shareen raised a whopping £8,000 to help military families.

Talking to Shareen, we discovered how reaching the summit of Africa’s most famous mountain made her look back on a childhood in Newcastle’s West End.



Most of us are used to working from home now, but 10 years ago it was a different story. But as a newly single mum, working from home was the only way Sara would be able to balance her career with looking after her baby. And she knew thousands of others would be in the same predicament.

Which is why she started e-Learning business, Centre of Excellence. Offering online courses in more than 1,000 different subjects, Centre of Excellence is a business centred around inspiring other businesses.

And what started off as her own side-hustle to bring in some much-needed cash has, a mere 10 years later, grown into a global empire helping more than one million people in over 150 countries follow in Sara’s footsteps.



Spend five minutes with Huffty McHugh and she’ll have you outraged and believing in better all at once; opening your eyes to the worst of society and yet recognising the very best of society, too. And all with a smile on her face. Because, for Huffty, changing the world really doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

At least, not if we each pull our weight – which is an attitude that visibly pervades her management of the West End Women and Girls’ Centre.

Having reluctantly assumed command at the tender age of 18, Huffty has successfully steered Newcastle’s first – and only – open access women and girls centre through local riots, a global pandemic and fierce funding cuts to emerge as one of the last two independent girls groups in the country.



After suffering as a victim of domestic violence, which led to her becoming homeless, Annalice Argyle hit rock bottom.

She turned to alcohol to escape and was introduced to Class A drugs. It was a decision that almost destroyed her – were it not for her iron will, determination and motivation to give her son a better life.

Annalice has now been sober since 2009. But more than that, she’s used her own experiences – and her recognition of a lack of guidance and support when she was at her most vulnerable – to start up The Recovery Advocates and Consultants UK (TRAC UK).

Now, she uses her experience to help transform other recovering addicts’ lives – and has become an award-winning businesswoman in the process.



We began our list of inspirational women with Hollywood and – as surprisingly for us as it is for you – we’re going to end with Hollywood, too.

And it’s been a surprising enough journey for Kirsty Bell, who, having grown up in Gosforth, probably thought she couldn’t be further from the bright lights and silver screens of Los Angeles, too.

But that was before she became one of the few female CEOs of an independent film production studio. These days, if we don’t find Kirsty in the top office of film and TV finance, production and investment business Goldfinch Holdings, we’ll find her behind the lens directing feature films, on set with the likes of Jessica Alba and Gary Oldman, or accepting awards at prestigious Hollywood film festivals.

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