I was too fat to fly . . now I’m on cloud nine
OPERA singer Justine Riccomini dreamed of soaring high above the clouds, up, up and away in a hot air balloon.
So when her husband organised a flight over the late Queen Mother’s Glamis Castle home for her 40th birthday, it seemed her hopes of flying were about to become reality.
But there was a problem. Justine tipped the scales at a mortifying 17 and a half stones – around two stones too plump for the balloon to take off.
The singer was officially grounded, horrified to be branded “too fat to fly”.
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The balloon ban was, she recalled today, the final straw.
She embarked on a strict diet and incredibly within only four months had lost nearly seven stones.
Today the 5ft 10ins singer with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra chorus is a lightweight 11 stones and has thrown out her size-20 dresses for slinky size tens.
The 44-year-old said: “It was incredibly embarrassing to be told I was too heavy to fly.
“Part of arranging the flight meant I had to tell the organisers what I weighed.
“I was over 17 stones but the weight limit for flying was around 15 and a half.
“I was horrified.”
Justine, who works by day as a tax specialist, had piled on the pounds during three stressful years caring for her mother, Mavis, as she battled breast cancer.
“Mum was in Spain and there was only my step-father and me to look after her, so I was travelling backwards and forwards,” said Justine.
“I had three years of total piggery, not caring about anything other than my grief. I couldn’t walk past Greggs without buying a packet of scones, which I’d eat one after the other.
“I was drinking loads of red wine, too.
“The balloon trip was embarrassing. So, too, were the times when people on the train would ask if I wanted their seat, they must have thought I looked so unwell I couldn’t stand.
“Another time was when someone offered to carry my handbag.
“They must have thought I wasn’t capable of carrying it myself.”
She embarked on the strict LighterLife diet – which Emmerdale star Pauline Quirke has recently endorsed after losing eight stones on the plan – and swapped her Greggs favourites for 500-calorie-a-day meals of snack bars, breakfast porridge and soup.
Within the first week, she’d lost a stone.
“It’s a really gruelling diet,” she said. “But it makes you change the way you look at food. It’s as much about the psychology as what you eat.”
But while being plump might be seen as part of the typical opera singer’s image, Justine realised her voice was changing as quickly as her girth was vanishing, and she had to discover a new way of singing to retain her rich alto tones.
“Singing is physical,” she added. “Because I can’t push air out using my big belly any more, I’ve had to re-educate my body to sing in a different way.”
Losing the weight inspired her to create a CD of her mother’s favourite opera songs, which she is now selling in the hope of raising £10,000 for Marie Curie Cancer Care.
In December, she will perform at the Frogston Road West hospice.
And now she’s lost the extra baggage, Justine, who lives with husband Alessandro at Braehead, Bo’ness, has been up and away – finally – in her hot air balloon.
She said: “I went during the summer and it was amazing.
“But the best bit was being able to fill in the form and where it asked for my weight, I was able to write ‘11 stones’.”