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How Mary changed lives

As we celebrate International Women's Month, we honour the life of an extraordinary female international icon - Mary Holroyd, trailblazing businesswoman, passionate health and wellness industry pioneer, loving mother and grandmother.

Photographs: Weigh-Less

Text: Michaela Medveďová

"She had a way with people – she believed there was no reason not to be your best, be it by losing weight, studying, or getting fitter. She made people feel they could be better and inspired them with her belief in them. That was her gift. She inspired others to believe in themselves."

That is the best way to describe Mary Holroyd's impact on other people's lives—through the company she founded, Weigh-Less, which helps people lead healthier and happier lives, or in her personal life.

Mary sadly and unexpectedly passed away at only 76 years late last year. Her life was so full of accomplishments and passions that they could easily fill up three lifetimes. This month, we honour her as a symbol of resilience and courage, and through the touching accounts of her daughters, Trasi Holroyd-Curach and our editor, Lyndsay Jensen, we pay tribute to her journey of triumph in the face of international relocation. Mary's legacy reminds us to embrace change with fortitude and pursue our dreams with unwavering determination. Her story is a testament to the power of perseverance and the boundless possibilities that await those who dare to embark on their own paths of adventure and discovery.

Drive to be better

Born and raised in Yorkshire, United Kingdom, Mary was born to Irish Catholic parents - and growing up Irish and Catholic wasn't easy in the 1950s and 60s. She and her five siblings went to a Catholic school, and as the majority of other British kids were Protestant, the family got bullied a lot. As the oldest, Mary grew up a fighter, learning to stick up for herself and protect her family.

She already worked a paper round while in school to financially contribute to family costs and left school early, at 15, to get a job at a factory to help even more. But this also bought Mary her first car - and instilled in her the drive to be better and work hard to improve herself and her circumstances. It's no wonder that in no time, she worked her way up in the factory.

After giving birth to her first daughter, the foundation for another life-long passion was laid. While pregnant, she was overweight and had high blood pressure - which today would be categorised as preeclampsia. So after her first daughter was born, Mary decided to lose weight with a slimming organisation. Her interest in nutrition was sparked - and never left her. So, in addition to her own journey, she became a lecturer.

Our journey to South Africa

A few years later, the industry in the north of England began to collapse, and there was a big recruitment drive for skilled labour to move to South Africa or Australia. Mary's husband applied to both countries and was offered a position in Durban, South Africa. He flew over there to start their new life a bit in advance, and Mary, now with a six-year-old and a nine-month-old, followed him to South Africa on a three-week-long boat journey from Southampton to Durban.

Trasi, Mary's older daughter, vividly remembers that once they reached the Cape of Good Hope, the journey got quite rough. Everyone was in their cabins, nauseous and sick. But besides that, it was a very fun trip. Mary had her hands full with two small children, but luckily, the ship had a lot of entertainment for them. At the end of a three-week journey, a set-up house was already waiting for them in Durban.

To kids from Yorkshire, South Africa looked heavenly. Even though their part of Durban was quite an industrial area, it was next to the sea. With palm trees and beaches, it felt like they'd landed in paradise.

Of course, the social situation in South Africa in the 1970s was far from paradise. But Trasi remembers that it was difficult to know the actual situation. With no Internet, no free-speech television, and no satellite TV, people were relatively ignorant about what was going on in the apartheid country—everything was censored.

Stand on your own two feet

New beginnings, especially in a new country, are always hard. Mary had difficulty leaving her close-knit family, especially her mother and father. The difference in the culture of South Africa did not make it any easier. Making friends with the locals was challenging: local Afrikaaners, a very proud people, still harboured some resentment towards the British because of the past history between the two nations. At that time, Afrikaans was the second language of South Africa, so she naturally gravitated toward the inevitable expat bubble with fellow expats from the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Scotland.

Mary didn't understand the situation in the country at the time, either. The concept of segregation was naturally very foreign to her. She'd only seen someone who needed help losing weight, not their race.

It did not matter to her that she had to shift her life to a brand-new country. She wanted to continue the work she'd been doing in the United Kingdom. But they never answered their phones when she contacted the same organisation she'd worked for. So she thought: you know what - I'll start my own group!

Even though she didn't realise it then, as soon as she opened her first group, only a few months after they landed in Durban, her company, Weigh-Less, was born. The only capital she ever asked from her husband to start it was 10 South African Rand - or a few Danish kroner. Now, it's a legacy business that pioneered many areas of the wellness industry, from revolutionary eating plans to the first electronic scales.

This independence of hers is something Mary passed on to her daughters as well. She instilled in them that they were in control of their destiny. Lyndsay, Mary's younger daughter, remembers that their mom always taught them to stand on their two feet and make their own way. Not a lot of girls were taught that then.

Trasi looks back on growing up and being exposed to all aspects of running the business—helping with packing stock, answering phones, and even assisting their mom in groups. Now, she is running the company.

Nothing less than changing lives

In 1975, Mary started the first group with eight members, but in no time, it gained momentum - and she ended up with 13 groups, having to recruit group leaders to help her. And the business only grew and grew, giving her a personal network as well. Having worked side-by-side for over 40 years, many were Mary's life-long friends. Even today, Mary’s Group Leaders are her second family, which she held dearly close to her.

Everything that Weigh-Less is was based on what Mary, a formerly overweight person, would want from an organisation like this. She knew how it felt to have a weight problem and was passionate about making sure other people didn't have to feel the way she felt. She knew that weight problems affect not just a person's health; they impact self-confidence, motivation, and how others see them. All Mary wanted was to change people's lives.

Her focus was always on the people she was helping, but luckily, she didn't escape the spotlight and received, among other recognitions, an interesting award - Marketing Man of the Year. She was the first-ever woman to win it, and quite funnily, Mary had never formally studied marketing or business. Her lack of formal education never held her back. But as a challenge and a passion project in one, she subsequently went on to do her MBA. Because of her family's financial situation when she was younger, going to university was never an option for her. So now, she was making up for it and taking the opportunity to study something she'd always been passionate about. That's just in terms of formal education, of course - otherwise, there was never a time when Mary wasn't reading books and trying to acquire more knowledge.

Besides being an avid reader, she was also an enthusiastic traveller, loved the gym, and even became a catechism teacher at her local church for a while - applying her signature passion to everything she'd been involved in.

A question inevitably comes to mind: How did she manage all of this? She lived purposefully and meticulously planned everything in her diary.

"Mary's life in itself was full of inspiration, and there are lots of lessons she instilled in those closest to her: Believing in yourself. Not wasting a moment of your life and never doing anything in half measure. Being bold and fighting for what's important to you. Never compromise your values. Never hanging onto regrets and grudges, and instead, loving without reserve."

A great role model

That allowed her to be everything she was passionate about in her business and still be a mom, making her a great role model in the eyes of her girls. Even though she was busy and worked long hours, she created unforgettable memories for the family—picnics, beach trips, trekking, and family moments simply made into memorable occasions.

But while she was also quite a strict parent, that sort of went out of the window in her role as a grandmother. With her, it wasn't just a case of going for a visit and watching a movie. She took her grandkids to the museum, theatre, sewing lessons, modelling lessons… When one of her grandsons got into football, Mary made it her business to know exactly what was happening in the football world so she could always have entire conversations with them about the specific players - and even knew more than they would at times. With her relationship with her grandchildren in Denmark, the time was spent with them at Christmas every second year. Mary loved visiting Denmark and had many conversations with her oldest grandson about Vikings and enjoyed the history of this culture – she was a pretty cool grandmother.

Mary passed away peacefully at the age of 76.

Her life in itself was full of inspiration, and there are lots of lessons she instilled in those closest to her:

Believing in yourself. Not wasting a moment of your life and never doing anything in half measure. Being bold and fighting for what's important to you. Never compromise your values. Never hanging onto regrets and grudges, and instead, loving without reserve,

That's the maxim she followed and the life she built: bold, confident, and full of passion.

Mary did a lot of things in life, but one.

She simply never did anything half-heartedly.

To learn more about Weigh-Less, feel free to visit their website or follow them on social media.

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