‘I’M TOUGHER THAN I WANT TO BE; HARDER THAN I USED TO BE’
AMANDA HOLDEN is one of TV’s most endearing – and enduring – performers. But, as Louise Gannon discovers, behind the gloss and glamour are heartaches, ambition and determined resilience
Amanda Holden is a woman who knows how to make an entrance. It usually involves a dramatic frock, big hair and the whole glam shebang, but even in jeans, jumper and no make-up, she can rock a room. The trick is this: she never stops talking, nodding, smiling, moving and engaging anyone who crosses her line of vision. Indeed, she is exactly the same off-screen as she is on Britain’s Got Talent. ‘I’ve never understood people who have different personalities in their work and private life,’ she says.
As a child she drove her mother Judith crazy with her boundless energy and look-at-me routines (she was a self-trained acrobat and dancer by six). At nine she was signed up for drama classes and, after leaving London’s Mountview theatre school in 1992, hasn’t stopped working. ‘I’ve never let anyone say “no” to me,’ she says. ‘My position is that a “no” is the first stage on the road to a “yes”. You just have to keep on, getting them to notice you, to change their minds about you. Whatever it takes till you get that “yes”.’
On one level, Amanda, 46, is exhausting company. When we meet she has been working flat out for four months straight, producing and starring in provincial runs for her West End show Stepping Out, in which she plays the snobby but rather endearing Vera, who joins six other women and one man, Geoffrey (played by Dominic Rowan), for weekly tap- dancing lessons. As time goes by and a challenge to put on a show is in place, the women discover things about each others’ lives – from problems with children to difficulties with husbands – and become a tight, supportive group who forge a genuine bond.
The idea to put on a new version of the original play by renowned screenwriter Richard Harris was Amanda’s after she saw the Liza Minnelli movie on TV. She says, ‘It’s such a great story. None of them can dance properly because it’s not really about the dancing; it’s about a group of women – and one guy – who get to know each other and become friends. As soon as I saw it on television I started casting it in my head, then my management company suggested I could produce it with them. That to me was a massive step and was
something I wanted to do.’ Other members of the cast include her friends Tamzin Outhwaite – playing former pro- dancer Mavis, who teaches the class – and Tracy Ann Oberman, who stars as loudmouthed mum Maxine. ‘It’s a funny play and it’s a slice of real life because lots of people up and down the country go to dance classes or fitness classes and meet people from all different walks of life.’
I wonder how Dominic copes as the only man in the cast. ‘He keeps himself to himself,’ she laughs. ‘He’s absolutely charming and we all love him, but he doesn’t get involved with all the shrieking, laughing and eating cake that goes on.’
After the initial Stepping Out run, Amanda went straight into pantomime rehearsals (‘We had just seven days to learn everything’) for Cinderella at the London Palladium alongside Nigel Havers, Paul O’Grady and Julian Clary, and she has just plunged back into filming Britain’s Got Talent. ‘I have to shape up, wax my legs, up the glamour,’ she says. ‘I’ve been wearing a big dress in Cinderella so I’ve been able to get away with legs as hairy as Gary Lineker’s. But Simon Cowell has very strict rules about the way women should look – plucked, waxed, made up and groomed to within an inch of their lives. I agree with him. It’s the Joan Collins method of growing old glamorously.’
Amanda’s self-scrutiny is forensic. Any faults – perceived or real – are corrected. Her eyebrows have recently been microbladed (a woman came down from Birmingham to lightly tattoo them), her teeth straightened by an Invisalign brace and her face refreshed with collagen waves (via hot rollers that plump and lift the skin). This year, after consultations with her trusted glam squad, her hair will be shorter and blonder (‘more youthful’), and her make-up more subdued (‘It’s the less-is-more look, where you actually lather on a lot of make-up to look as if you’re not wearing much’). Her body is tiny, lithe and taut thanks to a lot of tap- dancing, a vegetarian diet and regular Viking Method workouts, which rely on lots of high-intensity moves accompanied by guttural shouts.
She gets up early to fit in the training before doing the school run with her two daughters, Lexi, 11, and Hollie, five. ‘I believe in making an effort,’ she says. ‘I was furious when my mum told me she’d stopped dyeing her hair because no one really sees her. I’m constantly telling her to get her barnet sorted out. I’ve told her I’ll get someone to do it for her.’ She pauses and laughs. ‘I’m horribly bossy.’ No doubt Judith will, at some point, end up saying ‘yes’ to a restyle.
Like Vera in Stepping Out, Amanda is also endearing. There’s a drop- dead honesty and well- concealed vulnerability to her – plus she has the wit to laugh at herself and the intelligence never to dodge issues but to confront them head on. Ask her why she chose to play the snippy Vera over the sexy, confident Maxine, she pauses for a beat before saying, ‘Because she’s got all the best lines, of course! All my friends said to me: “We knew you’d go for her.” I mean, I’d be stupid not to, right?’
Has she had sleepless nights over the past few months, feeling guilty that she wasn’t spending more time with her two girls by her record producer and property developer husband Chris Hughes (whom she married in 2008)? The only day off she had was Christmas Day. ‘Are you kidding?’ she says. ‘I’m out like a light every night because I’m so knackered.’ (She is also working on a ‘really exciting’ project with QVC, launching in May.) There is another pause. ‘And I’m doing all this for them. The plan is to work like crazy now and take off most of the summer and next winter. The girls were with me nearly all the time. They got to fly across the stage [rigged into the theatrical ‘flying ropes’] and had the backstage of the Palladium as their playground – they loved it.
‘Lexi would go through lines with me, which is good reading practice, and Hollie loved every single thing about it. The other day she came up to me and said: “Mummy, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Lexi wants to be a vet. The good news is I want to be an actress.” I’m looking at her thinking how thrilled I am that Lexi wants to be a vet and also: “Oh no, she is me! Another me is being launched on to the world…”’
The longer you spend with Amanda, the more you see behind the jazz hands, the Mae West lines and the froth. There is grit, graft and backbone born from her working- class roots and the strong matriarchal spirit she inherited from her mother and her grandmother Ethel, who, at the sprightly age of 96, will still call or email her most days (Amanda bought her an iPad) to chat or to tick her off ‘for something I’ve said or worn on the telly’. There is a flash of that carefully hidden vulnerability when you ask Amanda what drives her and she answers too quickly. ‘Fear of failure,’ she says. ‘ There are people out there who are much more talented than me, so I push myself harder and I won’t take no for an answer.’
She has worked hard – and consistently – to keep the public on her side. She has overcome a scandal that almost engulfed her career (her eight-year marriage to Les Dennis – who is 16 years her senior – ended three years after she had a brief affair with the actor Neil Morrissey in 2000) to alter her public image from ‘nasty little minx and marriage-wrecker’ to one of the most popular and highly paid women on TV.
She has been vocal in her views on sisterhood. ‘Simon jokes that he loves to set women against each other on his Britain’s Got Talent judging panels and I said from the start I would never do that. Alesha Dixon and I have been firm friends from the get- go. It’s massively important to me. I respect other women. I have daughters. I don’t want television to show women bitching and carping.’
She is the only one of Simon’s judges to have kept a permanent seat on his panel. ‘I had a terrible image before I started BGT and he let people see me as I am. There will always be people who don’t like me,’ she admits, ‘but a lot more do now – particularly women. You can only change things one person at a time. The main reason I was so thrilled to stand in for Holly Willoughby during her maternity leave from This Morning [she did a nine-month stint in 2014-15] was that I’d be able to show a different side of myself. I wasn’t wearing the big glam frock; I wasn’t judging people. I was talking to people in the news, [covering] a bit of fashion, a bit of cookery, a lot of mums’ issues. I loved every minute. Holly is incredible but if she ever does finally hang up her stilettos, that’s the job I’d really want to be considered for.’
One of the things Amanda repeats with the most pride is the fact that since leaving drama school she has never spent a day out of work. She has starred in TV shows from Cutting It alongside Sarah Parish to Hearts and Bones with Damian Lewis. In 2004 she was nominated for ➤
There are people who are much more talented than me, so I push myself harder
➤ an Olivier Award for Thoroughly Modern Millie and her 2011 stage performance as Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical won rave reviews.
Amanda’s life has changed beyond any of her expectations. She has a home in London, a house in the country, her girls attend private schools and go on fabulous foreign holidays. In truth, this is no small feat for a woman with less than promising beginnings. Her parents split up when she was four years old and her sister Debbie was three. By the age of 13, Amanda was working in local shops in the small village where she was born, first in the grocer’s and then in the sweet shop, to help contribute to the family funds.
‘We were always absolutely skint,’ she says. ‘But I had a happy childhood.’ A few years later, her mother married mechanic Leslie Collister, who Amanda describes in her autobiography No Holding Back as bringing ‘stability and joy to our lives’. She says, ‘I have vivid memories of my mum, my aunt and my nana always laughing. People used to think of me as a man’s woman but I never have been. It’s always been about the women in my life.’ In the summers they would all go fruit-picking to earn extra cash and eat bellyfuls of berries.
Amanda does not like to look back, but to keep her eyes fixed forward. When she was approached to do the BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?, in which the family line is traced back to uncover stories about a celebrity’s past, she had huge reservations because she didn’t want to know anything about the family of her biological father Frank Holden. It was her mother who persuaded her to do so and one of the most moving parts of the show was when she discovered that her dad’s father, also called Frank, survived the bombing of the HMT Lancastria in 1940 at the French port of Saint-Nazaire – in which at least 4,000 men, women and children lost their lives – only to commit suicide several decades later. He had been working as a psychiatric nurse with the Royal Army Medical Corps and desperately tried to save his drowning shipmates.
‘I looked at my grandfather in a very different way after that,’ she says. ‘No one can imagine what witnessing something like that would do to you. I don’t think he was a depressed person until the end of his life and I think it was all to do with the trauma; it’s not something that is in the family.’ She has not, however, let her girls see the show and neither did it propel her to make contact with her father. She shakes her head and says bluntly, ‘No.’
Hers has never been a Cinderella story, which is perhaps why she is so protective about her family. She describes herself as ‘tougher than I want to be and harder than I used to be’. She suffered the devastating loss of a baby boy, Theo, in 2011, who was stillborn at seven months. And when she gave birth to Hollie a year later, she almost died from a massive haemorrhage after the placenta attached to her bladder and ruptured an artery.
She won’t dwell on these events – nor will she discuss Debbie’s car accident last year (her sister was rushed to intensive care in October; Amanda later thanked hospital staff for saving her sister’s life and said Debbie was luckily making a ‘full recovery’). ‘Having a very public affair, losing a baby… these things that happen to you do alter who you are. You get through them for yourself, for your family and just because you have to. That’s life. You push on.’
There has only been one time in her life when she could no longer push on. It happened soon after Hollie was born and she came to a standing stop: unable to cope with the tsunami of grief about the loss of her son and the post-traumatic shock of almost dying after giving birth to Hollie.
‘I had therapy for one month,’ she says. ‘It was like grief counselling; I wasn’t coping and had to do something about it, and I’m not a believer in taking antidepressants if you can find a way to avoid doing so. But I’m an incredibly pragmatic person and I understood I had to get someone to help me.
‘I went to see a woman and she talked to me about changing the way I thought, looking at my anxieties in a different way. It worked and then I stopped the therapy because it had served its purpose. For me it was about being given a new set of tools and moving on.’
When she talks about her girls, Amanda’s whole face changes. It becomes light, soft and unselfconscious. She recounts stories about them, quotes things they’ve said. Lexi is like her father (‘thank goodness’) and Hollie is like her (‘she is mini-me in every way’). When she’s working on Stepping Out, Chris, she says, ‘steps up’, making sure the family unit runs smoothly with the help of their nanny.
She says that without Chris, her family, friends and the support of the mums at school, she would never have coped. ‘Chris is my rock,’ she says. ‘He is the most incredible man and he knows me inside out. It’s not just bad times, it’s all times; Chris is there. We are an absolute team. We make each other laugh. I like nothing more than having a laugh with all my friends and family around me. That is the point of life.’
It is easy to see why watching the film of Stepping Out was such a lightbulb moment for Amanda. One of its themes is the idea that getting out and doing something such as a dance or exercise class can be a sort of natural therapy, taking you out of your own problems and allowing you to share them with others and feel supported.
So far Amanda has performed the show to hugely positive reviews, and it opened in the West End earlier this month.
She says, ‘ The greatest thing of all was doing this with my friends. None of us were brilliant dancers but we didn’t have to be for this show – we’ve had such a great time and an incredible response from the audiences.’
I am, however, puzzled. Surely Amanda herself is an expert dancer, having already played the lead in Thoroughly Modern Millie?
She laughs: ‘When I went for that part I put down on my CV that I could tap dance, but I actually didn’t have a clue. Once I’d got the part I had two weeks to learn how to get away with being able to do the moves and I worked my backside off to get it right. But I’ve never trained as a tap dancer – I just wanted to make sure I got the part.’
And there you have it. The secret of being Amanda Holden. Who dares wins...
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Amanda (second from right) with the cast of Stepping Out
From top: Amanda with husband Chris, and with fellow Britain’s Got Talent judges (from left) David Walliams, Alesha Dixon and Simon Cowell