‘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

Irish Daily Mail - YOU - - COVER STORY - PHO­TO­GRAPHS Elisabeth Hoff

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...

COAT, MaxMara. UN­DER­WEAR, ID Sar­ri­eri. SHOES, Chris­tian Louboutin

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

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