Ac­tress LISA RI­LEY al­ways swore that she’d never have chil­dren. But after los­ing an in­cred­i­ble 12 stone and fall­ing in love for the first time, she’s plan­ning to have IVF at 41


The ac­tress may have lost more than half her body weight, but now the real chal­lenge be­gins – to be­come a mum at 41

Ina room filled with rails of clothes, Lisa Ri­ley does not even at­tempt to con­tain her ex­cite­ment as she tries on dress after dress. Con­sid­er­ing that she has been fa­mous for more than 20 years after ap­pear­ing on our tele­vi­sion screens as Mandy Din­gle in Em­merdale, her re­ac­tion to be­ing styled for a photo shoot (at one point she is close to tears when she sees her­self) seems some­what over the top.

But in the past two and a half years, Lisa has lost more than half her body weight, go­ing from a size 28 to a size 12, through ex­er­cise and chang­ing the way she eats. She has also un­der­gone two rounds of surgery (in Fe­bru­ary last year) to re­move ex­cess skin from her stom­ach, legs and arms. And her phys­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion has trans­formed her psy­cho­log­i­cally, too.

‘I can­not even be­gin to ex­plain how it feels to be me at the mo­ment,’ she says, wip­ing her eyes. ‘I’ve spent a life­time walk­ing into photo stu­dios – of­ten along­side other ac­tresses – and hav­ing to walk past rows of cute lit­tle frocks. Then I’d come to my rail, which would have about three big smock dresses hang­ing there. Now I feel thrilled that I get to have pretty dresses hang­ing on rails for me. But it’s more than that. I feel I have be­come the “me” I al­ways wanted to be. I have a life and a ca­reer that has com­pletely changed and so much of it is down to me tak­ing con­trol of my­self and los­ing weight.’

Her next role will see Lisa, 41, al­most un­recog­nis­able as a goth tat­too artist called Tina – pale faced with eyes out­lined in black kohl, cov­ered in body art – in a new BBC show called Age Be­fore Beauty. Cre­ated by the screen­writer of Poldark and Cut­ting It Deb­bie Hors­field, it also stars Rob­son Green and Sue John­ston and tells the story of a strug­gling Manch­ester beauty sa­lon run by a war­ring fam­ily.

For Lisa it is a chance to show­case the new con­fi­dence she has in her­self as an ac­tress. ‘A few years ago I would never have been given a role like this.’ Tina – who works as the tat­tooist in the fam­ily sa­lon – is the daugh­ter of Ivy-Rae (John­ston), who runs the sa­lon’s tan­ning beds, and is sis­ter-in-law to lo­cal busi­ness­man Teddy (Green). ‘She is the re­ally sar­cas­tic mem­ber of the fam­ily who tells ev­ery­one ex­actly what she thinks, though she’s very loyal. She’s also a bit dark and sexy – there are deep and com­pli­cated things in her past. I took the part be­cause it’s a great script and Deb­bie is a TV ge­nius, but also be­cause I want to show that I can do so much more than play the fat, funny girl.

‘Tina is a great char­ac­ter and this show is all about fam­i­lies. She’s the sis­ter who speaks her mind but who will stick by her sib­lings. She sees all their flaws but she still loves them to bits.’

Given that the show cen­tres on a beauty sa­lon, how does she rate Tina’s at­trac­tive­ness? She laughs: ‘In her world she’s pretty hot, but it’s not my idea of look­ing good. I don’t have any tat­toos, but I did get into the idea of a tat­too rep­re­sent­ing im­por­tant things in a per­son’s life. We filmed shortly after the hor­rific bomb­ing at the Manch­ester Arena and I in­sisted Tina have a One Love Manch­ester tat­too.

‘But be­ing thin­ner doesn’t make me just want to look as glam­orous as I pos­si­bly can on screen. I want to sur­prise peo­ple. Van­ity doesn’t come into it be­cause I’ve never been that sort of ac­tress. The part I’m proud­est of was in [last year’s BBC drama] Three Girls, where I didn’t wear make-up and I looked the worst I have ever looked on tele­vi­sion. But it was im­por­tant work. I felt – for the first time – like a se­ri­ous ac­tress.’

Lisa won mas­sive crit­i­cal ac­claim for play­ing Lorna, the mother of two teenage girls in the drama­ti­sa­tion of the 2012 sex groom­ing scan­dal in Rochdale. The drama went on to win a Royal Tele­vi­sion So­ci­ety award. ‘What is bet­ter than any award is the fact we were able to give those peo­ple a voice,’ says Lisa.

‘It was the most trau­matic but the most re­ward­ing work I have ever done. I got close to some of the real moth­ers and girls in­volved. There were times when the scenes were so har­row­ing [in­clud­ing one where her on-screen daugh­ter found out she was preg­nant by one of her abusers and was taken to have an abor­tion; the foe­tus was seized as ev­i­dence] I wanted to break down and cry on set.

‘But I knew I couldn’t be­cause my re­spon­si­bil­ity was to get the fam­i­lies’ story out there. I’m still in touch with them. They were so grate­ful for show­ing what they went through. I hope it is one of those se­ries that makes peo­ple change the way they think.’

Lisa has chal­lenged her­self in other as­pects of her life as well as her ca­reer, jour­ney­ing to ob­scure parts of the world. Once an ad­ven­ture-phobe, she has rid­den horses bare­back and slept in tents un­der the stars in Africa. ‘I felt OK about my­self when I was big­ger. I was never bul­lied as a kid; I lived in my own lit­tle safe world. I took the fat-girl parts and was grate­ful. But I wasn’t liv­ing 100 per cent of my life. I didn’t go fur­ther than Ibiza on hol­i­day, I never pushed my­self out of my com­fort zone.’

Hav­ing al­ways said she doesn’t want chil­dren, Lisa is now ex­plor­ing IVF and has had a meet­ing with a fer­til­ity spe­cial­ist. She made the de­ci­sion to do this after fall­ing in love with a ‘very tal­ented and very, very lovely’ mu­si­cian called Al, whom she met through friends in 2014.

‘When I went in to have surgery to re­move the loose flesh after I lost all my weight, the first ➤



thing that came into my head when I saw my sur­geon was, “Can I still have kids after all the surgery?” I was wor­ried that be­cause my skin had been cut it would no longer stretch.’ Since los­ing her mother and both grand­moth­ers to can­cer (her mother Cath was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer in 2000 and died in 2012), Lisa had sworn she would never have a baby be­cause she couldn’t take the risk of leav­ing her child with­out a mother if she, too, fell vic­tim to the dis­ease. ‘I’ve de­cided not to live in fear,’ she says. ‘I want to have IVF but I’m not go­ing to put my­self through a lot of stress if it doesn’t work. There are a lot of rea­sons why I want to have a baby: some to do with the fact I’ve saved my­self by los­ing weight, but also that I’m in love for the first time in my life and he would like to have a baby if we can. I don’t just think about my­self any more. If we were to have a child, that would be won­der­ful.’

Given her fam­ily his­tory, I ask if she has con­sid­ered be­ing tested for the breast can­cer gene. Lisa shakes her head. ‘I can’t do that,’ she says. ‘I’d rather not know. I’ve been asked many times and I have al­ways said, “No.” For me, it is walk­ing the green mile [the walk to the elec­tric chair]. I can’t live like that. I could not face that. I might be hit by a bus to­mor­row. I would rather not know what is go­ing to hap­pen.’

Lisa talks hon­estly about ev­ery as­pect of her life. Her re­cently re­leased book about how she lost 12 stone is called Hon­esty Diet. She has tried ev­ery fad diet un­der the sun over the years, but this time, she says, ‘There were no short­cuts. No di­ets be­cause they don’t work long-term. I changed my en­tire life. I ex­er­cised. I re­duced por­tions. I cut out snacks, I cut out al­co­hol. I cut out cig­a­rettes be­cause if I smoked I would drink and if I had a cou­ple of glasses of mal­bec I’d be pulling out the War­bur­tons [bread] to make toast spread with an inch of but­ter. I had to stop all that. I have cut out carbs and sugar. I don’t snack. I ex­er­cise ev­ery day, whether it’s a class or with a trainer. I don’t take lifts, I climb the stairs. I do Zumba classes and avoid even look­ing at cakes. And I stick to it. Two and a half years on, I’ve not fallen off the wagon, I’ve not de­vi­ated. I love be­ing like this. I have too much to lose to jeop­ar­dise what I’ve achieved.’

Her weight loss is so phe­nom­e­nal that not ev­ery­one be­lieved she did it with­out surgery or a Lisa danc­ing with her Strictly part­ner Robin Wind­sor, left, and, above, with her late mum Cath gas­tric band. There was such a cho­rus of dis­be­lief that she took a lie-de­tec­tor test and re­vealed the re­sults on Loose Women to prove she was telling the truth. ‘I don’t blame peo­ple,’ she shrugs. ‘A lot of celebri­ties in my in­dus­try have lied about the way they have lost weight. But I have al­ways been a very up­front per­son. Ly­ing is not my way. I’ll tell the truth, how­ever painful that is.’

Lisa is from a straight-talk­ing fam­ily. Born in Manch­ester, she was brought up by her graphic de­signer fa­ther Terry and mother Cath with her brother Liam, who is seven years her ju­nior. When she was nine she joined the pres­ti­gious Old­ham The­atre Work­shop (alumni in­clude Su­ranne Jones, Sarah Lan­cashire and Anna Friel) and within three years she had an agent. Along­side Em­merdale, her early roles in­cluded an ap­pear­ance in Corona­tion Street and a part in a Michael Win­ter­bot­tom film, But­ter­fly Kiss. Cath, who worked at Air­tours, was her daugh­ter’s big­gest cham­pion.

The mo­ment Lisa be­gins to talk about her mum, who was 58 when she died, she cries. ‘My mother wrapped me in cot­ton wool from the mo­ment I was born. She was my ab­so­lute world. She was funny, kind, hon­est and clever. And she was there any time you needed her. When I lost her, I crum­bled.’

Cath died in Lisa’s arms, sur­rounded by her fam­ily. For the first 11 days after her death, Lisa sur­vived on Val­ium be­cause she couldn’t sleep. ‘I re­mem­ber sit­ting with peo­ple at the din­ing-room ta­ble talk­ing about fu­neral ar­range­ments and I couldn’t even speak. The words weren’t com­ing out. At that point, I thought: “No more Val­ium. Mum would want me to step up.” It’s the only time I’ve been on pills like that.’

Within a mat­ter of months, Lisa ap­peared on Strictly Come Danc­ing, part­nered with Robin Wind­sor. ‘I did it for my mum,’ she says. ‘She loved the show. She would have wanted me to prove what I could do. I went in there this big fat girl and I re­fused to be the com­edy turn. I have been to drama school, I have rhythm. I was go­ing to show ev­ery­one not to un­der­es­ti­mate women like me and that even if you are big you can dance. The whole ex­pe­ri­ence was amaz­ing. Robin saw me at my worst, cry­ing my heart out on my bed un­able to move, and at my best when we were danc­ing. He was a rock.

‘I don’t know why but be­ing on Strictly helped me get through the worst time of my life. There was one point in Glas­gow while on tour that I al­most pulled out, but I knew Mum would have been so cross with me if I did that.’ Lisa was voted out in the semi­fi­nals, but her cha-cha-cha re­mains one of the best-loved dances in the show’s his­tory.

The fol­low­ing year, her fa­ther had a can­cer scare and was even­tu­ally di­ag­nosed with type 2 di­a­betes. ‘That was what did it,’ she says. ‘I lost my mother, then I thought I was go­ing to lose my dad. That was the mo­ment I de­cided I had to change. I had to take con­trol of my health and my life – I did it for both my par­ents.’

Her great­est wish is that her mother could see her now. ‘She’d be so happy to see me look­ing like this, but most of all to know that I am with a great man who loves me.’ Raised a Catholic, Lisa be­lieves, how­ever, ‘that Mum is still with me and she can see how happy I am, how I’ve be­come the woman I have al­ways wanted to be. That gives me a lot of com­fort.’

Un­like the feud­ing fam­ily in Age Be­fore Beauty, Lisa’s own is su­per­glue tight. ‘There was a point that was dif­fi­cult when, a few years after my mum died, my dad met some­one else,’ she says. ‘But she’s a lovely woman, is won­der­ful with my neph­ews and makes my dad happy. So I got over my­self and I’m re­ally glad for them both.’

As for her own fears about age­ing, she smiles: ‘I’ve had surgery to re­move my ex­cess skin but I haven’t had Bo­tox. I’m not against women hav­ing it, but it’s not for me. I don’t ob­sess about age and wrin­kles. Ev­ery day I’m hap­pier than I was the day be­fore and ev­ery day I’m get­ting older, so age­ing works for me. I feel I have more to say and more op­por­tu­ni­ties [she re­cently helped Ruth Cor­den, the sis­ter of her old Fat Friends co-star, James Cor­den, lose weight on This Morn­ing] as an ac­tress and as my­self. Life is good. I’m older, wiser and bet­ter. Bring it on.’ n Age Be­fore Beauty will be on BBC One later this year

LISA RI­LEY pho­tographed by ELISABETH HOFF. For clothes cred­its, see page 20

From top: Lisa in Three Girls; with Do­minic Brunt in Em­merdale; the cast of new BBC drama Age Be­fore Beauty

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