Best known as EastEnders’ wild child Roxy Mitchell, actress Rita Simons enjoyed a decade in Albert Square. Here the Essex-raised mum of two reveals to Denise Marshall how leaving Roxy behind was a blessing in disguise
From EastEnder to West End star
When producers informed Rita Simons and on-screen sister Samantha Womack that Roxy and Ronnie were to be written out in dramatic fashion, she admits it was a sudden blow, with all the fears for the future leaving a secure dream job brings.
‘We had both talked about leaving for a long time, but never really had the guts,’ explains Rita about her initial reaction. ‘Then we got told we were being killed, it was like, “Right then, we’ll get out coats”.’
The pair met a frustrating end for fans, who saw them drown in a swimming pool on Ronnie’s wedding day entangled in their bridal dresses, but anxieties soon vanished as she found herself in demand by directors.
‘It was a shock, yes, so I’m not going to say I’m glad, but it’s been a fabulous thing to get out there and spread my wings. It’s given me a massive boost in a new part of my career,’ confides Rita.
‘I have not stopped. When I say back to back, I even flew from the I’m a Celebrity jungle straight into pantomime last year, (as Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty), and opened jetlagged in Bournemouth the next day. Then I was rehearsing my next play, (The House on Cold Hill), while doing panto, and then that went on tour.
Rita was born in East London’s Whipps Cross
Hospital, and has plenty of fond memories of Essex after living in Ilford as a child, where her Apprentice star uncle, Lord Alan Sugar, famously sent his eldest son to work in McDonalds when he asked him for pocket money.
‘My dad’s whole side of the family are from Hackney and lived in Ilford, before moving to Chigwell. So half are there and half are where I now live in North London,’ says Rita. I have to say I do love a bit of Sheesh,’ the celebrity-favoured Turkish restaurant owned by Rita’s uncle Alan.
‘I’m often in Chigwell with family. I was recently at Southend’s Palace Theatre on tour and I drove past the block of flats there overlooking the sea where my grandparents used to live, which was very weird. As a child I was religiously in Southend every Sunday. We used to beg to go to Peter Pan’s playground, now Adventure Island, every week.
‘My dad lives in Buckhurst Hill and that’s where I used to take my kids, with my brother and nephews, to a beautiful lake at the top of Queens’ Road.’
Rita’s twin daughters, Jaimee and Maiya, were just two years old when she started on the soap, the timing a perfect fit.
‘It worked at EastEnders because of the kids. Filming was six until six and the girls needed me at home in the evenings to do the mum stuff. Now they’re at secondary school it’s a lot easier for me to be away. They’re more independent.
‘Theatre is probably more intense than soap. Rehearsal periods are heavy and when you’re on stage every night you don’t get an evening.’
Maybe Rita’s most surprising move was agreeing to Bushtucker trials in the jungle last December, something she didn’t realise would be so gruelling, but the bond formed with her fellow camp mates is something she holds dear.
‘It’s been one of the most wonderful experiences. We have a WhatsApp group and talk every day. I went up to see Harry (Redknapp) a few weeks ago and Fleur (East), came to see my show. My kids couldn’t wait to make me eat spiders.’
Despite the relentless schedule, Rita has squeezed in a fleeting return to EastEnders in May, with an off-set cameo, as ex-husband Sean played a voicemail message from his late wife.
‘I recorded that while at rehearsals for The House on Cold Hill, really quickly on my phone in my lunch break. I was really happy to do that, especially for Sean. They were such a massive couple and he left not knowing we were dead, so I would never not help on a storyline with Sean, (Rob Kazinsky).’
Rita was familiar with the buzz surrounding Everyone’s Talking About Jamie, before she was approached to take over in August as careers teacher Miss Hedge, from former Steps star Faye Tozer.
Coincidently Rita hadn’t crossed paths with Faye for two decades, since supporting her on tour, as a member of Girls@Play. The production is based on a 2011 BBC3 documentary; Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 and is also being made for the big screen with a star-studded cast including Richard E Grant and Sarah Lancashire.
‘It’s smashed it,’ says Rita of the award-winning show at London’s Apollo Theatre. ‘I took my kids to see this when it first opened, long before I knew I’d be in it. They were busting to tell people for about three months when I got the part. One of my daughters is at drama school, so they all know about Jamie and are very excited.’
When Rita’s current stage run with Jamie ends on November 16, she will start rehearsing immediately for Sleeping Beauty again, this time in St Albans alongside CBeebies’ presenter Andy Day, her fifth consecutive year of pantomime. With the diary for 2020 clear, she doesn’t rule out a return to Miss Hedge, if the chance comes.
‘I’m contracted for the panto but if it was to extend after Christmas, who knows? Everyone plays her differently, but as long as you tell the story and remember her viewpoints, you can put your own spin on it as much as you like. As long as you find the truth in what you’re doing.’
And nothing could be more apt of this current chapter in Rita’s journey as she seizes the stage once more.
Find out more
To learn more, visit www.everybodys talkingaboutjamie.co.uk