Clare Grogan on success
J UST 10 minutes into the interview with Clare Grogan and the top buttons of conversation are being undone to discuss the size of the lady’s breasts. Now, you’d be right to assume this is a rather odd topic to discuss in a trendy Italian restaurant in Glasgow over chilled white wine. But since the actress/singer is fairly chilled herself (she laughs at the suggestion she’s providing an essential Public Information Service), Grogan’s prepared to talk top half with practically the same zest she put into singing Happy Birthday.
“When I was 23 I realised I wanted to have a cleavage,” she informs, grinning in recall of the Altered Images period. “I was really fed up being seen as one of the boys. You see, I wanted to be seen as a woman and not the ‘pixie of pop’. Pixies don’t have breasts! But I guess I had really reached the point where I was desperate to be sexy.”
The admission emerges on the back, (or the front?) of a question about how 17-year-old Grogan saw herself back in the Gregory’s Girl day, all Lolita-like school-blazered and micro-skirted. Dee Hepburn wore the strip, hugged the ball and hogged the poster space but Grogan, with the coy smile and trebly, girly voice hit the back of the net. Half the schoolboys of Scotland fancied her rotten. The other half were lying.
Since that time, the now blonde has gone on to play the sexy alternative reality love interest in cult sci-fi series Red Dwarf, the first sexy private detective in Eastenders and more recently a yummy mummy in Channel Four’s teen hormones and drugs drama Skins. Later this month she’ll don sexy blackleather dominatrix boots to play the Wicked Fairy at the King’s panto in Glasgow.
Yet, Grogan’s comment about not realising the early benefits of boobs sits at odds with her on-screen coquettishness. Come on, Clare; you must have known the effect you were having on the nation’s menfolk?
“Honestly, not,” she says, emphatically while managing a giggle. “I never played the sex card. As a young person I was extraordinarily confident but this was down to the arrogance of youth.” Not sexual confidence? “No, I never had it. People may have thought I was this fantasy figure in Gregory’s Girl but I guess this was because I was the one who was the more, eh, willing.” She grins, stretching the knee length of her tight dress for comic effect; “I’m talking about my character, of course.”
But if the attraction of Grogan (who’ll be 50 on St Patrick’s Day, but looks 10 years younger) is that she can convince so readily on screen as, eh, willing, that suggests an underlayer of, eh, willingness?
“Not necessarily,” she says, grinning, then switching to stern schoolmistress mode. “Look, my parents (her hairdresser mum, her dad worked in the fish market) were amazing in making sure us four girls knew the difference between right and wrong, especially as teenagers. And they never welcomed boys into our house – they tolerated them. I guess they saw them as predators.”
Her Catholic upbringing was also a bromide for containing hormone surges. “Being a Catholic does create this added level of fear which I still have,” she admits. “It would be liberating not to feel that. And there’s still a part of me that thinks the Virgin Mary is watching me right now and I don’t want to make her cry.
“Yet, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a conscience. I don’t want to ignore the consequence of your actions. So I’ve never done anything too bad – except drink a bottle of champagne and dance on the top of the odd bar.”
The acting world is however littered with tales of casting couches. “Yes, but I never used sex as a currency to negotiate anything. In fact, I didn’t know how to. And on top of that I never saw myself as anything special.” Was she seen as prey? “I honestly think I was so naive that if it were the scenario, I wouldn’t have recognised it. I got odd requests, sure, the guys who would pay money to be placed near me at lunches, to mix with pop people, but personal invites? I always said no.”
An unawareness of sexual aura can take you some way in acting but what did director Bill Forsyth spot in the teenager when she waitressed in the Spaghetti Factory cafe in Glasgow? What’s managed to sustain Grogan’s run of 32 years in the business, from pop star to actress to pop star to presenter? Yes, she’s talented and self-deprecating and funny in conversation - but there has to be more.
A clue arrives when asked if she would have become a successful performer had it not been for Forsyth. “I think the performer was always in me,” she declares, “although it might have taken longer to get there.” She adds, pensively; “This will sound selfobsessed but if you took away Gregory’s and Altered Images and looked at my CV you’d be quite impressed.”
Confidence can certainly induce success, as can energy. And determination (evidenced in her bid to become a mum, resulting in the adoption of six-year-old Elle.) And stark ambition. Yet, these traits seem to be cocktailed with vulnerability?
“Yes, I think so. The truth is the double success of Gregory’s Girl and Altered Images terrified the living daylights out of me. At one point I couldn’t cope with it all. I thought ‘I can’t live up to the person people expect me to be’.”
Her major diva moment came about when touring with Altered Images in San Diego. “I was overwhelmed with the responsibility. I thought ‘I can’t go on’. I just wanted to be Clare Grogan from Mosspark. Meanwhile, the boys (including bandmate and future husband Stephen Lironi) wanted to kill me. They said ‘You can’t lose us this tour on Day One, pull yourself together.’ And I did.’ But I needed them to know I was struggling.”
And to know they couldn’t do the show without her?
“Yes,” she says, grinning. “I hated being the one left to go round the radio stations for two weeks before a single came out – but I also loved it.”
There’s no doubt Grogan’s career longevity is also down to her powerful survivor instinct. How many teenage performers could cope with being scarred for life (an innocent when a pub fight broke out and a glass was thrown) and still turn up for filming of Gregory’s Girl, where embalming fluid had to be used to cover the piece of her face that had been ripped apart?
“The night it happened my best friend wouldn’t let me look in the mirror,” she recalls with a shudder. “It looked terrible for a really long time, even though lots of people said ‘You know, it’s not that bad.’ But I found it a lot tougher than I ever admitted. It was all about bravado. And I was very frightened for a long time. But I felt sorriest for my mum and dad, having their child scarred.”
As the years passed the scar faded, however the horror resurfaced, literally, in 1998. “At the time of the injury the wound was so big and I’d lost so much blood the doctors were keen to close it very quickly. Understandably. Years later, when I was working on a theatre play in Watford a huge lump developed on my face. When doctors reopened the scar they discovered a big piece of glass. A third of a base of a pint glass had been left inside my cheek and it had now resurfaced. I could have lost my eyesight.”
Nowadays, the scar doesn’t bother the actress. “A couple of years ago I had it treated but only because the left side of my face had dropped because of the nerve damage and it was visible on camera. We spoke of reconstructive surgery, but in the end I had a filler, and it worked. Well, I think so. And at the risk of sounding all woman’s magazine here, I love the idea of being imperfect.”
She adds with a wry grin; “You know, one TV producer, a female incidentally, didn’t concur. She said to me I had to have the scar sorted. And I was furious. I felt I’d be letting the side down if I did something about it.”
Indeed. But on the subject of cosmetic surgery, did she ever think about having a boob job to create the much-craved cleavage?
“No. But thanks for bringing it up,” she says with a playful dig into the arm. “Having lived in LA for a while I’m terrified I’ll get the bug and go all Jordan-esque. Anyway, I don’t see the point. I’ll soon be 50, and even in this fantasy world I live in you have to accept a little bit of reality.”
So does that mean when she film’s her latest movie role next week, playing the mum of one-time gangster Paul Ferris, she won’t be Wonderbra’d and sexy?
“No, I won’t she says, grinning, while taking another sip of wine and folding her arms symbolically across her chest. “And will you please stop teasing me about my cleavage.”