Denise Van Outen says her one-woman show – a Shirley Valentine for the 90s generation – draws on her own life. Expect heartbreak, passion, hard work and the pursuit of happiness, writes Janet Christie
Denise Van Outen is happy going it alone. In her new one-woman romantic comedy opening in Edinburgh this week, she’s alone on stage in the same set for the entire performance, sings all seven of the 1980s hits in the score solo, and provides the laughs and sighs. When the curtain comes down the former Big Breakfast presenter, DJ, Strictly runner-up, singer and actress has earned the standing ovation she gets from her fans when I catch the show in Leeds for sheer effort alone.
Some Girl I Used To Know, is co-written by Van Outen with Terry Ronald, and there’s a lot of the Essex girl made good in the main character, but she insists it’s not her. A nostalgia-fest for the Facebook generation, the show follows the life of a successful lingerie designer who receives a digital poke from her first love while away on business and must decide whether to re-ignite the passion with shagger Sean or stay with perfect partner Paul. There’s Smash Hits and Ibiza, Culture Club and Soft Cell, big hair and broken hearts as Van Outen explores the question of whether women can have it all.
Time is short between rehearsals and she arrives in a blur of long blonde hair, slicking on lip gloss. “It makes me feel better,” she smiles. “I put it on for radio too. It’s stupid but I need a little help,” she says, talking 20 to the dozen in her Essex tones, every inch the Basildon Blonde.
She doesn’t need help. Turning 40 in May, she’s still blessed with good looks but shrugs off compliments. What colour are her eyes – “duck shit green”. Hair? “Blonde but yeah, needs help too. I didn’t used to worry about my looks but now I’m getting older I do. I should go to the gym between shows but what I’m really looking forward to is sitting watching box sets like Breaking Bad, or old films like Love Story.”
Van Outen is keen to talk about the show since she’s invested so much of herself in the character. The songs she sings are from her personal playlist and some of the experiences are straight from her own life, but she’s circumspect about telling me which.
“The play’s about a woman who’s 39 like me and there are some things in it that are personal, but I won’t tell you what they are. I identify more with this role than any other I’ve done and relive my emotions every night. I needed to do this for myself, but not in a weird actressy way. I believe when you’re performing you should give yourself. I’ll probably be a manic depressive by the end of the run,” she says and laughs, voice slightly throaty from rigorous rehearsals. There’s no sign of this later and her voice is the one that saw her wowing audiences in the West End and Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago in 2001/2 and in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s Tell Me On A Sunday, which he re-wrote for her, the following year.
“Stephanie Canworth has it all,” says the blurb for the show but it turns out Stephanie doesn’t have it all and has some hard choices to make. Van Outen doesn’t have it all either, although she does have many things that put that bright smile on her face: looks, talent, her three-year-old daughter Betsy, two homes, holidays in Dubai and the Caribbean, Chanel bags and an irrepressibly chirpy outlook on life.
“You can work and have children, but it can come at a price,” she says. “You have to be prepared to make sacrifices. I love working; it’s exciting and I’m a better mother for it when I go home. But it’s bloody tiring, it’s knackering.”
Van Outen usually does the nursery run and while she’s on tour, her parents help out by bringing Betsy to wherever her mother is performing, once she’s had her two days at nursery.
Unlike her character, Van Outen didn’t put everything on hold for her career and feels a pang of regret that she didn’t have children until she turned 35. “I was kind of career-focused, but in my case that’s because I hadn’t met the right person to have a child with. The one thing I always wanted was to settle down and have a family, but it didn’t happen until later. Life hasn’t passed me by, but if my daughter, when she’s older, meets a lovely young chap, I’d say as much as it’s great having a really good career, don’t leave it too late.
“The other difference between me and Stephanie is she’s poked on Facebook and I’m not on that so I’ve never been ‘poked’. Ha, ha. I’ve got a child and don’t have time. Just as well, ‘cos I’d probably get into all kinds of trouble.”
She probably would. What you see is what you get with Van Outen and she tells it like it is. That’s what has made her such a natural hosting and presenting, on the Big Breakfast with Johnny Vaughan in the late 1990s and later with him on Capital Radio’s breakfast show in 2008. She quit after five months amid talk of a fall-out between the two, but today she’s all praise for Vaughan, describing him as “genuinely hilarious, the funniest man I know.” David Walliams and Julian Clary are also friends who make her laugh. Her relaxed nature makes her a hit with the Magic 105.4 Saturday afternoon easy listening audience.
“I play what I like. When I went for the interview the first thing I said was, ‘Can I play Phil Collins?’ and they said yes! I used to have a boyfriend with a van and go on deliveries with him and we’d play In the Air Tonight and that whole album all the time. Takes me back… It’s not in the show though, didn’t fit. Pity.”
What did fit is Sonia’s You’ll Never Stop Me From Loving You – “I always got stick for that, but slowed down to a ballad it’s amazing” – and the Thompson Twins’ Hold Me Now.
“That one reminds me of going out with a guy from Brighton and a perfect day on the beach at the end of which he gave me a mix tape. I remember thinking my life is amazing. Then he dumped me.”
Van Outen wanted to write a Shirley Valentine for her own generation and reckons the women in the audience will identify with the issues raised, although there seem to be plenty of men happy to relive their school days as she takes them back to the 1980s and 1990s.
“Shirley Valentine hit a nerve with me when I was young and saw a lot of my friends’ mothers stuck indoors not really having a life. When she ran away you thought, good on you girl!”
“I feel there’s a certain group of women that will relate to it and male critics might not. I don’t want to think about reviews,” she says and cringes. “I’m calling on the sisterhood here! I had it with Tell Me On A Sunday. They can get petty and talk about how you look – “wrinkly”. So what if I am! [She’s not.] That’s beside the point,” she bristles.
Then, drawing herself up in her seat, the former rear of the year comes over all professional and faces her critics with the resolve of a woman who once broke the Guinness World Record for eating 250g of jelly in 60 seconds with a blindfold on.
“Some criticism is valid. OK, and useful too. People have pointed out things I didn’t know I was doing and I’ve worked on it and improved it,” she says.
Facing up to interest in her personal life as well as her professional life is something Van Outen has also got used to over the past year, after her split from her husband of four years, Lee Mead. After dating Jamiroquai frontman Jay Kay for three years and actor James Lance, she met the West End star while judging the BBC’s Any Dream Will Do series in 2007, which Mead went on to win, and they married in 2009. Betsy came along a year later, but with Mead determined to crack the US while Van Outen juggled her radio show, BBC1’s Strictly and being a mother, the pair increasingly spent time apart and paparazzi shots of Van Outen on holiday alone or with Betsy filled the tabloids.
“There was no big fall out and we’ve stayed best friends. We’ve only done what’s right for us, which some people don’t. They stay for economic reasons, or for the kids, but they should leave. The most important thing for anybody is you just have to be happy. Life goes by so fast you have to make the most of it and be around people that make you laugh and you can have fun with. People end up staying till they hate each other. I’ve seen the difference between people that just stay together and those that stay in love like my mum and dad,” she says.
“Lee and I manage to make it all work sensibly and amicably. I’ve seen it where the woman uses the kids to get at the guy, but I said to him, ‘when you want to see her you can see her. She’s as much yours as mine.’”
“He’s in Cardiff now, doing Casualty and Betsy’s really excited about seeing him on TV. I bought her a doctor’s outfit but now she thinks he’s going to be a doctor. She’s a bit confused!” she laughs.
Being constantly followed and photographed must be difficult, I suggest, never mind the endless speculation about your marriage.
“Last year was a horrible year, the more so because it was all public,” she says. “It’s an effort but I’m used to it. I have two lives because my home is in Kent, where I’m me with Betsy, in leggings and a baggy jumper on the nursery run, then I have a crash pad in London for when I’m working and that’s when they pap me, so I make an effort when I go out. Well, I’m on my way to work anyway. People don’t see the other side of me, the country girl.”
As for the future, she’s not in a rush to have another relationship.
“I don’t know if I’m ready. I want to enjoy this moment and not rush into anything. Men complicate things. I don’t need to have anyone around me. For my 40th in May I’m looking forward to having all my girlfriends round and at the end of the night not having to have all that worry. I don’t want any drama. Although, I wouldn’t entirely rule it out. It would have to be special and I’d have to be swept off my feet. Oh, and someone to have a right old laugh with.”
At the moment Van Outen is content to have a right old laugh with Betsy, whose childhood is shaping up very differently from her mother’s.
“Betsy definitely has more luxury than I did. I didn’t go to Dubai and stay in luxury hotels. We didn’t go on holiday till I was 18. But I wasn’t aware of not having things.”
Van Outen thinks a lot about how her wealth affects her daughter and is determined it won’t spoil her.
“I hope when she grows up she still has ambition and I haven’t handed it to her on a plate. But at least she grows up without the fear, of not being able to pay the bills. I’ve always had that. But we’re very strict about not giving her too much at Christmas and I want her to appreciate things. I still do, even after all these years,” she says, and reaches out to touch the Chanel clutch that sits on the table.
“I wipe this down with a damp cloth every night,” she says. “I look after my things. And pass them on. And I explain to Betsy, that not everyone has two homes, and that it takes hard work to get that.”
Van Outen’s father Ted was an East End docker at the India Docks, who followed the work to Tilsbury and her mother Kathleen was a cleaner who also looked after children with special needs.
“They worked hard,” says Van Outen, who has inherited their working class work ethic, starting work at seven, modelling knitting patterns. The youngest of three, she was always the family performer, or “show off” as Van Outen puts it.
“I loved it and my sister Jackie was shy, so I’d always do the song and dance. I did ballet, tap and modern – that’s what all girls in Essex did, and got into the Sylvia Young Theatre School.”
When the time came to leave, Van Outen couldn’t decide whether to specialise in singing, dancing or acting, so Young encouraged her to go with all three.
“She said I might come under fire because people wouldn’t take me seriously. But I don’t want to be taken seriously. I want to be working. I don’t want to be sitting around for months, not working, going ‘I’m a really cool actress.’”
It’s unlikely Van Outen would find herself sitting around for months, but should that happen does she have a back-up plan, like the ones she advises the X-Factor generation to have in case things don’t pan out?
“No!” she says, eyes wide, grabbing the table and laughing nervously. “Oh, oh, wait, actually I do. I have property. And I’ve made more of my money from that than anything else. My dad always said when you get your first pay cheque buy property, so I did. I could go into that. Yes.”
For the moment, she’s happy with motherhood, musical comedy, climbing Kilimanjaro and trekking the Great Wall of China for charity in her spare time, and keen to get back to Edinburgh to banish the memory of Blondes, the show she performed at the Fringe in 2009.
“Nah, wasn’t happy with it. This is what I wanted to do then, but we didn’t have time.”
She doesn’t have time now either, for any more chat, with further rehearsals to do, apart from a final philosophical thought about her approach to life: “Trust your instincts and never let fear hold you back. Never settle for anything less than being ridiculously happy. I feel positive. Good things are going to happen.”
Some Girl I Used To Know, King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 10-12 March, £16.50-£23 (www.edtheatres.com/kings)