IT WOULD be easy to scoff at actress Martine McCutcheon's debut novel, The Mistress but we mustn't. Well okay – if you twist my arm, maybe just a little bit. The opening chapter sees the heroine, Mandy, celebrating her birthday with friends in a restaurant. Mandy is high-voltage: a bright, bubbly 30-something who really reminds you of someone. (Ooh, I think it's Martine, actually.) Here's a short extract. "Mandy… felt she was being watched intently, to the point that it caused a burning sensation to the side of her head." Oh dear… have the cake candles set her hair on fire? Tragedy. But no, it's the (married) stranger of her dreams looking at her longingly across the room that's causing all the smouldering. It's that kind of romantic novel. A bit like cheap chocolate: you know you should really get something better, but it has a kind of fatal fascination that keeps you nibbling.
A London bistro, rain-spattered windows. Will Martine turn up? The ex-EastEnders actress, ex-pop singer, ex-West End musical star (that's a lot of exes – she's good at reinvention) has cancelled once already. And she wanted copy approval but didn't get it. "Oh she's a monkey, that Martine," a PR in the city has told me. Never worked with her, the PR admits. Simply knows the diva reputation. Monkey is not a bad word, not damning. Bit show-offy, monkeys, but engaging too. A cab draws up. Martine, with her black coat and shiny black hair tied back, jumps out, running out of the rain to the doorway. She's fresh faced and attractive and there's something very pert and confident about her. She's warm and open and on a high because the taxi driver has just been really, really nice to her about her acting and singing. Martine loves to be loved.
She's like a character in her own romantic fairy tale. Deprived childhood… emotional struggle… triumph. As a child, only a scholarship and grants allow her to attend the Italia Conti stage school. Then there's a brief, ill-fated period in a girl band. According to her autobiography, she doesn't like the fact that there's more interest in one of her fellow band member's voice than hers. She likes to be the centre of attention. Anyway, she ends up working in Knickerbox, and when her agent calls her about an EastEnders audition she's not sure she wants it because she wants to be a glamorous star in furs and frocks, not a soap actress in some dreary, market-veg saga.
But Martine wins the role of Tiffany, and Tiff is the kind of Cockney rough diamond guaranteed to win the hearts of soap-loving Britain. Suddenly Martine achieves the kind of fame she always dreamt of. She never made any secret of the fact that she was ambitious. "I'm not sure people warm to that, though," she says now. A successful but ultimately short-lived pop career followed EastEnders, but it was when Richard Curtis gave her a leading role in the 2003 film Love Actually, opposite Hugh Grant, that her career really looked as though it might rocket. She was finally going where her heart had always been: glamorous Hollywood. Then… well, nothing really. Now the actress-turned-singer turns writer. What's going on?
McCutcheon's favourite meal tells you a lot about her. It's a buffet. "I think that says everything about me. If I don't want it, I don't have to have it. And I don't have to have all of it. I can have a little bit of that and a little bit of that and a little bit of that." It has been her approach to her career too. She wishes it was still like the old days of Hollywood, when you had to act and dance and sing. "I don't think for a second that I'm the best at anything but I know I'm really good at quite a lot of things because I work hard. I don't want to be one thing. I want to be whoever I want to be."
Creating an image is an important part of McCutcheon's personality. Interestingly, it doesn't come across entirely as affectation. It's almost like a child playing Cinderella, someone desperate to replace grim reality with fragrant fantasy. Even the affair at the centre of her novel is a less-than-ideal love that becomes completely stylised. It's all designer labels, extravagant presents, weekends in Paris and sheer physical indulgence. You might think it a bit empty if you didn't know McCutcheon's background. That side of her story has been well told: her turbulent childhood, running from a physically and emotionally abusive father who dangled her over a balcony as a baby in order to force his estranged wife to have sex with him. The girl who turned to dreams of showbusiness to lift her out of the reality of a life where the only security was the absolute devotion of her mother's love.
Does she use luxury as protection, to convince herself the old life is gone forever? "I'm a Taurean, and we're famous for loving lovely things. For me, it's a big thing to have beautiful sheets on my bed and real perfume. I need them. Even if I had been born in the biggest manor in the world, I think it's something I would love and enjoy." But has she worked out the influence of her childhood on that? "I don't think I'll ever work myself out, but I enjoy trying. I want to make my mum's life and my life safe. I think when you're young and have nothing and come from an abusive background, when you look at things that are glossy and expensive and lush, it all looks very safe. It's a massive part of who I am. I like that about myself."
There's safety, too, in public recognition, which perhaps accounts for the slight grandiosity she has about her own fame. When she says that she has never been a mistress, it's partly because "fame is a big responsibility". "It's something that could have happened, I think, if I hadn't had to be so responsible so young. You have to take into consideration the fact that there's a public out there who aspire (sic] to you and who, from a business point of view, buy into who you are and what you do and what you believe in. People were saying I was a national treasure, and I didn't think it would be right for the national treasure to go running off with a married man."
How bizarre not only to be part of a tabloid agenda about 'national treasures' but to actually believe it. But maybe that's because role models were once very important to McCutcheon herself.
The idea for her novel – which started as an outline for a TV series – came after she was accused of being the other woman in celebrity chef Marco Pierre White's marriage. The fall-out was so awful it made her realise what life would have been like if it had been true. But fantasy is more important than reality in her story. McCutcheon's readers – like her – will be looking for escape, not great insight into relationships. Even the moral dilemmas have a glossy veneer. Mandy's sister is devastated by her husband's affair just as Mandy is embarking on her own. Mandy is completely torn. But in the end, McCutcheon resorts to "I've-only-met-you-for-two-minutes-in-a-crowded-room-but-this-is-obviously-bigger-than-both-of-us" clichs. For a woman who loves choice, her characters are straws in the wind of destiny.
Does she believe in love at first sight? "I believe in huge connection at first sight that can be recognised later on as love – but what was that thing in the first place? I believe love isn't simple and it's one of the things that makes people break all the rules. I never judge anyone about relationships. I have been in situations with girlfriends where people have said, 'What are you doing?' When in actual fact, they've been right. They stuck to their guns and they got the man they wanted."
It's not that she approves of people deliberately hurting others. "But I always love women – and men – who dare to love and dare to lust passionately, and dare to take risks and go for things that are true to themselves." What happens, she says, when you meet your soulmate but someone got there first?
McCutcheon's own soulmate seemed elusive in her 20s. She was engaged to DJ Gareth Cooke but broke off the relationship in 1996. He went on to sell salacious stories of their sex life to the press. She then began dating her friend Jonathan Barnham, but that relationship ended after it was revealed that he had attended sex parties behind her back. For the last three years, she has been with singer Jack McManus and says being quieter on the work front gives her time to nurture the relationship. But let's be honest. Her men have tended to be unfaithful. "Once," she says. Only once? She laughs indignantly. "Only once!" The press get it wrong, but she does know the pain of infidelity. "I know the confidence knock that comes with it, and it's a hideous thing to go through."
The implication has always been that she's self-destructive when it comes to men. That she wants someone to marry her and love her but consistently picks bad boys who run a million miles from commitment. (Men, we are supposed to assume, not unlike her father…) "Not true at all," she says. "There has been this thing… I think it suited the press… that someone is loveable if they don't quite have it all. As long as I was the victim in love, I was okay. There had to be some kind of flaw."
But she's not a victim. "Everything about me is about being a survivor," she insists. "You know, I wasn't perfect. There were times I made mistakes in my relationships. I wasn't 'unlucky in love' Martine." It was "absolutely heartbreaking", she admits, when her first love sold his story to the press. But he wasn't the only man who betrayed her. Her father did too, selling his story to the tabloids when she became famous. "I think," she says, "I'd had a hope that he'd gone off and had a lovely family and been a lovely, decent man, and then when he sold his story my mum looked at me, at the kitchen table, and said, 'We did kind of know this would happen. Are you disappointed?' I said, 'Yeah, I just think he has done enough. Why does he have to do this as well?'"
McCutcheon admits she was "fearless" in those days. She didn't need him or want him in her life. But have things changed as she has got older? Children of abusive parents, who have absolutely no reason to love them, sometimes still have an instinct to do so. McCutcheon thinks for a moment. "Maybe I would have been a daddy's girl if I'd had him around until I was nine or something and I had known what I was missing. But all I saw of him was bad. I didn't want him in my life because I was frightened of him so, no, there isn't that instinctive thing there. He doesn't deserve that. I have lots of things I love in my life and lots of dreams – but not about him."
She went to a therapist around that time. She was a teenager still, but so much had happened in her life. "It was really good because I sat down and said what I wanted to say without worrying it would be in the press, without worrying I would upset anyone. I went back for another session and then I sort of thought, I feel better now…"
She never felt she needed a father. Her mother was everything to her. "We just thought we were going to go out and conquer the world together. She did everything to make sure I stayed safe. And once that was done and dusted, she did everything to make me go on and be what I wanted to be. I am so grateful to her for that. If I said, 'I can't do that,' she would say, 'Why not? Why can't you do that? You can go and be a star if you want to be.' She was the one who made me dream big."
Her mother was also the one who kept McCutcheon's feet on the ground. "Whenever I've won an award, my mum says, 'Right Martine, you wash, I'll dry.' It tickles me inside that she does that. I always have washing in the sink. I've got a big ballgown on and pink marigolds and my mum has got the teatowel. And I'll think, here we go, now that I've won the award and got the applause… pep talk. You've come a long way and never forget..."
So Cinderella went to the ball. But there's always that really rubbish bit when the clock strikes midnight and everything falls apart again before the proper happy ending. There were plenty of whispers before midnight tolled that McCutcheon was getting too big for her dainty glass slippers. When she left EastEnders she was devastated that Tiffany was killed off, slamming the door against her return, but producers more or less asked who did she think she was. She proved that she didn't need the safety net by having an international number one with Perfect Moment and two successful albums. She was dropped after the third, a selection of Broadway musical numbers, didn't sell.
Sometimes it's as if McCutcheon has tried so hard to make her star shine brightly that she has risked extinguishing it altogether. Take her West End role as Eliza Doolittle in the Trevor Nunn/Cameron Mackintosh production of My Fair Lady. McCutcheon won the Olivier award but the headlines she attracted were more disaster than triumph. She became ill soon after the show opened, and her on-off appearances became a tabloid saga. Cameron Mackintosh implied that there was a psychosomatic element to her illness; that she simply couldn't handle the emotional demands of a long-running show. She wanted to be a triumph every single night. Was he right?
The royal National Theatre in association with Cameron Mackintosh presents lerner & Loewe's "My Fair lady"
McCutcheon's response is interesting. She doesn't get defensive but considers the question. "I definitely think I learned you have to be a certain breed of racehorse to do that kind of show." She wants magic every night and thinks musical film would suit her better. She doesn't want to give a "painting by numbers" performance. "The real West Enders say you have to do that in order to self-preserve, but I would think, everyone is paying the same amount for a ticket. Why should they get a mind-blowing performance but I tone it down for you?" So she couldn't handle the daily grind of it? "I probably don't do boring very well." Bit of a drama queen, maybe? "No," she says firmly. "I learned a long time ago to keep the drama at work. If you didn't, you'd bust. I mean, you'd just explode."
Understandably, she sounds slightly indignant talking about the physical side of her illness. "It wasn't like I had a sore throat and didn't feel very well. In that case you suck a Locket and get on with it. I was majorly unwell. I had a blood clot in my skull, a blood clot behind my knee." It never made the papers because the demands of the insurance policy meant she couldn't speak about it. "Everyone wanted me to get back to business. That's when I thought, you know, I've got to stand up for me here. People spoke out that I really respected and wished hadn't, but you live and learn that nobody's perfect. You worry that you might not be but then neither are they."
Martine McCutcheon and Hugh Grant in Love Actually, 2003
Her career dived. She formed an unlikely friendship with Liza Minnelli (McCutcheon would later be one of Minnelli's bridesmaids at her wedding to David Gest), who talked her out of quitting. The reward was Love Actually. So what happened? "What happened was I went out to Hollywood. They welcomed me with open arms, but I don't think the agency knew what to do with me. Then I landed a TV series. It was going to be huge, the new Friends. They said, 'Sell your flat and move to LA.' They got me a visa and within 48 hours I was sitting in Toronto in this horrible hotel room with a green TV." She laughs. "It reminded me of being a kid, when we had no decent TV, and I thought, oh my God, the whole point was to get away from all that."
Then a new bigwig arrived at the television channel. McCutcheon has fallen foul of new brooms several times in her career. Once at EastEnders, once in her music career… now it was happening again. The series was axed but she was still channel property. "So at my hottest, hottest time, when I was being offered positive roles, I was gagged and bound and not allowed to work." The American TV career didn't happen. The film career couldn't happen.
Martine McCutcheon and Grant in Eastenders
Later, she did a low-budget film, Jump, with Patrick Swayze, who died recently of pancreatic cancer. "I can honestly say, hand on heart, he was the loveliest man I worked with in the business, and I am not just saying that because of what happened. He was probably the most alive man I've ever met. He was so in love with his wife, and although he was a bit older than me he had an innocence about him. He wasn't one of those guys who are all ego and strut about and it's all about them…" Swayze worked so hard he used to ring up cast members at 2am to go through scenes. They stayed in touch for a while but when he became ill she couldn't reach him and simply left messages. Swayze was a warrior. She'd like to be that.
Rain is trickling slowly down the bistro windows. She says she doesn't expect to be the sunshine girl every day, though you wonder if she once did. She has earned more money in her career than even she dreamed of. Now it's about the work. You need luck as well as talent – has her chance gone? "I hope not," she says fervently. "I hope I'm not finished."
So what's the fairy tale ending she would choose; what's the dream she dares to dream now? "Oh my God," she says and draws in breath. Just a variety of work. Being happy. Another film? "Oh I'd love to do another film." She smiles. "Richard Curtis, take note," she says, and the national treasure laughs at her own cheek. r
Martine McCutcheon will discuss her novel, The Mistress, at Lennoxlove Book Festival (0844 357 7611, www.lennoxlovebookfestival.com), Lennoxlove House, Haddington, on 14 November. She is signing copies of her new novel at Borders, 98 Buchanan Street, Glasgow on 21 November at 12.30pm
This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on November 1, 2009