Helen Mirren: 'There was so much I didn't like - my legs were too fat'
The camera may love her, but actress Helen Mirren has long been riddled by self-doubt, as she tells Celia Walden
Fifty-six years on, Dame Helen Mirren's voice still wavers when she recalls the memory of one particular school friend.
"David was so kind, so smart and so funny. He would have been an incredible adult out there in the world, but back then he had a drunken father and terrible acne and he just couldn't see a way out. So he killed himself."
The 72 year-old pauses.
"It impacted me so profoundly at the time because instinctively I understood why he had done it."
David is one of two very personal reasons behind the Oscar-winning actress's decision to front the L'Oreal Paris All Worth It campaign, which aims to help 10,000 young people transform self-doubt into self-worth in an online course addressing issues such as body language, communication, employability and relationships.
The second reason may come as a surprise to the many women and men who see the smart, provocative and supremely talented star of The Queen, Gosford Park and The Madness of King George as a beacon of self-confidence: Mirren herself has suffered from acute self-doubt all her life.
"Actually let's say experienced rather than suffered," she says narrowing her eyes. "I'm beginning to get a bit fed-up of all this 'suffering'. But yes, I have experienced insecurity all my life, and I still do on a daily basis."
She understands that people will find this baffling. "But I can't think of a single human being who doesn't have any insecurities - apart from Donald Trump. And actually he's clearly profoundly insecure in a very deep, deep way."
Born Ilyena Mironov, the granddaughter of a Russian nobleman whose fortune disappeared during the Russian Revolution, Mirren grew up in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex, where her immigrant father worked as a cab driver.
"We never had any money but in terms of love my childhood was very wealthy. And that's the greatest advantage any of us can have, isn't it? The love and support of our parents."
Nevertheless she began to be crippled by self-doubt as a teenager.
"I remember having these panic attacks, but not at the obvious moments. So I'd be going downstairs to play cards with a group of my friends and suddenly be thinking 'I just can't do this'. I hate to generalise but it seems to me that girls go inward with their insecurity and boys go outward - and I feel so profoundly now for young people between 13 and 20, when one is so vulnerable and prone to loneliness.
"Which is why I think this L'Oreal and Prince's Trust initiative is great, and I love the fact that an immensely wealthy corporation like L'Oreal - whose 'because you're worth it' mantra fitted so well - is socially aware enough to become involved with something like this. Because if we can only help people through that perilous time…"
Mirren didn't have any such resources to help her as a young adult starting out at the National Youth Theatre and moving on to the Royal Shakespeare Company in the late 1960s.
And, of course, alongside the professional pressures of stage and screen were the physical insecurities of every woman.
"There were so many things I didn't like: my legs were too fat and all sorts of other issues. But let's not discount men in this side of things; nowadays I work alongside these incredibly buff guys who spend three hours a day in the gym and they are still feeling incredible insecurity about their bodies."
That Mirren should have become a poster girl for body confidence with that bikini shot - taken by a paparazzo while she was on holiday in Puglia with her American film director husband of 21 years, Taylor Hackford - still amuses her, ten years on.
"Because I was posing for my husband, who was taking a picture, I was holding my stomach in. So I actually don't look like that at all. I often say: 'I wish I looked like the woman in that photo,' because really I don't, but I suppose that because I was with my husband on a beautiful day with the Mediterranean behind me, all that was impacting how confident I felt."
In any case, Mirren is keen to stress that for her at least, the self-doubts were about far deeper things than looks.
"Because I have never felt beautiful. There are people who are beautiful, and I'm objective enough to know that I don't fit into that category. I'm not bad looking but I'm not beautiful," she says, explaining that as an actress one becomes pragmatic about such things.
"You don't get cast for things and then you see someone who does and she is much prettier but often not such a good actress, and you think: 'Ah, OK, I get the picture'.
"No, for me, still now, it's to do with wit and intelligence rather than the way I look. I don't feel clever or funny enough."
Again, from the woman I've seen hold whole ballrooms in the palm of her hand at award ceremonies, who publicly upbraided Michael Parkinson for behaving like "a sexist old fart" after he interviewed her in 1975, this is unexpected.
I can't help feeling that many of the fierce young women Mirren recently admitted to feeling in awe of, for the ease with which "they just say 'f**k off'" to men, would look up to her as precisely the kind of woman who can hold her own on any issue.
And although only after our interview did the Oxfam scandal erupt - and as this went to press Mirren, a global ambassador for the charity, could not be contacted for comment - she is positively gleeful about the rising up of sexual abuse and intimidation victims within her industry, with Time's Up and #MeToo.
"Oh the cat is out of the bag and she is mad! Spitting mad! So she is going to make her feelings felt, which is great. Wonderful!"
Surely after this things can never go back to how they were?
"Well, be careful..." flings back Mirren. "Because whenever I think that a little voice reminds me that nothing stays the same, and everything changes. So I would say be careful - because there are always forces out there that want to regain control."
Maybe so, but certainly out in Hollywood this awards season we've seen women laying down a whole new set of ground rules - not least a refusal to show pony down the red carpet. With the Oscars just two weeks away, does Mirren welcome the idea of a 'non-sexist' red carpet free of 'mani-cams' and interviews centred on 'who' you're wearing?
"Oh I don't know. Don't forget that women love that stuff. They love it. I love it! I love dressing up! Although I don't want people to look at my manicure because usually my nails look crap," she laughs. "But also we do have to remember that all that is about women on women, and driven by women, not men. Men don't give a f**k about your manicure. All they notice is how much breast you're showing."
In the short film Mirren has recorded for the All Worth It campaign, she speaks of the "everyday kindnesses" we can all show youngsters battling self-doubt. It's easy to blame men for all the ills in the world, but shouldn't women be kinder to one another?
"Oh absolutely," she nods. "Because when they do support each other they're so wonderful. But it's complicated. And we would need to unpick the psychology of why we are the way we are," she sighs. "What I'd like is for David Attenborough to observe us as though we had just landed from Mars, and take us all apart, you know?"
I do. And if he did I suspect he'd be as confounded and enchanted by the rare bird that is Dame Helen Mirren as the rest of us.
The L'Oreal Paris All Worth It confidence training programme is now available online. For further information, visit princes-trust.org.uk/lorealparis