'I thought all my friends were selling stories about me' - Denise Van Outen talks phone hacking and family
She was the original 1990s ladette, who is now choosing Ireland's talent. Denise Van Outen tells Sarah Caden how phone-hacking shattered her trust in people; how she embraced her ADHD as an adult, and how golf is the new clubbing
'I never did Loaded," says Denise Van Outen, firmly, but good-humouredly.
I had mentioned to her that when I told a male acquaintance in his 40s that I was coming to meet the one-time Big Breakfast presenter and leading ladette, now Ireland's Got Talent judge, he had responded with "Ah, Loaded," as if it was a game of 1990s word association.
Denise never did notorious lads' mag Loaded, but she's used to blokes assuming she did.
"Loaded, it was more glamour models," says Denise. "I did Esquire, GQ, FHM when they had nice fashion shoots. There was underwear, but it was a proper interview. I only ever did one weekly magazine that was a bit borderline, and I did it because I was a bit naive."
Even through the lens of #MeToo, however, Denise has no regrets about any of it. She doesn't believe in regretting things, but that's not the point. The point is that she's pleasantly proud, almost defiant about those defining moments in the first wave of her career.
"I never felt uncomfortable on those shoots," Denise says. "Back then, it was all the Spice Girls and girl power, and what you have to remember is that there was a wave of TV faces then of women known for themselves, and not the man they were with. The Wag culture came after, but we weren't riding on anyone else's coat tails. If anything, we were the ones in the driving seat.
"Even the likes of Zoe Ball, myself, Sara Cox - we were the well-known ones, and we ended up with guys in bands, who became more known because of us," she goes on. "Zoe ended up with Fat Boy Slim, and nobody really knew who he was until he went out with her. I was with Jay, from Jamiroquai, and they were a really underground band that never had a number one until we were together. It was when we were a couple that they were catapulted into the public eye. And Sara Cox was with someone from the Prodigy.
"Look at Victoria and David Beckham," she exclaims. "Nobody knew who he was, but she was a Spice Girl. Because of her, they became a power couple. At that time, we were batting them off. Zoe, me, everyone, we've had conversations about who was trying to get with us. And believe me, we were in control."
Denise says she doesn't do regrets, but she's been around long enough, in life and in her career, to look back and assess the highs and the lows, the good times and the bad. She reflects on her years on The Big Breakfast as lots of fun, late nights, few cares or responsibilities. There were "heartaches" too, and she suffered greatly through a newspaper phone-hacking scandal, but her 20s were mostly a wonderful time in her life.
Right now, though, Denise is enjoying where she's at. Now 44, the mother of one is a regular on ITV's Loose Women; as the original Essex girl, she's the voice of The Only Way Is Essex; and shortly, she will be returning to our screens for the second run of Ireland's Got Talent, much to her delight. When we meet, she and fellow judges, Louis Walsh, Jason Byrne and Michelle Visage, have completely finished the audition and deliberation stages, and are about to take a break before the live shows begin.
The process this second time around has been fantastic, she says, with much larger numbers of hopefuls turning out to show off their talent in the hope of a place on the show. Denise loves the variety of the audition stage, she says; the fact that no day is ever the same, that the line-up changes every day. She's a variety person to the core, and she has learned, after almost a full lifetime in show business, to play to that strength, instead of fighting it.
Born for showbiz
As someone who started dancing at age three and was in her first TV adverts at seven, even before she began attending the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, Denise brings something unique to Ireland's Got Talent. She has an eye for someone born for showbiz, especially when it comes to kids.
"I can spot a stage-school kid straight away," Denise says. "And I know what they can take, because if you're a stage-school or drama-school kid, you're used to having the rejection. They will have experience of auditions and missing out on parts, and having to deal with someone else getting it. The ones you have to watch out for are the ones who maybe a relative's entered them, or they've never tried out for anything before, or they've just been singing in their bedroom. They're the ones you have to be careful of."
Denise is most careful of the ones who are living out the dreams of their parents, who are driven by their parents' desires rather than their own. Denise can spot them easily, too. She was never that kid.
Instead, Denise was the kid who just wanted to sing and dance and be on the stage. "I didn't want to be famous," she says, "I would have been happy in the chorus line."
Denise has always believed what she was taught at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, which is that if you want a long career, you must work hard at everything. And she never took anything for granted, even when she was the UK's cheeky sweetheart in the 1990s, the impish blonde ladette who once admitted that she flashed her breasts at Prince Charles.
"I've never thought of it like 'I've arrived'," Denise says. "I always think that everything could end at any minute. That's what keeps you going. Anyone who thinks they've made it has a big awakening ahead when it goes up and down, and it will if you're going to have a long career. You're flavour of the month and then it goes away, and then it comes back, if you're lucky.
"I've always been in the industry because I love the work. Not for the fame, that just came along with it, and that isn't always a good thing, either. I find it fascinating when I talk to young girls and they say they want to be famous. I find that worrying. And fame is much different now than when I was first famous.
"I would have hated to have had the phone thing that they have now, always worrying if you're being watched," she explains. "Our biggest fear was the weekly magazines, but they seem to have died and gone away now. People are creating their own stories. The one good thing about it is that as much as it can be damaging, you can actually control it a lot more. Like, if something untrue is written about you, you can now have a voice and comeback. We used to have to go through lawyers."
At this point, Denise recalls how she was one of a cohort of UK celebrities who had their phones hacked by at least one newspaper over several years.
"I had that and I had no comeback," she says. "It was over a period of years where they wanted to know where I was, what I was doing. I didn't know about it until I got contacted by the police.
"I thought all my friends were selling stories about me, that my partners were. They thought I was talking to the press myself. Like, I'd turn up somewhere and there'd be a photographer there and they'd say, 'Why is he here?' and I'd say, 'I don't know'.
"This went on for years, so I had a lot of heartache as a result. I stopped trusting people. I lost friendships because of it. I thought people were betraying me all the time. I had two quite big relationships, big to me, and they failed. I believe 80pc of it was that down to that.
"I'd go on holidays and there would be a photographer there. And I'd say, 'Look, I have no idea how he knew we were here,' and [the partner with her] was, like, 'You must have told them we were here, or you told your friends [and they told the press].' But I hadn't, because at that stage I was lying to people. I'd lie about where I was going, I was lying to my family."
Denise lost friends during this time due to her belief that they were betraying her. She stopped speaking to one close friend for 10 years, and told other people not to trust her because she talked to the press. In the end, it turned out that this former friend had been a victim of the hacking, too.
"It's only now that you look back and think that things could have been very different if that hadn't happened," she says. "I'm still less trusting and open because of it."
After The Big Breakfast finished, Denise admits that she took jobs that, in retrospect, she should have said no to. She takes no pride in the bawdy, double-entendre loaded game show Something For The Weekend, for example, and says that she suffered from saying yes to too many things. It was partly out of fear of suddenly having nothing, she explains, but also, she gets bored easily, and needs to constantly have a full diary and a lot of variety in her life.
She returned to her first love, musicals, in 2000, with the role of Roxie Hart in the West End production of Chicago. It was an amazing experience, and led later to the Andrew Lloyd Webber one-woman production, Meet Me On A Sunday, in 2003.
In 2007, Lloyd Webber recruited Denise as one of the judges on the TV show Any Dream Will Do, which was based around finding a talented young man to play the lead role in a stage production of Joseph And His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. During production, she became involved with the ultimate winner, Lee Mead, whom she married in 2009.
The couple had a daughter, Betsy, now eight, but they separated in 2013. Their split, before it became official, was the subject of some press speculation, and led to Denise being stalked by photographers in a manner that was particularly difficult, given her hacking experience. She and Mead had a holiday home in the country that Denise decided would be a good base for her to recharge and take stock, and also protect Betsy from the press attention.
"I needed that little escape after we split up," Denise says, "but I've been really lucky that I always had a really great relationship with Lee, and once the press saw that there was no bitterness and arguing, and he wasn't handing Betsy over on a doorstep but he was coming in and staying an hour, they lost interest, and that was great with us.
"We stayed friends because we never fell out. There was no falling out. There was no massive argument, it just wasn't right. He's in a lovely relationship now with this woman Izzy, who I adore, and you see them together and they're so much more suited than we were.
"It's not that we weren't suited," she clarifies. "We were. He's the father of my daughter, and I love him. There's obviously some match there, because we've stayed such good friends. But personality-wise, there are some differences. All these little things you think will be fine, after time they come to the surface, and they either keep you together or apart.
In interviews when she was younger and single, Denise often talked about her own parents' enduring marriage as what she would like for herself, and how she'd like lots of kids, too. She tells me how she thought her mother would "freak" about her split from Lee, but she didn't. People saw, Denise speculates, that it was for the best.
"Lee and I knew we never wanted it to get to the stage that we were miserable," Denise says. "We could feel it coming, and we separated before it got there. And Betsy was only two, and she doesn't know any different, and she loves that we're such good friends."
Denise and Betsy set up home solely in the country for four years, and then itchy feet kicked in. When Betsy was very small, they would visit "tea-houses and farms" and there was wonderful freedom and quality time together, but Denise got weary of long evenings in the house alone, while Betsy got older and her needs changed. "Now she wants Claire's Accessories and all that," Denise laughs.
Further, when Betsy was assessed as having dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia [a learning disability affecting numbers and maths], they decided to find her a school in London that could cater specifically to her needs. They go back and forth to the country, but it has proved a very happy decision.
Betsy is flourishing, and Denise believes that learning how to manage her daughter's difficulties made her face up to issues of her own.
"Oh my god, I've got everything!" she exclaims. "I've definitely got a strand of ADHD, I've realised, and that's why I'm good at doing live stuff and stuff where it's different all the time. If it's not changing all the time, I get bored. Even here today, getting my make-up done, it's like, 'Sit still'. My mind is 100 miles per hour. And I'm spinning plates. It never stops. If I think about it, I've always got 101 business ideas, work ideas. I don't have an empty diary. I recently broke my foot and I was forced to be at home. My mum was like, 'This is good for you', but I hated it. Most people would lap it up, 'Great, no work, I can just sit at home and watch TV,' but I can't sit still.
"What I've realised with Betsy is that [the possible ADHD] didn't really bother me because I had my thing [the stage] that I really liked. People who have a learning difficulty normally have a strength in another area. This is what's so frustrating in schools that are so academic and one-track - there should be schools that nurture the creative, and the different skills. We're not all wired the same, and obviously I had dance and theatre and singing, so for me if I couldn't add up and do maths, I didn't care, I could just floor them with my tap-dancing instead. It's harder when you've got kids who can't find that thing they're good at, which is why, with our daughter, we are just letting her find her own way."
Betsy has appeared in ads for the clothes chain Matalan with Denise, but she "doesn't have an agent and hasn't been on stage". Should Betsy show a desire for performance, however, Denise and Lee will encourage her. Lee Mead is now an actor in the BBC medical series Holby City, and he, like Betsy, has dyslexia. Embracing all of this has given Denise a new perspective, she says.
"It's made me see things very differently, but it's also made me look at myself. About a year ago, I had really bad anxiety, which I'd never had. At its worst, one day, I was supposed to go somewhere and I just couldn't face it, and that's just not me. I'm very confident and I'd just walk into a room on my own, happily; I'd have dinner on my own; travel on my own. I never had any worries about being out there. And this particular day, I couldn't face people.
"It was like I could feel the eyes on me. It was really weird. But I was constantly under a grey cloud. I spent about a year and a half not knowing what was wrong. Then I read an article about Carol Vorderman having the menopause and I thought, 'I'm ticking all the boxes'. Disturbed sleep, a bit foggy, and I felt anxious.
"So, a lot of it is hormonal," she says, "and I'm doing progesterone creams and stuff, and they help massively with the anxiety. It's prescribed and it's only what you'd normally produce, and it balances me. I feel a million times better."
The 19th hole
What Denise seems be saying is that we accept a lot of things because they seem to be all that's on offer, but there are other paths, other options, almost always a way out from under the grey clouds. That's what she and Lee are trying to show Betsy, she says. That there are lots of routes through life, and lots of varieties on a happy ending.
For the last four years, Denise has been involved with City trader Eddie Boxshall, and recently moved in with him. "We would love a baby," she says, "and it still could happen, because I'm not yet at that stage, but I have Betsy and he has two kids, and we just got a puppy, so she's like my new baby. And I feel very blessed for what I have now. I'm like that with most things in life. I just roll with it."
She needs to keep rolling, however, or she finds things monotonous. Denise and Eddie both keep second properties of their own, so they don't spend every night together, and that works for them. Is it tricky to be in a relationship with her, I ask.
"Probably," says Denise with a laugh. "Eddie said to me for the first three years that at some point I was going to go, 'Right, it's over: I'm so bored'. But I haven't got bored with him, because he's as bonkers ADHD as me. We're both unpredictable."
Denise Van Outen's unpredictability and passion for variety may not have changed, but the girl who made Ireland her second party home in the 1990s might be surprised by the passion for golf that has come in her 40s. She wanted a hobby, she says, and golf has turned out to be it.
The beauty of golf is that it brings her to Ireland beyond her duties on Ireland's got Talent, Denise explains. She regularly plays with Keith Duffy, Brian McFadden and Ronan Keating, and they joke that they've swapped "late-night drinking and parties" for the 19th hole. The beauty of the latter is that you start early and are home and in bed early, she says, laughing at how fuddy-duddy she sounds.
"We say it's like clubbing for the middle-aged," she laughs.
Everything changes, and there's no stopping it, but luckily, that's just how Denise Van Outen likes it.
'Ireland's Got Talent' starts on Saturday, February 2, 7.30pm, Virgin Media One
Photography by Patrick McHugh
Styling by Liadan Hynes