At seven, she was modelling. At 39 she has a one-woman show … and life in between has been pretty hectic. Denise Van Outen talks to Sheena Hastings.
WHILE she was still in her teens Denise Van Outen decided she didn’t want to specialise because she loved singing, dancing and acting equally.
“When we got towards the end of our time at Sylvia Young (the celebrated north London stage school, where contemporaries included Billie Piper and Keeley Hawes) Sylvia sat each of us down for a careers chat and asked which way we wanted to go. They wanted you choose one route or another, but I said ‘I like doing it all’. I was a bit confused, I suppose, because unlike Billie and Keeley, say, I didn’t have an obviously outstanding talent. I enjoyed everything and could do it all okay.
“So Sylvia said ‘Well try and do it all and see what happens…you don’t have to be brilliant at everything’. I just do jobs that I find fun and which challenge me in some way. It’s not that I get bored easily, so much as that I enjoy variety.”
Well, variety’s the word. The actor/singer/dancer/TV and radio presenter – and former child knitting pattern model – is the nearest thing we have these days to an old-style variety star.
She sings (several pop records to her name), she dances (she was acclaimed as murderer Roxie Hart in Chicago in the West End and on Broadway), and has held her own in plays and popular TV drama such as Where the Heart Is.
Van Outen pops up on game shows and chatters reassuringly to Magic FM radio listeners between middle-of-the-road tunes on a Saturday afternoon. Her knowledge of the business gets her onto the judging panel of TV talent shows both here and in the US. She also turns her considerable energy and celebrity to good use in regularly toiling up and down mountains on charity treks that have included the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu and Kilimanjaro.
The one-time ladette who flashed her bra at Prince Charles’s back at a pop concert (to make other performers laugh, she said) and came in for criticism for her regular nights on the town when she was a 20-something co-presenting Channel 4’s Big Breakfast, still has that air of “I’m up for anything” about her.
You get the feeling it wouldn’t take much to get her up tap dancing at a party, but that’s probably as rowdy as it gets these days.
“It didn’t bother me much, being criticised back then,” she says in her chirpy Basildon tones. “I mean we were young and having fun, just like lots of other young girls. It just so happened that we were in the public eye. I’ve grown up since then.”
She made the transition from disposable breakfast telly into mainstream light entertainment and drama then musical theatre by “hard work, focus, and always being hungry and enthusiastic about trying something new.”
Van Outen reckons she may have been born with a vivacious personality and a tendency to love the bright lights and music, but her path towards showbusiness can also be attributed to a need to spare the blushes of her older sister, Jackie.
“I was a bit of a show-off, but part of my thing about performing as a child was that, although I was the youngest of three, Jackie was very shy and I used to do a song or a dance to make up for the fact that she didn’t want to and hated being asked.
“If I jumped in and said ‘I’ll do it’, it took the attention and pressure of her. Deep down, part of me would have liked to be a bit more like her, but I was a louder sort of kid.”
The child model went to stage school, and before she was even a teenager had a small part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the RSC, then a chorus spot in Les Misérables in the West End.
Since her mainstream break with The Big Breakfast, where her cheeky style was encouraged and flourished, Denise Van Outen has worked continuously, and manages to defy being labelled as the ubiquitous blonde by having bucketfuls of wit that can scythe through game show banalities.
Having seen her garlanded turn as Roxie Hart in Chicago, Andrew Lloyd Webber re-wrote his one-woman show Tell Me On A Sunday to suit the Van Outen talents, and she relished the challenge.
Today she’s back in one-woman territory, preparing to open her own co-written play at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
She says she enjoyed the process of writing Some Girl I Used To Know with Terry Ronald from an idea that had been swishing around in her head for a couple of years.
“I watched the film Shirley Valentine when I was growing up, and was aware that it seemed to touch a lot of women who felt that chances had somehow passed them by.
“More recently I felt that a whole generation of women had come along who didn’t have the inspiration of a Shirley Valentine for their age group. My character in the play seemingly has everything but still wonders what other path she could have taken and how different life might have been.”
The play was tried out before an audience in Leicester and seemed to go down well. “It showed me that I needed to change a few things, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. Although I got a lot of feedback from women, I was pleased that I also got tweets from men saying how they hadn’t expected to enjoy it but really liked it.
“There were ideas I wanted to challenge – the main one being that women can successfully have it all. I don’t think you can, or at least if you try to have it all – relationship, children, career – there is always a price to pay. And if you try, you have to be prepared to be permanently exhausted with no time to do anything much for yourself.
“Writing the show was about doing something I hadn’t done before and also giving people something to think about.
“I suppose my own conclusion about life is that you work hard, you create your own luck and you find whatever balance you can.”
Van Outen and her actor/singer husband Lee Mead (they met and started dating when she was a judge and he was a contestant on the TV talent show Any Dream Will Do) parted this year after four years of marriage.
Mead went on to win the role of Joseph, his career took off, and after the show’s success spent time in the US pursuing other projects. Their separate busy schedules were reportedly to blame for the break-up.
Van Outen doesn’t discuss her private life except to say that, far from her early ladette phase, today she likes nothing better than pulling on her pyjamas and curling up with her three-year-old daughter Betsy on the sofa.
“My daughter has a lovely life, and I like that I can give that to her. I want her to have lots of chances and to enjoy academic things and sport. But the main thing is happiness.
“I never really did sport because of all the performing stuff, so I feel I’m making up for it now, with long treks that I do once a year and keeping my fitness up in between with the gym and cycling.”
She says she approaches each project, whether it’s a stage musical or Strictly Come Dancing (she was runner-up with her partner James Jordan in 2012), with a kind of boot camp mentality. Despite her discipline and experience, though, she found Strictly a tough nut to crack.
“I tackle a stage show like an athlete prepares for a big competition, and there’s no social life because of the total focus on diet, fitness, learning of routines and songs and maybe eight shows a week.
“But with Strictly the cameras are with you 24/7 and there are 12 hour days training. I was dropping Betsy off at nursery, dancing all day, going home, eating, putting her to bed, then going back to rehearsals.
“A big part of the fun, though, was that you got to dip into the best dressing-up box ever. I loved all that.
“But the dances are so technical, and at times I had to spend half a day getting just one step right. People criticised me for having sung and danced on stage, saying I had an advantage – but I had not done any proper dancing for years, and had never done anything as difficult as that.
“The week we had to do the tango I couldn’t get the previous week’s dance out of my head and couldn’t grasp the new steps. And yet Dani (actress Dani Harmer) could learn a whole dance in two hours. I never understood that.
Denise Van Outen is only 39, yet because of her precociously young start in the business, she is technically now a “veteran”. While still keen on the chase and the pace, she also feels she would enjoy passing on what she has learned to younger performers.
“I’d like to go into artist management because I think I could help to guide young people in the industry and open their eyes to potential problems. People need to be really savvy about how the wheels go round. I might open a school one day.”
• Some Girl I Used To Know, West Yorkshire Playhouse , January 29 until February 8. 0113 213 7700. Hull New Theatre, February 13-15. 01482 300300.