As actress and author Denise Welch heads to the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival, she talks to Ann Chadwick.
Denise Welch’s North-East accent is a bolt of brightness and energy speeding down the phone from her home in rural Cheshire.
“I’m very much a person for posting bikini pictures and saying look, it doesn’t matter that you’ve got a wobbly tummy and stuff, I think I don’t look too bad for my age, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t wear a bikini!
“It’s to instil body confidence in women, particularly, who are very down on themselves,” she says.
Tomorrow, Welch is appearing at the Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival to talk about her new book If They Could See Me Now. Described as a ‘tale of strength and courage’, her debut novel focuses on her heroine Harper Clarke. Everyone thinks Harper’s life is perfect, but they don’t see what goes on behind closed doors. Her husband is a bully and she’s downtrodden, but not for long. It’s been praised by popular writers such as Marian Keyes and Martina Cole and received several warm reviews.
“This is my first foray into fiction. It wasn’t like some authors who wanted to write from an early age, I’d love to have that story but it’s not. I had an idea for the beginning of a story that I thought was a really good start, and it came from there,” she says.
As an author of two autobiographies, Pulling Myself Together and Starting Out, it’s inevitable people want to know if her novel reflects her life.
“People have asked me if this is an autobiographical novel, I’ve done my autobiographies so it’s not, but obviously especially as a novelist in my infancy, I have to write about some things I know.”
So for instance Harper, like the author, is an actress from the North-East. Mental health is also a theme that echoes in her writing. Welch is unafraid of taking on tough subjects such as teenagers struggling with obesity and bullying. “It’s not meant to be me on a soapbox randomly kicking off about stuff, but there are nods to things I’m quite passionate about.
“Also I love powerful women and women rediscovering themselves, and women coming back into the workplace, whether they’ve chosen to give up work or ‘encouraged’ to give up work, so I wanted Harper to be a strong woman.”
With a career that has encompassed Waterloo Road, Coronation Street and being a panellist on Loose Women, she once admitted taking cocaine and drinking while filming Corrie.
How bad did it get? “I don’t really want to go massively down that route right now,” she says.
“I’ve been very open about what my addictions were and it was a very painful part of my life to the point where I’m now sober and have been five and a half years, and Lincoln (her husband) and I gave up together, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, not just for myself but the ripple effects on the whole family.
“It’s a terrible, terrible illness. Lincoln and I were lucky to find each other and anchor each other to give up drinking. It changed my life. I’m entering 60 next year and feel so much better physically and mentally than I was entering 40, or 50.”
She spoke out the importance of mental health in a film for Heads Together, a campaign which unites the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, along with Mind and other mental health charities, to change the way society talks about psychological issues.
The pressure, on young people is something that “breaks her heart”, and she sees being an ambassador for mental health as much a job as her acting or presenting.
She says that writing her first autobiography was her way of taking control. “The Press always gave me a hard time. I know now I was hacked for seven years so that didn’t help – that was destructive to my mental health.
“They had written every day their account of what I was about. And I decided I was going to take control, and I did have issues, but I was going to talk about the truth of those issues not what the media said my issues were.
“That was a very painful time, especially to find out years later that many of the stories they did access were from hacking, that’s really quite damaging,” she says.
“So doing the autobiography, I found the first one very cathartic.
“The second one was kind of thrust at me, it was called Starting Over and I didn’t feel like I’d started over at all, it was painful I was meant to be writing about starting over and I’d only taken the first step. Now I’m working on a nonfiction with the working title, Staying Sober, Staying Slim, Staying Sane, about answering the questions people ask me on a daily basis. How are you managing to stay sober? How are you managing to stay slim?
“A lot of people want to make changes, it doesn’t mean they have to completely take these things out of their life, but there are lots of people who look to me purely because I’ve turned my life around in my 50s.”
Welch blames weekly women’s magazines for a lot of the negative pressures. “They love nothing more than putting rings of shame around your cellulite, do you know what I mean?” She goes on Twitter to post her bikini selfies and to make a stand.
“On social media people look at lives which aren’t real. Everyone wants you to think that they’re having the best life, in the most glamorous locations. I’m not saying that sometimes I don’t go to a glamorous location and I’m proud to say that I’m there. But I also try to be real.
“I posted a picture the other morning of this amazing woman coming out of the gym with a big bust and tiny waist, and I said, ‘this is what I think I look like coming out of the gym’, then a picture of me completely drenched, which is me after a gym session, saying ‘this is the reality of it.’
“It’s not saying I’ve got all the answers – it’s just trying to instil a bit of confidence really.”
The actress and author has had her ups and downs and now feels that she’s navigating life on her own terms. She’s just finished a run in Wind in the Willows in the West End. “It was fantastic but exhausting. And I’ve just done a bit on a new series called Different for Girls – I had my first lesbian kiss, which was very nice thank you very much – and then I’m going to Los Angeles with my husband and my son Matthew (frontman with the band The 1975) is recording over there.”
Welch will head back later in the year to the North-East to do panto with Waterloo Road co-star Adam Thomas. From LA... to panto! It’s fair to say her life continues to be an intriguing journey. As for Harrogate, she hopes that what she has to say resonates with the audience. “If people find my story inspirational then I’m very happy to talk about it.”
Denise Welch will be appearing at The Crown Hotel in Harrogate tomorrow at 3.30pm. For more details about the festival go to harrogateinternationalfestivals.com or call the Box Office on 01423 562 303.