A reality television show made her a star, but it’s hard work which has kept Jodie Prenger in the spotlight. Now taking on Calamity Jane, she talks to Phil Penfold.
There’s a bit of a kerfuffle going on outside Jodie Prenger’s home. She’s having some work done on the property in Poulton le Fylde, the little market town just down the coast from Blackpool. She disappears for a while and returns breathless, but more than a little triumphant.
“Sorted,” she says, explaining that some chancers had spotted the scaffolding outside and were seeing if they could shift it. “Pinching my metal, I’m not having any of that nonsense.”
Crisis averted, Jodie settles down on a rare day off to talk about life, love, and her career, and how she’s having a blast with her current job, playing the title role in a touring production of Calamity Jane, which plays two Yorkshire dates in February.
It has been a steady progression up the showbusiness tree for Jodie, now 35, and who still lives only a few miles from where she was born and raised.
“People ask me if I was a precocious little girl,” she says, “but all I recall was being rather shy and a little reticent. I do know that when I was taken to shows, it was always the more flamboyant entertainers who interested me – the Blackpool drag acts, and of course, Shirley Bassey, whenever she was on the telly.”
She started appearing locally in cabaret shows when she was in her teens, had a few brushes with television, and then honed her skills with nearly a year playing to audiences on a Disney cruise liner.
It was when Jodie was picked to appear in the reality TV series The Biggest Loser that wider audiences became aware of her sense of humour, her out-going nature, and her determination.
The basic format of the show was that overweight contestants competed for a cash prize, with the aim of dropping as many pounds as they could. Jodie won the second series in 2006 and walked off with £25,000.
She dropped from a size 22 and just over 18 stones, ending at a size 10 and 9.6 stones. Eventually, she settled at a size 14/16, and admits that the energy she has to put into Calamity Jane is more than enough daily exercise.
From The Biggest Loser, she went to another reality contest, but one with a far higher profile. On I’d Do Anything Jodie battled to land the role of Nancy in a West End revival of Lionel Bart’s smash, Oliver!
Almost from her first appearance on the show, the audiences loved her – and so did two of the judges. Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and fellow singer John Barrowman championed her from the beginning and the result was that Jodie sailed into the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and became a star.
“Oooooh, that theatre,” she recalls. “When you play that place, or somewhere like the Palladium, you realise how big they are. Vast. There are a lot of people out there that you have to send home happy. It’s a big ask, and you can never ever give it anything other than 100 per cent. Mind you, on this tour there are some big spaces to fill as well. You arrive in town on a Monday, you do the show through the week, you’re off early on the Sunday morning, and you’re somewhere new again on the next Monday. It’s only sometimes that I can do a quick dash home, but more than likely it’s a case of not seeing my own front door for weeks on end.”
Does this put a strain on her relationship with fiancé Simon Booth? They’ve been engaged for two years now, and were seeing each other for another two before the ring was slipped on to her finger.
“Not in the slightest,” she says firmly, “in fact, it strengthens it, because when we do have time together, it becomes all the more precious. There will be a wedding, and, God willing, there will be children. We both want that. But at the moment, there simply isn’t the time.”
Then she giggles: “It probably helps that Simon runs a car company, and I’m forever teasing him and saying ‘Well, if a fellow with his pick of so many cars can’t drive over to see his intended, who can?’ It’s a bit of a joke between us.”
There’s a little pause, before she adds: “You know, I’ve thought about this, and I really don’t think that I could ever marry anyone who was in the same profession as me. I know that it works for some couples, but it wouldn’t for me.
“Simon and I natter on about all sorts of things when we’re together, about what he’s done, and what I’ve been up to, who we’ve met and what we’ve seen. And that’s fun and it keeps life interesting.”
After Oliver! there was a countrywide tour of Spamalot! in which she played The Lady of the Lake and a second stint in the West End with a key role in One Man Two Guvnors at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, where she found herself playing opposite Yorkshire’s own knockabout rubber-bones, Martin Barrass, one of the stalwarts of the annual York Theatre Royal pantomime.
“You know Martin?” she whoops with delight. “Oh, give him all my love – one of the funniest, nicest men I know. He’s adorable”.
Is she always this bouncy, so full of life? What’s the secret?
“No secret”, she laughs, “and the answer is no – you should see me at eight in the morning, when I’m in me trackie bottoms, and feeling terrible… anyone speaks to me then, I feel like clipping them one!”
One of Jodie’s “great joys” she reveals, “is discovering the history of the theatres that we go to, most of which are such beautiful gems. The Bradford Alhambra is magnificent…to think that so many others like them have been lost over the years, that’s nothing short of a tragedy.
“It’s a privilege to appear in the ones that have survived – I’m always wondering what tales they could tell, and thinking about the ‘names’ that have used the same dressing rooms that I’m in, or have trodden the same boards, I’ve learned so much about the ghosts that are said to inhabit some of the theatres and things like secret tunnels and hidey-holes. All that gives me a real tingle. They all have stories and legends – did you know that there’s supposed to be a ‘hidden bar’ at the Blackpool Grand?”
If it seems that Miss Prenger’s career all has been big and bright and successful, then think again.
She was cast as Elsie Tanner in a live show based on Coronation Street characters, Street of Dreams, which collapsed rather ignominiously before it had really ever started. She also had a good role in Candy Cabs, a TV yarn about an all-female taxi company, but the series was axed after the last episode went out, and has been in production limbo ever since.
However, among the few downs, there have been many ups, with appearances in Hustle, Loose Women, Waterloo Road, and presenting the midweek National Lottery Show.
She also regularly sits in for her mate Paul O’Grady when he is absent from his BBC Radio 2 slot.
For Calamity Jane, she read as much as she could in preparation for the role.
“She was obviously quite a gal, and there are so many stories about her – both for her, and against her. Her own account of her life is – as you’d suspect – very positive and very colourful. Other people who knew her were less enthusiastic.
“She was certainly feisty, and very gutsy. But, in the end, all I can do is play her as she’s been written for the show, larger than life – but with a vulnerable side. And I rather like those two contrasts.
“I’ve lost track of the number of times that I’ve sung Secret Love, but with every show I have to put it over as if it is the first time I’ve performed it – and with lyrics and music like that, that’s not the hardest job to do.
“Same with As Long As He Needs Me, from Oliver! You’re given a classic, so give it your very best shot.”
She loves talking about how audiences have reacted to Calamity Jane – apparently there have been nights when folk have been so energised by the show that they’ve been up and doing hoe-downs in the aisles.
Not that she’s resting on her laurels. She admits to being superstitious and to being nervous before every show – there’s even a “kiss kiss and big hug” routine she goes through before going on stage.
There are talks about other projects for the end of the year, but she’s refusing to say anything about them until it’s all signed and sealed.
“I’d love to play Rose, in Sondheim’s great musical, Gypsy, at some point in the future – it’s one of the best parts that there is. But I’m going to have to wait, because I’m far too young for it yet.”
Her advice to youngsters wanting to follow in her footsteps is that “they should be themselves, not pale imitations of someone else. Always give it your very best shot – second best is not acceptable. Oh, and remember that it is ‘Nice to be important – but far more important to be nice’.”
Miss Prenger may still be in her thirties but she is already a pretty wise old bird…
• Calamity Jane, at the Bradford Alhambra, February 3 to 7. 01274 432000, www.bradfordtheatres.co.uk; York Grand Opera House, February 10 to 14. 0844 8713024.