Denise Van Outen's icons
This article is from 2009.
She’s pouted on the covers of lad mags and graced the stages of Broadway. Now Denise Van Outen is making her Fringe debut with a show about blonde icons down the ages. Kirstin Innes meets the former wild girl.
Some people, or ‘personalities’, are so inextricably associated with a particular era that their public image gets stuck there. For a certain generation, Denise Van Outen was, and may always be, the public face of the ladette movement, at that period when tongue-in-cheek Britpop began hardening into the rather more commercialised cockiness of Cool Britannia. Like a latter-day Barbara Windsor, Van Outen winked, flashed, delivered pitch-perfect Essex innuendo and squeezed her own breasts on breakfast television.
The excess of that persona found its logical conclusion in 1999, with the short-lived Britcom Babes in the Wood (in which she fellated a cucumber) and the equally brief ‘saucy’ TV show Something for the Weekend, described by one broadsheet as ‘a Boschian vision of late-night Channel 4 hell’. That was one of the more favourable reviews. After that, your average couch potato would have been forgiven for thinking she’d disappeared completely for most of the last decade, but the truth is she’s been quietly, busily forging a career in musicals.
In 2001, she was cast as Roxie Hart in the West End revival of Chicago. It smacked of celebrity casting and led to some scoffing in the press, but Van Outen was so successful she transferred to the Broadway production, despite being a complete unknown in America. She’s worked steadily since, to consistently good reviews, and is respected by her castmates and critics alike as a hard worker and major talent. In 2003, Andrew Lloyd Webber hand-picked her to carry the revival of his one-woman show Tell Me on a Sunday, and his respect for her as a performer clearly remains undiminished to this day: she recently returned to television as a judge on his BBC panel shows Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything.
These days, Van Outen lives a quiet life. She’s just married Any Dream Will Do winner Lee Mead in a very private ceremony, enthuses about her tea-drinking ability, and although she’s heading for Edinburgh in one-woman show Blondes (which she’s co-written with comedian and Fringe veteran Jackie Clune), she’s probably not going to be running the cobbled streets wild.
In conversation, there’s a residue of the old mateyness and wit about her. She describes Blondes – in which she sings famous songs associated with blonde icons throughout history – as ‘quite a camp show. Oh, who am I kidding, actually? It’ll be a big old gayfest!’ But she’s also guarded, articulate, and keen to have herself understood.
The List: Over the past decade, you’ve managed a real feat of reinvention, going from tabloid darling to a very well-respected musical theatre professional.
Denise Van Outen: Thank you! I guess I started out like that. I went to theatre school and trained very intensively in acting, singing and dancing. Then in my early twenties I got sidetracked, I suppose, by the glamour and glitz of television. My stint on The Big Breakfast was very much the era of the ladette, when we all, er, ‘graced’ the covers of Maxim and FHM.
TL: And you feel that all this distracted you?
DVO: Well, I had a pretty nice life. I was 20, with all the advantages of being in the public eye, and just didn’t really see the point in working hard for a living.
TL: Why did you start thinking differently?
DVO: It was after Something for the Weekend. That show was meant to be really kind of fun and tongue in cheek, but you watch it now and it’s not that risqué at all. At the time it was really quite shocking for a young female to be saying those things; I don’t think I would have got anything like the censure I did if I’d been Paul O’Grady or Graham Norton.
TL: Did you feel that the fallout from that show actually hurt you?
DVO: I don’t know if it hurt me. I was still really very young when I did it and you tend to just brush yourself off and get on with it when you’re that age. I think I was just a bit naïve. Suddenly there were a lot of people around me who wanted to tell me what the right thing to do was. I don’t really think my management at the time were thinking about me long term; I don’t think I was. Just do this show, get a lot of money. You don’t really think about having longevity in your career at that age.
TL: But Something for the Weekend became a catalyst for you to change your life?
DVO: Definitely. That whole reinvention thing wasn’t planned. It grew more out of a necessity to keep myself in work. What I had to fall back on was theatre training, so I started to pursue musicals and I landed Chicago. And I think it surprised people that I could do it, but I proved that I could put in the work and that I was good at something else. Then Andrew asked me to be in Tell Me on a Sunday, and after that, people really sat up and took notice.
TL: And that was where you met Jackie Clune [a co-writer on the production], and you’ve now written Blondes together.
DVO: Oh, Jackie gets me. And I get her. I got the idea to create a new show because I was reading an article she’d written last year about her life and it made me laugh and it made me sad; it was so honest and real. I really love the way she writes.
TL: So, two women with a reputation for being outspoken, creating a show about other women. Where did the idea to write about blonde icons come from?
DVO: One of the questions I’m always being asked in interviews is: who is my iconic blonde? Who do I aspire to be like? So Jackie and I started talking about my relationship with the women I’ve admired over the years, other blondes whose career paths I’ve followed from afar: Marilyn Monroe, Dolly Parton, Madonna, Kylie, Mae West, Britney Spears and Dusty Springfield. I’m going to talk about times in my life when I was fascinated by them. It’s going to be a little bit like me opening up my diary.
TL: These are all women who’ve very much lived their lives in the spotlight. It’s interesting that you’re looking at very contemporary stars like Britney Spears.
DVO: I don’t think you could do a show about iconic blondes and not have her in there. Britney is your modern sort of tragic blonde who’s had to do everything in the public eye.
TL: Is the attraction that Britney has been in a similar position to where you were in your early twenties?
DVO: Partly. She’s lost her way a little bit, and she needs a little bit of guidance, that’s all. I’m sure she will bounce back; it’s just that everything’s happening to her in the public eye. Most people do go through some sort of massive change in their lives, don’t they? It’s just that the rest of the country doesn’t read about it.
TL: You’ve said in the past that it’s very important to you that if you’re going to be famous it’s because you’re doing a job. And you recently refused to sell your wedding pictures to the magazines.
DVO: Absolutely. I just wanna be known for my work. That was the sad thing during the early days of my career. I was in a very high profile relationship [with Jay Kay of Jamiroquai], I was in the papers all the time, and I had a little moment where I thought ‘hang on! This isn’t what I do! I’m becoming one of them! And that’s not me!’ Everything’s gone a bit quiet in television at the moment, what with the credit crunch, but there’s still loads happening in advertising. I’m recently married and I want to spend time with my husband; I could quite easily make a living off the odd club appearance and a couple of photoshoots.
TL: But you don’t.
DVO: Nope. I’ve always maintained that I want to have a job and work. Properly work. Which is why when there’s a bit of down time and things are quiet, I think ‘right, let’s write a show. Let’s go and do the Edinburgh Fringe!’ I need to go home at night and feel like I’ve done a good day’s work. I think too many people go into this business for their quick five minutes of fame. It’s never going to be what they think it’s going to be, and I know that.
TL: The show’s also looking at Madonna, and she’s never going to be a tragic blonde.
DVO: No, she’s not! You know, I was never really a Madonna fan when I was growing up. It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve started to appreciate her, and I think it’s because as I’ve got older I’ve realised that this is such a hard business to be in and to reinvent yourself; even just to stay working requires real talent. With Madonna, all the decisions that are made are her decisions. With other people, you know they’re guided by an office somewhere, there’s an anonymous team saying ‘right, we’re going to give you a new image’.
TL: So, you feel you can identify with that quality in Madonna much more now?
DVO: Yeah. What I do now is my decision. That girl with a team telling her what to do: I think I left that person behind a long time ago.
Blondes, Udderbelly’s Pasture, Bristo Square, 0844 545 8252, 8–31 Aug (not 11, 18, 25), 5.50pm, £13.50–£14.50 (£12.50–£13.50). Previews 6&7 Aug, £6.50.