Abi Titmuss on her battle for self-respect: I was making 30,000 a day but I could feel my lack of talent as though I was wearing it
Demure: Abi Titmuss was raunchy in her heyday but has tried to reinvent herself
It was on a garage forecourt that Abi Titmuss had her epiphany. Her eye was drawn to the rows of newspapers displayed by the shop's entrance; specifically the ones that featured herself on the front page, posing in skimpy lingerie.
For the first time, she saw herself as others saw her. Far from being a knowing, empowered businesswoman controlling her own image, she had become little more than a cartoonish sex object.
'It just hit me. There was such a disparity between that image on the front on the papers and who I was. I was the embodiment of something for which I have no respect, and I realised then I had to do something about it,' she says.
Abi's moment of clarity came at the
start of 2006, and shortly afterwards she announced she was giving up
glamour modelling to pursue her first love, acting.
It was met with
almost universal derision, but over the past five years she has slowly,
steadily proved her dedication, grafting in unpaid pub gigs and
gruelling regional theatre tours.
night, she appeared in Casualty, her first television acting role and a
sign she is starting to be accepted in her new career. It is a
reinvention that is nothing short of startling.
woman she is now bears little relation to the glamour girl who first
came to public attention as the girlfriend of John Leslie, the former
television presenter. She seemed to spring into existence purely for the
benefit of the red-tops.
From her suggestive name to her girl-next-door
looks, voluptuous figure and former career as a nurse, everything about
her evoked a Carry On sort of fantasy – one she exploited for all it
was worth, earning a fortune flaunting her body for men's magazines.
Today, sitting in a cafe near her
North London home, dressed demurely in jeans and a coral sweater, she is
fresh-faced and pretty.
At 36, and currently single, she is thoughtful,
articulate and self-aware, the latter quality a hard-won result of a
great deal of soul-searching in recent years.
She looks back and sees a young woman who allowed herself to be seduced by money and fame but lost herself in the process.
I'm really happy because I'm doing what I've always wanted to do,' she
says. 'I'm working hard to prove myself, and I can finally say I'm proud
of what I've achieved.'
The chain of events that transformed
Abi from an ordinary nurse into a tabloid fixture was so extraordinary
that it is not difficult to see how she could have been swept away.
daughter of two teachers, who divorced when she was 17, she grew up in
Lincolnshire and was a model student at school, gaining straight As and
playing the clarinet in her spare time.
She wanted to become a doctor
but, lacking the necessary A-level in chemistry, instead began a nursing
diploma at London's City University.
'I started a chemistry A-level while I
was a student nurse and had a preliminary interview lined up with
Imperial College to study medicine,' she says.
around the same time, I joined the university drama club. We did a
production of Monty Python's Life Of Brian and I was on stage on a
balsa-wood crucifix, wearing a stripey dressing gown, singing Always
Look On The Bright Side Of Life. That was it, I knew I wanted to act.'
Heyday: Abi Titmuss with former This Morning presenter John Leslie in 2003
Stand by your man: Abi with her then boyfriend television presenter John Leslie outside Southwark Crown Court after he was cleared of indecent assault
Abi's career as a glamour model took after HJohn Leslie was cleared. Here she was pictured arriving at the Loaded Relaunch Party, to launch the men's monthly magazine, at Portland Place in London
Her mother advised Abi to finish her
nursing diploma so she had a worthwhile job to fall back on, and she
qualified in 1998.
She spent two years working full-time at London's
University College Hospital before deciding to go part-time so she could
take an acting course.
But by 1999, she had met Leslie, then the presenter of the popular TV show This Morning, in a West London bar.
was trying very hard to change my life and my career and my
relationship sort of took over from that,' she says, smiling ruefully.
had completed two further acting courses, one at London's prestigious
Central School of Speech and Drama, and was working night- shifts at the
hospital at weekends, when, she says: 'My life disintegrated.'
Abi went on to appear in ITV reality show Hell's Kitchen. She was the second celebrity to be evicted at Gordon Ramsay's temporary restaurant in Brick Lane, east London, in June 2004
Abi also became the face of the Fantasy Channel in 2004
Abi met ex footballer Lee Sharpe on the reality show Celebrity Love Island where a group of 12 celebrities came together for the 'ultimate summer of love' on a fantasy isle in Fiji
Tabloid favourite: Abi Titmuss pictured at the height of her fame in 2005
Ulrika Jonsson claimed in her autobiography to have been raped early in her career by a presenter, and Leslie was named on TV as being that man.
Shortly afterwards, several other women made accusations of indecent assault. Leslie was arrested and charged with a single offence, unrelated to Jonsson. His trial for that subsequently collapsed in July 2003.
Abi stood by Leslie, although their relationship was tempestuous and difficult. When the pair emerged from court after the trial, the focus of the paparazzi shifted from the presenter to the glamorous young blonde woman at his side. The following day, the newspapers were full of pictures of her in a little black dress.
'It looked as if I'd taken my jacket off for the cameras, but it was a heatwave,' she insists. 'I was very naive about the press at that point, but I learnt very quickly.'
She and Leslie split up, but the attention resulted in Abi being offered a reporting role on the Richard And Judy Show. Then, just as quickly as it arrived, it was whisked away from her after a lurid story about her involvement in group sex and drug-taking appeared in a tabloid.
She says: 'I remember Richard calling me and saying, “We have to let you go, because Judy and I are journalists and to have you there, without addressing all the headlines, would seem odd.”
'I understood. It was a very low point. My agent said, “That's it. You'll never work again.”'
Yet she chose not to cut her losses and try to extricate herself from the celebrity world. 'It's a lovely notion, the idea you can hop on a train back to a place called Obscurity, but it wasn't that simple,' she says.
'I'd already left my job as a nurse. And I wasn't an angel – there were a lot of parties in those days and some of them were very wild – but I absolutely wasn't what that story had made me out to be. I didn't want the man who'd sold it to destroy me. I wanted to turn it around somehow.'
When an offer came from men's magazine FHM to do a bikini shoot, Abi says she saw it as 'an opportunity'. With hindsight, it seems absurd to imagine such a shoot would restore her reputation, but she says the decision was symptomatic of her confusion at the time.
'Originally, it was only supposed to be one page inside the magazine, but I enjoyed the shoot. I was standing with a wind machine on me in a massive studio with a photographer from New York who said I was doing well, and suddenly I felt I was all right, people liked me again,' she says.
'It was a heady mix of vulnerability and power, and I got carried away and went further than I'd planned – which is why I ended up on the cover, looking naked. I cried when I saw it. It wasn't what I'd intended. But at the same time, it was my way of trying to grasp some semblance of control over everything that had happened, and it was also flattering.
Reinvention: Abi Titmuss during the launch of the first Foster's Weekend at Dave's, held at ExCel Exhibition Centre in Docklands, east London, in 2005
'It was one of their bestselling issues and afterwards everything went crazy. Suddenly I was being offered a lot of money, and I wanted financial security after struggling on part-time nursing wages.
'The ups and downs of the past few years had been so intense, and my self-esteem was very low as a result. I was so lost at this point as to who I was, where I was going, what I was doing, that I was making choices I'd never make now.'
Another blow to Abi's dignity came when a sex tape of her was stolen and released online.
'I was devastated by the violation. It affected me very badly,' she says. But her glamour career took off. She says she is baffled by her appeal, but concedes: 'I guess there was something accessible about me.'
At her peak, she commanded 30,000 a day for magazine shoots. She now describes the period and everything in it – the modelling, the reality shows Hell's Kitchen and Celebrity Love Island, personal appearances in nightclubs – as 'the nonsense'.
To all outward appearances, she was delighting in having the last laugh by taking the public perception of her and using it to her own financial gain. But in reality, she was deeply unhappy.
Abi had wanted to become a doctor but, lacking the necessary A-level in chemistry, instead began a nursing diploma at London's City University
'At first it was exciting to be a pin-up, and I had some good times. I was grateful to be making good money and I got caught up in it. But when you're getting your self-worth from a camera lens or from going out partying then you're in trouble, and there's only so long you can go on doing it before it comes to a head.
'I didn't think I deserved the attention, so the more money I earned, the worse I felt. Because what was it for I could make 30,000 for a shoot but I knew how third-rate I was. I could feel my lack of discernible talent as though I was wearing it.
'The financial security had come at a huge emotional cost. I'd be going home from shoots and drinking and reading poetry, trying to stimulate my brain. I had these two personalities, in a way, and I was very caught between them.
'I was depressed, and I would think about suicide every day. I'd think about how much easier it would be never to wake up again. What stopped me was thinking about what it would do to my parents. It must have been so hard for them at times, but they were always so supportive and never judged me.'
Abi admits that her low opinion of herself had an impact on her relationships with boyfriends, including comedian David Walliams, footballer Lee Sharpe and actor Marc Warren.
She no longer sees Leslie, although she says she bears him no ill-will, but remains friends with the three others, who encouraged her to pursue her true ambitions.
'David inspired me a lot and I don't think he realises how much,' she says.
'He pushed me. He'd say, “If you want to be an actor, stop all this other stuff and do it.” But I found it hard to walk away.'
The change began by chance in 2006, after one of her former acting teachers spotted a photograph of her taken at the press night of a play. He was casting for a version of Arthur Miller's Two Way Mirror, and contacted Abi's agent. She won the part, and The Fringe Report Best West End Debut award for her performance.
'Doing a two-hander in front of the nation's press, when everyone's waiting for you to fail, is terrifying,' she says.
'I understood why people were sneery. They had no idea I was a trained actress. But I'm very proud of that play, and I felt vindicated when I won the award.'
Afterwards, though, the doors she'd expected her success to open remained resolutely closed.
Launching her acting career: Abi had always wanted to be an actress. Here she is on stage in Up 'n' Under, with Robert Angell
Abi has also appearing in BBC's hospital drama Casualty, pictured here as 'Tara' with actor Oliver Coleman
'I thought, “This is it” but it wasn't by a long stretch, and neither should it have been. You have to work really hard. I thought I'd at least have the chance to audition for roles, but no. The acting world is a very closed environment.'
Abi decided she needed to address her depression, which was still severe, so she found a therapist and spent the next year receiving help. 'I also stopped partying. I realised my drinking and drug-taking didn't console me, or fill any psychological gaps. So I stopped and realised I prefer to know when I'm having a good time.'
With renewed confidence, Abi approached her career as if she had just finished drama school. Subsidised by the impressive property portfolio bought by her modelling, she threw herself into unpaid fringe theatre work, staying in pokey B&Bs in Sunderland and Glasgow. As a result, she won roles in a well-received production of The Naked Truth and – to the glee of the tabloids – as Lady Macbeth at the Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft, Suffolk.
'I was offered bit parts playing myself on TV shows but I wouldn't have learnt anything,' she says.
'I have such a passion for acting that I wanted to take it seriously. And I've loved it all.'
For Casualty, in which she played the sister of a patient – not, as might be imagined, a nurse – she had to audition along with 30 others.
'It means so much to have got it on my own merits,' she says. 'I've been on the stage for five years but TV is a different thing. I can't cut my teeth as an unknown, but I'm grateful for the opportunity and I hope it will lead to others.
'It hasn't been the natural route into acting – from nurse to lingerie model to Lady Macbeth. But I feel lucky to have had so many different experiences, which I hope will make me a better actor. It's a wonderful feeling to be proud of myself and the work I've done. I sold my soul, but I'm buying it back.'