'I perform on stages around the world...but I'm so nervous about coming home to play in Bangor!'
She was discovered by Andrew Lloyd Webber on I'd Do Anything and went on to become a stage smash, but Niamh Perry has never lost touch with her Northern Ireland roots, she tells Una Brankin
Niamh Perry was in a taxi in Tel Aviv while on tour with the Abba musical Mamma Mia! when the driver asked her where she was from. When she told him, he wanted to know if she was Catholic or Protestant. "That has happened in Turkey and South Africa, too," she says, bemused. "That subject still lingers in peoples' heads and I hate that people don't love Belfast for the fact that it's an amazing city. After all these years people still talk about the Troubles but I'm so proud of where I come from. Northern Ireland is improving day by day and it's a brilliant place to live, and I definitely feel like I am part of the 'new generation' that embraces equality and doesn't care about peoples' choice of faith."
The Bangor-born West End star is looking forward to coming back from England at the end of August to perform at the Open House Festival in her hometown. She's travelling over with her good-looking boyfriend, Ollie Hannifan (31), a guitarist and teacher who has a first-class honours degree in music. The couple met on the Mamma Mia! tour and now live together in Bromley, Kent.
"He is an amazing person and my family love him," she says, her girlish Northern Ireland accent intact. "He plays guitar in my band - I play keyboards but I won't be in August. I'm nervous enough about performing my own stuff - when I'm doing musical shows, I'm pretending to be someone else, that's easier. When I'm doing my own stuff, I have to be myself and I get more nervous. I can't blame anyone else if it goes wrong!"
Although her accent hasn't changed, Niamh has become much more glamorous since she sprung to fame, at 17, on the BBC's I'd Do Anything in 2008. Although she didn't win the show, she found a mentor in musical mogul Andrew Lloyd Webber and was cast as Sophie in Mamma Mia! the following year and as Fleck in The Phantom of the Opera sequel Love Never Dies.
"I feel very lucky and privileged to have his guidance," she says. "I can always rely on him for good advice. Andrew's always had quite a passion for Celtic music and I think my voice is a bit more Celtic than it is musical theatre."
Major leading roles in Lloyd Webber shows like The Beautiful Game, co-written with comedian Ben Elton, followed and she's now playing a slinky vamp in Exposure, The Musical, a high-tech production about fame and celebrity that follows a young photographer on a mysterious commission to find and shoot the seven deadly sins in action modern London.
Niamh's character, Pandora, represents the deadly sin of Pride, and requires her to be a blonde superstar.
"It's my third job in a row as a blonde and it's definitely a myth that blondes have more fun - I've definitely had more fun as a brunette," she laughs. "But I HATE my hair; I wish I could shave it all off. It's been dyed so much for shows, it's in terrible condition.
"I am a big fan of fashion and make-up though, and I like to try new things, and this role is such an interesting world to explore. Pandora is an international star who has lost her way a bit and has no privacy. She has no friends and is surrounded by paparazzi. Personally, I'd hate to be that famous. I don't see myself as a well-known person at all, although it's nice that people back home do."
Along with former Miss Northern Ireland and TV presenter Zoe Salmon, singer/songwriter Foy Vance - who had Courteney Cox directing his latest video in London recently - and Denham Plastics heiress Zoe Rainey, who has a role in Sir Kenneth Branagh's Romeo & Juliet, Niamh is probably the most famous of the line of creative talent that has emerged from Bangor in recent years.
So, what does she make of celebrities complaining about media intrusion when they use the media to their own ends when its suits them?
"I try not to pass comment on things that aren't my business and as I'm not famous I don't really get any hassle about anything, but I do feel that the celebrity obsession and social media frenzy has become scary now," she admits.
"Nothing is really secret or sacred anymore. I think in Jennifer Aniston's particular case, it was totally unfair. I don't view Jennifer Aniston as a celebrity who overshares on her personal life. Her whole wedding was a secret because of the intrusion in her life due to her fame.
"I've always been Team Aniston anyway!"
As for Taylor Swift and her infamous rifts with Katy Perry and with rapper Kanye West over the use, in his latest single, of his cheeky line 'I made that b***h famous', this Ms Perry is dismissive.
"When you think of all that's going on politically in the world - the horrifying shootings in America and the slaughter in France, Germany and the Gaza Strip - it annoys me that Taylor Swift makes front-page news. I don't care about her spat with Kanye West or Katy Perry.
"It would be horrible to be that famous and unable to escape the paparazzi but there could be bigger problems than that."
Thoughtful and articulate, the former Our Lady and St Patrick's College schoolgirl was made aware, growing up, of the impact of the Troubles by her father, Liam, who was raised in St James Place, a working-class area in the middle of the Falls Road in Belfast. She felt "very shocked to hear what life was like back in the late Sixties and early Seventies for both sides. The history surrounding the Troubles always has and always will have huge significance for the Perry family."
She remains politically aware and recently voted to remain in the EU. "I voted like most of Northern Ireland did," she says with a sigh. "It's a whole separate conversation but I think it's such a shame and I'm slightly worried about it, but I'll be keeping my fingers crossed Theresa May will make the transition without a huge upheaval.
"It's the implications for young people I'd be concerned about - people getting married and having kids. It's daunting for that generation. Personally, it is something I do think about, like most young women do, but not in the immediate future."
Niamh's father Liam Perry, who has retained his links with west Belfast, is now the head of St Columbanus in Bangor, while Niamh's mother, Bangor-born Zaron, is principal at Trinity Nursery School in the town. The exotically named Zaron, who had the also unusual maiden-name of Ringrow, called for votes for her daughter to win the part of Nancy in the I'll Do Anything show, back in 2008.
Niamh says: "Dad sings and Mum has a lovely voice, but she's quite shy. I look a lot like my dad's mum, my Nanny Mae, who died when I was four. I love when my family tell me I look and act like her because she was the heart and soul of the Perry family.
"My grandfather on my dad's side was a good singer - he died when I was very young and I didn't know him. I wish I'd had more time with all of my grandparents."
With both parents teaching, Niamh had planned on following in their footsteps until stardom "fell into my lap".
Not having inherited her mother's diffidence, she was undaunted by facing the TV cameras and the fast-paced, cut-throat world of theatre at such a young age.
"I'm not really shy at all. I love meeting new people. I am very like my mum in a lot of other ways, though. We both like to avoid confrontation but definitely feel the need to defend and protect the people we love, if necessary."
Preferring to avoid showbiz parties, Niamh spends most of her free time in London with her boyfriend, a few close friends and her sister Ciara, a lawyer with Freemantle Media, the high-profile television production company. At 29, Ciara is older - "but shorter!" - than her 5ft 6in sister, who admits to being envious of her "smaller waist and narrower shoulders".
A seasoned traveller, Ciara dropped everything at a moment's notice to fly out to Niamh in Hong Kong, when she was having a bit of a wobble on the Mamma Mia! tour there in 2014.
"Ciara and I are crazy close. She has an amazing job as a lawyer with Freemantle Media and we see each other all the time. My parents just flew into see me in Exposure and the four of us will be together tonight, which will be brilliant.
"I love that sort of get-together and I love to cook and go out and have a few drinks with Ollie and some friends, rather than some West End party. I'm not a red carpet girl. I keep myself to myself. I'm not stagey - I prefer spending my down-time with friends and Ciara."
Not one to over-sing - X Factor style - those big musical power ballads, Niamh enjoys the more laid-back vocals of her self-written acoustic songs, with their fusion of folk, trad and pop. As a songwriter, she can see how the likes of Ed Sheeran and Pharrell Williams could be accused of plagiarism when they have perhaps absorbed, by osmosis, the music of influential artists they admire.
"I had this discussion with the girls in my dressing room recently," she remarks. "It's so tricky because there are only so many keys, chord sequences and tempos to choose from, but sometimes the plagiarism in songs is so obvious, it's hard to ignore.
"Being a singer/songwriter is very tough and not for the faint-hearted. I've written songs for years but it's tricky to get enough time to get into the studio; I've so much to juggle."
She puts her success down to "hard work and trying to pick myself up quickly after I get kicked down! The rejection can sometimes be hard to handle but the older I've gotten, the more I try and not take it too personally."
But she admits she's slightly daunted about the upcoming Bangor gig.
"I haven't performed professionally in Bangor before and Open House have had to put up with my crap, emailing back and forth, trying to get myself organised," she concludes.
"Open House decided a combination of material would be best - an eclectic mix of show tunes and songs that remind me of my childhood - Irish trad I used to sing at home with mum and dad and power ballads - and my own stuff.
"So, yes I'm a bit nervous about it but I love coming back to Northern Ireland. I really hope the see the sea-front developed. There were plans for that to happen; I think there's a problem with funding. It would be great to see it come back to life and buzzing again, the way I remember it from my childhood.
"It's so exciting to be performing in Bangor and I really hope to get more work back home."
Niamh Perry will perform at the Royal Marine hotel in Bangor on Tuesday, August 31, as part of Open House Festival, which includes names such as Tom Robinson, Mike Scott of The Waterboys and Suggs from Madness. Throughout the festival, more than 40 venues in Bangor will play host to over 130 unique events, bringing together the best international and local talent for a month of music, theatre, film, readings and one-off culinary experiences. For further info and bookings, email: email@example.com or tel: 028 9147 1780