'I'd love to meet love of my life'
Ferne McCann has reinvented herself since finding fame as an outspoken star on The Only Way Is Essex. Now a showbiz reporter on ITV's This Morning, she tells Gabrielle Fagan about her fling with Russell Brand ... and her dream of one day finding 'The One'
When your life's regularly been laid bare on reality TV and you've revealed even more in a kiss-and-tell-all autobiography - including details of a fling with Russell Brand - it's pretty hard to pull off any surprises, but Ferne McCann's never been one to shirk a challenge.
"I'm not alone, you know," declares the 26-year-old dramatically. "My guardian angel's standing right here beside me. He looks after me and I'm constantly pushing myself to get to know him better and work alongside the angels who are there for us."
With a defiant shrug, the girl once known more for her screaming matches and rows on The Only Way Is Essex than her spirituality, adds: "Some people don't get that at all and think it's a bit mental, but I see a healer and she's helping me understand myself and connect with my spiritual side."
Perhaps it's hardly surprising that McCann feels the need for a guiding hand - invisible or otherwise. The former hairdresser bluntly describes her life since joining TOWIE in 2013 as a "roller-coaster of ups and downs".
On the show, she admits, she was often viewed as "an outspoken, confrontational b****", but last year she endearingly demonstrated another side, her cheery gutsiness, when she went into the jungle and came third on I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! - controversially gulping down a live spider in the process.
While many reality "stars" fail to shine after quitting the show that made them, McCann's carving out a career as a showbiz reporter on ITV's This Morning, has appeared in musical Gatsby on the London stage and has been offered a role in a Hollywood movie.
"Every day I pinch myself because I can't believe how far I've come. I'm incredibly ambitious, no dream is too big for me, but even I never thought I'd do so much in such a short time," admits McCann, as she talks about her debut book, Cross My Heart, which gives an insight into life in the goldfish bowl of reality TV.
"I had a shiny dream of fame when I went on TOWIE and I'll be eternally grateful to it for opening up so many opportunities for me. At times though, it was hard to take emotionally - more than I could handle. Eventually I decided, for my sanity, I had to leave. I became this pantomime character that wasn't really me, but that the public loved to hate.
"I'm definitely not nasty, or a b**** and not even very confrontational, but I did go on TOWIE determined to make my mark. I'm naturally honest, opinionated and outspoken, but there was a period when I got swept up in being on the show and I would think, 'I'll say something witty, shocking or whatever', just to grab air time. I made mistakes while I was there."
She adds: "In reality, I'm a kind and decent girl who got sucked into behaving in a certain way that didn't always show my best side. But I never forget that no one made me join and no one ever put words in my mouth."
The show also shredded her five-year on/off relationship with her boyfriend, Charlie Sims, who joined the cast with her. "Of course it affected our relationship. We'd have rows, but sometimes wouldn't be able to talk about them, or make-up with each other until it was time to film again. That makes a situation unreal because you can't freeze feelings or personal situations to suit a timetable.
"I was absolutely heartbroken when we broke up. I actually wanted to die because it was the most agonising thing I'd ever experienced. Although he's still a good friend, I don't think we'll ever get back together."
By comparison, her headline-grabbing three-month fling last year with comedian Russell Brand was, she says, "a dalliance that's a lot of fun, but you know isn't going anywhere. We had undeniable chemistry and he was charismatic, intoxicating and intriguing, but we weren't right for each other".
Her personal turning point was competing in I'm A Celeb when she felt she could reveal "the real Ferne, the actual person behind the headlines and the social media profile", and the experience eventually led to her decision earlier this year to quit TOWIE.
"I'm a team player and loved every minute of working with people to win challenges - apart from eating that monster spider. There are no words to describe how gross that was.
"Getting through to the final proved to me I could step away from the on-screen character I'd been seen as, face my fears, be myself and succeed. It was such a buzz and I'd do it again in an instant."
For now, though, her focus is her new TV career and furthering her passion for acting.
"There's a stigma about coming from a reality show which is so unfair because most of the girls on it have created businesses and employment and crafted a good living out of it," she says defensively.
"I do feel I have a point to prove because I came from one, and I feel I have to work extra hard at every job I do to prove myself. Luckily, I'm a grafter and always have been."
It appears McCann is now, as she puts it, in "a good place" and is refreshingly down-to-earth about her image in particular.
"I'm not classically good-looking, but when I get glammed up, I can pull it together. I'm not as self-confident as people think - I put myself under huge pressure to appear in control - but nowadays I am more happy in my skin and I try and focus on the good parts about myself and tell myself, 'There's only Ferne McCann, don't be so hard on yourself.'
"I absolutely refuse to be drawn into all the madness about being skinny. I'll never be a size eight and certainly won't starve myself trying.
"I'm still very self-conscious about my nose - my nickname used to be 'Goose' - and that's the only thing one day I might try to change with surgery.
"I've also learnt so much over the last few years about the inner me. I'd describe myself as a fun-loving adventurer, a loyal friend, and someone who's kind, eccentric, and loves to laugh and if the laugh's at my expense, so be it.
"But I've been quite self-destructive in the past, because I'd get so anxious about losing everything I'd worked for that in a crazy way I'd sabotage it for myself. I'm getting to grips with that and concentrating on being hard-working, positive and grateful for what I have."
Does she, in true Essex celebrity style, dream of the fairytale happy-ever-after ending?
"I'd love to meet the love of my life - I'm a sucker for love and it would be lovely to come home and share time with someone - and I'd love to be a mother one day.
"But I'm not broody at all. For now, I'm determined to make the most of every opportunity that comes my way."
- Cross My Heart by Ferne McCann is published in hardback by Century, priced £16.99