You need a thick skin to be on Towie
Having recently left The Only Way Is Essex, Jessica Wright talks about how she coped with her life being scrutinised non-stop, her new ventures and why dating is so tricky
Jessica Wright may have quit The Only Way Is Essex (TOWIE), the TV reality show that made her famous, but she admits she can't wait to step back into the spotlight.
"After five years, I'm not going to lie, it's a breath of fresh air to be out of it and free to do what I want and move on. Now I'd love to act and maybe do presenting," declares the 30-year-old, who was part of the 2010 original line-up of TOWIE along with her younger brother Mark, who left in 2011.
"It's been amazing and life-changing being part of it and I don't regret it at all, but you have to develop a pretty thick skin to get through it. Underneath it all I'm a sensitive person; I wear my heart on my sleeve and it's been tough at times."
A favourite with fans, Wright, who was brought up in Brentwood - just down the road from the Sugar Hut nightclub, the scene for so many dramas in the series - has used her high profile to launch a successful designer shoe and clothing business.
"The show is like a full-time job as you're on-call 24 hours a day and I was starting to feel last year it was restricting me a little bit. It feels really refreshing to focus on other things. I've been having lots of meetings with TV executives. I've been to LA, got an agent, and started acting lessons because I want to show there's more to me," she says.
"When I was at school, I did drama exams and I've got a degree in business and marketing, so I've always had ambition to do more with my life. I love singing and recently recorded a song. There's everything to play for as far as I'm concerned."
She's had some major storylines during her time on the hugely successful series, including a fiery engagement to Ricky Rayment, feuds with Mark's ex-fiancee, Lauren Goodger, and romances with Pete Wicks and Dan Edgar.
"I did get myself into a few sticky situations in the final series with Pete and Dan, but you're on a TV show which wants to show drama and these things are blown up into more than they are. It made great television, so it was good for that," she says wryly.
Wright was less relaxed about a distressing facial skin condition that she suffered with during the last series.
"It was horrible suddenly getting dry skin patches which I couldn't even cover up with make-up. I got really down about it and self-conscious. The crew could only take me from certain angles and I was very embarrassed about photographs," says the star.
"It can be really pressurising having people watching every move you make. It's not only your appearance you worry about. You're always questioning whether you made the right decisions about things and wondering what's going to be screened and how you will look. So although it was a wrench to take myself away from it and all the friends I've made, it was right for me."
Two events, a milestone 30th birthday in September, followed by the death in December of her 80-year-old grandmother, Nanny Pat, another popular character on the show, also played a part in her decision.
"Nanny was a huge loss for our family, which we're still coming to terms with. I was going to leave anyway, but after that it made even more sense," she says quietly.
"Also, I was really scared of turning 30 and kept thinking, 'am I getting old?' As it turned out, I've never felt better than I do now. Everyone says you find yourself at this age and that's true. I always wanted to be a positive influence on the show - I've grown up during my time on it - and now at the end of it I'd describe myself as mature, feisty but non-confrontational and, above all, happy with myself."
While she's currently single, Wright admits she's "wary" about pursuing romance because of fears people will pursue her purely because of her celebrity profile.
"I'm quite content on my own and I've been so busy focusing on my career. It may be time to think about settling down, but dating is not as easy once you've been on telly. It's not that I feel special because of doing TOWIE, it's just that you're always wondering whether people want to go out with you so they can brag about it," she says candidly.
"I'm also aware that they know, through watching the series, more about me than I know about them, which can be a bit weird. It makes me wary and I think it makes it harder to meet people."
However, with her trademark optimism, she adds: "When the timing's right I know I'll get my fairy tale ending."
And in a veiled reference to her previous romances with Wicks (26) and Edgar (25), she says firmly: "I don't want someone younger - I can't be dealing with looking after someone."
She credits being part of the large Wright clan - her cousins Leah and Elliot have also appeared on TOWIE - for helping her get through "the ups and downs" of life.
"We're a very close family and always look out for one another. I asked Mark's advice before I made the decision to quit TOWIE," says Wright of her 29-year-old brother, who married former Coronation Street actress Michelle Keegan last year.
"Michelle and I are close pals and we're sisters-in-law now so it's a great friendship. It's brilliant having her as a family member and I couldn't wish for Mark to have someone more suited to him. Michelle and I always have similar views on things and sometimes we gang up on my little brother, tell him what we think and try to keep him in line. Does it work? Well, you know how it is with boys."
She's clearly looking forward to the future and reveals the main lesson she learnt from her time on TOWIE: "What's most important is being yourself and not worrying about everything. In the past, I worried so much about things rather than enjoying the moment. Now I'm ready to stand on my own and work things out for myself."
Jess Wright is working with Cetraben to help people with problematic skin feel more comfortable and confident looking after it. Visit cetraben.co.uk