The former EastEnders star tells Maureen Coleman how she’s given up partying, loves spending time with her daughter and boyfriend and is now fit enough to do next Sunday’s Runher
It’s been three and a half years since Jessie Wallace kissed goodbye to EastEnders and the residents of Albert Square. But despite her best attempts to break free from her bronzed, big-mouthed alter-ego, the ghost of Kat Slater still follows her around.
Not that Jessie minds too much — she’s used to it by now.
“I left EastEnders almost four years ago, yet people still call me Kat every day of my life,” she tells me. “Can you believe that?
“She was a great character to play and I loved playing her, and yes, it has been hard trying to shake her off. But it’s also been an honour that so many people loved her and took her to their hearts.”
There have been recent whisperings of a comeback for everybody’s favourite tart-with-a-heart, but Jessie is giving nothing away.
“People ask me all the time if I’d go back and I don’t know what to tell them,” she says. “I did an interview in which I said I wouldn’t rule it out and next thing it was all over the place that Kat was coming back. So I guess the answer to that is I just don’t know. Who knows?”
Jessie, born Karen Wallace in Enfield, London, on September 25, 1971, joined the cast of EastEnders in 2000 and quickly became a hit with the soap’s millions of viewers.
A former barmaid and make-up artist, who went on to study drama at the Poor School in London, the role of the lippie-loving pint-puller in the Queen Vic could have been written specifically for her.
Both were feisty women who liked to party and both had their fair share of problems. As Jessie and Kat began to morph into one, the public found it increasingly difficult to differentiate between real life and fiction. The pressure of the spotlight took its toll on Jessie, resulting in a brief suspension from EastEnders for excess partying and adverse publicity.
Jessie looks back on that time philosophically and says that, in some small way, it helped to make her a stronger person.
“Yeah, there was a lot of bad press back then, but it really doesn’t bother me now,” she says. “It was part and parcel of being in a television show like EastEnders. It’s all water off a duck’s back now, but it was horrible at the time.
“I guess it’s made me a stronger person, more careful, more wary. I have very close friends who I trust.”
Holding her hands up to her misdemeanours, she says: “I went off the rails a little bit. Actually I went off the rails quite a lot and got into trouble.
“But I’m older and wiser now. I’m a mother. I keep my head down, I look after myself and my little girl. Nothing could break me now. And in a tiny way I’m grateful for all that because I feel it has made me a better person.”
Around this difficult time, Jessie met policeman Dave Morgan, with whom she had a daughter, Tallulah Lilac.
The couple later split and Jessie is currently dating Londoner Tommy O’Neill, whose mother, Dorothy, comes from Belfast.
The relationship hasn’t been without its controversy — Jessie’s sister, Danielle, accused the actress of stealing him from her, a claim denied angrily by Tommy himself. But the romance seems to have survived the bad press — once again — and is going well now.
Tommy’s around 12 years her junior, so I ask her are toy-boys the way to go?
“He’s not my toy-boy,” she squeals with laughter. “There’s only 10 years between us. Oh God, that does make him my toy-boy.”
The couple have been seeing each other for two years now but Jessie has never been to his mother’s home city before — until now.
The 37-year-old will be in Belfast this week to take part in Eve Ensler’s award-winning production The Vagina Monologues, which is running at the Grand Opera House from Monday until Saturday.
Starring alongside Jessie in this fascinating, sometimes humorous, sometimes heart-breaking compilation of stories about a woman’s not-so-private-parts is former Hear’say singer and Dancing On Ice champion Suzanne Shaw, and comedienne Jenny Eclair.
Jessie says she is looking forward to her Belfast stage debut, and is hopeful of a warm reception from the local audience.
“I’ve done The Vagina Monologues three times now. I was doing a week here and there because I had other things coming up, but when they offered me the chance to go to Belfast I said yes straight away,” she says.
“I’ve never been to Belfast before, which is a disgrace, with Tommy’s family being from there. But I’m really looking forward to it.
“The thing is, I love the Irish sense of humour. I was just watching The Commitments there on Sky and there are so many great actors from Ireland. I adore Daniel Day- Lewis, he’s just the best.
“I love the fact that the Irish are straight down the line, say what they think and are very funny.
“I read Angela’s Ashes and the film didn’t do the book justice. One minute I was bawling my eyes out, the next I was laughing out loud.
“Tommy’s mum, Dorothy, tells me something with a completely straight face and I’m sitting there, cracking up. So I’ve a feeling I’ll get on well with the Belfast audiences.”
She’s never worked with Suzanne or Jenny before, but is anticipating a fun-filled female bonding session.
“I loved working with Linda Robson in The Vagina Monologues, but I think the girls will be great, too. I think Jenny will be hilarious,” she said.
“It will be interesting to see how different actresses deliver certain speeches. Some of the monologues are very poignant, some are really funny. But they’re all very different.
“It’s been going now for around 12 years and there’s no other show like it, I think that’s fair to say. The audience likes to get involved, too. All in all, it’s a great girls’ night out. Though when we’re doing the poignant monologues, you could hear a pin drop in the theatre.”
Jessie won’t be bringing Tallulah with her to Belfast. Instead, the four-year-old will be staying at home in Essex with her grandfather. On the day this interview takes place, Jessie has just delivered her daughter to school for the first time — but there were no tears.
“I brought her to school today just to ease her in for the new term and she loved it,” she says.
“She’s so funny. Because she’s started the big school she imagined she was going to wake up taller today. But she ran into me this morning saying ‘Mummy, I’m still not big’.
“My dad is going to look after her when I’m away. That means I won’t be worrying about her and I’ll be able to relax more.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, Jessie is reluctant to talk about Tommy too much.
“I don’t know if he’ll be coming with me,” she says. “He’s very busy at the moment. But I don’t want to say anything more about him. I try and keep my private life private, it’s other people who want to make it public.”
As if sitting on a stage in front of a room full of strangers talking about one’s ‘bits’ isn’t terrifying enough, Jessie will be undertaking another daunting challenge when she arrives in Belfast.
Next Sunday, the actress will join hundreds of women in the Belfast Telegraph’s Runher race — the first time she has ever participated in a 10K.
The old Jessie might have turned it down, but the new streamlined, healthy-eating, non-drinking Jessie jumped at the chance.
“First of all they asked me to do a 5K and I said yes. They then asked me to do the 10K,” she says. “I’ve never done a 10K in my life, but I agreed to do it.
“I’ve been seeing a personal trainer now for seven weeks. I jog three times a week, I’ve given up the booze and I’m eating healthily. I’m down to a size eight and I feel great.
“I’m not going to say it’s been easy. God, it’s been tough giving up drink, but when your personal trainer is coming down hard on you, telling you how many calories are in one glass of wine, you listen. He’s really cracking the whip but that’s fine by me. I have so much more energy now.”
And she’ll need plenty of stamina for her next role.
Following on from The Vagina Monologues, Jessie is set to star in a stage production entitled Stepping Out. It’s about a group of women who all attend a tap dancing class.
The play will run from September to November, but there are no plans to bring it to Belfast. I ask her will her brief stint on the last series of Strictly Come Dancing come in handy. Again, Jessie dissolves into fits of giggles.
“Oh God, every time I hear that word Strictly, I fall about laughing,” she replies.
“I mean, come on! Arlene Phillips said I danced like a footballer and I was voted off pretty early on. But I had a ball and I loved Darren [Bennett, her partner in the show]. Fortunately, my character in Stepping Out is a bad dancer, so I’ll be alright.”
Jessie is full of praise for Northern Ireland’s own Christine Bleakley, who took part in the same series and was elimimated just before the quarter finals.
“Oh I really liked Christine,” she says. “She was lovely. And beautiful to look at. I’d watched her before on The One Show and thought she was gorgeous, but in the flesh she looks just like Sophia Loren. Won’t you tell her I was asking for her the next time you see her?”
While she doesn’t see too much of her former Strictly co-contestants, Jessie does keep in touch with Laila Morse, the actress who played her EastEnders grand-mum Mo Harris. And she still keeps abreast of the show’s twists and turns.
“Laila’s a great friend, we still keep in touch. I’m still good friends with Shane Richie [Alfie Moon] too but I haven’t seen him in ages,” she says.
“I still tune in to EastEnders. I really like the actress Rita, who plays Roxie, I think she’s very watchable. And, of course, the Slaters. I still keep my eye on them.”
If Kat was to return to the Square, which on-screen male would she now hook up with, I ask her? I suggest Albert Square heart-throb Jack Branning, who’s romanced half the females in the soap.
“He’d be a good one, I suppose,” she says.
“But what about Nick Cotton? No, I don’t think even Kat would stoop that low.”
Since quitting the BBC soap that made her a household name, Jessie has starred in several television dramas, including A Class Apart, The Dinner Party, Miss Marie Lloyd — Queen of the Music Hall and Wild At Heart. There have been quite a few theatre productions too, most notably aunted and Rent. In the latter production, she took over from Denise Van Outen in the role of Maureen.
“I love the buzz of theatre,” Jessie says. “Television is great too, but there’s nothing quite like the buzz you get from a live audience.”
She has nothing lined up following Stepping Out but doesn’t seem too bothered. The work has been coming easily enough in the last few years and she’ll take it all in her stride.
“I’ve been pretty busy since leaving EastEnders, well, that’s the way it might seem,” she says.
“The stuff I have done has been pretty intense work when I was doing it, but I’ve managed to spend a lot of time with my little girl, which is very important to me.”
Her former EastEnders co-star Michelle Ryan, who played her on-screen daughter Zoe Slater, made the move to the States, where she was cast as the lead role in a re-make of the Bionic Woman. She’s also appeared in several BBC shows such as Merlin and Dr Who.
Jessie says of Michelle: “She’s done really well and I’m happy for her. She’s got herself an American agent and I’m sure she’ll get more work out there.”
Would she consider Hollywood herself, if an offer came along?
“Absolutely,” she enthuses. “You wouldn’t see my ass for dust.”
Keen to avoid being typecast as the saucy minx she left behind in London’s East End, Jessie says she would love to try her hand at horror.
“I’ve just watched a brilliant film called Drag Me To Hell and I loved Liv Tyler in The Stranger,” she says.
“I’d love to do something like that. Or an Irish movie, that would be fun, too. Then I could get to perfect my Irish accent.”
It’s been claimed that Jessie can come across as prickly in interviews and she’s admitted in the past that she doesn’t like talking to journalists. But she comes across as funny, warm and full of life. Not unlike Kat Slater then?
“Oh, I might have moved on but I don’t think everyone else has,” she laughs.
“But that’s ok, I’ve a lot to thank Kat Slater for. She was such good fun.”
Somehow, I wouldn’t rule out that return to Albert Square just yet.
The Vagina Monologues, Grand Opera House, Belfast, Monday-Saturday. For tickets, tel: 9024 1919