'I've had my personal and health issues, but now I feel streets ahead'
Actress Shobna Gulati talks about finding happiness after the trauma of leaving soap Coronation Street exacerbated her depression.
Approaching 50 can be a bitter pill for many women to swallow but not for actress, Shobna Gulati. For the first time in her life, the former Coronation Street star believes she's finally triumphing over the many personal battles she's struggled with for years.
“I've had health problems and a personal life that's been so turbulent in the past, but now I want to leave all the drama for the stage and telly,” vows Gulati, talking weeks before her 48th birthday about her determination to stay single, coping with depression, body image issues, a digestive condition, and hair loss.
“People think actors lead these sparkly perfect lives. But while on the red carpet I might look all glamorous and dressed up like a Barbie doll, off-screen I'm just an ordinary person who's buffeted by the ups and downs of life just like everybody else.”
Last year was one of these downs, facing career uncertainty when her long-running role as the Street's Sunita Alahan ended. Gulati first joined the series in 2001 and stayed until 2006, rejoined in 2009 and for four years played the ill-fated mother-of-twins who finally died in a fire at The Rovers.
And if leaving the ‘soap family' wasn't unsettling enough, Gulati, a single parent, saw her only child, Akshay (19), leave home to follow in her footsteps and pursue an acting career.
“Both the job finishing, which was the end of an era and meant leaving friends on the show, and an empty nest pretty well happened at the same time and was very hard to deal difficult with,” admits Gulati, now a panellist on ITV's lunchtime chat show, Loose Women, and currently touring with Joe McGann in stage play, April In Paris.
“Although I wanted to leave Corrie, my departure was brought forward and I hadn't had time to make any plans, which put me under pressure, while at home I was missing having my son around as we're very close. It was a highly stressful period and stress always triggers my hair loss.”
While her long, dark, silky mane has always been a key part of her image, she reveals that for years she's had to bolster it with hair extensions and clever styling.
“The problem began while I was at university as I didn't eat well and I also had the trauma of my father dying suddenly. I had severe hair loss again after my son's birth, and the problem has continued intermittently over the years but was particularly bad last year. Hair problems aren't helpful as an actor because your appearance is so key,” says Gulati.
Apart from that issue, and the obvious blow to her self-esteem, she also had to deal with coming from a Punjabi family where traditionally women keep their hair long.
“My own thinning hair made me feel ‘Why am I different?' as I always seem to be surrounded by relatives with luxuriant hair. At times, what with the hormonal changes you go through at my age, I've often felt I had my hair on my face rather than my head,” she says.
She believes her hair loss — reportedly suffered by one in eight women before the menopause — was exacerbated partly by eating disorders earlier in her life and undiagnosed coeliac disease, finally identified in 2010. Sufferers cannot eat anything containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye and, as well as pain, one of the symptoms of the condition can be hair loss.
But with characteristic determination, at the beginning of this year, Gulati resolved to overhaul her health and wellbeing, and as a result, now talking at her home in Manchester, looks glowing and far younger than her years.
“Over the last six months I've put effort into fitness and diet which has benefited me in so many ways, not least minimising the likelihood of depression which I've sometimes suffered,” says Gulati who's also taking the supplement Viviscal, designed to promote healthy hair growth.
“My hair's vastly improved, I no longer need the hair extensions and I'm fitter than I've ever been. I've never been confident about my body, I won't have mirrors in my house, but I'm more relaxed about that as well.
“Most importantly, I've had a moment of revelation about myself. I've forgiven myself for any mistakes I've made, I feel I have a lot of wisdom built up, and I feel truly content.”
Partly, this contentment stems from being out of the inevitable spotlight that comes with being in a hugely popular soap — “I was naive in that I never anticipated the constant attention on my personal life”. It also stems from the fact she's very happy this personal life is unencumbered.
“I've been married once which didn't work out, and I've had that many partners on telly, that I feel I've done all that. My sister who's been married 30 years recently said, ‘You're so lovely I want you to find someone really special' which was really touching. But I just don't want a relationship in my life right now,” says Gulati who last year had a short-lived relationship with Anthony Brown, a TV runner 17 years her junior.
“I've brought up my son single-handedly and he's great. I'm brilliant at DIY and can even handle spiders, I feel well-equipped to handle life on my own! I've been very disappointed in the past by making bad choices, and have dealt with people wanting to go out with me just because I was on the telly, or not wanting to date me because I was on the telly, and all the others in between. Frankly it would have to be the most amazing man on the planet to tempt me now.”
She's unfazed by her imminent 48th birthday, as she will be about her 50th in a couple of years, and believes age is only a number. “I'm into self-help books and have one at home which is called How To Be An Adult which makes my son roar with laughter, saying ‘Mum, haven't you worked it out yet?',” she smiles.
“And funnily enough, I think I have recently. I realise I don't fit into any convention — Western or Eastern — and it's fine that I'm a ‘one off' because actually we all are. I now try to live life by recognising the things I can change and those that I can't. I also know happiness cannot be continuous so we just have to be kind to ourselves and others.”