Ex-EastEnders star Rita Simons tells Gabrielle Fagan about coping with her daughter’s hearing difficulties and also overcoming her own mental health issues.
Rita Simons played tough, glamorous and straight-talking Roxy Mitchell on BBC One’s EastEnders for 10 years, until her role ended dramatically last year, when she drowned in a swimming pool with her on-screen sister Ronnie.
Since then, she’s proved there’s life after Albert Square — she’s set to star in feature film The Krays: Dead Man Walking, which is released later this year, and she’s currently performing in a UK tour of Legally Blonde The Musical.
The 41-year-old, who’s married to hairdresser Theo Silverton and has twin daughters, speaks candidly about moving on, coping with her daughter Maiya’s hearing problems and how she deals with her own anxiety...
What was the event that shook your world?
“When we were told that Maiya, at five months old, was deaf. It was shattering and I was in complete denial. Tests revealed she has enlarged vestibular aqueducts — a genetic deformity of the inner ear.
“She’s profoundly deaf in her right ear and is partially deaf in her left ear, but a cochlear implant four years ago and hearing aids have changed her life. Before that, she used to have tantrums, because she was so frustrated at not being able to hear properly.
“Today, she has an incredible singing voice, impeccable speech, an ear for accents and her talent even won her a place at drama school. She has her own agent and has auditioned for West End shows.
“There’s still a worry about safeguarding the hearing in her left ear. Going through puberty could possibly reduce it, but we’ve decided not to dwell on that and just hope for the best. It’s also at risk if she has a knock on the head or hears an extremely loud noise, but Theo and I resolved years ago not to mollycoddle her.
“We’d rather she grew up having fun, than grew up with issues because she’d been restricted from being a normal child. There may be things we can do to fix that ear if, God forbid, something happened, but we could never give her back the fun she didn’t have.
“As someone who has to go through every day caring for a child with hearing problems, my advice would be to do all you can to prevent hearing loss, especially at a young age. It can be hard to get the message across to youngsters about the need to protect their ears and be careful about not listening to music at excessive noise levels, but once it’s gone, you can’t get it back.”
You suffer from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), how do you cope with mental health issues?
“It’s difficult sometimes. It’s like a terrible knot in your stomach and it’s to do with producing too much adrenaline.
“I go through phases with it; I’m in a good one at the moment where it’s barely there, which is amazing. After I left EastEnders, I suffered with it for a couple of months, because of the uncertainty of starting new work.
“Currently, it’s sporadic. I aim to channel my nerves and anxiety into my performance, to make it a positive in my life. I deal with both GAD and OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], which I was diagnosed with as a child.
“Going to the gym and looking after myself helps. Also, I’ve been meditating religiously for the last five months and it’s really made a difference.”
How did you feel about turning 40?
“My husband Theo is everything to me — he’s my rock and without him, I’d be completely lost. He, very sweetly, organised a big party for me but at the 11th hour, I made him cancel it, because I didn’t want to enter my 40s with a hangover.
“In the end, the two of us went to a spa in the countryside; we went on bike rides and had treatments like an old couple. Who’d have thought the girl who was once young, crazy and party-centric would do that?
“I feel about 18 in my head and I’m genuinely so happy in life. I’m not aiming for world domination — I just want to carry on doing the things which make me happy work-wise, which are acting, singing and dancing, and being with my family.”
Do you ever miss working on EastEnders?
“It was tough when I first left and I missed it terribly, because I’ve made lifelong friends, but I’ve been so lucky. I’m having a ball. I’ve done a film and I’m touring as beautician Paulette Bonafonte, with possibly the best cast I’ve ever met, in Legally Blonde The Musical.
“Every soap actor feels secure in their job and it’s always scary to leave, but I had faith that it would work out and it’s been wonderful to have so many new opportunities to show what I can do.
“The greatest thing to come out of Eastenders is that Sam [Womack, who played her sister Ronnie Mitchell] is like my sister. In the 10 years that we worked together, we never had an argument. We Facetime each other about six times a day and she’s my best friend for the rest of my life. I adore every inch of her.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
“I was in a girlband when I was younger and our manager told me, ‘If you don’t give up, you can’t fail’.
“That’s always stuck with me. I never give up on things, so I don’t give in to failure.
I regard Maiya’s hearing as my greatest achievement. It wasn’t easy going through it and deciding how to help her, but we did it as a family and now it has worked out brilliantly.”
Rita Simons is supporting a Cochlear campaign to raise awareness of the risk of permanent hearing loss. Visit cochlear.com for more information