Denise Welch: 'I have no fear of looking older... I love my wrinkles'
Denise Welch couldn't be happier since turning her back on booze and finding peace with a quieter life, but she's still not afraid to express an opinion. As her debut novel, If They Could See Me Now, is published, Hannah Stephenson meets the former star of Loose Woman
I've had a lot of fun on those balconies in my party days, Denise Welch observes wryly, as we wander into the quiet library of the hotel where she stays when she's in London.
But that was in her other life, before the former Loose Women star, Celebrity Big Brother winner, Corrie landlady and party animal gave up alcohol four years ago.
Today, looking slim, fit and younger than her 57 years - which may have something to do with the cosmetic surgery she admitted to having, to remove the bags from under her eyes at 50 - she has turned a new chapter, both privately and professionally.
The woman who was tabloid fodder for years - falling out of nightclubs drunk, flashing her breasts on national television, having an affair and telling the nation on live TV that she and husband actor Tim Healy were getting divorced - is still outspoken, but seems much more in control these days.
Now married to her third husband, artist Lincoln Townley, nearly 15 years her junior, they live a quieter life in Cheshire.
She has just written her debut novel, If They Could See Me Now, the story of a middle-aged ex-actress who has given up her career to appease her abusive, cruel bully of a husband, only to find herself wondering what she has done with her life and making moves to change it.
There are so many issues in this novel - cosmetic surgery, affairs, domestic abuse, the rigours of acting, fat shame, bullying, body image and the dangers of the internet - that it's difficult to know where to start, but Welch asserts from the beginning that it's not autobiographical.
Yes, many of the things touched upon have applied to her, but the book isn't about her, she insists. Recalling her "eye job", she says: "I had my eyes done, but that was a treat to myself for my 50th birthday, against everybody's advice, and it was the best thing I ever did, because it made me look better.
"I've never really fancied having anything else done. I don't know if I'd have any more surgery, but I might if I felt something was upsetting me.
"I have no fear of looking older. I love my wrinkles and I feel better mentally and physically at 57 than I've felt for years. I feel like I'm only 57."
The age difference between Welch and her husband doesn't bother her. "Lincoln's always been interested in older women. He didn't actively pursue an older bird, but he was always attracted to older women. We laugh about it. I don't worry about it because he tells me how beautiful he thinks I am every day of my life. It's gone beyond looks.
"He's youthful, but I don't grade youth like I used to, which was how many nights you go out and party. We don't do that any more. We are four years sober now, so our party days are gone. We just love what we have together."
The novel follows Welch's two autobiographies - Pulling Myself Together, which charted her battle with clinical depression, and Starting Over, in which she revealed her infidelity, break-up with Healy and previous party animal lifestyle. So she's no stranger to writing about her personal life, but Welch has new-found stability now.
She comes down to London a lot for work and is currently filming the second series of Boy Meets Girl, and is also working on a second novel.
"When I left Loose Women, it was very important to me to remind people that I am actually an award-winning actress. I don't say that with any arrogance, it's just a fact," she says.
"I'm good at what I do and it was lost in the melee of a talk show that was very good to me for years. I have happy memories of the time I had on Loose Women. I made best friends who remain best friends to this day - Carol (McGiffin) and Jane (McDonald) and Kate (Thornton), Carol Vorderman and Lisa Maxwell - we all talk on a group message every day.
"But acting is my main love. I'm not saying I'd never do another presenting job, but my days of over-sharing on that show I felt were done, because my life had changed and I got sick of sharing too much about me with the rest of the world.
"I'm a very open person, but I didn't want to take the new life on to the television as much. And there were changes being made to that show and it was the natural time for me to leave." She took part in the 2011 series of Dancing On Ice and won Celebrity Big Brother in 2012, and hasn't written off appearing on other reality TV shows.
"But CBB spawned a passion in me about how the media view you in this country. In that house I was supportive, like a mum figure to a lot of them. I wasn't bitchy, I didn't bully anybody, but for a giggle, I took my top off and ran around the garden - and when I came out, it was like I was Osama bin Laden," she says, referring to the negative backlash she received.
"Yet people like Katie Hopkins and Lady C and vile bullies are celebrated in this country and given a voice. I absolutely hate and detest nastiness and bullying as a form of entertainment."
Hopkins and Welch have had a long-running Twitter feud about issues such as obesity. "Katie Hopkins is someone who rattles my cage. We all know that if we ate less and moved more we'd lose weight, but when we are talking about massively obese women, do you think they want to be 26 stones? It's clear they are struggling.
"I've seen women break down in wracking sobs in front of me with stories of domestic abuse, of parental abuse, of marriage breakdowns.
"And instead of turning to alcohol, like me, they turn to food. It's not a case of eating less and moving more. It belittles people who are struggling.
Away from the spotlight, Welch remains the best of friends with Healy, spending Christmases together in the house they used to share.
"I consider my marriage to Tim a success. We were together for 24 years and we had two wonderful children and we're still friends, but we changed.
"Our lives are very different. Lincoln and I are sober. We don't do pubs and parties any more if we can help it.
"I can't enthuse enough about how my life has changed and how I couldn't be more thrilled; how I'm so delighted that I escaped - I don't miss it. Alcohol never really made me feel that good. I don't miss anything that alcohol brought to my life."
If They Could See Me Now by Denise Welch. Sphere, £12.99