'I'm a feisty Essex girl': Why Denise Van Outen is still courting controversy

No longer an unlucky-in-love ladette, these days Denise Van Outen is more likely to be up in the small hours with her baby Betsy than all-night clubbing with unsuitable men. But even as a happily married yummy mummy, the feisty presenter and performer still manages to attract controversy, as she tells Judith Woods

Denise Van Outen

'I still remember all the heartache, and I get slightly annoyed at myself for wasting time dwelling on relationships that weren't working and crying into my pillow over guys who weren't worth it,' says Denise

There’s an air of heavy-lidded serenity about Denise Van Outen as she curls up in a chair, sipping mineral water. It’s that slightly spaced, not entirely unpleasant morning-after feeling that you get following a crazy night of reckless drinking, or dancing – or these days, pacing about with a wakeful nine-month-old baby whose gummy little smile slyly steals her mother’s heart, even as she robs her of sleep.

‘I am tired. When I think about it, I’ve spent most of my life being tired,’ she smiles. Her face free of make-up, there’s an unexpected vulnerability about her; less larky, more likable and much more real. I dimly recall that when my daughter was that age, I was still in elasticated loungewear; yummy mummy Denise is bang
on trend in black opaque tights, denim shorts, vertiginous boots and a fabulous Vivienne  Westwood crown pendant. Over in the corner,  £800 worth of patent Mulberry bag (quite possibly containing half a banana fromage frais) has been flung heedlessly on to the floor.

‘In my 20s I was tired because I was doing The Big Breakfast. Then I was tired because I was partying so hard. After that I was tired because I was doing Capital Radio’s breakfast show. Now I’m tired because although I’ve just been on a  relaxing family holiday to the Middle East, Betsy is up at 4.30am because she’s still on Dubai time. But I love it. I-Love-It!’

This goes without saying for any new mother, but perhaps more especially for reformed ladette Denise, 36, who freely concedes her biological clock had been chiming so loudly, on the hour, every hour, for the past decade it’s a wonder she could make herself heard over the din. Like Captain Hook’s crocodile, the ticking relentlessly pursued her even as she set her determined little chin in the direction of TV success, standing by wildly unsuitable men and making headlines wherever she went; the cheeky, chirpy Essex girl, having a right laugh, resolutely smiling through the tears when every romance blew up in her face.

Denise Van Outen
Denise Van Outen

From left: Denise with her dream man, husband Lee, at the wedding of David Walliams and Lara Stone; during her pregnancy in 2010

‘I’ve always wanted marriage and babies,’ she says simply. ‘If I’d met the right man I’d have had a family years ago. My parents have been together for 40 years and I wanted that sort of partnership, that sort of loyalty. I still remember all the heartache, and I get slightly annoyed at myself for wasting too much time dwelling on relationships that simply weren’t working and crying into my pillow over guys who weren’t worth it. In affairs of the heart I’m quite sensitive and it was frustrating to be with men who didn’t have the same vision of settling down.’

As her FHM compadres – Zoë Ball, Sara Cox and Gail Porter – dropped out of the scene and had babies, Denise hid her creeping sense of desolation behind the brassy showbiz front expected of an alumna of the respected Sylvia Young Theatre School. But all the while she was searching for a soul mate. ‘We women are prone to thinking,
every single time, regardless of the evidence to the contrary, “This is the one, this is happy ever after, white picket fence time”, and actually half the guys never call you back and the other half are seeing somebody else on the side.’

But that was in another life, before she met mop-haired Lee Mead – at 29, seven years her junior – on the set of the 2007 BBC talent show Any Dream Will Do, which aimed to cast the leading role in a West End revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. She was a judge, he took the crown – but Denise was arguably the real winner. A few months afterwards he asked her out, they moved in together just over a year later, and in April 2009 they had a romantic wedding in the Seychelles.

‘I got to know Lee during the series, when we were hanging out and having those idle conversations about your dreams – or in my case feeling slightly panicked that I might never meet anyone to fulfil mine. He mentioned at the outset that he wanted a family, and he was the one who moved things along; I never considered his age, because he’s much more mature than anyone else I’ve ever dated.

Denise Van Outen

‘We do bicker like every couple, but mostly about how to look after Betsy – who’s doing the night feed or getting up early. We had this hilarious argument the other week because he was appearing in the musical Wicked and I’m in Legally Blonde: The Musical, and someone needed to take her to the doctor which would mean missing a Saturday matinée. We were getting very het up about who had the bigger role and was more crucial to their show – he said that he had two solos, but I replied that I had two solos and I had to dance an Irish jig. It was ridiculous! In the end, I stayed behind with Betsy; sometimes Mum just has to be there.’

Denise uses the word ‘mum’ a lot – rather like a new bride enjoying the unfamiliar yet delicious sound of ‘Mrs’. But she hasn’t jettisoned all professional ambition. Quite the opposite: she has designed a new maternity range, written a mumoir about her pregnancy called Bumpalicious which documents her fertility difficulties (relatively minor but worrying nonetheless) and pregnancy, and is currently singing and hoofing like a trouper in Legally Blonde, a feelgood show running in London’s West End. She plays beautician Paulette, confidante of heroine Elle Woods, every night, just as her new mum chums are dozing on the sofa. No wonder she’s wrecked. ‘All my work decisions are based around my daughter now. I’ve chosen that path, but the joy of this job is that I’m at home all day with Betsy and then I leave her with our part-time nanny and go off to work when she’s asleep. It’s the same for Lee, and we’re very lucky. I love coming in to work; having spent a lot of the day singing “If You’re Happy And You Know It”, it’s wonderful to be in adult company.

‘When I was little my mum had two jobs and I like to be a provider and pull my weight financially. Lee and I have got a mortgage on a house in Kent and I want to set a good example to my daughter. It’s not a bad thing for her to have a good, strong work ethic and understand that we all need to contribute to society when we can.’

This sounds oddly prim, coming from The Big Breakfast presenter who once stole an ashtray from Buckingham Palace (and later returned it with a grovelling note of apology), who was photographed in her bra and knickers for the cover of a lads’ mag, and who presented Something for the Weekend, a disastrous, X-rated game show that wasn’t so much a car crash as a multi-vehicle pile-up involving a Carlsberg truck and an Ann Summers lorry. Since then she’s wowed the crowds in the West End and on Broadway as Roxie Hart in Chicago, and proved her mettle as a straight presenter but, as is the way of the world, we tend to trap celebrities in the amber of their glorious – or indeed notorious – heyday and forever see them through the refracting lens of the gossip columns.

‘I used to cringe at the ladette label, but now I’m quite proud of it and in the years to come I will explain to Betsy that it was a moment when a little group of strong, opinionated women were having a great time. We were a spirited generation and gave men a run for their money.’

‘I used to cringe at the ladette label, but now I’m quite proud of it and in the years to come I will explain to Betsy that it was a moment when a little group of strong, opinionated women were having a great time’

She cracks a grin and there is a familiar twinkle in her eye, although she’s under no illusions that there are cons as well as pros to being a girl-power pioneer. ‘I’m still battling to prove that I’ve finally grown up. Last year I was doing something for Comic Relief and just before we went on air, the producer said, “This is a primetime show with a family audience, Denise, so don’t say anything rude or risqué.” There I was, 35, married and pregnant, and I was being treated like a mouthy teenager.’

But that’s not to say Denise doesn’t still have her mouthy moments – in fact, motherhood has seen her plunged into greater contentiousness than she ever imagined. ‘I had no idea having children was so political and that everything I did would be treated as somehow controversial. It started from the day I announced I was pregnant – people are so opinionated! They seem to feel that they have the right to preach at you for wearing high heels, even though I would arrive at a studio or for a photo shoot in ballet pumps, change into heels for the camera and then take them straight off again.

Denise Van Outen

‘I’m a feisty Essex girl, sometimes to my own detriment – I speak out about certain things; I’m not one to take insults or criticism lying down. I also feel that being in the public eye means the onus is on you to some extent to talk about things that matter to you and affect other people.’

Thus, when she was dropped as a judge from BBC’s Over the Rainbow, ostensibly because the entire panel was being replaced, Denise had no qualms about voicing her dismay, naming and shaming the biggest name in the business, Andrew Lloyd Webber himself.

‘Andrew told me I was in the show and I only found out I wasn’t when a journalist asked me how it felt to have been dropped. It was actually said to me, “You can’t be on the show, you’re pregnant.” So of course I felt very let down. I might have understood if I’d been throwing up all day, but I was completely capable of working right through. I haven’t spoken to Andrew, who has to take some responsibility; he sent me a letter passing the blame on to the BBC, so I guess I’ll never know what happened.’

Then, after the birth, when Denise revealed that she stopped breast-feeding after three weeks, she received a highly personal letter from the NHS – addressed to her and her husband – expressing regret that she had fallen by the wayside and urging her to reconsider. There was a mug enclosed, bearing the words, ‘Keep calm and carry on breast-feeding’.

‘There is a huge percentage of women who struggle with breast-feeding and it’s just not working for them or their baby,’ says Denise. ‘To be made to feel a failure because of it is unforgivable – I was really upset to be so unfairly targeted.’

The dust had barely settled when an even more heated imbroglio saw Denise engaged in a slanging match with former EastEnders actress Natalie Cassidy, then pregnant, who condemned her in an interview for going back to work when Betsy was just weeks old, rhetorically asking, ‘What have you had a child for? Having a child should be your job.’ Denise, in response, Tweeted furiously about Natalie’s appearance on television with her new baby Eliza, to promote her reality TV series, and derided her for pocketing cash from a glossy magazine for her baby pictures when she and Lee donated all money raised from their official baby photograph to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Ladies, ladies! It was proof – not that proof were needed – that motherhood brings out the inner tigress in all of us. But mercifully, Denise’s pregnancy guide is an altogether more upbeat and supportive read. ‘The idea for Bumpalicious came partly because I wanted to document my pregnancy for Betsy and partly because I bought loads of books when I got pregnant, but none seemed to be exactly right,’ she says. ‘I loved Myleene Klass’s My Bump & Me diary, but I had to go elsewhere to get more technical information, so I decided to combine the two dimensions.’

Denise Van Outen
Denise Van Outen

From left: Denise takes Betsy home from hospital; out and about with Lee last May

The result is an astute and rather successful combination of practical here-comes-the-science-bit advice, penned by experts, leavened by personal commentary from Denise. It opens with her shock at being told by a gynaecologist that her ovarian store was running low, and her determination to kick the late nights, early mornings and erratic lifestyle in order to conceive. It ends, happily, with the birth of Betsy.

‘After she was born, I didn’t go on any ludicrous starvation diets, I just ate healthily and I’m really happy with the result. I’ve got a bit of a wobbly mum tum and I still can’t get into most of my jeans because my hips have got wider, but that’s OK.

‘Being a mum has made everything else in my life more enjoyable’

‘The nicest and most unexpected thing about being a mum is that it’s made everything else in my life more enjoyable; I don’t take it all so seriously. The whole business is so much about appearances and now I find myself running out of the door with milk spills on my top or a little bit of baby sick down my back. But who cares? I don’t obsess any more.’

Exhausting it may be, but for this reformed hellraiser, motherhood has been more liberating than she ever imagined.

Denise Van Outen

‘I wondered whether I could conceive’: An extract from Denise’s book Bumpalicious

About to turn 34, working long hours by day, propped up by copious amounts of chocolate and caffeine, and sleeping only four hours at night, Denise booked herself in for a health MOT. She was shocked to learn that she had a low ovarian reserve for her age and that a complete change of lifestyle was needed to maximise her chances of conceiving.

There was no denying that my job co-hosting Capital Radio’s breakfast show was affecting me the most. The early starts meant I was constantly shattered. My boss was very gracious and understood that I needed to leave for health reasons.

My next step was to contact fitness expert Nicki Waterman and nutritionist Amanda Ursell. With their expert advice, I was putting myself in the best possible position to fall pregnant.

I used the extra hours in my day to catch up on sleep and to start a new fitness regime. Nicki and I met up for walks and built up to gentle runs. Bit by bit, I started to feel like my old self again.

When my mobile rang, I was surprised to hear Gary Barlow’s voice asking if I fancied joining him and a team of celebrities to climb Mount Kilimanjaro for Comic Relief. I said I’d love to do it but Nicki stressed how important it was to build up my fitness gradually, otherwise I’d be putting my body under stress again, which would be bad news for my fertility. We built up the intensity of our work-outs and before long my main focus was the climb.

With every interview to promote Comic Relief came enquiries about when Lee and I were going to start a family. I’d cobble together a woolly answer, all the while wondering whether I could actually conceive.

On 7 March 2009, I made it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro. It symbolised my life turning around 180 degrees from when I was eating unhealthily, barely seeing the sunshine and fending off depression.

With my healthy lifestyle firmly in place I wanted to turn my full attention to getting pregnant. Lee insisted we get married first, so in April 2009, in a wonderful ceremony on a beach in the Seychelles, I became Mrs Mead.

Our busy schedules soon began to create problems. Lee was in New York on an acting course while I was busy in London. I’d spend a fortune clocking up the air miles trying to coordinate being with my man when I thought I was ovulating.

As Lee returned from New York, I moved to Edinburgh for a four-week stint at the festival performing a one-woman show. With the physical and mental exertion I was in bed, exhausted, by ten o’clock every night. I put my tiredness down to the adrenalin of being on stage and the busy year. On my return, Lee thought it was highly unlikely I was pregnant and I was probably just under the weather. He persuaded me to save the only pregnancy test we had left — not because it cost £10 and he’s a skinflint, but because buying the test without anyone seeing you is a real mission when you’re in the public eye.

At four o’clock in the morning I sat bolt upright and I swear I could feel my hormones racing around my body. I opened our last pregnancy test with my fingers trembling. When two pink lines appeared I shrieked with delight. I — we — were finally pregnant.

© Denise Van Outen. Bumpalicious by Denise Van Outen will be published by Headline on 3 March, price £14.99. To order a copy for £12.99, with free p&p, call the YOU Bookshop on 0845 155 0711 or visit you-bookshop.co.uk