Freetime talks to actress Michelle Collins about Cindy Beale on EastEnders, Stella Price on Coronation Street, press intrusion and overcoming an eating disorder

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Michelle Collins Michelle Collins

As a seasoned soap star, Michelle Collins is no stranger to emotional roller coasters - and the same goes for her life off-screen. She tells Freetime about overcoming an eating disorder, dealing with the press and why she's finally stopped apologising for who she is.

Michelle Collins seems to have had almost as many dramas in her life as some of the characters she's played during her acting career, most notably Cindy Beale in EastEnders and later Rovers Return landlady Stella Price, who bade farewell to Coronation Street earlier this month.

Coinciding with her exit from the Weatherfield cobbles, she has just released her autobiography, This Is Me, which charts her life from a working class wannabe to a successful actress, her battles with anorexia, depression after her split from the father of her only daughter and the counselling she sought, the intrusions from the press and the heartbreaks in her private life.

Meeting Collins today, it's clear she is made of stern stuff.

She describes herself as a 'jobbing actor', but the 51-year-old is much more than that. She's tough, having overcome all that life has thrown at her, from being turned down by every drama school she applied to, to being pilloried for her terrible northern accent in Corrie.

After three years on the ITV soap, she'd had enough of the long commute to and from Manchester and wanted to spend more time with her 17-year-old daughter, Maia, in London.

"It was really sad on my last day. All day I was crying! I didn't want a big party, my leaving was low-key and it was fine. They've left it open for me to return and I'm very happy they've done that. I left on a really high note. One day maybe I will go back."

No sooner has she left the top soap than she's going into rehearsals for a play in a fringe London theatre, and has filmed three episodes of Casualty, yet she says that she still worries about the next job.

"I still live on the edge a little bit," she agrees. "I haven't shaken off the soap actress label. I don't think I'll ever really shake it off. But at the end of the day, why is it someone's guilty pleasure to watch Coronation Street or EastEnders? We've got to be doing something right. I've got to the age where I've got to stop apologising for who I am and what I do.

"It was hard when I was trying to shake off my Cindy character and trying to be seen as a proper actress and not just a soap actress, which used to really get on my nerves. Now I just get over it."

Collins is in a much more comfortable place than she was when she started out in showbusiness more than 30 years ago. Among the darkest periods was when, at 19, she developed anorexia and bulimia after being dropped from a pop group which had enjoyed some success. She gradually abstained from eating, started taking laxatives and would binge and purge in a relentless cycle which lasted two years.

At one point her weight plummeted to under six stones.

"I felt that if I could control my body I could control my life, and in my head skinny equalled successful. I weighed myself obsessively.

"They do say anorexia is caused by a trauma, or something that happens in your life. I do believe that some people have addictive personalities and some don't," she says now. "It was probably one of the first signs of rejection which I couldn't handle at such a young age. I hadn't been to drama school and I wasn't prepared for it."

The wake-up call came when several casting people said to her agent that she looked ill, as though she was on heroin.

"I thought, 'Oh God, if it's going to affect my career I better pull myself together'. I saw hypnotherapists, I saw psychics, and eventually going to the gym saved me.

"In this business, there's so many people who are deeply unhappy with themselves," she continues. "There's a dishonesty and a darkness surrounding a lot of people. We're not all happy. Sometimes this business is bloody awful and I wouldn't want my daughter to go into it. I wouldn't go into it now because it's really changed.

"Celebrity is a word that's taken over everything. It's difficult for actors to just be actors now. There are so many other things that come with it. Everyone is under so much pressure to publicise everything in their lives."

She writes that being a woman in the entertainment industry isn't always conducive to a happy relationship and that's certainly the case for Collins, who has been engaged a few times but never married.

"In many of my relationships I've been the chief breadwinner, and I sometimes wonder if it's my own insecurity that draws me to men who aren't as financially secure as I have been over the years.

"I've shied away from dating anyone famous, and I couldn't stand the thought of dating another actor. I think the clash of fragile egos might be too much."

But she does devote a chapter to Italian Fabrizio Tassalini, Maia's father. They met on holiday in Miami in the mid Nineties, when Collins was at the height of her EastEnders fame and despite the language barrier - neither spoke each other's language - fell head over heels in love.

After three subsequent trips to Tassalini's home in Milan, Collins discovered she was pregnant. Her Italian beau already had a ten-year-old son from a previous relationship, but took the news well. However, he hadn't realised quite how famous Collins was over here and when news of the pregnancy and romance broke, it became difficult.

"The paparazzi tailed me everywhere and on one occasion a group of reporters even followed me on to the flight to Milan."

She says that as a result of the press hounding him, Tassalini lost his job. After 16 months, the relationship was over. He now lives in Australia and Collins remains tight-lipped about Maia's relationship with him.

Today, her partner is Michael, who is 21 years her junior. They've been together 18 months.

"I'm not going to talk about that because it's not fair on him," she says simply.

She seems to have mixed views about marriage, possibly coloured by the fact that her father left her and her older sister, Vicki, when she was a baby. The sisters were raised by their mother, Mary, single-handedly, until she married their step-father, Sid, 15 years later.

"It's tough being a single working mum. You are having to be everything to everybody. I do agree with marriage but people need to know what they are letting themselves in for. Nobody wants a failed marriage. You have to think about things extremely hard before you venture into them.

"I don't know if I'll ever get married. It's not on my agenda at the moment. The most important thing is to get my daughter through her A-levels and make sure she gets into a good university," Collins says.

"Even if I did get married, it would probably be something I'd do quickly and without too much fuss."

This Is Me by Michelle Collins is published by Michael O'Mara, priced £20. Available now

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