When we meet in the low-lit bar of a cappuccino, a glass of tap water and makes clear once-hip London hotel to discuss her role in Casualty (Saturdays, BBC1), Abi Titmuss's reputation precedes her. In the mid-noughties, she was a staple of lads’ mags, appearing in Loaded and Nuts; in FHM’s 100 Sexiest Women in the World 2005, she was seventh.
This renown wasn’t hindered by the emergence of a sex tape, made with her then-boyfriend, TV presenter John Leslie – who’d been named as the rapist of Ulrika Jonsson. (Charges were dropped.)
Titmuss had four years of this fame, a time that she describes as “a bit of a blur in which I became the embodiment of something that I didn’t have any respect for. I could never really deal with how brazen I was being on the outside when I was so lost and unhappy on the inside. I knew how third-rate I was.”
It was while dealing with the aftershocks of the Leslie affair – the tape, leaving her job as a nurse, then losing a roving reporter’s role on Richard & Judy – that she decided to take control of the situation.
“I used to pay for my own photoshoots – £25,000 a time – knowing I could make twice that back.” She then landed a presenting role on Richard Desmond’s porn channel Television X, “authoring” an erotic novel, Ten Fantasies, and releasing a fitness DVD called Tone & Tease.
Now, though, elegant in a grey shift-dress, woolly tights and ankle boots, Titmuss orders a decaff cappuccino, a glass of tap water and makes clear those debauched days are behind her. She hasn’t drunk alcohol for four years and has spent the past five in relative obscurity working as an actress, in fringe theatre, trying to show people she can play more than a character who spent an inordinate amount of time being papped falling out of clubs – and, often, her frock.
“I clawed my way out of the hole I’d dug myself, but I know I wouldn’t be sitting here were it not for all that. It did give me financial security, but it came at a great emotional cost. My self-esteem got so low, because I wasn’t happy with what I was doing, that the only thing that would make me feel better was going out and partying and getting my picture taken. Toxic co-dependency is a really good comparison.”
Titmuss, who in person is smart and funny, found that her image itself was toxic, too. “I don’t expect my name to open doors – in fact, in TV it absolutely closes them – but I got this part on merit, despite the fact it was me.”
Though she isn’t playing a medic, there never was an actress more qualified to appear in Casualty. “I worked in casualty as a student and as senior staff nurse on an emergency unit,” she says. “A lot of the script is medical jargon, which I understand, so that really took me back.
“I’ve held someone while they died and it was a privilege to do so. Those sorts of experiences I had as a nurse put everything – everything you can go through – into perspective.”
You can see Abi Titmuss in Casualty tonight at 9:10pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD
This is an edited version of an article in the issue of Radio Times magazine published 14 February 2012.