Amanda Holden offers me a cupcake – “It will do you good. You need the sugar” – changes into a pristine white dressing gown after an energetic photo shoot with gymnasts Spelbound, the brilliant 2010 Britain’s Got Talent winners, and settles down to discuss her life, loves, Jimmy Savile, phone hacking, Simon Cowell and, well, anything else.
She is tactile, flirtatious, acknowledging happily, “I wear my heart on my sleeve and always say too much, but it’s a mask. Everyone thinks they know me. They don’t – only part of me. I’m an ordinary, down-to-earth girl.”
She giggles most of the time. “I shriek like a witch,” she admits. “My mum and grandmother, who, bless her heart, is 93, also have hideous laughs. It’s deep and dirty. People say I missed my time and should have been in Carry On films. I’m a gay man in a straight woman’s body.” Sometimes on BGT she may seem like a lachrymose, orange flibbertigibbet (“I’m surprised at how much I cried in the early shows”), but that is far from the reality.
An accomplished actress and singer, with a 25-year career, she’s also an ambassador for Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, ran the London marathon in aid of the Born Free Foundation, and last month fronted a Channel 4 Dispatches programme about how the NHS treats women who’ve had a miscarriage or stillbirth. It resulted in a ban on hospitals incinerating foetal remains. She’s the only judge on any of Cowell’s shows, here and in the US, who has not been sacked at some stage, and is now in her eighth year – “the old bag in the middle,” she explains.
“I don’t know what the secret is, if there is one. I genuinely like Simon and I’ve become more honest and courageous in his company. I was in awe of him at first, but he’s mellowed. He’s good at listening and not surrounded by ‘yes’ men. People assume he leads the high life with a harem and private jet, but he really just wants to watch Coronation Street and eat baked beans on toast with a fried egg on top. He is a control freak, but so am I. When I ring my husband [record producer Chris Hughes] to ask if he remembered to do this or that, he tells me to stop micromanaging, and I say I’m trying to make sure everything runs smoothly.
“At the end of a BGT night the judges often discuss what we’re having for tea – Simon tells me off for saying that, it’s ‘supper’ to him – and I missed out the other night when he said he’d give me a million pounds if I could guess what takeaway he’d ordered. I said prawn crackers – yes, Chinese chicken balls – yes, and egg-fried rice – no, he had sticky rice. You don’t realise how intellectual it is behind the scenes!
“It’s a far better programme than The X Factor because we have more variety. It must be hard to judge singer after singer. But I don’t want to be told off by Simon for saying it’s boring. I’m a realist, though. I don’t expect to be there every year. I think Simon appreciates that I don’t take it for granted and can’t believe my luck.
“My acting career is different. I’ve worked my arse off and that’s going to last, although I’ve never forgotten how to waitress and I’ll probably end up doing that again. I can still put three plates on one arm.” She demonstrates, with imaginary china.
She used to worry about criticism. “I was a terrible people pleaser. Gosh, it was so wearing. I look back and feel sorry for myself. You don’t have to try so hard, stupid cow. Stop it. Slap.” As a teenager she was so eager to be liked, she never waited to be asked on a date. She did the inviting. Same with her virginity, which she decided she had to lose at 16 as she was the only one of her group left. She wrote to a friend, Snowy, suggesting it. “Shall we just get this done? Tick box,” she explains. “I’ve never waited for things to happen.”
Her father, Frank, I begin – and she interrupts, humming the EastEnders theme tune. “Oh, the drama,” she laughs. “After my father left [when she was four] I was determined not to fail, and I’ve never shown vulnerability. I might cry in front of the camera but I vowed never to be affected by his leaving, and Mum coped so well. I heard her crying, but didn’t want her to know, or worry about me. I was so lucky our step-dad [Les] came into our lives, but there’s a little hole that never gets filled when your real dad leaves, however much love you’re given. I hate to admit that because I love my stepdad so much and he did a great job.” Amanda was headstrong, always wanted to act and was a contestant on Blind Date at 19. She squirms as she remembers saying, “I like the experienced, mature man,” a phrase that returned to haunt her when she married 41-year-old Les Dennis four years later. They briefly separated when she had an affair with Neil Morrissey, but the pair reconciled, though eventually divorced after eight years. “I saw Les at the funeral of a mutual friend, but we didn’t talk. Everyone says this business is small, but that’s the only time I’ve bumped into him since 2002.”
Piers Morgan, then editor of the Daily Mirror, was responsible for exposing her affair with Morrissey, so she was understandably alarmed when he became co-judge on BGT in 2007. “Of course I hated him. When I saw him in a restaurant I called him a jumped-up, bloated s**t bag. So what changed? I met him and although he’s incorrigible, he’s very loving and a family man. If we both lost everything we’d still be friends, although he’s a git and can be a pompous pain the arse. My husband sends him up mercilessly, as does his wife.” In February it was announced that CNN was cancelling Morgan’s nightly interview programme. “He pretends he doesn’t care, but of course he does. I’ll make him cry.”
Behind the jollity, the immaculately coiffed hair, there has been sadness, lived out in headlines. She and Chris have both had their phones tapped, “by more than one newspaper”. They have a daughter, Lexi, who’s now eight, but in 2010 Amanda had a miscarriage, followed a year later by a stillborn son, Theo, at seven months. She ignored warnings of not trying for another child too soon and deceived Chris by pretending to take the pill and surreptitiously getting pregnant with her second daughter Hollie, who is now two years old. “I took the stress out of it for him – micro- managing,” she says, smiling. “We have an amazing daughter. I was quite seriously ill with her.”
During Hollie’s birth, Amanda had a torn artery nearly causing her to bleed to death – her heart stopped for 40 seconds. “After that I thought seriously about illness and assumed whenever I had a cough it was lung cancer. I’ve had therapy and was told I suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
I assumed that was what people had in Afghanistan, and I haven’t fought a war, but maybe I have in a way.”
Last year she wrote her autobiogra
phy, No Holding Back, as a catharsis.
“I know everyone says they wrote their
books, but I actually did – my plan B
career was to be a writer, but it took 13 months to write my book, and was hard work. I don’t know how anyone does it for a living.”
When she began acting, she says, there was less celebrity culture. “When I read about actresses saying, ‘I didn’t want to become well known, I just want to work,’ even I go, ‘Come on’, but I really did want to work constantly and not have a normal job. Nowadays people want fame, rather than a craft.”
That’s exactly a criticism leveled at talent shows. “Yup, absolutely, it happens as a by-product. But we do have talented contestants. They might think they’re going to be more famous than they become, but usually they can back it up. The strongest acts are often those who have been around for years, but we have a lot of eccentric ones that are famous for five minutes. Some contestants have delusions. Others know they’re bonkers and come on for a bit of showing off, but their medical backgrounds are checked. We don’t make fun of people who aren’t well – not knowingly, anyway. I agree there’s a lot that are not great, but that’s what I find the most amusing. Yes, we want to find a brilliant winner like Susan Boyle but we’re making a TV programme. It’s entertainment, not brain surgery.
“I like to say negative things in a positive way because I’ve had lots of auditions myself, and have only been let down kindly. All ‘nos’ are bad, although they’re nicer if they’re sugar-coated. You’re stepping on people’s dreams, but if they’re determined they’ll come back, like I did. I don’t really understand what ‘no’ means.” There’s also criticism that very young contestants are exploited. “It’s up to parents, not producers. We can see through pushy parents, but you can’t get most kids off the show, and they answer back to Simon.”
Chris hates the limelight. “He used to come to celebrity events with me because I insisted, but now he says, ‘Mandy, please don’t make me go.’ So I have a lot of red carpet ‘husbands’ – make-up and hair. I don’t understand anyone who says they don’t like that. It’s wonderful to come out looking a million dollars, although if I could walk the red carpet and then leave immediately for dinner I’d love it. During the Baftas once I went for chips at McDonald’s in my ball gown.
Those events are never as exciting as people think. They’re indulgent and go on for ever. It’s brilliant to win but they don’t feed you until the end so everyone is p***ed, which is not good.”
She used to worry she wasn’t curvaceous enough. “Sadly my body hasn’t developed much since I was 12. Chicken fillets,” she says, clasping her breasts. “My best friend at school, Vic, had massive boobs and I wished I did. I used to put everything down there – cotton wool, my dad’s socks, the kitchen sink – but now I’m 43 I’m happy because they’re still in the same position, more or less,” she laughs. “I used to be a big fan of Spanx but ditched them two years ago when I started yoga, which has changed my shape.”
She’s naturally friendly, which may have led to misunderstandings. When she was 19 in Leeds General Infirmary with a cut finger, Jimmy Savile offered to give her a “gynaecological problem”. “It was completely out of order but I wasn’t traumatised.” Nor was she too bothered by a famous comedian who “groped and nuzzled” her, making her feel “cheap and worthless”. She cackles. “We don’t need to talk about that, darling.”
She thinks it possible that BGT has harmed her acting career, although she was nominated for an Olivier Award for Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2004, and was praised for her Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical in 2011. “When I started BGT I was doing Wild at Heart, the highest-rated drama on ITV. In this country it seems you can only do one thing at a time. I started in comedy with Simon Pegg [We Know Where You Live, a Channel 5 sketch show] and when I auditioned for drama they said, ‘She only does comedy,’ and then I got drama and was never considered for comedy. And because of BGT I’m now a presenter, which I love, but I’m considered too well known to act. If I was in America, I’d have my own show on the back of BGT because I’m bums on seats. It’s weird but works for me because I have my girls and if I did a drama I’d be away from home for 16 hours a day.”
Nevertheless she was criticised for returning to work so quickly after Hollie’s birth. “Hilarious. It was two days, and she came with me. Funny too – Simon and David Walliams are working having had babies. I don’t want to sound smug but criticism comes mostly from female journalists and sites like Mumsnet, which are supposed to be supporting mothers. I think of myself as a role model – it’s positive to get on with life.
“My children don’t suffer. They have their dad, and when I’m not working I’m a full-time mum – monkey music, diddi dance. I shake my maracas with the best of them.” Time to return to being a mum. “You need to finish your cupcake,” she chides. Micromanaging?
Britain’s Got Talent returns Saturday 7:15pm on ITV