Fed up of being typecast as the ‘blonde with boobs’, I’m A Celebrity star Emily Atack has ditched the highlighter and turned her talents to stand-up comedy. And that’s what it took to be taken seriously.
Emily Atack and I are discussing dating. It’s a favourite topic of hers; one that provides her with much of the material for her stand-up comedy (and keeps her friends entertained on their dedicated single girls’ WhatsApp group). But, thanks to coronavirus, it has taken a bit of a back seat of late. It’s during the darkest days of lockdown when we speak – before you can see anyone, let alone form your ‘bubbles’ – and to be honest, as she’s living by herself, I expected her to be a bit bored with it all. However, as is often the case with Emily, what you expect isn’t usually what you get.
‘As much as I love men,’ she starts, with that classic twinkle in her eye where you’re never quite sure where she’ll end, ‘they have clouded my mind and spoilt my plans my whole life. I’m talking about from nursery days when I was supposed to be playing with toys, I was off playing kiss-chase with the fellas. I’m not doing that now and I’ve found a lot of peace being on my own – I’m genuinely trying to focus on myself and my career. I’m not letting the boys distract me for once and it’s a really nice feeling.’
Emily has been single since September when she split from her film producer boyfriend Rob Jowers. Creatively speaking, the lack of distractions during lockdown really has been brilliant for her. Being by herself has allowed her to focus on writing and pushed her to keep up the momentum she gained after coming second to Harry Redknapp on I’m A Celebrity in 2018. It was the decision to appear on the show and expose her vulnerabilities that elevated her profile from ‘her off The Inbetweeners’ to ITV golden girl. Right now, things are exactly how she wants them to be – sold-out stand-up comedy shows, presenting gigs, guest-hosting This Morning and working on her very own pilot for ITV2. It’s 12 years since her big break as Charlotte Hinchcliffe in The Inbetweeners, and now, aged 30, Emily is finally living her dream life.
‘My career was always “almost” getting somewhere,’ she says of life before the jungle. ‘I’d land a part in an amazing film, with an amazing cast [she’s previously worked with Michael Gambon, Bill Nighy, Harvey Keitel and Gabriel Byrne]… and then nobody watched it. That happened four or five times in a row, with films I thought were going to change my life. I knew that if I was going to achieve the things I wanted to achieve – to do comedy and write shows and have some sparkle in my career again – I needed to make a bit of a bold move.
‘I got to a point where I thought, “My whole life, people have been telling me what they think I should do. Maybe I should lose a stone, dye my hair brown, do a play. But that’s boring.” I wanted some fun in my life again; I was noticing how the industry was changing and that people were coming out of I’m a Celebrity and doing really well, so after turning it down three times, I finally said yes.’
It was a brilliant move. After years of being, as she describes it, ‘a pin-up girl’, pigeonholed and stereotyped, she was finally able to show people what she was really made of. Funny, honest, genuine, game for a laugh, she was the perfect camp mate. It wasn’t just great for Emily’s career, though; putting her true self out there was also a huge leap for her personally.
‘People think that if you look a certain way you can’t write, or you don’t have an opinion,’ she says. ‘I really wanted to break that stereotype. I thought I needed to almost reinvent myself and show that there is more to me than a pouty face and a pair of boobs.
‘The irony of it was that, my whole life, I’d been striving to be sexy when in fact being what I really am – a wobbly-arsed, freckly-faced, fun girl – is what makes me feel happiest and most comfortable. I was so amazed and thrilled that this is what gave me all the success I’ve always striven to have. [I’m a Celebrity] taught me a way to love myself without all those things. If I’m having a bit of a down day or I’m struggling, I do try to get back to that person in the jungle, to who I really am deep down.’
The reception she came out to was unanimously positive, from both the public and from the industry she was so keen to crack. She got a book deal and the chance to do her first headline stand-up tour. It was exactly what she was hoping for, and she did it all by just being herself. ‘My dad [musician Keith Atack] said to me the other day, “The genius thing about you is that you lead everybody to think what you’re about to do is going to be a disaster, then you smash it,”’ she laughs. ‘I don’t mean to do that. I’m messy and I’m scatty and I have this outer shell of looking like I’m useless at everything but, actually, when I put my mind to things and I have some self-belief, I can do anything.’
It’s no surprise that she finds the comedy world such a natural home – it’s in her blood. Her mum, Kate Robbins, is a comedian who spent Emily’s earliest years working on the satirical TV puppet show Spitting Image, and her uncle Ted Robbins has starred in Phoenix Nights, Little Britain and Benidorm. Her late uncle Simon Shelton played Tinky Winky in the popular children’s TV show Teletubbies. But while she’s firmly ensconced in the comedy world now, the journey over the years hasn’t been easy.
‘I’ve experienced first-hand what it’s like being a woman in comedy, whose voice isn’t really being heard,’ she says, ‘to be on a panel show, where you’re in the corner, slightly the butt of the joke because you’re the one sitting there with fake tan, blonde hair and false eyelashes. I think comedy is slowly changing, but it’s still very male-heavy and I want to keep banging that door down.’
The audience at her stand-up shows she describes as ‘plumber Gary from the pub, who’s bought a ticket for his girlfriend, and prosecco girls with their mums on a hen do’. She loves it, loves how raucous it gets, how she can just get up there and talk about anything and everything, go deep into the minutiae of being a young woman without judgment. ‘A foul-mouthed Bridget Jones’ is the conclusion she comes to when I ask how she’d describe her style.
The honesty in her shows is crucial to her comedy. She talks about depression and being bullied about her body, both things she is more than familiar with. ‘As I get older,’ she says, ‘I have found that the more you talk about things, write about them, share them with people, the better you can cope. My shows are like a therapy session with 700 people. My audience are my therapists for an hour and a half – I think a lot of comedians do that. We tend to have a lot of dark tombs of feelings, so we write about them and have a laugh with it. You’ve got to have the lows to have the highs in life.’
The lows, for Emily, started at school where she never felt she fitted in. She was a bit of a ‘lost soul’ and was often picked on by other girls in her year. They perceived her as different, for coming from a showbiz family and for wearing too much make-up. When she was 18, while her parents were going through a divorce, she decided to leave school and move into a flat near the family home with her sister Martha, who is now a talent agent. Paying her rent every month was the only motivation she needed to throw herself into a career in front of the camera.
‘I had this ballsy fearlessness,’ she says. ‘There is no choice here: “I either become a famous actress or we’re f***ed.” I got an agent and went for my first ever audition, for Blue Murder with Caroline Quentin. My agent told me you never get your first one, but I got it, then got The Inbetweeners straight after that.’
The Inbetweeners was massive. It still is, with almost constant reruns since it was first screened in 2008. The cast were recognised everywhere, invited to parties, instantly famous, which, at 18, is pretty overwhelming. Emily became an FHM magazine favourite, a gossip column regular (a fling with Harry Styles in her early 20s was of particular interest). It must have been pretty rough, I say, to be so scrutinised all of a sudden.
‘My life has always been a bit like that,’ she shrugs. ‘At school, I was the girl that everybody gossiped about, because I was different. Being thrust into the industry was similar to school, only instead of people writing about you on toilet walls, they were writing in newspapers. There were elements of that time that were so fun, being 18 and going to all these parties and hanging out with really interesting people. ‘But, deep down, I like being at home and sometimes I just want to be in my pyjamas with my friends, and I think that’s what has saved me really. I never turned into a tabloid girl falling out of nightclubs with different blokes. If you want to do that, great. It does actually look fun, but I was never that person.’
The one thing that did bother her – and still does – are comments about her size. ‘My weight has always been a “thing”,’ she says, rolling her eyes. ‘I’ve been a size 10 or 12, a 14 every now and then. I love food and I love wine. Other actresses are tiny, I was always the bigger girl at castings and it never troubled me. But if I go out and I feel nice then a photo gets put online and everyone starts saying that I’m fat, it’s really difficult. There are worse things in life but, as a woman, having your weight criticised is rough.
‘It shocked me when I was younger because I’d never ever had a weight issue. I never thought I was fat, I thought I was fine. Then to be told by more than a handful of people that you aren’t fine and actually you’re too fat makes you think, “Well, it must be true and I’ve just never noticed it.” But I have got so many amazing people around me who constantly tell me how lovely they think I am and I’ve got a mum who smothers me with love and thinks I’m the most beautiful girl in the world, so that’s all that matters.’
Emily’s family – her mother, father and younger sister and brother – are incredibly close to her. She also grew up surrounded by aunts, cousins and, intriguingly, Paul McCartney. ‘He is my grandma’s first cousin – I see him as an uncle really,’ she says. ‘We used to go to his house a lot and have Sunday lunch. He’s a lovely man, a family man. He’s been very kind to us all. Stella is the coolest person. We went to her fashion show in Paris a couple of years ago, sat front row then went backstage and met all the models. Kanye West was there – he smelt heavenly.
‘But, yes, growing up with a Beatle was pretty fun. I’ve got a great picture of me and him on my fridge, holding his pet tortoise. We always get VIP tickets to his concerts. Maybe that’s how I’ll get someone to marry me one day: “Hey, I have VIP Paul McCartney tickets!”’
Paul McCartney as an ‘uncle’ is pretty impressive as a chat-up line, but if any man fails to be impressed by Emily on her own merit, I trust she’d tell him where to go. ‘I’m being given all these opportunities that I’ve chased my whole life and I’m not going to let them slip,’ she agrees. ‘People are giving me a chance. I hosted This Morning with John bloody Barrowman! I presented Singletown with Joel Dommett, I’ve sat on sofas and chatted about my life. And I’m writing!
‘Everybody’s allowing me to dip my toe into all the different elements of the industry and that’s quite rare. It’s like you can only do one thing. If you’re an actor, you’re an actor. If you want to be a serious actor, you can’t do any of the glitzy showbiz stuff. But I want to try all of it, and people are actually letting me do it.’
And so they should. In times like these, a little light relief courtesy of Emily Atack seems exactly what we all need.
Emily’s tick list
Your most-used emoji The laughing cry face.
Last credit-card splurge? I chopped up my credit card a long time ago. I really didn’t understand and just thought the lovely bank had given me a magic card to spend with.
Your karaoke song Karaoke is stressful. I prefer just dancing – badly – to songs I love.
Your favourite tipple I love all wine.
Your go-to takeaway order It used to be curry but lockdown has proven my love for pizza. So much so I’ve got myself a pizza oven. Disaster!
When was the last time you cried? I cry all the time. I cried in the bath last night listening to a really sad piece of music. Sobbing in the bath is great.
Your house is on fire, you grab… The sexy fireman’s arms when he lifts me over his shoulder.
Who’d play you in a film of your life? Sheridan Smith.
Have you ever been starstruck? The first time I ever went on This Morning, when I was about 18. Being on the set for the first time and seeing Holly and Phil in the flesh was thrilling!
Your career plan B There is no plan B. I don’t believe in plan Bs cos they give you an excuse to f*** up the first option.
What did you have for breakfast? Two boiled eggs, half an avocado and a Yakult. Hoping to lose a stone by around eight o’clock this evening.
For details of Emily’s stand-up tour Emily Atack Has Left The Group, with new dates for 2021 to be announced soon, visit livenation.co.uk
Interview by Francesca Babb