Actress Lisa Riley always swore that she’d never have children. But after losing an incredible 12 stone and falling in love for the first time, she’s planning to have IVF at 41…
In a room filled with rails of clothes, Lisa Riley does not even attempt to contain her excitement as she tries on dress after dress. Considering that she has been famous for more than 20 years after appearing on our television screens as Mandy Dingle in Emmerdale, her reaction to being styled for a photo shoot (at one point she is close to tears when she sees herself) seems somewhat over the top.
But in the past two and a half years, Lisa has lost more than half her body weight, going from a size 28 to a size 12, through exercise and changing the way she eats. She has also undergone two rounds of surgery (in February last year) to remove excess skin from her stomach, legs and arms. And her physical transformation has transformed her psychologically, too.
‘I cannot even begin to explain how it feels to be me at the moment,’ she says, wiping her eyes. ‘I’ve spent a lifetime walking into photo studios – often alongside other actresses – and having to walk past rows of cute little frocks. Then I’d come to my rail, which would have about three big smock dresses hanging there. Now I feel thrilled that I get to have pretty dresses hanging on rails for me. But it’s more than that. I feel I have become the “me” I always wanted to be. I have a life and a career that has completely changed and so much of it is down to me taking control of myself and losing weight.’
Her next role will see Lisa, 41, almost unrecognisable as a goth tattoo artist called Tina – pale faced with eyes outlined in black kohl, covered in body art – in a new BBC show called Age Before Beauty. Created by the screenwriter of Poldark and Cutting It Debbie Horsfield, it also stars Robson Green and Sue Johnston and tells the story of a struggling Manchester beauty salon run by a warring family.
For Lisa it is a chance to showcase the new confidence she has in herself as an actress. ‘A few years ago I would never have been given a role like this.’ Tina – who works as the tattooist in the family salon – is the daughter of Ivy-Rae (Johnston), who runs the salon’s tanning beds, and is sister-in-law to local businessman Teddy (Green). ‘She is the really sarcastic member of the family who tells everyone exactly what she thinks, though she’s very loyal. She’s also a bit dark and sexy – there are deep and complicated things in her past. I took the part because it’s a great script and Debbie is a TV genius, but also because I want to show that I can do so much more than play the fat, funny girl.
‘Tina is a great character and this show is all about families. She’s the sister who speaks her mind but who will stick by her siblings. She sees all their flaws but she still loves them to bits.’
Given that the show centres on a beauty salon, how does she rate Tina’s attractiveness? She laughs: ‘In her world she’s pretty hot, but it’s not my idea of looking good. I don’t have any tattoos, but I did get into the idea of a tattoo representing important things in a person’s life. We filmed shortly after the horrific bombing at the Manchester Arena and I insisted Tina have a One Love Manchester tattoo.’
‘But being thinner doesn’t make me just want to look as glamorous as I possibly can on screen. I want to surprise people. Vanity doesn’t come into it because I’ve never been that sort of actress. The part I’m proudest of was in [last year’s BBC drama] Three Girls, where I didn’t wear make-up and I looked the worst I have ever looked on television. But it was important work. I felt – for the first time – like a serious actress.’
Lisa won massive critical acclaim for playing Lorna, the mother of two teenage girls in the dramatisation of the 2012 sex grooming scandal in Rochdale. The drama went on to win a Royal Television Society award. ‘What is better than any award is the fact we were able to give those people a voice,’ says Lisa. ‘It was the most traumatic but the most rewarding work I have ever done. I got close to some of the real mothers and girls involved. There were times when the scenes were so harrowing [including one where her on-screen daughter found out she was pregnant by one of her abusers and was taken to have an abortion; the foetus was seized as evidence] I wanted to break down and cry on set. But I knew I couldn’t because my responsibility was to get the families’ story out there. I’m still in touch with them. They were so grateful for showing what they went through. I hope it is one of those series that makes people change the way they think.’
Lisa has challenged herself in other aspects of her life as well as her career, journeying to obscure parts of the world. Once an adventure-phobe, she has ridden horses bareback and slept in tents under the stars in Africa. ‘I felt OK about myself when I was bigger. I was never bullied as a kid; I lived in my own little safe world. I took the fat-girl parts and was grateful. But I wasn’t living 100 per cent of my life. I didn’t go further than Ibiza on holiday, I never pushed myself out of my comfort zone.’
Having always said she doesn’t want children, Lisa is now exploring IVF and has had a meeting with a fertility specialist. She made the decision to do this after falling in love with a ‘very talented and very, very lovely’ musician called Al, whom she met through friends in 2014.
‘When I went in to have surgery to remove the loose flesh after I lost all my weight, the first thing that came into my head when I saw my surgeon was, “Can I still have kids after all the surgery?” I was worried that because my skin had been cut it would no longer stretch.’
Since losing her mother and both grandmothers to cancer (her mother Cath was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and died in 2012), Lisa had sworn she would never have a baby because she couldn’t take the risk of leaving her child without a mother if she, too, fell victim to the disease. ‘I’ve decided not to live in fear,’ she says. ‘I want to have IVF but I’m not going to put myself through a lot of stress if it doesn’t work. There are a lot of reasons why I want to have a baby: some to do with the fact I’ve saved myself by losing weight, but also that I’m in love for the first time in my life and he would like to have a baby if we can. I don’t just think about myself any more. If we were to have a child, that would be wonderful.’
Given her family history, I ask if she has considered being tested for the breast cancer gene. Lisa shakes her head. ‘I can’t do that,’ she says. ‘I’d rather not know. I’ve been asked many times and I have always said, “No.” For me, it is walking the green mile [the walk to the electric chair]. I can’t live like that. I could not face that. I might be hit by a bus tomorrow. I would rather not know what is going to happen.’
Lisa talks honestly about every aspect of her life. Her recently released book about how she lost 12 stone is called Honesty Diet. She has tried every fad diet under the sun over the years, but this time, she says, ‘There were no shortcuts. No diets because they don’t work long-term. I changed my entire life. I exercised. I reduced portions. I cut out snacks, I cut out alcohol. I cut out cigarettes because if I smoked I would drink and if I had a couple of glasses of malbec I’d be pulling out the Warburtons [bread] to make toast spread with an inch of butter. I had to stop all that. I have cut out carbs and sugar. I don’t snack. I exercise every day, whether it’s a class or with a trainer. I don’t take lifts, I climb the stairs. I do Zumba classes and avoid even looking at cakes. And I stick to it. Two and a half years on, I’ve not fallen off the wagon, I’ve not deviated. I love being like this. I have too much to lose to jeopardise what I’ve achieved.’
Her weight loss is so phenomenal that not everyone believed she did it without surgery or a gastric band. There was such a chorus of disbelief that she took a lie-detector test and revealed the results on Loose Women to prove she was telling the truth. ‘I don’t blame people,’ she shrugs. ‘A lot of celebrities in my industry have lied about the way they have lost weight. But I have always been a very upfront person. Lying is not my way. I’ll tell the truth, however painful that is.’
Lisa is from a family of straight-talking Northerners. Born in Bury, Greater Manchester, she was brought up by her graphic designer father Terry and mother Cath with her brother Liam, who is seven years her junior. When she was nine she joined the prestigious Oldham Theatre Workshop (alumni include Suranne Jones, Sarah Lancashire and Anna Friel) and within three years she had an agent. Alongside Emmerdale, her early roles included an appearance in Coronation Street and a part in a Michael Winterbottom film, Butterfly Kiss. Cath, who worked at Airtours, was her daughter’s biggest champion. The moment Lisa begins to talk about her mum, who was 58 when she died, she cries. ‘My mother wrapped me in cotton wool from the moment I was born. She was my absolute world. She was funny, kind, honest and clever. And she was there any time you needed her. When I lost her, I crumbled.’
Cath died in Lisa’s arms, surrounded by her family. For the first 11 days after her death, Lisa survived on Valium because she couldn’t sleep. ‘I remember sitting with people at the dining-room table talking about funeral arrangements and I couldn’t even speak. The words weren’t coming out. At that point, I thought: “No more Valium. Mum would want me to step up.” It’s the only time I’ve been on pills like that.’
Within a matter of months, Lisa appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, partnered with Robin Windsor. ‘I did it for my mum,’ she says. ‘She loved the show. She would have wanted me to prove what I could do. I went in there this big fat girl and I refused to be the comedy turn. I have been to drama school, I have rhythm. I was going to show everyone not to underestimate women like me and that even if you are big you can dance. The whole experience was amazing. Robin saw me at my worst, crying my heart out on my bed unable to move, and at my best when we were dancing. He was a rock. I don’t know why but being on Strictly helped me get through the worst time of my life. There was one point in Glasgow while on tour that I almost pulled out, but I knew Mum would have been so cross with me if I did that.’ Lisa was voted out in the semifinals, but her cha-cha-cha remains one of the best-loved dances in the show’s history.
The following year, her father had a cancer scare and was eventually diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. ‘That was what did it,’ she says. ‘I lost my mother, then I thought I was going to lose my dad. That was the moment I decided I had to change. I had to take control of my health and my life – I did it for both my parents.’
Her greatest wish is that her mother could see her now. ‘She’d be so happy to see me looking like this, but most of all to know that I am with a great man who loves me.’ Raised a Catholic, Lisa believes, however, ‘that Mum is still with me and she can see how happy I am, how I’ve become the woman I have always wanted to be. That gives me a lot of comfort.’
Unlike the feuding family in Age Before Beauty, Lisa’s own is superglue tight. ‘There was a point that was difficult when, a few years after my mum died, my dad met someone else,’ she says. ‘But she’s a lovely woman, is wonderful with my nephews and makes my dad happy. So I got over myself and I’m really glad for them both.’
As for her own fears about ageing, she smiles: ‘I’ve had surgery to remove my excess skin but I haven’t had Botox. I’m not against women having it, but it’s not for me. I don’t obsess about age and wrinkles. Every day I’m happier than I was the day before and every day I’m getting older, so ageing works for me. I feel I have more to say and more opportunities [she recently helped Ruth Corden, the sister of her old Fat Friends co-star, James Corden, lose weight on This Morning] as an actress and as myself. Life is good. I’m older, wiser and better. Bring it on.’
Age Before Beauty will be on BBC One later this year
Interview by Louise Gannon