Finding fame aged just 20 in Coronation Street, MICHELLE KEEGAN thought she could cope with being constantly in the public eye… until rumours started to threaten her marriage. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith what made her say enough is enough.
When Michelle Keegan was a schoolgirl in Salford, she confided in her father that she had one dream – to become an actress. But Michael, a retired policeman, told her she needed to focus on a ‘proper’ career.
‘Dad said it was a pipe dream,’ Michelle recalls. ‘He was worried, but the idea that I had my head in the clouds stuck with me. I always have it at the back of my mind. Dad couldn’t be prouder but I look back at that conversation and see how it affected me.
I still really suffer from imposter syndrome.’ Those doubts come despite the fact that Michelle, who’s now 33, appears to live the most enviable life imaginable. Once voted the world’s sexiest woman, she and her husband, former Towie star turned TV and radio presenter Mark Wright, were recently revealed as the richest young couple on television, netting £2.6 million between them in the past year alone.
She’s also one of our most in-demand actresses, having gone from working on a make-up counter at the age of 20 straight to playing Tina McIntyre – one of Coronation Street’s best-loved characters. ‘When I told Dad that I’d got the part, he burst into tears,’ she says, laughing.
After six years in the role she quit, going on to be cast in popular and prestigious shows such as Our Girl and Tina and Bobby, and has designed her own clothing collections for brands such as Very. Yet Michelle still worries that she doesn’t deserve her success.
‘Everything happened so quickly and because I knew so many other actors had been working since they were five I’ve always had this feeling of not belonging. I don’t know if I’m ever going to get over it, because all this is something I never thought would happen to someone like me. Every part I have, I think it’s going to be taken away from me. Even when I’m working, I’ll be thinking, “OK, I’ve got three months left in this job and what’s going to happen next?” I’ll always have that.’
Talking to me over Zoom from Manchester – where she’s busy filming the third season of Sky One’s comedy-drama Brassic – one thing’s abundantly clear: Michelle’s circumstances might be completely different from when she had that conversation with her father, but personality-wise it’s hard to imagine that she’s changed one iota.
She’s warm, self-deprecating and – fortunately for me, when my dog gatecrashes the call – has a great sense of humour, telling me all about her dachshund and chihuahua. ‘She genuinely thinks she’s a rottweiler,’ she chortles.
In a sweatshirt, with her hair loose and her face make-up-free, Michelle has film-star features but absolutely no hint of an A-lister ego. She’s friendly and fun, but clearly also has an inner steel that allows her to appear unguarded while in fact giving away very little of her innermost thoughts.
Though her Instagram feed tends to show her looking immaculate, generally, Michelle insists, ‘I’m quite low maintenance. In normal times I only get my roots done about every four months and my hairdresser always has to remind me to come in.’
When I mention the world’s sexiest woman tag – the result of a magazine poll six years ago – I can hear Michelle’s colleague (and old friend), who’s in the room and picks up on that snatch of the Zoom, laughing uproariously. ‘She’s saying, “Don’t believe it for a split second,”’ Michelle says, giggling. ‘You’ve got to think most of those votes probably came from my mother. I’m literally the world’s least sexy female. I’m always doing embarrassing things and my friends are always saying, “If only people saw you like this!” But I guess when I have grandkids I’ll be very proud of it; I’ll have all the magazine covers I was on plastered on the walls and they’ll be, like, “Grandma!”’
After months of uncertainty, Michelle’s thrilled that filming for Brassic (a show about a group of Northern working-class friends), could go ahead in Covid-safe conditions. ‘It’s a relief to get up early, go to work where I’m around other people, then come home and learn my lines. It’s given me that little bit of normality back,’ she says.
In the show, Michelle plays Erin, a former teenage tearaway who, having become pregnant, is now desperate to put her life back on track for the sake of her young son. Hugely focused, Erin reminds me a lot of Michelle. ‘Well, we both come from working-class backgrounds and we’re both very determined,’ she says. ‘She’s willing to take chances and that’s how I’ve been in my career; I’ve always taken risks.’ After all, she left Corrie to stretch her acting wings. ‘Since then I’ve wanted to prove to people who doubt me that I can be versatile in my work.’ Does she still really think people doubt her? ‘It’s probably in my head,’ she admits, laughing.
At school in Greater Manchester, Michelle was an average student but the one thing that she really enjoyed was drama, so at weekends attended theatre school. After that she worked first as a check-in agent at Manchester Airport, then on a beauty counter at Selfridges. ‘I thought I’d do those jobs for a year to earn money, see if I could get anywhere with acting and if nothing came of it, I’d go to university like my friends.’
Instead, Michelle was quickly spotted by an agent who signed her. For only her second audition, Michelle was sent to the offices of her family’s favourite soap. ‘We all grew up on Coronation Street – it was a huge, huge deal. So just to be in the ITV building was such a “pinch-me” moment.
I wasn’t nervous at all about the audition, which is weird because I get very nervous in lots of situations. But I never dreamed I’d get the role. I just thought I’d do what I needed to do, then go home and tell Mum the gossip.’
But a few weeks later, Michelle was summoned to meet the show’s producers. ‘They put six heavy scripts in front of me with a thud and said, “Congratulations”. My whole world went quiet for a couple of hours. My body, my legs, my lips, went absolutely numb and I drove home in utter silence, in shock.’
Michelle describes her first day on the Weatherfield cobbles as surreal. ‘It was like stepping into a dream. I saw Bill Roache, who plays Ken Barlow, walking down the corridor and I felt as if everything had gone into slow motion. On the first day all I had to do was ring a bell but as my hand reached out it was shaking.’
It didn’t take her long to adapt, though, and the following year she was named Best Newcomer at the British Soap Awards. Her fame meant she suddenly became a paparazzi favourite. ‘It was scary; I was still very young and I was growing up in the public eye. Everyone had their own opinions – how you act, how your hair looks, what you’re wearing – and I found that side of things very hard. There would be one negative comment out of 100 good ones and I’d literally let it ruin my day.’
At the time, like most starlets, she was encouraged to appear in revealing outfits on the cover of lads’ mags. ‘I don’t regret doing them,’ she says. ‘At the time it was the norm and I don’t think I was taken advantage of. But I look back now and wish they’d been done a bit more tastefully. Now I’m getting older I’ve learnt I can be in control more. I have got a voice. If I don’t feel that I want to do something in a particular way, I can always say, “No.”
That’s definitely been Michelle’s stance regarding her and Mark, who – for a celebrity couple – manage to lead a remarkably under-the-radar existence at their £2 million home in Chigwell, Essex.
The couple reportedly met in Dubai in 2012 and married three years later. ‘Around the time of our wedding, I felt we lost control a little bit. We were in every newspaper and magazine every week. I was trying to make my way with new roles in different dramas and felt like I didn’t want to be talking about my private life any more, especially when a lot of what was reported about us was false. So I just pulled it back. It’s nice to actually have something just for us, for our families and close friends, and these days that’s the way it is.’
A lot of the gossip surrounding the couple centred on the fact that for Our Girl, in particular, Michelle has had to spend months filming in countries such as South Africa and Malaysia. At the same time, Mark’s television presenting was mainly based in Los Angeles. These long absences were – with no substantiation – said to be putting a strain on the marriage. ‘Going away for work is never seen as a good thing, only as a negative, and I don’t understand that,’ Michelle sighs. ‘Are you seriously supposed to turn down work in case it impacts your marriage? I find it ridiculous. The travelling could be tiring but it was amazing. I remember taking off one weekend and spending it on a tropical beach and thinking, “I’m being paid to be in another country doing something I love.”’
Then there’s the constant questioning about if and when the couple will have children. A few years ago, Michelle would say that she was broody but had no imminent plans. Now, however, she is resolutely shtoom on the subject. ‘I’m used to people asking me but it’s no one else’s business. Nobody else knows what goes on behind closed doors. I think that’s the reason that question affects me so much – it’s very private! Mark is asked about it occasionally but I’m asked every single time.’ Do family ask as well? ‘Not any more!’ Michelle laughs. ‘People don’t mean any harm by it, but they know what the answer’s going to be.’
After their wedding, she and Mark decided to stop sharing images of themselves together on social media, making exceptions only for big events such as last January when they marked their fifth anniversary with a shot of them on holiday in Jamaica. ‘Every now and then I’ll choose to share. But again, it’s about me being in control.’
Yet, from the relaxed way she chats about the couple’s lockdown Christmas à deux, it’s abundantly clear that there’s nothing to hide. ‘We had breakfast in bed and some buck’s fizz, which we never normally do because we’re usually in a rush to get up and go to see family. We actually watched a film during the day – that’s never happened before – and we had dinner in the evening, rather than at 3pm, with a chicken instead of turkey, which is what I prefer. We’ll never have that time, just the two of us at Christmas, again.’
She also clearly enjoyed how the three lockdowns have allowed the couple to spend more time at home together, even if the first one kicked off with both catching Covid. ‘I completely lost my sense of smell and taste. I had fever, headaches – I had to watch TV with shades on because my eyes hurt too much – and I had really bad fatigue, I would literally fall asleep at the drop of a hat,’ she says. But, once recovered, the pair enjoyed jigsaws and going for long bike rides together. ‘Before Covid, we’d do our own things but now we set our alarms and have got into routines of working out together.’
Michelle also started developing an idea for her own TV show. ‘I had the time to be more creative, do some research. Then I spoke to a production company and it looks like it can all go ahead,’ she says, again with that hint of wonderment that this is her life.
She’s not there yet, but you sense in the next few years Michelle may start truly believing in herself. ‘Turning 30 has made a difference,’ she says. ‘It was a long time coming, but by that birthday I felt an inner peace. I genuinely felt different in terms of confidence and not caring about what other people think. I was very happy with where my life was at the time, and I’m still very happy.’