Contrary to the rumours, Our Girl star Michelle Keegan says she is all loved up with her husband of three years, reality-TV king Mark Wright. The only problem? He lives five and a half thousand miles away…
Michelle Keegan may be one of the most envied women in Britain, but she certainly does not have a perfect life. We are in a South London location house on a mews that was once home to the author Roald Dahl. The actress, who became a household name on the ITV soap Coronation Street, is chilling out for a few hours before she heads to her Essex home to pack for a morning flight to Los Angeles where she will stay for two weeks with her US-based husband, the television presenter Mark Wright.
‘All I’m thinking about is the packing,’ Michelle says. ‘I spent the weekend at home with my family in Manchester and I dragged back two massive suitcases. I’ve got to empty them tonight and repack, plus I’ve also got a suitcase full of clothes with Mark in LA. I have stuff everywhere – tops in LA, bottoms in Essex and shoes in Manchester. I can never find anything I need.’
It is lucky, then, that she has just been given a complete set of her second fashion collection for the shopping website Very, featuring everything from feminine dresses to shorts and jackets. Michelle has been involved every step of the way to ensure her fans and combined seven million followers on Twitter and Instagram get a real sense of her style. ‘I like a pared-down, feminine look that both my husband and my mum love,’ she says. ‘And I’m all about less is more – fewer accessories, less make-up, fewer bits and pieces – which means I waste less time wondering: “Which part of the world have I left that in?”’
Circumstances have dictated that Michelle’s life will remain complicated for the foreseeable future. Like her wardrobe, she’s less about having it all, more having it in pieces and working with what she’s got. She is a 30-year-old woman balancing the three loves in her life – her husband, her career and her family. It is not perfect but it’s the best she can do right now, and it’s a situation that has led to speculation in the media that her three-year marriage to former The Only Way is Essex star Mark is in trouble. The rumour mill went into overdrive after his decision to take a job as correspondent for the LA-based entertainment show Extra last year while she remained at home in the UK.
The stories came on the back of other rumours of a rift due to her filming the popular BBC army drama Our Girl in South Africa without her wedding and £20,000 engagement rings, and – for the most part – without Mark.
She rolls her eyes. Before I met Michelle, Mark had already told me that it was his idea for her to leave her rings at home because she couldn’t wear them during filming and neither of them could bear for them to be lost. And he did visit her on the set of Our Girl whenever her schedule allowed. She nods her head: ‘You get married and everyone is happy and then straight away it’s all stories about how you are splitting up. We try not to let it get to us but it’s tough for two reasons: it hurts our families and it makes what is an already difficult situation for the two of us [being apart] even harder. But you deal with it.’
She looks at her phone. There are two missed calls from Mark, who has just woken up five and a half thousand miles away. Technology has become their best friend. She texts him to say she will call in an hour. ‘We speak every day on FaceTime and text each other all the time. We both have LA and UK times on our phone and we always know what each other is doing. The rule is we try not to spend more than three weeks apart, although the longest we’ve gone is six weeks [when she was filming series three of Our Girl] which was really difficult. And we make lists of what we are going to do when we see each other.’ She pauses and laughs. ‘That makes us sound more exciting than we are. When I get to LA, we’ll go to dinner a few times, but really the thing we do most is go to the supermarket. I cook [gambas pil pil with garlic bread is the dish Mark asks her to make the most] and we will lie on the sofa together and watch romcoms or Netflix. We miss each other and staying in is our favourite way of doing a date night. A lot of the time I don’t think about where we are. If Mark is there it’s home for me.’
Having now spent eight months flying back and forth between LA, London and Manchester, has she seriously considered making a permanent move stateside? She nods: ‘Of course I’ve thought about it. But it’s not that simple. I’m auditioning for work out in LA and if something good comes up I will take it and that will be great. But it has to be something I want to do. I’ve held out for really good parts on British television and I love working here. I think we make great drama in this country.
‘I know myself well enough to realise I couldn’t live there for good. Mark absolutely loves LA. He says it’s like Essex with bells on and he is doing so well on Extra [Mark has interviewed everyone from Kim Kardashian to Elton John and covered the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting in October last year]. I do love LA. It’s always sunny; it’s so easy to be healthy and happy there. But I’m a northern girl. I miss my family; I miss Manchester; I miss my nine brilliant girlfriends who I’ve known since I was at school. It’s just not me; I’m not an LA woman.’
Michelle has without doubt grown up to be a woman who knows her mind. The first time I met her she was a chirpy 20-something Coronation Street starlet dating a pop star (Max George from The Wanted) who had just won the first of her eventual six sexiest woman gongs at the British Soap Awards and who worried constantly about what everyone thought about her. Her main concern was that she had never trained as an actress, bar drama lessons at school in Eccles and a few classes at the Manchester School of Acting. On her first week on Coronation Street, she didn’t dare sit down in the green room (where the actors rest between filming) because she thought it was reserved for more established stars. On her first magazine shoot, she put up her hand and asked if she could be excused to go to the loo.
Michelle spent six and a half years as feisty shop worker Tina McIntyre on Coronation Street, a fact that – unlike certain other soap stars – she never wants to be forgotten. As with Doctor Foster star Suranne Jones, Coronation Street was her drama school and it has stood her in good stead. She was given some of the show’s most dramatic storylines (including being a surrogate) and – after she decided to leave the show – was killed off in a gripping whodunnit murder that drew in 8.67 million viewers in 2014. Her next role was in 2015, as a drug mule in the critically acclaimed BBC drama Ordinary Lives, followed in 2016 by the leading role as medic Georgie Lane in Our Girl, and as Tina, wife of footballing legend Bobby Moore, in ITV’s Tina and Bobby.
Michelle has proved herself to be an instinctive, solid performer. ‘People can be sniffy about soaps but I count myself lucky to have started on Coronation Street,’ she says. ‘The hours are long and you need to know exactly what you are doing as everything is filmed out of sequence. I think with Suranne and Sarah Lancashire and Katherine Kelly we are finally learning to have respect for the grounding and experience it gives you. And it’s a family – you never leave. I still pop in when I’m in Manchester to say hello. I learned so much working there.’
When she talks about the new season of Our Girl – which is set in the Boko Haram-controlled areas of Nigeria as the squadron is drafted in to try to deal with the number of girls stolen from villages as brides for Islamist militants – it is the performance she focuses on. She spent months with army medics and female soldiers in preparation, doing weeks of marching, boot camps and weapon training. ‘It’s how you hold the needle, how you run with a full medical Bergen [the backpack of supplies]. Mine is fully kitted – it weighs 50kg – so I run in a slightly compromised way because of the weight of it. People said there aren’t women as small as me in the army and that I shouldn’t wear make-up. I actually don’t – although I do have laser-tattooed eyebrows because I plucked mine to nothing in the 1990s. And I’ve come across smaller women than me doing that job. I’ve trained at Sandhurst, I’ve met a lot of soldiers and they’ve all been incredibly complimentary about the show. I work hard at it. When I did my research into Boko Haram I found it totally heartbreaking.
‘My responses as an actress are very emotional. I am representing the British Army – soldiers who give their lives for us and who spend months and months away from their loved ones to do their job. I have so much respect for them. They are individuals with their own issues and that’s the balance of the show. I don’t overthink everything; the starting point for my performance is always: “How would Georgie feel?”’ In the last series of Our Girl, Georgie witnessed the love of her life, soldier Elvis Harte (Luke Pasqualino), die in a bomb attack in Afghanistan. Michelle ‘cried and cried’ when she read the script and her on-screen tears were real. In the new series she risks being kidnapped by Boko Haram. ‘In the army you are trained for that. I would be completely terrified, but they have a list in their heads they need to think through and they stay calm. I try to get across those personal and professional emotions.’
Michelle loves playing Georgie. ‘She’s a strong woman. She deals with what life throws at her. Every woman I’ve played has been strong, which is something I’m proud of because I come from a long line of strong Northern women. My grandmother Beth [who died in 2009], the family matriarch, was an incredible woman and she had my mum Jaqueline and three other daughters. Our family is very close so I was always surrounded by women.’
Turning 30 has been a landmark. ‘I was happy about it. I’m doing the job I love and I’m married to a man I love and who wants the same things from life as me: to be respected for what you do and to stay close to the people you love. Mark is all about family. I knew that when I first met him [on holiday in Dubai in 2012]. We were friends for almost a year and then one day he drove to Manchester to see me. When he left I really missed him, which was when I realised it was more than a friendship.’ They were engaged within a year. ‘I knew he was right for me,’ she says. ‘We are very alike – we even have the same pointy little chin!’ More importantly their families and friends clicked. ‘My cousin now goes out with one of Mark’s best friends so she’s in Essex, too – a little piece of the North with me.’
As a teenager Michelle desperately wanted to act, ‘but I knew nothing about how to actually get into it. After I left college, my dad [policeman Michael] took me for a drive and asked me what I wanted to do. I said: “I want to be an actress,” and he nodded and smiled, and then asked me if I’d thought about the Navy because my aunt had just joined up. Being a professional actress didn’t seem like something that could happen in our family.’
When Michelle auditioned for Coronation Street she took time off from her job on a make-up counter in the Manchester branch of Selfridges and told no one until she was offered the part. ‘I walked out stunned. I phoned my dad and asked if he wanted to be picked up from work. When he got into the car I had the script on the back seat and I asked him to pass it to me. He looked at it, saw my name and what it was and screamed. He was – and still is – the biggest Corrie fan. It changed my life and all our lives. Part of the reason I work so hard is because I want to make the casting people at Coronation Street proud because they were the ones who gave me my chance.’
It is remarkable that Michelle has never fallen for the celebrity hype that surrounds her. Six awards in, does she view herself as sexy? ‘I never did,’ she says. ‘I’m keeping the awards to show my grandchildren but I don’t think of myself as someone who has really got it. I’m too much of a goofball or a girl next door. Angelina Jolie is someone who has got it. She doesn’t need to try; she just exudes sexiness. It’s just there and always has been. It wasn’t for me because I had massive problems with my teeth at school that went on for years. They stuck out really badly and I got teased. I would come home and cry. I had a brace for so long I taught myself to smile without showing my teeth. I saw a comment on social media recently saying I had fake teeth and I was pleased because they have clearly been fixed really well if people think they are fake.’
She mentioned grandchildren, which presupposes having children. ‘My mother would pay good money to be in this room listening to this now,’ she laughs. ‘She is desperate for me to have kids. And I do want kids. Mark wants kids. We are in complete agreement on that. It’s just not the right time. We’re both still setting ourselves up in what we do. But I know that when the instinct kicks in and I feel it’s right, it will happen. Then we’ll have to think about where we live. But not quite yet.’
Mark – ever the gentleman – has already said he will be the one to move back to the UK because his wife is more important than his career. She smiles. She is not – right now – going to force him to give up his dream job. ‘We’re making it work as we go along and making the most of being together when we are together. No one has it perfect all the time but as long as you’re happy, it’s all worth it.’
WHAT DO YOU HAVE FOR BREAKFAST? Toast with avocado and scrambled eggs.
LAST BOOK YOU READThe Secret by Rhonda Byrne – I read it again and again.
DREAM DINNER PARTY GUESTS Dawn French, Melissa McCarthy and Prince Harry. My favourite thing is laughing, and Dawn and Melissa are hilarious and I have a feeling that Prince Harry is a real laugh, too.
ON YOUR IPOD Rihanna’s album Anti. I love it.
TV SNACK I prefer savoury to sweet so it would be crisps with cheese dip.
SECRET TO A HAPPY RELATIONSHIP Make sure the person you are with is your best friend and that you laugh.
MOST TREASURED POSSESSIONS I keep things from my characters – Tina’s earrings and Georgie’s dog tag – and I have my grandma’s wedding ring.
IN THREE WORD YOU’RE… …happy, lucky, grateful.
WHO WOULD PLAY YOU IN THE FILM OF YOUR LIFE? Brooke Vincent [who plays Sophie Webster in Coronation Street]. She’s a great girl, she knows me inside out and she’s a fantastic actress.
STARSTRUCK MOMENT I sat on the table next to Priscilla Presley in LA. I love Elvis.
MOTTO Know your worth.
Michelle’s S/S 18 collection for Very is available to buy exclusively at very.co.uk. Our Girl will return soon to BBC One
Interview by Louise Gannon