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Daily Express - August 16, 2001

The scariest thing about Big Brother was undressing in front of Anthea. I thought she'd have the poshest matching pants and I would show myself up.

It is mid-afternoon in the centre of Liverpool's bustling shopping zone and ex-Big Brother housemate Claire Sweeney is running a bit late. "Oh God I am so, so sorry," she exclaims, sweeping gracefully into the room and placing herself in a chair. A vision of white teeth, caramel highlights and sun-kissed skin, she runs her fingers through her newly lightened hair. "Everyone must think I am an absolute lunatic," she says, catching her breath. "I don't usually look like this. I was having a shower and there was a power cut - it went completely dark, so I just had to run out looking like this! I'd hate you to think I hadn't made an effort." With a 5ft 8ish model-like figure, in the flesh Claire Sweeney is even more statuesque and watchable than her TV persona. Today, despite the sweltering Liverpool heat, even her "fresh out of bed", half showered look is impressive. Claire Sweeney's star is on the up. She has been toured widely as the next big thing -  the new Cilla Black, even. Her diary is booked up for months solid but amusingly she seems far more excited about the prospect of meeting up with her mum afterwards for some high street bargain hunting. When Claire hit our screens in Big Brother earlier this year she was - by her own admission - that unknown brown-haired girl from Brookside, and without a doubt the least known member of the celebrity household. Today, she is fresh from fronting a recent photo shoot for Marks & Spencer's Ego Boost Bra ad campaign. It was one of the hundreds of offers left on her answering machine after she walked from the infamous BB house in a blaze of glory second only to that of the winner Jack Dee. Claire admits the attention became so overwhelming that the phone came off the hook. It was playing the role of single mother Lindsey Corkhill on Brookside for six years that shot Claire to relative fame. Later this year she bows out but the doors are to be "left open" for her to make a possible return. Now things have really taken off. Already lined up is a prime-time 12 part ITV show called Challenge of a Lifetime, which Claire is presenting this autumn. "Everything has changed beyond recognition in my life in just the last six months," she says. "I'm making sure that I don't take things too seriously -  and I never over analyze even. I am here to enjoy the ride. "At the moment I feel like I am Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I know I'm very lucky to be here but I still get excited over the funniest things. My biggest buzz has come from getting my underwear for nothing. I just couldn't quite get my head round that one!" Talk is also rife that Claire - a talented singer - will take over the lead role in West End musical Chicago. "That is definitely one of my all-time dreams," she says, "I have now been offered the part, so it's all just a case of sorting out times and dates, really."

Mentioning one of her other recent accolades does not go down quite so well - the Read of the Year prize. The idea fill Claire with horror, and she grimaces. "Oh God, please don't mention that. I just thought it was hilarious," she says in her 24-carat Merseyside accent. "I mean, I am a proper size 12 and pear shaped. When I'm on holiday, I won't even go near the bar unless I have a sarong safely tied around me to hide my bum." It's not hard to see why Claire has remained good friends with ex-Big Brother housemate Anthea Turner, who she still sees. She is a woman who knows how to have a proper girlie chat. But Big Brother was an opportunity she almost never took. The day before she was to go in, her mum Kath took her to one side and asked her if she was sure it was a good idea. In the end, she did it in the name of charity. "If it wasn't for Brookie I would never have done Big Brother, and if I hadn't done that I wouldn't be here today. I'm grateful for that." To go from being a relatively unknown soap star to a billboard underwear model - not for a sleazy lads' mag but for Marks & Spencer -  is a big leap, and takes a certain kind of confidence. Was she not a wee bit wary?

"No, not at all," she say quickly. "I was very flattered to be asked. After all, I bought my first bra there. That said, when I discovered I was going into the Big Brother house, I had this huge panic. It suddenly hit me I'd have to get undressed in Front of Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz. I was convinced they'd have the nicest, poshest matching pants. I was obsessed with having matching drawers myself so as not to show myself up." Born and bred in Liverpool, she admits she still haven't got the hang of being a big spender. She claims to be more than happy with her Volkswagen Golf because the seats go down and she can "fit the shopping in". She is still more the comfortable in Kookai than Alexander McQueen. "This morning, when I was traveling in, I suddenly saw this picture of me modeling," she says. "I was so embarrassed. It's just that I'm not a model at all - I'm not a poser." Up until last year Claire was seeing her boyfriend of four years, handsome Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper Alan Miller. The relationship broke up last year, although they remain friends. She is now said to be dating theatre producer Adam Kenwright. So are they an item? The chirpy voice goes mysteriously quiet for the first time. "It's a bit private, all that," she says, looking away, "I don't really like discussing my love life. I feel like I'm disrespecting the other person's privacy." Despite dallying with the idea of being a nun at the age of eight, a talent for singing Judy Garland and Karen Carpenter numbers soon had her on the road to fame. She trained at the Elliot Clark Stage School in Liverpool for six years and then the Italia Conti Stage School in London. "When I was at stage school, I would go into my classes Monday to Friday, then run out at five o'clock to catch a train to Blackpool. I'd do a show there that nigh, Saturday and Sunday night and get to bed at 2am. Then it would be up again to catch the train for 6am to get to London for my classes. I did that for two years to pay my way through college, and it was hard work.

It would be another four years before she got her big break in Brookisde, and in that time she worked the P&O cruise ships as a singer. "I came back because I wanted proper roots again," she says. "I love home now. I get time to myself and I love my parent to bits" Claire's parents, scaffolder Albert Brown and her mother Kathleen, broke up when she was a child. Her mum, to whom she is very close, ran a dress shop and got married again, to butcher Ken Sweeney, when Claire was 11. Along with her brother Sean (now 34 and working for the Army cadets) they are a close unit. That unity got them through the press attention last year when Ken, 63, was jailed for eight months for selling contraband cigarettes and alcohol. The thing that strikes you most about Claire is her self-confidence. She has more effervescence than the bottle of mineral water she is playing with. Peering around the table into the restaurant next door, she is like a child on Christmas Eve. "Is me mum here yet?" she asks someone cheerily. Turning to me, she explains: "she's a shopaholic too, you know - we're terrible. We could shop forever. I've been looking forward to this all week." As we leave the room, stops and points towards an old revolving restaurant, now a huge, towering monolith, rising above the city of Liverpool. "Oh yes, I'm taking my friend up that tower first. You get an amazing view - do you fancy it?" I thank her, but sadly Claire's boundless enthusiasm is no match for my vertigo. This is one girl who seems determined not to stay on ground level.