Career hits dizzy heights
Claire Sweeney may have been mad to quit Brookside, but it was a Big Brother appearance that was the making of her, finds GAVIN DOCHERTY
Don't believe a word the showbiz pundits say: the only way to become a huge celebrity overnight isn't to be discovered by a top Hollywood film agent or marry Madonna - you just have to audition successfully for Big Brother. The show that can make stars out of the punters off the street has proved that it can also make bigger celebrities of the celebrities themselves. To wit: When plucky Brookside actress Claire Sweeney gingerly stepped into the Big Brother house on March 9, she could never have guessed she would emerge, just seven days later, a bona fide national heroine; or that those 168 hours would change the public's perception of her forever. And she didn't even win.
Previously, Claire's public image didn't extend much beyond being that troubled Lindsey Corkhill off the telly. The one who had been raped, imprisoned in Bangkok, worked in a chippie, and become a lesbian. Then, in the name of the charity Comic Relief, she and several other household-name stars were subjected to the relentless gaze of the Big Brother cameras and a whole nation grew to like her.
During their incarceration, Chris Eubank talked to himself, Vanessa Feltz went bonkers, Anthea Turner couldn't stop cleaning, Jack Dee (the eventual winner) tried to escape, Keith Duffy couldn't manage a poo, and everybody loved Claire, casting agents most of all, it seems.
When she emerged from the house into the spotlight, several of them, who had been captivated by her smiles and good naturedness, were waiting for her with new offers of work. Which was just as well. Sweeney had already handed in her notice to quit Brookside. Now, her career has exceeded her ambitions. It begins anew tomorrow with presenting the Saturday ITV prime-time entertainment show Challenge Of A Lifetime. Then continues in a couple of weeks when she visits Africa for a Comic Relief TV special on how the public donations have been spent. Shortly, she will be joining the cast of the west end musical Chicago, playing an American vamp. A recording contract is on the horizon.
"Big Brother changed my career," she says, sounding genuinely grateful. "It's that old saying - 15 years' work for overnight success. It gave me opportunities which I couldn't have planned. I kind of went in for charity. It was a bit of fun. When I came out, suddenly offers like this show and musicals and recording contracts happened. Things I could only have dreamed of started happening."
The truth is that a baboon with a healthy heart and a good diction and a contract with Endemol Entertainment could do a guest starring role on Big Brother, though only a select few of the people who have appeared on the most compulsive programme on TV truly make the grade in terms of celebrity. The summer show, lasting nine heady weeks and featuring members of the public, has propelled former air-steward Brian Dowling to fame, with a major production deal with Blaze TV, the makers of SM:tv.
So when her guest appearance on the earlier celebrity special edition of the greatest reality TV concept of them all had elivated a run-of-the-mill soap star such as Sweeney into greater fame and fortune, she herself knew she, too, had become part of a phenomenon.
"People had only ever seen me play Lindsay Corkhill," she reflects. "I'm a huge fatalist. Things are meant to be. I am acknowledging Big Brother gave me these new opportunities. I've had a taster of it from Brookside where you are used to getting attention, but for those Big Brother people who have never had that before it must be a huge shock for them. It really made me think of these people. I did feel like I had that spotlight on me. I had never had photographers camping outside me flat where I was staying before, photographing me when I came home. I went on a first date and we were in the papers the next day. This poor guy."
"This poor guy" she refers to is theatre promoter Adam Kenwright, a nephew of the impresario Bill Kenwright. Later, the pair went on a summer holiday to Majorca. The photographers were there hiding in the bushes, taking more pictures. "I just wished I'd kept me sarong on and gone on a diet," she laughs.
Does it bother her? "It all became a bit much for me at the start. I thought, I have just got to go home and wash me pants and me socks and see me mum and lock meself in me flat and then just get away from it back up to Liverpool. It is part and parcel of it. I don't analyse it. They could be writing worse about me. No problem.
Didn't lose sleep over it. Just keep everything in perspective."
In the era before the advent of Big Brother, to have become a celebrity usually meant you were famous for being special: now they are special for being famous. This is Warhol's famous "everyone should have 15 minutes of fame" mantra, but on a greater scale.
One need only spend five minutes in the company of the infectiously happy Liverpudlian Sweeney, 30, however, to see why celebrity is courting her with a passion. In London promoting Challenge Of A Lifetime, she is gracious, eager to please and utterly hilarious. Within minutes of arriving, she has charmed the whole room, and takes time to learn, and remember, everyone's name.
Mindful of the journalist's need for good copy, she is busy offering several anecdotes about having been flown around the world while filming the show, which invites members of the public to overcome their fears and carry out a series of daredevil challenges, such as cycling across a gorge in Snowdonia, and swimming in a crocodile-infested pool in the Australian Outback. The only catch is that if the chosen person fails to carry out their challenge, Claire has to take their place.
She recalls: "I refused to do one challenge. You have got to draw the line somewhere. Anything living and a bit unpredictable frightens me. Snakes aren't good. I drew the line with one that absolutely terrified me, the crocodiles. We were on a croc farm in the Outback. When I rang me mother saying, I'm upset, I was crying me eyes out. I was really scared. She said, 'Oh, don't do that, love, come home'. It was all very traumatic. She said, 'It is only telly; you don't have to be upset. You don't have to do this for anyone'. I am interviewing this guy, the croc catcher, very butch. And I said, what is the safety check - you know what crocs are like. As I am looking at him I noticed his legs were covered in scars from croc bites. So it comes to the morning of filming. The nominee who was doing it, she turned to me and said, 'You must be mad, I am not doing that'. I thought she was winding me up. I had seen how unpredictable the crocs are. They're nutters. I didn't trust the whole scenario. If I am getting to do the musical, I want to do it with two legs, not one leg."
She is such a natural entertainer that she is even being touted as the new Cilla Black, a dubious accolade that makes her feel uncomfortable. "There is only one Cilla Black," she offers. "Cilla Black is a legend. There will never be another Cilla Black. I have grown up watching Cilla Black. I think she is a huge star, Cilla. I have got all her records, Step Inside Love, Alfie, and all that. She is fab."
Born and raised in the Liverpool district of Walton, Sweeney has been singing and dancing since the age of 10. "Then I started singing in clubs when I was 14. Doing all the working men's clubs before the bingo, and after the footie. Doing me summer seasons. Working on the cruise liners for six years. Just working really hard and loving it. I am not frightened of a bit of hard work."
She returned to Liverpool and joined Brookside as Lindsey Corkhill. In January, she requested an appointment to see Mersey Television's Phil Redmond, and told him she was handing in her notice. "I told him I was 30, no kids, no ties. Told him I always wanted to do a musical and a bit of presenting. I think now is the time to do it. He wasn't used to that, someone coming and saying they wanted out. He told me now was the time to do it. The door would be left open. Two months later Big Brother happened.
"When I agreed to do that show I think I was naive. I had so many people saying to me, 'You are really brave doing it - you must be mad'. But it was for charity, just a bit of fun. My character in Brookside was horrible. At the time, she was being really nasty to her mum. I thought, I tend to be a bit nicer than her. So, people would get a chance to see the real me instead of me only as Lindsey.
"On the morning when I was going in, my mum tried to talk me out of it. Me mum said to me, 'Do you realise, love, it is going to be in the papers, people are going to be watching and people are going to be talking?' My mum is so brilliant, so astute. She just said to me, 'Be prepared for people talking about you and your personal life'. It is incredible. It's bizarre what happens when your dreams come true. That seemed to happen to me from Celebrity Big Brother."
Fortunately for Sweeney, the ensuing press scramble for intimate details of her private life didn't cause too many cupboard skeletons to rattle. The worst they could dredge up was that she's never really known her biological father, who left when she was six. Her step-dad went to jail last year for smuggling duty-free cigarettes across he channel from France.
But on balance, and with a career on a permanent upward trajectory, Sweeney would probably argue the attendant publicity has been worth it. Anyway, what seems to matter most to her is what her mother, Kathy, thinks. "She is very proud. She is so level headed. All she wants is for her daughter to be happy. She says to me, 'If you give it up tomorrow, you have travelled. You have been happy'. She is great. My best buddy."