INTERVIEW: CLAIRE SWEENEY - I DON'T FEEL FAMOUS AND I GET EMBARRASSED TALKING ABOUT MYSELF. IT SEEMS SO VAIN...
Brookside and Celebrity Big Brother star Claire Sweeney is embarking on her biggest Challenge yet. By Angela Hagan
She has played one of soap's most fearless lesbians in Brookside, and famously suffered the company of Vanessa Feltz, Anthea Turner and Chris Eubank in Celebrity Big Brother, but now Claire Sweeney is about to face some of the toughest ordeals of her life.
She must be prepared to swim through an Australian lagoon swarming with 500 alligators, crawl through a pit of venomous snakes in America, perform a terrifying reverse bungee jump and even walk between two apartment blocks on a metal wire suspended 300ft above the streets of Sydney. These are just some of the stunts Claire could endure as the presenter of ITV's new show Challenge Of A Lifetime, which takes over from where Davina McCall left off with Don't Try This At Home.
"I was most frightened about possibly having to do the swimming with alligators and the reverse bungee jump where you're on the ground and get wrenched up into the air," Claire, 30, laughs. "I watched Davina's bungee jump out of a helicopter over the Grand Canyon and I couldn't believe how brave she was. I nearly cried when I watched it. I think she had a fear of heights too, which makes it worse, and I have a fear of helicopters, so I can relate to it a bit.
"My greatest phobia is anything to do with maggots and worms, so thank God they didn't get me doing anything with them in this series. I must admit I was nervous filming it, but I can't tell you what I ended up doing or it will give the game away. I go through a whole range of emotions from extreme fear to surprise. I'm not an adrenalin junkie but it was a real thrill doing some of the challenges."
It must also be a great feeling when Claire steps back and surveys the way her career has taken off since she took the plunge at the start of the year and told her Brookside bosses that she wanted to quit the soap as Lindsey Corkhill to try her hand at other things.
Her fame rocketed thanks to Celebrity Big Brother and, as well as Challenge Of A Lifetime, she's been signed up for a reputed £300,000 as the face of an advertising campaign for Marks & Spencer's underwear. She is also in talks about replacing Denise Van Outen in the hit West End musical Chicago and even plans to release her own album. And if that's not enough, her bottom was voted Rear Of The Year.
"God, I sometimes cannot believe what has happened to me," she says. "I suppose the most recognition I get nowadays is still from Big Brother, but everyone is really nice. It doesn't bother me at all. I really don't feel like I'm famous. Fame is not something that I sit around and try to analyse. I'm just enjoying each day.
"I actually get a bit embarrassed and I feel like it's a bit vain. When I'm being interviewed I always think, `God, I should shut up about myself, I've been going on for ages'. I'm more interested in other people than talking about me."
It hasn't all been breathless success and fat pay cheques for Claire recently, though. Last year also saw the breakdown of her four-year relationship with Blackburn Rovers goalkeeper Alan Miller, but Claire says that despite any initial sadness she now believes it was the right thing.
"I just thought at the time, `In six months' time, I'll see the reason why this has happened'. And I did. It was unnerving at first because I am a creature of habit. I like security and suddenly everything changed around me and it was beyond my control.
"Before that I always thought I'd be married with kids at 30, but it hasn't happened yet and that's fine. What I enjoy about being on my own is the freedom of taking all the work opportunities that come up. When I go away filming I just want to go and really enjoy it and not have to think about anything."
If the initial sadness of her split with Miller wasn't heartache enough, she also had to suffer the jailing of her beloved stepfather Ken Sweeney after evading excise duty on smuggled goods. To add insult to injury, her real father, scaffolder Albert Brown, whom she hasn't seen for 25 years, then sold his story to a newspaper, talking about his love for the daughter he has never really known.
But it is Ken who she fondly calls dad and she is fiercely protective. "It was very upsetting when me dad got put in jail, but mum and I tried to see the positive side of it. I didn't go and visit dad in prison. He was only in for eight months," she says of Ken, who married her mother Kathleen nearly 20 years ago.
"We were all there for each other. I'm a very positive person and when things happen I always try to see the other side to it. Nobody is perfect, everybody makes mistakes. I love me dad and always will.
"He might be me stepdad but he brought me up, paid for me to go to school and made sure I had the most loving, secure childhood. That's why I took on his name - he's a good man. I'm also very close to me mum. She's me best friend."
Her mother's pride was obvious when Claire emerged from the Big Brother house and Kathleen presented her with a sheaf of cuttings to show her how she had captured the nation's imagination while coming runner-up to Jack Dee.
"Do you know what me mum says, though?" asks Claire. "She says, `You could give this all up tomorrow and it would have been great fun. But all I want for you, all I've ever wanted is for you to be happy, that's the most important thing to me'.
"Isn't that lovely? She's really down to earth, me mum. She wouldn't have liked this life for herself when she was younger, though. Everything was scary for her with the press writing about our family when I was in the Big Brother house."
Claire has never lost sight of the sacrifices her parents made to give her the chance to succeed in the entertainment world. Born and bred in Walton, Liverpool, her mum and stepdad scrimped and saved to put her through a private dance school in the city, Elliot Clarke, where she won competitions and prizes for her singing and dancing.
"It was costing me mum and dad a fortune," she says. "Me mum would be up all night sewing sequins on catsuits and outfits. Me dad worked so hard to help. He'd drive me everywhere and, on top of everything, he paid for me to have extra singing lessons with a private teacher, who I still see now. God, I was lucky to have them as parents."
At 17, Claire landed a place at the Italia Conti stage school in London alongside the likes of actress Martine McCutcheon, singer Louise and supermodel Naomi Campbell. After appearing in one episode of Brookside at the age of 22, she decided to get some real experience and spent the next four years entertaining passengers on P&O cruise ships. Then, she decided to write to Brookside's producer Mal Young asking about any possible future roles when fate played an extraordinary hand.
"The day he got my letter was the day he'd decided to draft more Corkhills into the Close. That was why he chose me to play Lindsey," she says. "If my letter had arrived one day later I'd never have got the part and I wouldn't be here now.
"I got off the ship in August and started at Brookside the following month. I really believe in fate, the way my life's changed the last six months you could not have made that happen - it's all quite strange really."
Now things have come full circle Claire admits she's both excited and sad about leaving the hit soap, although the producers have left her role open should she ever want to return.
"Back in January, before I got offered Celebrity Big Brother, I knew I was going to be turning 30 in April. I just knew the time was right to make some changes," she says. "I had a chat with the series producer Phil Redmond and told him I wanted to audition for other things. So I started putting feelers out and the next thing I knew Big Brother happened.
"I just thought, `Now is the time'. I'd got no kids, no ties and no big responsibilities. I must admit I will miss everyone - they're like my best friends especially Sue Jenkins and Dean Sullivan, who play Jimmy and Jackie Corkhill, and Louis Emerick, who plays Mick Johnson. They all said, `Go for it. It's a once in a lifetime chance, but you've got to come back'."
To toast her success, Claire has decided to spend a chunk of her earnings on a luxurious riverside flat in London. "I want somewhere looking over the water," she says. "It's probably me days working on cruise ships. I used to do a show then go up on deck and sit peacefully staring out at the water."
To go with her new home, there's even a new man in her life - theatre producer Adam Kenwright, 37, the nephew of theatre impresario Bill Kenwright.
"It's early days," she says, clearly steering away from further questioning on the subject. "I've been on a couple of dates with him but I don't like discussing my lovelife. I feel like I'm disrespecting the other person's privacy."
What she will admit is that she can't wait to have children, and gets broody around friend's babies.
"Marriage and kids is what we're put on this Earth for, isn't it?" she says. But stardom, you suspect, will dominate her life for now