The rise of Miss Ordinary
by Andrew Billen
Read Andrew Billen every Wednesday in the Evening Standard
Some people are born into celebrity: little Brooklyn is an example. Some achieve celebrity after much toil: this covers most of the breed. And a few, a very few, have celebrity thrust upon them. Claire Sweeney, the former Brookside star who is now the face - or cleavage - of Marks and Sparks, an ITV presenter and Chicago's next Roxie Hart, clearly falls into one or other of the latter categories. My mission is to discover which.
Claire Sweeney: "I'd been battling with my bum for years and suddenly I get a prize for it"
Before embarking on it, my back-room briefers explain to me that Sweeney represents, as if this were possible, the dumbing down of celebrity culture. A year ago she was a not particularly beautiful scouse soap actress with an unsensational love life. Thanks to one bizarre week imprisoned inside the Celebrity Big Brother House, a C-list celebrity became more famous than she deserved. Freed, she has taken the glamour out of stardom, won unearned credibility for girls next door. Marks and Spencer's underwear and Sweeney deserve each other, her detractors say. "I'd never," says one, "buy a bra Claire Sweeney modelled."
C-list celebrity is a damning term but it cannot, as I discover, be so casually applied. Clara Massie, picture editor of Heat magazine, assesses that she is, in fact, British B-list, because she has a TV show, Challenge of a Lifetime, on right now. "Globally, she's a D, although, if I had a long-lens photo of her naked with a new beau, she would move right up to A." (Sweeney's seven-month affair with theatre producer Adam Kenwright has recently foundered.) On that other measure of celebrity - what parties you get invited to - Sweeney ranks even lower. Purple and 2Active, two of London's biggest party-throwers, say she does not make their invitation lists.
In LWT's canteen on the South Bank, Sweeney is wearing a pair of Karen Millen denim jeans with studs through them and a red Karen Millen top with a denim button hole. Underneath she is wearing an M&S "Naughty" bra, thus steering, uplift-wise, a middle course between "Cheeky" and "Wicked". She has peephole eyes and a nose made out of Play-Doh and, she says, a touch of candida round the mouth. You wouldn't look at her twice in the street, but if she chatted you up in a bar, you'd fall for her even more quickly than the nation did on Big Brother. She's funny and open and has the gift of never taking offence.
Capitalising on this, I ask if she knows she's a C-list celeb. "C-list? Oh, I'm not bothered about that," she says brightly. I notice her laugh has a Liverpool accent.
Wouldn't she like to be A-list? "Hey, listen. All I want to do is enjoy what I'm doing and do it to the best of my ability. I'm happy with that, I don't care what category people put you in, A, B or Z. You can get swallowed up worrying about things like that."
Her favourite reading is biographies of Alpha-double-plus celebrities of the old school like Liz Taylor, Veronica Lake and Marilyn Monroe - all of whom, incidentally, she's been hired to impersonate in adverts for M&S's new Egoboost lingerie. Her own biography begins in traditional rags-to-riches style in a terrace house in Walton, Liverpool, the second child of Albert Brown, a club comedian, and Kathleen, who worked in a bar.
Albert left when Claire was very young and dad became Kenneth Sweeney, a butcher, who paid for her to go to dance and drama college and, when she started singing professionally, drove her to clubs in the back of his van, meat hanging either side. "I was a hit in Prestatyn Sands," she says. "Went down well in Bangor."
Her first break came 12 years ago when Phil Redmond cast her as young Lindsey Corkhill on Brookside. She had hardly established the character, however, before quitting and working for four years as an entertainer on P&O cruise ships. "It was like a floating rep company," she says, explaining that her ambition was to be in a West End musical and singing the standards in clubs was never going to be enough for her CV.
How many other young actresses, I ask, would have turned their back on the instant fame a soap bestows? "But I never do things to get famous. I do things to enjoy them. You've got to do what makes you truly happy."
Lindsey returned to the Close in 1995, turning up on the doorstep of No 10, on the run from her husband, Garry the drug dealer. She went on to have an affair with a neighbour, get jailed on a drugs charge in Bangkok, be taken hostage by a gangster, get remarried and redivorced and open a night club that was bombed. Eventually she turned lesbian.
"By the end I didn't know if I was Martha or Arthur," she says, applauding Brookside's realism. I say Brookside portrays Liverpool as a city of workshy scallies. She says there's just as much crime in EastEnders and Coronation Street.
But then Sweeney comes from a gloriously self-forgiving city. Last year her stepfather was sentenced to eight months' jail for selling bootleg French cigarettes. "He's not a murderer," she says. "He's not a drugs dealer. I love him. He's my dad." Others who remember the Channel 4 soap when it managed to sustain a nodding acquaintance with reality were less impressed. Columnist Jim Shelley, "Tape Head" in The Guardian, made a career out of picking on Lindsey Corkhill as if she was to blame for everything that had gone wrong with Brooky. "Oh Jim Shelley! But, I mean, it was aimed at the character, always the character - although there were a few comments about my personal appearance." Like she's "built like a rugby league forward" and has a "fat arse"? "Well, yes."
Or calling her "a thick, cross-eyed cow from the chippy"? "You're right. That's not Lindsey Corkhill. That's me, isn't it? But you know what? It's his job to write things like that. I'm not going to lose sleep over it."
Dressed as Liz Taylor for the M&S adverts: "I'm size 12. They wanted someone who just reflects normal girls"
As her 30th birthday approached in April this year, Sweeney became restless. Had things been different she might have had children by now. Instead she'd recently split up from Blackburn Rovers goalie Alan Miller, after four years. She began to think seriously about pursuing her musical ambitions. She won Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes with her impersonation of Celine Dion. At the charity show the Brookside cast put on privately each Christmas, she wowed them with an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley. Eventually she asked Phil Redmond's permission to audition for musicals. Because Claire Sweeney can find the soft centre in even the toughest nuts, he said: "Go on, then."
She auditioned three times for Chicago but was not cast. Then, in March, came the TV event that changed her life. The offer to join Celebrity Big Brother came from Comic Relief's founder Richard Curtis, whom she had sat next to at the previous year's Baftas. "What he said was that he remembered I was actually enjoying the event. Loads of people go along and don't really enjoy it." Curtis's casting was astute. After all, at least one of Big Brother's prisoners needed to look like they were having fun.
"But what we've got to remember is that it raised 50 million quid. I'm going to Sierra Leone at two o'clock tomorrow morning to see where the money we raised for Big Brother actually went. And that's what it's all about. I've had wonderful opportunities come from it but I think they'll pale into insignificance when I see what the money's done."
Can she say, hand-on-heart, that is why she did it? "I can say hand-on-heart I didn't really analyse it beforehand."
She may not have done but, off air, on Night One, Davina McCall, the hostess, told the Sweeney family that this was a "great opportunity" for Claire to reinvent herself with the public. She was so right. Chris Eubank's vanity imploded. Vanessa Feltz had a mini-breakdown. Anthea Turner succumbed to self-pity. But Jack Dee, who won, and Sweeney, who came second, emerged with their reputations enhanced and, in her case, made. She had been compassionate (hugs for Feltz), funny (an oral-sex joke at Turner's expense) and gifted (she could sing). Crucially, her ego did not obscure her sense of proportion. We loved her, didn't we?
It was a transformation as complete as Cinderella's. The cross-eyed rugby prop was now officially fanciable. In The Guardian, Julie Burchill, who has teetered between Martha and Arthur herself, gushed: "She is the embodiment of a particular scouse sex appeal - sly, fly, self-mocking - and the perfection of her figure in her tight jeans and little tops is a revelation."
In May, Sweeney was voted Rear of the Year: "I'd been battling with my bum and thighs for years and suddenly I got a prize for it!" The next month she signed the M&S deal, reputedly worth £400,000. "I'm size 12. They wanted someone who just reflects normal girls. So I didn't get hugely flattered and think, 'Wow! I must be a supermodel!'"
By now, the music industry had the hots for her, too. She was recalled by Chicago and offered the substantial part of Roxie, at the time being played by Denise Van Outen.
"I've got this brilliant manager who said, 'Let's sit back and take stock,'" she says. This brilliant manager is Jonathan Shalit, best known as the man who received £2million from Charlotte Church's mother for unwisely sacking him as the infant phenomenon's manager. His PR, who set up this interview, takes the unusual course of asking me to mention Shalit in this piece. In newsy, man-bites-dog spirit, I am happy to record that Sweeney thinks Shalit "a very nice man".
He has certainly brokered some important deals. This month, Sweeney's Challenge of a Lifetime began airing on Saturday nights on ITV. The debut edition performed poorly but there is nothing wrong with Sweeney's performance besides not really being a performance at all. When the man who was pathologically afraid of snakes was asked to crawl across a snake pit, Sweeney did nothing to build up the tension and everything to calm him down. She was not so much a presenter as a human being. Maybe this is the way forward. Bob Massie, head of entertainment at Granada-LWT, calls her "the new Cilla Black".
It is all good going for a C-list celeb. Some, however, feel she could do even better. When I ring Kelly Luchford, head of the PR agency GBH, I can hear her salivating at Sweeney's unrealised potential: "I think her career has the ability to go to the top or absolutely fall away to nothing. What I'd do is push her in more cutting-edge ways. I'd get her to the right parties and premieres and makes sure she was always dressed in something like Stella McCartney. With a good solid global PR campaign behind her she could be A-list."
But Luchford misunderstands her. Sweeney simply loves Kander and Ebb musicals; she isn't in Chicago because, as Luchford judges, it is "culturally active". She could be invited to every party in town and still find excuses not to go. "Sometimes," she says, "I'd rather have a night in with a face mask."
And never mind Claire Sweeney The Brand? "The brand! I'm just enjoying one project at a time."
But it must feel a bit different now she's the Claire Sweeney. "The minute I start thinking I am the Claire Sweeney is the minute I need to pack my bags and get off to Liverpool and sort my head out. It's been a funny year in some ways. There's been a lot of change. I got a bit homesick yesterday, felt a bit, you know,'Everything's great and everything's exciting and it's all going well for me', but yesterday I just wanted to be in my own flat in Liverpool and see my mum and dad. Except they're away in Majorca."
Mark Frith, editor of Heat, applauds her for making her mark "on her own terms". Shalit, more in sorrow than in celebration, admits: "She has the ambition and the talent but I doubt if she has the ruthlessness to get right to the top. A lot of people are nice but allow others to be ruthless on their behalf. If I was ruthless behind the scenes, she'd tell me to stop it."
In the brothel of celebrity, it seems, Claire Sweeney is one guest who has genuinely come to hear the piano player