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Claire Sweeney tells Graeme Whitcroft White how a 'pear-shaped' size 12 became an underwear model 


CLAIRE SWEENEY is going to have to get used to seeing herself on billboards. The Liverpudlian actress, most famous for her long-running role in Brookside and for stealing the show in Celebrity Big Brother, has just been given the part of Velma Kelly in the West End musical Chicago.


Claire Sweeney: suffers from stress-related eczema 
How will the self-proclaimed "ordinary" girl cope with seeing herself - a healthy size 12 - dressed in revealing black outfits on posters advertising the show? Ironically, she is still coming to terms with her body image after agreeing to become the model for Marks and Spencer's latest range of bras.

Her initial response to the modelling offer was a firm no. "I think it was just a confidence thing," she says. "Because whenever I see a gorgeous woman modelling underwear, my first thought is 'I could never look like that.'

"I just can't relate to it and I don't think many other women can either. I'm not a model, I'm a pear-shaped size 12, not a big girl but definitely not thin.

"Like most women, I go through phases of how I feel about my body - this morning, I tried on three pairs of trousers because I thought my thighs looked too big in them.

"But I'm not obsessed about how I look - I like eating too much for that. I just wish I were one of those people who could eat and not put on weight."

The creative department at Marks & Spencer didn't give up. They considered Claire, 30, to be a celebrity to whom other women could easily relate - a deliberate antidote to the usual images of stick-thin supermodels.

"I insisted that I had approval of the pictures before they were used and that my mum had to see the photographs first," she says. "I wear a shirt over my bra, which helped no end.

"In the end, the pictures looked lovely - I would probably be showing more cleavage in an evening dress. Best of all, I've had lots of women coming up to me and telling me how much they like them."

When the campaign was launched, Claire had almost forgotten about it: "It was probably the worst moment of the whole thing. So there I was, popping into M & S to buy some knickers. I went up the escalator and saw a six-foot picture of myself at the top, flashing my cleavage for all the world to see. I was so embarrassed I ran straight out of the store and went to see my mum."

Claire's nerves have surfaced before; she suffered from stress-related eczema which began when she started working on Brookside six years ago and reappeared again last year.

"I was very, very nervous," she admits. "I tried to put on a calm front, but inside I was absolutely terrified and trembling. The eczema came out around my eyes and I had to have lots of make-up put on to hide it.

"Fortunately, it cleared up within a few weeks and I thought that was that - until it came back last year when I split up with my boyfriend [footballer Alan Miller] and my dad went to jail [for evading excise duty].

"A lot happened last year which was quite worrying and stressful and maybe that triggered it off again. I do get a bit embarrassed when it's quite red raw. But I don't lose any sleep over it because I can cover it up with make-up."

Claire hopes that she will get back into her fitness routine once she has moved from Liverpool to London. Her job as presenter of Challenge of a Lifetime has led to some slackening of her usual exercise schedule.

"I didn't have to get super-fit for the show," she says, "because the whole idea is that it's ordinary people doing crazy things.

"But when I'm in a routine, I go to the gym three times a week. I cycle there and run on the treadmill before hitting the weights. Then it's legs, bums and tums before cycling home - that's the best bit."


Challenge of a Lifetime is on ITV on Saturday