SHE has captivated Celebrity Big Brother audiences with her sense of fun and
girl-next-door looks. But while former inmates Chris Eubank, Anthea Turner and Vanessa Feltz were
instantly recognisable, millions of viewers are asking: "Who is Claire Sweeney?" Despite her risque jokes and her agonising over who she would vote out of the house, Claire's face was probably less familiar - unless you were a Brookside fan. But when she sang an impromptu blues number on Wednesday night, the nation sat up and took notice of her sexy, powerful voice. Now Lord Lloyd-Webber's Really Useful Group is keen to sign her up for a West End show and turn her into a stage star. So it looks as if Celebrity Big Brother has done smiling Claire a power of good - unlike some of the more teary-eyed contestants for whom the sky fell in the moment they were turfed out. Now the 29-year-old is just behind comedian Jack Dee as favourite to win the show in aid of Comic Relief, followed by Boyzone singer Keith Duffy. Today, The Mirror can tell her fascinating story - which is just as complex and colourful as that of her TV alter ego, lesbian Lindsey Corkhill. She has suffered the pain of seeing her beloved stepfather sent to jail - and once witnessed a horrifying drama at sea. And on Wednesday Claire revealed a personal sadness when millions of viewers saw her tick off Anthea Turner. She told the TV presenter: "You keep trying to fix me up, but I'm a single girl. I'm happy being single." Behind her flippant words lay the fact that her three-year romance with former West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper Alan Miller is over. She and Alan, now at Blackburn Rovers, were tipped to marry and were living together in a trendy waterfront apartment in Liverpool. Claire dropped her break-up bombshell just seven months after coyly ducking questions on marriage with her standard answer: "Not as far as I know - ask him." Yet the couple had seemed blissfully happy after being introduced by ex-Coronation Street heart-throb Matthew Marsden. Claire said: "We thrive on each other and we're impulsive. Well, we're in love, aren't we?" But she added: "We're quite matey and even-keeled, but when we blow up, we blow up big-time because there is a lot of passion and a lot of love. It's never boring." BORING was never the word for the young Claire's life after she enrolled at
Liverpool's premier stage school at the age of 11. But it wasn't like TV's Fame, in which students wore leotards and leg-warmers. Pupils had be in full school uniform, including hats and gloves. Principal Annette Thomson, who taught Claire at Elliot Clarke College of Dance and Drama - also attended by Hear'Say star Kym Marsh - says: "We were very disciplined and there was a proper school uniform. Any student who couldn't accept constructive criticism never made the grade." Annette tutored Claire for seven years and recalls her as a charming, hard-working girl from a working-class background who had a voice of pure
gold. "Even then, her voice really stood out," she says. "We always thought she would be a singer rather than an actress, because she had a real gift." Claire went there because her mum Kathleen was determined that she wasn't going to the same school where she had fallen out with the headmistress 20 years earlier. "I owe my career to my mum," Claire says. "She didn't want me to go to the local comprehensive. "When she found out it still had the headmistress who had taught her, she said: 'I can't send you there. She made my life hell. She flattened my beehive in the Sixties!'" Annette says of Claire: "People who are watching her for the first time because of Big Brother can see what a spontaneous and funny girl she is. But she's always been like that. "Even after her success at Brookside, Claire has never put on any airs and graces and has always got on with everyone." She left with a clutch of O-levels and certificates in the performing arts
before joining the renowned Italia Conti School in London. Her family have always supported her ambition to sing and act and she comes from a very close-knit scouse background. She was born Claire Jane Brown in 1971, the daughter of former bargeman and scaffolder Albert Brown. He married Kathleen in 1966, but the marriage failed and she married butcher Kenneth Sweeney when Claire was 11. Claire adored her new dad and the two are as close as any biological father
and daughter. She was devastated when Kenneth, 64, was jailed last July for selling contraband cigarettes and alcohol. Devoted Claire fought back tears when he was sent down for eight months after pleading guilty at Liverpool Crown Court to six offences. It was estimated he evaded paying pounds 31,500 in tax.
Claire stuck by him. She said: "Nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. I love my dad and always will." The family still live in a modest terraced house in Walton, where Claire grew up. She began her career singing in cabaret on P&O cruise liners, including the maiden voyage of the Oriana. And, like another former cruise singer, Jane Macdonald, Claire suffered from sea sickness. She was 21 when she witnessed a real-life drama aboard a liner cruising the Caribbean - and the shocking memories have never left her. Claire's TV character has had some brutal storylines, including being raped, but she says she was just as traumatised by the tragedy at sea. "We had an SOS call from a nearby ship that was on fire," she recalls. "I'll never forget the sight - all these Filipino men were burnt and in agony. It was truly awful. "Our deck boys were told to take the lifeboats and rescue them, and as they slowly brought them back to our boat, my heart went out to them. ONE of our ship's nurses told me some were so badly burnt that doctors
couldn't find veins to put drips in." After her sea-going days, Claire wrote a letter to Brookside bosses, never expecting to get a reply. Scriptwriters were looking to bring Lindsey Stanlow (now Corkhill) back into the C4 soap, and Claire's letter happened to arrive at the same time as a storyline meeting. "I didn't think I would get the part for a minute," she says. "But I thought it was a good excuse for a trip home to see my family. But I think it was fate that got me the part." Now she is poised to reach an even wider audience than Brookside's 3.5million fans. She has been snapped up by showbiz agent Jonathan Shalit -
who discovered singer Charlotte Church - and a career in the West End looks on the cards. Claire has already been crowned Celebrity Stars In Their Eyes champ after performing as pop queen Celine Dion in an emotion-charged show which reduced her stepfather to tears of joy and pride. Her old tutor Annette believes her voice will be her fortune. "She has so much power and depth and such a versatile range that a singing career can't be far away," she says. "And Big Brother might just be her gateway."