When Denise van Outen worked on a kid’s show called Scratchy & Co, she co-hosted with an ex-Just 17 model called Malcolm Jeffries. Where is he now? “I don’t know,” she says sweetly. And none of the rest of us does either. When she was the weather girl on The Big Breakfast, the then presenter Sharon Davies took a holiday and Denise stood in for a week. Sharon never came back. Denise co-hosted the show for a while with a guy called Rick Adams. Then, you guessed it, Rick took a holiday, and Denise suggested Johnny Vaughan. And Rick never came back. He’s on Challenge TV now. What TV? Exactly. When she was briefly a pop hopeful in a duo called in a-what-it-says-on-the-tin-kind-of-way “Those Two Girls”, she was teamed up with a “fantastic singer” called Cathy Warwick. Cathy’s given it all up now. “She wanted to be a singer and I guess when it doesn’t happen you just don’t want to do anything else.” Not when you’re van Outen. The wannabes graveyard must be full of little Denise dolls stuck with pins. Because she has survived where so many of them just haven’t. Although I bet they don’t resent her for it. Because, as everyone tells you, Denise is terribly sweet.
And she is. Two hours over dinner proves that. But sweet is not the point. She didn’t end any of these careers, but underneath her ordinary Essex girl exterior she is a very determined woman. When she drove her own prospects into a cul-de-sac with Channel Four’s Something For The Weekend, a show so tacky it makes the worst excesses of Boys & Girls look like the public service remit of the BBC, she took about 30 seconds to think about it and promptly launched herself on a trajectory that is now making her a West End and Broadway musical star. As she says rather plainly “If something goes wrong, I will try and find another way of making it work.” She has. She has followed her surprising triumph with the critics- although with the public an unsurprising one – in the stage musical Chicago, by starring in a new version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance. Stripped of the dance it is a ninety minute no-interval solo show entirely of songs, renamed Tell Me On A Sunday. Although she claims that when she signed up for it, she didn’t realise that it was a one-woman show. “I kept on thinking ‘where’s the duet?’”
She’s not silly though. And she doesn’t seem to play games when she’d being interviewed. She appears to be exactly what you see. Which is confusing, because wrapped in a woolly scarf, full of cold, sitting in a distinctly untrendy Italian cafe two streets away from her flat in Islington, and wearing £2.99 earrings form Top Shop which keep on falling off because she’s fiddling with them, she does seem frankly girl-next-door rather than name-in-lights. Even though all the young men in the restaurant are eating less than they are staring.
“Yeah I am both people”, she says, “People are always surprised, they expect me to be larger than life, but my friends can be a bit taken aback because I am quite a deep thinker really. I can be really quiet. But that’s what I like about this part. Roxie in Chicago was really big and everybody knows that she is there. But this character is not like that. She’s very vulnerable and naive as well.”
The character in Tell Me On A Sunday doesn’t have a name. When Marti Webb first sang it she was called Emma. Now she is nameless “so that all women can relate to her”. She is a girl form Essex, natch, who breaks her heart and flees to Manhattan where she dates men and eventually… “Well I can’t tell you what happens at the end. Let’s just say that she does find some peace of mind – although I wanted it to be real and so it’s not just got a happy ending.”
At which point, after she’s also said that she had quite some input into the creative side of updating the show from1979 when it was originated, you can’t resist asking exactly how much it’s about her. “Well she’s quite like me. I couldn’t have done this part a year ago because I hadn’t had my heart broken. I hadn’t had that kind of devastation.” She’s talking about her much-publicised affair and break up with Jay Kay of Jamiroquai about which, unlike many a celebrity, she is very straightforward. “As soon as I finished the Big Breakfast, I decided to take a year out to spend time with Jay. And of course then when I did spend time with him I realised that we didn’t get on.” She laughs. “We got on much better when I was busy working. It was like getting on really well with a friend who you see at the weekend and then you go on holiday with them and they drive you round the bend”.
She though was driven to take stock. “I didn’t want to do any more presenting”. Why? “Because I had been slated.” Lots of laughter. “And the programmes that I wanted to do wouldn’t consider me any more. After Something For The Weekend they just wouldn’t ask me to do prime time TV, which they had done when I was doing the Big Breakfast. Only then I just hadn’t t felt ready. Now I did, they didn’t want me.” And then the Chicago audition came up.
“To be honest I went to the audition with the eye of the tiger because I was really angry that my relationship had ended. And part of me thought that if I get this I’ve got something to occupy my mind for six months. It was sort of supposed to be my therapy.” In fact it was her making. And although it was a surprise to many, it was going back to where she had begun. “I always wanted to do musical theatre but I got sidetracked into presenting. I started dancing as early as I can remember. I went to a class every night of the week. I was in Les Mis when I was eleven. And then I auditioned for Sandy in Grease in the West End. They really liked me and I got loads of recalls, but I didn’t get the job. I was told that I wasn’t well known enough to get bums on seats. I was so upset. I really wanted the part. So I thought ‘how do I get round this one if they want me to get bums on seats? Maybe I’ll have a go at presenting.’”
She can’t locate this drive and determination. And certainly not in her childhood in Basildon at all. “My mum works with kids as a carer, which she’s really good at, and my dad was a docker when he was young but he’s been a security guard for thirty years. My sister has had the same secretarial job since she left school and my brother is a hairdresser. My parents still live in the same bungalow. No-one in our family really pushes themselves to move onto something else.” Her mum encouraged her when she was young. “She knew I was serious and that my dedication was there form a really young age. And she’s still got a tape of me interviewing her when I was about six and she was doing the ironing. I used to go out on my bicycle and pretend to pick people up and then interview them on the back. I thought I was Des O’Connor. ”
But she turned into a much better interviewer. Lloyd-Webber, who is always full of excitement and praise for his newest discovery, says that when he has told people in the US that she is doing his show it’s surprising how many of them remember her from the Big Breakfast. “Joel Schumacher, who is directing the film of Phantom of the Opera just said ‘she’s very smart that girl’. And she is. She is highly motivated. And also when you meet her she’s not the persona you remember from the Big Breakfast. She has a wonderful endearing comedic sense and a deal of vulnerability.”
Lloyd-Webber stumbled on the idea of re-working Song & Dance around her when the Royal Variety Show, decided in 2001, nothing to do with him, to ask a series of singers, amongst them Donny Osmond and Charlotte Church, to do a set of his songs. Van Outen sang Take That Look Off Your Face. “Afterwards I asked all of them back to the house and she was great fun. We got on very well. I just thought she was a real girl of today and I asked her if she’d ever be interested in doing the show. I was thinking more of TV really.” So then, according to van Outen, “Andrew said would I come over and have a little warble round the piano.” Lloyd-Webber says her voice was a revelation. “She really does have a very listenable voice, it’s a lovely musical instrument and has considerable power.” Van Outen merely says that she has never had a singing lesson in her life.
She is taking a considerable risk with Tell It On A Sunday. She did try it out at Lloyd-Webber’s private summer festival at Sydmonton last year in front of a pretty tough audience of most of the West End producers, not a group of critical easy pushovers at all. And the feedback was promising. And on the verge of starting rehearsals she doesn’t seem in the least fazed or daunted by the prospect of full solo exposure in London. In fact she’s determined to enjoy it. But it’s all down to her.
Whatever happens, after Chicago she won’t get get reviews that are tinged with surprise that she can actually sing or dance. And if she succeeds she will have put her early twenties completely behind her and re-invented herself. “I did my growing up in public. It was a bit of a roller coaster, the presenting”, she says. “After the Big Breakfast, if I am really honest about it I had a mortgage to pay. TV’s really good money and I had people around me saying it would all be great for me. I just thought it would be a laugh. But with Something For The weekend I just never thought that it would have the effect it did and that people would hate it so much.”
Tell Me On A Sunday finally gives her the chance to put the ladette to bed. Even though she says “I never was that. I am the most girly girl you can imagine. I’ve got a shoe collection you wouldn’t believe, thousands of handbags. I paint my nails. I’ve never touched lager in my life. And I hate football. I’m a white wine spritzer girl. An Essex girl tottering around on her high heels with a tiara.” But wow does she scrub up well. Not just as a beauty but as a real live musical star. See her on stage and she has the talent. Just that talking over dinner she simply doesn’t sound like it, which is very sweet. Maybe that is the point.