How We Met: Michelle Collins & Aldo Zilli

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The Independent Culture
Michelle Collins, 36, was born in Islington. After studying drama at Kingsway Princeton College, she became a backing vocalist for singer Mari Wilson. Michelle is best known for playing bad girl Cindy Beale in 'EastEnders'. Michelle lives in north London, with her daughter Maia Rose, three. She is filming a second series of 'Real Women' for the BBC

Restaurateur Aldo Zilli, 43, was born in Italy. At the age of 19 he moved to London, where in 1988 he opened the first of his three award-winning restaurants, Signor Zilli, following it with Zilli Bar and Zilli Fish; he is about to present his own cookery show. He lives in Pinner, Middlesex, with his wife, Jan, their daughter, Laura

MICHELLE COLLINS: About eight years ago, I went out with a friend after a hard week's work - I was still doing EastEnders. I was young, free and single, and in the early Nineties people partied harder. It was a good night - Paul and Stacey Young were there and they introduced me to Aldo. I thought he was good fun, a caricature of an Italian restaurateur. I remember him being a bit of a Versace boy, wearing loud waistcoats in bright colours, citrus-green and orange - and he sported a ponytail in those days, which I thought was hilarious. Only he could get away with it.

The friendship developed naturally over a period of time. Zilli Bar was very popular then, it was media-based and these were the days before Soho House. Sometimes if I felt down I'd go on my own and just chat to Aldo. He'd cheer me up, because he is always very up and good at his job - the perfect maitre d'.

I used to say, "When are you going to chop that ponytail off, Aldo?" and tease him something rotten. He's self-deprecating and needs to take the piss out of himself, and he liked me for that reason. He was solicitous towards me whenever I went as a customer, and I thought it was because I was on the telly. When I first left EastEnders and wasn't as high-profile as I could have been, I still went to his restaurant and he was as attentive and kind as ever. I realised he actually liked me as a mate.

It's refreshing to have a heterosexual male friend - a lot of my men friends are gay. Aldo is a mixture of girlfriend and older brother to me. We talk about the normalities of life, about our partners, our ups- and-downs. His family dote on Maia. We have the occasional Sunday lunch at his home and it's good to see him outside his working environment. When he's in the restaurant he is Aldo Zilli, playing to the gallery.

Aldo's most appealing quality is his joie de vivre. He works and plays hard, we're similar in that way - hedonistic to a degree. There's something comical about him - I can see him as a cartoon character in a daily comic strip. But there's a lot more depth to Aldo than people realise. He's proved very loyal, always jollying me along. What more could you ask from a friend?

With his celebrity on the rise, his life is changing fast - I can't keep up with him. He hasn't become blase. Maybe it's because he's Continental, but Aldo is still very excitable and generous to a fault. His taste for bright shirts will never change, they're just a bit more expensive these days. I can picture him in retirement, on a yacht moored off the emerald coast of Sardinia. I'll be there, reincarnated as Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday.

ALDO ZILLI: I remember our first encounter quite vividly. It was a weekend night out in early 91. I went for a drink after work to a nightclub called Quiet Storm, which has since closed, and bumped into a couple of my customers, Paul and Stacey Young, who introduced me to Michelle. I knew of her; she was playing Cindy in EastEnders. She was extremely approachable, very warm and open, and the total opposite of her screen persona. Michelle wasn't as glamorous then as she is now - it was near the beginning of her career.

She started coming to Signor Zilli and we became better acquainted; then she began introducing me to the cast of EastEnders, which was very nice. At the time I was impressed with her celebrity status. She used to cause a stir among my customers whenever she turned up at the restaurant and I made a point of being extra-nice to her. Gradually, as we became chums, I relaxed and forgot about that.

Michelle is a natural communicator, she tells a good story and has us in fits of giggles - we like juicy gossip. When she walks in, my spirits are lifted immediately. The reason we're such good mates is that we've never overstepped the line between friends and lovers, the boundaries never blur. That's how we keep it going. I'm not a regular bloke - I like the company of women, they're intuitive, they understand life's problems more.

What I admire most about Michelle is that she's very responsible: a single parent and a career woman who manages to juggle it all. She's always looking after other people, she's a very caring and loving person. She was the first person to call me when the bomb went off in Soho - beat my wife to it, which is very worrying! Michelle is extended family - she's unbelievably busy but still manages to come to my house for Sunday lunch. She took Laura to see the Spice Girls.

I feel like a protective brother towards Michelle. I helped her when she split with Fabrizio, Maia Rose's father. I advised her that he wasn't the right man for her, basically. She liked the idea of having an Italian man, but it didn't work out. I'd like her to meet someone in showbusiness - not an actor - who understands the moods that result from being under so much pressure. She confuses me sometimes; upset one minute, laughing the next.

But the young girl I met in the nightclub has changed dramatically. She is much more professional, poised and a better actress. Motherhood has grounded her. If there's anything I could change it would be her insecurity. I think it's one of the reasons she hasn't married. She's one of those people who likes to please everyone all the time, and she needs to be constantly reminded that she looks good, that she's a nice girl. When she left EastEnders she was worried that she wouldn't work again. I said, "Don't worry, you'll have scripts piling up on your doorstep," and sure enough, she did. I can see her on the big screen, doing what she does best - being a siren and causing havoc.

The image I have of Michelle is of a quintessential party girl. She sparkles like her favourite tipple, Champagne - I've never known her to say no to a glass. I'm very honoured that she's my mate.

'Aldo & Friends' will be aired on the Carlton Food Network from 9 June