Abi Titmuss on the latest stage in her colourful life
She's the naughty nurse who stood by a serial philanderer, then shot to fame as the nation's number-one pin-up. Now Abi Titmuss is making her West End stage debut in a serious drama by the late Arthur Miller. What on earth is she trying to prove?
Saturday 25 February 2006
"Excuse my appearance," says Abi Titmuss, extending a strong, capable, nurse's hand, "but I've come straight from rehearsal." It sounds like something she's been dying to say for years, as others might dream of saying, "I've come straight from the Palace." Ms Titmuss, as we shall see, has reason to be proud of her new role as legitimate actress. She has played a succession of public roles in the past three years, but none has been very edifying. The nation has watched her turn, successively, from Favourite Girlfriend and National Treasure into Brazen Strumpet and "Most Pointless Celebrity".
Snap Shots deactivated Snap Shots Activated People are more familiar with her naked flesh than her skills at dramatic projection. A succession of video-taped sexual encounters with her former paramour John Leslie, a series of lad-mag shoots and saucy calendar shots made her famous and, in certain quarters, very popular, as did her frank confidences about how much she enjoyed sex. Her appearance, last summer, on the universally loathed Celebrity Love Island, saw her stock plummet. Next month, she will reinvent herself on the London stage. Is there a more egregious exemplar of the phrase "Actress/Model/Whatever"?
Except, there's always been something intriguing about Abigail Titmuss, beyond her readiness to remove her kit. For one thing, she never seemed a natural-born ditz, slapper or horizontale. In the girl-on-girl feature she shared with Victoria Silvstedt in FHM, the latter's face was a dead-eyed mask; Abi by contrast looked both excited and shocked, like a passer-by invited to join a stage orgy. Second, she hadn't come to glamour modelling through the usual channels of teenage exhibitionism on Page 3. She'd worked for years as a nurse. Third, the press discovered she could speak in joined-up sentences and had a degree. Here was a rare sighting of an intelligent Northern lass falling into the celebrity cess-pit and taking to it like a duck to mucky water. And now, here is her new project - a serious acting job. From early March she'll be appearing in Two-Way Mirror, Arthur Miller's double-bill of dream-like playlets, each about a man and a woman circling the truth of relationships.
Can we forgive her appearance? Ms Titmuss is wearing your basic working-actress-in-mid-rehearsal look: hair pinned up, jeans, T-shirt, flat shoes, that's it. Her T-shirt is scoop-necked, and horizontal stripes of blue and white march across her (oh, all right then) pronounced bosom. Her face, free of make-up, is sweet and peach-skinned but too asymmetrical to be beautiful. Thirty this month, she has blue eyes, streaked-blonde hair and tiny ears. What, you wonder, is this nice, pneumatic, utterly unsensational young woman doing in the Sanderson Hotel talking about Miller and Monroe, and how she earned a million quid as Britain's No 1 pin-up?
"It's the first week of rehearsals, and I'm absolutely knackered," she says, ordering glasses of pinot grigio. "But it won't be my first time in front of an audience. I spent three years at drama school. I was in a drama club at university and got an award." She came to London from her native Lincolnshire in the mid-Nineties, to take a diploma in nursing at Barts hospital (attached to the University of London). Afterwards, she attended drama school during the day, while doing night shifts as a nurse. Her epiphanic moment came one evening when she was a student nurse. " The Nurses' Home was attached to Rada on Gower Street. I used to watch the students going into the college every day - and one evening, in my room, I found I could see in through a window to where a class was dancing, and I had this lightbulb moment. It's a frightening thing, isn't it, when you realise what you want to do? Fantastic but frightening."
Miller's playlets don't offer an easy ride for a nervous ingénue. They're difficult, haunting works on the foggy borderland between memory and desire. They require Ms Titmuss to impersonate, in turn, a shop manageress who takes on the characteristics of a dying woman with whom one of her customers is obsessed; and a prostitute called Angela who suffers from multiple-personality disorders.
"I love Miller's plays," she says, a little patly. "He's the Shakespeare of the 20th century. Death of a Salesman, The Crucible - I've read more than I've seen, but it's an absolute joy to be doing this. I can't believe I've had the chance." (She comes out with predigested phrases all the time, before saying what she really means.) The chance came, not by attending auditions, but by a stroke of luck. The director Mike Miller (who staged one of the playlets at the London One-Act Festival) used to teach Ms Titmuss, "and he knew I was capable of doing it". So she came and read for him - and walked straight into the part.
Was she good at working with a director? "I'm a very quick learner," she says. "Tell me something once and I'll do it. I'm very good at learning lines - probably from doing a lot of Latin at school." (Amazing but true, Abi Titmuss was a whiz at schoolgirl Latin in Sleaford, Lincolnshire. I gave her a slice of dog-Latin to translate, and she sailed through it.)
Did she appreciate the challenge of Two-Way Mirror? "It's terribly intense. I keep thinking, 'Gosh, if I can do this ...' It's not naturalistic, it's set in someone's mind. I have to become four or five people, different voices. One's an austere, upper-class Southern woman, another's a child, another's a strong New Yorker. I have to do them all, and do the accents. And because it's a two-hander, there's nowhere to hide ..."
She is understandably apprehensive about the first night, and the cries of "Get 'em off!" from the theatre critics of The Sun, The Mirror and The Sport. "I'm under no illusion that it'll be anything but a tough crowd," says Abi, glumly sipping her wine. "It'll be incredibly frightening. But I'm trying to prove myself and I know I can do it. I'm so fulfilled by it, it's a risk I'm willing to take." (See what I mean about the predigested phrases?) "I think of the front pages I've had, and everything I've been through - this is different. This is not, 'come and see if you like my personality or my boobs or what I'm wearing or my sex life', this is not about me and who I've slept with, this is about acting and whether I can do it."
Her rise to fame as a good-time girl produced some astonishing statistics. Between spring 2004 and spring 2005, she appeared on the front covers of national newspapers 68 times, sold more calendars than Kylie Minogue and earned more than £1m in cheesecake shots. A shrewd opportunist when Fate came a-calling, she seized every opportunity. When a four-in-a-bed shagfest, filmed on camcorder, made it into the Sunday papers and she was fired from her part-time slot on Richard and Judy, she swiftly reappeared as the host of a porn-channel show. She was signed up by Virgin Books to reveal her favourite sexual fantasies, which were ghost-written from her outline and sold in the Black Lace erotica series under the title Ten Fantasies. She was paid a cool £100,000 to appear on Celebrity Love Island, a contract that involved the arduous tasks of lying on a beach and swapping saliva with the footballing heart-throb Lee Sharpe.
A backlash inevitably followed. Her progress was monitored by a small army of bitchy lady commentators who called her names ("Cheap trollopy porn star") and called down Victorian anathemas on her head ("No one would want her as their wife, mother or daughter"). The bile of their attacks appalled Abi. "That woman [the Mirror columnist] Carole Malone was so vitriolic. So over the top. It wasn't as if I'd done something terrible. It really shocked me. But it won me a lot of support. Girls come up to me all the time now, which is wonderful, because they see me as normal, not someone airbrushed and sexy and threatening. I'm not perfect and I never pretended to be."
The tone of hurt might be more convincing had Abi not made a virtue out of talking dirty for the tabloids ("I haven't had sex for two months and it's driving me a bit crazy!"). Sometimes it seems she may suffer from multiple personality disorder. "Yes, there are elements of that," she concedes, "acting certain ways because of whom you're talking to. It's just business, I suppose.
In the glamour world, there's a mutual understanding about what they want and what readers want. But like many women, there are many sides to me. The glamour modelling is one side. I'm quite a sexual person in some ways. I must be a bit of an exhibitionist to want to go on stage. And I'm a nurse, so I've seen thousands of naked bodies and I'm comfortable with all that ..."
Nursing, of course, is the key to Ms Titmuss's success. As she faced the cameras for the first time in 2003 - John Leslie's faithful girlfriend, standing by her man outside Southwark Crown Court, looking a treat with a crucifix depending into her cleavage - the general public clocked several things. She was loyal to a famous philanderer, so she wasn't bothered by sexual incontinence. She had a large chest. And she was a nurse. Into the British consciousness leapt the wholly invented figure of Abi Titmuss, the On-For-It Angel clad in a white PVC uniform, prodigiously unzipped. She was the ministering NHS geisha - probably mustard in the sack and she'd tuck in a really efficient hospital corner when it was over.
"I never did a shoot in a nurse's uniform," she says. "I've been offered a lot of money to do it but I refused. I can't. I was a professional." When she was a nurse, how did she deal with gentlemen patients who were excessively pleased to see her? Was it true that nurses, if confronted by an unscheduled erection, were trained to whack it with a spoon? "I think that's got more to do with what's in your head, John, than real life." Curses. She may be right.
Had she, I asked at this point, been a good nurse? It was the signal for an extraordinary outpouring. From being a slightly awkward starlet, mouthing sentiments she'd uttered a thousand times, Abi Titmuss was transformed.
"I was in charge of a 23-bed Acute Admissions ward attached to the Accident & Emergency at University College Hospital, the busiest emergency unit in central London. There used to be only two nurses on the night shift, and you get this instinct, sometimes, to check on people. You shine a torch on everyone's chest, to check they're breathing. And this one woman patient, she wasn't breathing. The adrenaline starts going, and your heart pounds and you say, Please breathe, and she didn't, so I started doing chest compressions. I'd only done them once before, but that was on a corpse, a junkie who'd injected himself in a gay loo in Soho and had died. This woman, I did it so hard, I broke one or two of her ribs. I felt terrible afterwards. But we brought her back, and people said, 'You probably saved her life.' "
I got the impression Ms Titmuss hadn't talked about such matters for a while. They were coming out in a flood.
"There were some terrible things that'll stay with me for ever. One woman came in with a tumour that had grown until it had taken over her whole face, poor woman; it had grown into her neck. One day she pressed the buzzer and called me in and said, 'Nurse, I think I'm bleeding.' I moved the sheet and the whole bed was covered in blood, because the tumour had cut into her carotid artery. She was bleeding to death in front of me. I called the other nurse, she came in and we just looked at each other, terrified. I had to lean all my weight on her neck, on the artery, trying to stop the bleeding. The Crash Team arrived and fixed up drips on both sides of her, running blood straight into both her arms, and it was coming straight out, there was blood dripping on the floor ..."
She took a deep breath. "I remember it occurred to me that no one was speaking to the patient. I took her hand and she gripped mine and I started talking to her and saying, 'We're here, it's OK, we're doing all we can.' Can you believe dying like that, in terror and pain, with people shouting all around you? But we managed to stabilise her, take her to Intensive Care; we put her on morphine so she wasn't in pain. All her family came in, said their goodbyes and that they loved her, and she fell asleep and died just like that."
Ms Titmuss looked up. There were big tears in her blue eyes. (There was a strange prickling in mine too.)
"When you've done things like that, you feel you've done something good with your life. And it's hard when people write rubbish about you, and call you a tart and a little nobody." The strain of trying to live in two worlds simultaneously finally burst out. "I never aspired to be a celebrity. I'd never watched reality TV. I had no respect for the culture. It's not like I came to the celebrity world from an office job - I came from the nursing world, where I was doing things with my days. I became something I had no respect for. It's hard to become the embodiment of something you've never respected, when you used to do something you had lots of respect for." It's hard to tell if Abi Titmuss is just slightly hamming up her angst and lost dignity. But the tears are real enough. I doubt if she'd choose to return to a life of nursing, were such a bizarre career move possible. But you can tell she's had second thoughts about the glamorous executive express of Renown, upon which she clambered so readily.
To cheer her up, I asked, "Have you seen how many times you feature on eBay today?" "No," she replied, halfway between alarmed and intrigued. "How do I feature?" I showed her a print-out of the current line-up of offers for pictures of her, each briefly but priapically described in an ecstatic litany: "ABI TITMUSS Bent Over Juicy Booty 8x10 PHOTO $0.99!! ABI TITMUSS Hot Completely Nude 8x10 PHOTO $0.99!! ABI TITMUSS Hot Tiny Bra and Panties!! ABI TITMUSS Naked Squeezing Breasts!!" It goes on for pages. (The pictures, since you ask, are not terribly explicit; they're conventional shots of Abi looking preoccupied in her smalls.)
"Oh my God," said Abi, inspecting the inventory-like objectification of her body. "'Sexy Bent Over and Topless'. Oh God. It makes me cringe. I'm not knocking glamour modelling. It's done a lot for me, and I enjoyed it to a point, and I'll still do sexy because I like that, but -" She wrinkled her brow, as if a great thought had suddenly occurred to her. "I find this odd. There was a picture of me on the cover of a newspaper recently, a modelling thing I'd done, and for the first time, I said to the guy I was with, 'I find this really odd, that I'm in my knickers and bra on the cover of a national newspaper.' It's only just sunk in now. It is an odd thing, isn't it? Being in your knickers and bra on the cover of a national paper?"
'Two-Way Mirror' is at the Courtyard at Covent Garden, Wellington Street, London WC2 (020 7833 0876), from 2 March
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