Unexpected agony aunt: How My Mad Fat Diary star Sharon Rooney transformed teen TV

'My Mad Fat Diary', E4's hit show chronicling the life of a teenage girl with mental health issues, struck a chord with viewers

It was March 2012 and Sharon Rooney had just caught a break.

When she was first asked to audition for the lead in E4's teen show My Mad Fat Diary, Rooney told her agent she wasn't interested.

At the time she was touring the country in a van with two other actors, performing a skit about flood awareness for schools. Their audience alternated between heckling and ignoring them entirely.

Having lived that way for the previous three years, Rooney had had enough.

"When my agent called to tell me to travel down to London for the audition, I told him I wasn't coming and not to bother sending the script," recalls 25-year-old Rooney, laughing at her own stubbornness.

Her agent, however, knowing she would be perfect for the part of Rae, had other ideas and insisted she just take a peek at the script. "I read the first page and I was like, 'I'll be there!'. I fell in love."

My Mad Fat Diary, based on the real-life diaries of Rae Earl, was a hit last year for E4, which is hoping to repeat its success when the second series airs this month. Set in 1996, it follows the trials and tribulations of Rae, a boy-crazy, music-mad 16-year-old living in Stamford, Lincolnshire.

Rae is far from your average telly teen protagonist, however. When we meet her in the first episode, she is just leaving the psychiatric clinic where she has spent the past four months after a failed suicide attempt. She is worried that she has no friends. That no boy will ever fancy her. "I am a body dysmorphic without the dysmorphic," Rae tells us. "I am a bulimic without the sick. I am fat." Did I mention it was a comedy?

The show resonated with viewers: 1.2 million tuned in each week to watch Rae tackle her demons, lust after local lads, fall out with friends, and bicker with her mother. Rae isn't perfect, but she is perfectly realised. A fully-formed character – one moment charming, the next, infuriating.

"I would have loved a character like Rae on TV when I was growing up," Rooney says in her gentle Scottish accent (she was born and raised in Glasgow) when we meet in a north London café. "Someone who doesn't fit in a box, yet has friends who like her for her. Yes, she's funny, but she's also very smart and quick. And she struggles, but she shows us that it's OK to struggle. I don't think in 25 years I have seen someone on telly go, 'You know what? It's OK not to be OK all the time'. It shows you don't have to live your life a certain way or look a certain way to have a great life."

My Mad Fat Diary, based on the real-life diaries of Rae Earl, was a big hit last year (Channel 4) My Mad Fat Diary, based on the real-life diaries of Rae Earl, was a big hit last year (Channel 4)
Rooney knew she wanted to perform since she was a child, when her grandmother took her to a pantomime and she couldn't stop dancing on her seat. From then on, Rooney would put on shows for her family each night and force them to watch as she belted out hits by Michael Jackson and Doris Day.

"If people visited at the weekend they'd have to allocate time for me to perform. I was really annoying," she chuckles.

Later she auditioned for a musical theatre course at Knightswood, the dance school of Scotland, but was turned away by the head teacher. "Go and be an actress," he told her. "I haven't been wrong about a kid yet."

At 16, she left school and enrolled on a performing arts course for three years, after which she did a drama degree at Hull University at her father's insistence. Although they put on performances of Little Voice and Blood Brothers, the course wasn't what she'd hoped it would be; everyone there wanted to be a teacher, while Rooney harboured dreams of stardom.

Instead, she found herself working with a 'Theatre and Education' (TAE) group (the team behind the flood awareness play) after uni. While it was not quite the glamorous gig she'd hoped for, she insists it was a valuable time.

"I think every actor should have to do TAE because you learn so much. You have to unpack the van, take care of your own costumes, wash them, put the set up. You do everything."

And despite travelling frequently down to London for auditions, she was getting nowhere. Until My Mad Fat Diary.

"For me to get a script where I wasn't playing the bully or the funny side-kick was so refreshing," she says. "I just loved that, for once, I wasn't dumbing myself down or being really nasty. I could just be a real person regardless of size or looks."

Rooney says she is thrilled to be in a show that tackles the daunting world of adolescence (David Vintiner) Rooney says she is thrilled to be in a show that tackles the daunting world of adolescence (David Vintiner)
Rooney threw herself into the role, speaking to a number of people in her life about their experiences with depression. "That was really important for me," she says, all of a sudden getting very sombre. "People can say what they want about me – the usual comments – whatever, I'm not interested. But if someone who had gone through what Rae is going through watched the show and dismissed it, and said, 'Nope, that's nothing like how it is', then that would have been the worst thing for me. I wanted it to be as real as it could be. I did a lot of research and I really took it seriously. I still do."

That the show deals with mental illness and refuses to shy away from some tough themes, including self-harm and abortion, means fans have a tendency to open up to Rooney with their problems.

"You do get a lot of tweets and messages and letters. At first I became obsessed with replying and sort of felt like I was responsible for every single person who had ever had a problem."

Colleagues and friends soon intervened, telling her she was going to make herself ill if she kept trying to reach out to everyone who approached her. "I'm a nice person, I do care," she says. "But you take on the weight of the world. And you have to realise that I don't have a degree in mental health; I'm not trained to give out advice to anyone. I can't write to someone and tell them what they should do.

"But the fans are lovely," she continues, smiling at the thought of them. "When I get tweets and letters telling me that they now feel brave enough to go and get help, especially when it's older people, it's so special to have that sort of influence. I've had people cry when they met me. It's astounding."

Having grown up as a dedicated "Nickelodeon kid" (she watched anything on the young adult US network station, her favourites being Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Sister, Sister), Rooney is thrilled to be in a show that tackles the daunting world of adolescence.

"I love that I'm part of that genre now," she beams. "Being a teenager is when you're at your most vulnerable. It's when you pick up things and attitudes that can stick with you for ever. People change. It's a very important time."

Rooney's own school days were markedly less dramatic than Rae's. Describing herself as "a floater", she pretty much got on with everyone. "I wasn't in the popular group, but I'd speak to the popular girls. And I never wanted to be one of them. I always just wanted to be me. I did fall into the trap of always making people laugh, though. Then, come exam time, I was a bit like, 'Ohhhhh. I appear to have made some mistakes'."

Rooney (centre) and the cast of 'My Mad Fat Diary' (Ed Miller) Rooney (centre) and the cast of 'My Mad Fat Diary' (Ed Miller)
Despite being almost a decade older than her character, Rooney insists she still picks up plenty from playing Rae. "I'm 25 now, but some of the lessons I've learnt on the show have been a huge kick up the bum for me. It's taught me about life and relationships and friendship and how important they are. And she inspires me. Rae is so much cooler than me, she's so savvy. Yes, she's sensitive, but she's strong, too. She gets on with life. She goes jogging in the park, for God's sake. I couldn't do that, I'd be terrified. She just goes for it. I think she's brilliant."

Unlike Rae's scrawling journal, which manages to go from being hilarious to heartbreaking with a flick of the ink, Rooney never quite got to grips with the art of diary-keeping, admitting she was "too lazy".

"I started one in my teens but it was really over-dramatic. That's the kind of person I am; I tend to exaggerate things. And I didn't keep it up for very long. I wish I had, though; how funny would that be now?"

While she hasn't read anyone else's diary (even published ones), Rooney claims to be an inherently nosy person, and consumes vast numbers of autobiographies. "Patsy Palmer's was brilliant!" she exclaims. "Genuinely great. And I read all of the Nolan sisters." As well as devoting time to the sorts of figures who might be found in the jungle or the Big Brother house, she also brushes up on her acting inspirations. Julie Walters' and Dawn French's life stories both have a place on her bookshelf.

Her ultimate hero, however, is Olivia Colman. She was due to meet the Broadchurch star after being named a Bafta Breakthrough Brit last year, but had to cancel the engagement when her grandmother passed away. "I'll meet her some other time," she shrugs.

Another way that Rooney fails to match her on-screen alter-ego is with her taste in music. While Rae is constantly making mix-tapes for her pals, no one will let Rooney near the stereo. "I do love most of the bands that feature on the show, like the Stone Roses and Radiohead – my iPod's full of them. But then I love country as well. And dance music, things like Avicii. I have a soft spot for musicals, too. None of my family and friends will let me put my iPod shuffle on to play. They'll be like, 'We just listened to Shania Twain, and now it's The Little Mermaid soundtrack. Get it off'."

Rooney: 'I would have loved a character like Rae on TV when I was growing up' (David Vintiner) Rooney: 'I would have loved a character like Rae on TV when I was growing up' (David Vintiner)
Britpop plays a huge part in the series; everything from Blur to less memorable bands, such as Longpigs, soundtrack every small victory, accompany every painful upset.

But where does she fall on the question that divided the nation back in 1996: Blur or Oasis? "I don't know!" she squeals. "Probably Oasis. Oh, I don't know. I probably know more Oasis. But saying that, Blur have some great tunes. I'm sticking with Oasis. I'm going to wake up in the middle of the night about this."

Rooney was only eight when My Mad Fat Diary takes place. So she was more preoccupied with girl power, anyway. "The Spice Girls were my life," she declares earnestly. "I was one of those creepy fans. I didn't have posters, I had framed pictures on my wall. Framed. And bed covers, curtains, the lot."

At the moment she still lives in Glasgow (the Geri Halliwell bedspread long gone, I'm assured). She's toying with the idea of moving to London, but her closeness to her family means it would be tough to break away.

The decision might soon be made for her, however; her star is on the rise. Over the New Year, she appeared in two episodes of BBC1's Sherlock ("It was so cool") and she is auditioning all the time.

For her role in the detective drama, Rooney used her real Glaswegian voice (for Rae she's nailed a Lincolnshire accent). "After it aired I got so many tweets telling me how my Scottish accent needed work, and that it was terrible. I was like, 'That's my voice!'."

For a moment she beams, looking really pleased with herself.

"Oh well. I suppose it just means that Rae's accent is really good, doesn't it?"

The new series of 'My Mad Fat Diary' begins on E4 in mid-February

Styling by Emma Akebarian; hair and make-up by Alyse Alexander using MAC pro

Lace dress: Lace Marrakech dress, £70, Gemma Collins, 18 St Thomas Road, Brentwood, Essex, 01277 500272; Nude gold ankle bangle shoe, £336, Richard Braqo, wolfandbadger.com; Black dress: Black flared sleeve dress, £470, Moschino Cheap & Chic, harrods.com; Silver dress: Sparkle twist front dress, £139, Ted Baker, johnlewis.com

 

Dear diary: Match the excerpt with the diarist

1. "I've got this really mad urge to start a diary up again. I don't know what it is but I think things are on the 'up and up' as it were."

2. "I WILL NOT. Drink more than 14 alcohol units a week. Smoke. Waste money on: pasta-makers, ice-cream machines or other culinary devices which will never use; books by unreadable literary authors to put impressively on shelves; exotic underwear, since pointless as have no boyfriend."

3. "These are my New Year's resolutions. 1. I will help the blind across the road. 2. I will hang my trousers up. 3. I will put the sleeves back on my records. 4. I will not start smoking. 5. I will stop squeezing my spots. 6. I will be kind to the dog. 7. I will help the poor and ignorant. 8. After hearing the disgusting noises from downstairs last night, I have also vowed never to drink alcohol."

4. "Dear God, I am 14 years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is happening to me."

5. "My dear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house, 'The Laurels', Brickfield Terrace, Holloway – a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour."

A. Charles Pooter in The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith

B. Adrian Mole in The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend

C. Bridget Jones in Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding

D. Celie in The Color Purple by Alice Walker

E. Rae in My Mad, Fat Teenage Diary by Rae Earl

ANSWERS

1. E

2. C

3. B

4. D

5. A

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness