She's typecast as 'Byankaaaa', the flamehaired teenage temptress of Albert Square, but so what? Who needs a posh part anyway?
Patsy Palmer looks like Bianca Jackson, the "flamehaired teenage temptress" of EastEnders - up to a point. She isn't decked out in the frantically up-to-the-minute yoof styles that the EastEnders wardrobe department inflict on Bee, and which she says she "hates" (a critic once described her ensemble as looking as though it were knitted out of cassette tape). In red hipsters and cream blouse, sunglasses pushed on top of her head, perched in the trademark magnificent mane of thick red hair, she exudes a most un-Bianca-like cool.

She also sounds like Bianca - up to a point. Born in Bethnal Green, where she has lived all her life, she has a Cockney accent you could cut with a knife; there are a good few consonants she isn't on speaking terms with. Her speech is one of those authentically East-End-muffled twangs that sounds as though it's coming through a mouthful of porridge; she can talk through a bacon-and-vinegar sandwich without her voice changing one iota. But where Bianca's stridency could shatter glass at 100 paces, Patsy is softly spoken and controlled, very far indeed from her gobby, snoggy, ranty, girly other self.

In fact, compared with Bianca, her life seems positively demure, over recent months, at least. She has just bought a house round the corner from her mum's in Bethnal Green, where she lives with her son, Charley, aged four. She has two elder brothers. Her parents divorced when she was eight, but she is resolutely untraumatised. "I always saw my dad, it was all right. I accepted it. They weren't getting on, and that was it." She also has a step-brother and step-sister, with whom she gets on well, which is "cool". Everyone in the neighbourhood knows her, and she knows everyone, in the time-honoured East End fashion.

Bethnal Green, it seems, exerts a strange fascination. "I was going to move, and I had this mad idea to move to Hornchurch, I dunno why, but then I thought, 'well, why am I doing that, I won't see anyone', and I wouldn't be able to get Charley over to my mum's, so I thought I'd buy this house just around the corner."

Another reason not to move, she says, is that the neighbours are used to her, and don't pester her; though her long-suffering mother still keeps a stash of autographs handy, to pass out to fans who knock on the door.

Bianca's typical sulky pout on the cover of a magazine can boost circulation substantially. And the critics like her too; as Bianca's storylines have expanded, Patsy has been almost universally praised. It is getting difficult for her to confine her alter ego to the studio.

"I do try to leave her behind, but everywhere I go she's there," says Patsy. "Every time I'm out, I keep hearing Bianca, Bianca, Bianca, all the time. And people don't just say 'Bianca' they say 'Byankaaaa!' " (an exaggerated fake-Cockney screech that has the tea-cups rattling on the table, the only time she raises her voice.)

This kind of constant recognition, she says, can be disconcerting, though even before EastEnders she was no stranger to fame. "A lot of teenagers used to recognise me before, because I did a Clearasil spot advert. They had to stick the spots on my face. I used to like it then, but after a while it gets a bit too much. There are places I'd love to take Charley, just the two of us, but it would turn into one long autograph session."

As well as the fans, the press have not been slow to take an interest. Her son Charley was born when she was just 20; she split up acrimoniously with his father shortly after he was born. Custody disputes then ensued, making Patsy into that tabloid favourite, a "tug-of-love single mum". Six months after she started appearing on television, the People splashed with an exclusive on "Patsy Palmer's secret love child".

She sighs and rolls her eyes. "Well, we need the papers just as much as they want to do stories on us. I couldn't give a s---, to be honest, what people write about me. I don't blame the press, I blame the people that sell the stories. That wasn't the paper that did it, that was my little boy's dad. He did it, and I blame him." She had no idea the story was coming out. "I was quite shocked and upset, because of Charley. I hope he won't ever see the story, but when he gets older, what will he think?"

She herself refuses even to use Charley's father's name. "That's what he likes; his name in the papers next to my name. I really, really think it's out of order. It's such a long time ago, he's not anything to do with me now. It wasn't a proper relationship, I was so young."

But she is resigned to this kind of attention. "If someone goes to the press with a big story, and says ''ere, look, give me 10 grand or 20 grand, I'll tell you what you wanna know', that journalist might have met me and think I'm a really nice person, but they aren't going to say 'ooh, no, I ain't going to print that, she's really nice', are they? Of course they're going to print it, it's their job. At the end of the day, you've just got to laugh," she says, not sounding terribly amused.

But there are worse things in life than dealing with a few journalists. At the moment, she says, things are going swimmingly; not so long ago it was a very different story. Before Bianca swaggered into her life, Patsy was trying to kick-start an embryonic career, struggling along to auditions with baby Charley tucked under her arm. "I was on my own, so I didn't have any help, apart from my mum. So I took him with me, running round London. I would always go in thinking 'oh no, I'm not going to get it', walking in with this baby ... but it paid off in the end."

This paying-off was very much due to Patsy's formidable mother. She sent her daughter to acting classes, made her stick with them when 13-year- old Patsy went through a rebellious stage, and wanted to spend her time "hanging round the flats with my mates, acting a bit dodgy", supported her through Charley's birth, and even provided her stage name - Patsy Palmer is Patsy's mother's maiden name (Patsy-Bianca's real name is Julie Harris, though more people these days know her as Patsy). Without her mother, Patsy's life might have been rather too close for comfort to Bianca's rackety existence. "I don't know what I would have done without her, where I'd be now. I would probably be down the social, doing what other young girls with babies do when they haven't got anything." A loyal mum, it would seem, is a better bet than a man. "My mum was shocked when I got pregnant, but she stuck by me. You'd think it would have made it harder, not having Charley's dad around, but in fact I think it didn't. At least I didn't have all that extra worry of two kids. Because that's what it's like, isn't it? The woman looks after everyone in the family - men support you with money, but you still have to cook their dinner at the end of it. It was difficult, it wasn't just girl-has-baby-and-it's-all-nice, but I survived."

Somewhere along the line, during all this, she has swallowed a huge dose of acerbic common sense. She refers to "young people" as if, at 24, she isn't one herself any more. "Don't expect any relationship to last forever," she says. "A lot of girls do think the first, or the second, or another one down the line is going to last forever. I'd say to any young girl, don't ever really think it's going to be like Cinderella. It don't really work out like that. You can never rely on anyone. I'd always like to have my own money and my own job. I think relationships are really, really difficult."

She is equally pragmatic about drugs, the downfall of a number of other young soap stars. "Where I live it's quite bad, there's drugs out on every corner. But you don't have to do it. No one can hold you down and pour it down your throat, can they?"

She had a warning example in front of her for several years: her elder brother Albert. Was she put off by his addiction to hard drugs? "It doesn't put you off. You hear stories of people who are doing drugs and their brothers and sisters are just as bad. If you're going to do it you're going to do it. Loving someone doesn't necessarily help. If they're going to do that, let them go their own way and do it."

Patsy is disarmingly frank about her career: she knows her Ophelia is never going to go down in history. "I wouldn't say I'd had proper training. All these people I meet who've been to drama school have done all these Shakespearean things, and know a lot about theatre and plays, which I really don't," she says. She began acting at the Anna Scher drama workshops, after school. "It was only pounds 1 every time - 50p when I started. It was for families who couldn't afford to send their kids to drama school."

She began acting professionally by accident; she went along to an audition for a West End production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat because her elder brother was hoping for a part, and was scooped up by the casting director. Bianca was another accident. The BBC came into her drama class, and though she wasn't even up for the audition, rang the next day to offer her Bianca. "I've been a lucky girl," she says. "I always used to say I'd love to get in EastEnders, because I used to think 'God, I'll never get a part where I have to speak really posh', - I'm not very good at accents." She still can't help a great smile of glee at her good fortune.

Her favourite actress is Meg Ryan. "And I'll tell you who else I like. Have you seen Secrets And Lies? The mum in that. She's brilliant. I'd love to be in a Mike Leigh film." In the meantime, though, Bianca will do nicely. "The only way I'll ever leave is if they kill me off." Is she worried about typecasting? "Typecasting, so what? I might do something else and be really crap."