Abi Titmuss: Carry on, nurse

She is, as she cheerfully admits, the country's most pointless pin-up. The former nurse who stood by her man is now treating readers of lads' mags and viewers of trash TV to as much of her as they can stand. She is without doubt the very model of the modern minor celebrity (and making a pretty penny, too)
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The Independent Online

According to George Best, ITV's Celebrity Love Island is "one of the worst programmes ever made". Piers Morgan says it is "the most absurd and pathetic televisual experience I have ever had to endure". The public seems to agree, with viewing figures for ITV tumbling so vertiginously that the "Is this the end of celebrity/reality TV?" debate has been given another airing in the media.

According to George Best, ITV's Celebrity Love Island is "one of the worst programmes ever made". Piers Morgan says it is "the most absurd and pathetic televisual experience I have ever had to endure". The public seems to agree, with viewing figures for ITV tumbling so vertiginously that the "Is this the end of celebrity/reality TV?" debate has been given another airing in the media.

Certainly, had ITV not invested more than £2m in the programme, it would have been the end of that particular venture into celebrity paint-drying, but for one of its participants it will probably turn out to be just another promotional vehicle, another pit stop in a bewildering showbiz odyssey.

Abi Titmuss is everywhere. No edition of a popular print is complete without a story, kiss'n'tell, or just a picture of the former nurse from Lincolnshire. Men's magazines love her. Huge swaths of the population labour under the belief that maybe, just maybe, they could win her affections. Last week Channel 4 thought her important enough to run an hour-long documentary about her.

There is no obvious reason for 29-year-old Abi Titmuss to be so celebrated. She, like so many others, is famous for being famous. Yet she is the ultimate embodiment, the extreme case, of a type of essentially talentless celebrity of which television, until recently at least, could not get enough. Through shrewd handling, by herself and her minders, she has grown rich by creating a market for herself, giving newspapers and TV companies what they want, yet always remaining pretty much in control. Mark Frith, editor of Heat, says that she has it within her power to be "as famous as Will Smith", while according to a News of the World executive, "over the last year she has been a much bigger star for us than Tom Cruise could ever be".

There is, though, something that sets her apart from others who earn a living playing the same game, such as Jordan, Jodie Marsh and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. She's rather better at it. Less than a year and a half ago, Abi was still running a ward at University College Hospital, London, and living in nurses' digs. She had a public profile as the girlfriend of John Leslie, the television presenter who was disgraced by a series of claims about his sexual behaviour. When, in the summer of 2003, he was tried - and cleared - of charges of indecent assault, she stood by Leslie, who sunk into depression as his television work dried up. She came across as demure and pleasantly spoken, and was praised for remaining loyal to Leslie despite sleazy stories about him. "His angel" was how she was known at the time.

Abi Titmuss seems unsinkable, a quality she will need after Celebrity Love Island. When the News of the World printed photos from a video of Leslie, Titmuss and two others engaged in a "four-in-a-bed orgy", Titmuss's innocent image was blown. She had recently made the leap into television, as a roving reporter for Richard and Judy, but the revelations brought a sharp end to that. John Noel, Leslie's agent, told her that her nascent TV career was over, but Titmuss is extraordinarily determined. "I said no, this is not going to happen," she recalled in Thursday's documentary. "I'm not going to let this one story finish me. So I made a confession."

And so began the reinvention, and the irresistible rise, of Abi Titmuss. Abi promptly earned back the money she'd spent on lawyers by selling her side of the story to the NoW. She accepted an offer of two days presenting for a porn network, Television X, and proceeded to exploit to the full the fascination felt by the male public when it was revealed that the girl next door indulged in unexpectedly liberated antics behind said door. She split up with Leslie, and moved to a new agency, Money Management. Since then she is said to have made at least £1m. Certainly, it's been enough for her to buy a house in north London and a red Mini Cooper convertible she calls "Alice".

She has released a DVD, Tone and Tease, and a calendar, and has appeared on the covers of FHM, Maxim and Nuts magazines. Phil Hilton, the editor of Nuts, says she can lift sales by tens of thousands. "It's because Abi's a real person who has experienced real life. Having come so quickly from being a nurse, she's clearly delighted with what she's doing," he says. "She's not a puppet." No, she's not. Better than most, she has realised that she can turn the supposedly adversarial relationship between press and celebrity to her advantage. She pays for her photoshoots so that she can retain the copyright. That way, even if she is the subject of an unwanted revelation. she may well be paid for the pictures used to illustrate the story. "So I make more money than the person doing the kiss and tell," she says.

Other photo opportunities, posed to look like "snatched" shots, are set up so she receives a percentage from the picture agencies. She can even see a positive side to the infamous video, which made its way on to the internet and is described by one viewer as being "highly educational". "It made me more famous" is her comment, which presumably applies as well to the stories linking her to a string of men, including David Walliams of Little Britain fame.

Titmuss claims cognisance of the transient nature of her fame. "I'm well aware that it will end," she says, "and I'm prepared for that. I might just be around for a year." It helps that she is undoubtedly more intelligent than others whose fame is founded on so little. She grew up in Ruskington, Lincolnshire, the child of teachers. Young Abi played the clarinet at school, and still listens to classical music. She is also a keen theatregoer - she recently found herself sitting next to Peter Ackroyd in a play about Lucian Freud - and has talked about acting in the future.

In the short term, she has a book of erotic short stories, Ten Fantasies, due to be published in July. Despite sometimes being labelled a "porn star", she has never appeared completely topless in any of her "glamour" photos, her nipples always being discreetly covered. In the manner of someone well aware of her market value, she is evidently keeping something in reserve for, say, a highly lucrative Playboy shoot.

Many are quick to condemn her for a supposed lack of shame. The News of the World, which has sold many extra copies through Miss Titmuss, has called her as an "old boiler". But the combination of unEnglish sexual candour and the underlying "niceness" of an apparently attainable, obliging, pretty, but quite ordinary woman (and one who spent eight years working as a nurse) gives her appeal beyond her harsher or still more brazen peers in the world of glamour.

As for the pointlessness of her fame, Peter Bazalgette, chairman of Endemol UK, producer of Big Brother, The Farm and Cosmetic Surgery Live, thinks Abi Titmuss is in a great historical tradition. "We've always had an obsession with those who are famous for being famous," he says. "There was Nell Gywnne, Dick Turpin, the 'It Girls' of the 1920s. The new trend since Big Brother is that we are creating celebrities to order to satisfy this curiosity, and Abi Titmuss is evidence of that trend."

Abi herself doesn't seem to take it all too seriously. Mentioning that she had once been voted Britain's "most pointless celebrity", she added: "I couldn't agree more." Whatever we think of this trend, its most prominent current exemplar can at least be commended for obeying the Sibyl's famous injunction - to "know thyself".

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