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Heather Peace: Give Peace a (second) chance

The actress and singer hates labels, even Simon Cowell's, she tells Sarah Morrison

Heather Peace took on the entertainment industry and won. More than a decade ago, she played the only female firefighter in the TV series London's Burning; then she was cast in the only female role in the SAS drama Ultimate Force, before becoming the only gay actress to star in the BBC drama Lip Service, about a group of lesbians in Glasgow. Now, her forthcoming single, Fight For, looks set to be adopted as the first anthem for equal marriage. Just don't tell Simon Cowell.

Peace, 37, originally from Bradford, turned down a contract with the music mogul at the start of the millennium, after releasing one single with him. "They wanted me to mime. I started to feel very uncomfortable," she said. "I knew if I did the album, there would be no way back to being credible." That said, she now describes him as a "total gent", who is "completely charming", "professional" and a "brilliant businessman who knows what sells".

After years of doing gigs, acting, and periods of decorating friends' flats, Peace is now releasing her own music, while starring in the TV soap Waterloo Road. Her debut album Fairytales went to No 7 in the independent music charts; she has just returned from a sold-out Australian tour, and is embarking on a UK tour next month. Her new song is produced by the Oscar-nominated Nigel Wright, who has worked with acts including Madonna and Andrew Lloyd Webber. The video features celebrities including Lorraine Kelly and Angus Deayton.

As one of only a handful of openly gay soap stars, she is adamant that she has her "gay fan base" to thank for her second chance in music.

"When Lip Service came out, [tickets] just started selling. Not because people thought I could sing, but because they thought, 'let's go see that bird from Lip Service'," she said. "It's been mad. I guess they saw something they could identify with in me." Her HP Community, where fans pay £39 a year for information about Peace, is oversubscribed. "We've come a long way in 15 years," she said. "I didn't used to do interviews while I was at London's Burning; I was offered stuff with Loaded [and the like], but I turned it all down. Essentially, they would have wanted me to turn the lesbian in me into something sexual for boys, or I would have had to lie, which I have never done.

"I was told by one producer – I won't say which show – that I was there as male totty, as it were. He told me he knew I was gay, but he said he'd rather I didn't talk about it. At 25, it was really frightening."

It was only with the broadcast of Lip Service in 2010 that she started to open up. "I was absolutely terrified. It's that difference between getting into a cab, with a stranger driving it, and him knowing immediately that you're a lesbian. It's something you can cover up in a way; it's not immediately apparent. It's nerve-racking, putting yourself out there, to be immediately judged, or immediately hated," she said.

Peace, now engaged, fears being categorised. "There's so much more to me: I was playing the piano and singing before I kissed a girl." But she also "feels a sense of responsibility" to support young people who reach out to her. "It's taken me a couple of years to actually shoulder it, but it's important to other people; just talking about it can have an impact."