Jennifer Ellison: The Scouse who roared
Soap star and reality TV winner Jennifer Ellison has achieved her childhood dream - fame. And her next stop will be Hollywood, she tells Sholto Byrnes
Tuesday 21 September 2004
My Fair Lady had been set in Liverpool, there would be no better part for Jennifer Ellison than that of Eliza Doolittle. Consonants swirl around and escape from her mouth only to disappear as surely as if they'd sunk in the depths of the Mersey. A slender, if somewhat busty, figure curled up on a sofa backstage at the Adelphi Theatre, where she has this week begun playing Roxie Hart in
Chicago, she appears fluent and lucid when we meet. Afterwards, however, as I play back the recording of our conversation, I find that half of what she has said is totally incomprehensible.
If My Fair Lady had been set in Liverpool, there would be no better part for Jennifer Ellison than that of Eliza Doolittle. Consonants swirl around and escape from her mouth only to disappear as surely as if they'd sunk in the depths of the Mersey. A slender, if somewhat busty, figure curled up on a sofa backstage at the Adelphi Theatre, where she has this week begun playing Roxie Hart in Chicago, she appears fluent and lucid when we meet. Afterwards, however, as I play back the recording of our conversation, I find that half of what she has said is totally incomprehensible.
In the past few months, Ellison has had to master two different accents: American, for Chicago; and Received Pronunciation, for the forthcoming film of The Phantom of the Opera, in which she has a small role. "I found it so frustrating," she says. "The Scouse accent is so lazy, and I had to get me own understanding of how to speak proper." Adverbial endings don't appear to have been part of the training, I note. So I ask her to give me an example of her RP voice. "RP is kind of 'The Phantom'," she says, a clipped "e" joining the "a" in Phantom and making it sound convincingly "proper". "Ladylike," she explains, "rather than The FANTOM!" She smiles as she delivers the word as though it were a late-night order for fish and chips by the Liverpool docks.
Pronunciation aside, there is more to Jennifer Ellison than the tabloid image of the brassy ex- Brookside babe, much photographed in skimpy outfits, who triumphed over such motley rivals as Matt Goss, Amanda Barrie and Abi Titmuss to win Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen. There is the unexpectedly cultured side - as a child, she was awarded bursaries by Dame Alicia Markova to study ballet. And then there is her dark side, her murky associations with Liverpool gangs, the stories of firebombs, shootings and the rumoured £50,000 contract on the life of her boyfriend, Tony.
As with so many of the red-top tales about Ellison, though, the facts have often been obscured by exaggeration. I ask her about one. The story goes that, aged two, she sat on the counter of a chip shop and announced to the world: "I'm Jennifer Ellison and I'm going to be famous." Was she really only two?
"I was about six," she counters. "It was when I first met my manager, Collette Fenlon. We were in this big chip shop with my dad. He sat me on the counter and then Collette came in with a big fur jacket on. She looked at me and said 'what's your name?'. So I told her, and she said: 'Are you a dancer, Jennifer?' because I was wearing my tracksuit."
Fenlon then asked her what she wanted to be when she was older. "I said 'I wanted to be like orphan Annie. Orphan Annie's famous.' I wanted to be like Annie," she explains, "not just famous. I just wanted to perform, to sing, dance and act. My poor mum couldn't watch television for about three years because I had Annie on constantly."
Ellison, now 21, grew up in Liverpool with her father Peter, a taxi driver, her mother Jane, a school administrator, and her younger sister Jemma. She began ballet classes at the age of three. At eight, she won the junior international ballet championship, a title she won a total of five times. When she was 12, she attended a summer school run by the Royal Ballet on Ilkley Moor. "I really enjoyed it," she says, "but I hated being away from home. I cried on the phone to my mum every night, till in the end she had to come and stay at a hotel nearby."
On the last day Alicia Markova, then a very famous ballerina, made an announcement to the class. "She says: 'Well, I'm so impressed by this young lady I'm going to pay for her to come back next year. And the winner of my bursary is Jennifer Ellison.' I was delighted I'd won, but I knew that if I came back I was going to be terribly homesick. Then I won it again and again."
At 14, Ellison was being coached by Wayne Sleep and performing in Cinderella at the Royal Albert Hall. But she decided the demands of ballet - and the terrifying Russian teachers, whom she describes as being "much worse than Gordon Ramsay" - were not for her, and the next year took the role of the "bad girl" Emily Shadwick in Brookside.
Now that Hell's Kitchen has brought her a different level of fame, how does she find it? "It's nice sometimes, but sometimes it's horrible. If the press see you looking normal they can suddenly be 'oh, she's got a spot on her face, she's having a bad day'. That can be quite cruel." Much tabloid attention has focused on Ellison's boyfriend, Tony Richardson, a sunbed salesman and hair-salon owner. A Liverpool gang is said to have taken out a contract on him after a friend of his was knifed in a pub, and Richardson gave police the names of the attackers. His brother Mark was shot in the back while driving - prompting speculation that the bullets were meant for Tony - and earlier this year Richardson was slashed across the stomach. The home he shares with Ellison in Liverpool was also firebombed, although the couple were not there at the time.
Ellison is keen to play down all of this, dismissing the firebombing as a "firework in a wheelie-bin" and disassociating herself with Mark Richardson's shooting. "Because Tony's brother was in the car, it's associated with us," she says, "but you know nothing about it really." It did worry her, though. "I panicked when I heard. But when I got on the phone with my mother she said 'Jennifer, don't panic. It's not bullets, it's a pellet gun.' And I said 'what's that?' and she said 'it's what killed the cat when you were a baby', because," she explains very matter-of-factly, "someone killed our cat with a pellet gun."
Life in Liverpool doesn't sound as though it's for the faint-hearted, I say. "There are so many shootings going on," she admits, "there's gangs fighting left, right and centre. But, there's no one in Liverpool who doesn't know anyone who's involved in it."
The city, to which she returns each weekend from London, remains home. "I'm very close to my family," she says. "Not like these big stars - not mentioning any names - who lose the plot and don't know who they are. Going home and spending time with your family and your real friends keeps you grounded. It makes you realise that it's just a job."
She is pretty grounded, Jennifer Ellison. Grounded enough to realise that she's too young to write her autobiography - another story that did the rounds. "This guy on the radio went: 'OK, Jennifer Ellison is writing her autobiography. It's going to be - Chapter One: Brookside - Chapter Two: Hell's Kitchen - and Chapter Three: To Follow.' It's true," she laughs. "It makes me cringe when I see people like Wayne Rooney doing a life story. He's 18 - how can he do a life story?"
Yet, there was an element of truth to the story. "I've been approached," she says, "but you know what? I'm 21. If I do one it'll be when I'm older and I've got things to talk about."
She's sensible to wait. I think we're all going to observe many more chapters in the life of the very sweet, but very determined, Miss Ellison.
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