Melinda Messenger: The mother of reinvention

Melinda Messenger wants to turn her back on her sex-bomb status to start a new life as a foster parent. Is there more to the 'blonde Vulcan' than meets the eye? Julia Stuart finds out
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"Is this Melinda Messenger's house? I heard she lives down here," says the taxi driver, suddenly springing into life as we turn down a country lane just outside Swindon. It is indeed. He might be surprised, however, to discover the direction that the life of the former glamour model is about to take.

"Is this Melinda Messenger's house? I heard she lives down here," says the taxi driver, suddenly springing into life as we turn down a country lane just outside Swindon. It is indeed. He might be surprised, however, to discover the direction that the life of the former glamour model is about to take.

We pass a high brick wall, and pull up outside tall, rust-coloured wooden gates. The only response to the buzzer is violent barking from within.

"Will you be all right?" calls the driver, who is still blocking the narrow lane, and clearly hanging around for a glimpse of the one-time topless model. I reply that I will. It is not the prospect of being mauled by the dogs - who turn out to be overconfident shih-tzus - that is so unsettling, but that of meeting their owner. I interviewed Messenger briefly six years ago, when she was appearing in a dreadful TV show called Beat the Crusher with Freddie Starr. She was sweet and friendly, but boy was she perky... It was a bit like meeting a budgie whose Trill had been laced with Pro Plus. When she appeared on Celebrity Big Brother two years ago, she was dubbed the "blonde Vulcan" by fellow-housemate Sue Perkins because of her apparent lack of a range of emotions.

A one-time customer-services manager from Swindon, Melinda Messenger first became a household name in 1997 after appearing in a double-glazing advertisement dressed only in lacy white knickers and a bra that failed to fetter her surgically enlarged DD breasts. The sight was too tempting for some of the local menfolk, who started taking the posters home with them. Soon, she appeared topless in the Daily Star. Much to the paper's fury, she was later poached by The Sun, who declared her the "Page Three Girl for the Thrillennium". Years after giving up modelling, she has remained one of the most popular page-three girls in recent history.

Several long minutes pass before Messenger answers the buzzer, and the gates silently part. Beyond the courtyard - an assault course of children's toys - the front door of the large, modern, red-brick house is already open. But there is still no one in sight. A barefooted Messenger suddenly dashes down the wooden staircase, apologising for the delay. She was taking out her rollers, she explains. There are boxes everywhere because they are about to move to a rectory in a nearby village.

We settle in the back garden. The 5ft 3in presenter is naturally pretty - the pale blue eyes are carefully made up in muted colours. A fine line runs down the side of her nose from 33 years of wrinkling it when she laughs. A tiny smear of pink lipstick has strayed from her plump lips on to her alabaster teeth, and a coquettish strand of butter-coloured hair has been left out of her ponytail to hang by her face. The famous bosom is an undefined bulge underneath a loose, blue halter-neck top.

She has even managed to retain her tiny size-eight figure, despite having given birth to her third child - and first daughter - Evie just six months ago. Each child's arrival has been traumatic. She suffered from pre-eclampsia with Morgan, now four, and had to have an emergency Caesarean. And then, postnatal depression hit her after Flynn was born two years ago. At first, she wondered whether her wretchedness was due in part to not having enough privacy at her local hospital. "I remember counting about 30 people who came into my room throughout the day," she says. One nurse woke her up after she had given birth to ask for an autograph. "The cleaner would come in to empty my bins a million times. I was trying to breastfeed, and just wanted privacy. At one stage, during delivery, my door was wide open and even the sandwich lady had a look," she says, momentarily allowing the trademark smile to disappear.

She only recognised that something was seriously wrong when, a week after the birth, she hid under a roll of carpet in the garage, reasoning that if her husband, Wayne Roberts, 28, couldn't find her, he wouldn't go to a football match and leave her on her own. He went anyway. When he returned, he had to break a window, as Messenger had locked him out.

She haemorrhaged following the birth of Evie last December, losing two pints of blood. Then postnatal depression hit even harder than the first time. "With Evie, and after Flynn, I thought the pain would be over if I just stepped out into the road. There's a dual carriageway over there, and a motorway over there," she says, pointing to either side of the house.

Messenger admits that she still has the odd down day, and doubts whether she will have any more children. Instead, she is hoping to become a foster mother. She has decided that the best time for her family to expand will be when her children are all of school age. Until then, she is planning to offer short-term care to children with troubled backgrounds.

There are currently around 50,000 children in foster care in the UK, and 38,000 foster families. According to the British Association for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF), which Melinda Messenger supports, 8,000 more foster carers are needed. It's a subject she feels passionate about. "I haven't stopped thinking about fostering or adopting every day for seven years. I know that for a fact," she says with surprising force. "I have no question in my mind, it goes right through every cell of my body, it's something that I have to do, that I must do, that I want to do. Fostering will be more painful for me than adopting, because you have to let a child go. But it would be the best thing for me because, I think, that is how you constructively help the most children in the shortest time."

Her desire to help children in need was triggered by a news story of an abusive mother who had sewn up the lips of her child, she explains. Suddenly she is crying, almost uncontrollably. "I've never been able to forget it."

Why does she think she finds it so upsetting? "Why wouldn't I?" she asks, her voice choked with emotion. "I can't imagine why I wouldn't. For me there is nothing purer than a child, and nothing that should be treasured more highly. Every influence has an impact on them, which makes them who they are. It's more vital that we put all our energy into making them into adults who are secure and happy and caring and loving than anything else in life.

"I feel as torn apart by what is happening to other children as I would if it were happening to mine. I don't know why I feel that love for them, but it's something that I can't stop or switch off. I have tried, because it's painful. I've tried to think: "Accept it, this is life." But I still feel a gut- wrenching, heart-tearing pain when I think about what children go through. I feel as though I'm in their shoes. Fostering is the only way I can alleviate some of my pain."

Her husband, who runs an electrical firm in Swindon, doesn't share her enthusiasm. "If the truth be known, and I completely respect his point of view, he'd rather not," admits Messenger. "He'd rather have a nice easy life. I understand that. But I could not live with myself for being, as I see it, so selfish as to have a nice easy life."

One could interpret Messenger's need to provide youngsters with a loving home as a reaction to her own childhood experiences. Her mother and father, Avis and Peter, divorced when Melinda was five. Avis had an affair with a man called Nigel, and Terry was so distraught on discovering her infidelity that he attempted suicide. Avis broke off the relationship, and they attempted to rebuild their relationship, but Terry's continued suicide attempts led them to split permanently. Avis (who claimed that the affair was not the cause of the marital breakdown) and her three children lived with Nigel for five years, but that relationship broke down five weeks after they married. Avis was left to bring up Melinda and her brothers largely alone.

I ask Melinda Messenger whether she missed a stable father figure during her childhood. "At the time, I didn't have any strong feelings about it," she says. "I was more concerned about how my mum was coping and what it was doing to her." Was she even aware of her father's suicidal tendencies? "I was, when I was old enough to understand. He would talk very openly and freely about it, and very honestly and truthfully. He didn't hide anything from us," says Messenger, who remembers visiting him in hospital when she was 14. "My dad suffers with clinical depression, and has had treatment most of his life."

But the pain didn't end there. Avis publicly denounced Messenger when she appeared topless in the red-tops: "This is just about the worst thing she could have done to me. I brought her up to believe that women's bodies were there to be respected, not prostituted to meet the perverted desires of men," she said. Feeling abandoned by her family, Avis also attempted suicide. She and Messenger, once very close, didn't speak for two years, and were only reconciled after Morgan's birth.

"For my part, it was just sheer persistence," says Messenger. "Everything went out the window - pride, ego - nothing was more important than having a relationship with her again." Avis now looks after the children when her daughter is working.

Melinda Messenger refuses to see her own childhood as the distressing and destructive time that it must have been. She even regards the fact that her family was so short of money that they were entitled to free school meals as being a "wonderful" thing. "I'm grateful for those experiences - they teach you humility."

Of her father's illness, she says, simply: "I actually think that those things give you more than they take. I don't think it was hard on us, not at all. It's a wonderful gift to be aware of those things." Likewise, she describes her postnatal depression, the most painful time of her life, as being "a very beautiful experience", a "gift" that taught her compassion.

It is clear that Messenger seeks a deeper meaning in all of her experiences, however traumatising they might be. There is a stack of books dealing with spiritual issues beside her bed, and she studied cabbala, the spiritual movement made fashionable by Madonna, for two years, and continues to today. Her strongest leaning, however, is towards Buddhism.

"My happiness comes from having a strong spiritual belief and understanding of our place in this world, and why we are here. We are here to learn, and understand where we all fit in, to understand one another and, ultimately, to have nothing but love and respect for one another."

She does, however, have mixed feelings about the cosmetic surgery that she underwent at 23, which propelled her to fame. "I look back and feel sad that I felt it necessary to do something so drastic. Equally, I appreciate how it boosted my confidence and resolved certain issues I had. To be free of them was wonderful: I was very tiny and very skinny, and always looked very young for my age. At 13, I probably looked about six or seven. When I was in the fourth year of seniors, the first year used to go, 'oh look, isn't she sweet'. As a consequence, I never felt womanly, though I look back now and think, 'fool', there was nothing wrong with me."

She says that she has no regrets about the topless modelling, and will eventually explain it to her children as "part of my youth". She is quick, however, to point out that she only did it for several months before she took up the many offers of television work - Eurotrash for Channel 4, Not the Jack Docherty Show, Melinda's Big Night In and Fort Boyard, all for Channel 5, and Carlton's Baby, Baby and Loose Lips for the Living channel. She will be fronting a brand new show for Living shortly.

A noise comes from inside the house. It's Wayne, sporting baggy blue shorts, a grass-green shirt and three days' worth of stubble, returning home - through the door this time. Back in 1997, there were those who thought that the poor chap would get the boot as his then-girlfriend started to turn male celebrity heads. But Messenger's devotion to him has remained undiminished. Out of earshot, she admits: "I sometimes feel sorry for him for being with me, because I realise that I can be a bit of an assault-and-battery on the senses at times, and from one extreme to other, and everything else in between!"

So there they are, the eternally perky Melinda Messenger and her husband, on their way to the rectory. If they do embark on a new life as foster carers, life really will be full of extremes, and everything else in between. I wish them luck.