Joyous stage career marks out Abi's new road

The woman who hit the headlines as the girlfriend of a Blue Peter presenter tells Bridget Galton why her days of lads mags and photo shoots are behind her ABI Titmuss was the nurse who got caught in a tabloid whirlwind when her then boyfriend John

The woman who hit the headlines as the girlfriend of a Blue Peter presenter tells Bridget Galton why her days of lads' mags and photo shoots are behind her

ABI Titmuss was the nurse who got caught in a tabloid whirlwind when her then boyfriend John Leslie was embroiled in rape allegations.

She first appeared on the front cover of a newspaper five years ago as the uniform-clad "angel" standing by the former Blue Peter presenter.

But this celestial body soon fell to earth via a wealth of glamour modelling shoots, a notorious sex tape and appearances on TV reality shows such as Celebrity Love Island and Hell's Kitchen.

However, long before the red top coverage and naughty lingerie, she was determined to be an actress.

While working agency nightshifts at A&E departments across London, the ambitious, hard-working Titmuss put herself through acting courses at Central School of Speech and Drama and Kensington and Chelsea College.

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"I didn't just step off the cover of FHM in a bra wanting to act," says the 32-year-old, who has bought a home in north London from the proceeds of her modelling.

"I was always doing plays at school and joined the drama club at university. I remember being in The Life Of Brian, hanging from a balsa wood crucifix wearing a stripy shirt singing, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life and thinking, 'This is great fun.'"

She finished her nursing degree and was still pursuing her acting goal when her life "turned upside down".

"The first time I saw a picture of me in my nurse's uniform with John on the cover of The Mirror, I knew it was going to be very hard for me to be an actress. I wasn't an angel and I was on the way out of nursing anyway - I am very proud of having worked as a nurse. It was a really grounding life experience, but I was tired of the hours and the wages and living in a nurse's home sharing communal showers.

"At that time, my mind was so focused on looking after John that the acting had to go on hold. But I never lost sight of it."

When FHM offered her an unpaid photo shoot, she pragmatically grabbed her opportunity and hired a personal trainer to turn herself from blonde girl next door to sexy pin-up.

She turned out to be a naturally gifted glamour model and went on to appear on countless magazine covers.

"At the time, I was a nobody. I had never been interested in glamour modelling or dreamed I would be successful at it. But I thought it was an exciting opportunity to do a photo shoot for the biggest selling magazine in the country.

"I transformed myself by working very hard with a personal trainer, getting my hair and nails done. I did a good job and they put me on the cover. To be a really good model, it's in your eyes. It's acting in a way. You can tell from the picture whether the model is thinking about what she's having for dinner."

Titmuss says that like any other girl she has hang-ups about her body and has "fat days and thin days".

But although she never let the pressure to be skinny get on top of her, she eventually tired of seeing herself on newspaper stands in a bra and pants.

"There came a point when I thought, 'This is great, but I have to get back to what I really want to do.'"

In 2006, she appeared in Arthur Miller's Two Way Mirror at the Courtyard Theatre, Covent Garden, in a role loosely based on Miller's former wife Marilyn Munroe.

Actors are usually allowed several previews to bed in a show before the press arrive. But the audience was stuffed with hacks on Titmuss's first preview night.

"We hadn't even had a full dress rehearsal. It was my first professional job and I was in front of the nation's media wanting me to fail," she recalls.

But as with the FHM shoot, Titmuss triumphed and now describes the experience - for which she won a Best West End Debut award from the Fringe Report - as "fantastic and joyous".

She is currently rehearsing her second acting role in Fat Christ at the King's Head in Islington.

The comedy deals with the relationships, hopes and dreams of two modern couples.

"I play Susan, a sexually confident but frustrated wife who is married to Dick. She loves him but is annoyed he doesn't do what she would like. His best friend is Jack, who auditions for Jesus Christ Superstar and is told he is too fat.

"It's about a man's struggle to make something of himself, to pursue his dreams and be a lot of different things to different people. He crucifies himself to get his ambitions for a better life."

Titmuss should certainly identify with that sentiment. She has worked doggedly for what she wants - despite negative sniping about her characterising a certain kind of empty talentless celebrity - and will undoubtedly continue to do so as she pursues an acting career.

That's why these days, she doesn't turn up to the opening of a crisp packet but is more inclined to stay at home.

"The past two years have been fantastic, leading a normal life, seeing friends and writing my book." (The Secret Diaries Of Abigail Titmuss, due out later this year.)

"I have stopped going out so much. It was exciting at first to take the nurses to showbiz parties with a free bar and lots of people from the telly. But I decided to rein it in and start growing up.

"There came a time when I started focusing on my career. It's a big effort to make a such a big change, it requires concentration. But I have confidence in my abilities, my determination and my work ethic."

Fat Christ runs at the King's Head in Upper Street, Islington, until March 23.