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Jessie Wallace the Biography
The Inside Story of the Queen of Eastenders
By Emily Herbert
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Emily Herbert
All rights reserved.
Jessie Wallace is one of the most popular faces on television today. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, she virtually became a star overnight, catapulted from a completely unknown actress with little professional acting experience to one of the best-known faces in the UK, and all because of her character in EastEnders called Kat. Her life since then has not always run smoothly.
In some ways as volatile as her on-screen character – although Jessie is always keen to emphasise the differences between herself and Kat – she has become a favourite not only with the public, but also with the tabloids, who are keen to chart the minutiae of every aspect of her life.
So far, it has been quite a life, filled with incident and drama and a rise from humble beginnings to major celebrity. And her career looks set to go further still. Despite the odd mishap, BBC bosses have made it clear to Jessie that she has a future far beyond her current role in EastEnders; a highly talented actress with a natural warmth that has captivated audiences everywhere, she has the potential to end up as one of the profession's greats. But just who is she really? And where does she come from? For, when Jessie first entered the world, no one had a clue they were dealing with a baby and then a child who would one day become a household name.
The time that Jessie was born? The early 1970s. The place? North London – Enfield, to be precise. The event? The birth of Karen Jane Wallace on 25 September 1971, a birthday, incidentally, that she shares with Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. But back then, no one had heard of Michael Douglas, the great Catherine was still in her infancy, and the newcomer just seemed like an ordinary, if much-loved, baby. There was no clue that under the name of Jessie, she would one day become one of the most popular and talked about television stars in Britain.
Indeed, there was nothing in the Wallace family background to signify what the future would hold. Jessie does not come from a theatrical family and her career has taken her nearest and dearest by surprise. She might now be one of the country's most famous names but her talent and ambition had a long way to go before they would be recognised.
Home life was comfortable, although it would not be long before it was to change. Jessie had an older sister, Joanne. Her father, James, was a Telecom engineer; her mother Annette looked after the family; and her grandmother, whom Jessie absolutely adored, lived nearby in Manor House. It is often thought that Jessie is a real East Ender, which is not quite the case, but she does have a link with that area of the capital, as her mother was born there.
But there was upheaval very early on in Jessie's life – something that seems to have caused no lasting damage, but which changed her world as she knew it when she was still a little girl. Jessie's parents divorced when she was three and, unusually, it was her father who cared for the children.
'All I know is that Mum and Dad separated,' Jessie said many years later. 'There wasn't anyone else – she just wasn't happy with my dad. So he looked after me and my big sister Joanne. Dad was brilliant – he was both parents rolled into one. He worked flat out as a Telecom engineer, made sure neither of us ever went without, and was always there for us.'
Indeed, as an adult, Jessie shows none of the emotional insecurity that marks out so many actors and actresses. She was a much-loved little girl, by both her parents and her grandmother. She remains extremely close to her family, something that has never changed as her name became better known. Her father also clearly went to great lengths to make sure she was happy and protected, a strategy that seems to have paid off.
'I don't ever remember coming home from school to an empty house,' she said. 'Whatever hobby I wanted, Dad supported me. He took me to swimming lessons and, when I wanted a guitar, he went out and bought me one – although two weeks later I got bored and gave it up. That's the sort of horrible child I was. I saw Mum at weekends, but I was a real daddy's girl.'
That continues to be the case to this day. Jessie does have women friends but, as she herself says, the majority of her mates are men. Her close and endearing relationship with her father has meant that she feels most comfortable in the company of men.
Both Annette and Jessie were, however, deeply upset by later claims that Annette walked out on the family. 'I'd like to put it right about my mum,' Jessie said. 'Mum never left me when I was three. My parents separated when I was three and I lived with my dad. They've both been there for me and given me 100 per cent support. I love them to bits – both of them.'
Indeed, although she lived with her father, there was never the slightest hint of froideur between mother and daughter; the two were always close. It was merely that, unusually, Jessie lived with her father.
Indeed, Jessie's first memories date from the period in her life when her parents split up. 'I can remember having a bath in the kitchen sink when I was about three years old,' she once said. 'It's a strange thing to remember, but I can see it really vividly. I've got a good memory from when I was young. I even remember my first day at playschool. I recall sitting on the slide and suddenly realising my mum wasn't there. It was then that I burst into tears.'
That early moment of insecurity, however, was not to last – or rather, it was to take on a slightly different form. While she was utterly secure within the family unit, she also had agonising moments of self-doubt, which led her, in turn, to lashing out at anyone around her. Jessie was clearly a handful, as she later admitted. 'I was a horrible child, but never the sadistic type,' she said. 'I wasn't into dynamiting small animals. The first really exciting thing that happened to me was winning a dance contest when I was ten. I had this Buck's Fizz dance that I learnt. I won a beanbag toy that became my pride and joy.'
Her early exuberance frequently led her into scrapes – of which more anon – and is a clear sign of the lively personality she was later to become. For, to put it bluntly, ever since she was a little child to the present day, Jessie has always managed to get into trouble. Whether it's being with the wrong people or ending up at the wrong place at the wrong time, Jessie has always raised eyebrows and that continues even now. But it is also a defining quality that makes her so popular. Because she is not a quiet little mouse who sits in a corner, Jessie does tend to draw attention to herself, whether it's deliberately or not, and that has led her into the odd mess.
Her liveliness did not manifest itself everywhere, however. Although she was an accomplished dancer, Jessie was not a sporty child. 'No, definitely not,' she said, when asked about her sporting prowess. 'I was a good swimmer and used to go quite regularly, but then I became interested in boys and that was it. I also tried synchronised swimming for a week. At school, I was terrible at sport.
'I was always the slowest runner – I used to run like a frog, and my legs used to go in different directions, like a propeller. I was never any good at the high jump, either. I would run up to the pole and then stand there and run back and promise to do it the next time, but I never would. It was too hard. As far as sports and I are concerned, we just don't go together.'
That, again, points up incidents in her life as an adult. Jessie has a voluptuous figure, but there have been occasions when her bosses were concerned it was filling out too much. It wasn't, of course, but Jessie is an actress who is very much in the public eye and so is subject to the same pressures about weight and image that are brought to bear on all actresses. Again, it is an intensely likeable quality that means she doesn't obsess about her appearance in the way some showbusiness figures do, but the industry in which she works has forced her to rethink some aspects of her lifestyle. She may not be sporty, but these days she knows the value of exercise.
Probably the strongest influence in her childhood and, indeed, her life, was the person Jessie always called 'Nan', of whom she saw a great deal because she lived nearby. Jessie adored her grandmother and was extremely close to her – and, indeed, they had the same name. 'I loved Nan to pieces and I was so proud to be named after her,' Jessie said. 'She was my idol, because she was so beautiful and glamorous and such fun. She had the most wonderful jet-black hair, which was natural, unlike mine, and piercing blue eyes. And even if she was just cleaning the house, she'd have lipstick on. She was immaculate.'
Her glamour clearly rubbed off. Jessie has been naturally blessed with a striking appearance, but she heightens it with an acute awareness of what works for her. Latterly, of course, she has been able to indulge herself with the finest designers in the world, but back then she was learning from her grandmother how to put a look together. Their closeness made her all the more willing to learn.
'She lived near us in Manor House, so I saw her quite a lot,' said Jessie. 'I'd sit and listen as she told me all these stories about life in London during the war. It all sounded so romantic. She's kept lots of her clothes and let me try on all these tailor-made coats and furs. I still love 1940s fashions.
'On Saturday afternoon, I'd sit by her chair and we'd watch old Hollywood films together. She was so loving and always there for me. She used to tell me, "You can be anything you want." It was what I needed to hear.' It was also a fortunate counterbalance to school, where she frequently heard exactly the opposite. Jessie Wallace was not an academic child.
Jessie's grandmother died of cancer at the age of 72 in 1994, years before her granddaughter was to become a household name. 'EastEnders is the best thing that's ever happened to me, or is ever likely to,' Jessie said. 'And Nan's death was the worst. She was such a bright spirit. When she was in hospital, dying, this doctor came in. He was gorgeous, and Nan went, "Look at him. Isn't he lovely?" She was like a young girl trapped in an old woman's body. I wish she'd lived to see me get this part – she'd have been so proud.'
Back in the days of her childhood, though, Nan was there to offer comfort and reassurance when problems occurred, as well as enthusiasm and encouragement for the future. It was, at times, much needed. Jessie's first school was Ambrose Fleming, where she became known for the kind of disruptive behaviour that was to characterise her later years at school.
'I have fond memories of Jessie,' said a fellow pupil from the time. 'I remember her and me got into trouble because we were fighting other girls in the teachers' car park.' The teachers, of course, were not so impressed.
At her next school, Kingsmead, in Enfield, Middlesex, Jessie certainly made her mark – but unfortunately, again she stood out for all the wrong reasons. There was a good deal of childish behaviour – cheeking the teacher, mild trouble-making and a complete lack of interest in anything to do with the academic side of school life. Jessie herself puts it down to an inner insecurity, which she tried to mask with brashness.
'There was a lot of attention seeking,' she said. 'I was terrible at school. I had no confidence whatsoever and never tried because I just thought I'd fail. I was really horrible. I hated the whole world. If anyone asked me anything, I'd simply snarl back, "You what?" I left at 15 without a single qualification.'
In truth, it was not unusual behaviour for a troubled adolescent, but it certainly meant that no one could forecast back then just how famous the troublesome young Jessie was going to turn out to be.
And Jessie really was troublesome. She frequently landed herself in hot water. 'She was always mucking about,' said one of her contemporaries from school. 'She used to get in a lot of trouble with the teachers. She wasn't a mean girl, but her high spirits certainly caused problems.' Another schoolmate was less forgiving. 'Karen [as Jessie was known then] was a complete bitch, who made other kids' lives a misery with her gang of tough mates,' Harry Grantham said.
Of course, a great many schoolgirls behave badly, in an attempt to make themselves appear cool; the difference is that they don't end up on a famous soap opera two decades later. Jessie's problem was, in reality, not that she was too confident, but that she wasn't confident enough. The teenage years can be extremely difficult and hers were no different, with the added worry that she had no clue about what she wanted to do in the future. Given that exams were not exactly her forte, and nothing else presented itself as the obvious solution, there was a real concern that she would ultimately just allow her life to drift.
Indeed, that was to happen for a while. Jessie was not one of those fortunate actresses who make their name when they are very young; it was to take her years to decide what she really wanted to do, let alone to get on and doing it. But, like the school days she loathed, it all ultimately turned out to be character-building and stood her in good stead.
That did not, however, make her any easier to deal with while she was still at school. On one occasion, Jessie's high jinks nearly ended in tragedy. At senior school, smoking in the girls' loos, she was playing with a lighter close to another girl's hair. The girl's hair suddenly went up in flames. Fortunately for all concerned, Jessie and her friend managed to put the fire out.
'It was an accident,' Jessie later explained, 'and no one was hurt. She just had lots of hair lacquer on and I was flicking my lighter, and it went – voom! – and the next minute I was banging her head and it went out. But she didn't realise she was on fire, so when I started banging her head, she just turned around and hit me.' It is clear that, in later life, she has been embarrassed by the incident. Back then, however, she was able to laugh it off.
Academically, Jessie continued to underachieve. That contributed to her dislike of school. She clearly felt she was completely wasting her time and that even her presence was useless, which, in turn, only served to make matters worse. 'I hated school,' she said, years later. 'I was so naughty – I'd talk back to the teachers. I was always on report, I used to come to school with different-coloured hair every day. I think it was just attention-seeking. But I was terrible. I hated the whole world and I had no confidence because I thought I was going to fail.' Her feelings were reciprocated in full by a teacher: 'You're a no-hoper ... you won't amount to anything,' she said.
But it was while she was at school that the first intimations of where her life would eventually end up came about. From early on, Jessie was an enthusiastic participant in school plays, although she had no idea at the time that this would one day become her life. It was an ideal channel, both for her frustrations and her desire to make herself the centre of attention; when she was acting, she was both centre stage, and yet, at the same time, someone other than herself.
'When I was at school, I'd always get the lead role in plays and, when I left, I did short drama courses,' she revealed. Cinderella and Dorothy were just two of the roles she took on. It was the one area of schooling that she really enjoyed and she shone at it. Jessie was a natural-born actress, although in time she was to take acting lessons, too.
Being a professional actress would have seemed inconceivable back then, both to Jessie herself and to her family, who were a very typical English lot, and didn't realise that they had a future star on their hands.
Then again, who can blame them? Jessie took a long time to get to where she wanted to go, but once her star finally did start to rise, it was meteoric. She has, to date, had the kind of luck and career that most actresses can only dream of and so it is of little surprise that no one realised the direction in which she should be pointed.
Excerpted from Jessie Wallace the Biography by Emily Herbert. Copyright © 2011 Emily Herbert. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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