“That’s pretty,” I tell Suzanne Shaw, the pint-bottle-sized actress and model who stars as Cinderella in this year’s Birmingham Hippodrome Panto.
The dress is vast. It features waves and waves of beautiful, vibrant colour, stitched together like a work of art.
“I know, isn’t it just the best,” she says. “But that’s not even half of it.”
She points to a separate, larger, glass carriage-sized dress that’s lying across her dressing room. “Look,” she says. “I have to wear that underneath. That’s another dress in itself.”
It’s got hooped rings at the bottom to add volume to her Cinders’ outfit. “Isn’t it magnificent?”
Suzanne is the leading lady in this year’s no-expense-spared production of Cinderella at Birmingham Hippodrome. She’s played the role before but is thrilled to have graduated to the UK’s biggest pantomime. The star, who made her name after winning the talent contest Popstars and enjoying a number one hit with Hear’Say, is no stranger to the stage.
Born in Bury and formerly married to presenter Jason King, of JK and Joel, she’s also well known for playing Eve Jenson in Emmerdale while she also won Dancing On Ice, despite chipping a bone in her ankle, gashing her head and sustaining a broken rib.
She moved into the West End and became a major star, taking the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago.
She’s thrilled to be in Birmingham now. “I can’t wait to play the role of Cinderella. I’m really, really excited about it. It’s a magical show. It is, by far, my favourite pantomime to do. It’s so great with the fun friendships between Cinders and Buttons, you’ve got Prince Charming and the love story where her dreams come true and then you’ve got all the scary baddie bits with the Ugly Sisters being horrible to her.
“For me, it’s such a lovely feeling to watch the little boys and girls and see their faces light up when they watch this amazing fairy tale. It’s one of the best fairy tales of all.”
It won’t just be the audience being swept away by the magic of this year’s show. Though Suzanne will perform the role day-in, day-out, she admits she too will be engrossed by the fabulous, other-worldly story.
“I’m really looking forward to it. There’s some amazing special effects. I’m so excited because I get to be involved as well. It’s going to be a spectacular panto. Everyone in the cast is so lovely. It’s a lovely cast and to be finally able to do Birmingham Hippodrome is amazing. It’s the flagship pantomime in the UK. Everybody wants to do it and be a part of it.”
Suzanne has earned her spurs by doing pantomime year after year. So to have graduated to starring in the best panto is a thrill. She’s bowled over by the size of the theatre and investment made by producers Qdos.
This year will be her third or fourth time playing Cinderella – and she’s also played the Fairy Godmother.
“I love coming to Birmingham. I’ve performed at the theatres in Birmingham and I’ve also performed at the arenas. It’s a really lovely place. Over Christmas, to be in a city like Birmingham with the Christmas markets, all the lovely shopping . . . I’m going to be skint by the end of it. All I’m going to be doing is shopping between the shows. There’s so much to do in Birmingham. I’m excited about spending the festive season here with my family.”
Suzanne grew up in theatre. She started ballet lessons at the age of two and within a year was attending the Lupino and Freelance Dance School. She studied acting and featured in Annie at the age of five. Soon, she’d signed up to an amateur dramatics society and was playing in various productions, including The Sound of Music and a West End production of Showboat. She was just nine. She joined an Abba tribute band, appeared in an ESSO advertisement, Holby City and made it to the final three for an audition for Corrie. The two others were Girls Aloud star Kimberley Walsh and Samia Smith, who landed the role. Suzanne achieved a National Diploma in Performing Arts at Oldham College. She was only ever going to be on the stage.
“I love being on the stage. I’ve done so many great shows and playing Roxie in Chicago was one of my favourite all-time roles. It’s a leading ladies dream to play something like that. But acting is something that I’m really passionate about and I love being in plays. Being able to do so many plays and theatre shows is incredible; this is my first love.”
And yet her big break came not on the stage – but in music. In 2000, ITV launched Popstars, a talent contest to find a new pop band. Suzanne was 18 and successfully made it through several audition rounds to form Hear’Say with Kym Marsh, Myleene Class, Noel Sullivan and Danny Foster. She’d beaten 4,000 other hopefuls and their debut single sold 1.3 million copies while their debut album sold 1.2 million. They broke a number of world records, including being the only musical artist to have the number one chart spot for both their debut album and debut single at the same time.
“I’d been in the industry from a child. It was just by accident I became a pop star – for a very short time – in Hear’Say.
“I happened to audition for an advertisement from The Stage, which said ‘Do you want to be a pop star?’ I thought, ‘Alright, I’ll give it a go’.
“I remember going to the auditions with Nigel Lythgoe and he told us there’d be five people in a house in London and we’d have a recording contract. He said we’d be a huge success. I remember sitting there thinking those five people would be so lucky because it sounded like an awesome job. Not for a single second did I think I’d ever be a part of it. The next thing, it’s history. I was part of Hear’Say.”
Hear’Say sold out arena tours, featured on TV and played with such established artists such as Lionel Richie, Joe Pasquale, Bradley Walsh, Blue and Atomic Kitten. Suzanne was a co-writer on a number of songs – and continues to co-write under various aliases.
The band featured on the Royal Variety Performance and had two number one singles and other awards and accolades. They broke up two years later, just after her 21st birthday.
“Being a pop singer has its challenges. You are worked to the ground. Sometimes we were doing 20-hour days. It was non-stop, really tough. But to be able to tell my kids I used to be a pop star is amazing. I had a doll. I had duvet covers with my face on. It’s pretty spectacular. To have a number one record, well, not many people can say that. It’s in history. That’s there.”
Suzanne, however, is a homebird at heart. She was voted Celebrity Mother of the Year in 2008 by the public and has two children, Corey, whose father is the actor and singer Darren Day, and Rafferty, who was born in October 2015 to Suzanne and finacée Sam Greenfield.
“Kids and family is massively important. It’s all about family. I’ve got a 13-year-old who’s at high school and who looks like he’ll be following in my footsteps and I’ve got a two-year-old who is into everything. He’s a real handful. My kids are my life. My family’s my life. Corey has grown up in theatre. He’s watched every single panto I’ve done. It’s the same for Raffy as well. He’ll grow up in this industry and be a part of it.
“That’s the great thing about this industry. You can take your kids. It’s not like working in an office where you can’t. If I was stuck, I could bring them into the dressing room they could sit there and watch DVDs while I just nip on stage.”
Suzanne enjoyed the transition back from being a pop star to being a leading lady. Her success in Hear’Say made her a bigger draw and within a few years she was selling out shows at some of the biggest theatres in the UK.
“The transition from being in the pop industry then going back to theatre and TV was exciting. As much as it was hard to leave the music industry behind – we’d been launched into the stratosphere of fame and then had to go in a different direction – I definitely wanted to be on stage.
“Theatre’s my first love and I’ve played some extraordinary roles. But it’s not just been theatre. Being in Emmerdale or learning how to ice skate, those were incredible times too.”
Indeed they were. Suzanne started as Eve Birch on Emmerdale, appearing in 2001 and returning from time to time until 2011. She married James Jenson and combined that role with work on the stage. Dancing In Ice, meanwhile, was a whirlwind. She became well known for her solo skating skills, technical footwork and many lifts – including the ‘headbanger’. Suzanne scored a flawless five sixes with the judges in two of her routines, sweeping to the championship.
“It was fantastic to do Emmerdale and Dancing On Ice. I feel really lucky to have had the career that I’ve had. It’s been great doing Chicago and Rocky Horror show. But I like mixing those roles with straight acting.
“I really am very lucky because I like variety in my career and I’ve been lucky enough to have that. Not a lot of people get that. So I feel very fortunate. But I also do a lot of writing and this next chapter of my life will be about creating my own production company. I’m looking to do more TV and create projects that I’ve had in my mind for so long. We’ve got a very exciting project coming up next year that we’ll be shooting, a TV sitcom. There are different elements coming up all the time and I like to explore things and I like to keep busy.
“I like my kids to see that anything’s possible, too. You know, some people do try and knock you down on the way. They might ask why you’re trying to do things or ask what you’re trying to do. But if you feel like you can do it you should. I want to show my kids that anything is possible and they really can do whatever they want to do. Anything is possible – it really is. No matter where you’re from and what your background is.
“I never thought I’d have a number one record, I never thought I’d win Dancing on Ice and I never thought I’d be in one of the biggest soaps in the country and I did it all.”
Dancing On Ice remains a stand-out moment. It was physically and mentally challenging but Suzanne overcome her challenges to achieve the near-impossible. “It was great for fitness – but not great for injuries. I had one or two cracked ribs along the way. But I can get on the ice now and I can skate. I’m no Torvill or Dean but I can do my basics and it’s great, especially at Christmas when I’m with my kids.
“Being on the ice is unpredictable, to say the least. One minute you can have the most amazing skate and the next minute you are on your ar*e, putting it bluntly. That’s why it’s so challenging. You have to love it and nurture and ask the ice to be your friend. It’s very dangerous and unpredictable.”
The ice can wait for now, however, as Suzanne focuses on Cinderella.
“I’m really thrilled. I think it’s going to be – in fact, I want it to be – the best pantomime that Birmingham has ever had.”
With Suzanne lining up alongside Beverley Knight, Matt Slack, Danny Mac, The Grumbleweeds and Ugly Sisters Ceri Dupree and Phil Randall, it almost certainly will be.