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CASUALTY SARAH SHAPES UP FOR FAME: It's hilarious that men think I'm sexy.. at school my name was Uggers!; EXCLUSIVE.

Byline: BARBARA DAVIES

SARAH MANNERS was fiddling with her suspender belt when she heard she'd landed the part of the new receptionist in the BBC drama Casualty.

Not that the 27-year-old actress makes a habit of wearing exotic underwear. But when her agent called, she was prancing around in bra and knickers in the middle of a shoot for a men's magazine.

It was a pivotal moment in her career. The photoshoot, her fourth for a lads' rag, was a sign of how much attention the blonde star was attracting. The offer from the prime-time, Saturday night hospital soap was her biggest break since leaving drama school six years ago.

"I couldn't believe it," says Sarah who plays bitchy Bex Reynolds. "To say I was chuffed is an understatement."

Bex, a former beauty queen and former footballer's wife, has created a huge storm at the hospital. She thinks her new job is beneath her, is a gossip, offensive and has been known to follow unsavoury patients around with an air freshener.

"I don't know how long she'd last in a real hospital because she's damn rude," says Sarah, "She even resents the fact that she has to work. She'd much rather be doing something more glamorous."

Sarah had already won herself an army of male fans playing flirty types in soaps such as Doctors and the late-night Hollyoaks spin-off, Moving On. She also stars as gold-digging air hostess KC in Sky's raunchy new airline soap, Mile High.

But the privately-educated headmistress's daughter is bemused about her growing status as a sex symbol: "I don't mind but I do find it funny. I was 'Uggers Manners' at school, tall and very unattractive, teeth all over the place. I was the one the boys didn't want to play kiss-chase with."

THE actress is also keen to point out that her burgeoning career is the result of hard work and training.

The Birmingham-born star was educated at Bluecoat School in Harborne and later left King Edward's Grammar School with ten GCSEs and four A-Levels before studying for a BA in drama at Central School Of Speech And Drama.

And while she takes sex scenes and nudity in her stride and is happy to strip for photoshoots, she has a strict code of what she will and won't do.

"I never do anything that I wouldn't want my mum and dad and my nan and grandad to see.

"There is a scene in Casualty where I'm not really wearing anything. One of the other actors came up to me as a wind-up and said: 'Have you got a nudity clause?' But Casualty doesn't have nude scenes so I just said: 'Quite frankly, if they can't show it, I'm not getting it out'."

Similarly, when producers of Mile High asked her to put on a thong, she refused and opted for a pair of large, flesh-coloured Bridget Jones pants. In the scene, Sarah's character romps in bed with a wealthy passenger. She says: "The actor and I had met only the day before and our first scene was a sex scene.

"I'm on top of him and there's a special effects bloke at the end of the bed shaking it to make the head-board bang against the wall. Can you imagine what it would have been like if I was wearing a thong? I would have had to "perform" there with this bloke at the other end of the bed with my bum in his face."

She has also developed her own ice-breaking technique for kissing and sex scenes: "Everyone deals with it differently. Some actors use their tongues. I don't, so when I meet the actor I say: 'All right, love? I'll be snogging you later. No tongues!' But it's harder to say that when you're snogging the older men. You look at them and think: 'You're old enough to be my dad!'" Despite appearing in Loaded and Maxim, as well as doing two shoots for FHM, Sarah insists she is not comfortable in front of a stills camera.

"I'd never done modelling before and they wanted me to look a bit cheeky. I can pout but I can't do the 'come and get me' look.

"But it's always a big surprise when you see all the pictures. On the way home from the first shoot, I was still covered in the oil they'd sprayed on me. It was in my hair and I had a great big spot coming on my chin but these amazing Polaroids were in my bag.

"I was sitting on the Tube and really wanted to wave them at everyone and say: 'Look! I can look amazing!'"

If Sarah has any doubts about her beauty, she should be reassured by her steady stream of fan mail. Nearly all of it is from men.

"It can be a bit scary. You get people writing to you again and again and you think: 'You've had one picture - I'm not sending any more.'

"The funniest was from a group of four lads who sent a questionnaire. It had questions such as: 'When was the last time someone smacked you on the bottom? And did you a) smile back b) chide them...' It was hilarious." But her admirers have missed the boat. Sarah's been with Ben, 26, who works in computer sales, for the last four years and says they will marry.

"I'm a homebody. My screen characters always seem to be racy but I had my first boyfriend at 14 and we were together for four years."

BEN and Sarah had been living together in north London but she has moved to Bristol where Casualty is filmed, returning home at weekends.

She won't say if they are engaged but adds: "There might be something happening later this year."

Her first regular work was in the BBC's weekday afternoon soap Doctors. As receptionist Joanne Helm, she helped her dying grandmother commit suicide with drugs stolen from the surgery, then had a nervous breakdown and became addicted to tranquillisers. Then she played Sam Marsden in Moving On. She says: "Everyone took her for a prostitute because she had a bag full of sex toys but she was an Ann Summers-style salesgirl."

Her most serious role to date was that of murderess Tracey Andrews in Granada's Real Crimes docu-drama screened a year ago. Andrews stabbed fiance Lee Harvey during a row in 1996, then told police he had been killed in a road rage attack.

Sarah says: "It was a real opportunity to show so many emotions - her softer side, her aggression, her relationship with Lee and how it went sour. Roles that push you as an actress are fantastic."

But for now, it is as Bex that she will become a household name. She is contracted into Casualty for the next two-and-a-half years.

"People already recognise me." she says. "I just hope they don't confuse me with Bex - she's so awful."

CAPTION(S):

HOSTESS: In Mile High; BLONDE BOMBSHELL: Sarah as sniffy Bex explodes in Casualty; HOT ITEM: Sarah may pose for lads' mags but follows a strict code; Picture: CANN
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 25, 2003
Words:1187
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