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Interview: Daniela Denby-Ashe - How Daniela went from glum to glam; Daniela Denby-Ashe on how family support gave her the confidence to succeed.

The Look IN THE MIRROR 15Daniela Denby-Ashe looks slim and stunning, with a new-found poise that only enhances her fresh-faced, girl-next-door prettiness. It's hard to recall that it was playing frumpy, dumpy Bible-basher Sarah Hills in EastEnders which made her a household name.

It's not just in her appearance that she has blossomed since quitting Albert Square more than 12 months ago. Her career has also taken off.

"Leaving EastEnders was a gamble," admits Daniela, 22. "But I wanted to progress and if it didn't work out at least I could say it was my mistake. No one pushed me into going, but it is difficult to leave a secure, long-running show. I was shocked to land a job so quickly. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it continues."

Almost immediately, she landed a plum role with Paul McGann in an episode of Fish. Then she joined The Lakes star John Simm for a low-budget, as yet untitled film. And she is currently starring in the sitcom My Family, alongside top actors Zoe Wanamaker and Robert Lindsay. Daniela's gamble has paid off, and largely because of her courage to follow her beliefs and take risks. One person who helped instil that quality in her was her late grandmother.

"One of my biggest influences as a little girl was my mum's mother," says Daniela. "She died when I was ten, shortly before I started in the business in the children's show Kevin And Co, which was a shame. I think she had an inkling that I'd end up an actress. I was ballet dancing at two-and-a-half and tap dancing at five, so she knew I was leaning in that direction."

Daniela, who still lives in Harrow, North London with mum Jola, dad Mirek and brother Adam, 20, spent much of her childhood with her Polish-born grandmother, who lived nearby.

"Apart from my grandfather, I spent the most amount of time with her," she says. "For a few years I'd stay with her at the weekend. She meant so much to me. I'm not sure how she died but she was in her early sixties, and it was a complete, horrible shock.

"I was supposed to sing at her funeral but I was too upset to go through with it. I still think about her a lot. I don't really believe in an afterlife as such but I do believe something lives on in people, and I'd like to think that she knows what I've achieved."

Being so close to her maternal grandmother kept Daniela in touch with her Polish roots, something her parents were also keen to encourage.

"Mum was born in England and dad came over to the UK from Poland when he was 12. So from an early age I have had holidays in Poland at Christmas and New Year, and summer breaks. We have family out there. Although gran was born in Poland she was brought up in France, so we have a number of relatives there too. I'm lucky to be part of a multi-cultural family. It's always been important to my parents that I know where we're from," says Daniela, who is fluent in English, Polish and French.

From the ages of five to 15 she attended a Catholic Polish school every weekend to learn Polish history and language, Religious Education and Geography. That was as well as going to an English school during the week.

"So I went to school six days a week," she laughs. "At the time I didn't want to go, but now I'm so glad I did. It really was worth it. The Polish community is enormous over here and I'm pleased I feel part of it."

As a child she was also captivated by movie stars, in particular the dance routines of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and longed to act. From the age of ten, she attended various London stage schools including the Ravenscourt Theatre School in Hammersmith, where one classmate was future EastEnders co-star Dean Gaffney. At 16 she was considering doing A-Levels when she was cast as saintly Sarah in EastEnders. Being suddenly famous overnight changed her life.

"I'm not comfortable with it but I accept that it's part of the job," sighs Daniela, who rarely gives interviews. "I just don't want people to see me as a celebrity, because I'm not. I've only ever wanted to act. Also, I don't think I'm particularly interesting, so I'm always surprised when someone wants to interview me."

In her four years on the soap she received fanmail in which besotted men confessed their undying love. On the streets she would get stopped and asked, "Where's your Bible?" To which she'd retort, "I've left it in the car". She recalls being mobbed by fans when out with friends at an indoor theme park in Gateshead, as one of the scariest moments in her life.

"This group were screaming and chasing me around with a Camcorder, it was horrible," she recalls. "We were just trying to have a nice time and suddenly we were being chased around, it was frightening."

She also hated being romantically linked with Paul Nicholls, who played her onscreen boyfriend Joe Wicks, and insisted there was nothing between them. The experience has left her wary of discussing her personal life.

Although she still gets recognised as Sarah, that will change following My Family. The sitcom centres on dentist Ben (Robert Lindsay), his wife Susan (Zoe Wanamaker), who is a hopeless cook, and the three Harper children - 16-year-old Janey, played by Daniela, and her two brothers.

"Working with actors of the calibre of Robert and Zoe was a real honour," she says. "It taught me a few things and was good fun as well. The food we ate had to look awful as my screen mum is supposed to be a bad cook. Tucking into disgusting grey stuff made us giggle, but it was chicken covered in mushroom soup and actually tasted quite nice.

"I'm not similar to Janey at all. She's very rebellious and manipulative. I'm sure I had the usual teenage things going on but I don't ever recall being like her."

In fact, Daniela, who has always been very close to her family, is happier staying in with them rather than going out and raising hell.

"Mum, dad and Adam are brilliant and we like to go out for meals and to bars together," she says. "I do go clubbing occasionally but I would rather go for a drink with friends. I'm equally happy to stay in and watch the telly. Mum and dad are so great and we rarely have rows. They learned to let go a few years ago and give me lots of freedom to be myself."

My Family, Tuesday, BBC1, 8pm.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Hagan, Angela
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Oct 14, 2000
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