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Interview Emma Atkins: Giving my all to Charity; Emmerdale star Emma Atkins on why she's nothing like her outrageous screen character. By Tessa Cunningham.

Byline: Tessa Cunningham

Emma Atkins was in the middle of a degree course when she was picked to play brash Charity Dingle. As the manipulative gold-digger, her first acting role plunged her straight into some of Emmerdale's most compelling storylines, but nothing prepared her for the soap's latest bombshell - a secret lesbian affair.

"As soon as I got the script, I rang my mum and said, `You will never believe this`," laughs Emma, 26. "It was such a shock because I've always thought of Charity as the original tart with a heart - a man's woman. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it makes sense. Charity lives on the edge. She's certainly not gay, but she loves sex and it doesn't matter whether it's with a man or a woman."

For weeks, Charity has been driving her wheelchair-bound sugar daddy Chris Tate wild with jealousy because he's convinced she's been seeing someone behind his back. And she is - his sister Zoe.

"She's playing games and Zoe's the perfect candidate," says Emma. "Charity finds the idea of an affair with Chris's sister stimulating and exciting. I haven't a clue what happens next, though. Charity lives for the moment and hasn't thought out the consequences. There'll definitely be a big explosion. I just don't know where or when."

Emma only joined Emmerdale in February last year, fresh from Salford University. And filming the passionate love scene with Zoe, played by Leah Bracknell, is the toughest thing she's ever done.

"I was virtually sick with nerves," she admits. "I was worried about silly things like would my breath smell? Would my lip start twitching with nerves?

"Leah and I sat in the Green Room before the scene and I told her how terrified and embarrassed I was. She told me that I'd be fine, and working with such a good actress made it so much easier anyway. But I was well pleased when it was all over.

"I don't think it's sensationalist. I reckon Charity is probably bi-sexual and hadn't realised it before, she's just having a go at something new. Some of my closest friends are gay and these days everybody is open about their sexuality. Whether you're straight, gay or bi isn't an issue, as far as I'm concerned."

Unlike Charity, who spreads her affections around, Emma is a one-man woman. From the age of 16 she was in a serious relationship for six years. And for the last nine months she's been dating a student in Manchester where she's recently bought a two-bedroomed cottage. Although she won't name her boyfriend, she's happy to talk about why she likes him so much.

"We met at a cast party and he made me laugh," she recalls. "He'd been travelling around Thailand and I asked him, `Did you snog any ladyboys out there?' With a very straight face he said, `Quite a few, actually'.

"A sense of humour does it for me every time. That's the biggest turn on before hair, clothes, physique, anything. He's quirky and has an off- the-wall sense of humour which I love. He's endlessly stimulating to be with. After nine months he's still an open book. There's so much to find out that I don't get bored."

Although she is obviously smitten, Emma is enjoying her independence far too much to think about them setting up home together.

"It's early days yet," she says. "However, I would like children one day. I've been clucky ever since I was ten. I love kids and go all gooey around them, but I want to get my career established and do some living first. At 34 I'll start popping out sprogs, but I don't want brats - only nicely brought-up children."

Since landing the part of Charity, Emma has become a man-magnet.

"I get blokes telling me how they can show me a better time than poor old Chris in his wheelchair," she says. "But anyone who thinks I'm anything like Charity couldn't be further from the truth."

For starters, Emma doesn't consider herself sexy, even though she has perfect skin, huge hazel eyes and a slim figure, which today is hidden under jeans and a Levi's top.

"I like casual clothes," she says. "I'm not a sexy person. I'm actually a bit of prude. Sometimes I dress up in high heels and a dress, but even then I prefer to be understated. Charity can bat her eyelids and men go all gooey, but that's not me. That's why it's such fun to play her. I put on the little leather skirt and the Kurt Geiger boots and out comes this man-eater. I think, `Wow, where does that come from?'"

Emma also prefers a more natural make-up look to Charity's trowelled- on slap, and has her tousled blonde locks cut and coloured by her mum.

"I've got a serious phobia about hairdressers," she says. "I had a bad experience when I was 11 and ever since I've refused to go into one. As a little girl I had long, blonde hair but I was desperate for a perm. Finally mum gave in. She told the hairdresser to cut a little off and give me a light perm and left me in her hands while she went shopping. But the hairdresser lopped off nearly all of my hair and gave me a really tight perm. I came out with a Michael Jackson-style afro. I was mortified."

Emma was born on March 31, 1975, in Morecambe, Lancs. When she was three her parents, Lilian and Ian, who run an interior design business, moved to the seaside village of Silverdale in the Lake District. She and her sister, Jillian, now 27 and a window-dresser, enjoyed an idyllic childhood there.

"It's a small, olde worlde village just like Emmerdale. There's even a little hotel with a bar like the Woolpack," says Emma. "It was a real safe haven. There was a cricket pitch behind our house and my parents never worried about us playing out."

She left Our Lady's High School, Lancaster, at 18 with three A-levels. Although she'd appeared in school plays, she wasn't sure about acting as a career. Instead, she joined her parents' business, but after three years went to study Performing Arts at Salford University. In her final year she was cast as Charity and juggled learning lines with finishing her studies, coming out with a first. She's contracted to appear in Emmerdale until December but hopes to be around a lot longer. Meanwhile, becoming a household name has changed her life. As well as buying a home, she's splashed out on a brand new dove grey Peugeot.

"But I still go out with all the same friends," she says. "If they thought I'd grown big-headed I'd want them to shoot me. And as for any of Charity rubbing off on me. No way. I'm nothing like her. If I met her, I'd run a mile."

l See Soap Box, page 21.

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SHOCKING: Zoe and Charity in a clinch
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 19, 2001
Words:1174
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