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Mystery of the vanishing woman; Jacqueline Leonard talks exclusively about the ups and downs of life since she quit EastEnders By Angela Hagan.

Two years ago Jacqueline Leonard was one of the most famous faces on television - and then something rather mysterious happened. She vanished. From being one of EastEnders' biggest stars who was mobbed in the street, she seemed to disappear as discreetly as she had from the soap itself.

Ironically, Jacqueline's moves mirrored those of her character, the sultry Lorraine Wicks who ended her affair with Grant Mitchell and slipped away with schizophrenic son Joe to rediscover her northern roots. Jacqueline did the same, although she experienced a far more turbulent time. She nursed her desperately ill mother, split with her long-term partner and then, remarkably, rebuilt her career and her life with a new man.

While co-star Paul Nicholls, who played Joe, went on to bigger fame in the police drama City Central, Jacqueline was relieved to get away from the limelight.

"They didn't kill us off and the part was left open, but sadly it's too late to go back now," says Jacqueline, 33, who returns to our screens on Sunday in the new medical drama Doctors. "Besides, none of the characters that could link Lorraine back to Albert Square are there any more. I had to go, though. It was a difficult decision but I felt I'd done all I could with the role."

Jacqueline also hated the attention that goes with being on TV three times a week. Even buying groceries had turned into an ordeal, with fans talking and pointing at her. She was even manhandled by the odd starstruck stranger.

"The fame thing did have its downside," she admits. "I am quite a shy person and the hardest thing to deal with was when I'd be standing in a queue and people next to me would be saying in a really loud voice, so everyone could hear, 'Is that the girl from EastEnders? It is, isn't it?' I didn't know whether I was supposed to turn round and smile, or politely ignore them. Either way I felt so embarrassed. Mostly people were kind but I remember this man grabbing me by the arm quite aggressively and pointing weirdly in my face, which freaked me out.

"People told me I was too nice and should learn to be a lot more hard, but I'm just not like that. I'd argue that just because I was on TV didn't mean I could suddenly learn how to be rude to people."

But after months away from the limelight, Jacqueline started to worry that she had made a wrong career move. She was missing out on bigger roles, and she grew concerned that casting directors only saw her as Lorraine.

"The right job never seemed to come up," she says. "I went up for things like Coronation Street and always got down to the last few, but never quite got it, almost like my profile was too high. Doctors came along at exactly the right time."

In the new daytime series, Jacqueline plays hard-drinking, hard-talking Dr Caroline Powers alongside former All Creatures Great And Small star Christopher Timothy. It is her first major part since leaving EastEnders. And her thrill at picking up the threads of her TV career is matched by happiness in her personal life. She has fallen in love and set up home in Lytham St Anne's, Lancashire, with Alex, a Channel Islands businessman. They plan to marry in August.

"We met through friends when I'd moved back to Lytham two years ago. It wasn't love at first sight, it was a gradual thing," says Jacqueline, who ended her relationship with long-term live-in lover Graham Turner, an RSC actor, when she quit EastEnders.

"What with all the changes that had just happened in my life I didn't want to rush anything. We just got on really well. Alex is from Lytham so we knew of each other from the past, we mixed in the same circle, and it grew from there. Alex is not in the business, which is refreshing. He's good at his job, he's a management consultant, and good at doing things in the home. Everything he seems to do he's really good at, which is an attractive quality in a person.

"I don't actually have a type. I haven't gone out with that many men, I've always been in long relationships. If I go for somebody it's because they're nice people not because of what they look like - although saying that, Alex is gorgeous."

Still, Jacqueline's decision to tie the knot has surprised those close to her. "A few people were shocked because they couldn't imagine me being married - they said they'd always seen me as a single woman," she laughs. "I'd never thought about marriage until I met Alex. I was never one of those girlie girls who wanted to get married at 21, I'm too practical for that."

Alex proposed one night last Christmas. "It was out of the blue for him although I knew he was going to ask me, like some form of women's intuition," says Jacqueline. "After I'd said yes I told him I'd been waiting for him to ask me for the past few weeks. We didn't get engaged, we just said, 'Right, we're doing it and this is when'."

At the moment she is so busy on location in Birmingham, filming the new 42-episode drama, that she hasn't had time to look for a wedding dress, even though the big day is looming.

"We're having a church wedding although I don't know if I'll wear a white dress," she says. "The good thing about being this busy is I don't have time to become obsessed with planning it all, everything will be last minute, although the basics have been arranged. My friends keep telling me off because I haven't got my dress yet but I honestly don't have time."

Jacqueline has no yearnings to start a family just yet. "I have never been broody," she says. "One of the actresses on set the other day said she often felt broody, I asked her what that felt like because it's something I haven't experienced. I know Alex wants a child, so maybe one day, who knows? It's difficult to plan things when you're an actress. Your life is so changeable and you're never in the same place for very long."

Jacqueline grew up in Blackpool, the oldest of seven children. The family moved to Scotland, where her mum Agnes is from, when she was young. They stayed there until she started secondary school, before moving back to Blackpool. Her dad Graham, a former milkman, and Agnes split when Jacqueline was barely into her teens. Her father remarried. The family split was the subject of a Sunday newspaper story during the height of Jacqueline's EastEnders fame, when Agnes, 60, opened her heart about why she left her children to be brought up by their father and his new wife Judy.

"I cried my heart out when I left," said Agnes. "Jacqui was distraught, it affected her worst of all because she was the eldest. For a while I visited the kids every week but each time it was like walking away and leaving them again. So after I moved back to Scotland I decided not to see them again. I didn't even say goodbye. I never lost hope that I'd see them again."

The story rocked Jacqueline's family. She was horrified that anyone would want to pry into such painful memories. Now she's adamant that they have put the past behind them and that her family, once again in contact with Agnes, are very close. In fact Jacqueline spent her first months after quitting EastEnders nursing her mum who was seriously ill. Agnes is now registered disabled after having triple bypass heart surgery.

Jacqueline says she's proud of, and grateful to both her parents and also her stepmother Judy. "Dad's giving me away at my wedding. My mum will be there and so will my stepmum Judy. She brought me up for years, she's lovely and we're very close. It's a real mish-mash of a family but a happy one," she says.

Throughout their difficulties her family have always supported Jacqueline, even when she chose to pursue acting - although no one could quite work out why someone so quiet would want to get up onstage.

"It might stem from being unbearably shy when I was a child," she says. "All my school reports would say how quiet I was - clever but quiet."

She was studying art when a friend took her to see a college drama show which changed her life for ever.

"They were doing Chekhov, which is enough to put anyone off," she laughs. "But not me. I thought it was the best thing I'd ever seen and I knew I wanted to become an actress more than anything else. So I dropped the art, took some drama classes and three months later got into LAMDA. My father thought I'd gone mad, I'd always been such a quiet student.

"I suppose I have been quite impulsive," adds Jacqueline, who has set up a casting agency in Blackpool to help talented children. "But this lack of confidence has always followed me around. When you're an actress you're always knocked back for one reason or another."

Despite that, Jacqueline knew she'd made it when she landed her role in EastEnders. "I still get recognised two years on," she says. "I was talking about this to Alex and I said people will forget I was in it, and he said, 'Jacqui, when I mention you people say, "That girl with the cheekbones". They know who you are straight away'."

Jacqueline has come a long way since her days as Lorraine Wicks, and faced a great many troubles.

"At the moment I feel very lucky," she says. "I've taken quite a few chances and they've paid off. I'm the happiest I've been in a long time. I've only one complaint - I'd like to see more of my family and Alex, but as far as complaints go that's not a bad one."

Doctors, Sunday, BBC1, 6.35pm; Monday to Friday, BBC1, 12.30pm.
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Hagan, Angela
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Mar 25, 2000
Words:1692
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