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BIG INTERVIEW: Ann Widdecombe - Keeping up appearances; She's been likened to Darth Vader and nicknamed Doris Karloff but, according to Ann Widdecombe, it's all part of the job. Jenny Longhurst spoke to the MP as she prepares to make an appearance at the Swansea Grand Theatre.

Byline: Jenny Longhurst

Ann Widdecombe was never one of those children who were seen and not heard.

Ask if she was always encouraged to voice an opinion and you get a typically forthright reply.

``I always did voice an opinion. Whether I was encouraged to or not I don't know.''

Blunt speaking has helped to turn the Honorable Member for Maidstone and The Weald into a media star.

Her straight from the shoulder style, an approach which has won her many fans, provides a breath of fresh air in a world which has become giddy with spin.

As with every other topic under the sun, she has strong views on the glossy presentation of information.

``I don't like spin, I've never used it and I always say the time will come when people will turn from it completely.''

Whether she is putting the experts in their place as in Celebrity Fit Club, when she defied nutritionists and flatly refused to eat breakfast, or starring in a chat show to promote her latest book she is always good value entertainment.

Now she has added a stage tour to her repertoire and will appear at the Swansea Grand Theatre in An Audience with Ann Widdecombe MP on Monday.

It will be Ann Widdecombe the 55 year old blonde who will take centre stage, showing off her new softened image, a look which she insists was reached by accident.

Ask if she minds the tirade of questions about such trivia as blondes having more fun and she replies, ``I don't much mind what they ask.

``They don't always get an answer. But they're entitled to ask.

``I regard being blonde neutrally. ``It's the same as asking did I enjoy being brunette.

``My hair was going white and my hairdresser dyed it lighter and lighter shades.

``It went from dark to mid brown to lighter brown and then bleached.''

Her black hair was once likened to a Darth Vader helmet and she has also been dubbed Doris Karloff but she shrugs off these and other cruel jibes with, ``that's part of the job, an occupational hazard.

``I honestly don't notice it. Everybody else bothers about it more than I do.''

A Latin scholar, who then went on to Oxford to study politics, philosophy and economics, her motto is Carpe Diem, Seize the Day, a maxim she lives up to with relish. ``I haven't got any life plan on a piece of paper. I don't operate that way.

``You only get one go on this earth and I use every minute.''

In spite of her job as a Member of Parliament and all the demands it involves, her resignation from the Shadow Front Bench in 2001 left her with time on her hands, time she has filled with a second job. ``My central career stays the same.

``I am first and foremost a politician. ``The writing and the theatrical appearances are very much subordinate to that.

``I always knew I was going to write but the theatre appearances came as something of a surprise.

``I was just asked to do it one day. ``It wasn't something I would have thought of myself.

``I enjoy it. I wouldn't do it if I didn't enjoy it.''

In many ways she is an intriguingly private person, sharing her life with her mother Rita and her cats.

Yet she has been open about her conversion to Roman Catholicism and about her weight, a secret which many women would have guarded with all the resources of MI5.

Ann decided to shed some of her 12st for health reasons, to lower a raised cholesterol level and relieve backache. She refused to take part in some of the exercise sessions but in spite of her `optouts' still did well in the Celebrity Fit Club challenge on ITV, raising pounds 11,000 for charity in the process and at 9st 4lbs, is still careful about the calories on her plate.

``I have potatoes, chocolate and bread but just eat less.

``I haven't cut anything out.''She turns to writing for relaxation and has produced three books, the first one, The Clematis Tree, rising to number eight on the Times best seller list.

She followed it up with, An Act of Treachery, a war novel set in occupied France and Father Figure, her third piece of fiction is due to be published next year.

Ann, born in Bath, spent much of her childhood in Singapore where her father James worked for the Ministry of Defence as head of naval supplies and transport.

She worked as senior administrator at London University before throwing her hat into the political arena, winning the Tory seat of Maidstone in 1987. Never a shrinking violet, she made her mark quickly and was soon climbing the ministerial ladder serving as Minister of State at the Department of Employment in John Major's Government in 1994 and Minister of State at the Home Office with responsibility for prisons and immigration in 1995. She resigned from the shadow cabinet in 2001 after deciding not to stand for the leadership of the Party.

There are no holds barred during the theatre performance when members of the audience are invited to ask her anything they like about the days in power; her views on subjects close to her heart from asylum seekers to abortion, to what she has for d nne r.

``Sometimes it is entirely political, other times it may be all about my cats and my writing,'' she said.

``I like the opportunity to answer a wide range of questions in a sensible atmosphere instead of in the confrontational atmosphere of a television studio.''

Nobody knows where her next career move might be, least of all Ann herself.

``As for the future,'' she says philosophically, ``I'll just let that unfold.''

.Ann Widdecombe will show off her glamorous side when she takes her seat on stage at the Swansea Grand on Monday.

In evening dress and with blonde hair specially coiffed for the occasion she may appear a million miles from the Ann who first hit the high profile scene 16 years ago. But she won't be curbing her outspoken ways.

She will spend the first half of the programme in conversation with author and political commentator Iain Dale and after the interval will answer questions from the floor.

An Audience with Ann Widdecombe is at the Swansea Grand Theatre on Monday, June 23, 7.30pm.

For tickets call 01792 475715

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THE FORCE IS WITH HER Ann Widdecombe has been likened to Darth Vader and Boris Karloff in the past, so did people's opinion of her change after appearing in TV's Celebrity Fit Club?
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jun 21, 2003
Words:1112
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