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MY LIFE WITHOUT SOAP: Interview - Melanie Clark Pullen; Former EastEnders actress Melanie Clark Pullen reflects on how; her firm Christian beliefs helped her with the pressures of fame and fortune.

ONE YEAR ago pretty Melanie Clark Pullen could not walk down a street in London without being recognised as one of the UK's top soap actress.

Now the pretty 22-year-old hardly gets noticed at all - and she couldn't be happier.

In true fairytale style Melanie was plucked from Ireland weeks after leaving drama school to join the cast of EastEnders as feisty, elfin-faced Mary Flaherty.

But eighteen months later she was axed from the series along with her screen dad Conor, played by Sean Gleeson.

Yet instead of being bitter, Melanie is delighted that she has become a virtual unknown since leaving the top soap in January.

"The most recognition I get now is when people think I'm someone they used to go to school with," she said. "They know my face from somewhere but they just can't place it.

"But I'm not interested in what the general public think of me - it's the opinion of friends and family that matter. I'd rather be myself, not someone people think I should be.

"I may not have the fame of EastEnders anymore and I may not know where my next job is coming from but I'm very happy in myself. I have a fantastic family and great friends and that's what matters.

"I was very aware when I got the part in Eastenders that fame could fade very quickly, that it was going to end some day so I was prepared when it happened.

"When I left EastEnders I knew there was lots more I wanted to do. When they decided not to pick up the option on my contract in July 1997 it meant that I was leaving in January.

"But I had realised by that stage that the time had come to move on and I was happy about it.

"There were stories going round at the time that I was devastated about leaving, but that wasn't true. Obviously I was sad to leave because I had built up close friendships with many people. But I knew the time was right to move on."

Melanie couldn't be more different from the soap character which made her a household name.

In real life she is sensitive and soft-spoken. Unlike Mary who relished getting drunk and living it up, Melanie prefers to spend quiet evenings in with friends and family.

And she revealed that her strong Christian faith has helped her overcome doubts about her career when she left Eastenders.

"Every time I play a new role I have a mad moment when I forget my lines. But that happens to everyone. Acting is an insecure profession because you are depending on people to like you in order to be successful.

"Being an actor is extremely important to me. I would have said two years ago that it was the most important thing in my life. But now I realise it is much more important to be secure in myself, and being a committed Christian has helped me.

"I may never work again and people might say that what I do is c**p but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter.

"My faith is the basis of how I live my life. If nothing else, it has given me the security of knowing that I am loved. Fame comes and goes and jobs may come and go but the one constant in my life is God and that is a huge comfort to me."

Melanie hasn't stopped working since she left EastEnders and is set to appear in the New Year in the big budget costume drama Lady Audley's Secret on ITV.

She also stars alongside Sir Richard Attenborough and Jenny Agutter in the remake of the classic The Railway Children.

"I've been meeting lots of people about projects and I'm hoping that things will take off in the new year," she said.

"I've also been involved in a number of great projects since I left Eastenders. They haven't paid megabucks but I really enjoyed them - it was very rewarding.

"Of course I've been to auditions which haven't been successful but the work I have been doing outweighs the rejections. I believe that things happen for a reason and the jobs I've done have been the right ones."

Drama has always been a big part of Melanie's life. At the tender age of two she was performing in a ballet show in her hometown of Bray in Co Wicklow.

"My family was always really into amateur dramatics so it's no surprise that I ended up involved. I went to the Audrey Meredith School of Drama in Dun Laoghaire and I loved being on stage.

"I knew from the age of six that I wanted to be an actor and I was lucky that my parents supported me. They always told me that I could be whatever I wanted to be just as long as I got my education first.

"I went to Newpark Secondary School in Blackrock because it had a good reputation for drama.

"I think it's essential that drama is taught at school because it gives young people so much confidence and helps them develop good communication skills.

"I loved my time at school and I loved getting involved in the dramas. I wasn't always in the cool gang but those type of barriers dissolved once you were in a drama class. Everyone was the same.

"I suppose I was a bit of a workaholic at school. I knuckled down and got on with it because that was what being at school was all about.

"I got enough points in my Leaving Certificate to study Drama and Irish at Trinity College Dublin which was the perfect course for me.

"If I had only done drama it would have been too much intense.

"When I graduated I really didn't know what to do. I had a part-time job in a bookshop while I was at university so I planned to work over the summer and then move to Galway.

"The last thing I wanted to do was to move to London but that's exactly what happened."

Melanie heard about the audition for EastEnders in Dublin in June 1997, two weeks after she graduated from university.

She decided to go along for the experience and was gobsmacked when she got the part.

"I wasn't nervous when I went for the audition because I honestly didn't think I stood a chance of getting the part. I probably did so well because I was relaxed.

"The casting director for the BBC rang me the following week and offered me the part.

"I couldn't believe it and the first thing I thought of was how am I going to hand my notice in at the bookshop when they were depending on me.

"Luckily they were pretty understanding about the whole thing!"

Melanie was thrown right in at the deep end on her very first day of filming in Ireland with major scenes alongside soap stalwarts Todd Carthy, who plays Mark Fowler and Wendy Richards, who plays his mum Pauline.

"I was expecting the cast to be luuvies but they were all brilliant - real grafters and totally down to earth. They were all very supportive as well and made me feel right at home.

"I was pretty starstruck at the beginning and I had to learn everyone's real names instead of their characters. I remember meeting Barbara Windsor for the first time and calling her Peggy and she just smiled and said `It's Barbara.'

"Wendy Richards who plays Pauline Fowler was great - she is the most wonderful woman and she quietly gave me advice on how to cope with the sudden fame and attention.

"She told me not to go out and get drunk or spend my money recklessly which was very good advice. She's a remarkable lady and I have a tremendous amount of respect for her.

"It all happened so quickly - suddenly I was packing up my belongings and moving over to London. I moved in with my aunt and uncle because they lived near the studios.

"I only had one friend, Diane, in London and I called her all the time. It was really hard at the beginning because London was so different from Dublin.

"People say that it's only across the water but it could have been on the other side of the world. The pace of living was so fast and within six weeks I was recognisable because I was on television three nights a week.

"I really didn't know how to cope with people shouting at me across the street. Some people would approach me and say that they really liked my character which was nice.

"But mostly people just shouted things at me which was a bit frightening because suddenly I couldn't go outside without being recognised.

"So I avoided going to pubs and clubs or places where this would happen.

"I was never interested in going to clubs so that never bothered me. I'm not comfortable in that type of environment.

"It all comes down to choosing what you want to be. I'm passionate about acting, finding parts and roles that are challenging.

"I remember very early on being given an excellent piece of advice by Jane Harris, who was the executive producer of EastEnders.

"She told me that I had to make a decision about whether I wanted to be a celebrity or an actor. If I chose the celebrity route I'd have to take the rough with the smooth.

"If I was prepared to open my home and personal life for magazine interviews then I'd have to be prepared for people to ask questions.

"So very early on I decided I would be an actor and I'd only use my celebrity status for good causes. That's why I refused to do personal appearances or give interviews.

"I'm an extremely private person. When I'm playing a character I am a different person. I'm quite prepared to talk about that role but not about my private life.

"Some people deal with the fame thing well and others don't. I was extremely lucky because of the very good advice at the beginning of my career.

"I also had a very close circle of family and friends in Ireland who would have knocked me down a peg or two if I started letting the fame and attention go to my head."

Melanie refuses to talk about the controversy sparked across Ireland when EastEnders introduced its first Irish family as long-lost relatives of the Fowlers.

The BBC's phonelines were jammed with callers furious at the soap's depiction of the Irish as drink-sodden thickos.

"I don't like talking about that," said Melanie. "I knew Mary was going to develop as a character. She was sparky, independent and quite forward thinking for an 18-year-old.

"All I can say about the controversy is that I'm glad I wasn't in Dublin at that time!

"I really liked the character of Mary and I loved playing her. She's very different to me - she adjusted to London a lot quicker than I did.

"I also got the opportunity to act out situations that I'd never find myself in. I remember when I had to kiss Joe Wicks - I was the envy of a lot of my friends at that time.

"I got very close to Sean Gleeson who played my dad Conor - he was very much a brother figure. I also got close to Todd Carthy and Caroline Patterson who played Mark and Ruth Fowler.

"Being involved in Eastenders was fantastic. I was very lucky to get such a big break so early in my career. But I'm very happy now.

"I did have more financial security when I was on the show but things change, that's all part of the profession I chose to be in.

"I hope to have a long and fulfilling career doing lots of different things. The hard part comes now when I have to forge my links with the industry.

"And it's important for me to distance myself from the character of Mary now.

"I'm probably the happiest I've been in a long time. I wasn't unhappy in Eastenders but I've grown up a lot now.

"Being involved in such a big programme and coping with the changes in my life was a tough learning curve. But I've levelled that out and take myself a lot less seriously now.

"Please God I'll be able to make a really good career for myself."
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:COLLINS, : AMANDA DOHERTY Pictures: CHARLIE
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jan 2, 2000
Words:2086
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