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Star people: From Bad Girl to good mum; She may play the hard-as-nails Shell in TV's Bad Girls, but back home Debra Stephenson's a doting softie of a mum. STEVEN SMITH exclusively reports...

Byline: STEVEN SMITH

Sweet and slender, Debra Stephenson is nothing like the fiercely- menacing, mega-bad girl Shell Dockley. And a good job, too, considering the pretty actress has just taken on her biggest and toughest role ever - as a real-life mum.

"I never felt I could love anyone as much as my husband. But when my baby Max stared back at me from his cot, I realised that I love him more than life itself," she says.

But as you watch Debra, 30, cradling her beautiful baby boy, you can't imagine why anyone ever thought of casting her as the psychotic bi-sexual jailbird Shell Dockley in ITV1's hit drama Bad Girls, back on screen this week.

But it's testament to Debra's superb acting that she can so easily step into Shell's shoes, and then slip back into her own.

For now, Debra's happy being a proud mum, pondering on the feelings of helplessness that often surround first-time mothers. "It was with complete euphoria that we brought this little bundle of joy home. I was sure I was going to be the best mother in the world," says Debra, wandering off to heat up Max's milk.

"Then you feel so helpless. You realise that you have this beautiful baby that you are responsible for looking after. He's suddenly your number one priority.

"For the first time in your life, you feel inadequate and question everything you're doing. You want to be your best at all times, but unlike a job there are hidden areas no-one can prepare you for."

Baby Max was born weighing 6lbs 3oz, five months ago on November 26. Debra's waters had broken the previous day. "I was really calm about the whole thing. When my waters broke, I had a dull pain like I was having my period so I went back to bed,"

she says. In fact, Debra was so calm she considered auditioning for the West End musical My Fair Lady before checking into Kingston Hospital, Surrey. "But my husband James put his foot down and said: `No way!'

"Looking back, it would have been funny, belting out The Rain In Spain then going into labour. The high notes would have taken on a new dimension."

As it happened, the birth itself was far from easy. Since Debra's waters had broken so early there was a danger of infection to both her and the baby. She had to have an antibiotic drip, and despite intense pain couldn't have an epidural until the end.

"James held my hand and all I could say was, `Please, don't let me do this again'. It made me realise how off the mark I was in Shell's labour scenes."

Debra was first to cuddle Max, then her husband, 32-year-old James Duffield, a builder. But, with fears of infection, it was five days before they could take Max to their west London home.

"He's so amazing and I soon got into the swing of things. My only regret was trying to get Max into a strict sleep pattern by waking him up to fit in with us. I read it in a baby book. Don't do it! Let your baby sleep - trust me it doesn't work!"

Debra discovered she was expecting during the filming of the latest series of Bad Girls. Not wanting to lose one of their most popular characters, the scriptwriters quickly made Shell Dockley pregnant, too.

Unfortunately, half way through filming Debra bent over to cut her toenails and was unable to get up. She was rushed to hospital where the doctors said the position of the baby was putting extreme pressure on one of her nerves.

There was a chance the damage would be permanent and so Debra had to use a wheelchair to get around the Bad Girls set while fearing for her future. Thankfully, after the birth, the pressure was released and Debra has returned to normal.

Although she's taking a rest for now, she plans to continue working around her baby. "Max comes first, but I'm going to continue to work. I love acting and performing and I've been doing it since I was 14.

"I'm lucky that James is self-employed so he can help look after Max. I don't think it's a good thing to say you are having a year off acting while I play mother. A lot of actresses who do that find out that what's going on is NOTHING!

"Besides, I love being in Bad Girls. The chances to play strong characters are few and far between, especially someone like Shell, who is really bad, and gets to do outrageous things. It's fun to be wicked."

So will she be letting Max see his mum in Bad Girls? "Never," she says, laughing. "I'll burn all the videos before he can see them. Shell is not exactly the best example to children.

"I guess I'll let him watch it when he's about 18, but no doubt someone will show him before I do. I just hope he's old enough to appreciate that I'm just doing my job and that I'm nothing at all like Shell."

Bad Girls, ITV1, Thursday, 9pm

CAPTION(S):

HOME BIRD: Debra has found her real-life role matters most CHAIRPERSON: Debra takes time to relax - when she's not finding little Max a handful
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:May 4, 2003
Words:885
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