Leslie Ash made her first TV appearance as a cute little girl in a washing-up liquid advert.
Aged 18, she was a film actress then a face-of-the-Eighties model who became one of the nation’s favourite comic actresses.
Now 51, Leslie is entering a new chapter – taking to the stage for the first time in more than 15 years.
Her absence from the spotlight is partly explained by the silver-topped cane in promotional images for All The Single Ladies, a bittersweet comedy coming to Bradford next week.
It has been well reported that eight years ago Leslie caught hospital superbug MRSA, which attacked her spine and left her permanently injured.
Not only did she face the possibility of not being able to walk again – she now uses a walking cane – she had endured ridicule from the tabloid press after a cosmetic lip-enhancing procedure caused permanent damage.
While she’s determined to show that having a disability doesn’t have to be a barrier to making the most of life, Leslie speaks with a hint of sadness about the effect it has had on her career.
“I haven’t changed inside, I’m still the same person I was in 2004,” she says. “I find it hard to get my head around why my career ended. In the end, the decision was made for me.
“I found it difficult coming back after my recovery. I knew it would be,” she adds. “I’ve worked practically all my life. I know I won’t be able to rely on making a living from acting anymore, in the way I used to, but I see this as a new start.”
In All The Single Ladies, Leslie plays Liz, who’s embracing the single life after seven marriages. She shares the stage with former EastEnders actress Brooke Kinsella, who plays a young squaddie’s widow, and comic actress Tara Flynn, playing a woman being given the run-around by her lothario lover.
Written by comedienne Abigail Burdess, the play explores the love lives of three women over a festive period. Past romances unravel and future love is pondered as the women share their stories in a series of monologues.
“It’s a bit like a one-woman show when you’re up there and realise you’ve been talking for quite a while. I get sick of my own voice,” smiles Leslie. “But the stories interwind so it’s nice having the other two on stage. We’ve really bonded – there are no divas on this tour.”
Taking to the stage in front of a live audience must have been daunting.
“Yes, but mainly because of all the lines,” says Leslie. “I’m fairly static on stage, I don’t move around a lot, but that’s how you learn lines – you know where you’re meant to be when you’re saying a particular line. So in that sense, it’s been a challenge, but I’m getting the hang of it now. Well, I should hope so – since we’ve only got another month to go!”
Mother-of-two Leslie is looking forward to returning to Yorkshire, having lived here 20 years ago when her husband, Lee Chapman, was a Leeds United striker.
Born in Clapham, London, she went into modelling after leaving the Italia Conti Academy stage school. If, like me, you were an avid reader of teen magazine Jackie in the early 1980s, you may remember her as a cover girl, with her distinctive peroxide cropped hair.
She got her break playing Steph in cult film Quadrophenia in 1979, then came Curse Of The Pink Panther and TV crime series C.A.T.S. Eyes. “Everyone at school wanted your hair,” I tell her, suddenly feeling like I’ve followed her career in hairstyles.
“Oh, God, someone showed me a shot from that the other day. My hair was so bleached and back-combed I’m surprised it didn’t fall out. I looked like something out of Bananarama,” says Leslie.
She’s best known as Debs, long-suffering neighbour of slackers Gary and Tony in hit sitcom Men Behaving Badly. Co-starring Martin Clunes, Neil Morrissey and Caroline Quentin, the show captured the laddish culture of the Nineties but, as Leslie points out, the girls had the last laugh.
“Female columnists called it sexist, but it was the boys who were idiots – Debs and Dorothy were the strong, sensible ones,” she says.
“Simon Nye wrote Debs with me in mind and admitted he found her less easy to write for, because she wasn’t ‘one of the lads’. I brought quite a lot to the role.
“Sitcoms at that time were fairly middle-of-the-road – then there were us. We were pretty near the knuckle. I don’t know how we got away with half of it. We had the script read-through every Monday and would fall about laughing.
“It made a great impression, I’m very proud to have been part of it.”
All The Single Ladies is at St George’s Hall on Saturday, March 31. For tickets, ring (01274) 432000.