Danniella Westbrook has fallen in love with a place in Portsmouth. She’s put it on Twitter and happily chats on the phone about it. But it’s not the Spinnaker Tower, or any other tourist attraction – it’s an Indian restaurant at Southsea.
‘It’s called the Akash. I’ve been there about three times already and I love it,’ she laughs.
The actress, known to millions as Sam Mitchell from EastEnders, is spending a lot of time in the city this Christmas as she appears as Fairy Sparkle in the Kings Theatre’s pantomime Sleeping Beauty.
Speaking during her lunch break from rehearsals for the show, which starts on Monday, Danniella says: ‘It’s been brilliant so far, and so much fun.
‘I haven’t seen as much of Portsmouth as I’d like to but I’m going to get out and about. I have been to Gunwharf, which was amazing.’
She adds: ‘And I’ve been down to the seafront and seen where the hovercraft comes in.’
Danniella appeared on our screens throughout most of the 1990s, and most recently in 2010, as the headstrong and flirty Sam. Playing Fairy Sparkle in the family pantomime may seem a big step away from Albert Square, but Danniella thinks both characters are particularly ‘dizzy’.
She explains: ‘Fairy Sparkle is a little bit like Sam Mitchell I think, but a lot more dizzy. It’s really good fun.
‘Pantomimes are always great and it really gets you in the spirit. You come together to work with lots of different actors and dancers. It’s good to be part of a production that’s so much fun and it’s not taken too seriously by the audience. ‘
But to Danniella, it’s a serious business making the show fun for everyone.
‘There are goodies and baddies,’ she says, ‘so you never really get bored when you’re in a panto.’
Rehearsals are in their final stages, and working with X-Factor finalist Christopher Maloney has been fun for the actress, who’s kept her Twitter followers up-dated with their trips around the city.
But this time last year she was a long way from playing glittering fairies on the south coast, and was appearing on Channel 4 as ex-convict Trudy in Hollyoaks.
‘I loved it there,’ the mother-of-two adds.
‘I thought I was going to feel like a really old person with all those young beautiful people.
‘But they all made me feel welcome. It is a lovely show to work on. I would go back to Hollyoaks actually.’
Did the soap atmosphere make her miss her old role on EastEnders? Apparently not.
‘No!’ she laughs, ‘I didn’t miss it at all.’
Joining the British soap in 1990, when she was still in her teens, Danniella’s private life soon became fodder for the tabloids. Her cocaine addiction, which caused the complete erosion of her nasal septum, was widely publicised.
She released a book, The Other Side of Nowhere in 2006, and a second, Hope, Faith And Clarity, this summer. ‘The first book only went up to when I was married,’ she explains.
‘There were certain things I wanted to write in my first book that weren’t appropriate because of my children’s ages and schooling.
‘I self-published the second book, and it was much more honest.’
In it, Danniella revealed she had been kidnapped and gang-raped by drug dealers during her addiction period. The actress has now been clean for 12 years.
She says: ‘My first book was a little bit more... celebrity PC, if you like. This one was more raw and real.
‘I don’t think there are many celebrities that do autobiographies that are very really realistic. Everything is showbizzed up a bit.’
But it couldn’t have been easy to publish such personal stories? In an interview, she stated how she told no-one about the attack, and the book has been praised for its frankness and honesty.
Danniella says: ‘It was the most difficult thing to write.’
‘But it felt like a weight lifted off my shoulders. Just before it launched I went into panic mode, thinking maybe I shouldn’t have been that honest.
‘But you had to wait for the public’s response because once it’s out there, it’s out there.
‘I got a great response and it went into Amazon’s bestsellers list. It genuinely did the right thing and it allowed me to move on as well.
‘I’ve moved on, I’m an old girl now.’
Danniella has been on and off our screens for a long time, but the actress only celebrated her 40th birthday last month. Although she insists it was a milestone she was excited to reach.
‘I couldn’t wait to turn 40!’ she laughs.
‘I’m quite happy with it, it’s a different chapter in my life. Hopefully I made all the stupid mistakes when I was younger and I’m enjoying moving into a different part of my life.
‘My kids are older now too. I’ve only got one small one left – Jody is 12 and Kai is older. For me it was a good milestone in my life. I enjoyed it.’
Danniella’s life has certainly taken some interesting turns, and she even opened a dog day spa, called Barkingham Palace, in Los Angeles when she moved there with her family.
And her love of animals wasn’t left behind in America when she and her family moved back to the UK in 2011.
‘I do a lot with animal shelters. I’m forever rescuing animals and stuff,’ she says.
She’s now looking to the immediate future. After Christmas Danniella plans to start work on documentaries.
She explains: ‘I’m looking to make one on fostering, and another on youth homelessness. I work alongside a charity and in a shelter for homeless kids. When I’m not working I volunteer.’
Danniella Westbrook is starring as Fairy Sparkle in Sleeping Beauty from Monday until January 5. Tickets: £9.50 to £25 from the Kings Theatre, Southsea, on (023) 9282 8282 or go to kings-southsea.com.