The power of television thrust Lee Mead into the public spotlight in 2007 but his rise to stardom actually began five years earlier. On the Pride of Bilbao ferry in Portsmouth.
The man who was to win TV casting competition Any Dream Will Do had his first professional job as a singer on mini-cruises between Portsmouth and Bilbao.
‘It was three days there and then three days back, for six months at £40 a cruise,’ he smiles.
‘I was one of the singers with a live band and it was one of the best experiences I’ve had because we all mucked in together and I kind of learnt my craft.’
But there must have been some rough crossings through the Bay of Biscay?
‘Rough crossings and rough people as well,’ he retorts, the smile bubbling into a laugh.
‘There was a show bar at the back of the theatre and some guy would stumble past the stage while I was doing a routine.
‘It was an eye-opener and a test of what I wanted to do.
‘But yeah, there were a few rough crossings. The band would be grabbing on to their drum kits and it was quite funny at times.
‘But for me at 19 or 20 it was just great being away from home and enjoying life!’
The son of an Essex cab-driver, Lee had studied at performing arts college.
After his stint on the Pride of Bilbao he did a summer season at Bridlington in Yorkshire, but then Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat entered his life.
It was the show that was to change more than just his career.
Having won the televised Any Dream Will Do competition, he not only spent 18 months playing the title role in the West End but married one of the TV series panellists, Denise Van Outen, and has since become a father for the first time.
Was there an instant attraction between him and Denise?
‘Here come the personal questions,’ he laughs affably.
‘But no, not all at all. Anyone who knows what I’m like with my work knows that I’m very focused and take it seriously.
‘Denise met most of the boys but we only met once off-camera at the BBC, in passing, and it was just “Hi” and “Hello”.
‘It wasn’t until about six months after the show finished that she was working around the corner from me and we bumped into each other.
‘After that I felt compelled to give her a ring and asked her to dinner – and it was the best call I have ever made!’
So no flirtations on telly? ‘No, there was no time for that,’ he laughs.
‘The programme gave me a great career and to have found my wife as well I feel very, very blessed.’
And, nine months ago, daughter Betsy arrived. Not only was Lee present at her birth but he gave her her first milk and first bath.
So which was more exciting – his first night as Joseph in the West End or witnessing his daughter’s birth? ‘Oh, the birth was bigger than anything,’ he says emphatically.
‘It was the most emotional and liberating experience.
‘Holding this tiny little thing in my hands – it all changed from that point.
‘As performers we can be quite selfish and focused on our careers but your priorities change and my family is my main focus in life now although I still take my work very seriously.’
Lee also takes his commitment to press interviews more seriously than some performers do.
He takes the trouble to call me for a second time after being cut off, despite the fact that we have already over-run our allotted time.
He says he is trying to move towards more of a straight acting career now, which might surprise those who have followed his career only up to the point where he left the West End cast of Joseph.
He had played Levi and Pharaoh in the national tour of that show, giving 12 performances a week for a year. He then went into Tommy and Miss Saigon, in each case understudying the male lead, before joining the West End cast of The Phantom Of The Opera, understudying Raoul.
He was halfway through his year’s contract in that when the Joseph auditions came up.
‘I had always hankered after that role and I thought “Give it a shot” although I never expected to get very far because there were more than 10,000 guys auditioning.’
Then after he had been in Joseph for 18 months he was asked to stay for a further six, but he felt ready to leave – and did so in January 2009.
‘I didn’t want to cheat audiences or myself,’ he explains. ‘I wanted to leave on a high, giving a really deep, truthful performance.’
He was offered ‘three or four’ other West End shows but instead went to New York to take a course at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute.
‘A lot of people thought I was mad to turn down the West End shows,’ he acknowledges, ‘but I wanted to act first and foremost and just kind of fell into musical theatre.
‘I wanted to make sure I understood what I was doing, and my dream from 12 or 13 was to go to New York to study and do a film course.
‘I had watched actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on film and thought “Ah, New York!”
‘At 18 I couldn’t afford to go but I had the gut feeling that it was the right thing to do. I wanted to learn new things and expand my craft – and it was the best time. I hope to go back some time.’
On his return from New York he was cast in his first play, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime by Oscar Wilde. Lee admits it was ‘a real challenge’ and ‘a big risk’ with 140 pages of script to learn.
‘The director, Christopher Luscombe, said I’d chosen a very hard play and probably wouldn’t have such a big part in a play again – I didn’t leave the stage for two hours.’
So what does the future hold for this likeable mop-top, now in his 30th year?
‘I do love to sing and that’s a big part of my career as well, but TV or film would be amazing. It takes graft and hard work, but I’m prepared to do that.
‘You can’t expect to walk into roles. It’s not the getting there but the journey I want.
‘You need to enjoy the whole journey.’