Don’t stare at her nose! That’s all that was running through my head as I prepared to chat with British actress Danniella Westbrook. It’s not often I’ve had to mentally prepare to avoid a social faux pas, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone with this one.
The child model turned actress was born in Walthamstow to a cab driver and a shop assistant and was brought up in Essex. Her parents supported their daughter’s ambitions by allowing her to attend the prestigious Sylvia Young Theatre School, and she found fame aged 16 playing Sam Mitchell in EastEnders, a role she would revisit intermittently for the next 20 years. She featured in many prominent storylines with her onscreen brothers, thugs Grant and Phil Mitchell, but it wasn’t this that made the headlines.
During the mid-90s Westbrook developed a severe cocaine habit, epitomised by pictures published in the press where it was evident that her nasal septum had been completely eroded. With grisly pleasure, the tabloids rejoiced in documenting the life of a young woman spiralling out of control. Pictures of Westbrook falling out of nightclubs and lying in gutters became standard gossip mag fodder. So in 2012, when she gave an exclusive interview to a British tabloid detailing her conversion to Christianity and newfound love for clean living, almost everyone did a double take. Of all the people to find God and turn their life around, she just seemed so unlikely.
So how did it all come about? My journey to find out was a somewhat arduous one. If her agent is to be believed, Westbook is a hard woman to pin down these days. The release of her new book, which openly documents her drug abuse and a gang rape as well as her conversion, has resulted in her becoming a born-again celebrity in high demand. After this difficulty, together with detailed requests for the provision of transport and a make-up artist (we were filming), I began to wonder what kind of person I would eventually meet.
The reality was a very petite individual, who arrived with no entourage and a very humble, relaxed and warm manner. She wore a crucifix and had the Bible verse Isaiah 54:17 tattooed on her wrist. ‘I always feel – especially coming from a working class background and being in the public eye – people judge, judge, judge and they use judgement as a weapon against people, to make them feel terrible about themselves,’ she explains. ‘So, for me [the verse says] “God’s there for you and no weapon formed against you shall prosper”. So that’s the Bible verse for me.’
She has already managed to do her Good Samaritan deed of the day and has offered her taxi driver a job if he ever needs it.
In fact, she and her husband, millionaire businessman Kevin Jenkins, have just sold their own taxi company. It’s not the only milestone in her life; she also turns 40 this year – an age which sends most people headlong into a mid-life crisis, but not Danniella Westbrook. Those days, it seems, are far behind her.
Have you got a bucket list of things that you want to do before you turn 40?
I ticked one off the other day when I went to see Paul Weller. I want to go to Vegas and meet up with all my friends. Most people are scared of being 40 but I don’t really mind.
Was the new book also on the list?
It was something I actually spoke a lot about with my husband and my pastor in California when I became a Christian. The first book I’d written, although it was good, was a bit PR fluffy and I needed to write a book that was more honest and open.
Substance abuse has played a major part in your story. Can you remember your first encounter with drugs?
Yep. I was about 14, nearly 15. I was out somewhere I shouldn’t have been with friends of mine. I’d never even had a drink before or a cigarette and somebody offered [drugs] to me. It was somebody I thought was quite influential and I did it. I always thought that I’d never take drugs; I was part of a Grange Hill anti-drugs campaign and all that sort of thing. My parents don’t drink, so I hadn’t grown up in a family of people who drink a lot or were out in clubs. I didn’t see any of that in my life so it was a real bolt out of the blue.
When did it stop being ‘recreational’ and actually become a problem?
I think I knew the first time I took it that I wasn’t like my friends. Other people took drugs and it was a thing they did every now and again. Whether it was at a rave, taking ecstasy or cocaine…I wasn’t like that. For me I guess it was a problem from day one.
Why do you describe your personality as addictive?
Everyone would go out and have a drink or maybe take some drugs, and at the end of the night, they were happy to go home, but I wasn’t. I thought, ‘Well, where are we going now?’ So I started to move in circles in the West End where there was always something going on – underworld circles. I was a very easy target for those types of people because I worked in television. Back then EastEnders had 20 million viewers a week, so I was very easily recognisable on the club circuit. It was easy for people to get their claws into me.
Can you describe your lowest moment?
There are a few, but I think the lowest was when I was abducted for two days because I owed someone money. When they eventually let me go, I walked back from Vauxhall Road to Tower Bridge [in London] where I was living. I stayed indoors for three days and drew the curtains. I couldn’t speak to anybody because I thought everyone would think I was a drug addict and I deserved it.
What happened during the abduction?
Three guys knocked on my door. They asked for the money and I told them I didn’t have any and I couldn’t do anything about it. Normally I was quite good at talking myself out of situations, but I couldn’t do it this time. So they said, ‘Ok, you need to come with us.’ They took me to a flat and tried to get hold of the person they worked for. While I was there, they gave me Rohypnol and those sorts of things. I was sexually assaulted over the two days by all three men. That was my lowest time. That happened in 1995 and I had my son in 1996 [with then boyfriend Robert Fernandez]. Everyone says, ‘It’s disgusting that she used drugs throughout her pregnancy.’ It is disgusting, and it is awful, but I just felt so worthless and so low.
What effect did your addiction have on your family?
I’d already alienated my family. I used to speak to my mum once every two weeks, but I would make sure it was on my terms. She was so happy to get that five-minute call from me, because she didn’t know where I was living or anything. I used to leave notes on my dad’s car and he wouldn’t call me, because he was so hurt and he knew I was just playing one against the other. My parents divorced, and as much as they say that it wasn’t to do with me, there were a lot of arguments about me.
Was Christianity part of your early life growing up?
Not particularly. My father was brought up in a Catholic school and my mum wasn’t brought up with any religion as such, but my nan used to go to church and I would go with her. So I always knew about God, but when people used to speak to me about having a relationship with Jesus I didn’t understand it.
When did this change for you?
I always felt that there was something bigger out there than me. At Cocaine Anonymous they always refer to a ‘higher power’, and for me that higher power was God. I just didn’t realise that you can have a relationship with Jesus in the way that I understand that you can today. When I was in treatment in Arizona (when I finally got clean) I was pregnant with my daughter and I couldn’t sleep. They had a ‘serenity path’ in the garden…I went and sat out there at about 3am. There’s this thing called the Phoenix Lights, when the sky lights up in different colours. I sat there, looking at the sky, and I just had a conversation with God. This was way before I was a Christian, but I said to him, ‘This is really hard and I can’t do this on my own. But if I’m meant for more than to just be working in television and wasting my life doing other stuff, then you need to step in and help me out because I can’t do it on my own.’ I felt that was my first real connection with God.
Describe the moment you became a Christian…
I had this crazy friend in California, Duffy (she’s 25 years clean [from drugs] and really good fun); we were walking downtown one night and these kids were handing out flyers for a youth church. She knew them, so I took a flyer and she said, ‘That’s my church. Come tomorrow. Its rad, it’s really good.’ My husband has always been very spiritual anyway. So we said, ‘Yeah, we’ll go and check it out.’ And that was it. We went and we both just lit up. We literally went from church to the airport because we were flying back that day to London. And the whole way home we were like, ‘That was amazing!’ I didn’t know churches like that existed at all, because I’d never been looking for that. Obviously all over England there are great evangelical churches. I know that now, but back then I didn’t. So I think it was more that God called us, rather than us looking for him.
You and your husband found faith together?
Yes, we did. And then the kids came to church. I’m very open with my kids. I don’t push my religion on them. They know about God, they know all about the Bible, and we do have great discussions about it. But if my kids don’t want to come to church they don’t have to, because they can make their own way in life.
Why don’t you insist your children attend church?
At the end of the day, yes, they’re my children, but they are God’s children. God’s placed them in my care while I’m here on this earth, so I know that God has a plan for them like he does for me.
Is it difficult being labelled as a born-again Christian in the media?
Do you know what, it’s people’s faces. They sigh and say, ‘You’re a Christian, you’re crazy.’ When I was in America I happened to send a tweet to my pastor and suddenly the press in England started to say, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s a crazy Christian and she’s going to get on her soapbox.’ It made me think, ‘Wow, people are really small-minded.’ They know more about people on TOWIE [The Only Way is Essex] than they do about God. This country is becoming spiritually barren and somebody needs to wake people up. Not that that’s my job, but when people ask me about my faith I’ll speak to them. I think a lot more people in this country are interested in faith than they let on.
Have you ever witnessed a miracle?
When people think of a miracle, they think of someone who was blind and can now see and that sort of stuff. But I think it’s a miracle enough that I was saved. There are miracles happening every day. But if Jesus came back and stood on the top of Big Ben, nobody would care. They only care if Katie Price has a baby. That would be front-page news and God would probably be on page 12. That worries me.
What would you write on a placard to get their attention?
I’d say, ‘God’s here. Jesus is coming!’ [Laughs] I get excited because I love my faith and what I’ve got, but I don’t throw it down other people’s throats. But when people ask me to come and speak about [it], I’ll always speak about it, of course.
Have you lost out on work because of your faith?
Yes, loads! Well, not so much now, but when I first came back from the States people thought, ‘Oh no, I’m not working with her because she’s a Christian.’ That’s really bizarre to me. I wouldn’t say that I wouldn’t work with you because you’re Jewish, a Muslim or Buddhist.
How have you convinced people that you’re not the ‘crazy Christian’?
I think because I didn’t just bang on about it and say to people, ‘No, look, you need to listen.’ I’m just me. I make mistakes every day; we all do. If you treat people how you want to be treated and you invest your time in a relationship with God that’s yours, nobody else can get involved.
What would you do if you encountered drugs now?
I don’t go into group situations. You’re not going to find me in the local nightclub, it’s just not my thing. My life is different now; I’m moving forward and doing other things.
What would you say to a young person experimenting with drugs right now?
I speak to people on Twitter quite a lot. I say, ‘Listen, everybody’s journey is different. You can only do one day at a time and you need to drop those people out of your life. And if you’re curious about faith, you could go and find a good church, with a prayer group, go to meetings, get involved. Go and see your doctor.’ Everybody is different. But sometimes it’s easier for someone who is never going to meet me to speak to me via Twitter than it is for them to speak to their best friends.
What would you like to see the government doing to help people with addictions?
It upsets me that there isn’t [enough] funding in the UK for rehabilitation. You could be on a six-month, nine-month, even two-year waiting list to get rehabilitated, and within three weeks – or even two days later – that person could be dead. Also now in the current economic climate, people are turning to alcohol more than ever. There are more kids in care than ever. One in five families is using a food bank. This is a time for everybody to pull together and help, and for the Church to step up and be part of the community.
Danniella Westbrook’s autobiography, Faith, Hope and Clarity (CreateSpace), is out now westbrookdanni.com