From making her name as part of chart-toppers Hearsay, to her 13-year stint on Coronation Street and beyond, Kym Marsh has always seemed like one of our warmest, most approachable stars. But now on stage, she’s tapping into her dark side, playing dog-murdering fashionista Cruella De Vil in a new UK & Ireland tour of 101 Dalmatians The Musical. “I enjoy playing [villainous] roles because they’re so far removed from me, so you have to really try and get into the head of that person,” she says, adding laughingly that “trying to get into the head of a person who wants to skin puppies to wear is especially alien to me because I’m such a huge dog lover! I’ve got two of my own, and I adore them.”

Cruella isn’t just any villain of course, she’s the most fabulous villain there is, and Kym can’t wait to get in front of an audience. “I think people are going to absolutely love her. The costumes are so brilliant, and when she walks on, she’s just in command of everything – she’s the most fun character ever.” Best of all, Kym says, is her Cruella hair: of course, she will be sporting the character’s iconic black-and-white do, “but there won’t be just one wig,” she says tantalisingly, “there’s going to be several changes and it’s not just what you expect from her. We’re like Cruella De Vil times ten!”

It’s not all just fun and games, though: for Kym, one of the big challenges of the role is getting back into singing mode again, after many years concentrating on other pursuits. “If you don’t sing, you forget,” she says – pointing out that while she had a role in a touring production of Take That musical Greatest Days last year, “I didn’t have a lot to sing [in that] – there were no solos, and nothing hugely taxing. Whereas in this, I’ve got my own songs, and there’s a lot to learn.” Plus when we speak two weeks into rehearsals, she’s simultaneously still filming the latest series of BBC school drama Waterloo Road, in which she plays canteen worker Nicky. “Yesterday I was feeling quite overwhelmed with everything, thinking: what am I doing?,” she confesses. “But in a good way – I’m just going to end up living and breathing her for the next few weeks I think.”

If that sounds like a punishing schedule, then Kym has always been adept at juggling responsibilities, right from when she was starting out as a performer, while bringing up two kids as a young  single mum. She credits her parents with encouraging her drive to succeed: “I fell pregnant at a very young age and my parents were like ‘this is even more reason for you to continue and carry on pursuing your dream, and make the life that you want, not just for you but for the children’. I was very much spurred on and encouraged [by them], and I’m very thankful for that.”

Then came Popstars, the ITV series in which she and four others were selected to be part of a new pop group, Hearsay; it kicked off a new era of national-talking-point talent shows, paving the way for Pop Idol and The X Factor. Looking back on it now, Kym says it was a “unique and very strange” time, but a great learning experience, because no-one had undergone anything quite like it before. “We were guinea pigs and people were watching thinking ‘what’s going to happen now?’… People were very much waiting for us to fail, and every move we made, there was a comment about it. The press back then were very different to how they are now – they’re much more well behaved.”

Her subsequent transition into acting came about by “accident”, she says. After leaving Hearsay, and starting out on a solo career, she was dropped by her record label – and while pondering whether to go for another deal, she was offered the role of Annette in a West End production of Saturday Night Fever. “Once I started to do that, I remembered my love of acting which I had as a teenager but had not pursued, because I felt like I could make money singing in pubs and clubs.” After a few small TV roles, she was then offered the role of Michelle Connor in Coronation Street, and was initially meant to appear in just four episodes – but Kym made such an impression, they asked her to come back and she became one of the soap’s best-loved characters. “I never in a million years thought or expected [that was how things would go]. I’ve been very fortunate, as I’ve been given some amazing opportunities, and had a lot of people believe in me, even if I didn’t necessarily believe in myself.”

Adding further strings to her bow, she’s now also a face of daytime TV as one of the hosts of the BBC’s flagship show Morning Live since its launch in 2020. When she was offered the job, she had “huge impostor syndrome” because, while she had done a couple of presenting jobs for the BBC, she had never done a live TV gig. But four years on, and she’s incredibly grateful to have found in it a proper TV family, among them co-host Gethin Jones. “I was very fortunate to be paired with him, because he’s a very generous co-presenter. He took me under his wing, and I’ve learned so much from him.”

For all that Kym’s career may be flourishing, she has also dealt with some tough personal challenges in recent times. In January, her dear father David died following a long battle with prostate cancer. His passing has left a big hole in Kym’s life, and afterwards she took some time out to grieve and care for her family. “My dad was the pinnacle of our lives, and very much the figurehead of the family,” she says “It’s a huge loss, and I needed that time [off] – and I think there may come times down the line where I need it again, because it’s not something that you get over. It’s always going to be very tricky, to not have him around.” In particular, she says, “for him not to see me play this role makes me very sad because I think he would love it. I just hope he’s with me every night on the stage.”

Meanwhile Kym’s daughter Emilie has been following in her footsteps as a singer and actor, and last year they starred alongside each other in Greatest Days, playing the same character at different points in her life. As a mum, it was an amazing opportunity to witness her really grow as a performer, she says. “I watched her going into rehearsals on the first day, being like a rabbit in the headlights and doubting herself, to suddenly making [the role] so much her own. And there were times where I was off stage, and I’d hear her through the speakers in my dressing room and go ‘ooh, she’s just changed that bit’. It was lovely to hear her playing with [the part].” One thing Kym is certain of is that “you’re going to see quite a lot of her in the future”.

As for Kym’s own future, her ambitions include doing some more meaty TV drama, and some more films. But really, she says, she’s happy to see where life takes her. “One minute I’m serving chips and beans in the canteen at Waterloo Road, and the next thing, I’m [Cruella] wearing [pretend] giraffe skin. It’s a bizarre life I live!” she laughs.

Interview by Hugh Montgomery, June 2024

101 Dalmatians – The Musical runs at the Gaiety Theatre from the 17th to the 21st of September – Book Here

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