Denise van Outen: ‘I thought if I had legs like Cilla, I’d have a long career’

My older sister was very much into the new romantic bands, so I would hear Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Madonna through the bedroom wall. Then I discovered Wham!. I thought: “This is fun.” I’d listen to the Top 40 in my bedroom on Sunday evenings and my sister would do the same. It was so exciting when Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go got to No 1. I had it on 7in and performed a dance I’d made up in my mum and dad’s lounge.

Obviously, I had a huge crush on George Michael. He was so handsome. I’ve always loved that dark, tanned, Mediterranean look. I really wanted his leather jacket, but my mum said: “You’re too young,” and got me a denim jacket instead. My grandmother bought me a Wham! scarf that I wore with a pair of cream pixie boots. I thought I looked really cool and grown-up. One of my first teenage holidays was to Ibiza. I insisted on going to Pikes hotel so I could get a picture with a lilo and a cocktail in the swimming pool where they filmed Club Tropicana.

I love Bette Midler. She’s such an amazing, all-round performer. I still sing Wind Beneath My Wings – from the Beaches soundtrack – to this day. It’s such a great film about friendship. I made my best friend, Cossi, who’s Greek Cypriot, when I was 11 at secondary school and we’re still best friends. We are from two different worlds, Hackney and Essex, so our friendship is a bit like CC [Midler’s character] and Hilary [Barbara Hershey] from the film.

It’s funny when you find a friend in life who is so different from you. Cossi is a hippy and likes backpacking and yoga. I’m very Essex and 100 miles an hour. But that’s what Beaches is about: staying friends to the end. It was also my first introduction to grief. Hilary gets a viral cardiomyopathy, needs a heart transplant and dies. I was in tears. It hit me quite hard. I thought: “We’re not here for ever. You’ve got to enjoy life.” It was the first time I had been completely moved by a film.

We would sit down as a family to watch Top of the Pops. It was a big thing in our house – for music and fashion. You’d hope that your favourite band would make it to No 1. I ended up presenting Top of the Pops in the 90s and had a couple of pinch-myself moments. I thought: “Hang on a minute. I’m presenting the show I grew up watching.” All those live shows in the 90s – Top of the Pops, TFI Friday – always had an afterparty, which was great fun.

In the 80s, my favourite show was Mini Pops, where they’d dress children as pop stars. You’d have a mini Cyndi Lauper singing Girls Just Want to Have Fun, or mini John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John singing You’re the One That I Want. It was such fun at the time, but I’m sure dressing children as adult pop stars would now be considered hugely inappropriate. I think they realised at the time, because it was cancelled after one series.

Blind Date was big in our house. We all loved Cilla. Everybody watched Blind Date; it was the original Love Island. You’d sit there and cringe, thinking: “I can’t believe they just said that,” or: “I can’t believe they’ve taken off their shirt.” But there was no clicking and swiping and there was no social media. So this was what dating was really like: cringey one-liners and cheesy chat-up lines in nightclubs, like: “Here’s 10 pence to ring your mum and tell her you’re not coming home tonight.”

I looked up to Cilla. She could do everything, from singing to stage to presenting. She was a proper, all-round entertainer and the queen of Saturday night TV. She was witty and funny, with good one-liners, and she always had amazing legs. I thought: “If I could have legs like Cilla, I’d have a long career …”

I have always been fascinated by Vivienne Westwood. I remember when the audience on Wogan wouldn’t stop laughing at her designs. Her designs seemed bonkers, but she was just way ahead of her time. She was the frontrunner of punk and outrageous clothing: so daring and uniquely British. Clothing was so flamboyant in the 80s, with pedal pushers and the Princess Diana blouse. She managed to make punk look glamorous.

I used my first pay cheque from The Big Breakfast to buy some Vivienne Westwood knitwear from World’s End on the Kings Road in London. It’s still a must-visit on a day out. I wore a pair of Westwood white stilettos to the Brits in 1998 that I still own and treasure.

I was asked by Vivienne to walk in her fashion show in the 90s. I don’t think she knew I was such a big fan. She must have seen me on The Big Breakfast one morning and thought: “She’s cheeky. Let’s get her on the show.” Then she stuck me in a bikini with the worst makeup and I thought: “I look terrible.” But, looking back, she was just being her usual genius.

I started off at the local dance school in Basildon. At 11, I was scouted to play Éponine in Les Misérables at the Palace theatre in London, but my school wouldn’t allow me to have the time off. So I auditioned for the Sylvia Young theatre school. At 14, I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Barbican. Sylvia Young was like a mentor to me.

I never had any aspirations to be a pop singer, but I was scouted to form a girl duo. We struggled to find a name, then someone said “Those 2 Girls” and it stuck. The Todd Terry remix of Wanna Make You Go … Uuh! was a US dance hit, but the follow-up barely made it into the Top 40. We got to No 36. I said: “I’ve been offered a Saturday morning kids programme.” It was Scratchy & Co. They said I was mad and I would never make it as a TV presenter. Then I got The Big Breakfast.

I’ve since written a one-woman show: Some Girl I Used to Know. It sold out in 2014. I’ve filmed a new version as live and am streaming it so people can have a piece of the West End in their homes – and to raise money for the Make a Difference Trust. It’s about a high-flying businesswoman trapped in a hotel room, so hopefully people will relate to the isolation of Covid. Tamzin Outhwaite has directed me. It’s pretty intense doing a one-woman show, but I like it. You just can’t forget your lines, because there’s nowhere to hide.

Some Girl I Used to Know streams from 2-5 April at somegirl.co.uk.