Tales of a single, middle-aged gay man takes a long look at the woman who could arguably be called the ultimate gay icon and LGBTQ ally: leading mental-health campaigner, actress, presenter and author Denise Welch. Steven Smith takes a look at what makes this lady special to so many. Her book The Unwelcome Visitor is out this June.
The red carpet is rolled out and the cameras are clicking as loud as the screams of excited fans who, eagerly waiting, are cordoned off at the side for a glimpse of their favourite star. The lights flashing are almost blinding, and there is an intense heat on the red carpet, even though it is a cool evening. The media are struggling and fighting to get a picture or an interview for their various publications and shows as the stars walk down, striking a pose for the lenses.
Gone are the days of the studios when these events were choreographed to an inch of their lives. When who you dated, what you said and even what you wore were dictated. Now the stars are open season; one wrong word can see you on the cover of a tabloid magazine. And not always for the right reason. Let’s face it, the public adore reading about a star’s demise even more than their meteoric rise to fame. Today’s stars, though the word is used far more bountifully, have to be on guard.
One of the UK’s favourite showbiz personalities, who can often be seen at these events, is Denise Welch. She is no stranger to headlines, good and bad. Denise always brings her beaming personality with a radiant smile to any event, looking confident and full of laughs – greeting everyone like a long-lost best friend. Denise always stops to sign autographs and chat to those fans that have often waited hours to get a glimpse of her.
Once inside, there’s an even bigger flurry of public-relations people and producers rushing up to her, wanting Denise to chat for unscheduled radio shows, podcasts or just for various publications. “Of course,” she smiles and begins the gauntlet of interviews.
Whilst most of the guests are inside by now, sipping pre-cocktails, Denise is on her tenth interview in a short space of time. To those that know her, it is starting to take its toll.
Her friend with her tells them it’s “enough” and escorts her away to get some air and water – to some sighs and tuts. Another night or event she would still be there, playing for the media circus till the end. Denise looks tense at letting the few left behind down.
The “Loose Women” presenter has publicly announced that one of her faults is people pleasing and not wanting to let anyone down (something she has addressed in recent years).
What no one knows is that the Geordie actress, who has not touched alcohol for eight years, has someone else with her that night. Someone she calls an unwelcome visitor is just getting its feet under her. “Depression.” Denise has suffered from postnatal depression and anxiety since the birth of her oldest son Matt Healy, the 31-year-old lead singer of the band, The 1975.
Denise and her second son, 19-year-old Louis Healy, documented how her depressions feel in the award-winning short film “Black-Eyed Susan”, directed by Nick Rowntree.
Most can’t tell Denise is suffering, as she is a brilliant actress and a professional. She has learnt over the years to hide its presence, but look closely: you can see it in her eyes, and the sweat is dripping down her back. The interviewers do not notice as they are face on.
Moments go by, and after some water and a deep breath she is back in the room and greeting friends and work colleagues. People whose night is going to be made just by talking to her as she poses for a multitude of selfies and pictures.
“Darling…”, she will gush, as though she is full of excitement to see them, and she makes everyone around her feel important. Denise always remembers people’s names. She once told me how important that is – a detail like getting a name right.
“People like to be remembered,” and it’s truly important to Denise that they feel they have been, no matter how she is feeling. This evening is very dear to her as it’s an #lgbtq event and she is honoured to be asked, not only to attend but to present an award too. She is eager to leave as the “visitor” is getting more comfortable in her, but she is fighting on.
Denise is a huge hit with the gay scene. If the boys are not leaning out of G.A.Y. as she struts down Old Compton Street screaming “You’re one of us”, there is always someone coming up to her saying how her voice changed their lives, either to come out or to talk about their own mental health battle. It is well documented that at a gay dinner party Welch said to friends, “I am just a gay man in a woman’s body,” and a friend retorted, “No lovely, you’re just a gay man.”
Denise’s being so vocal about LGBTQ rights and mental-health issues has made a difference to so many people in the community.
She won Diva magazine Ally of the Year in 2017, presented by “Ab Fab’s” Jennifer Saunders, who described Welch as, “Someone she would want in her gang”.
Denise collected the same award for her son Matt in 2019. This was for his charity work, not only with LGBTQ youth but for his band fronting awareness and acceptance of the community.
Matt’s father is Denise’s second husband Tim Healy, who shot to fame in Auf Wiedersehen Pet. The couple married in 1988 and separated in 2012. It is hard to understand homophobia of any kind, Matt is keen to let the world know.
He publicly announced that during his upbringing, he just had so many diverse people come to his home. “Mum would say, ‘Lester and Paul are sleeping in the spare room,’ and with a grandad running around in drag, gay did not mean different in our household. It was just run of the mill.”
DIVA magazine publisher and LGBTQ campaigner Linda Riley has become close friends with Denise since meeting the actress, when Welch asked Riley if she had any lipstick she could borrow. Linda was going to tell Welch to judge her audience, but instead she found it refreshing that she had not been pigeonholed. The make-up free Riley says, “It’s what makes her special, you never feel judged by her.”
The pair went on to appear on the cover of Millionair magazine, wearing a sensational 1920s Berlin-cabaret look, with the title, “Can a straight woman and a gay woman just be friends?” It caused some controversy, as Linda wore make-up for the shoot.
She was born in Durham to glamorous parents. Her mum Annie was a psychiatric nurse who embodied the Joan Collins look, and her dad Vin was a sweet-factory owner (“Welch’s toffees”). He was a handsome, debonair man who looked equally good in a suit and in a frock, in his pseudo role “Raquel”. The part- time drag queen made regular appearances throughout Denise and younger sister Debbie’s childhood.
From early pictures of Denise, it would be easy to predict that the tomboy might be a shoo-in for our team (if we were doing labels).
But apart from confessing to kissing a female Gladiator and having a crush on Heather Peace (who hasn’t?), Denise has been all about the boys. She has been married three times, once to Hollyoaks actor David Easter. The second was the father of her two children, Tim Healy, whom she remains good friends with. Most recently, she has married PR manager turned successful artist Lincoln Townley, whom she calls her anchor. The pair became clean together from alcohol and self-medicating.
Denise’s natural talents earned her a place at London’s prestigious Mountview Academy of Theatre. It was not long till she was in the West End, appearing in the likes of Grease.
She went on to fame in the likes of “Soldier, Soldier” and “Spender”, playing Jimmy Nail’s on-screen girlfriend. But it is the role of Natalie Barnes, the femme fatale in Coronation Street, that made her the ultimate household name.
And who would have suspected that so many would tune in to a lunchtime chat show, “Loose Women”? But Denise, along with Carole McGiffin, Colleen Nolan, Jane Moore, Kay Adams and the likes of Jane MacDonald brought record viewing figures with their frank, often heartfelt opinions. Viewers felt that they were listening to friends and could not get enough of them. Viewing figures plummeted when McGiffin and Welch left. Their welcome return has brought the show back to its finest.
For me it was a chance meeting in my departed friend, journalist Lester Middlehurst’s front room in Brighton. I met Denise Welch when she was staying with him whilst she appeared in the play “Niagara Falls”.
It wasn’t long before I fell for her humour, honesty and glamour, combined with an ability not to take herself too seriously. Plus, we are both Geminis. We have been friends for over 36 years now and it’s seen us go from skiing in Switzerland, flying to Paris in private jets and visiting a retreat in India, to munching on chip butties in the back-street cafés of Manchester and sharing tears and laughter in our highs and lows.
Really, I can’t think of anyone more deserving of every accolade for her charity work. She is patron of too many to remember. Her stance on mental health has been ground-breaking. In her constant fight to show others how to cope with the unwelcome visitor so many experience but can’t handle, or are ashamed to talk about, Denise has led the way.
She flies a flag for the LGBTQ community as well as for the countless many who live with depression and anxiety, sometimes due to trauma and the like.
What makes her so special to us all is, she has made us feel it’s all ok to be who we are and we can get over most things. .
Pre-order The Unwelcome Visitor here.