IT’S taken a decade, but Gateshead-born Liberty X star Michelle Heaton has finally returned to the region to star in pantomime.

“I’ve done panto virtually every year (since 2007), but never been back up North since I was in pantomime in Sunderland,” says Heaton, who played Cinderella alongside ex-husband Andy Scott-Lee as Prince Charming.

“I’ve been trying to get another panto up here for years, but I seemed to get offers from everywhere else in the country. So, I always had to go where the work was and grabbed it with both hands.”

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The 38-year-old mother-of-two has moved from being heroine to Wicked Queen in Snow White at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre – and the closest yet to home turf on Tyneside – but has fond memories of 2007 when her co-star was the legendary Mickey Rooney.

“Who wouldn’t sign up to work with Mickey Rooney? But we did realise it was a beginning of a panto career for him and the end for him as well. I was pretty certain that he only did Cinderella because he insisted that his wife was in it. I believe that she was helping him a lot at the time with what he said on stage. You forget how old a man he was then and that was a long time ago, but he did really well. He was definitely a character that I’d never met before.

“As he was playing my dad, every scene I was in, he was in and a lot of my prep work was to make sure that Mickey remembered his lines. I think in panto you soon get close to every cast member and he was no exception. Mickey was lovely,” Heaton recalls.

On being boo-bait for her Newcastle debut, she confesses she’s not quite sure about this turn of events. “I think it’s important to let everyone know I’m the villain and I’m looking forward to that. It’s a really good part and one of the best out there in pantoland because of all the fantastic costumes which makes me feel quite excited... as well as being the most beautiful of all at one point,” Heaton says.

She admits that she always puts pressure on herself when she takes on a role. “I want people to go away saying that it was worth it for what they saw. I never want to disappoint people. So, even if I wasn’t smack-bang in the middle of all the publicity I would still want to give my all. I love the pressure and the fact that I have top billing.

“To play the queen I went for inspiration to people like Jackie Collins and Mother Gothel in Hansel and Gretel, although I don’t think I’m quite old enough to play the haggard witch,” jokes Heaton.

She’s discussing songs for the show, but is waiting until the rehearsal period to decide on her jokes and insults aimed at young and old in the audience. “I am aware that we have comedians in the show so I don’t have to bring a big comedic influence to it. The way you look at it is that the more boos you get the better you are in the role.”

The former pupil of Newcastle College of Performing Arts made a bit of TV history when her runner-up contestants team from Popstars eclipsed winning act Hear’Say. “College didn’t prepare me for panto, but did train me for appearing on stage because it was a very straight acting course. The girls from Liberty X (Heaton, Jessica Taylor and Kelli Young) still perform all over the country and I don’t like to use the term ex-Liberty X. We’re still kind of going strong and we’ve got some big gigs lined up next year. We were the first ones to have a reality TV show to that extent and we did make history and I’m proud of where we came from,” she says.

Some of her work choices have been less historic, such as The Truth About Binge Drinking and Celebrity Big Brother, but Heaton feels that everything happens for a reason. “You can look back at your life and say, ‘I shouldn’t have done that’, but I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t made the choices that I’ve made.”

Is she where she wants to be healthwise, having been diagnosed with the mutated BRCA2 gene and undergone a double mastectomy and complete hysterectomy to reduce her high risk of developing cancer?

“Yeah, I’ve obviously been through my own battles and it’s been a bit of a turbulent road and something I did to prevent cancer beating me the way it did members of my dad’s family. Everything I did, I did for a reason and was not in vain. I can now move on and get fitter in time.

“I’m more aware of my body and it doesn’t work the way that it used to, but I think that with healthy exercise and eating – and I’ve always been quite careful anyway – I think I can control it without going down the route of taking hormones,” says Heaton.

A new concern involves five-year-old daughter Faith and three-year-old son Aaron facing a similar cancer threat. “When they are a certain age they are going to be tested for the gene to see if they have it as well. Nothing is set in stone and the medical world changes all the time and I’m obviously worried and aware about it, but it’s not something that is affecting my life. I don’t think I’ll be discussing it with my children until they are a lot older. I know that they are likely to come across these things on the internet some day. All I can do is talk to them when I think they’re ready.”

  • Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs is presented by Enchanted Entertainment and runs from December 8 to 31. It also stars Matt Pagan of Britain’s Got Talent winners Collabro, North-East favourites Charlie Richmond and Lewis Denny, and actress Robyn McEnaney who was discovered through the Tyne Theatre’s Search for Snow White auditions. Box Office: 0844-24910000 or tynetheatreandoperahouse.uk