Profile: Billie Piper

After a meteoric rise thanks to a doctor, is Billie Piper a star who can stay a national treasure?

Billie Piper's middle name is Paul, after her dad, but it would be no stranger were it Stakhanovite, such is her astonishing workrate. So far in her 25 years she has packed in four engagements, two whirlwind weddings (the latest last Monday), one divorce, one record-breaking single, three albums, eight TV dramas, five films, one West End play and enough offstage drama to sustain a soap opera for weeks. "This kid is the hardest working, most energetic lady in the industry," said Bill Kenwright, who last year produced Piper's West End debut, Treats.

It is an even more impressive CV considering she put her feet up for most of her three-year marriage to Chris Evans. A scraggle-haired, doe-eyed, flip-flopped bride at just 18, as soon as she said "I do" in Las Vegas in 2001 she abandoned her faltering pop career, which had begun so promisingly when she became the youngest artist to debut at number one in the UK singles chart with Because We Want To at 15. For the next few years she and Evans apparently did little more than sit around drinking, travelling the world and buying and selling inappropriate houses - they briefly owned Lionel Richie's multimillion-dollar Beverly Hills mansion before realising they would rather live in a cottage.

The consensus when she married the then 34-year-old DJ and the papers were dotted with endless pictures of the pair looking bloated and unwashed - but happy -was that her showbiz career was over and, before long, her marriage would be too. Though the critics were proved right about the relationship when the couple separated in 2004, they couldn't have been more wrong about her career. Since the amicable divorce and crossover to acting, Piper is now so universally loved that The Times recently declared her "Britain's youngest national treasure".

That was before her last role, as a high-class prostitute in ITV's Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which was badly received. But as she walked up the aisle in a small Sussex church to marry 29-year-old actor Laurence Fox on Monday, whom she met on the set of Treats a year ago, she seemed the perfect addition to the Fox acting dynasty, not at all incongruous alongside her new father-in-law, James, and her husband's uncle, Edward.

After well-received acting roles, most notably Rose in the new Doctor Who, Broadcast magazine last year named her number six in its 2007 "Hot 100" list of influential on-screen performers, the top woman. Speak to most people she has worked with - especially anyone whose job depends on the rocketing ratings she now routinely attracts - and they can't praise her enough.

"Billie Piper has the kind of charisma to keep national grids ablaze. The camera simply loves her. She's a rare talent and utter privilege to work with," Julie Gardner, executive producer of Doctor Who, told the Guardian yesterday.

It wasn't always thus. For a while during her pop career she became a national hate figure for the nation's teenage girls, when she was, however briefly, the fiancee of Ritchie Neville from the boyband 5ive (fiance number two, after a fleeting "engagement" to the childhood boyfriend she lost her virginity to aged 14) and was booed onstage at the Smash Hits Poll Winners Party in 1999.

Another low came that year when her parents sold their story to a tabloid newspaper, expressing their fear that they had lost their little girl, that she was living an unhealthy lifestyle, and saying they wished she had never been picked out for stardom.

Piper has also often discussed her recurring eating disorders, which she has said began at the Sylvia Young stage school in London aged just 12. In her 2006 autobiography, Growing Pains, she claimed the school put pressure on her to be "lighter, smaller and thinner" and eating disorders were ignored by staff.

But the school's founder and principal, Sylvia Young, told the Guardian it was "rubbish" she and her staff had ignored any problems. "There were never any indications she was having eating problems. We are primarily an acting school, not a dance school, and we do not put pressure on anyone to lose weight - and Billie was never fat or even plump. I don't know where that rubbish came from," said Young.

Young says she remembers Piper as a "happy, popular, contented girl". She was surprised her student's big break was as a pop star, as despite a nice voice, acting was always her passion.

Piper was always going to make a fine actor, she said. "I think part of her success is that she is beautiful in a very unusual way. Plus she is very versatile, just as at home playing a cockney as someone from the middle classes."

Despite having spent half of her life in the entertainment business, those who have worked with her say that she has managed to turn out relatively down to earth. "She craves normality," said a former colleague, who did not want to be named. "She is at her best when she is in the pub, socialising with her friends. I think her genuine desire is not to be Billie Piper the famous person."

The CV

Born September 22 1982, Swindon. Brought up on a housing estate.

Education Sylvia Young Theatre School in London.

Private life Married Chris Evans in Las Vegas in 2001 after meeting him on his TV show TFI Friday the previous year. They separated after three years. She married Laurence Fox (son of James) on New Year's Eve 2007.

Career Piper started acting very young and had bit parts in Evita and EastEnders. In 1998 when she was only 15 she had a number 1 with her single Because We Want To. Her part as Rose Tyler in the revival of Doctor Who provided her big acting break.

Other work The Miller's Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Mansfield Park, Secret Diary of a Call Girl.


Helen Pidd

The GuardianTramp

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