Coronation Street star Michelle Collins today reveals how the pressure of fame and a broken heart drove her to try to kill herself.
Desperate Michelle, 51, took an overdose when she plunged into depression after quitting EastEnders and splitting from partner Fabrizio Tassalini.
The actress says: “I felt like I’d been tipped over the edge. I felt like a failure and found myself sinking lower and lower as the days went on, until in the end I couldn’t seem to pull myself out of the hole.
“I remember swallowing some pills. There was no definite plan or explicit decision behind my actions. It just happened.”
The attempt came as Michelle, who plays the Street’s Stella Price , was filming BBC drama Sunburn in Cyprus.
She had just left Albert Square for the final time and felt under pressure to keep up the success eight years of playing scheming Cindy Beale had brought her.
On top of that came the end of her 16-month tempestuous relationship with Fabrizio, the father of her daughter Maia.
Michelle says: “The question that kept going through my mind was, ‘Would anybody miss me if I wasn’t here?’ Foolishly I somehow decided no one would.
“When I think about what I did now it all sounds very melodramatic, but I guess that’s the nature of depression. How low must I have been to do something like that? It was unthinkable.”
The star reveals the turmoil that led to the darkest night of her life in her searingly honest book, This Is Me.
She had embarked on what she hoped would be the next successful stage of her career. But she knew it wouldn’t be easy escaping the shadow of siren Cindy.
“She was a great character to play, but essentially bad,” she says. “The perception of Michelle Collins was that she was just like Cindy Beale – a femme fatale.
“My friends and family knew that wasn’t me at all. I was excited about doing Sunburn despite the fact the logistics were never going to be easy.
“Fabrizio and I were well and truly over by the summer of 1998 when shooting was due to start in Paphos, but he was still living in London.
“We’d been arguing a lot, and by then communication between us had all but broken down. And he wasn’t happy about the prospect of me whisking his baby daughter off abroad for four months.
“But I was under pressure to come up trumps with a great TV role post-EastEnders, and this was it.
“Although there wasn’t supposed to be a starring role, I was sort of seen as the lead. I was the girl fresh off the biggest TV show on the BBC and so, rightly or not, I felt like there was a lot of pressure on me to make Sunburn work.”
Michelle reveals that, while most of the cast stayed in a hotel, she was in a villa in another town because she had Maia, then two, and her nanny Alice.
She says: “I wished I was hanging out with the rest of the gang – feeling like I was missing out. After a few weeks I even began to feel extremely homesick.
“The constant friction between Fabrizio and me had worn me down, and despite having an exciting new job, I had far too much time on my own, mulling over everything that had happened.
“My relationship was over and I was on my own. It dawned on me how heartbroken and lonely I was. I just couldn’t work out why I felt so empty.
“I had a great job and a beautiful daughter – it was crazy. I now realise that I was seriously depressed, but at the time I didn’t know what that meant because I’d never experienced it. When you’re in that state, your mind isn’t your own. It talks to you in ways you couldn’t even conceive ordinarily, and if it takes over it can be deadly.
“Most people might think that working in a hot climate in a gorgeous holiday resort would be wonderful, but trust me, when you’re in it every day for hours on end, 90-degree heat is oppressive and exhausting.
“I felt terribly lonely and lost. What I should have done is talk about it to someone. I know that now.”
Michelle’s troubles came to a head when an old family friend came over to visit while Maia was back in London. They went out for dinner followed by a few drinks at a bar in Paphos.
She says: “As it turned out, drinking was the worst thing I could have done. But when I found myself feeling slightly merry I decided to stay for a couple more after my friend had gone back to the villa.
“Pretty soon I got talking to a group of friendly people who’d just arrived at the bar, and before I knew it I was happily playing a game of pool with a couple of young guys. It was all very innocent and I felt like I was enjoying myself for the first time in ages.
“Then quite out of the blue, one of the guys made a joke about the way I looked and about my age. One minute he was being friendly, and the next he was showing off to his mates and turning a bit nasty. I don’t even remember what he said – but whatever it was it must have triggered something inside me, because suddenly my whole mood switched.
“I left the bar without saying goodbye, feeling dreadful. I was only 36, not exactly over the hill, but at the time it hit a raw nerve and I knew I had to get out of there.”
Michelle says she walked all the way back to the villa “in a semi-trance: emotional, shattered and really not very well at all”.
She recalls: “It was late at night, so wandering around on my own wasn’t the safest thing to do, but I wasn’t thinking straight. I wasn’t really thinking at all. I felt like I’d been tipped over the edge.
“My mind was cloudy and all I wanted to do was sleep. The cocktail of alcohol and exhaustion sent me into a very dark place. When I got back to the villa I felt like I could hardly breathe, let alone think coherently. It was ridiculous. I had my mother, my sister and my daughter and all my friends back in London, but that didn’t seem to make any difference at the time.”
The next couple of hours were “a bit of a blur”, she says.
“I remember thinking that I wanted to sleep and deciding I should take a pill to stop me having a headache in the morning. My next thought was that I should just take all of them and that it didn’t matter.
“There was no definite plan or explicit decision behind my actions. It just happened. Then I woke up being violently sick – and thank God!”
Michelle called fellow Sunburn star Peter Polycarpou. He drove her to hospital.
She says: “The doctors decided it was best if they kept me in hospital on a drip. They told me I was very severely dehydrated and unwell.
“I felt so stupid. What the hell had I been thinking? Unintentional or not, how low must I have been? My mum was horrified when I told her what had happened. As soon as she knew I’d be OK, she let me have it, saying, ‘Don’t you EVER do something like that again’. What did you think you were doing?’.
“That was just it: I didn’t know what I was doing. When I came out the other end of it I realised how lucky I’d been to be surrounded by such good people in my life.”
Michelle, now dating 30-year-old Michael Davison, stayed in hospital four days, and was able to cover up the incident as other cast members came down with sunstroke.
“This turn of events turned out to be something of a blessing for me,” she says. “I’ve never really told anyone else until now. I remember thinking somebody up there must like me.”
It was the end of the worst nightmare of her life. “I’d never got to that point of utter despair before,” says Michelle with a relief she can still feel 16 years on. “And I’m glad to report that I haven’t been there since.”