This life Cherie Lunghi

From football manager to high-class madam – Cherie Lunghi talks to Maureen Paton

Cherie Lunghi has always been ahead of her time. In a prolific 46-year career, the actress who doesn’t “do sheepish” easily has patented the strong yet feminine type on screen, above all as the first female manager of a professional British football team in the groundbreaking Channel 4 drama The Manageress in 1989.

She was hailed as a role model for women again in the late 1990s, playing the flirtatious yet clearly in control boss in the “coffee opera” commercial for Kenco and she reinvented herself still further a decade later as the oldest yet one of the fittest (in both senses) contestants in the 2008 season of Strictly Come Dancing; she became a big hit with the public and lasted an impressive nine weeks.

Confidence comes with years. The advantage of age is that you swap youth for wisdom”

“Strictly was such fun. But as for all those reactions at first about ‘My God, a woman of that age on the show’ – excuse me, hello?” says Cherie, 59. “I did feel I was striking a blow for the older woman by appearing on Strictly, because there are an awful lot of prejudices, preconceptions and ridiculous ideas about age that are not based on what things are really like.

“Nowadays 60 is the new 40. We dress and do our hair more youthfully than the generations that went before us; they settled more readily into drabness.”

She seems to get even bolder as she gets older, playing a high-class madam and shooting a bondage scene in Secret Diary Of A Call Girl the year before she was approached to do Strictly – part of her strategy of constantly shaking up people’s perceptions of her.

“It was great fun to do. My character was indulging her wild side, strung up on a cross in a set designed as an S&M club, and we had such a giggle between takes. I was chatting to all sorts of extras in tattoos, piercings and rubber costumes and learning about these different walks of life. I just thought, ‘I love my job!’”

We meet at a coffee shop near her home in Chelsea, London, with Cherie turning up in grey Zara leggings and a silver Whistles top that make her look utterly ageless. A one-time wannabe ballerina, she started dance lessons at four years old with Ballet Rambert. She keeps fit with regular yoga and Pilates as well as walking everywhere and leaping on buses (she can’t wait for her pass for free travel).

After making her stage debut at the RSC alongside Judi Dench and Ian McKellen in the 1970s and getting her movie breakthrough as Guinevere alongside Helen Mirren’s Morgana and Liam Neeson’s Gawain in John Boorman’s 1981 Excalibur, she went to live and work in Hollywood for four years before coming back to Britain in the late 1980s because “I wasn’t mad about my daughter Nathalie growing up in her teens in LA”.

But she’s now an expert on American accents – handy for her current project, a UK tour of the play Steel Magnolias which provides such strong parts for women of a certain age. Cherie is the feisty widow Clairee, played by Olympia Dukakis in the 1989 film version, with Cheryl Campbell, Denise Welch and Isla Blair taking the Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton and Sally Field roles respectively.

You begin to see the bigger picture and the interconnectedness of things as you get older”

“It’s great fun being in an all-female cast; we will probably get giggly,” says Cherie. “When I did the Strictly tour in 2009, the women had a communal dressingroom and there we all were, waiting in line for our spray-tans with our shower caps and paper knickers on. The humour of that girly sisterhood thing can get pretty bawdy.”

A single mother, she brought up Nathalie, now a 25-year-old actress, after separating from Nathalie’s father, film director Roland Joffé. She describes herself as “single and really content with that”, largely because of her experience of growing up surrounded by “very strong women”. Her own grandmother had been widowed at 28 and her mother split with her Italian husband when Cherie was just two, raising her with the help of Cherie’s Aunt Mary. Interest in her family history has led to her working with two writers on a film script about her background that she hopes will be produced soon.

“You begin to see the bigger picture and the interconnectedness of things as you get older,” she says. “I’m so pleased with the times I’ve lived in and its advances for women; my mother was very bright and could have been a linguist, but like so many of her generation she had to settle for a mundane job because she didn’t have my educational advantages.”

There have been times in her life when, she says, she has been “easily intimidated and bullied”, but she is more comfortable in her skin than ever now and is looking forward to turning 60 in April.

“I’ve found that confidence comes with years,” she says. “The advantage of age is that you swap youth for wisdom, which is a fair trade-off as far as I’m concerned. I did try Botox for a little while and although it was very nice and made me look as if I didn’t have a care in the world, if I then had to play a character who did have a care in the world, it was difficult! Also, it’s terribly expensive and you’ve got to keep getting it topped up, so I got lazy about it. I thought, ‘To hell with this, I’m in my late 50s, who am I kidding?’”

Cherie Lunghi stars in Steel Magnolias, which opens at the Theatre Royal Bath on 3 April before touring to Cardiff, Bradford, Nottingham, Brighton, York, Richmond, Birmingham, Newcastle, Southampton and Milton Keynes.