People

Michelle Keegan on confidence, the suffragettes and what happiness means to her

For Stylist’s Yellow issue, actor Michelle Keegan models the season’s sunniest shade and tells us what brings joy to her life. Photography: David Titlow

Michelle Keegan is a human sunbeam. She is always smiling, often laughing, a vision in sunny yellow on the red carpet. Which is why, when considering who to put on the cover of our very special Yellow Issue, Keegan sprang to mind.

But away from the spotlight and her primetime TV shows, I know very little about what brings the 31-year-old actor joy. It turns out, she has many thoughts about happiness, some of which I wasn’t quite expecting… 

Happiness is… Confidence 

“When I was in my 20s, I don’t think I knew what happiness was. Now, it’s about getting to a place in your life when you’re confident in the person you are. It took me a long time to get there. I was always quite insecure – being in the public eye you get scrutinised for everything: the way you look, your job…

“Knowing myself more, and learning to ignore negative stories has been key. Even if I see a negative story, I know now it will be gone in a few days, so you have to ride the wave. I don’t think it ever gets easier – it’s how you deal with it, that’s what helps. I’ve got more positive things to focus on than that.

“Growing up, you’re always striving for more, more, more, but actually your foundation is where the happiness is. It’s the simple things, isn’t it? That’s what I’ve learned.” 

Keegan’s foundation is Stockport, Manchester, where she grew up. It was there she got the
role of Tina McIntyre in Coronation Street, a part that thrust her into the public eye, and one she played for six years. She lives in Essex now, with her husband, TV presenter and former reality star Mark Wright – when he’s not filming in LA.

But it’s obvious as we chat that her family is still a huge part of her daily life. Something we talk about at Stylist a lot is how even as independent women and men in our 20s and 30s we’re still ultimately searching for parental approval. I, for example, would never get a tattoo because I’m terrified of what my mum would say. Keegan feels exactly the same. 

Happiness is… My parents being proud of me

“No matter how old you are, you always want your parents’ approval. Even now, whenever I’m in a TV show, I ring my dad afterwards to see what he thought and to make sure he thought it was good. Then I can relax.

“I think it’s because in school I was never the high achiever, I was never very academic, and so I never did anything where I thought, ‘Oh, my parents are really proud of me.’ When I started acting, that was the first time I had the feeling that they’d be proud of me. That’s what I continue to strive for – for them to be proud.

“My parents have always said the same thing: as long as me and my brother are OK, they’re happy. My mum and dad got divorced when I was nine and my brother was seven, and all they strived to do was to make sure we weren’t affected. My brother’s a secondary school teacher; he’s done really well and I think they must look at us and say, ‘They’re all right, they’re settled and happy.’ Although they’re still always worried about us – like parents always are.”

Family ties are so important to Keegan that she recently went on BBC ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are? to discover more. In Manchester, while researching her dad’s side of the family tree, she discovered a connection with the suffragette movement – not only was her great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Kirwan, a suffragist, she was also a colleague of Emmeline Pankhurst. In fact Pankhurst registered Elizabeth’s daughter’s birth. The series also revealed that Keegan is something of a history geek. 

Vest, £19.99, Mango (mango.com); trousers, £210, Stine Goya (net-a-porter.com); shoes, £80, Dune London (dunelondon.com)

Happiness is… Knowing your history

“History was always one of my favourite subjects. And I love cities like Rome because of the architecture and the history; I’m one of those annoying people who touches walls and says, ‘Ooh, I wonder who touched this wall [before me].’ I like trying to envision how things used to look in the 1800s, the 1900s… I create a story around it. When I went into the church in Genoa [where Keegan traced her Italian grandfather seven times removed], I was picturing the weddings and baptisms that had gone on.

“Since finding out my great-great-grandma was connected to the suffragettes, I’ve learned so much more about them. I feel really proud of her and that it’s my heritage.

“What I also love was that her husband supported her, too; I know back then a lot of men wouldn’t. When it comes to equality now, a lot of things do still have to change but I think we’re on the right track.”

Post-Coronation Street, Keegan has successfully established herself as a dramatic actor who can draw in big audiences. She starred in the entertaining ITV series Tina And Bobby, about Tina and Bobby Moore, and as popular female medic Georgie in BBC drama Our Girl, which has just finished its third series. Later this year she will star in her first film, Strangeways Here We Come, a dark comedy about a group of tenants trying to defeat a loan shark.

One of the many benefits of working on Our Girl is how much Keegan has been able to travel – to Nigeria, South Africa and Malaysia, often for months at a time. She is hungry to see more, to challenge herself, to learn more. 

Keegan wore a yellow gown to the 2018 National Television Awards in May

Happiness is… Exploration

“I love seeing new countries and experiencing new things – stepping outside my comfort zone and seeing how other people live. I’m so lucky as I get to go to places I would never have gone otherwise.

“Once, filming in Malaysia we had a weekend off, so me and a few of the lads [her Our Girl co-stars] travelled to Langkawi, a little island 40 minutes from Malaysia. I was in the sea on a jet ski, on my own, and as I went round the corner the sea opened up and I saw all these tiny islands. It looked like an advert for Fiji Water. I got goosebumps all over my body. It was one of the best days of my life – something hit me and I don’t know what it was but it was really powerful.

“I’d really like to go to Iceland next and drive up the west coast of America, staying in motels or even getting a van and staying in that. And I’d like to go backpacking, too. I’d never seen a lot of the world growing up; now the more you see the more you want to see.” 

Happiness is… Learning

“I would love to go to night school to learn Spanish – it’s part of my heritage. I can understand Spanish because of my grandma [who was brought up in Gibraltar] but can’t speak much. My mum never learnt Spanish because when my grandma moved to England my grandad didn’t want his daughters to be looked at as different in school.”

I’m struck as I’m talking to her how much of Keegan’s joy lies in doing things on her terms. I wonder if it’s something to do with living with paparazzi following you around all the time, speculating about whether your marriage is on the rocks because your husband works abroad, or if you’re pregnant. (For the record, her marriage is happy and they’re both following the career paths they have chosen, and I don’t know if she’s pregnant because it’s absolutely none of my business to ask.) 

T-Shirt, £106, Cotton Citizen (selfridges.com); dress, £32, Topshop (topshop.com);  shoes, £80, Dune London (dunelondon.com)

Happiness is… Solitude

“I like my own space, I always have. I need to reset sometimes, and being alone is me recharging. I went to Mykonos last month on my own and loved it. I sat by the pool, listening to music with my book – I was reading The Tattooist Of Auschwitz [by Heather Morris] based on the true story of a man who tattooed the number on the arms of people in concentration camps, but really it’s a love story. It’s not very summery, I must admit.

“In the evening I’d go to the old town by myself, look round the shops, go for dinner… People worry about eating on their own sometimes, don’t they? But no one [in the restaurant] cares. The more you do it, the more you get used to it.”

Food, it turns out, is a major part of Keegan’s life and one that comes up repeatedly. Her smile gets even wider as she talks about the pleasure she gets from the kitchen. 

Happiness is… Home cooking

“Food is how I show love. Growing up, all my childhood memories revolved around the kitchen. Every Sunday, the whole family would be at my grandma’s house. We’d have what we called a ‘picky table’ – full of cured meats, cheese, breads, prawns… My mum used to cook at our primary school and then at home we’d make food together – the first thing I made was ‘egg books’, which was basically French toast.

“I love cooking for friends, and when Mark comes home from being away he always asks me to cook tapas – we have creamy mushrooms, gambas al pil pil and chicken in Parma ham.

“I love the social aspect of food, but I also find it really relaxing – especially baking. I’ll often sit in bed on my phone looking at food Instagrammers like Jamie Oliver and Joe Wicks. And I love food shopping. If it’s just for a few quick bits I’ll go to the Tesco Express round the corner, but for a big shop I like Waitrose.”

It’s clear that as Keegan moves into her 30s she’s learning a lot about herself, including what she’s not good at: “I’m the worst in the world at making decisions. I need people to make them for me – I’m always worried about making the wrong choice. Although with work I always go with my instinct no matter what.” And also how to trust herself and calm her mind when it gets frazzled. 

Keegan in yellow at a BUILD panel discussion about Our Girl, June 2018 

Happiness is… A puzzle

“As soon as I can feel myself getting pent up, I either go to the gym or do a jigsaw. My mum got me into them [laughs]. I have a shower, get my comfies on, get a film on the TV and do a jigsaw. It’s so therapeutic. I do the 1,000-piece ones for an hour at a time and then I have to put it away.

“I’ve got an overactive brain and my work is quite hectic – you always take emotional scenes home and have to learn lines for the next day – so my brain is constantly working and I need something to unwind. It’s my thing.”

She has also realised that the people – or animals – who make her happiest are those who make her feel comfortable, who remind her of home. 

Happiness is… Family

“I feel settled when I’m with [her brother] Andrew; he always cheers me up. I was always with him when I was a child, so maybe it’s a sign of that. Obviously Mark as well. And then being around my dogs. We’ve got two dogs, Pip and Phoebe – although Pip’s really into Mark.

“I didn’t get that connection [with animals] people talk about until I got a dog. They love you no matter what. If you’re having
a bad day, your dog just has to look at you and it snaps you out of it. I know you see it as a dog, but I don’t – she’s like my child in a way. I don’t dress her up or anything, though…”

Keegan married Wright in 2015, and while he’s working in America as a host on Extra, she spends a lot of time travelling to and from Manchester. It’s while talking about those roadtrips that I discover her most recent enthusiasm… 

Dress, £565, Bella Freud (bellafreud.com)

Happiness is… Listening

“Recently I’ve become obsessed with Jessie Ware’s podcast, Table Manners. I listen to them back-to-back when I’m driving. There was a great episode with George Ezra and they’ve just done one with Alan Carr. I love the simplicity of it. It’s based around food, which obviously I love, and it’s really laidback. They’re telling stories like you would if you were talking to a mate.”

All that’s left for me to find out is what might make Keegan happy in the future. She reveals it’s all up for grabs; for now, she’s perfectly content in the present.

Happiness is… The here and now

“I’ve never planned my life or been someone who’s said, ‘In 10 years I want to have done this,’ or even, ‘by next year I want to have done this.’ I take each day as it comes. I think you have to, otherwise you’d go insane.

“If you’re striving towards something you put too much stress on things, not just your work and personal life – everything. If you’re happy in the moment, live it. And if anything amazing happens, you enjoy it more because you don’t expect it. Enjoy the journey.

Strangeways Here We Come will be in cinemas from 5 October 

See Michelle at Stylist Live Manchester

Michelle Keegan joins our line-up of inspiring women for Stylist Live Manchester at intu Trafford Centre on Saturday 8 September. She will be in conversation with Stylist’s editor-in-chief, Lisa Smosarski. Stylist Live Manchester is free to attend, for more info visit live.stylist.co.uk/manchester

Additional images: Getty Images