This time last year, the accolade most closely affiliated with Michelle Keegan’s name was ‘Sexiest Female’ - the insalubriously titled British Soap Award she picked up six years in a row for her turn as Tina MacIntyre in Coronation Street. Mention it today and the actress puts her head in her hands.
Keegan, 29, is undoubtedly beautiful, but it is her recent string of heavyweight dramatic roles since quitting the cobbles in 2014 that are the most noteworthy thing about the Manchester-born actress; her latest lead performance as Lance Corporal Georgie Lane in BBC’s Our Girl is one she will reprise in its third series later this year.
It is surprising, then, that Keegan was keen to “draw a line under it.
“It was so physical,” she explains. “I wanted to change the way I looked and get into the next role.”
And her latest guise couldn’t be further from running around a desert in army fatigues: she is stepping up to play another, more glamorous Tina, the wife of famed footballer Bobby Moore, in ITV’s new three part drama Tina and Bobby, for which she dyed her hair brassy blonde for. It hopes to be to 2017 what critically acclaimed series Cilla was to 2016.
Based on Tina Moore’s autobiography, it tells the story of the first golden couple of football, charting Bobby’s battle with testicular cancer, captaining the England team to World Cup glory in 1966 and an almost celestial rise to fame and fortune for this once unassuming couple, before he lost it all.
The original football WAG, Essex-born Tina was soon attending Hollywood parties with the likes of Cher and Sammy Davis Jr, taking elocution lessons and enjoying a level of fame until then reserved for Tinseltown royalty.
They became such good friends with James Bond star Sean Connery that he once babysat for them. To ensure that Tina really captured what it was like to be part of that era Moore attended read-throughs, visited sets and acted as a consultant - including during one honeymoon scene.
“I knew she was watching it behind these screens and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god’, because you want it to be good for her,” Keegan says. “You want to do it justice. I walked into the room after I had done the scene and she put her thumbs up. The relief that I felt was unbelievable.”
Keegan describes Moore as “a strong woman” and “the backbone of their relationship”; she is in awe that she never blamed Bobby for their marriage ending when he fell in love with airline stewardess Stephanie Parlane, whom he married a little over a year before his death on 24 February 1993 from bowel cancer aged 52.
The two ladies also bonded over their love of Essex, where Keegan now lives with her husband - Mark Wright of Only Way is Essex reality TV fame: the same county in which Tina and Bobby lived and met when she was 15 and he 17.
The pair swapped tips on their favourite Ilford restaurants as well as tales of Tina’s stardom - Keegan “can’t say” much about what Moore divulged privately, though does recount one anecdote about the iconic photograph taken by the renowned photographer Terry O’Neill for Vogue in 1972.
It was the shot that cemented their status as a power couple, and Keegan and Lorne MacFadyen (who plays Bobby) recreate it in the upcoming series - yet Tina had never meant to be in it.
“She was actually going that day to watch him do the photo shoot,” says Keegan. “Terry turned around and said ‘Why don’t you get in, Tina?’ She was like, one I’ve got nothing to wear and two, I’m not really confident in front of the camera. They gave her Bobby’s England shirt and said, ‘go on’.”
Like the part she plays, Keegan has to get used to the obtrusive glare of the limelight. As pairings go, since they married in May 2015, Keegan and Wright have become the unofficial Posh and Becks of television.
With a combined social media presence of more than six million followers (her: 3.64 million, him: 3 million) and perennial tans from holidays in Dubai and the Maldives, they command an extraordinary fanbase - one which, like that of the Moores, means they are regularly under scrutiny.
“There are some great things that come with being in the public eye,” admits Keegan, “but there are also some bad things”. The bad things encompass constant speculation about their marriage, rumours her husband was uncomfortable with onscreen sex scenes, grief over being pictured without her wedding ring and whispers that she got on a little too well with Our Girl co-star Luke Pasqualino.
“That came out of thin air,” she says of the latter. “Why can’t a woman have a career and be married without stories like that? Why can’t people celebrate the fact we are a young couple, we are married and we both have our separate careers?”
It is a fair point. And her career is sure to be propelled further following her portrayal of Moore. Before she took the part, Keegan had little knowledge of football in spite of her upbringing in a city home to one of the game’s greatest rivalries. “I don’t really understand the off-side rule,” she admits. “I’ve been to see a few football matches and my brother-in-law plays for Gillingham but I would never watch it on TV.”
2017 is shaping up to be another successful year for Keegan: she is rumoured to be earning 16 times her Corrie pay packet, a figure she laughs off today, although admits collaborations with clothing brands such as Lipsy - endorsements she wasn’t allowed to do while filming the show – have helped.
Her determination to succeed can be dated back to her schooldays when, aged seven, she recalls telling her class she wanted to be an actress and being met with laughter. A path through Manchester School of Acting to an audition for Coronation Street 13 years later ensured she had the last laugh.
Critics said she risked obscurity after leaving the safe haven of soap-land, but for Keegan, “It’s about believing in yourself and your gut instincts on what is the right path. It is about making the right choices when you leave [a long-running series] because you can get offered a job and just take it because you don’t know when you are next going to work.”
She has refused to fall into this trap - post-Corrie roles include BBC drama Ordinary Lies and ITV comedy Plebs; her next venture after Tina and Bobby is a five-part series for BBC Radio 4 called On Kosovo Field, based on notebooks written by the musician PJ Harvey, which will be broadcast later this year. It couldn’t be further from her time in Weatherfield.
“Honestly, I am not just saying this, I have to pinch myself a lot of the time. I still can’t believe it. I feel so lucky,” she says. “You don’t know when it is going to end so you have to take advantage while it is there.”
Tina and Bobby starts on ITV on January 13 at 9pm