Destiny, Denise and dreams come true
PUBLISHED: 15:57 11 May 2009 | UPDATED: 16:00 20 February 2013
With 600 sell-out performances as Joseph, a new album out and a wedding to plan with Denise Van Outen, Southend's Lee Mead is still living the dream
FROM the moment Southend's Lee Mead applied to audition for the part of Joseph in the BBC's 2007 talent show Any Dream Will Do, he has hardly stopped to catch breath, writes Pat Parker.
Since then, his life has changed dramatically. He won the show, of course, and went on to star in Andrew Lloyd Webber's production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in the West End, where he earned great acclaim for his singing, acting and ability to look great in a loincloth.
Something certainly caught the eye of Any Dream Will Do judge Denise Van Outen and the couple started dating a few months later, and announced their engagement in January. They plan to marry this year.
Lee has now handed over the role of Joseph to Gareth Gates, after an
18-month run of 600 sell-out shows. 'I was exhausted,' says Lee. 'They did ask me to stay until the summer, but it felt like the right time to leave. It's just nice to have time off now and reflect. But it was truly
the most incredible time of my life. I wouldn't change it for the world.'
He is taking time away from the stage to promote his impressive new album, Nothing Else Matters, and to spend time with Denise. The couple now live in a beautiful, 17-century Kent farmhouse, complete with a few acres of land and sheep, where they can relax together away from the public eye. And it was here that Lee finally proposed to Denise. Did he
go down on one knee? 'Of course I did,' he laughs. 'It was very traditional.'
Lee, 27, is keen to scotch any idea that the couple had become attracted to each other during Any Dream Will Do's three-month run. 'This has been asked a lot, because we were both on the show, but no. I was seeing someone at the time, and she was with someone too. In any case, I had other things on my mind, like performing, and there was little time
to think of anything else. It was about four months later, when we were both single, that I asked her out for dinner.'
Lee and Denise, seven years his senior, have a great deal in common - not least their shared Essex background (Denise, of course, comes from Basildon). 'We've had a very similar family upbringing, and grew up with the same morals,' Lee explains.
The new album is Lee's second and features two songs he co-wrote. Tracks include the powerful love song Breathe You Out, the memorable title track Nothing Else Matters, a duet with Hayley Westenra and a cover of Spandau Ballet's Through the Barricades. It is beautifully produced by Graham Stack, who has worked with Kylie Minogue, Take That and Rod Stewart. 'I've spent the last nine or ten months co-writing, and really putting the work in. It was great to have had so much creative involvement,' says Lee.
He has plans to tour in the autumn, and is hoping the venues will include his home town. 'I'd love to come back to Southend. My first ever show was at the Cliffs Pavilion. I was about six years old and I sang in a schools choir performance. There were about 400 pupils on stage!'
Lee still returns to Southend whenever he can. He is extremely close
to his family - his mum Jo, a former cleaner; his dad Steve, a postman,
and younger brother Casey, a customs officer. It is doubtless due to
the stability they provided that fame has failed to turn his head. Lee
still comes across in conversation as polite, natural, and maybe
even slightly shy.
Lee's parents never had much money when he was a boy. But they worked hard to support his dream of becoming a performer. He was captivated by musical theatre at the age of 11 when he saw a
production of Joseph at the Cliffs Pavilion. 'I thought how wonderful
it would be to be in that kind of production. And a few years on, it
turned out to be my first professional role in a musical.'
As a teenager at The Eastwood School in Leigh on Sea, he starred in a school production of Grease. 'That's when I caught the bug. I just liked singing and creating characters.'
He later enrolled in a local drama college, only to leave just before graduation after a disagreement with the principal. So he tried to make it in the entertainment business the hard way, spending a season performing on the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry. 'It was my first time away from home, and I had great fun, but it wasn't the most glamorous job in the world. I was seasick several times; The Bay of Biscay is one of the roughest seas in the world. But it was one of the best times in my life, because it was a real learning curve, and the people were wonderful.'
A rather dispiriting summer season at Bridlington followed. 'It was my first theatre job. It was a 1,200 capacity theatre and I think the largest audiences we got were 30 or 40 people. I suppose you could say it was character forming.'
After that, Lee got his chance to appear in Joseph, playing brother Levi and also Pharaoh in a touring production of the musical. He went on to understudy in the rock musical Tommy and subsequently Miss Saigon. In 2006, he joined the West End production of The Phantom of the Opera, again as an understudy.
It was during this run that he decided to apply for Any Dream Will Do. 'It was a huge risk, because I was half-way through my year's contract with Phantom, and I'd just taken out a mortgage, so it wasn't the best time to give up that security. But people who know me will always say I've taken risks and I think you've got to follow your gut feeling. Joseph was a role I'd always wanted to play, and I just thought it was a chance that would never come again. I had to go for it.'
He was up against 10,000 other hopefuls. Yet it soon became clear
Lee was a firm favourite with the voting public.
'When I got down to the last four or five, I began to think I might have a strong chance. But then you're locked away, and you don't really know what's going on. You're in a bubble for three months and you're
working really hard during the week. You don't really know
what the public's thinking.'
The auditions and live shows took six months in total, and for much of that time Lee was working ten or 12-hour days. 'It was pressurised. It was a quite tense period, but I wouldn't have changed it for the world, because it's changed my life.'
There was some criticism at the time that Lee had an unfair advantage over his rivals because he was a professional performer. Lee gives such suggestions short shrift. 'I think that was silly, because it was open to professionals as well as amateurs and in the last few hundred there were several guys who had more experience than me and had been in quite a few West End shows. So I have no sense of guilt.
'When I got the role I was pretty calm, because I'd had experience of these shows before, and I knew about the rehearsal process. But I guess the tricky part for me was having to do interviews on a daily basis. Four weeks rehearsing for a show is quite a lot of pressure in itself, but having a documentary film crew following you and having to talk to the press and TV all adds to the workload.
'I don't think anything can prepare you for the celebrity spotlight,' says Lee. 'I think fame can affect different people depending on your character. But because I like to think I'm a fairly grounded person, it hasn't really affected me that much. It's just quite odd to keep seeing guys hanging around with cameras. Someone was trying to take a picture of me drinking coffee the other day. You think, "Me drinking coffee? It's really not that interesting!".'
Now that he and Denise are an A-list celebrity couple, that kind of exposure can only intensify. Does that worry him? 'I don't worry about it at all. We've got each other and we know what to expect. It all depends on how you approach it, really.'
And what does Lee hope for in the future?
'I'm off to New York this summer for some meetings with producers for a possible Broadway show, which would be great. And I'm hoping to do a new show in the West End, maybe in spring next year. I'm in talks about two or three shows at the moment.'
Whatever happens, Lee's future, both personally and professionally, seems full of promise.
Get the album
Lee's new album, Nothing Else Matters, is
on Polydor Records and is out now