WHEN Jessica Plummer signed up to I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! there was a huge part of her questioning what on earth she was doing.
Fresh from an award-winning performance as domestic abuse victim Chantelle Atkins on EastEnders, she was keen to see where her promising acting career would take her next.
And bunking up in a freezing-cold Welsh castle while downing blended goat’s penis for the entertainment of millions was not part of the plan.
“Honestly, if you’d asked me a year ago whether I’d do that show I would have said: ‘Er, hell to the no!’ That is not my style. I don’t do the cold, I don’t do bugs, I don’t do any of that.
“But it turned out to be one of the greatest experiences of my life and I feel like 2021 is going to be more of that – taking opportunities I might not have been so comfortable with and seeing what happens.”
Anyone who watched Jessica in the latest series of the show (which, due to the pandemic, was filmed at Gwrych Castle in North Wales rather than the Australian jungle) will have seen what a key member of that happy camp she became.
She was warm, funny, and for someone who doesn’t “do bugs” she more than held her own in the now-infamous Sickening Stalls trial, arguably the most stomach-churning in the show’s 19-year history.
Drinking the six disgusting concoctions made her physically sick, but she carried on until the bitter end in order to win meals for the camp.
However, the hardest part was being away from her four-year-old daughter Noa. Covid rules meant contestants had to isolate for a fortnight before the series began and as Jessica, 28, was the joint-fifth celeb to be voted out, it was the best part of five weeks spent apart from Noa.
“She is such a good girl. I look at her and sometimes I feel like, how are you mine?! She is so polite and well-mannered and caring, but she’s also cheeky at times. Obviously I am incredibly biased, but in my eyes she is the best little girl in the world.”
Jessica has been a single mum since splitting from fellow actor and teen sweetheart Jaz Hutchins last year, but the two of them co-parent Noa and try to keep things 50/50.
“Noa’s dad and I have been in each other’s lives for such a long time. Yes, I am single right now, but I will always love him, he will always be my family and we fully share responsibility for Noa.
“It is very equal, with both of our jobs things are so up in the air, but he is a wonderful dad and I don’t have a bad word to say about him as a parent.
“Who knows what the future holds for us? But at the same time I’m really enjoying the freedom of single life and not having to answer to anybody. I’ve had too many headaches from too many boys in my life!”
She might well be referring to the incident just a few months ago when she made headlines after being filmed by an onlooker having a row with Jaz in the street. It must have felt like an intrusion, although Jessica’s philosophical about it now.
“I think I need to be conscious of the fact people will be more invested in things I do and say which shouldn’t necessarily be public… But at the same time I am a human being just like everybody else and I’m not going to allow the very human things I do to make me question who I am as an individual.
“Other people’s opinion of me is none of my business and that’s the mentality I’ve adopted. I accept that more people will now have an opinion of me. If they think I’m great, fantastic; if they think I’m not, it’s none of my business. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Discovering she was pregnant with Noa at the age of 23 (while on the set of CBBC sci-fi drama Wizards Vs Aliens) came as a shock, not least because Jessica had been diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) the previous year and was under the impression that she was unlikely to conceive naturally.
“I always thought I’d struggle to have children. My periods had stopped and I was experiencing all these weird symptoms, so I went to the doctor who did the scan and told me I had PCOS.
“I was told there was nothing really that could be done, given a leaflet and sent on my way. I had to Google it and thought I wouldn’t be able to have kids. I’ve since found out that lots of women with PCOS do go on to have kids.”
She adds: “It’s not always been easy, but I feel like there is no ‘right’ time to have children. Yeah, I was only 23, but Noa’s dad and I grew up together, I’d known him since I was 14, so when it happened he was like: ‘I want the baby’ and I was like: ‘Me too! I’m so glad that you said that!’
“There were definitely times where, after she was born, I missed having the freedom to get up and go. Even now having a four year old does dictate which jobs I can consider, but I wouldn’t change anything. She adds so much more to my life, just being here. You just make it work and her dad is really supportive as are my parents and his parents.”
There is no showbiz blood in Jessica’s family – her mum is a teacher and her dad a paramedic – and she’d never considered it a career for herself until she joined The Identity School of Acting at 16 and fell in love with performing.
“I just really enjoyed it and I wanted to continue doing it. And when I realised: ‘Oh, I’m kind of good at this’ I enjoyed it even more! I left school at 16 because by then I knew I wanted to do acting and I worked as an apprentice teaching assistant so I could finish at 3pm and go to my drama classes.
“I also had a weekend job working in a cafe in Balham, South London, because it was all about fitting it around my drama classes.”
She signed with an agent at 18 and landed a few small roles before being scouted in 2012 by music manager David Cooper, who was putting together a new girl band.
“I was sitting on a bench in Brick Lane, waiting for my sister who was late, when the person who ended up becoming our manager approached me and said: ‘Hey, can you sing?’
“By coincidence I had a recording on my phone of me singing from another audition, so I was like: ‘Um, you’re a bit of a weirdo but… yeah take a look!’ He gave me his card and I saw he’d worked with people like Pharrell Williams, so I knew he was legit.”
After a few months of auditions, Jessica and three other girls were launched as Neon Jungle in 2013 and went on to enjoy fleeting success with a Top 10 album and two Top 10 singles – Fabulous also shot them for our annual Ones To Watch feature in January 2014.
It wasn’t to last, though, and the band split in 2015 with Jessica left feeling quite shell-shocked from the whole experience.
“I had some of the best moments of my life being in Neon Jungle. I don’t see the girls as much as I would like to now, but I will hold them close to my heart forever. We performed at a Victoria’s Secret show, played at Wembley, travelled to America, we did so much and it was incredible.
“But it was hard work. It wasn’t easy. Not everything that glitters is gold and I knew near the end that it was the time for us to break up. As wonderful as it was, I wasn’t in control of my life or my career and I became confused about who I was.
“I lost myself slightly and became a bit robotic. As someone who is usually really sure of themselves, I struggled with that.”
Having felt the pressures that go hand in hand with life in a girl band, she completely understands Jesy Nelson’s decision to quit Little Mix at the end of last year.
“I saw her Instagram post [announcing her departure] and I watched her [Odd One Out] documentary and I think it’s really brave of her to leave. I’m sure all four of them will smash it whatever they do next because they are huge, but I completely get it.
“I was very young when I was in Neon Jungle, still figuring out who I was and being in a band with three stunning other girls and constantly being around that kind of image made me lose focus.”
Jessica took some time out after the band and went travelling for a while, unsure about what she would do next but nevertheless believing it would all be fine.
“It’s always scary feeling uncertain and not knowing, but I force myself to trust it will all work out. There were days I’d worry and think: ‘Should I go to uni and become a midwife?’ But you have to keep putting your best foot forward.”
She went on to feature in 2017 movie How To Talk To Girls At Parties before landing the part in EastEnders – the break Jessica always had faith would come along.
She made her debut as Chantelle in 2019 and the domestic abuse story line became even more pertinent in lockdown, with Women’s Aid reporting that two-thirds of abused women had suffered increased violence during this time.
Three-quarters said the pandemic had made it harder for them to escape, while campaign group Counting Dead Women found that the number of women killed by men doubled in the first few weeks of the UK lockdown.
Jessica says: “It was a real honour to be a part of and everyone came together to make it what it was. I met a lovely lady, I won’t say her name in case she doesn’t want me to, but hearing from someone who had experienced it was powerful and we were all sitting around the table crying our eyes out.
“Luckily she escaped and survived and is protected, but that is not the case for so many women. I think it was important to show that an abusive relationship isn’t just when your drunk husband walks in and punches you in the face every day. He can also be really charming and charismatic.”
The violence culminated in Chantelle’s murder back in September when husband Gray left her to bleed to death on the kitchen floor. It obviously also meant the end of the road for Jessica on the show.
“I found out how it was going to play out last December and I remember I sat down and said as a joke: ‘You’re not going to kill me off are you?’
“I felt really numb and for the few weeks after, it was really strange because it felt like I was mourning this person I’d got to know. It sounds weird, but I’d get dressed up as Chantelle and look in the mirror and be like: ‘Oh, you’re not going to be here soon’.
“You join a cast like EastEnders and you feel like family in the first week, everyone is so lovely. So it was scary knowing each day I went in was one less that I’d be there. All of a sudden, small things became really special, even the manky toilet I used to hate using because there were so many spiders in it!
“For a while it was definitely a feeling of my security blanket being taken and so, now what? But then I’m A Celebrity! came along!”
In the make-up chair with Jessica
What skincare do you swear by? I’ve struggled with acne so skincare is a huge part of my life. Pixi Glow Tonic is amazing. Dr Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Peel Extra Strength Formula is good but expensive. Paula’s Choice is great. Obagi skincare is what I have been prescribed by dermatologists in the past and it works wonders.
Best beauty bargain? O’Keeffe’s Lip Repair. It’s the only thing that works in winter.
Luxury item? A silk pillowcase.
What are your make-up bag essentials? Benefit They’re Real! Lengthening Mascara, Benefit 24-Hour Brow Setter Clear Brow Gel and Nars Radiant Creamy Concealer.
Your beauty icon? Rihanna.
Describe your beauty evolution. Toned down! Since becoming a mum I no longer have the time and I accept my face for what it is now.
Indeed it did. Jessica made “friends for life” with her fellow camp mates, but perhaps formed the strongest bond with the eventual winner Giovanna Fletcher, who she describes as “something special”.
Jessica entered the castle as the only one without a profile as herself (she said in her opening VT that she was uncomfortable with the word “celebrity”) but emerged with a huge fan base and big things predicted for 2021.
“I left EastEnders with a good reputation playing Chantelle, people loved her. So I did worry that now they were going to discover Jessica Plummer and not like me,” she laughs.
“So when I came out and realised the nation didn’t hate me, it was quite nice!
“2020 has shown that we never know what’s around the corner. So I just want to embrace whatever comes my way.”
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