Jon Baxter/Daily Mirror
Sober and healthy: Denise Welch says she feels much healthier and happier after stopping her drinking and wild partying
For the heady decade she was a star of Loose Women, Denise Welch was arguably as well known for her off-screen party girl antics as for her appearances on screen.
But 18 months after leaving the lunchtime chat show – and having notched up three years of sobriety – she is a changed woman. And a much, much healthier one.
Now, as the actress returns to our screens in a BBC drama series, she vows she’ll never again touch alcohol.
“It’s quite incredible how different, and better, my life is now,” she says.
“Next month will mark two different celebrations – my 57th birthday and, on May 18, three years sober.
“Clearly there won’t be any wild celebrations because frankly I live a nun’s life now – and don’t get into a lot of bother.
"One of the greatest things about it all is just how much healthier, fitter and younger I look.
“I never want to go back to my old partying ways. I’ve not smoked in nearly a year, and I recently had some tests done and so much has improved.
Yes, madam: Denise Welch as brothel manager Susan in Inspector George Gently
“The osteoarthritis in my knees has got better, my blood pressure is much better, and even the outer things – my eyes, skin and teeth – everything looks that much clearer and fresher.”
Denise says she’ll never be rid of the clinical depression that has dogged her life, but adds: “Now that I’m sober the episodes are much shorter lived.”
Since quitting Loose Women, the actress has kept a low profile, determined to re-establish her performing credentials.
On Wednesday night she returned to TV playing a brothel manager in BBC1’s hit series Inspector George Gently.
And on Friday her new play, The Ancient Secret of Youth and The Five Tibetans, premieres in Bolton.
The production, written by acclaimed dramatist Jim Cartwright, centres around a middle-aged couple and is a satirical take on our obsession with ageing and appearance.
Loose Woman: Denise on the show with Andrea McLean and Carol MCGiffin
It is something Denise, married to 42-year-old artist Lincoln Townley, can relate to, referring to an experience in a department store changing room as one of the catalysts for completely changing her lifestyle.
She explains: “When I read the play, there were a couple of passages that really struck a chord.
“In one scene, my character Penny breaks down in tears in the changing room. That is something that has happened to me.
“There were times, in my old life when I would be trying on something surrounded by these decrepit old fairground-esque, House of Fun fat mirrors, which show off every inch of flab and cellulite.
“No matter how slim you are, those mirrors are horrendous but if you are of a certain age, then you are going to have lumps and bumps, and bits that look horrible.”
Since “changing room-gate”, Denise has become an ambassador for the Lighter Life weight-loss programme, shedding over two stone in the process.
Rovers barmaid: Denise as Natalie in Coronation Street with screen husband Des Barnes
Now a slim size 10, she is finally content as she edges towards the big 6-0.
“There are things I love about ageing,” she says. “Although I am an inherent people pleaser, I really don’t care any more what people outside of my immediate family think about me.
There will always be people, and Twitter trolls, who judge me on my past but that doesn’t bother me. I am more comfortable in my skin nowadays.
“Occasionally someone will mention my age and it will take me by surprise when I think I’m nearly 60.”
The former Coronation Street star, who played feisty Rovers’ barmaid Natalie Barnes for three years, jokes: “Someone once said, ‘When you get to 50 you get the face you deserve’.
“I feel I deserve a far worse face than the one I’ve got from all the abuse I put my poor body through.”
She is, of course, talking about her troubled years of booze and cocaine abuse, things she openly discussed in her two autobiographies.
Happily married: Denise with hubby Lincoln Townley
Her depression also spiralled out of control. At her worst point, she even tried to throw herself out of a moving car.
But after meeting Lincoln, while still married but living separately from ex-husband Tim Healy , the pair decided to turn their lives around.
Denise is now also a patron of mental health charity Mind – and life couldn’t be more different.
“My idea of a big night out is an evening on the sofa with a cup of tea,” she laughs.
But professionally, she has never been busier.
As well as working on a new six-part BBC2 romcom – Boy Meets Girl, starring transgender actress Rebecca Root – she also has a whole new fan base thanks to her son Matt Healy, heartthrob frontman of The 1975.
The band’s debut album was a worldwide smash, and they are currently working on a follow-up, writing much of it in LA, where Matt, 26, is a big star.
Proud mum: Denise’s son Matt Healy performs with his band The 1975 at Radio 1’s Big Weekend
Last year he was linked to American pop singer Taylor Swift – but Cheshire-based Denise is keeping schtum about her.
“I’m not allowed to talk about that person,” she stonewalls. “All I can say is that I am ridiculously proud of Matty and have seen how hard those boys have worked.
“There have been no doors opened for them and they are no overnight success.
“If I’m stopped in the street now, it’s more likely to be as ‘Matt’s Mum’ than because of anything I’ve done.”
Today, Denise is a reluctant celebrity and her days of gracing women’s magazines are long gone.
“I don’t put myself out there any more,” she says.
“I don’t feel that desperation to keep myself in the public eye like I suppose I once did. Now I turn down more invites than I accept.
“When Lincoln and I decided to go sober, we lost a lot of hangers-on. It was actually totally refreshing. I am incredibly proud of how far we have come and what, together, we have achieved.”
Inspector George Gently is on BBC1, Wednesdays, 8pm. The Ancient Secret of Youth and The Five Tibetans opens at The Octagon Theatre in Bolton tomorrow