Most of us will recognise the heart-sinking feeling that accompanies the realisation that you’ve put your foot right in it.
For stage star Ruthie Henshall, 53, it was compounded by a very public setting. As she emerged from the latest series of I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! she discovered that what she had thought was a casual private chat with fellow ‘camper’ Shane Richie hadn’t, in fact, been private at all.
Instead, it had been broadcast to the nation, who got to eavesdrop on Ruthie as she recalled her intimate relations with her former boyfriend Prince Edward at Buckingham Palace.
Viewers were treated to her affectionate reminiscences about her time at the heart of the Royal Family during the course of their on-off six-year relationship — from martinis mixed by Prince Charles and tea with the Queen to giggling with Princess Diana and performing show tunes for Princess Margaret.
As she emerged from the latest series of I’m A Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here! she discovered that what she had thought was a casual private chat with fellow ‘camper’ Shane Richie hadn’t, in fact, been private at all
Little wonder that Ruthie — who had covered her clip-on microphone with her hand during her chat with Richie, unaware that other microphones lurked everywhere — was a little stunned when she emerged on Sunday night to learn that she’d actually shared her memories with an audience of millions.
‘When I was having my exit interview, Ant and Dec played my best bits, and out of the ether I could hear myself saying: ‘I’ve shagged in the Palace.’ I think that was the comment I made, something awfully crass like that,’ she says .
‘I was quite shocked. You say things in there and you forget you are on a show 24/7.’
It was certainly a blooper moment for the much-loved, five-times Olivier nominated musical theatre star who, to date, has always been the soul of discretion about her romance with the prince, with whom she has remained good friends.
She attended Edward’s 1999 wedding to Sophie Rhys-Jones, now the Countess of Wessex, and has his telephone number stored among her contacts to this day.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that she has been in touch with him this week, although, naturally wary after her on-air mishap, she declines to give more detail, saying only that they’ve ‘been in contact’.
‘When I was having my exit interview, Ant and Dec played my best bits, and out of the ether I could hear myself saying: ‘I’ve shagged in the Palace.’ I think that was the comment I made, something awfully crass like that,’ she says
Reading between the lines, though, all would seem to be well.
‘I think if I had been talking about deepest, darkest secrets, or negativity, possibly it might have been a very different thing, but I don’t have anything negative to say about any of the family,’ she says with a smile.
‘I’m not busting any secrets that aren’t mine to talk about, but also they’re not really secret — it’s just a part of my history and I’m completely up for embracing that. It’s been a long time, too — I mean, I was 20 when I met him.’
Today Ruthie is a long-standing stage stalwart with some of the theatre’s biggest roles under her belt — among them Chicago’s Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly and Les Misérables’ Fantine — but wind back the clock to 1987 and she was just starting out, a 20-year-old stage-school graduate making her West End debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats.
Edward, then 23, was working as a production assistant for the company, and romance blossomed against a backdrop of chats about rehearsals.
‘He was the one who’d call me up and say, ‘You’re rehearsing at 2 o’clock’ or whatever. And he said to me: ‘Would you like to come to mine and watch the film of A Star Is Born and you can have some dinner?’,’ she recalled. I was like: ‘What, at the Palace — is that where you live?’ ‘
For a time, the couple managed to keep their burgeoning romance under the radar — something that led to a particularly tricky conflict of interest for Ruthie’s father, David, then a local newspaper editor in the family’s home county of Kent.
‘He said: ‘Ruthie, I am sitting on the hottest story of my career and there’s nothing I can do about it,’ she laughs now.
When the relationship did go public, it was to headlines of ‘The Prince and the Showgirl’, although this doesn’t do justice to something that was far from a flash in the pan, but a proper love affair that spanned six years.
‘I genuinely fell in love with him,’ she says.
Ruthie charts their relationship by the shows she was appearing in. ‘It was Cats to Crazy For You, which was when we were really very close, and then we went in various different directions. He met Sophie and I met John (Gordon Sinclair, the actor and her former fiance), and life goes on a different path. But it was a wonderful part of my story.’
They certainly spent enough time together for Ruthie to be welcomed into the heart of the Royal Family, with visits to Balmoral and Windsor Castle — she met the Queen at the latter for the first time. Ruthie admits there were many ‘pinch me’ moments during the romance.
‘We were at Windsor and I saw a table outside with people round it, and it was that moment of ‘Oh my goodness! That looks like the Queen! Oh my goodness, it is the Queen.’ And that moment of introduction was so quick. Edward said ‘This is Ruthie’ and she put out her hand and I just grabbed it and shook it.’
Ruthie’s reminiscences certainly provide an interesting counterpoint to scenes in the latest series of The Crown — which covers some of the years Ruthie was dating the prince, and show various ‘incomers’ subjected to ‘the Balmoral test’, a sort of etiquette assault course to establish whether their faces fit.
Ruthie hasn’t watched the Netflix series, but says her experiences couldn’t be further from what she’s been told is depicted on screen.
‘They were very welcoming and as much as you can say this — because you are with the Royal Family in the Palace or at Windsor or Balmoral, which are not normal circumstances and places — but when they are together, they are a normal family and you are part of that,’ she says.
‘I was absolutely welcomed in. I have nothing but fondness and lovely memories of them being incredibly kind and very interested in my life. I didn’t ever feel like an outsider.’
In fact, some of what unfolded sounds like a genuine hoot. Take the 1992 Balmoral gathering, where Ruthie got drunk on two strong martinis mixed by Prince Charles and was egged on by Princesses Diana and Margaret to sing a tune from her then starring role in Les Misérables.
‘The Queen and Margaret were singing hymns and Diana put her hand on me and sort of very tongue in cheek said: ‘Oh, my goodness, stop them singing hymns! Come on, sing something musical theatre.’
‘And Margaret overheard and, of course, she loved the theatre and asked me to sing a song from the show I was in, which was Les Mis at the time,’ Ruthie says.
‘So, I sang I Dreamed a Dream. But because I’d never ever had a martini before the key I started it in was not where I finished. But I got away with it.’
The young couple eventually split in 1993, when Ruthie realised that continuing the relationship would bring an end to the stage career she had worked day and night to establish.
‘I think I had hopes that we could walk on in our relationship but really and truthfully I think I was very aware that I wouldn’t be able to do what I do for a living if I’d stayed with him,’ she says.
Ruthie certainly seemed to have had performance running through her veins as long as she can remember. Born in Orpington, the youngest of four girls, she attended stage school as a teen but recalls putting on impromptu performances long before that as a way of lightening the mood during her parents’ volatile marriage.
She was particularly close to her journalist father, whom she describes as ‘an old Fleet Street boy’, and his death aged 90, of heart and kidney failure, two weeks after the start of the first national lockdown has left her bereft.
‘He was the love of my life and he will remain the love of my life,’ she says. ‘He was a good man through and through.
‘My sisters and I were carers to him in the end. He didn’t need much caring for because he was still trying to struggle and do it all on his own. But the wonderful thing about it was that nothing was left unsaid.’
Nonetheless, she admits that she is still trying to come to terms with a world without him in it.
‘He’s the man I went to probably every day of my life, whether I called him or dropped by and said ‘This has happened’ or ‘I don’t know what to do about this job’.,’ she says.
‘I passed everything by him, and now I’ve got to try to negotiate everything without him,’ she says.
‘I don’t suppose that would be quite as complicated if my sisters and I weren’t all single mums and he’s been ‘the man’, because the male influences in these grandchildren’s lives have not been around an awful lot, so he has been the one who hangs the pictures, who comes and babysits.’
It is a nod to a romantic life that has been endlessly thwarted by her professional dedication.
Ruthie’s romance with Prince Edward was followed by a six-year relationship and engagement to Scottish actor John Gordon Sinclair, which ended when she won the role of Chicago’s Velma Kelly on Broadway in 1999.
In 2001, she met Canadian singer Tim Howar, her co-star in the West End production of Peggy Sue Got Married and the father of her daughters Lily, 17, and Dolly, 15.
The pair’s marriage in 2004 seemed to usher in a new era of domestic calm for Ruthie, but by August 2009 they had separated amid struggles to reconcile their respective theatre careers with parenthood.
Two years earlier, Ruthie’s beloved sister, Noel, had taken her own life aged 49. Ruthie mourns her deeply to this day.
‘I heard somebody say that when someone you love commits suicide, their pain has ended while yours has just begun,’ she says.
They certainly spent enough time together for Ruthie to be welcomed into the heart of the Royal Family, with visits to Balmoral and Windsor Castle — she met the Queen at the latter for the first time. Ruthie admits there were many ‘pinch me’ moments during the romance
‘And that is it in a nutshell, because you can send me to as much bereavement counselling as you like, I can sit here and talk to you about how Noel is at peace, and all of that for as long as we like, but I will never, ever get over the fact that she is not here.
‘I will never be OK with it and I will never stop missing her. So, when my dad died, it wasn’t just the grief for him, it unearthed the grief for Noel again.’
This is far from an endeavour for public sympathy: as those who watched her in I’m A Celebrity will know, Ruthie is a plain-speaking pragmatist who doesn’t shy away from talking about territory others traditionally see as ‘difficult’.
She is candid, for example, about the difficulties of raising teenage girls as a divorced parent. ‘I think being a single parent is painful. I love my girls and they are growing into beautiful young women, but it’s painful to watch them growing up in this social media-obsessed world that you’re trying to combat constantly,’ she says.
The grief she felt for the loss of her father during lockdown, meanwhile, was compounded by the devastation she felt at watching the arts world she adores ‘decimated’ by coronavirus.
Her one-woman show — rescheduled for 2021 — has been postponed twice, and she has friends from the theatre world driving Amazon vans to pay their bills.
It is against this emotionally turbulent backdrop that she decided to take the arguably surprising decision to take part in this year’s I’m A Celebrity, having turned down assorted other reality television offers in the past.
‘The more I thought about it, the more I genuinely thought what an adventure it would be,’ she says.
And despite that slip of the tongue, not to mention the hunger and freezing cold (this year’s show took place at Gwrych Castle in Wales) Ruthie insists she loved every minute and has made friends for life with her camp-mates, who included broadcaster Victoria Derbyshire, TV presenter Vernon Kay and Olympian Mo Farah.
If nothing else, it is another colourful chapter in the story of the showgirl who dated a prince.
‘I think there have been many times in my life — when I was with Edward or appearing on Broadway — where I definitely have had those moments of, ‘How did I get here?’, she says.
‘I have had some wonderful ‘pinch me’ moments — and I remain forever grateful for that.’
Ruthie Henshall is touring the UK and Ireland with a new and intimate show In My Life which plays an exclusive four-city tour in October 2021. For ticket info go to ruthiehenshall.com