Sofa so good

The rags to riches story of super-agent Melanie Blake includes a father who joined a religious cult, a spell living in an Oldham squat and a brush with homelessness

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Soaps are relished for their shocking storylines, but the drama depicted on screen pales in comparison to what’s unfolding off camera, according to agent and author Melanie Blake.

For two decades she’s represented some of the country’s biggest female soap stars and has first-hand knowledge of the trials and tribulations taking place behind the scenes, which she’s used as the inspiration for her new novel Ruthless Women.

An ode to ego-driven rivalry, backstabbing and ambition, it’s prompted comparisons to the late Jackie Collins. Only in Ruthless Women, the backdrop is Jersey’s fictional soap opera Falcon Bay, rather than the Hollywood Hills.

“These women, who Iíd had in my brain for years, took over. In seven weeks of 16-hour days, I’d written the story.”

“I was compared to Jackie when The Thunder Girls [Blake’s debut novel about an eighties girl group reunion] came out in 2019, but it wasn’t appropriate. There is no sex in it, for one – it’s about a friendship, whereas Ruthless Women is full of it. It’s sexy and naughty and unadulterated escapism,” says the 44 year old.

“You’ll never look at a soap star in the same way again, but I can honestly tell you everything you read, I’ve seen. I’ve been in those top rooms, had those massive contract negotiations, seen revenge being taken and people going at each other’s throats. I’ve also seen a famous actress who’s on television nightly do that car scene outside an awards ceremony,” she adds, referencing a scene in the book where a soap star seduces her driver in the back of a limo.

Blake wrote Ruthless Women during the first lockdown when she found herself living alone following a break-up, and with little to do for the first time in her career.

“These women, who I’d had in my brain for years, took over. In seven weeks of 16-hour days, I’d written the story.”

The novel doesn’t shine a particularly flattering light on people who populate the soap industry and Blake admits to feeling worried her friends and associates would “go mental at me”.

“But I was gobsmacked from day one that they love it. They want people to know what it’s like, and how tough it is. Whatever these women go through in their personal life, they have to turn up to work.

“Being in a soap opera makes you very famous, but if you lose that job your life is wrecked because you can’t switch that level of fame off, even if you never work again as an actor. It’s why returning to real life is tough, why people fight so hard to stay on a show, and why those who don’t have careers anymore fight so hard to be in one.”

Blake created her own talent agency in 2004 and, in an industry rife with ageism, forged a reputation as the “queen of reinvention”.

“When I started my agency, I was representing actresses who were 40 and considered old. I changed that by getting actresses back in shows and played a massive part in helping to revolutionise the way women were seen in show business.

“It’s interesting because I was continuously told by my father from a young age that all women over 30 are finished. I knew it was nonsense even then, and I’ve ended up making my fortune focusing on women who are older.”

Blake’s father had a devastating impact on her formative years. Growing up in Stockport, she describes living a relatively content life until age seven when her dad joined a religious cult.

“It was designed like a Ponzi scheme to get all the money off the parishioners and he fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Everything that wasn’t in the Bible was considered the devil’s business. It made no sense, but we had to live under his rules. We became reliant on handouts. I wore second-hand clothes, had free dinners. I was also dyslexic so put in a class with the kids who didn’t want to be there. It was horrendous and I left school with a G in maths, but it gave me an incredible desire and resilience,” says Blake, who remembers looking through the glossy magazines at the dentist’s where her mum cleaned and knowing she wanted more from life.

“I just had this weird feeling I was in the wrong place and that’s where I was meant to be. It wasn’t delusion or obsession but more like a calling, so from the age of 13 I worked as many jobs as I could and got myself a Halifax account. It was everything to get out of that situation of poverty. Back then Manchester didn’t have the media opportunities it does now, so for me the goal was London to see whether I could break the industry.”

Blake left home at 16 and moved into a squat in an abandoned house in Oldham, where it was so cold, she says, “I thought I would die”.

She recalls returning one night to find the squat boarded up, so was forced to spend the night sleeping out in the garden. The next day, one of the squatters told her they’d heard of a scheme Salford Council was running to help the young and vulnerable. Within 24 hours of registering at the office, she was given the keys to a flat.

“Looking back, I was amazed at how the council helped me. I only wish it was like that for people now. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say they saved my life. Who knows what could have happened to me if I’d ended up on the streets, I don’t even like to think about it,” says Blake.

“I have however always made it clear my dad didn’t throw me out. I just couldn’t live under that roof any longer and listen to this rubbish, so I made myself homeless to escape. That tells you how bad it was. He was a deluded man and he’s not that person anymore, but we don’t have a relationship and I’m not angry about that. I’ve made my peace with it.”

Determined to kickstart her career, Blake left the flat after three months and headed to London, arriving on her 17th birthday. She took temp positions, trying “every avenue I could to break into media” and eventually landed a job as a camera assistant on Top of the Pops.

The show was filmed near EastEnders, which is how she bumped into the actor Gillian Taylforth, who played Kathy Beale. The pair got on and Blake started working as an extra on the soap before moving back to Manchester and doing the same on Coronation Street, meeting the likes of Beverley Callard and Gaynor Faye, as well as Emmerdale’s Claire King.

“I’ve always been opinionated and call things out when everyone’s keeping their mouths closed. Nobody tells celebrities the truth, so I got my break by being pretty rough with celebrities by saying ‘You don’t look good in that’ and ‘This isn’t a good move’. As I got to know these women, they said we think you’d make a really brilliant agent. So, within four years, I went from an extra to looking after the lead actresses and having the network’s power in my hands. If I hadn’t have lived it, I wouldn’t believe it,” says Blake, who describes herself as a “ballbreaker, always have been”.

“But I’ve always got people’s best interests at heart and not a lot of people do. When I worked on Top of the Pops, you’d see the Whitneys and Britneys and the people around them didn’t want them to be happy and successful because the more messed up they were, the more they could get away with. I’ve always wanted my women to be empowered. It’s why I’ve had so many clients for so many years.”

Aside from Callard and King, her roster included Patsy Kensit, Sherrie Hewson, Amanda Barrie and Stephanie Beacham, who once lambasted Blake’s father for his ageist comments during a memorable phone call. “She told him ‘I’m 65 and fucking fabulous’ and put the phone down,” recalls Blake.

But one of her proudest achievements is the Nolan sisters reunion tour she organised in 2009, which took £2 million at the box office within 24 hours, despite the naysayers.

“I brought my mum and all her friends along when it came to Manchester. She passed away two years later, days after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and I can still remember seeing the pride in her eyes knowing I’d put this tour on,” says Blake, who now lives in a mansion in north London and makes no apology for her lavish lifestyle.

“I love the life I’ve built for myself. I grew up in impoverished surroundings, so it’s no surprise I like a bit of glamour and luxury. I’ve earned it. I am 100 per cent self-made – no one’s ever given me a penny. So if anyone has anything other than a positive thing to say, as far as I’m concerned, they’ve got a problem because I am the absolute example of working your arse off. I thrive on keeping busy and run a company that’s turned over £30 million, but you don’t get to turn that sort of money over without working 24 hours a day – that’s the sacrifice.”

It’s why she’s feeling so angry about how she’s been treated by the government.

“I’ve paid millions of pounds in tax willingly and never done any avoidance schemes or tried to get out of paying my dues. I’ve been proud to give back to this country because of the help I received when I was poor. I’m forever grateful and I was glad to do it.

“But when it comes to this pandemic, because I run a limited company, I get nothing at all – not a penny, no furlough for my staff. I didn’t want anyone to lose their jobs so I’ve been paying their wages for over a year now with no help. I’ve lost millions in the pandemic but I don’t care about that really. I’m a grafter. I’ll find a way to earn it again. Once you’ve been homeless and poor and you’ve had a taste of the good life, you stop at nothing to keep yourself as well-funded as possible, but it really hurt me the way the government took so much from me but offered me nothing in return. I’ll always pay my dues but I’ll never respect a government that hangs entrepreneurs out to dry.”

As soon as this pandemic is over, Blake’s planning on moving away from the UK for a while “to let my anger dissipate”.

“I’m going to rent a gorgeous house somewhere for six months to see how it goes and write a newspaper column on dating.”

There are also two more books underway, including a sequel to Ruthless Women, and a nationwide tour of The Thunder Girls stage adaptation in the autumn.

“I’m not interested in fame. I’m an author and businesswoman and will hopefully be a mogul with my own studio, so I can make loads of vehicles where no woman will ever be judged by her age.” You don’t doubt her determination, as she adds. “I’ll always be a glass half full girl. I don’t know any other way to be. Basically, everything I do that’s a success is the greatest revenge on everyone who said I couldn’t do it.”

Ruthless Women by Melanie Blake (Head of Zeus, £12.99) is out now

Melanie Blake’s favourite bonkbusters

When it comes to bonkbusters my shelves are crammed with them. The true test of a bonkbuster is if when you move house you make sure it always moves with you. Here are four classics that will never leave my shelves.

Did anyone do sexy better than Jackie Collins? I doubt it!  Her novels seem a bit dated now but who doesn’t love some horny nostalgia from an era when we could do it without a face mask on! I loved all her books but Hollywood Wives (Simon & Schuster) is one of my faves which I’ve read several times.

When a book has been in print for its 60th year that is a sign that it’s still got all the right moves to get you in the mood. Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of The Dolls (Virago Modern Classics) may be decades old but its tales of Hollywood desperation, drug addiction and scandalous sex are as relevant as ever. Susann was a former actress herself before she turned her talents to writing and I must have read Valley at least five times over the years. It still manages to enthral and move me all at the same time and the sex scenes are still pretty graphic all this time on.

In the 1980s there were not many women who didn’t have a copy of Shirley Conran’s blockbusting novel Lace (Canongate) and still to this day it’s on many women’s repeat reads – including mine. This book is absolutely filthy in parts, and even all these years later even I am still shocked at some of the sex in it. I’m not even sure anyone would print it these days, that’s how out there one particular scene is. But what a wonderful story Shirley told, of three young schoolgirls, one of whom becomes pregnant and all three decide to take responsibility for the safe delivery of the child into the hands of a loving new family, vowing never to reveal which one of them it was that gave birth. The action plays out over three decades as Lillie, the missing daughter, now a former prostitute turned porn star turned Hollywood A-lister, returns to wreak havoc on the group, uttering the now immortal line: “So which one of you bitches is my mother?” You’ll never look at a goldfish the same way again!

My choice from the the queen of the countryside legover Jilly Cooper is The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous (Corgi), which follows hapless hunk Lysander Hawkley’s arrival in a small village. His much less attractive friend Ferdie comes up with a scheme to make money out of his natural womanising ways: to help wives make their wandering husbands jealous. It’s horny, it’s sexy and it’s naughty – the perfect ingredients for a bonkbuster – and it definitely puts you in the mood for a roll in the countryside hay!

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