Playing Dad: the best role in the world!

Actor Lee Mead may have won the nation’s admiration as Joseph, but it’s six month old Betsy who has stolen his heart. Sarah Mitchell finds out more.

Despite his hectic schedule and lack of sleep, Lee Mead is still smiling.  But then, he has rather a lot to be happy about. 

He is currently on stage in London’s West End starring as Fiyero in the award-winning London production of Wicked the greatest modern musical of our time.  He is touring with his own solo show.  He is writing new songs for his next album when he has time and, oh yes, he has a gorgeous baby girl, Betsy, with whom he is besotted

It is a slightly weary, but enthusiastic Lee that tells me how his life has changed since Betsy arrived in May.

“We’re loving being parents.  Betsy is just gorgeous!” He can’t help himself smile at the mention of her name.  “She’s so sweet and I am around the house most of the day if I’m doing an evening show, so I can spend lots of time playing Dad.”

Lee’s wife is actress and presenter Denise Van Outen.  They were married in 2009 in the Seychelles after a romance that began when she was a judge on the BBC series Any Dream Will Do and Lee was one of the contestants.  He beat off 10,000 other hopefuls to win the role of Joseph in the musical revival produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber.  He says Denise is an “inspiration and a great support”.

Denise has just joined the cast of the hit musical Legally Blond in London’s West End.  As they are both in the same business, does Lee ever see them working together?

“We prefer to keep our work separate,” he says.  “I think you must keep your relationship as top priority and work second.  We could run into all sorts of problems if we were working together in the day and then coming home at night and trying to be husband and wife.  But, stranger things have happened, so never say never!

“When you’re in this business, you never know where your next job will take you.  I’d love be in a Broadway show one day.  To go to New York would be fantastic.  Denise did Chicago there a few years ago and had a brilliant time.  So perhaps we’ll stick to working in the same city rather than the same theatre!”

When it comes to being Mummy and Daddy, Denise and Lee work very closely together.

“We’re a team and a team works best by sharing the tasks and getting on with things together.  I’d want it no other way.  I am so lucky.  I always wanted to be a hands-on Dad.  I knew I’d be changing nappies, rocking her to sleep and generally being helpful around the place.  That’s the kind of person I am and the kind of Dad I want to be.”

During the early months, Lee often got to see Betsy when he arrived home from an evening performance.  She’d be having her 11pm feed and he relished those precious moments with her.

“I’d get to see her in that lovely sleepy state after milk and I’d play with her gently for a while before putting her back to bed.  I love playing Dad.  Those first few months of her life are so precious.  I am lucky enough that everything has fitted in perfectly with work to allow me to see her so much.”

Being able to spend so much time with Betsy is vital to Lee, but there are great demands on his time as a professional especially as he forges ahead with a solo music career.

“I have friends that say that I am working too hard.  I’ve become a father, doing a concert tour, performing in Wicked eight shows a week.  But I believe that it’s when you slow down that you get tired.  I’ll keeping going while I can.  I’ll slow down when I retire!  I’ve got a mortgage to pay, a family to support and nappies to buy!”

Lee’s philosophy on life is to always work hard, he simply can’t help himself.

“It’s the only way.  I have always done my very best no matter what I am doing.  I learned that attitude from my parents.  They worked very hard for me when I was young and I do the same now to support my own family.”

He still recalls his humble beginnings and describes the horrors of singing on a cruise ship to an audience of 30 often drunk and disinterested people.

“I worked on the Pride of Bilbao.  It was my first paid job and I was really excited about it.  Getting the job was the happiest moment of my life!  At last I was going to be paid to sing.  The reality was a bit more unsavoury, but it was money that paid for college so I am still grateful for that start.”

That start has led him to headlining London’s hottest show: Wicked.  It’s the largest grossing musical in the West End with record-breaking attendance figures and a host of awards to its credit.

“It’s an incredible musical,” he enthuses. “It’s big; it’s bold; it’s stunning to watch and my character, Fiyero, has some great songs.  I feel very lucky to have the role and it means I can still tour in my own show too, which is just brilliant.  I get to sing some great numbers in the concert and the audience’s reception is always overwhelming!”

Lee is originally from Essex where he lived with his brother and parents in Southend-on-Sea.  I suggest he doesn’t sound like an Essex Boy.  “I suppose I’ve lost my accent,” he laughs.  “But I’ve not lived there for years so it just slipped away.  When I’m angry or had a few drinks though, it slips back in.”

Things are very different now.  Lee and Denise live in a pretty 17th century farmhouse in rural Kent and have a flat in London.  He is adapting to the country life and they are enjoying exploring the surrounding villages and country pubs when they have time.

“I think living in the country you notice things more, like wildlife and trees,” he says.  “One reason we chose Kent was because it’s near to London.  I can get up to the theatre quickly and still spend most of the morning at home.”

Despite his celebrity, Lee insists he is a, “simple guy, with simple pleasures”.  He says he loves just being at home with Denise and Betsy.  “It may sound boring, but that’s how I spend my time off: just hanging out with my family.  You need to wind down at the weekend and I like doing nothing much at all, if I can help it.”

He says he enjoys a glass of good red wine of an evening. “I do like meeting up with friends over a nice meal.  That is happening less these days, of course,” he laughs, “But, I don’t mind.

“Going out for a walk has a whole new meaning when you have a baby. Walking with a pram is much more enjoyable than going on your own.  It’s funny, because before Betsy, I thought I was quite busy.  Since having her, I really can’t remember what I even did before or how I filled my time!”

Lee seems to have taken to the role as father with a wholehearted enthusiasm.  He says he did buy lots of parenting books prior to her arrival.  Is it how he imagined?

“Yes, yes it is.  It’s lovely.  It’s what I wanted for a long time and I am so grateful.  It’s hard work at times, but you don’t seem to mind.  She’s bought us a lot of joy.  I have learned skills I would never have thought I’d ever manage to master: how to burp a baby, how to change a nappy.  Now that’s part of my day job!”

Betsy was nicknamed Teapot before she was born.  He laughs at the idea.  “It’s funny, because people kept asking what we were going to call her and a little friend of ours who is about 3, said we should name her Teapot and it stuck!”

Lee and Denise have shielded Betsy from the press as much as they can.  They had one official family photo taken and donated all the royalties to The Louis Dundas Centre for Children’s Palliative Care at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

“Having just become parents ourselves, we were so grateful to have Betsy that we decided to donate all the fees for using the picture to a charity helping children.  We thought it was the right thing to do.  When she is older we will explain why and she will know that it helped other little children like her.”