Watch: Claire Sweeney on empowering herself by sharing paparazzi bikini pictures
As a star of both British TV and the West End stage for 30 years, actor Claire Sweeney is used to being photographed in public.
“You put your head above the parapet – everyone's fair game,” she told Kate Thornton on podcast White Wine Question Time, referring to her initial experience of the paparazzi.
“That's the way I was conditioned for all the 90s… ‘Oh God, they got me.’”
Yet, while on a beach holiday in January this year, the former star of Channel 4’s Brookside decided, finally, to challenge the culture of publication of unauthorised beach shots of female celebrities.
The incident happened in Barbados, while Sweeney holidayed with friends and her eight-year-old son Jaxon.
Initially, Sweeney explained, she believed she had escaped the paparazzi who’d snapped her on previous visits to the Caribbean island.
“I was sat with my mate on the beach… we’re both 51,” Sweeney told Thornton. “And I went to her, ‘I haven't been papped – it's great!’”
The illusion led the actor to lower her guard.
“I can walk down the beach without being paranoid – I can go and have a swim!" she thought cheerfully at the time, glad she wouldn’t be “having to think I've got to pull my swimsuit out my bum!”
Sweeney took the opportunity to have some relaxed fun with her son.
“And I'm laughing in the sea, and the tide’s coming – I'm getting washed all over the place, I’m like a beached whale,” she joked. “My son's laughing… we're having an absolute ball.”
She paused. “And then the pictures appeared...”
Sweeney had unknowingly been snapped by paparazzi in a bikini.
Her first response, she revealed, was “not wanting to leave my sun lounger”. She “covered [up]” in a “one-piece”, and only returned to the sea with Jackson when she was sure they were alone.
Yet the photography continued.
“He must have been hiding in the sea… with his camera,” she said.
Sweeney’s initial hope about the photographs was that “no one’s seen them.”
Then, she changed her mind.
Sweeney, who starred with Patrick Swayze in the stage show of Guys And Dolls, decided instead to “face my worst fear and put [the photographs] out there”.
She published the images on her Instagram account.
“I thought, I'm going to put myself raw, unashamed of that, and just have some sort of ownership over it,” she told Thornton.
“I’m 51, I’ve had a ball, I’ve had loads of rum punch,” she continued, referring to the holiday. “I’ve had loads of plantain and rice and peas, and this is me, and I’m just going to own it.”
Sweeney wrote on Instagram: “I’ve put these pics up to take control and own my body image. This is me having a bloody brilliant holiday! With a bit of flab and a few lumps and bumps.”
Her decision to “own” the images of herself in swimwear, led to an outpouring of unexpected support.
“I couldn't believe how positive the comments were,” she said.
It included private messages from other celebrities, including an actor who confided that she had been too “traumatised” to return to Barbados following the same experience.
Listen to the full episode to hear Claire Sweeney talk about clubbing at 50, partying with Hollywood legends Liza Minnelli and Jane Russell, and hosting this year's Eurovision Song Contest
Sweeney told Thornton that this was the “first time” she’d taken control in “that type of area” but that her confidence to say “no” generally is now growing in her 50s.
“Taking back power is learning to say no to things,” she continued, “not feeling you have to conform, not feeling you have to please all the time – and I think that's just coming with age as well.”
Like many actors, Sweeney admitted, she previously had “this mindset [that] every job you do… you think it's the last job you're ever gonna get.”
“I was always chasing and looking for the next job.”
Now that has now changed.
“Just in this last year, I've been saying no,” she revealed. “I've kind of gained a bit more of a quiet confidence in who I am, what I can do, and my abilities.”
Not that this decision is stopping her star from soaring.
This May, she joins the presenting and commentary line-up for the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest in her native Liverpool, alongside Graham Norton, Alesha Dixon, Rylan and Hannah Waddingham.
Then in September, Sweeney will appear in a new TV drama.
The actor told Thornton she now takes roles that “make me happy, things that stretch me” but also allow her to spend maximum time with her son Jackson, who she conceived after four miscarriages.
“Other things come into play with my boy now, and he's just made me put things in perspective,” she said. “Slow down, stop, and just enjoy things more.”