Primetime provocateur: how Amanda Holden became TV's most complained about woman

Michael Hogan
·10-min read
Britain personified: Amanda Holden  - Dymond/Thames/Syco/Shutterstock
Britain personified: Amanda Holden - Dymond/Thames/Syco/Shutterstock

Most of us didn’t develop any sort of opinion about Amanda Holden until 2002, during the second series of Celebrity Big Brother - and Holden wasn’t even in it.

Her then-husband Les Dennis was a housemate and spent the entire 10-day series moping around in a state of self-pitying despair because his wife had left him. They’d split temporarily two years before when Holden's affair with actor Neil Morrissey (living up to his Men Behaving Badly image) was exposed by the tabloids. The married couple reconciled before breaking up again, this time permanently.

Dennis spent much of his time in the house talking to the chickens, audibly breaking wind or staring glumly into space. Holden, 17 years his junior, wasn’t there to greet him when he left the house. The Family Fortunes host later said “my marriage ended live on TV” and described his stint on the reality show as "not one of my wisest moves”.

The public disagreed and voted him into second place behind Take That’s Mark Owen. Safe to say that everyone sided with poor Les and dismissed Holden as an ice-cold heartbreaker.

Watch: Amanda Holden sends dancers through to BGT final

Fast forward 18 years, however, and Holden is a ubiquitous showbiz force of nature. She’s published a number one bestselling memoir, hosts a hit radio show and is currently head judge on a primetime Saturday night talent franchise. This week, mere months before turning 50, she released her debut album, a collection of showtunes called Songs From My Heart. It has already sold out on Amazon, looking bound to be a chart-topper and Christmas stocking-filler.

It’s an unusual career trajectory for such a seemingly ordinary character. So how did this ITV mainstay and West End hoofer go from hated home-wrecker to all-conquering, multi-discipline phenomenon? Not to mention the most complained-about woman on TV?

Holden had humble beginnings in Hampshire, with a father who walked out when she was four. She worked part-time jobs from age 13. Yet stage school-trained Amanda Louise Holden always seemed set for stardom. She just didn’t know which sort.

Her screen debut came aged 19 as an unsuccessful contestant on Blind Date. She shocked Cilla Black but amused the audience by referring to her potential paramour’s “pudgy bits” and said her ideal partner was Jack Nicholson because she liked “experienced, mature men”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she didn’t get picked.

Indeed, Holden’s early TV career was notable mainly for near-misses. She screen-tested for the much-loved role of Tiffany Mitchell in EastEnders but Martine McCutcheon was cast instead. She auditioned for the female lead opposite Ewan McGregor in Dennis Potter’s Lipstick On Your Collar but Louise Germaine got the gig.

With characteristic persistence, Holden did soon start landing parts of her own, albeit mainly in forgettable sitcoms. There was The Grimleys (as a sexy teacher called Miss Titley), Kiss Me Kate (as a therapist’s receptionist) and notorious flop Big Top (as ringmistress in a terminally unfunny circus).

Post-Les Dennis, her new-found notoriety meant Holden’s career cranked up a gear. She played a scheming salon owner in BBC hairdressing drama Cutting It, upon which she formed firm friendships with co-stars Sarah Parish and Angela Griffin. Together with fellow actresses Lisa Faulkner and Tamzin Outhwaite, they remain something of a white wine-guzzling, Babington House-frequenting girl gang. “I pray for sunshine so I can crack open the rosé,” says Holden.

Amanda Holden judging the semi-finals of Britain's Got Talent 2020 - Rex
Amanda Holden judging the semi-finals of Britain's Got Talent 2020 - Rex

Moving freely between stage and screen, Holden was Olivier Award-nominated for the West End production of Thoroughly Modern Millie and won awards for her turn as Princess Fiona in Shrek The Musical (complete with unflattering green face). She starred alongside Stephen Tompkinson in ITV’s Sunday night vets-on-safari drama Wild At Heart for three series, until her character was killed off by a bushfire. Luckier than it might sound, because Holden was about to get her biggest break yet.

In 2007, Holden profited from someone else’s marital strife for a change. Girls Aloud’s Cheryl Tweedy was lined to be a judge on Simon Cowell’s new shiny-floored contest Britain’s Got Talent but bailed out at the last minute in a doomed bid to save her marriage to footballer Ashley Cole. (She would join sister show The X Factor the following year instead.)

Holden was her 11th hour replacement, hopping behind the judging desk alongside Cowell and Piers Morgan. With typical tenacity, she made a role intended for someone else entirely her own. She cried, clapped with delight and cackled with laughter, adding warmth and emotion to contrast with the panel’s pair of Mr Nasties.

By the second series, BGT got its watercooler moment with the spine-tingling audition of Susan Boyle. It went viral worldwide and so did Holden’s reaction, from disbelieving smile to awestruck standing ovation. She was self-aware enough to apologise to “Su-Bo” for pre-judging her and described it as “a wake-up call”.

Holden was also savvy to strike up a close friendship with head honcho Cowell, becoming his trusted confidante. So closely has her success become aligned with the talent show svengali that nobody was terribly surprised five years ago when she guested on the Graham Norton Show and unveiled a tattoo of Cowell’s face on her thigh. Thankfully, it was a prank. The ink wasn’t permanent.

BGT is now onto its 14th series with Holden as the panel’s only ever-present - hence being made head judge in Cowell’s absence through injury, much to David Walliams’ hammed-up annoyance. Computer says no.

Five years after divorcing Les Dennis, Holden married record producer Chris Hughes. They have two daughters, Lexi and Hollie, but it hasn’t all been hearts and flowers. Their son Theo was stillborn at seven months, which led to medical complications with Hollie’s birth. A labour Holden has described as “traumatic” left both mother and daughter fighting for their lives. Holden was in a coma and flatlined. Her heart stopped beating for 40 seconds.

Les Dennis and Amanda Holden marrying in May 2000
Les Dennis and Amanda Holden marrying in May 2000

She and Chris were both later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder which still triggers periods of intense anxiety for Holden. Another scary time came in 2016, when her younger sister Debbie survived a serious car crash. This is partly why Holden praises our health service at every opportunity. On Saturday night’s BGT semi-final, she paid warm tribute to singing nurse Beth Porch as “a credit to the job you do and a credit to humanity”.

She donated the profits from her debut single, a version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, to NHS Charities Together. She set up Theo’s Hope, a fund providing bereavement counsellors to UK maternity units, and fronted a Dispatches documentary about the treatment for stillbirths and miscarriages. She also undertakes copious charity work, mainly for children’s, animal and breast cancer causes.

Holden might use her public platform for good but she’s the opposite of woke and worthy, with a near-the-knuckle sense of humour (she says laughter is the secret to her happy marriage) and a flair for glam-but-accessible fashion. She's forever sparking controversy for her plunging BGT frocks. Last weekend’s barely-there gown prompted 235 Ofcom complaints and led viewers to ask whether she’d suffered a wardrobe malfunction.

Amanda Holden's controversial 2017 Britain's Got Talent dress - ITV/Syco
Amanda Holden's controversial 2017 Britain's Got Talent dress - ITV/Syco

Two series ago, a plunging Julien Macdonald number got triple that number. ITV execs have now installed a panel of producers to check her chest area and sign it off before cameras start rolling. “I’ve had so many complaints, my t___ have their own committee,” she joked.

Holden - who is 49 but looks a decade younger, admitting it’s Botox-aided - became an unlikely style hero during lockdown. She used her daily commute to Heart FM, where she co-hosts the breakfast show with her old pal Jamie Theakston, to remind her social media followers (she has 1.9m on Twitter and another 1.5m on Instagram) of the joys of dressing up, documenting a different outfit each morning.

She poked fun at herself by wearing a wedding dress to mow the lawn and a ballgown to take out the bins, both pics going viral. Cannily, she mixes designer labels with high street pieces and ensures she usually wears British brands. For a celebrity so mainstream, Holden gets serious style kudos.

Holden is refreshingly outspoken, giving as good as she gets to Cowell or anyone else. In fact, she was trash-talking divisive daytime TV stalwart Philip Schofield before it became all the rage - but only after he seemingly betrayed her.

Holden had done regular stand-in stints as Schofield’s co-host on This Morning. For six years, the pair compéred A Night of Heroes: The Sun Military Awards together. When Holly Willoughby took a break from This Morning to present I’m A Celebrity in Ant McPartlin’s absence, Holden was poised to fill in again - until Schofield allegedly scuppered it for her.

Amanda Holden leaving Heart Radio in September 2020 - Getty
Amanda Holden leaving Heart Radio in September 2020 - Getty

Holden reportedly complained to ITV bosses after hearing that Schofield had alleged she was “difficult to manage”, which seems, ahem, a little rich. They’ve been at loggerheads ever since. Holden extended an olive branch, offering to meet Schofield for a clear-the-air coffee, but she says he didn’t reply to her text.

Reports of a toxic behind-the-scenes atmosphere and a formal complaint from Ruth Langsford appear to back up Holden’s claims. With typically tongue-in-cheek humour, she was asked during an interview to name three things she’d hate to find in her home and listed: “Spiders, flies and Phillip Schofield.”

Reflecting on the backlash from the Neil Morrissey infidelity, Holden has said: "Women don’t have affairs for sex. You’re not happy in your marriage if you seek affirmation somewhere else. What angers me is that if I was a man, it [the negative coverage] would’ve all ended years ago. I’m not like this slapper. I was engaged twice. I was a relationship girl.”

Such double standards apply to Holden generally. She’s often written off as ruthlessly ambitious or a calculating careerist - qualities which rarely get ascribed to high-profile men. She might be a skilled self-publicist but she realises her TV shelf-life is likely to be limited, so is probably wise to wring every ounce from her fame while she still can.

She also gets snootily dismissed as tabloid fodder, thanks to the Les Dennis saga and her Cowell connections. Yet she’s an all-rounder who’s proved a success in every field she’s turned her hand to. She can sing, dance, present, act, is naturally funny and possesses crowd-pleasing instincts.

To dislike Amanda Holden is to dislike ourselves because in many ways, she’s Britain personified: wryly witty, solidly middlebrow, right-leaning politically, proudly patriotic, prone to sentimentality and a proper grafter. A survivor and thriver who makes the most of every opportunity.

Holden learned her keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude from her “feisty and fabulous” grandmother Ethel, a former ice-cream factory worker. When she died aged 97 in 2018, Holden was devastated. “My nan was my biggest inspiration,” she says, adding that their family mantra is: “Speak up, speak out and be strong.”

Sure, she’s made a little go a long way but according to everyone who meets her, she’s utterly charming and an absolute hoot. By all accounts, Holden is a gratifyingly indiscreet gossip too - always an admirable quality in a celebrity.

As for Les Dennis? He’s since remarried, had two children and hasn’t been spotted talking to a chicken in years. Happy endings all round.

Watch: Viewers flood to Ofcom to complain about Gogglebox