By Alison Boshoff
Dawn French when she was larger-than-life (left), and looking stunning this week (right) at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards 2011 in Berkeley Square, London
Berkeley Square Gardens, that small shred of green in the grey heart of old Mayfair, was in quite a hubbub when Glamour magazine held its Women Of The Year awards on Tuesday night.
There were knots of photographers outside the marquee and within huddles of the famous and nearly famous, drinking champagne and gossiping beneath the chandeliers with glowing lavender lights.
One figure, though, attracted all the attention.
It was Dawn French, dressed as usual in black from head to toe, a diminutive 5ft in a room full of towering supermodels and slender actresses.
Everyone did a double take. Gone was the heavy double chin beneath her heart-shaped face.
Instead, her cheekbones were in evidence. Her hair had been freshly coiffed by hairdresser Errol Douglas in Belgravia and was decidedly glossy.
It was clear that a substantial portion of the weight she had carried — proudly — for years was gone.
She glowed with a tan, which she explained had been picked up by sitting in the early summer sunshine in her garden in Cornwall.
Complimented on her weight loss, she smiled and said simply that she had been ‘trying to be a little healthier’ recently.
Wedding day: Lenny Henry with Dawn after they were married at St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden
Some friends say that she has lost five stone; others insist the total is nearer to three. I’m told she is now a size 18 or ‘a 16 on a good day’.
Before, she was at least a size 24. But how has she done it? And why?
Of course, some women do lose dramatic amounts of weight on the back of a divorce — and Dawn was divorced only last year from her husband of 25 years, Lenny Henry.
But the actual separation came long ago, at the close of 2009 — they had already been leading separate lives by the time it was announced in April 2010.
And in that period, as she and Lenny formalised the dismantling of their romantic partnership, she was the heaviest she had ever been.
Fuelled apparently by the misery of the break-up, her already considerable weight went up and up, rather than down.
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Gossips on the internet suggest this new dramatic weight loss has happened the Fern Britton way — in other words, with the aid of a gastric band.
But Dawn’s spokesman, Neil Reading, sternly denies that this is the case.
‘That’s utter rubbish,’ he snorts. ‘It’s just healthy eating.’
Mr Reading, who says his client has not been following any of the diets like Atkins or Dukan, insists that Dawn has lost the weight for no other reason than a desire to become fitter.
‘It’s nothing to do with her and Lenny,’ he said, ‘nor is it because she has a new man, because she hasn’t. And it’s not on doctor’s orders or anything like that.’
How curious. Something, though, has persuaded Dawn to totally change the way she eats. And it would seem that fears over her health have played a part.
It is no secret in the showbusiness world that Dawn was huffing and puffing, even when walking relatively short distances.
Whereas once she would tuck into platefuls of salty chips and cook huge meals for herself and Lenny, washed down with gin and tonics, followed by wine, now she dines simply on an omelette and green salad.
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In the old days, she had a particular weakness for eating chocolates on the sofa while watching TV. Indeed, Lenny used to regard bringing the chocolate to his wife as his spousal duty. ‘I never do television without chocolate,’ she declared. ‘That’s my motto and I live by it.’
She doesn’t keep a supply of chocolate in the house any more — and, of course, there is no Lenny to bring it to her anyway. Staff have noticed that she barely visits the catering truck on the set of the second series of BBC sitcom Roger And Val Have Just Got In.
People who know Dawn say that she is in a defiant phase. She believes that reaching 50 has been a major watershed in her life and now feels ‘more powerful’ and ‘wiser’ than ever before. And so, after a lifetime of earnestly explaining why being overweight was her choice — and the right one, too — she has changed her mind.
As for her fear of mortality, Dawn now talks about feeling like she is a ‘stayer’ like her mother, who is in her 80s, and her grandmother who lived to be 100.But if she is to live to a long age, Dawn reasons that she had better get into shape.
Diet and fitness expert Laura Williams says: ‘There is a difference between being morbidly obese and being curvy — and Dawn French was morbidly obese.
‘When you get that big you are living with daily pain in your joints and putting your cardiovascular system under great strain.’
That much must have been obvious to a woman as intelligent as Dawn. So who can blame her for wanting to lose weight?
For now, in her daily life, she is mostly alone, a single woman living in a magnificent 40-room house in Fowey, Cornwall, overlooking the sea. She sits and writes pretty much every day. They almost never see her in the village.
Her silver Range Rover sits behind the high gates of her clifftop house day in, day out, and locals mutter that she is ‘very private’ and likes to ‘keep herself to herself’.
Largely, her only company is her housekeeper, who lives in self-contained quarters in the house, although she is very close to her mother, Roma, and her brother, Gary, who both live locally.
She is working on a second novel, the follow up to her successful A Tiny Bit Marvellous.
Meanwhile, her 19-year-old daughter, Billie, is living in the old marital home in Reading, Berkshire, with Lenny Henry. I’m told she has a job in the area — something connected to horses — and so it suits her to live with her father. He is studying screenwriting and preparing to appear in Shakespeare’s Comedy Of Errors at the Olivier Theatre in London this autumn.
It’s all rather sad. The whole family moved to Cornwall in 2008 and put the Reading home up for sale, first for £3 million and then for £2.3 million.
They only had a single Christmas together there before the marriage ended the following year. Lenny took various paintings and bits of furniture out of storage and quietly moved back into their former home in Reading.
The word is that Dawn cut the cord of the relationship after some indiscretion on Lenny’s part, which was judged to be beyond the pale.
He was, famously, caught out having late-night conversations with hotel receptionist Merri Cheyne in 1999, which caused ructions in their marriage.
In her 2008 autobiography, Dear Fatty, Dawn hinted at infidelities on both sides, writing that they were both ‘flawed and weak’ and had been ‘tempted often’.
She revealed in an interview that year that the Cheyne affair had been something so minor that they would not normally have felt it necessary to discuss it.
It seems the marriage worked on a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ basis when it came to infidelity.
In public, they have both declined to discuss why the marriage ended.
Dawn says that she is proud to have made the union last for 25 years. Lenny concludes, rather more morosely: ‘It’s just the way it is. We are still good friends.’
And now, trailing more than a year behind, comes her reinvention.
Her weight — and issues around it — have been significant since she was a teenager.
She vividly recalls her father, Denys, telling her how beautiful she was at 13 —
this was the ‘armour’ of body confidence she says she always wore since.
Dawn says that her natural body shape is ‘teeny and wide, like a Weeble’. She briefly slimmed to a size 12 before her 1984 wedding, using diet pills, but said she felt ill and Lenny didn’t even like her that way, so she went straight back up to an 18 and beyond.
‘I can honestly say it doesn’t bother me, though I do worry that I’ll get so uncomfortably fat that I won’t be able to walk any more,’ she said.
An old friend tells me: ‘They were a very sociable couple and loved to entertain and there was always just so much food about. I have seen Dawn match Lenny mouthful for mouthful.’
Not any more.
The new Dawn, as everyone who met her on Tuesday night will attest, is a very happy one indeed.