Why Hollywood’s finally woken up to the… Wonder of Waddingham: A figure like Monroe’s, a voice to rival Maria Callas – but the most astonishing thing about Hannah Waddingham’s rise is that it’s taken her 30 YEARS
Wielding a glue gun in her sparkly party frock and slugging white wine as she sticks wads of cotton wool to a cardboard snowman, the actress Hannah Waddingham perfectly embodies the chaotic Christmas juggle so many women face every year.
She’s tipsy and tousle-haired, has kicked her stilettos off her weary feet and – oops! – there’s cotton wool in her wine. We’ve all been there, Hannah – and it’s not hard to believe that she has, too.
For the 49-year-old London-born actress, the face of this year’s festive M&S advert, is fast becoming a national treasure: relatable, down-to-earth and quintessentially British.
She dazzled six months ago, co-presenting the Eurovision Song Contest: a flawless, live, four-hour performance, and much of it in fluent French.
Previously, she starred in Ted Lasso, the awardwinning TV comedy about an American managing an English football team, as well as Game Of Thrones, Sex Education and Benidorm – and boasts two decades (and three Olivier nominations) on Broadway and the West End.
Hannah Waddingham is tipsy and tousle-haired, has kicked her stilettos off her weary feet and – oops! – there’s cotton wool in her wine
For the 49-year-old London-born actress, the face of this year’s festive M&S advert (pictured), is fast becoming a national treasure: relatable, down-to-earth and quintessentially British.
Yet while her star was in the ascendant on stage and screen, behind the scenes her personal life had hit a brick wall. In a relationship with Italian hotelier Gianluca Cugnetto from 2012, she was told aged 38 that there was ‘no chance’ of having a baby due to a low egg count. Pictured: As Lilli Vanessi in Kiss Me Kate at the Chichester Festival Theatre, 2012
A statuesque 5ft 11in, with an hourglass figure befitting Marilyn Monroe and a singing voice that could rival Maria Callas, you’d think Hannah would be hard to miss.
And yet a household name she was not – until this year.
On top of the exposure M&S’s ad campaign inevitably brings (with a row about an outtake showing burning paper hats that some online critics claimed resembled the Palestinian flag), Hannah is due to host the glitzy Earthshot Prize with Prince William next week, as well as front a Christmas musical spectacular from the London Coliseum.
READ MORE: Hannah Waddingham is the new Queen of Christmas! Ted Lasso star, 48, is the face of TWO festive adverts
She is also the face of the drinks firm Baileys’ festive ad, and, next summer, stars in the latest Mission: Impossible film alongside Tom Cruise.
It seems the showbiz world has finally woken up to the Wonder of Waddingham.
More impressively, she combines her professional life with being a single mum to daughter Kitty, eight, whom she describes as ‘my greatest achievement’.
The Mail on Sunday has spoken to teachers and long-time friends, who all agree that Hannah was destined to be a star, even though it took the world three decades to recognise her as such.
Fiona Smith, her first-year form tutor at the £21,000-a-year all girls Streatham and Clapham High School, says it was ‘obvious from the start that she had the potential to be quite impressive’.
Fiona recalls: ‘It helped that, even at 11, she was tall and striking with a confident, but by no means pushy, manner. She was a natural leader. She was gregarious, very good-humoured, willing to please and generally pretty keen. I wouldn’t say she was especially studious but she worked hard and achieved good results.’
At languages, in particular, Hannah was a whizz – her old French teacher, Margaret Bailey, remembers her fondly (and even got a mention at Eurovision when Hannah said her ‘French teacher would be so proud’ after co-host Alesha Dixon complimented her language skills).
Hannah is due to host the glitzy Earthshot Prize with Prince William next week, as well as front a Christmas musical spectacular from the London Coliseum
She is also the face of the drinks firm Baileys’ festive ad, and, next summer, stars in the latest Mission: Impossible film alongside Tom Cruise
She describes the cast, including Jason Sudeikis and Juno Temple, as ‘my family’. Pictured: Hannah and Juno
Fiona Smith remembers Hannah’s prowess at sports, music and drama. ‘She was obviously talented but I think the star quality developed later. She was a great team player. ‘She was a committed member of various choirs at school and took part in school productions.’
One was Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when, at 14, Hannah played Macduff, who kills the usurper king – a performance her father has described as ‘unbelievable’. ‘She had the place in tears,’ he said.
‘It was amazing, I’ll never forget it.’ But her teenage years weren’t all plain sailing. Hannah has spoken about being bullied for her height.
‘At school they called me ‘lanky freak’. I was badly bullied by some girls who were two years below me, who also presumed that I came from a wealthy family – which I certainly didn’t – and mocked me endlessly.’
After secondary school, Hannah attended the now-closed Academy of Live and Recorded Arts in South London, where she developed her impressive four octave vocal range.
Her professional stage debut was in California in an improvised theatre show, gaining raucous reviews that led her back to Britain and the West End, where a role was created for her in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Beautiful Game in 2000.
Actor Michael McKell, who worked with her on stage and in film and has been a friend for 20 years, describes her as an incredible talent: ‘When they say the cream will always rise to the top, this woman embodies the phrase,’ he told the MoS.
‘She’s not famous for courting fame or fame by association, but famous for being talented, funny, beautiful and her own woman.’ Hannah’s parents, Harry and Melodie, have spoken about how she hadn’t even started school when she revealed her thespian ambitions.
The actress credits her dad, a retired marketing director and former model, with teaching her to stand up for herself
Hannah Waddingham posing by a Christmas tree at a screening of the M&S festive advert
‘She was four when she told us that she wanted to be an actor – that was her dream,’ Harry, 82, has said. The couple still live in the house in Wandsworth, South London, where Hannah and her elder brother grew up.
The actress credits her dad, a retired marketing director and former model, with teaching her to stand up for herself.
She calls him ‘a very traditional, truly English gentleman’, adding in a recent interview: ‘He’s always told me to speak my mind, even when one of his friends made a slightly inappropriate comment to me when I was 12 years old. I called him out on it, and my dad heard it and said to his friend, ‘Well, that’s made you look stupid, hasn’t it?’ To his own friend! ‘I could see my dad giving him a steely glare. I thought, ‘My dad’s got my back.’
But it’s her mother, Melodie, 80, who introduced her to the world of showbusiness. An opera singer, she was principal at the Royal Opera House, followed by the English National Opera for 30 years.
Describing her as a ‘massive influence’, Hannah has said: ‘She taught me from an early age about unswerving, passionate graft and how they are completely interlocked.’
READ MORE: She’s a Barbie girl! Hannah Waddingham’s no-nonsense Ted Lasso character is transformed into the iconic Mattel doll
She was nominated for an Olivier as the Lady of the Lake in Monty Python’s Spamalot and in 2015 reached global audiences in fantasy series Game Of Thrones as the so-called ‘shame nun’ Septa Unella – a gruelling role that included a waterboarding scene, leaving Hannah with aquaphobia (but also legions of adoring fans around the world).
Yet while her star was in the ascendant on stage and screen, behind the scenes her personal life had hit a brick wall. In a relationship with Italian hotelier Gianluca Cugnetto from 2012, she was told aged 38 that there was ‘no chance’ of having a baby due to a low egg count.
Refusing to give up, she turned to Eastern medicine, had acupuncture and Reiki sessions – and became pregnant the following year, leaving the maternity hospital with Kitty on her 40th birthday.
Her relationship with Gianluca, who manages a five-star resort in Croatia, ended in 2016 – but they remain friends. ‘It felt like the rug was pulled from underneath me, but I had to make the decision not to be weakened by it,’ she has said of the break-up.
‘I distinctly remember feeling like my daughter and I were on an upturned dustbin lid, like a flying saucer, holding on for dear life – until the waters were calmer.’ Her Instagram account, which has almost a million followers, is full of snaps of the pair walking hand-in-hand (taken from behind to preserve Kitty’s anonymity), feeding animals at the zoo and of tiny shoes lined up next to her mother’s in the hallway.
Journalist Judith Zerdin, who spent a week in Cornwall on a family holiday with Hannah and Kitty, found her to be ‘a genuinely warm, big-hearted person’. ‘I remember spending an afternoon in Padstow with her and people turning their heads to look as we walked past – that might also have been because she’s very tall and striking, even off set.
‘She was very grounded and down-to-earth. We swapped stories about the joys and challenges of parenting, of bringing up daughters and of WhatsApp groups. ‘She’s got a huge but very likeable personality and a great sense of humour.’
Solo parenting hasn’t been easy, however. In 2018, the actress was working in Belfast when Kitty fell seriously ill with a rare autoimmune disease and was rushed to hospital.
Hannah wasn’t able to fly back until the following morning. It was then she told her agent she wouldn’t take on any work that required her to be away from her daughter.
From left, Hannah Waddingham, Jason Sudeikis and Brett Goldstein arrive at the season three premiere of ‘Ted Lasso in March 2023
Two weeks later, Hannah got the call for Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso, in which she plays divorced football club boss Rebecca Welton – and was filmed just 20 minutes from her London home. Call it fate, good fortune, or simply the result of decades of hard slog, her moment in the spotlight had finally arrived.
Three critically acclaimed series, two Emmy awards and a reported salary of £120,000 per episode later, it was the launchpad for global superstardom.
She describes the cast, including Jason Sudeikis and Juno Temple, as ‘my family’, and has praised them for supporting her through parental illness (her father had open heart surgery during filming last year) and personal trials.
Fans the world over, meanwhile, love the fact that Hannah doesn’t look or act like a ‘typical’ actress. She’s not in her 20s or a size six, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind.
Her self-deprecating frankness comes out in interviews. When told recently that she resembled an old-school screen siren, she retorted: ‘Have you any idea how many lights and zhooshy b******* goes into making me look like this?’
As Michael McKell puts it: ‘In this world of the gushing, air-kissing and social media dancing of those craving a blue tick of recognition, she is the real deal.’
Her old teacher Fiona Smith remembers seeing Hannah when she hosted a prize-giving at the school – and seemed genuinely thrilled to be back.
‘There was nothing of the luvvie about her – no airs or graces or expectation of special treatment,’ she adds.
Hannah is still single, describing herself as a ‘picky’ dater – and has obliquely referred to ridding herself and her daughter of ‘toxic male dominance’ in a previous relationship.
She surrounds herself with family and spends her spare time practising ‘breathwork’, a calming inhalation strategy to help deal with stress.
She keeps her Emmy awards in Kitty’s bedroom, to remind her ‘that Mummy will only ever be away when it’s for a really, blooming good reason’.
With Hollywood calling – she stars not only in Mission: Impossible but a thriller with Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt, out next year – those reasons are starting to mount up.
According to Hannah’s father: ‘She always said that she didn’t want to be an overnight success, that she wanted a career that was going to last and last.’ All the signs are that the multitalented Hannah Waddingham will get her wish.
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