Big Brother, bruises, and our beloved Bernie

Coleen Nolan
Coleen Nolan
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Coleen Nolan hesitates before she answers.

It’s understandable. I’ve just asked if it is getting any easier coping with the death of her beloved sister Bernie from breast cancer last year.

Bernie, lead singer on The Nolan Sisters’ biggest hit I’m In The Mood For Dancing, was 52 when she died. Coleen is three years younger.

“It is odd,” she eventually replies. “I can be absolutely fine and I can be busy... then the slightest thing sets me off.

“I can see something and think Bernie would love that, and then it hits me Bernie is never going to see it. It comes unexpectedly.

“I suppose because Bernie lived in Surrey, and I didn’t see or speak to her every day, there is a part of me that goes ‘it’s OK, she’s still in Surrey’. It is only if I go to pick the phone up or there is a family get-together and she is not there ... that’s when it hits the most.”

Coleen grew up in Blackpool, on Waterloo Road in South Shore. Guided by ambitious singing parents Tommy and Maureen, she was performing in nightclubs with the rest of her sisters – Bernie, Anne, Denise, Maureen and Linda – while she was still at primary school.

The Nolans had a string of hits in the 1980s and enjoyed worldwide fame. Coleen is the Nolan still most in the public eye – a presenter on ITV’s Loose Women for the last decade and more.

She is talking to me to promote her new autobiography, No Regrets. It comes only five years after a first, Upfront and Personal.

She felt the need to write another because, as she puts it, “such a lot has happened over the last few years”, before adding with trademark Northern honesty “and because I was asked to.”

The book deals with all sorts of things, from her bruising time on Dancing On Ice to her bruising encounters with Julie Goodyear in the Celebrity Big Brother House (to say they didn’t get on is an understatement akin to saying David Moyes has had a dodgy year at Manchester United).

But at its heart is the loss of her big sister.

She says putting all her feelings and emotions onto paper has helped.

“It was very therapeutic and, as cheesy as it sounds, cathartic to be able to write my feelings down, especially because we had to hold so much in when Bernie was ill and when she died,” she confided.

Though Bernie lost her fight against breast cancer – that had first struck in 2010, returning two years later – it wasn’t without a fight.

“She was stronger than all of us in that period towards the end,” Coleen added.

“She was still laughing and joking and being feisty Bernie. The weekend before she died she was up till 2am playing charades with my sister and her husband and some friends.

“So she fought it right till the end. She was never going to give up until she had no fight left.

“We were all with her at the end. I have to say it was very peaceful. She passed away in her sleep.”

Bernie died last July. She had fallen ill months before at the birthday party of her sister Linda in Blackpool.

“She went into hospital, and within a couple of days they told us she had two weeks to live,” said Coleen.

“They moved her to Trinity Hospice. I’d never been in a hospice until Bernie went in there. I suppose I had a preconceived idea that they were really depressing awful places that people go to die. And it was so different. The opposite. They were fantastic at Trinity, and they couldn’t do enough for Bernie or the rest of us.

“Nothing was too much trouble and they made her really comfy.

“We all spent the two weeks there with her, saying our goodbyes. She had organised everything ... and then we got a phone call to say ‘oh we can solve what is up with her’, and you get that ‘oh my god she is going to be all right’ feeling.

“That’s when they got an ambulance because she wanted to go home.

“That was February, and she died in the July, so it shows how hard she fought and it gave us an extra few months with her that we didn’t think we’d have.”

The funeral was a private, invitation-only affair at the Grand Theatre.

What the family didn’t expect were the thousands of ordinary Blackpool folk who gathered outside the theatre. The crowds were so large that the whole town centre came to a standstill as people listened to the service, through loudspeakers outside the theatre, with heads bowed.

“I will never get over that show of support from the public – it was overwhelming,” says Coleen.

“And it really did help. Some people said ‘did you not find it intrusive because it should have been a private thing?’ – and the answer is no. It was absolutely fantastic.

“It gave me fantastic strength. But it also made me sad because I wanted Bernie to see it, because I don’t think she ever realised how loved she was.

“Blackpool was where we grew up and it will always be home. That day it was like extended family coming out to say goodbye, people that have watched us over the years from being kids and doing the clubs, and to see that and be a part of it was an amazing thing.”

Coleen covers all sorts of topics in the book.

Her husband Ray Fensome, and the ups and downs of their 14-year relationship. “We hit a really bad blip, I kicked him out for two days, and it was a hard time for a while. But we both realised it was worth fighting for,” she said.

The feuds with sisters Anne and Denise: “Anne and I are absolutely fine again. Denise and I are at an agreed place where we have kind of accepted we are just very different personalities, and will never be best friends ... but that’s all right and a good thing to accept, because it means we can move on and we can still be together.”

The chances of another Nolans tour: “There is talk but it is too soon for me,” she said.

“It’s not even been a year since Bernie died. I think it would make me miss her even more ... no, I just can’t talk or think about doing it without her at the moment.”

Coleen, who divorced first husband Shane Ritchie in the late 1990s, is the only Nolan who doesn’t live in Blackpool – living in Cheshire with Ray and their 12-year-old daughter Ciara, who probably won’t be taking after mum.

“She loves horses, and although she sings and plays guitar and dances, she’s told me she wants a normal job,” said Coleen.

“She wants to make money but to be home every night ... I think she’s having a dig at me there!”

Her sons from her first marriage, Shane Jnr, 25, and Jake, 21, are in showbusiness.

Shane is lead singer of a band that tours Haven and Butlin holiday parks; Jake is the singer in Rixton, a boy-band on the verge of big things in America.

“They turn up every so often with big bags of washing,” laughed Coleen. “I am just a laundry lady to them.”

Coleen has no major plans for the future, other than hoping she stays a part of Loose Women for ‘as long as they want me’.

There have been headlines suggesting the show’s bosses may shake things up and axe a few of the regulars, including her. I mention that and she perhaps bristles ever so slightly.

“They are always writing stuff about Loose Women,” she responded.

“Obviously, they are going to bring new people in and I think that’s a good thing. It is good to have fresh opinions for us as well.

“But everyone there at moment is really happy and seems to be loving it but who knows... it’s like a football manager. If you get a new boss who knows what he wants to change. There is nothing you can do about that, so I’m just enjoying it while it is there.”

Her book, No Regrets, is already topping the download lists and doing brisk business in shops.

I ask what readers can expect, and what she hopes they’ll take from it.

“They can expect laughter and tears because I think it has both,” she said.

“It might sound like it’s a really depressing book because of what happened to Bernie, but it’s not.

“And I hope people take from it that it really doesn’t matter what kind of life you have.

“People see you on telly and think ‘oh she’s got a really exciting life’, but actually we are all the same. We all have the same troubles and strife and we get through it.

“And it doesn’t matter where you are or how much money you’ve got, life is life and it’s a great thing if you work hard at it.”

Coleen Nolan, despite all the ups and downs, has certainly done that.

l No Regrets, published by Penguin and priced £16.99, is available in Asda and online.