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EastEnders' Rita Simons was 'properly broken' after divorce and hectic schedule

Mirror logo Mirror 07/03/2021 Kirsty Hatcher

As a successful actress, with a decade-long run on EastEnders followed by roles on the West End stage, Rita Simons appeared to have it all – but behind the scenes in recent years, she was secretly falling apart.

The star was dealing with the end of her 14-year marriage to hairdresser Theo Silveston, working non-stop and battling depression and insomnia.

So it’s no wonder Rita, 43, who played Roxy Mitchell in the BBC soap, describes the period as “one of the worst times” of her life.

After doing I’m A Celeb in 2018 and throwing herself into work, things came to a head. In 2019, while starring in play The House On Cold Hill, she had a nervous breakdown.

Rita Simons standing in front of a store: Rita Simons admits to suffering from health problems © BBC Rita Simons admits to suffering from health problems

“My mind went to some major dark places,” admits Rita.

When we ask about her new partner Ben Harlow, even though we are talking on the phone it’s clear Rita has broken into a smile.

“He’s very good for me,” she says of the 45-year-old actor, who she met on a touring production of Legally Blonde: The Musical in 2017.

Here, Rita, who has twin daughters Maiya and Jaimee, 15, with Theo, opens up about her mental health struggles, her new relationship and how lockdown helped her get over her divorce…

a group of people posing for the camera: Rita on the Pride of Britain red carpet in 2019 © David Fisher/REX Rita on the Pride of Britain red carpet in 2019

How have you found this past year of lockdowns?

If anyone needed a mental and physical break, it was me. Just before [the first] lockdown, I was properly broken. I was three days into rehearsals for Hairspray and it was my sixth job on the trot with no break. Doing all that while trying to process a divorce is just crazy.

The pandemic is awful and I’m nervous to say this, but in a way I was selfishly pleased. I’ve been able to be at home with my kids, who I haven’t spent any proper time with for three years.


Has it allowed you to process your divorce?

a woman smiling for the camera: Rita with her daughter Maiya © rita_simonsofficial/Instagram Rita with her daughter Maiya

So much. I really have come out the other side. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I was working non-stop and doing well, but I was desperately unhappy – not that anyone would have known. I had so much going on at home, I was driving myself mad working to try to forget about everything else.

I was physically ill every other week and I lost loads of weight.


Did you seek any help?

I’ve had therapy for my OCD since I was 14 and the same psychologist has helped me. I’ve also seen a therapist. The jungle [producers] were amazing and I also saw their psychologist. I knew in the jungle that I was getting divorced and no one else did. I had cameras on me all day – that did my head in. You don’t know what’s going on in the outside world.

I don’t think I’d have survived without help. There were days where, I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, because I’ve never got to that point and I would never do it, but I was aware life would be better dead than alive, because I couldn’t see my kids and I was so far from home.

My mind went to some major dark places. When I was on tour with a Peter James play I’d enter stage from a tall flight of stairs and I’d think, “If I just accidentally fall I could go to hospital and someone can look after me.” Then I’d snap out of it and think, “You’re an idiot.”

It was scary to even have those thoughts. I can say it was one of the worst times of my life.


Did anyone know at the time?

No one. I’d go to the stage door and be as bubbly as I always am, as that’s what we do as show people.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved the jungle, but there were times when John Barrowman or James [McVey] would talk about their other halves and say they couldn’t wait to get home, and I’d be thinking, “Oh my God, this is horrific and now I’ve got to eat a crocodile’s an*s.”



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Why did things end with Theo?

a man and a woman standing in front of a building: A rare photo of Rita and Theo Silveston in 2017 © CAN/Capital Pictures A rare photo of Rita and Theo Silveston in 2017

We met when we were 19 and you change. People look at you and think, “You need to make it work,” but I didn’t want to because I’d changed so much as all humans do.

Because I come from quite a big Jewish community, you feel you shouldn’t go against the grain and make decisions like getting divorced.

I always felt I was judged a little bit. We both realised in the end we were mates and we could be happier elsewhere. Theo didn’t agree at first but he did understand in the end.

I’ve always been the sort who wants more in terms of happiness and I was never content at home.

It wasn’t until I left EastEnders and I was always away working that I realised every time I came home this depression would hit again.


Was it a relief when your divorce was finalised earlier this year?

Yes. I’m still friends with Theo and we have no animosity, but anyone who thinks they’ll have a friendly divorce could be deluded. It’s very impersonal and harsh.

It definitely became fraught but when I got the final letter it was a massive weight off my shoulders.

I didn’t get emotional because I’ve done so much crying over this whole thing – I used all my tears up when I was having my breakdown.

There was always this niggle that it’s not done until I get that letter and I presumed Theo felt

the same. We’ve not discussed how we’ve felt about receiving each other’s decree absolutes. I don’t think we’ll ever be bitter towards each other.

We drop the kids off and they love to see we’re still having a laugh and that we still care about each other.


When did Theo move out?

In March 2020, just before lockdown, which quite honestly was a stroke of luck or we might have killed each other!


How have the kids adjusted?

Samantha Womack et al. posing for the camera: Rita with pals © Twitter Rita with pals

It’s hard to differentiate what is divorce and what is lockdown because the kids have been in such an unnatural situation. I’d say they’re happier now as they have two happy parents and they didn’t have for a long time.

They spend a week with me and a week with him. Maiya is super-social and missing her friends and Jaimee is shy and retreating into herself more as she’s a quiet and reserved young lady.

I can’t wait for them to go back to school but I’m also nervous. Maiya is deaf and she has a hearing aid and a cochlear implant and her hearing aid amplifies all sound at a level playing field.

When she went back to school before, I had calls from her really upset as she gets tinnitus if her hearing is overloaded. She’s been sat in a room quietly learning and then is back in school and her ears have to adjust.


How are things going with Ben?

I’m very happy. We were just friends after Legally Blonde – a group of us stayed in touch. We went for lunch for my birthday and it wasn’t a date but

I realised I really liked him and wanted to see him again, then we got locked down. We spoke a lot and then saw each other a lot between lockdowns. But this time he has come to stay with me because I didn’t want to not see him again. The weird thing is we’re trying to take it slowly but he’s living here.

As soon as lockdown is lifted, Ben will go back to his place.

a woman posing for a picture: Rita and her mini me daughter Maiya © Instagram Rita and her mini me daughter Maiya

What do you like most about him?

He is the sweetest, kindest man I’ve ever met. Anything I might get upset about, he manages to calm me down. He was one of the friends that had it not been for him, during all of my insanity, I wouldn’t have made it through.


Your EastEnders co-star Samantha Womack also revealed last year her marriage had ended. Have you leaned on each other?

Sam and I go through everything at the same time. If it wasn’t for Sam and a handful of close friends, I’d have gone mad. Sam has been my rock and I think she’d tell you I’ve been hers.


Do you miss EastEnders?

I miss my friends there terribly. I loved it. It’d be fabulous to go back – but

I’m dead [her character Roxy] and I’m OK with that!

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