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Gemma Atkinson: ‘Strong Isn’t A Size, Sexy Isn’t A Size – It’s All About Health’

Actress, model and former Hollyoaks and Emmerdale star Gemma Atkinson is celebrating a personal transformation right now.

It’s not just that the 36-year-old is glowing with happiness and clearly very much in love – she’s been dating Spanish-born Gorka Marquez, 30, for a year, after they met on Strictly Come Dancing 2017 – she’s also super-toned and looking more glamorous than ever.

This has all come about during the last couple of years, since embracing a new health and exercise regime which she says has not only changed her body but her outlook on life. Atkinson reveals her fitness journey in her new book, The Ultimate Body Plan, which “focuses on feeling great, not on vanity”.

With characteristic candour, the down-to-earth Mancunian charts the ups-and-downs of her romantic life (she was previously engaged to footballer, Marcus Bent), and details how special her relationship with Gorka is.

“In the last couple of years, my life has changed beyond recognition and so has my body.  I train, watch what I eat and take looking after myself seriously,” declares Atkinson. “It’s made me realise that (in the past) I’d put my body through so much with fad diets and gruelling gym punishments, and I’d put myself through so much mentally trying to get over men and dealing with guilt and regrets, that I’d really neglected my body.

“Challenging my body and understanding how it works has boosted my confidence and self-esteem no end. It’s also changed my perspective on everything: Ambition, family, friends… even love. It sounds a bit dramatic. That’s because it is.”

It’s been quite a journey for Atkinson, who first came to our screens aged 15, playing sulky schoolgirl Lisa Hunter in Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, and starred in its spin-off shows for a number of years. She appeared in BBC’s Casualty as Tamzin Bayle from 2011-2014, and then played Carly Hope in Emmerdale for two years, until she quit in 2017.

Gemma Atkinson working out with weights (David Cummings/The Ultimate Body Plan/Harper Thorsons/PA)
Gemma Atkinson working out with weights (David Cummings/The Ultimate Body Plan/Harper Thorsons/PA)

“At 34, I feel more confident about how I look now than I did when I was in my 20s. At school, because I was a runner and had big legs and my nickname was ‘Thunder thighs’, and for the last 20 years since I’ve worked in television, I’ve had my appearance scrutinised, analysed, criticised, complimented or casually dismissed in the press or online.

“Nowadays, I’m fine with it. I’ve learnt to appreciate my body for what it is and not punish it with faddy diets, quick-fixes or to try to bully it into being smaller. I’ve learnt that I want to be fit not to look a certain way, but to feel a certain way.”

Here, she talks about love, life and finding true confidence…

What does Gorka mean to you?

“I feel like I’m with my best friend. He’s loving, very caring and also very funny. He’s the first boyfriend I’ve had who truly makes me feel attractive in just a T-shirt. I’ve got the odd stretch mark and some cellulite on the top of my legs, like every woman, and he tells me every single day how beautiful he thinks I am. The first thing he says in the morning is, ‘Good morning, I love you. How did you sleep?’

“I know there’s time for that to stop – I’m aware we’ve not been together that long – but I’ve never had that before. And it brings an ease with it – the fact I can walk around without breathing in, and I don’t need to wrap a towel around me when I have just my knickers on.

“I’ve talked to him about my (physical) insecurities, and said, ‘My cellulite’s quite bad at the moment’, and he just says, ‘Gemma, you’re a woman! You have hormones. Jesus!’”

What’s different about this relationship?

“For the first time in my life, I am allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to be looked after by someone. We’re so open and honest and just ourselves with each other. Because I’ve always been totally independent, it’s a big deal for me to let a guy do anything, before I was always like, ‘I can change a tyre’, or do whatever.

“Letting myself go a little is something I’m finally allowing myself to do. I was always scared before that if I allowed someone to get too close and break down my barriers, it’d be harder to deal with if they weren’t around any more. I think subconsciously this comes from losing my dad at 17. ”

You were single for two years before you dated Gorka – was that an important time for you to find yourself?

Gemma Atkinson working out (David Cummings/The Ultimate Body Plan/Harper Thorsons/PA)
Gemma Atkinson working out (David Cummings/The Ultimate Body Plan/Harper Thorsons/PA)

“I’d always been in long-term relationships and never really been on my own. I think I always tried to replace the loss of someone by going out with someone else. During that time when I was single, I realised I didn’t really need anybody, I’m good on my own. If Gorks and I ended – God forbid we don’t and we stay together forever – I’d be devastated, but I’d be OK.

“I’m with Gorka because I want to be, not because I need to be. It’s the same for him. He doesn’t need me for anything other than a lovely relationship. It was perfect timing when we met, because I was ready to meet someone. It was a slow-burn because although we met in the August on Strictly, we didn’t get together until the following February. We wanted to see if we were still compatible after the razzmatazz of the show ended.

“We were friends first, and because you have mutual respect and understanding, you feel you don’t want to hurt your best friend, so it makes you feel even closer.”

Is Gorka romantic?

“Yes he is, bless him. He was working in Spain recently for 19 days, and after 11 days away he surprised me by flying back for seven hours so we could spend a little time together. He will leave loving Post-it notes on the bathroom mirror.  He’s lived on his own since he was 17, so he’s really tidy, an amazing cook and we share everything.

“We train together – which I also think has helped us to get so close. There’s something incredibly supportive about someone having your back in that way, being on the same journey, wanting you to succeed and being proud of you. At the moment, I’m trying to learn Spanish, so I can talk to his family who don’t speak English.”

Would you like to marry and have children?

“I’m just happy at the minute with how it is with us, so I’ve no plans to get engaged or anything. I’d like children one day, when the time’s right for both of us, but we’re not in any rush.

“My cousin had a baby at 41, so I don’t feel any pressure. It’s lovely to just be a couple – we’re both busy with all our other work commitments and often we’ll be in bed by 9pm. We do fun stuff, but we’re just as happy sitting in our pyjamas playing on the PlayStation, taking the dogs for a walk or going to the cinema.”

You’ve acted on Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and Casualty – would you return to one of those series again?

Gemma Atkinson at the Inside Soap Awards event when she was playing the role of Lisa Hunter in Hollyoaks. (Ian West/PA)
Gemma Atkinson at the Inside Soap Awards, back when she was playing Lisa Hunter in Hollyoaks (Ian West/PA)

“I loved my time on the soaps and made amazing friends there. I wouldn’t be where I am today without those shows – so if I was asked by one of them, I’d definitely go back for a few months, although I wouldn’t go back full-time at the moment as my radio work (she’s currently  a DJ on Manchester-based Hits Radio Breakfast show with Gethin Jones), and my career in fitness means I’m pretty booked up.”

What’s your diet like?

“I’m primarily vegetarian and eat chicken or fish around three times a week, and try to avoid processed foods. Basically, I just aim to eat as naturally and healthily as possible but it’s all about moderation, so if I want a pizza or chips for tea, I’ll go for it. I feel strong isn’t a size, sexy isn’t a size – it’s all about health.

“I fit around a 10/12 and I’m healthy, relaxed and happy at that size. As long as you’re healthy, fit and take good care of yourself, your skin’s nice and you’ve got loads of energy, then size isn’t important.”

Tell us about your fitness routine?

“Weights are a major part of my work-out. There’s a ridiculous myth that women shouldn’t do weights because it makes them bulky and they’ll look masculine – that’s so wrong.

“Me and my trainer, Steve Chambers, work on different parts of my body each day and that keeps it interesting. We also do HIIT.”

How else do you look after your wellbeing?

“I’m naturally a positive person. I’m so fortunate in having an amazing, supportive family and my friends are mainly people I’ve known since I was five years old. We rally round each if times are tough and talk through things, which is great.

“Working out for me is therapeutic, as my head can go somewhere else. Some of my best ideas come to me when I’m exercising. I love walking, especially with my dogs, Norman and Ollie.”

The Ultimate Body Plan by Gemma Atkinson is published by Harper Thorsons, priced £16.99. Available now.

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