Laila Rouass has done more than most to keep our spirits up over recent months. Here the Woodford local chats to Mark Kebble about happiness, box sets and appreciating what you have
Lockdown is a word I have used far too often in this magazine – and I hope not to use it too much in the future – but it’s impossible not to bring it up early in my interview with Laila Rouass. When the nation couldn’t venture far from their own homes, I – probably like many – sought comfort in streaming services and box sets. BritBox was one of many that I feasted on and it was interesting to hear that the Rouass-starring Footballers’ Wives was at the top of the tree for viewers, despite airing its last episode 15 years ago.
“It’s like the Roaring Twenties,” Rouass says, “when you come out of something people become quite hedonistic, they just want to have fun. Without getting too spiritual and too deep, actually time is limited and we can sit here worrying about paying the mortgage, doing this and doing that, but we have got to find some kind of joy and escapism – and I think Footballers’ Wives gave that back in the day and it gives people that now.”
Rouass played the scheming Amber Gates from 2004-2006, an outrageous character who was involved in some of the best storylines in the show. “I loved doing it,” she grins. “I was doing Hollyoaks when I got offered the job and I still had a couple months left on my contract, but I paid to get out of that because I knew it was really special. People fobbed it off as bubble gum, saying it was so unbelievable, but honestly there were times we would get a script six months prior, read something and say you can’t do that, someone would never do that, and lo and behold after we filmed it something has broken in the News of the World about a footballer doing exactly that! It looked like we were copying, but we weren’t. It wasn’t as far-fetched as you think it’s going to be.”
As well as being a godsend for the streamers out there, Rouass has also offered some respite through a new venture of hers. Earlier this year she launched WholeAndThenSome, which offers wise words on being happy within yourself, as well as feelgood recipes and workshops. “I lived in India for many years because I was working there, I was based in Bombay for six years,” she explains the origins of the idea. “I was once stuck on the border of Tibet because there was a landslide when I was filming, and so we got stuck up the mountains. We had nothing much to do, so I ended up going to the local monastery there. You’d sit there, meditate, and I loved the science of Buddhism. Through that I became a bit obsessed with the Dalai Lama and his teachings. I started using manifestation – not really realising what it was – and within five months I met the Dalai Lama at an event and he blessed me. I have always been more interested in the science, but I opened up to the more spiritual side of happiness and I always wanted to do something around that.”
She studied at Yale University, investigating the science of happiness, and just as the first lockdown hit she decided to put everything she learnt into practice. “Because we had to do less during lockdown, you realise that you can cover so much more,” she says of the timing. “It doesn’t necessarily mean letting go of all your riches and not striving to have that, but through the Yale University course I did, when they covered the science behind what you think would make you happy, more money and more success doesn’t actually make you happier. I struggled for the first couple of weeks [during the first lockdown], but practicing the things I learnt on the course helped me get through it.”
And it appears there’s an appetite for others to learn all about it: every workshop Rouass has held since launching – Home House presents Happiness Hacks, Self Compassion, Happiness After Covid and The Virtual Manifestation Retreat – has been a sell out. “It takes time and people have to trust in what you are saying,” Rouass says on the response, “but that’s why I wanted to study the science behind it.”
As well as WholeAndThenSome, Rouass says she got into yoga last year, as well as embracing the chance to spend more time with her daughter Inez and partner of nearly a decade, the snooker player Ronnie O’Sullivan. “We had no kitchen as we were halfway through building works,” she sighs, “so I had to buy a Ninja oven. But I wouldn’t have changed that for the world as we ended up cooking together as you can’t do everything on your own when you don’t have the facilities. My daughter and Ronnie would get involved, so that was a good time in way.”
The year also saw Rouass return to another of her celebrated screen roles, Sahira Shah on BBC’s Holby City. “I went to lunch with a good friend who was the series producer and she asked if I would consider coming back,” she says on returning to the show she first left in 2012. “I didn’t originally want to leave the show, but my daughter was very young, had just started school, and it was down to me to support her financially and emotionally, and I decided I couldn’t do everything. I was happy to return for a short stint.”
Rouass says Holby City is up there with Footballers’ Wives when it comes to career highlights – and she loved filming for the new series of Traces, which will air on Alibi early next year – as well as her run on Strictly Come Dancing back in 2009. “That was great fun,” she smiles. “I was never really in it to win it because I am not a great dancer, I just wanted to get to Blackpool, but I ended up being on for 16 weeks! I was with Anton [du Beke] and everyone loves Anton. Strictly is like X-Factor, it’s one of those shows where the family can get together and watch it. It’s that bit of escapism again, people looking fabulous and glamorous, it’s a happy place.” Some things don’t change.