Chris Arnot

A few samples of my work

Flavour of the month

Thursday 28 October 1999 02.56 BST

Rustie Lee looks slightly disappointed that I haven’t come with a photographer. She is dressed in immaculate white slacks, socks and trainers below a cerise T-shirt. This is her workout gear. She’s keen to promote her new fitness video, GentLee Does It.

But I want to talk about her burgeoning stage and film career. Her name is soon to be up there in lights with Anna Friel and Joanna Lumley in an adaptation of Kathy Lette’s bestseller Mad Cows. What’s more, director Sara Sugarman has suggested that she could be “England’s Whoopi Goldberg”.

We meet, appropriately enough, in Rustie’s kitchen. Not the one found in various television studios where she whipped up Caribbean meals with much shoulder-shaking merriment. No, this is her real kitchen at home in Kidderminster, an imposing Victorian house with Dutch gables and a big, rampant garden where we take our tea. “Are we having milk with it today?” enquires Coral, one of two PAs.

We are. But not for much longer, because Rustie is also a singer.

“Dairy products aren’t good for the voice,” she says. “One of the songs I’ve got to do in Smokey Joe’s Cafe is glass-shatteringly high.” She performs half a dozen songs altogether in the Lieber and Stoller musical, which sets off on a second tour of the UK a week on Monday, just after Mad Cows goes on general release. These then are heady days for the woman, now 46, who was first spotted by a BBC Pebble Mill producer while singing at her own Birmingham restaurant, the first silver-service Caribbean eating place in Britain.

It was casting director Danielle Roffe’s idea to put her in the movies. She was apparently lying in her bath one night, thinking about who could take on the role of Mama Joy, a shoplifter who drifts between Harrods and Holloway. Lee’s face came to her through the steam.

Not that hers is the only face making its big-screen debut in this film. The Harrods doorman is played by one Mohamed Al Fayed, although it’s a mere cameo role compared with Rustie’s. “I had my own caravan,” she says, proudly.

“Trailer,” puts in Coral. “A caravan sounds like something small you’re stuck behind in a traffic jam.”

“I had my own trailer,” Lee corrects herself, after a volley of laughter that causes startled birds to take off from nearby trees. “One day I had to have something put in my teeth to look like a diamond and they sent me to the dentist in a stretch limo with dark windows. All I wanted to do was open them and say, ‘Look at me!'”

On set, she found the experience “totally different” from television. “In one scene, the camera was right up against my face. I could feel myself breaking out in a sweat, but I did it in three takes and everybody clapped.” Even the stars. Lee is effusive about Friel and Lumley. “Anna was an absolute darling. We got on really well. And Joanna’s fabulous.” Absolutely. “I think I first met her at TV-am, but we hadn’t seen each other for seven years.”

Indeed. It was seven years ago that Lee’s contract with the early-morning station was suspended amid allegations that she had accepted money to promote products on air. She strenuously denied the claims, pointing out that she neither planned the broadcasts nor provided the products used. And she has since appeared on TV-am’s successor, GMTV, which suggests the controversy has long since been forgotten.

She is the kind of woman who bounces back, buoyed up by self-belief and a fierce ambition that she says she inherited from her father, a former RAF man from Jamaica who opened the first Caribbean take-away in Handsworth. Her first ambition was to be a cookery teacher. But in the secondary modern school she attended, she might as well have said that she wanted to be a rocket scientist. Becoming a secretary was considered the most a girl could aspire to.

It took a while before she made it to the Birmingham College of Food, where she completed her course with distinction. But she never did train to teach. She discovered singing instead, like her fellow Handsworthians Joan Armatrading and Ruby Turner. By 1978, she was UK Club Singer of the Year. Not jazz, blues or soul clubs, but working men’s clubs, guaranteed to thicken the skin of any performer. “I remember being out in the sticks somewhere in Scotland and discovering that my backing band was to be one bloke with an accordion and another on the spoons,” she says, and her shrieks of laughter send another nervous tremor through Kidderminster’s bird life.

No wonder Lee gave up touring in the early 80s to concentrate on her restaurant. It quickly achieved cult status in Birmingham, but all the local media diners and visiting celebrities were dwarfed in Lee’s consciousness by the arrival in 1983 of Muhammad Ali. “He got on the stage with me and did some magic tricks, and there must have been 2,000 people outside. I remember him picking up my son, James, who was six months old at the time.”

He’s 16 now and following in his mother’s footsteps by training to be a chef. For the time being, he lives at home with Mum and her German partner and manager, Andreas Hohmann. They met on a beach in Spain. “Everybody said it was just a holiday romance and wouldn’t last,” she says. “But we’ve been together now for 10 years.”

Hohmann has just negotiated her contract for another film. “It’s about Buffalo Bill coming to England,” says England’s would-be Whoopi. “We’re still waiting for the script, but I do know I’ve got my own caravan again.”

“Trailer,” corrects Coral, arriving from Rustie’s kitchen with more tea. “Milk?”

• Mad Cows opens on October 29. Smokey Joe’s Cafe begins its national tour in Stoke-on-Trent on November 8.

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