WATCHING her friend and former castmate Rose Ayling-Ellis’ incredible success on this year’s Strictly has triggered a wave of nostalgia for Maisie Smith.
Because even though she didn’t walk away with the coveted Glitterball trophy, she did score another victory – in the battle to love her body.
Despite constant trolling over her thighs and bottom during her stint on the dance floor, she credits the BBC show with helping her conquer a long-held fear of showing off her legs.
“Strictly was a game-changer for me. I’ve always hated my legs and my cellulite. When I was at school, I was the only one who had it. When I went to parties I wouldn’t get my legs out. I would wear trousers all summer,” she says.
“It wasn’t until I did Strictly last year and they literally said: ‘You have got to wear a leotard.’ I was shoved in the deep end and it helped me, because I completely faced my fears straight on.”
Granted, Maisie, 20, has faced more scrutiny than most young girls, having joined the cast of EastEnders as Tiffany Butcher when she was just seven, but her story will not be unfamiliar to them. One of her most talked-about story lines – when Tiffany got lip fillers because she was insecure about her looks – was something Maisie strongly related to.
“I feel pressure all the time. As a teenage girl heavily active on social media, I’ve definitely felt the same [as Tiffany]. I’ve experienced a lot of body-image hatred – not from anyone else, but from me. I put a lot of pressure on myself to look a certain way. From quite young, I worked out in the gym because I didn’t like my body. I put a lot of make-up on to cover my face. I enjoyed that story line, because I completely related to it. I have felt that exact way before, so it was nice to address it. You can think someone’s beautiful, but they don’t see it.
“I’ve got such wonderful family and friends, who are constantly saying: ‘You’re perfect just the way you are.’ But it’s impossible to see that yourself. I’m trying to learn to love myself and I’m definitely getting there. I’m feeling more confident, but I still have a long way to go. I work out most days, but that’s for my mental health as it makes me feel better.”
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Watching Maisie ooze sexiness in a tight red dress as fake snow is poured over her for our festive cover shoot, it’s hard to imagine she is anything but full of self-confidence. Away from the camera, though, she admits she still struggles.
“I’m fussy about my image, even though I don’t want to be. It’s not something that anyone can really help you with. It’s a personal battle that you’ve just got to try and get through. That’s why I post things on social media, because I know other people definitely feel as bad as I do sometimes.”
Fans of the soap watched Maisie’s final scenes play out on Thursday. She says one of her biggest fears when she made the decision to walk away from the role she’d had for 13 years, was whether producers would kill her off.
So it was a huge comfort to learn they were leaving the door open for a possible return to the Square one day. Speaking for the first time since her dramatic farewell, she explains: “It was a really big decision, but I’ve been thinking about it for a while. I’d spent my entire life there and it felt like home.
“Then I turned 20 and I thought: ‘This is a new chapter of my life, there’s no better time than right now to explore another adventure’. I talked to Natalie Cassidy [who played Sonia Jackson] about it, as I always go to her for advice, then I took the plunge. When the producers told me they weren’t gonna kill me, I was so relieved. That would have been horrific! It’s nice to know that they’d have me back. I’ve kept that with me, knowing I will always end up coming back at some point.”
Instead of meeting a bloody end, Tiffany left broken-hearted after writing a letter to her husband Keegan, asking him to meet her at the Tube station if he wanted to give their marriage another shot. In typical EastEnders fashion, however, her brother Liam swapped them for divorce papers, and when Keegan didn’t show up, she quit Walford for good.
It’s a personal battle that you’ve just got to try and get through. That’s why I post things on social media, because I know other people definitely feel as bad as I do sometimes.
“It’s been a rocky road with Tiff and Keegan, but it was really cleverly written,” says Maisie. “I was crying in every scene, even when I wasn’t supposed to be. I was so emotional. I hope everyone was shocked when they saw it.
“It’s been weird not seeing the cast every day since then, because it was part of my life for so long. I joined in 2008. I don’t even remember that far back, so I feel like my first memories were there. I’ll absolutely keep in touch with everyone, especially Shona McGarty [Whitney Dean] and Danielle Harold [Lola Pearce]. We are still messaging and I had a little leaving do, then I went into Tiffany’s bedroom and I took a lava lamp and loads of other props that I’m hoping no one will notice are gone!”
Maisie is already enjoying her freedom – she’s taking part in the upcoming series of Celebrity SAS: Who Dares Wins, filmed in the Middle East, which she’s been banned from discussing, and she finally has control over how she looks, after being constrained by the soap’s strict rules on not changing her appearance for continuity while filming.
“I’m unemployed now for the first time in my entire life!” she says. “The first thing I did was cut my hair. It’s quite weird being able to just [change my look]. I got a lip piercing, just because I could. Now every day is a different look, which is exciting.
“I was working 12-hour days and now I can get up when I want. I’ve signed up for different dancing, fitness and singing classes. I want to work on my craft and keep my mind a little bit active.”
She also makes time to keep in touch with all the friends she made while on Strictly, but says the rumours of romance with 22-year-old pop star Hrvy were baseless.
'LEARNING TO LOVE MYSELF'
“We got along so well and it was nice to be around someone my age,” she says. "Everyone wants to find a Strictly romance, so if he was a little bit flirty or we were within two metres of each other, people jumped to conclusions. We had such a lovely friendship, but it wasn’t anything more than that.
“When I hear the Strictly theme tune, it makes me feel sick because I miss it. I dance all the time. I’ve started doing Latin dance classes because I absolutely loved it. It might have only been only 10 weeks of my life, but I’ve never felt happiness like it.”
This year, Maisie has been cheering on Rose, who plays Frankie Lewis in the soap, and has wowed the nation with her incredible talent and determination to raise awareness of the deaf community. “I was actually one of the first people Rose told about the show. I knew she could dance, because we’ve been out together and I’ve seen her throwing shapes, so I had no doubt that she was good.
"I told her: ‘Try not to let the outside world affect how you perform, as you can get trapped in looking at what every single person is saying about you.’ Then suddenly it’s over and you think: ‘Wow, I spent so much time caring about what everyone thought.’ She deserves all the attention and success. She hasn’t got a bad bone in her body and she can obviously dance really well. It baffles me, because you forget she can’t hear the music. It’s hard enough when you can hear it perfectly!”
As well as the dancing, Maisie also misses those fab-u-lous sequin outfits. “I’m not glamorous most of the time, but I love dressing up and going 100% above and beyond,” she says. Luckily, our festive-themed shoot is her idea of heaven then.
“Christmas is mental in our house. We always go too far! We’re very festive. I’ll listen to Christmas music from September onwards, just to get me into the groove. Last year my presents were crap because it was Strictly and we were in lockdown. I felt so bad, because my family [mum Julia, 50, dad Stephen, 57, and sister Scarlett, 24] had been supporting me so much. So this year, I’m going to spoil them like they spoiled me.”
Sometimes I just wake up and I feel like I haven’t got my spark – it isn’t there. Social media can be fake.
And will she be making a beeline for the mistletoe? “No,” she laughs. “Not that I’m looking – I’m just enjoying learning to love myself right now.”
Maisie has been linked to her former EastEnders co-star Zack Morris, 23, who played Keegan, after they were spotted leaving the cinema together and heading back to his house, but she shakes her head at the idea of them being together romantically.
“It’s similar to Hrvy in that we are just very close. Me and Zack worked every single day together, so we built such a nice friendship and we meet up. Because he’s the opposite sex, people just jump to conclusions that we are an item. We’re actually just good friends.”
Away from acting, Maisie is building up a reputation as a fully fledged influencer, with videos of her dancing, singing and comedy skits racking up an impressive 2.3 million followers. Recently, however, she alarmed her followers by posting a video of her crying, saying she felt “useless” and “pointless”.
“I didn’t want anyone to worry about me, but it’s important to show that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, everyone has up and down days. Sometimes I just wake up and I feel like I haven’t got my spark – it isn’t there. Social media can be fake. But I’m trying to be more authentic and say: ‘Look, I’m having a crap day.’ I got so many messages, and it’s nice to just see that everyone cares.
“My mum knows when I’m feeling bad because we talk about everything. Me, her and my sister are like triplets. Mum laps it up when people say she looks like my older sister. My sister works in TV production, so we are opposites, but she completely gets it.
'TRYING TO BE MORE AUTHENTIC'
“One day she’s going to make a film, I’m going to be in it and my mum will be involved somewhere. She is my momager. She’s always like: ‘Let’s do a TikTok’! She actually was one of the waitresses on EastEnders like 20 years ago! She’s convinced that she is going to be on Strictly at some point, too.”
As for her own future, Maisie has plans to follow fellow EastEnders star Ben Hardy to America. The 30 year old, who played Peter Beale in the soap, has become a huge star Stateside after appearing in X Men: Apocalypse and Bohemian Rhapsody.
“Up until Christmas, I’m not leaving my bed. But as soon as January comes, I’m back into it,” Maisie says. “I’ve been doing tapes for auditions, and I’m working on my American accents and RP.
“Hell yeah, at some point I’ll be in Hollywood. I can’t guarantee it’s gonna be 2022. I’m still 20, I’ve got so much time. My friend’s living out there, so I’ll go see her, then go to Malibu and see Patsy [Palmer, who played her mum Bianca Jackson on EastEnders].
"It’s crazy seeing Ben do so well. It gives you hope a little bit as well, like: ‘Wow. That could be me.’ I’ve been lucky to discover my career path from such a young age. I know this is what I want to do.
“I’ve spent a lot of my life saying no to opportunities because I was nervous, but 2022 is the year of saying yes for me. I’m ambitious and I have faith in myself that if I push myself hard enough, I can do it.”
In the make-up chair with Maisie
- What are your skincare heroes?
I have sensitive skin so I use Neutrogena products, because they make my skin feel really soft.
- What’s your make-up bag essential?
All I need during the day is eyelash curlers and Rose Vaseline for my lips. If I’m going out, I’ll need a suitcase of stuff! I love everything by Charlotte Tilbury.
- What’s your best budget buy?
BPerfect X Jac Jossa Shape Stick. It’s brilliant for contouring.
- And your luxury splurge?
Anything Fenty Beauty! I want the lipglosses in every colour, but I lose everything so I try not to buy expensive make-up.
- Who is your beauty icon?
Rihanna. She always looks flawless.
- Describe your beauty evolution.
I had hideous block eyebrows and my lashes would touch my eyebrows. I’d overdo it, because I didn’t know what I was doing. Now I feel prettier when my freckles are out.
- Credit: Hair/ Dino Pereira using Kiehl’s Since 1851 Magic Elixir, Make-up/ Aimee Adams using Sculpted by Aimee, Styling/ Nana Acheampong.
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