She’s conquered Strictly, defied social media body-shamers, and made the gym her 'therapy' suite. As actress and radio presenter Gemma Atkinson shares her inspiring story of health evolution with Happiful, she reveals how falling for Strictly’s Gorka is finally untapping her emotional truth
Ask Gemma Atkinson for her definition of true love and, at this moment in time, it’s quite likely to be a tub of sliced Granny Smith apples with a generous side of peanut butter.
We’re in a basement lounge of a photographic studio in Salford Quays where Gemma, 33, is making short work of the salubrious mid-morning snack, which was hand-delivered to her workplace earlier today by her Strictly Come Dancing pro boyfriend of six months, Gorka Márquez – or Gorks, as she calls him.
“He brought me this and some chicken and veg because he knew I was heading straight to the Happiful shoot and wouldn’t have time to grab something to eat,” says Gemma, crunching into a piece of apple. “He always makes sure that I’m OK and I genuinely feel like he cares. He does little things like filling up my car with petrol so I don’t have to, and when he walks past me he’ll kiss me on the forehead.
“I’ve always dated people who train or are athletes, so physically I’ve always felt looked after, but with Gorks I feel both physically and mentally cared for. Never in my life have I felt as emotionally supported in a relationship. For the first time I feel protected.”
Gemma and Gorka, 27, met on the most recent series of BBC One’s dance contest, which saw them both in the final with their respective partners: Gemma was paired with 19-times Slovenian ballroom champion Aljaž Škorjanec, while Gorka joined forces with singer Alexandra Burke.
For the duration of Strictly, Gemma and Gorka were “just friends” who met for coffee every Sunday before Gemma’s train journey home to Manchester. They got together over new year, and spent three weeks together on tour before going public with the romance on Valentine’s Day when Gemma posted a holiday snap of herself and Gorka on Instagram, with the words: “Here’s to many more, kid.”
It was perfectly Gemma – sincere, playful and fuss-free – and she’s exactly the same today, sitting here without a scrap of makeup on, wearing blue jeans, a T-shirt and Nike trainers, and sipping a mug of camomile tea as she chats candidly.
Gemma is into her 17th year in the public eye. Her first acting job was in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks playing troubled teenager Lisa Hunter, then came roles in Casualty and Emmerdale, plus reality shows including I’m A Celebrity… Get Met Out Of Here! in 2007. Gemma has appeared in films – in 2011 she starred alongside Richard E. Grant and Pamela Anderson in the comedy How to Stop Being a Loser – and on stage, but her home is now Hits Radio, formerly Manchester’s Key 103, where she co-hosts the weekday breakfast show with Gethin Jones and Comedy Dave.
None of this – absolutely none of it – has altered Gemma. She remains, in her own words, “probably the least showbiz person” and still resides in Bury, the town in which she was born and raised.
If there’s a tragedy or something goes wrong, I keep it together and I’m strong. It’s only when my mum does the head tilt and asks if I’m OK that I crumble
“Some people are shocked that I live in Bury and not in London,” she says. “I don’t like London! It’s too busy for me. I live a 10-minute walk from the house I was born in, I go in the same pub and post office that I always have, I’ve got all the same friends.”
One pal of 15 years is her former Key 103 co-host Mike Toolan, who she reports has spotted a shift in her temperament since Spaniard Gorka waltzed onto the scene.
“Apparently, I’ve changed but in a really good way,” explains Gemma. “Mike’s seen me with different guys and says that Gorka is the only lad I’ve properly been ‘together’ with because I’ve treated all the others like mates. Gorka has definitely softened me. I’ll sit next to him and lean my head on his, and I’ll hold hands with him all the time.
“I rarely used to volunteer my feelings, but I’m starting to do it more so now with Gorka,” she adds. “He’s brought it out of me!”
Historically, Gemma has been reluctant to verbalise her emotions, prompting her mum to nickname her “ice queen”.
“If something is bothering me, I deal with it myself until someone goes ‘Are you OK?’ and then I’ll cry. If there’s a tragedy or something goes wrong, I keep it together and I’m strong. It’s only when my mum does the head tilt and asks if I’m OK that I crumble,” explains Gemma.
“My first engagement at the age of 23 only lasted seven weeks. I knew from week two that I didn’t want to be in the relationship, but because we’d arranged an engagement party and people had bought us gifts, I went along with it. Inside I was screaming ‘I don’t want to do it!’ and as soon as the guests left, mum said: ‘Gemma, you don’t have to go through with this if you don’t want to.’ I burst out crying. She’d read my mind.”