The actress and singer tells Abi Jackson what her health struggles have taught her about life, resilience, and walking to the beat of your own drum.

Martine McCutcheon says living with an invisible illness has given her a helpful “perspective of reality” – especially when it comes to falling into the trap of comparing yourself to others.

“Everywhere you look, everybody seems like they’re doing everything quicker than you, doing more than you, they’re doing it better than you, more successfully than you. And it’s not true, it’s not a reality,” says the actress and singer, 47, who was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) over two decades ago.

“For me, my CFS, and being a mother, a wife and having a career and juggling those things, I think it majorly gives me perspective of reality and what really matters.”

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McCutcheon, who rose to fame as Tiffany in BBC soap EastEnders back in the 1990s, going on to star alongside Hugh Grant in Richard Curtis’ 2003 movie Love Actually and win an Olivier Award for her stage role as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, was also later diagnosed with Lyme disease and fibromyalgia – another chronic condition associated with widespread pain.

It’s been a rough ride. She has previously talked about the seven years of “hell” she went through as symptoms took over her life, at some points leaving her needing a wheelchair and unable to shower herself, and the subsequent depression.

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While things have got much better, it’s still up and down. McCutcheon recently shared on Instagram that she missed her husband, the singer-songwriter Jack McManus’ birthday last year after a flare-up left her hospitalised. How is she doing right now?

“I’m really good. I’m constantly learning more about CFS,” she says, noting that understanding of the condition has come a long way since she was diagnosed.

“They’re getting more and more answers about the brain and nervous system, and I’m forever researching. So many people suffer and don’t even realise they’ve got it – they don’t understand the fatigue they’ve got, or with fibromyalgia the muscle pain, dizziness, hot/cold sweats, all different things that can be misdiagnosed for other things,” McCutcheon adds.

“So I think it’s great that they’re really doing their research and getting answers, because it is a beast to live with, and you do need to keep your hope going.”

It’s brought so many learning curves, she says – particularly around learning to listen to her body and knowing herself.

“Massively,” she says. “When you have an invisible illness, that no one can see and therefore can’t sympathise or don’t really know how to support you, you have to get to know yourself really well and learn your limits and boundaries.

“You learn to smell the flowers a lot more too, you’re just so appreciative and grateful for the most simple things. So generally, I think you’re just more sensitive, and it’s about protecting that sensitivity. Using it to your advantage of being you, but also learning and having the coping strategies and tools to take care of yourself and walk the beat of your own drum, especially as we’re in such a fast-paced world now.”

Learning curves are a running theme as we chat over Zoom. She recalls suddenly becoming “very anxious about everything” after having her son Rafferty, now eight. It particularly impacted her driving.

“I’ve always been a really confident driver, but then when I had Rafferty, I became a lot more fragile generally. I felt very anxious about everything, and that included driving. I didn’t trust anything – I didn’t trust the world, I couldn’t look at the news – and I did get really scared [in the car] because I thought, ‘Oh my god, I’ve got this little person dependent on me’, and before it was just me flying around.

“It was the first time I had to really think about somebody whose life depended on me. There were times I’d have to pull over and call Jack, and he’d say it’s OK, take some breaths, or I’d go to a service station and calm myself down.

“I think that’s the best advice really – if you need a break for whatever reason, take it. And the more I did it and flexed that muscle, like anything, bit by bit, it took a while, but it got easier. It’s amazing how resilient we can be.”

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She has teamed up with Churchill on their ‘Keep Calm and Drive On’ campaign, after a survey by the brand found 50% of people who pass their test over the age of 30 nervous when driving after passing.

For McCutcheon, realising she could tap into tools to manage her anxiety “empowered me”, she adds – and this has fed into other areas of her life too.

“Most of all, it was just knowing that even though it can feel so overwhelming, ultimately you are in charge of your brain – your brain isn’t in charge of you. And also just to give yourself a little bit of time out if you need it.

“I remember once when I was doing a shoot, calling my manager and saying, ‘I’ve had to just pull over and have a couple of breaths, I’m so sorry, I’m going to be late’. And he was like, ‘Don’t worry, take your time, do what you need to do – it’s better that you’re here and you’re feeling well, rather than being here and panicking or being in fight or flight’.

“That really helped – just me being allowed to feel like that, and not having to fight it all the time. Just going: it’s OK, this is going to pass.”

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It’s a lesson that’s fed into other areas of her life ever since, enabling her to reassess and take new directions too.

“When I started out and went to stage school, I always felt like my little role in this lifetime, other than being a mum and wife, was to just sort of inspire people and for them to think: if she can do it, I can do it. When I began, it was with film, theatre and TV and I still love all of that, and music.

“But as time’s gone on and I’ve evolved in so many ways – mentally, spiritually, physically – I’m finding there were different ways to do that,” McCutcheon reflects. “So I’m coming up with ideas. I’m also really loving being creative, renovating my home, doing that with my social media and working with brands, more fashion work, and doing some music – just beautiful, simple, stripped back music, that’s going to be lovely.

“But mainly, I just work it all around being a mum, because that’s my number one job that I love the most out of everything.”

To find out more about how to keep calm on the roads as a new driver and see McCutcheon take the passenger seat next to some of UK’s most nervous new drivers, head to