Donna Air’s Comeback: ‘As A Working Mum, There Are Only So Many Roles You Can Do’

After a 10-year hiatus, Donna Air has returned to our screens. She tells Grazia about her role in The Split – and how to have a happy break-up.

Donna Air

by Rhiannon Evans |
Updated on

For most of us of a certain age BBC drama The Split marks a fourth coming of Donna Air, the Geordie actress who, somehow, has been in the public eye for 30 years.

There was 10-year-old Byker Grove Donna, who turned into pop star Donna (Byker Grooove!, anyone?). Then – on moving to London at 15 – there was from-lads-mags-to-Big Breakfast-presenter Donna. And, from 2013 to 2018, there was the, ‘Did you know Donna Air is dating James Middleton, brother of the actual Queen-to-be?’ Donna.

Now, aged 40 and back on primetime telly in the second series of Abi Morgan’s BBC drama The Split, she is sitting-in- a-West-London-café-talking-to-Grazia Donna – and she’s great company.

‘I’m not sure, I can’t even remember what I did yesterday,’ she laughs, when I mention she’s not acted on the small screen for 10 years. ‘I would agree it’s my most visible acting role in a while. So, if I’m a bit ropey, I apologise in advance!’

There is this thing that women can have it all now, but I don’t think we can, not all the time

If you caught the show, you’ll know she’s not ropey. The Split revolves around a family of divorce lawyers, their cases and their own (very messy) love lives. Donna plays pop star Fi Hanson, and her attempt to divorce her controlling, record producer husband (played by Doc Brown) is at the centre of the series. ‘He’s been gaslighting and emotionally abusing her for some time, so when we meet her, she is a bit lost, a bit broken, very confused and doesn’t know where to turn and who to trust,’ Donna explains. ‘It’s such an interesting subject to cover and a great role to play, so I was thrilled, really.’

Donna’s reasoning for having such a big break from acting is refreshingly honest in an age of actors who seem to have sorted the kids, the career, the relationship, the nights out, the friends... all, of course, with no help... ‘I think, like lots of women will appreciate, being a working mum, especially an actress, there are only so many roles you can do at certain times in your life that work around your family.’ She is mum to 16-year-old Freya from her relationship with businessman Damian Aspinall. ‘This part was brilliant because I got to be in my own bed every day. But the reason I took such a big gap in the past was that, being a single mum, I didn’t really want to go to America and leave my daughter here. I didn’t want to go and do a shoot in the middle of the desert for seven months. Now my daughter is begging me to go and do a shoot, she can’t wait to get rid of me!’

Not that Donna has any regrets. ‘Putting my daughter first was never a sacrifice, it was a pleasure,’ she says. ‘I did have to be creative and invent a different career for myself that worked around that. I started doing lots of other things on the business side, advising companies and finding creative business roles that I really enjoyed and that gave me and my daughter stability. There is this thing that women can have it all now, but I don’t think we can, not all the time.’

The Split may ostensibly be about divorce, but it’s more about relationships, love and family – something Donna related to.

‘I’ve always felt divorce is not about the relationships, it’s really always about the children,’ she says. ‘And having been through a separation myself, where children are involved, you do have to remind yourself constantly it’s not about your needs, it’s about what’s best for the children involved. How do you make it easier for them?’

There are no airs and graces to Donna, as she admits to a decent dose of impostor syndrome, acting with ‘girl crush’ Nicola Walker in The Split. ‘I think even the biggest actor in the world can sometimes feel out of their depth. If you don’t feel like that, you’ve got a bit of an ego problem.’ And she seems resigned to people still asking her about Byker Grove. ‘You can guarantee most people still want a quote on Ant and Dec, or a member of the royal family,’ she laughs.

Inevitably, being a celebrity, having had a relationship with a near-royal, and now playing someone famous in a high-profile relationship, will bring a lot of speculation. Did she draw on her experiences – and the oppressive nature of the watchful public eye – to play Fi ? ‘She lives her life in the public eye more than I did – I made a conscious decision not to. I’ve never really courted paparazzi or public life, so I don’t have a problem like that. Also, I’m not a huge star, like Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow; I’ve managed to keep my relationships private.’

Which celebs did provide inspiration for the Hansons? ‘I’m not sure. I think anybody can be a victim of abuse, or gaslighting and a family breakdown. I don’t think that is specific to celebrities. But gosh, you’d have to ask Abi. I’m sure she gets her inspiration from somewhere... maybe from Grazia!’

‘The Split’ is on BBC One, Tuesday at 9pm, and on iPlayer

READ MORE: Donna Air: From Byker Grove To BBC's The Split, Via The Big Breakfast

READ MORE: So Working Mums Are 40% More Stressed - Anyone Surprised?



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Donna Air

Donna grew up in Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne - she attended a local theatre group with Jill Halfpenny and Ant McPartlin and modelled as a child, appearing in adverts for Nissan, Asda and Lenor

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Donna Air

Donna first appeared as an extra on Byker Grove, aged 10, before going on to play Charlie Charlton in the BBC children's soap opera that launched the careers of Ant McPartlin and Declan Donnelly (or PJ and Duncan, as we knew them back then).

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Donna Air

In 1994, along with fellow Byker Grove stars Jayni Hoy and Vicky Taylor, she formed Byker Groove. See what they did there?

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Donna Air

Byker Groove on World's Best Saturday Morning Show, Live and Kicking. If you know, you know.

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Donna Air

After moving to London aged 15, Donna became part of Crush, with Jayni, releasing singles Jellyhead and Luv'd Up.

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Donna Air

Being a famous woman in the 00s meant one thing - weird photo shoots...

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Donna Air

... and lads mag covers with your mates/fellow cast members.

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Donna Air

Donna joined Channel 4's hugely successful Big Breakfast in 2000...

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Donna Air

Before becoming one of the main presenters alongside Johnny Vaughan

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Donna Air

In 2001, Donna had a small part in mega movie franches, The Mummy Returns.

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Donna Air

Donna was one of the famous London party set, here at Meg Mathew's birthday party with Kate Moss, in 2002

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Donna Air

Donna met businessman and conservationist Damian Aspinall in 2000, after being introduced by Tara Palmer-Tomkinson. In September 2003, she gave birth to their daughter Freya. Shortly after the birth, they announced their intention to place Freya in the care of a gorilla, as part of a ritual. The couple split in 2007 amicably.

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Donna Air

In 2013, Donna took part in ITV show Splash, with Tom Daley.

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Donna Air

That year she also started a relationship with James Middleton, brother of Kate Middleton. The couple were together until 2018.

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Donna Air

In 2016, Donna appeared on Celebrity Masterchef.

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Donna Air

Before donning her skates and doing Dancing on Ice in 2017.

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Donna Air

Donna and her now-teenage daughter Freya, 16, last year.

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Donna Air

This month, Donna stars in BBC drama, The Split, as Fi Hanson.

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