HER Irish-themed wedding complete with mermaid-style bridal gown had all been painstakingly planned out.
But Shona McGarty started the new year looking towards a very different future after announcing her shock split from fiancé Ryan Harris in January.
The electrician had proposed on Shona’s 26th birthday in October 2018 by planting a diamond ring in the top tier of her cake.
Yet on our shoot in east London, the woman in front of us – who radiates confidence and sex appeal and is enthusiastic about everything, from the salad platters for lunch to the latex corsets on our fashion rail – doesn’t look like someone grappling with heartache.
“I’ve actually been single for a year and a bit,” she admits. “I just didn’t want to say anything. We were together for six years. When it ended it wasn’t a bad break-up, it was amicable. We both came to the decision that, actually, this isn’t what we really want. It fizzled out and we weren’t the same people.”
It’s an impressive feat for someone as high profile as Shona – watched by millions of households up and down the country on EastEnders as her character Whitney Dean – to have kept the split secret for so long. Why did she decide to spill now?
The 28 year old, who lives with her two chihuahuas Coco Chanel and CeCe Bloom in Welwyn, Hertfordshire, has moved on, she says, and is finally relishing being truly happy and single for the first time in several years.
“I’ve learned that I’m alright, I’m happy by myself and I don’t need a man,” she proclaims with absolute self-assurance. I was never one of those little girls who had a box full of wedding ideas. I had an Action Man and I wanted to go out on my bike, and climb trees.
“I’m enjoying getting to know myself. I’m just being me and not caring about what people think about me any more.”
Shona has grown up in the public eye since the age of 16 when she landed the part of Bianca Jackson’s adopted daughter Whitney, her fearless attitude, signature scraped-to-the-side ponytail and silver hoops attracting an army of fans.
Yet it’s that very fame that has made her wary about finding love again, and the actress hasn’t gone on a date since the break-up.
“I’m not dating. I’ve never been on a date. Never,” she says. “My anxiety would go through the roof if I had to go on a date. I’m just waiting. I’m not going to force it.
“If I were looking, I would be looking for someone who is just like me – has a good sense of humour and can laugh at themselves. Being too vain is a no-no – taking themselves too seriously, somebody who spends longer than me in front of the mirror or who uses all my creams. No way.
“But I think when you’re in this industry, no matter what job you’re doing, if you’re on the telly, you can’t help but think: ‘Does that person like me or is it just because I’m on the telly?’”
Shona has a right to feel cautious about being exploited and having her trust broken. In 2018, just months after she announced her engagement during what should have been the happiest days of her life, her iCloud account was hacked and two private photos were leaked online.
It was the second sex-related crime Shona had fallen victim to, following a revenge porn plot in 2015 when a man tried to circulate images of her taken when she was younger, which police managed to intercept.
Addressing the ordeal, Shona recalls how “her whole world came crashing down” the day she got that call from the EastEnders press office informing her about the leak.
“My stomach turned, that gut-feeling of impending doom. It was horrible. I just thought: ‘Everyone’s going to see this’,” she says.
“People were constantly tagging me on social media and stuff, writing horrible captions and things.
“And then my dad had to see that. That’s what killed me, my dad seeing those pictures, and I had all these people showing them to him. We just pretended it didn’t happen, but it was an awful thing. It was so intrusive.”
Since then, Shona says she would be too afraid to share intimate photos with a partner again, but remains torn about her advice to other women on the matter.
“If you feel empowered and you want to do that, it’s up to you, it’s your human right, but just be careful who you’re sending it to.”
The Borehamwood-born star turns 30 next year and has attributed growing older, as well as a combination of soul-searching and daily meditation, to helping her bounce back from the traumatic online leak and her break-up, and making her more resilient than ever.
Back in 2012, she was given a four-week suspension from EastEnders for persistent lateness, but Shona’s partying days are now firmly behind her. After the biggest night in telly at the National Television Awards last month, she swerved the notoriously boozy after-party in favour of fast food and an early night.
“It was a big day getting ready – 10am until 3pm. I get so many butterflies on the red carpet, I can’t control it. After the ceremony, I just got in my car and bought a McDonald’s. I always avoid the party. I had work the next day at 9am and I was tired. It was a long day.”
The five hours spent in hair and make-up weren’t wasted. Shona emanated confidence in a bright-red, backless, evening gown with diamanté detail, and those butterflies were nowhere to be seen.
“I love myself more now than I did when I was 20, because at 20, you’re looking in magazines and you don’t really know what you want, or if what you have is right, or what everyone else has – it’s a really horrible time,” she says.
“I used to hate my arms and never wanted to wear anything with short sleeves because I thought I had T-Rex arms that were too short and too muscly, but I don’t care any more. They’re just arms.
“Like now, all of a sudden, the trend is to have massive fake boobs and a massive fake arse and I don’t have either of them. I could do squats and all that, but do I want to? Not really.
“Sometimes I think: ‘Should I [have surgery]?’ but I’m too frightened. It’s not that I don’t agree with surgery. If you’re a lot older and you’ve had children and maybe you want your boobs changed because they’ve been used to feed your children and look like a couple of empty teabags, that’s fine. But when you’re in your 20s, if it’s all just about looking a certain way, I just don’t think it’s necessary.”
The trend is to have massive fake boobs and a massive fake arse and I don't have either.Shona McGarty
Aside from trampolining with her younger sister Camilla’s kids, or running around a ball pool for 10 minutes, Shona doesn’t do any regular exercise. “I want to get fit again. My youngest nephew is 18 months old, so I throw him into the air, which I suppose is a bit like cardio or weights.
“I don’t like going to the gym. I don’t like being sweaty and people looking at me. I like dancing. There’s this class called Clubbercise – you get given glow sticks and you’re in a big dark room with rave music and disco lights. It’s very dark so people can’t see you, which is great, and there’s loads of different women, all different shapes and sizes, all there for the same thing, which is to have fun.”
Learning self-acceptance has taken years for Shona, who admits she still finds it hard not to criticise herself when watching EastEnders.
“When I watch me on TV, I do hide behind the pillow. I’m always thinking: ‘Oh, look there’s another chin’, or ‘There’s a spot that wasn’t covered up that day’, or ‘I look really tired’, or ‘I look really fat’.
“But this is just stuff that we all need to get over and as I’m getting older and crawling into my 30s, I’m learning to just accept you’re never going to be happy with everything you’ve got. Even if you’re six-foot-something and stick-thin, I think everyone thinks about changing things.”
Shona pauses and reflects on Little Mix star Jesy Nelson, who won Best Factual Entertainment at the NTAs for her emotional documentary Odd One Out, in which she told her story about the terrifying online abuse she suffered that almost drove her to suicide following her overnight X Factor fame.
“It was horrible [what she went through]. People say things that hurt. When I was younger it used to happen a lot. People are really nasty. It used to affect me, and I used to believe the things they said. They confirm your insecurities and you think, ‘That’s that then, I must have a double chin’. As you get older you have to do a lot of work on yourself.”
On screen, Whitney has been at the heart of some of the most explosive storylines in EastEnders’ 35-year history, with show boss Kate Oates signing her up for another three years.
When she first arrived on Albert Square in 2008, Whitney had been groomed by Bianca’s (played by Patsy Palmer) paedophile partner Tony King (Chris Coghill). It was the first time the topic had been dealt with by a soap, and was praised by the NSPCC for raising awareness.
This year, viewers watched on in horror as she came face-to-face with her abuser’s son Leo King (Tom Wells) who, determined to get revenge on behalf of his dead father, attempted to kill Whitney in her sleep – before she killed him on Valentine’s Day, finally ending his reign of terror.
It was the most dramatic thing Whitney’s ever been through, but as Shona, I loved filming it.
“It was the most dramatic thing Whitney’s ever been through, but as Shona, I loved filming it,” she says.
“I absolutely loved killing him and I loved working with Tom. I said to Tom: ‘Just go for it, throw me around’. We’ve spent a lot of lunchtimes going through the lines because we’ve had a lot of physical stuff, so I wanted to make him comfortable with putting his hands on me, throwing me around and being quite rough.”
Endless crying, ear-piercing Cockney rows, rolling around in the mud with someone trying to strangle you… filming such gruelling scenes day in, day out must take its toll, but Shona has found an interesting way to unwind.
“You have to leave Whitney at the gate,” she says. “Sometimes, it can be hard when you’ve had a long day but I spend a lot of time with my family, and I like to go home and sing on my karaoke machine.
“But every day is so much fun. It’s the writing, and not knowing quite what’s going to happen, but that something big is going to happen. Then you get that script and you can’t wait to film it.”
Shona has come a long way since her 2012 suspension from the soap. Now one of the Square’s most indispensable characters, she credits her colleagues for helping nurture her.
“I can’t believe I’m still in it!” she says. “When I got the job I thought it would be a couple of episodes, maybe a scene with Patsy. Looking back at some of the scenes I did in the beginning, I shouted a lot. It was a confidence thing. I thought: ‘if I just shout, then everybody will just think I’m confident!’, but really I was young and insecure.
“Being in EastEnders is an amazing place to learn because everybody is so lovely. Especially Lindsey Coulson who played Carol Jackson. She was a real help to the younger people – she always said: ‘Don’t be afraid to ask a question’. I miss Lindsey and Patsy.”
So what’s next for Shona? Well first, there’s the matter of celebrating her big 3-0 in October next year. That might be over 18 months away, but she’s already got the occasion sorted.
“I want a massive RuPaul’s Drag Race party because I’m obsessed with it. I loved Divina and Baga Chipz. I know Baga – when I used to go to Brighton to party, we’d go out together. I want something fun.”
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And beyond EastEnders?
“I’d like to think I’d do other things. I’d like to change my hair – that’s probably the first thing I’d do, make it a lot softer than Whitney’s. I think I’d like to continue acting, or singing. I’d love to do something like Peaky Blinders or a period drama.
“A few people have asked me to come out [to LA] and meet people, but it’s a long way to go. I wouldn’t say no, though. From Borehamwood to Hollywood…”
Watch this space.
Hair: Guy Kremer at Guy Kremer Winchester using L’Oréal Professionnel Tecni.Art
Make-up: Lan Nguyen-Grealis using Becca Cosmetics
Styling: Tracey Lea Sayer Stylist’s assistant: Jacklyn Agu Shona