Laila Rouass: 'Ronnie O'Sullivan's had a calming effect on us'
Actress Laila Rouass met her fiance of three years, snooker legend Ronnie O'Sullivan, while house-hunting. She chats to Gabrielle Fagan about her Northern Ireland-filmed TV series and about how 'The Rocket' is a different man away from the green baize
LAILA Rouass wasn't expecting to fall in love when she went house-hunting, but one viewing led to her getting engaged to the controversial, but hugely talented snooker player, Ronnie O'Sullivan.
"It happened by accident. I was shown around Ronnie's house by his father, who told his son about meeting me. Ronnie called the estate agent, a friend of mine, and asked me out via her," reveals the actress, who found nationwide fame as glamorous Amber Gates in ITV's Footballers Wives.
"When she said he was a snooker player, I said, 'Yeah, but what does he do for a living?' I'd never heard of him because sport doesn't interest me at all, although Ronnie's won me over to snooker."
The couple, who live with Rouass's nine-year-old daughter, Inez, have been engaged since 2013 and it seems their relationship has helped bring the once-troubled sportsman the elusive stability and contentment he's yearned for.
A five-times world champion, O'Sullivan is a multi-millionaire thanks to his prowess on the table – he's nicknamed 'The Rocket' for his rapid playing style – but has had a history of alcohol and drug problems.
Struggles with depression led him to take a break from snooker for a year in 2012 and he even went to work for a period on a pig farm. O'Sullivan (40) reportedly once said: "I could go out and play, but take me out of there and I couldn't do life."
All that's now changed and his career is flourishing – he recently went to Buckingham Palace with Rouass (45), to receive an OBE from Prince Charles.
"The 'Ronnie' show's back on – he really wants to be out there and take it all on, which is great," declares Rouass proudly.
"He was overwhelmed by getting his honour. It's typical of his modesty that he doesn't understand why he's so loved and why he deserved it. I'm so proud of him and think he's very capable of handling his depression these days. He's been strong enough to seek help, and brave enough to talk about the problem, and is so positive and upbeat about life.
"I do support him – just as he supports me – and it's easy to support someone when you know what they're going through. You know what you should and shouldn't say – it's about creating a safety net around them. He's under an immense amount of pressure, he's always a favourite to win, which can be hard, and we have to take that on board. He lives a very healthy lifestyle these days and uses exercise, especially running, to help him keep his depression at bay. It's inspiring being with him to be honest."
Theirs was a whirlwind romance – they moved into a home together in O'Sullivan's native Essex – just four months after meeting in 2012.
Rouass, who's appeared in TV dramas Holby City, Primeval, and Spooks and waltzed into Strictly Come Dancing's quarter final in 2009, confides: "I knew very quickly he was 'the one' because I'd never met anyone like him before. He wears his heart on his sleeve, which is very endearing.
"On TV he can come across as quite cocky at times, but actually it's just bravado. In private, he's quite shy and quiet and not arrogant at all. He'll say the most inappropriate things at the wrong time, in the wrong place to the wrong people, but it's just because he's so honest. You can't help but love someone like that because there's just no game playing."
She's a step-mother to his children, Ronnie Jnr, eight, and Lily, seven, from a previous relationship with former partner, Jo Langley. O'Sullivan also has another child, Taylor-Ann, from a two-year relationship with Sally Magnus, but has admitted that he's "never really been part" of her life.
"Ronnie's lovely with his children, we see them often, and he's a fabulous step-father to Inez. He's such a good male role model for her and they're friends who laugh together as well. We're so lucky to have him. It was key to me that they got on because she's my priority. I had to leave Holby after two years because I felt filming was taking me away from her too much, but working's easier now she's older," says Rouass, who split from Inez's father, business tycoon Nasir Khan, shortly before she was born. He was jailed for nine years in 2011 after being convicted of a £250 million VAT fraud.
From then on, she coped with life as a single parent. "It was very tough sometimes, but it means Inez and I have a really strong bond." She admits it took O'Sullivan time to get used to their household. "It was so funny when Ronnie and I first lived together because he'd put his hands over his ears and go, 'Whoaa, it's so noisy here,'" she recalls smiling.
"My background's Arab and I'm quite fiery, stubborn and used to shouting and expressing myself quite loudly, and Inez and I have our little fall-outs as mums and daughters do. Ronnie's had a really calming effect on us and he tells me, 'Pick your battles'. He's taught me a lot about myself because he's more open and free than I am and very generous. I can't imagine him not being in my life."
She relishes juggling work and family – this year she starred in Ruth Jones' Welsh sitcom Stella on Sky 1 and recently played the deputy prime minister in US drama, The Royals opposite Elizabeth Hurley and Joan Collins. She's currently on screen playing a pushy beauty-pageant mother in Disney's The Lodge, which was filmed at the Montalto Estate in Ballynahinch, Co Down.
"It's lovely to be in a show Inez and her friends can enjoy, and now I'm the coolest mum in her school," says Rouass delightedly. One role she's reluctant to play is a real-life bride. "I think what Ronnie and I have together works just fine as it is. I don't know if we'll ever [get married] because I'm actually terrified by the thought of all the preparations, fuss and walking down the aisle in a dress. I can't imagine Ronnie wanting all that palaver either – actually I don't think he'd turn up! Maybe one day we'll have have a big old knees-up in the East End."
:: Laila Rouass is starring in The Lodge on the Disney Channel which airs on Fridays at 5.30pm