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Emmerdale star Gemma Oaten: I needed benefits when Covid shut my play


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Mixed fortunes: Gemma Oaten was forced to turn to Universal Credit to pay her rent and make ends meet during the pandemic

Mixed fortunes: Gemma Oaten was forced to turn to Universal Credit to pay her rent and make ends meet during the pandemic

The actress Gemma Oaten was forced to turn to Universal Credit to pay her rent and make ends meet during the pandemic. 

Oaten, 38, who shot to fame playing Rachel Breckle on Emmerdale between 2011 and 2015, lost her job when theatres closed in March 2020.

 She told Donna Ferguson that she had sleepless nights, worrying about how she was going to pay her bills. She recently appeared in the Million Pound Pawn series on ITV1. 

She is also chief executive of the charity SEED, an eating disorders support service. To find out more, visit www.seed.charity. 

What did your parents teach you about money? 

That it doesn’t buy happiness – you create your own happiness. My mum was a teaching assistant and my dad was an accountant, who had an amazing job, complete with a company car. We went on nice holidays and, as my dad progressed up the company ladder, we became more comfortable. 

Everything changed when he got made redundant, when I was 15. He was the main breadwinner and when a man goes through that it dents his pride. But, instead of worrying about our finances, we just cut our costs and made the best of it.

In 2011, the day before I started filming Emmerdale, he was diagnosed with stage three aggressive prostate cancer. He retired then and focused on his health. Thankfully, he’s still here today. 

Have you ever struggled make ends meet? 

Yes. The worst time was at the start of lockdown in 2020. I was on tour, doing a play called Ten Times Table by Alan Ayckbourn. It was cancelled and, like many people in the industry, I got no compensation. All the theatres were closed, the TV studios stopped producing, and I had no money coming in. People think if you’ve been on television, you must have money. But I was renting and I started having sleepless nights about my bills. By May, I realised I couldn’t make it work. 

So I took a deep breath, and did what a lot of people did. I went on Universal Credit. I was on it for about a year, and I also got the self-employment grant from the Government. That helped me pay my rent and then I started doing some public speaking work online. 

Have you ever been paid silly money? 

Yes. I was once paid £7,000 for an hour and a half of my time, doing a keynote talk at a gala dinner. I spent some of it on a holiday and saved the rest. 

What was the best year of your financial life? 

It was 2012, after I’d been at Emmerdale for a year. Even though I wasn’t on a massive wage, it felt huge to me. I went from living in a bedsit in Finsbury Park to being able to rent my own flat, buy a TV and go out for nice meals.

What is your biggest money mistake? 

Lending thousands to someone I trusted, who didn’t pay it back. I was taken for a ride. 

The best money decision you have made? 

To believe in myself at the age of 24. That was when I got my place at drama school and left home. I was very poorly before then. For 13 years from the age of ten, I suffered from an eating disorder. I was constantly in and out of hospitals. When I finally got better, I could only afford to do a one-year drama course. I managed to raise about £6,000 in grants but that wasn’t enough so my grandad stepped in and gave me part of my father’s inheritance. He said he believed I would be successful and pay it back. And I did.

Do you save into a pension? 

Yes. I’m chief executive of SEED, the eating disorders charity my parents founded and I make pension contributions through that. But I don’t get paid a lot and I’m thinking of stopping my pension contributions because I can’t afford them. If you can’t live in the now, there’s no future.

Big break: Gemma Oaten with actor Chris Bisson in Emmerdale in 2015

Big break: Gemma Oaten with actor Chris Bisson in Emmerdale in 2015

Do you invest directly in the stock market? 

No. I wouldn’t have a clue about that and haven’t got the money to do it. I wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. 

Do you own any property? 

No, I rent a one-bed flat in Fulham, West London. Of course, it would be wonderful to own my own place. But that’s not been the way my life has worked out. I’ve got a lovely landlord who lets me have a dog, Ruby, my schnauzer-poodle cross, and I’m happy to stay like this as long as I need to. 

If you were Chancellor what is the first thing you’d do? 

I would increase funding for charities. The NHS and Children’s Mental Health Services are overwhelmed. The voluntary sector offers a lifeline but many people are falling through the cracks. 

Do you donate to charity? 

Yes, whenever I get a fee for giving a talk about my life and I can afford to do so, I donate it to my charity SEED. I’m also an ambassador for Prostate Cancer UK, due to my father’s history. 

What is your number one financial priority? 

To pay my rent and keep a roof over my head and Ruby’s head, so she is comfortable and I am safe. There’s no point having expensive things if you are not content where you’re living. 

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