Competing in Celebrity MasterChef terrified the Heartbeat star, but she now claims the show has changed her life for the better…

Tricia Penrose has a confession to make. She knows she looks the part – gorgeous, glamorous, clearly a whizz-in-the-kitchen – but until recently, the popular actress who’s played Aidensfield’s barmaid Gina Ward for 17 years, fed herself and family mostly out of packets!

“I didn’t have time for cooking,” she groans. “I was working so much filming Heartbeat that our meals tended to come out of packets.”

Which wouldn’t have mattered quite so much if she hadn’t agreed to take part in what is widely regarded as Britain’s toughest cooking competition, Celebrity MasterChef, which starts this week.

“I’d never even seen the show as I was always rushing home along the M62 when it was on,” she says. “My agent told me it was a cookery contest like Ready Steady Cook and since I’d been on that before and won it, I agreed. But then he sent me a previous MasterChef series to watch and I thought, ‘My God! What have I let myself in for?’ It’s full-on!”

Describing herself as a ‘mediocre’ cook, Tricia even tried to pull out of the show but was told it was too late.

“So I pulled the pans out and started practising,” she grins. “Soups, sauces – I made the lot and tried them out on my friends and husband, Mark, who loved them. I started to get too big for my boots and thought, ‘Yeah, I can go all the way and win this!’

“I was up for the challenge and believe me, it was one!”

Fans can see how she gets on this week as the fifth series kicks off with Tricia competing for the coveted Celebrity MasterChef Champion 2010 title against actors Alex Fletcher, Neil Stuke, Lisa Faulkner, Chris Walker, Marcus Patrick and Mark Little; TV presenters Jennie Bond, Dick Strawbridge, Jenny Powell and Martin Roberts; TV personality Christine Hamilton; ex-world champion decathlete Dean Macey, Olympic athlete Colin Jackson and Olympic javelin champion Tessa Sanderson CBE; radio DJ’s Nihal Arthanayake and Mark Chapman; singer Kym Mazelle; entrepreneur Richard Farleigh and model Danielle Lloyd.

Judges Gregg Wallace and John Torode are once again at the helm. “They interviewed me whilst I was trying to cook chicken for the Invention Test and I kept thinking, ‘Go away! I haven’t time for this, I need to crack on,'” she giggles.

Without spoiling the suspense and revealing how far she goes, Tricia does admit to some kitchen disasters.

“John and Gregg said my presentation was horrendous. I just dollop food on a plate,” she sighs. “And I served them raw liver. I was so upset I burst into tears!

“But I learnt a lot being on the show: like presentation and seasoning – some dill in fishcakes makes all the difference. Mainly though, I learnt not to get in a tizz like I used to and just enjoy cooking, preferably with a glass of wine in hand!”

In fact, cooking has become something of a lifesaver for Tricia, who was understandably upset when Heartbeat stopped filming last year after 18 series.

“That was sad, but it’s given me the luxury of time,” says Tricia, who lives in Cheshire and is married to businessman Mark Simpkin and has two boys, Jake, six, and Freddy, who’s almost two.

“Instead of rushing out to work I’m here to prepare everyone’s breakfast and it’s precious time with the boys. We’ve got a lovely big kitchen for entertaining and since going on MasterChef I’ve really enjoyed being in it and feel it’s become the heart of our home.

“Now I put time and effort into cooking instead of opening a packet. Homemade burgers, fishcakes, sauces, soups – I’ve got so much more confidence and cook all Freddy’s meals from scratch. Mark has a meal waiting on the table when he gets home from work. He’s chuffed to bits and calls me his little chef!”

Tricia’s newfound love of cooking and healthy eating has also seen the actress lose two stone, dropping from a size 14 to a size ten.

“Without a filming schedule we’ve been able to go on lots of holidays which has been great – but not for my waistline,” she sighs. “Because I wasn’t on screen or having to wear Gina’s mini-skirts, I’d stopped counting calories and the weight just piled on.

“I didn’t like looking in the mirror, so I started eating healthier and joined the gym. Now I feel great; although I won’t be wearing Gina’s mini-skirts – I don’t miss them. They were freezing up on the moors!”

Heartbeat was culled in May last year in ITV cutbacks, but the final nine episodes of the last series will be shown from this week.

“They’re cracking episodes and I’ll be watching because I grew up on that show and it was the best job ever,” says Tricia. “I’ve come to terms with it ending so it won’t be too painful to watch – plus I want to see Freddy make his debut!

“Gina has a baby in the storyline and since Freddy was on set with me anyway, I convinced the producers to use him. He was a natural!”

Spending time with her family has clearly been the silver lining to Tricia’s Heartbeat era drawing to a close.

“I was upset at first, but I’ve had the best year,’ smiles Tricia, who celebrated her 40th birthday in style in April. “Mark took me to Los Angeles and said I was his ‘Pretty Woman’ for the week because I’m obsessed with the film. We stayed at the Beverly Wilshire hotel and shopped on Rodeo Drive – oh, it was amazing! Being able to holiday and be with the kids so much has been fantastic.”

Which isn’t to say she’ll be off our screens very long, especially if her dream job comes calling.

“I’ve got stuff in the pipeline I can’t talk about yet and I’ve had calls to do West End shows in London, but I don’t want to move the kids,” says Tricia. “Home life and family comes first, which is why I’d love to be in Coronation Street as it’s right on my doorstep. I’ll be on the cobbles in a flash if they call!”

*Watch Celebrity MasterChef on BBC1 from Weds, July 21, and Heartbeat on ITV1 on Sunday nights