She lost her sister, her baby son, her best friend and her sight, yet despite decades of heartache Kitty McGeever counts herself lucky. Rod McPhee met the indomitable Emmerdale actress as she embarks on a happier existence as an award-winning soap star
'I remember meeting someone who was supposed to help me adapt to being blind and I asked how you go about buying clothes..."
Kitty McGeever grins and nudges Elvis onto her shoulder and a giant pair of Christian Dior shades on top of her head.
"...she told me: 'What you have to do is stick with beige – just to be on the safe side'. Well, I went home and burst into tears. I thought, there's no way I'm living a life in beige, I'd rather die."
Elvis, just to be clear, is a baby chihuahua. Although she claims to love her labrador guide dog Wilma more, the suitably chi-chi choice of puppy is very Kitty.
From her Vivienne Westwood wardrobe to her love of Bollinger, the 42-year-old Emmerdale actress adores the finer things in life even though her life has been characterised by turmoil and tears.
Born in Bramley and raised in Liversedge and Farsley, from the age of five her youth was overcast by the death of her younger sister Elizabeth from Hib, a bacterial infection which most children are now immunised against. Her mother, Pat, had a nervous breakdown which meant her father, Colin, spent long periods almost single-handedly bringing up Kitty.
In her late teens she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, a condition which sent her blind at the age of 34. This was brought on by soaring adrenaline levels caused when her baby son, Felix, fell desperately ill. Her only biological child was born in 2001 with numerous defects as a result of a rare syndrome and died aged just 15 months.
As if that weren't enough for one lifetime, she recently helped her sister, Caroline, recover from breast cancer and last year lost her best friend Janet to lung cancer. Now she lives in Low Moor, Bradford, after moving in with Janet's daughter, Charlotte, whom she considers her own daughter now.
With so much pain to endure you might expect Kitty to be miserable, but she isn't. She's a scream.
"If my little son is looking down on me now I wouldn't want him to see me as a bitter woman," she says. "I'd want him to see me as the mother he knew me for during the short time we were together.
"It was the most awful, desperate part of my life and I would have given up my own life in the blink of an eye for him to live but, apart from that, I wouldn't want to go back and change anything else about my life really.
"I don't really feel like fate has dealt me the rough end of the stick. Because of what has happened to me I've made more mistakes to learn from, I'm less judgmental, I'm just... (she pauses)... more enlightened."
Kitty is still on a high after receiving the Jane Tomlinson Courage Award and the Yorkshire Woman of Achievement Award at last month's YEP Women of Achievement Awards.
She returned from hospital on that dark, dark day back in 2003, having literally lived with Felix in Leeds General Infirmary for a year. She'd lost her only child, her vision and was slipping into heart and renal failure.
Despite longing to give up her own life if only it would save that of her baby, she found the courage to kick start her life and carry on.
"I wouldn't have said I was particularly courageous – you just HAVE to get on with things, with what life throws at you," she says. "I don't even think being blind is a bad thing. In a strange way I feel better for having gone through the same battle Felix had and that I didn't come out of it unscarred.
"It forced me out of that whole narrow way of perceiving people. I don't know or care if someone's got a big nose or cellulite or trendy clothes. If I could have my sight restored now then, to be honest, I probably would. But not for me, for my friends and family who also have to cope with it."
There are other positives which Kitty has to be grateful for. Not many Leeds lasses wearing hob nail boots and dresses (Kitty's youthful dress sense) get into the Royal Academy for the Dramatic Arts.
In her youth she briefly toyed with becoming a nun after attending a Catholic high school. It might seem an unlikely option but she didn't feel it would necessarily close down her life options. "A friend of mine entered a convent," she recalls. "Then ran off after falling in love with an electrician who came to fix some wiring in the nunnery."
But in the end she left college and spent five years earning an honest crust in a factory in Pudsey. It wasn't the usual launchpad for a career on stage and screen, but the auditioners were so impressed with her acting and singing potential they snapped her up.
Although she insists she was never the 'pretty ingenue type' her looks and relative maturity ensured she got plenty of work when she left RADA aged 28. And up until getting married to her now ex-husband Lee Taylor and giving birth to Felix, she was almost constantly in work.
She was forced to change from Catherine Mitchell because, as is often the case, an established actor already had the name. So she took her grandmother's maiden surname – and Kitty McGeever was born.
She landed TV roles of various sizes in shows like Pie in the Sky and London's Burning then moved into theatre work with stage productions of Brassed Off at the National Theatre and Keith Waterhouse's Bing Bong, directed by Ned Sherrin.
Her life also appeared to turn a corner three years ago when she had a kidney and pancreas transplant which means she no longer has diabetes. Although she separated from her husband around this time, they remain good friends and she's now dating a man 12 years her junior.
Then came adapting to her new life as a blind woman, something she has accepted now, but only after a long period of soul searching.
"I never wanted to be blind with a capital B," she explains. "I wouldn't accept it at first and, in a way, I still don't think of myself as a blind person on some levels. It's just not me really. I don't want to change myself from being who I am."
Thankfully she chose to take an unorthodox path. It began when she met a circle of friends surrounding a social worker she was introduced to at the Morley Street Blind Resource Centre in Bradford. They're all Asian men, and at least partially sighted if not completely blind, and they all get on gloriously. "Even if we do look a bit odd when we go out together," says Kitty. "Just me and a big group of Asian men." She also enjoys spending nights out in Leeds's oldest gay bar, The New Penny, till 6am.
It's fair to say she doesn't like conventional company – but she does like a drink.
"Because I was diabetic I spent almost 40 years unable to touch booze," Kitty says. "So when I found out I could I was well away. They take the mickey out of me for it on Emmerdale.
"They still remind me of the time we all went out and I asked the waitress for some Bolly and she said 'A glass?' and I said, 'Oh no, a bottle love'. Well, I'd only end up having six glasses so I might as well get a bottle at a time hadn't I?"
Kitty appears relatively phlegmatic about her job playing Lizzie Lakely on the ITV soap. After all she's a classically trained actress with an established CV and still has other roles she'd love to play. But she admits Emmerdale has helped her enjoy a new lease of life.
"It certainly helps pay the bills and gives me some kind of a normal, steady life and that's something not many actors can say," she says. "It's also great because having any kind of profile means you can also help other organisations you're associated with.
"I've been working with Henshaws in Bradford, which helps adults with learning difficulties as well as Sense which helps deafblind people.
"But at the same time it does make you a bit self conscious. Just the other day I went for a hospital appointment and they left me waiting over an hour because, basically, they'd forgotten about me. Then when I went up to complain the girl on the desk said: 'Hey aren't you that woman off Emmerdale?'
"And, of course, I didn't know what to do then. If I'd have kicked off then I'd have looked like some kind of diva which, believe it or not, I'm really not."