Amanda Barrie has struggled with anaphylaxis
“It blew up in the middle of the night,” she says. “I was like a balloon.” Her throat was swollen and she was struggling for breath until medics administered powerful antihistamines to counteract the extreme reaction.
“It was really terrifying,” says Amanda, who recently accrued a new legion of fans during her memorable stint in the Celebrity Big Brother house. Even more frightening is the fact that she is still not certain what triggered her anaphylaxis.
The condition is most commonly associated with extreme nut allergies but in 50 per cent of cases the trigger is never identified and sometimes, as doctors believe happened in Amanda’s case, there isn’t one: it is caused by a blip in the immune system which makes it temporarily more reactive.
Amanda has had a couple of extreme allergic reactions since then and although none has been as serious as that first episode she now carries an Epipen at all times in case she needs an emergency shot of adrenaline.
Amanda made good friends with Ann Widdecombe in the Big Brother house
Everybody born in the north of England in 1935 has chest problems. It’s because they used to hang you over a tar wagon if you had a cough.
During her time in the Celebrity Big Brother house, where she formed a close bond with Daily Express columnist Ann Widdecombe, it was not allergies that were an issue, it was struggling to hear Big Brother’s announcements.
It was perhaps hardly surprising as Amanda is an age-defying 82 and on average our hearing begins to decline in our 40s.
The charity Action On Hearing Loss estimates that two out of five people over the age of 50 have some degree of hearing loss and by our 70s, seven out of 10 of us suffer from impaired hearing.
Amanda says following conversations in a noisy environment had been a problem for some time and she had a hearing test at Specsavers and been fitted with hearing aids.
But she says: “I don’t wear them all the time and I just didn’t think of taking them into the Big Brother house. Then I suddenly realised I could not hear the announcements when I was out in the garden.
Amanda Barrie had chest problems in Celebrity Big Brother
“It was a real problem in some of the tasks as I could have got the whole house punished because I couldn’t hear something.”
As often happens as we get older, Amanda has lost the ability to hear high frequencies which are usually the first to go. So if she is going to a noisy restaurant or anywhere with a lot of background noise she wears hearing aids which are so tiny they are almost invisible.
She says: “If there is one message I could give to people it would be to go and have their hearing tested, even if it seems OK, because the trouble with hearing loss is that it happens so gradually you often don’t realise how much you are missing.
“If you were having trouble reading a menu you wouldn’t wait until you were blind before having an eye test. It’s the same for hearing. Why wait?” Other than waiting until she was 67 before coming out as bisexual, Amanda has never been one to wait for something to happen.
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She was only 13 years old when she ran away from home to join the chorus line and by the time she was 16 she was treading the boards in London’s West End with Danny La Rue and Barbara Windsor, before switching to acting and roles which included Carry On films and Coronation Street’s Alma.
Looking back she admits: “Dancers took the most appalling risks with dieting. If you were approaching 7st 8lb you thought you were overweight. We were neurotic about being thin, probably neurotic to the point of anorexia.”
She has always been slim and says her years as a dancer undoubtedly helped but adds: “My weight can go up just looking at food. I do try to watch it because I do think that being overweight causes a lot of health problems.”
However she adds: “The best health cure I can possibly think of is a really good laugh, the kind where you can’t breathe and I have been lucky to have had a lot of laughter in my life. That’s one of the things I loved about Big Brother, we had a lot of laughs.”
As soon as she set foot in the house Amanda joked: “It’s a miracle I got up those stairs.”
But viewers had no idea how much of a struggle those first few days were for the star, who is the oldest person to ever enter the house.
At the time she said it was good practice for going into a care home but Amanda was hiding the fact that she was nursing a serious chest infection and on occasions her breathing was so laboured and her coughing so severe she was taken out of the house for treatment – and to give her housemates a chance to sleep.
“I was so ill in the Big Brother house. I went in with a sort of bronchial chest infection that developed like you would not believe. For the first week and a bit they had to drag me out in the middle of the night and fill me full of pills and put me on inhalers. I didn’t really begin to pick up until the middle of the second week.”
Amanda’s best health cure is a good laugh
And she jokes: “Everybody born in the north of England in 1935 has chest problems. It’s because they used to hang you over a tar wagon if you had a cough.”
Amanda has absolutely no plans to retire and has just finished a pilot for a “very special BBC sitcom”.
Although she admits that reading for a part can be hard work, because another surprise is that the actress who has memorised countless scripts and now shares her life with the crime novelist Hilary Bonner, also has dyslexia.
But as she says: “You just have to work harder. Some people are good at reading and some people are good at tap dancing. It just depends how your brain works.”