The setting for the interview with Cleo Rocos is perfect – a bright, friendly bar in Soho where she greets the busy staff with a cheery greeting and warm smile.
Her first words to me are: “How wonderful to meet you, thank you so much for coming.” Within minutes, it’s as though we’ve been friends for years. That’s a real gift and not one normally associated with TV stars of her longstanding, who are often bored by the media machine and want the interview over as soon as possible.
Cleo has arrived in slim-fit white jeans and sensible flat shoes, but immediately rushes off to change into “something sparkly” for the photoshoot, emerging in black trousers, silver top and high-heeled, pointy boots.
While she’s out of the room, photographer Ian and I look at each other and breathe a sigh of relief. Interviewing and photographing celebrities can leave one feeling wary, weary and cross. We’re going to enjoy this.
Ian is impressed by Cleo’s professionalism. Nothing is too much trouble, as he asks her to pose against various backgrounds. He constantly apologises for being so fussy, but she tells him to take as long as he needs. Refreshing indeed.
At last, we settle on to the settees in the mirrored upper bar and I have a chance to put some questions to Cleo, who made her name as the sexy co-star in Kenny Everett’s anarchic comedy programme which hit our TV screens in the 1980s.
Cleo doesn’t like the “sexy” description, claiming that she “never did anything naughty” in Kenny’s show. “It was all in the mind of the viewer”, she says. I’m not sure the hot-blooded men who watched the show would agree, but she is certainly very warm and intensely feminine. Perhaps Kenny’s catchphrase “all done in the best possible taste” really did have a ring of truth!
My first questions are about Cleo’s business as importer of 100 per cent agave tequila and agave syrup, which is after all the reason for our meeting. She set up the company AquaRiva in 2012, after spending almost a year researching the production of the Mexican spirit, and has just received a huge boost with a £120,000 funding package from HSBC to enable her to import goods from South America and Germany and meet increasing orders.
HSBC North London business banking regional manager David Subba said: “We’ve been with Cleo since the inception of AquaRiva in 2012 and she’s a delight to work with – her passion for the brand is clear to see.”
It’s true, Cleo is passionate about her brand, which she named after a boat she saw while on holiday in Greece as a child with a family friend, the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, once married to Jackie Kennedy.
Cleo’s father, who was Greek and in the shipping industry, was invited by the billionaire to bring his family for a day out on the water. Cleo recalls: “It was just a perfect day and I remember seeing a boat called AquaRiva. The name stuck with me and when I was thinking what to call my business, I knew immediately what it would be.”
CLEO’S FUN FACTS
- She was a professional skateboarder at the age of 13, part of a team called the Alley Cats. She learned the technique while at school in the US.
- She appeared on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, the year of controversy when Shilpa Shetty and Jade Goody clashed amid claims of racism. Cleo, who tried to be a peacemaker on the set, admits she took part in the show only to pay a tax bill
- Her first paid job was an advert for chocolate when she was 13 and still at stage school. She appeared in a minor role in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, became a roving reporter on the TV consumer programme That’s Life and even starred in a Welsh comedy show, before she found her feet with Kenny Everett
- Cleo, Kenny and Freddie Mercury once sneaked Princess Diana into a London gay bar dressed as a young man. The story remained a secret between them for years.
With her products now stocked in Sainsbury’s and Waitrose and selected as the “house pour” in chain restaurant TGI Friday, Cleo is hoping to expand her exports to India and Russia.
Our conversation moves to Cleo’s extraordinary friendship with Kenny Everett and the adventures they shared during their 15 years together, before he died of an AIDS-related illness in 1995. So how did they meet?
“I was at stage school in west London and, running across the playground late for a ballet class one day, I was spotted by BBC director Alan Bell (whose hits included Last of the Summer Wine). He was looking for someone to play the part of a sexy secretary in a TV sitcom called Mr Big, starring Prunella Scales, Ian Lavender and Peter Jones.
“He asked me how old I was and was slightly shocked when I said 14. I always looked old for my age and could easily pass for 20.”
Bell asked Cleo to lunch at Broadcasting House in the summer holidays and introduced him to the head of light entertainment Jim Moir, who was also in the restaurant. He was on the look-out for a dancer to perform in the new Kenny Everett TV show and Cleo was booked, despite being only 15. “On the first show, I turned up dressed as a cheerleader and Kenny caught my eye. His first words were ‘ah, a fellow Martian’, because he spotted something different in me – I had never conformed in life.”
From then on, the pair were inseparable, moving in together at a later stage and mixing with the largely gay, slightly disreputable, but colourful set including Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury. They even regularly entertained Princess Diana who loved the fact that she could be herself, literally kick off her shoes and dance in Kenny’s flat.
By the summer of 1989, Kenny and Cleo’s friendship had become so close that he had convinced himself he wanted to marry her. Cleo remembers: “We’d been out dancing at a Latin club and came back exhausted and not a little inebriated. Kenny got on to both knees and proposed, but I told him not to rush into anything he might regret.”
The engagement lasted four days, by which time the couple had decided their friendship was “beyond marriage”. They held “an unengagement party” instead and continued to lead a wild, happy life together until Kenny’s illness caught up with him. Ironically, he died six months before the development of drugs to treat and control HIV and AIDS.
At this point, Cleo’s sunny smile disappears and her voice falters. Kenny’s death clearly still hurts, even after more than 20 years. I ask if she has since met anyone to share her life with, but she shakes her head emphatically: “There’s no one to replace him and there never will be,” she says.
Back to the happier topic of business. Cleo is enormously proud that her tequila won a coveted Masters Medal at the Spirits Masters awards the year she launched her company. She is also delighted that Richard Branson’s Virgin airline serves it to customers.
“Tequila is going to be the next big thing in spirits”, Cleo tells me confidently, as she serves us with a delicious margarita she has mixed at the bar. “I’m passionate about it and I want to be the best in the business.”
Photos: ©Oyster Bay Photography