EAST Lancashire-born actress Julie Hesmondhalgh was thrown into the spotlight when she took on the controversial role of transsexual Hayley Patterson in Coronation Street. She has since put her new-found celebrity to good use by helping causes she believes in. One of those causes is very close to her heart, as Valerie Cowan discovered.

JULIE Hesmondhalgh was thousands of miles from home when she received some devastating news.

The 29-year-old actress from Church was using some of the earnings from her first stint in Coronation Street to fulfil a lifetime's ambition to see the world.

Her trip took her to several exotic locations, including Los Angeles, Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.

She said: "A friend came to Cuba to meet me and told me my dad, John, who was 68, had been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease. It was something he had suspected was happening to him because his fingers and his hand had started to shake.

"I was a long way from home and that was quite scary for me and very worrying. I knew very little about it."

John was 68 and had needed a quadruple heart bypass a few years earlier, so the diagnosis was a big blow for Julie and her mum, Maureen.

Parkinson's is a disease of the nervous system, which causes involuntary shaking and can cause a stooped posture and limit movement.

Julie spoke to her father and he assured her that he was fine and that the condition was in its very early stages.

But when she returned to England she was anxious to find out more about what was wrong with him, and contacted the Parkinson's Disease Society. She found them to be "incredibly helpful" and soon realised she might be able to return the favour by lending her name and face to their campaigns.

"In a way it is a Cinderella charity, because it is something that affects older people a lot," she said.

"There are other charities dealing with children or cancer which are much more in the public eye.

"Parkinson's is quite a distressing disease to be around in its late stages. A lot of the time it is difficult for the society to fund-raise."

Julie is now president of the Burnley branch of the society and has taken part in radio and television programmes to raise awareness of the disease.

On October 2 she will take part in a sponsored walk across Morecambe Bay to further raise the profile of the organisation - and raise some much-needed cash.

Already around 70 people have signed up to join her on the trek.

Her involvement with the society has not only taught her more about the condition, but it has also helped her father.

She said: "My dad is quite a private person and not into clubs and things like that at all.

"I got him and my mum to come to Preston to a carol concert at Christmas and he got to meet other people with Parkinson's.

"They say that only nice people get Parkinson's and it seems to be true. They were all lovely."

John is currently coping well with the disease, which is still in the very early stages. Julie said: "He had a bit of a rough patch because he was a guinea pig for a new drug and he didn't react to it very well, although it might be incredibly helpful to other people.

"He is off that now and he is not on medication at all and the longer he can stay off it the better.

"He is very fit, even now. He is a great walker and always has been."

But she said there were days when the disease got him down.

She said: "Even although it is just my dad's hand that shakes he gets terribly embarrassed about it. It is a really difficult disease to live with."

Julie's father is pleased that she has become involved with the society.

She said: "There is so little I can actually do for him in practical terms. It is nice to be able to do this.

"He says if it is helping some other poor bugger that's got it, that's good!"

The Parkinson's Disease Society is just one of several charitable causes Julie has donated her time to.

She is an honorary patron of Accrington Theatre Group, of which she was once a member, and she is taking part in a sponsored trek along the Inca Trail in Peru for the cerebral palsy charity Scope.

She has lent her support to the campaign to save the Octagon Theatre in Bolton, and next month she will appear at King George's Hall in Blackburn at a fund-raising variety show in aid of the Red Brick Theatre appeal.

She admitted she found it difficult to turn down requests for help and is anxious not to be seen as a do-gooder.

She said: "I'm just the girl who can't say no and it does get ridiculous sometimes."

But she added: "It is important for me to do these things. I am incredibly lucky. I have had a really big break doing Coronation Street. This is about putting something back." Julie, a former head girl at Moorhead High School and student at Accrington and Rossendale College, moved to London more than a decade ago to go to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

She set up her own fringe theatre group in the capital and had several leading theatre roles before landing the Corrie job. She is still based in London but has a flat in Manchester.

She was always hopeful that she would get her big break, even when acting work was thin on the ground.

"I had a fantastic few years when I did very little," she said.

"I was living in a big house with some of the best people in the world and working in a pub and doing a cleaning job. I was frustrated that I wasn't doing what I wanted to do but there was a little bit of hope."

She has settled in well to the Street, becoming good friends with many cast members, including David Neilson, who plays her on-screen "husband" Roy Cropper, and fellow Hyndburn-raised actress Vicky Entwistle, who plays Janice Battersby.

"It's lovely because it is a flexible lifestyle. I have never been too busy to do my shopping or my washing," she said.

"If you are in a big storyline it can be very hectic, but sometimes I am finished by nine o'clock in the morning and I'm going to the shops before they're even open and ringing my friends to go out and they're not even up."

The role of Hayley was steeped in controversy from the start.

There was a backlash from members of the transsexual community, who would have preferred to see a real transsexual in the role.

But that has largely died down, and it is widely acknowledged now that Julie and Granada handled the issue sensitively. Julie has even become a patron of the transsexual pressure group Press for Change.

But while Hayley seems to have found many friends in the Street for the time being, the fact that she was once Harold will not be forgotten.

Julie said: "It keeps rearing its head. There will be more stories to come.

"That is good because I think it should be kept in mind. In real life if someone was a transsexual and lived in a small place it wouldn't be forgotten."

Julie hopes she will be stitching knickers in Baldwin's factory for some time yet, although as with all soap stars, the future of her character is not in her hands.

She said: "It has given me the things that I have always wanted. I have got freedom that I have never had before.

"I have always loved travelling and it is given me some opportunities to see the world and treat my mates.

"It is such a challenging job. It is new every week. I'm very lucky."

Anyone wanting to sponsor Julie for the Morecambe Bay walk, or who would like more information about the Parkinson's Disease Society, should ring 01282 611998.

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