Backchat: 'I can't stand Kareena - she needs to get a life';
In EastEnders she's dowdy Kareena Ferreira, but off-screen
Pooja Shah's a very different girl. She talks about fashion,
her fella and why she loves going topless

by Jenny Cockle, for Sunday Mirror, London, 14 March 2004

Pooja Actress Pooja Shah couldn't be less like her EastEnders character Kareena Ferreira if she tried. She bounds into the north London cinema where we're shooting, extends her hand and states, 'Hi, I'm Pooj.' There's no trace of the subdued, naive girl she plays on screen. Instead, the 'Pooj' we meet is a very confident, no- nonsense woman. She talks incredibly fast, barely pausing for breath, and isn't afraid to slam her character's unglamorous image.

'I'm fed up with it now,' sighs the 24-year-old Londoner. 'Kareena's too dowdy. I don't want to look like Zoe and Kelly because they're the sex kittens of the show and they have the figures to wear little dresses and tops, but I wanted Kareena to be different, to stand out in Spanish-style floaty tops or something. But it's turned into grandma clothing.' You get the feeling she's not afraid to tell the costume department exactly what she thinks. 'I do have input,' she says. 'I feel I've been in the show long enough to say, "Do you know what? I really don't like this." I tried on a load of new tops yesterday and I said which ones I liked, but there was nothing particularly wow.'

Pooja's thrilled when she spots the rail of glamorous clothes she'll be wearing today, but admits she doesn't usually make a big effort with her appearance. 'It's jeans all the time,' she laughs. 'I'm so boring, I just wake up, brush my hair and go out. Because we have to wear make- up at work, I don't wear it when I'm at home or out locally. If anything at all, I'll put on a bit of eyeliner.'

Pooja's not one for teetering around on high heels either. 'I just can't walk in heels. For photos they're great, cos I don't have to move in them. Otherwise I only wear wedges or flat shoes.' True to her word, throughout our shoot she walks around barefoot with her stilettos in her hand.

Pooja explains she's only been acting for three years after finishing a degree in theatre studies at the University of Brighton. She vividly recalls her previous TV role in Sky One's Is Harry On The Boat?, about a group of holiday reps in Ibiza.

'It was filthy and there was a lot of nudity,' she laughs. 'It's funny playing a role like that, then a role like Kareena - extreme opposites. I played a DJ who started off innocent, but ended up a complete slapper. I was nervous about doing the topless scenes, but I'm very proud of it. I've done that so I can do anything now. It was great fun.'

Playing clean-living Kareena is not a barrel of laughs, however, and Pooja thinks her character should lighten up. 'If I'm completely honest, I can't stand Kareena,' she laughs. 'I thought she had potential, but she just grates on my nerves. She needs to get a backbone and get a life. I've had letters from people saying that. She has a bit of an ego problem - she thinks everyone is in love with her. She hasn't got many friends, but then I wouldn't be her friend if I met her.'

One friendship Pooja has translated from screen to real life is with her Bend It Like Beckham co-star Parminder Nagra, who now stars in ER. The pair have remained close friends since making the film. 'She's a fantastic actress. I don't think I could follow in her footsteps to be honest, but I'd love to. Doors seem to be opening over here for a lot more Asian British actors, but for Parminder to break through to America is phenomenal. I have dreams, I'm always thinking about the next thing I want to do. I'd like to have a go at comedy, but I don't think I'm very funny,' she adds.

At the moment, she's happy to be appearing in the UK's highest- rated soap. 'I love it. I wake up every day and look forward to going to work.' She's good friends with her co-stars Charlie Brooks (Janine) and Nabil Elouhabi, who plays her half-brother and, er, former boyfriend Tariq.

'Nabil and I have decided to go out for dinner together once a week and try to get round all the restaurants in London. I also get on very well with Charlie. Michelle Ryan and Brooke Kinsella are as inseparable off-screen as their characters, Zoe and Kelly, on- screen, so that was intimidating at first. A lot of the cast hang out together, go clubbing and stuff. I go every now and again, but most of the time I like to get out of the work environment and spend time with my boyfriend, my friends and family.'

Pooja has been with her boyfriend Josh, who works in the property business, for a year and a half. She's happy to talk about him, but they like to stay away from the paps' lenses. 'He's gorgeous, I can tell you that much,' she reveals. 'He has friends in this industry, so he doesn't get freaked out by it all. He's handling all the attention better than I am.' Although she currently lives with her family in north London - she's the middle child of three - Pooja is saving up to buy her own house.

'My parents weren't at all strict. When I was 17, they bought me a tattoo for Christmas. Not only were they not strict for Asian parents, they weren't strict for any parents. They'd ground me if I misbehaved, but they let me have boyfriends, and were open to a lot of stuff. But I'd like my own place now.'

Pooja slips into an elegant chiffon dress and everyone says how stunning she looks. 'It's cute, yeah,' she says, inspecting the Polaroid later. 'I'm covering my bedroom wall with Polaroids from all the shoots I do.'

Although she loves clothes, it's no surprise to hear that down- to-earth Pooja refuses to spend a fortune on designer labels. 'My dad runs a men's clothing business, so I've always had it in my head that you don't need to pay too much. I've been to a few awards ceremonies and what you wear is very important. Last time, I wore a dress I bought for pounds 20 in the East End. People were like, "Wow! Where's it from?"'

In her next shot, Pooja wears a gorgeous floaty pale blue dress, but she's not about to get carried away by the glamour of it all. 'It's very Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz,' she laughs. 'You know, before this shoot I would have said no to wearing silver sandals in the real world. But now I think I just might.'