Who is Denise Leigh? Britain's Got Talent soprano's life story as Bruno Tonioli left sobbing

Denise Leigh first shot to fame after winning Channel 4’s Operatunity back in 2004. She has been back in the limelight this weekend after her incredible performance on Britain's Got Talent saw the judges give her and pianist husband, Stefan Andrusyschyn, a standing ovation. In fact, her moving voice left Bruno Tonioli in tears. Here StokeonTrentLive shares Denise's incredible life story from being born with limited vision to becoming an opera singer as told to us in 2014...

“It’s been a bit of a learning curve,” explained Audley-born Denise Leigh. “It was like starting again really.” Denise, who showed a sometimes doubting world that being blind is no barrier to reaching the top, was reflecting on the latest chapter in a life that could never be dubbed predictable.

When all hope had vanished that she’d ever be a mum again, little Dimitri popped up to turn expectations on their head. “He was,” explained the then 43-year-old, “a very, very long tried for, and longed for, baby.” But she and husband Stefan, who is also unsighted, suffered a blow last Christmas when they made a shocking discovery. “Dimitri,” revealed Denise, “was diagnosed with the same eye condition six days before Christmas. We had a hellish Christmas. We were doing well to put one foot in front of the other.”

Denise’s condition is recessive, not meant to be transferrable to her children. But a barely comprehensible twist of fate had intervened. “Stefan is a carrier of the same genetic fault,” she explained, “which is an absolute freak of nature, millions and millions to one.”

Having been forced to accept her own loss of sight in her mid teens, Denise faced the same happening to her son. “It’s made me see things from a different perspective,” she said, “because while your own diagnosis and life is in your hands, you’re desperate for doctors to find something that can stem his sight loss. They’ve said that he’ll be able to see into his second decade, at which point he’ll rapidly lose his sight.”

Denise and Stefan, upbeat despite this setback were already forming a plan. “In this first decade,” she said, “we’re going to take him to see as many things as we can, so he’s got a visual memory bank of images, because I refer back to the time that I could see all the time. We’re going to take him to the zoo, to see as many animals as he can, things like that. Things that, within reason, we can afford.”

Dimitri would also have time to see the accolades picked up by mum in a singing career that sprang to life in spectacular style when she won Operatunity. Already a mum of three from a previous marriage, she defied the sceptics to win Channel 4’s search for an amateur singing star. The prize was to perform with English National Opera in the starring role of Gilda in Rigoletto at the London Coliseum.

“I remember lying on that trolley in that sack at the end of Rigoletto,” she recalled, “and the safety curtain coming across my toes, and thinking ‘if I get nothing else from this, it’s been a great journey’.”

Of course, plenty more did come. Denise, who’d sung classically from an early age, recorded albums and performed at landmark venues across the globe. “What I was doing was lovely,” she said, “but Operatunity just turned it up a hundred notches. It suddenly opened the gates to professionalism.”

It gave her the chance ‘to be able to perform with musicians who previously I wouldn’t have been able to have afforded to have gone and seen!’.

The break hadn’t come from nowhere. Denise has always been imbued with an inner steel, forged partly as a result of her condition. “I was always very driven,” she explained, “very much of the opinion that if you don’t do something for yourself no-one else is going to do it. I think that partly comes from the sight problem. There were so many obstacles as a blind student and child in the Seventies and Eighties.

“Back then, boarding school was the only source of education for a blind youngster, and if you went against the system you risked prison.”

Her parents did just that. Unhappy with the regime, they home educated her, before she went to Blackfriars Special School in Newcastle. Even then, she was made to feel she didn’t belong and told she was on probation. For some this might have been crushing. For Denise it was quietly character building.

“It has made me into quite a determined, self-disciplined and motivated person,” she reflected. Previously, Denise had been turned down for roles, producers, using the smokescreen of ‘insurance issues’ and the like, to hide their prejudices.

“The truth is,” she said, “a lot of people don’t use musicians with disabilities because it’s easier not to. You’ve got to learn to let it go, otherwise you get stuck. And it’s more important to plan and look ahead than it is to look back.”

Offers soon came flooding in, but Denise was canny enough not to get swept away in the riptide of celebrity. “I remember being told you can either be the celebrity singer like Katherine Jenkins,” she said, “or you can be a serious singer, rather than just be dragged along in the slipstream of Operatunity. I needed to provide a secure future for the kids. I wanted to be there for them.”

With those kids either grown up, or nearly so, it seemed she took the right path. She remained busy. She performed at the opening of the Paralympics, and she and Stefan, himself an accomplished accordion player and pianist, worked together regularly. At no point, though, will she allow herself to be labelled.

“I strenuously resisted that,” she revealed. “I’m a singer who is blind, not a blind singer. There are people who’ve made good careers out of being blind musicians, to the point where they’ve not had treatment for their condition because they’d be out of their comfort zone. It’s fine, but it’s not me. If somebody came to me tomorrow and said ‘we’ve got this cure for your condition’, I’d say ‘yes, give it to me’. It’s part of me – but I’d happily dispense with it.”

Over the years, her attitude to her blindness has changed a little, though after getting a cane and a guide dog.

“I was once on a train station when the BBC political correspondent Gary O’Donoghue, who’s blind, fell off the edge of the platform,” she said. “I’d always resisted a cane, almost out of vanity, but that was the catalyst for me getting one. I owe it to myself and the kids to make sure I don’t become toast.”

Despite finding success on Operatunity, she admitted it came at a cost. “My marriage ended,” she said, “and while it wasn’t as a direct result of Operatunity, it showed me there are other things in life you want to try for.”

Following Dimitri’s diagnosis, she and Stefan set about accustoming themselves to the hurdle. “It has made me reappraise my eye condition,” Denise said, “because it’s a huge link to him, obviously. For me, I’ve always been a bit dismissive of it, because I’ve always gone to great lengths to look beyond it. Whereas with him, we’re just so glad to have him that, even if we’d known he was going to have the condition, we’d have still had him anyway. If somebody had said to us in March 2012, this baby that you’re about to make is going to have your eye condition, we’d have been sad, but we’d have said ‘oh well, so be it’.”

There is one thing that rankled, however. “When they told us,” she said, “they delivered the news like it was a life sentence. I found that hard, really difficult, slightly offensive, because I’ve had a really good life, and I’ve done some amazing things, and OK that’s been partly down to determination and partly down to luck, but there’s absolutely no way I feel that my life has been impaired.”

Denise remains a woman with an ethos as uplifting as her voice. And Britain's Got Talent is the start of another new chapter.

Britain's Got Talent airs tonight, Saturday, May 12 at 19.40pm on ITV 1.

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