EastEnders star Shona McGarty reveals reason for leaving soap after 16 years

Shona McGarty has opened up on her decision to leave EastEnders, 16 years after joining the soap as abused teen Whitney Dean.

As Whitney, McGarty has been involved in several major storylines in the long-running BBC programme, including a landmark child sexual abuse plot soon after she joined aged 16 in 2008.

However, the actor announced in 2023 that she’d be leaving Albert Square, with her final scenes set to air in May.

In a new interview, McGarty, 32, has detailed her reasons for quitting EastEnders, noting that it was not an easy choice to make.

“It was a really difficult decision, because it’s all I’ve ever known. I pretty much grew up on the Square, so I feel like I’m leaving home,” she explained to The Sun.

“But I had to put on my big girl pants and be quite brave, because life is so short, and you feel that more and more as you get older.”

A large part of McGarty’s decision to leave came from her desire to explore more options in entertainment.

Shona McGarty plays Whitney Dean on EastEnders (Getty / BBC / Jack Barnes / Kieron McCarron)
Shona McGarty plays Whitney Dean on EastEnders (Getty / BBC / Jack Barnes / Kieron McCarron)

“There are other opportunities and areas of the industry I want to explore before I get too old!” she continued. “All things come to an end and this is the new chapter of my life.

"So although it was a big decision, once I’d made it, I was quite resolute that this was something I had to do.”

Whitney came into the show as the adoptive daughter of Bianca Jackson (Patsy Palmer), after which it was soon revealed that she’d been groomed by Bianca’s boyfriend, Tony. The child sexual abuse storyline between Whitney and Tony marked the first time that the subject matter had been broached in a UK soap and was developed with the advice of the children’s charity NSPCC.

McGarty filmed her final scenes earlier this month and was greeted by fans outside the studio who wished her well.

While acknowledging her 16 years on the show as “amazing”, McGarty added that her departure feels like a form of grief.

“I’m not gonna lie,” she said, “I feel like it’s a kind of grief and I didn’t think I’d be so emotional.

“But seeing all the fans who had these messages and cards was just beautiful and, although I tried to keep it together, I actually fell to pieces.”

In the show, Whitney is currently pregnant with her first child with her partner Zack (James Farrar) after a series of pregnancy losses. Whitney has also taken on the care of a teenager named Britney whom she met during a brief stay in Milton Keynes.

However, she failed to tell Zack that she had secretly paid off Britney’s biological, drug-addicted mother for guardianship privileges.

The plotline will reach its climax next month as Whitney waves goodbye to the Square.

EastEnders airs on BBC One from Monday to Thursday at 7.30pm.