Irene Estry the star-shaper.

Irene Estry is something of a star-shaper. Which is why the celebs turn to her for fitness advice,

writes Fay Wertheimer

Fit for anything

Bounding with energy at 63, age-defiant health guru Irene Estry is no less enthusiastic about honing and toning people now that she was as a newly qualified fitness teacher back in 1980, and that’s why her celebrity clients, including Coronation Street stars like Sally Whittaker and Helen Worth, remain loyal to her today. As a sporty, dance orientated teenager with an eye for fun, Irene worked as a Max Factor beautician before marrying her businessman husband, Phil. For years she brought up her children, Steven, now 41 and model agency proprietor Francine, 36, then Irene’s opportunity to forge an identity outside her home circle emerged by chance. A visit to a pal’s exercise class convinced her that she should combine fitness teaching with motherhood and, at the age of 40, she launched herself into a leisure industry which was still in it’s infancy.

Irene says: “Fitness has now become a multi-million pound business. There’s too much emphasis on weight loss, and too little attention is paid to reaching peak condition by exercise and keeping your mind alert, which is the best way to beat the blues. Whenever possible I ban clients from using scales.

“Everyone’s body shape differs, and so does every fitness programme. Not everyone is meant to be thin. Your body’s the shape you live in and it shapes the way you live. It’s your structure. When Tracy Brabin, who plays Trisha Duckworth in Coronation Street, worried about inheriting the Brabin family hips, I said spot reduction is a myth and toned her up with pelvic floor work and squats instead.

“I’m all for all-round fitness from the physical to the mental and spiritual. Having a boxing promoter dad and a meditation teacher for a mum, I’d found Lotte Berk’s holistic fitness teaching made sense. Seventy years of her legendary methods are still the best for a flat tum and a neat ‘bottie’. You just work out in moderation, eat well and spend some quiet time, too”. Irene clearly practices what she preaches because her stunning appearance, perky personality and skill attract all sorts, securing her a place as a teacher and healthy lunchtime option for stars at Granada TV. Her professional and personal friendship with the late Pat Phoenix, who played the legendary soaps Elsie Tanner, guided her transition from Drummonds city centre 1980s health club to exercise expert at the studios down the road.

Drummonds’ daytime clientele included business folk and people who worked in television. Richard and Judy and Corrie’s Sally Whittaker and Helen Worth frequented the spa, where the late Pat Phoenix was coached privately by Irene.

She recalls: “Pat’s back was bad, so before attempting any floor exercises, we worked out gently in the pool to keep her supple. She was lovely, treated me like a daughter. I still catch up with Tony Booth, her actor husband, when he’s up here, and I laugh knowing that Pat, had she lived, would’ve been Tony Blair’s ma-in-law”

Irene’s thrice-weekly 90-minute classes at Granada are open to all staff members. For Corrie folk, sessions take place wherever there’s space – I use offices, dressing or smoking rooms. At first Irene was star struck as all of us but she has grown accustomed to her clientele’s lifestyles, pressures and their concerns with image. She knows from personal experience that the TV screen flatters no one over a size 8, she discovered when she presented health tips live on Granada’s satellite Breeze channel and on telly health panels with Dr Chris Steele. Irene says everyone looks wider and 10lbs heavier on TV, and every flaw shows, so performers’ obsessions with their appearance are understandable. If 98 per sent of the population are on some sort of diet, just imagine how anyone in the public eye will feel.

So Irene turns down the heat for her stars, kicking off with extra cardio-vascular routines and winding down with breathing exercises and meditation to relax people before the afternoon’s shoot. Irene believes in healthy eating. She has even turned down early morning clients who’ve not eaten breakfast’.

As a granny who has always put her family first, she spent a year out taking son Steven, then 21 through the Philadelphian Programme, an intensive scheme to help special needs people. His concentration and co-ordination were poor, and he had never mastered reading. If she could retrace certain developmental stages and rebuild his primary reactions, he might just gain more independence. A tall order.

“It was a last chance.” Says Irene, “and amazingly, my regular ladies helped make up the daily rosters of 30 needed to get us through the gruelling project. In theory, an increase of oxygen intake can improve your brain function, so Steve had to learn to crawl, turn up to 100 somersaults, run up to five miles daily and endure endless patting, stroking, stretching and long walks. “His bedroom was painted pale green and his diet was modified. Miraculously, by the year’s end, my easy-going,  special son was reading and I was back at work. At 27, he passed his driving test.”

Eternally grateful for this good fortune, Irene has found fund-raising for the Wallness Children’s Charity as enjoyable as her introduction to it. A hysterical chance meeting in a car wash with Frank “Foo Foo” Lammar lead him whizzing her round Pendlebury Children’s Hospital and challenging her to empty her pockets or raise funds. She did both.

“I’m known for roping people in for functions and I help with some show routines” she says. “At our event last year, Corries Simon Gregson (Steve McDonald), Trevor Dwyer-Lynch (taxi driver Patrick) and Steven Arnold (Ashley Peacock) in full chimpoutfits completely missed their cues. Surrounded by the Royal Marines, Andy Whyment (Kirk Sutherland) was left on-stage ad-libbing until the hairy trio stumbled on. It was hilarious and raised thousands. This year it’s the Corrie girls’ turn”.

The leotarded Mrs Estry still paces it out at the front of her classes. Opting to age naturally, she recommends exercises for our 70 facial muscles instead of cosmetic surgery or Botox. And, yes, recalling her own two years of personal study, Irene is somewhat concerned that people can set up shop as personal trainers after merely attending short courses, which she believes cannot possibly provide adequate information on the body and its limitations.

But Irene is never one to brood.  Wherever she goes, there’s always some youngster ready to compliment her, like Corrie’s Lucy-Jo Hudson, who played killer Katy, saying: “I really hope I’m just like you at your age.” Don’t we all….