I summoned Beelzebub with a ouija board, reveals Donna Air. And what the spirit told me next is why I believe in ghosts…

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  • Donna Air is making her West End debut at the age of 44 in 2:22 A Ghost Story
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‘Have I ever seen a ghost? No. But I did go through a spell when I was younger of doing the ouija board,’ says Donna Air. ‘That kind of blew my mind.’

She was a teenager starring in the Geordie kids’ drama Byker Grove alongside the young Ant and Dec when she messed with the supernatural, although this was with a different group of mates. 

They put their hands on the upturned glass in the middle of the board and asked the spirits to make it spell out a word… and they got far more than they bargained for. 

‘The first time I did it I was quite young and it spelled out “Beelzebub”. I didn’t even know that was another name for the Devil, let alone how to spell it.’ Then someone told her. ‘So I was like, “Oh s***!”’

She laughs, but it was clearly frightening at the time. The actor, presenter, producer and campaigner is now making her West End debut at the age of 44 in the paranormal thriller 2:22 A Ghost Story, which involves a ouija board, a house that may be haunted and a pair of couples having very scary experiences in the early hours of the morning.

Donna Air (pictured), 44, is making her West End debut at the age of 44 in the paranormal thriller 2:22 A Ghost Story

Donna Air (pictured), 44, is making her West End debut at the age of 44 in the paranormal thriller 2:22 A Ghost Story

The Devil didn’t appear to Donna and her mates, but strange things did happen. ‘We’d each ask a question nobody else knew the answer to and whoever was asking would take their hands off the glass. I’d say, for example, “Where did I stay with my parents in 1984?” Nobody would know, but the board came up with the answer quite a few times.’

What does she believe was happening? ‘I don’t know. The ouija board once spelt out M-T-V, which was really freaky.’ Hang on, she didn’t present for the pioneering music video channel until two years after she left Byker Grove in 1995, so was the board giving a hint long before anyone else ever mentioned it? ‘Yeah, I swear.’ Donna shakes her head. ‘I can’t figure it all out. I’ve just got to learn my lines!’

We’re sitting in the sunshine outside a rehearsal space in Peckham, south London, where Donna is taking a break. The beauty that made her a cover star in the 90s is still very much in place, but there is a gravitas about her these days that comes from life experience, having raised a daughter, Freya, with the multi-millionaire conservationist Damian Aspinall, started a production company, starred in the hard-hitting BBC drama The Split and campaigned on issues ranging from zoos to domestic abuse.

Donna’s lived a bit, which comes across when I ask if she’s nervous about appearing in the West End with The Inbetweeners’ James Buckley and two Strictly Come Dancing winners, Stacey Dooley and Joe McFadden. ‘I don’t think so. I certainly am not as nervous as I would have been ten or 20 years ago. Everything’s in perspective. I take my job seriously, but it’s a show. Nobody’s dying, we’re not saving lives. I don’t see the point of getting stressed. I forgot how much I love acting.’

Her character Lauren is a psychiatrist. ‘She’s late 30s just like me,’ says Donna, laughing because she’s a bit older. ‘She’s never had children. She’s slightly inappropriate. She drinks too much. She’s a little bit sad about how her life has turned out, there is unrequited love. There’s a darkness, but also a lot of fun.’

The play was written by Danny Robbins, whose podcast Uncanny, in which he investigates ghosts and paranormal encounters, has been a hit for the BBC. ‘Are you a sceptic or a believer? That is the premise of the play,’ says Donna. ‘I would like to say I’m a believer. It’s too depressing to think we all just die and that’s the end and it’s all been for nothing. I love life. I’d like to think you get another one, and another one after that.’

Her engineer father Trevor is a firm believer. ‘My father’s quite woo-woo, maybe that’s where I get it from. He’s waiting for the aliens.’ Donna’s beliefs are more down to earth. ‘I’d like to think the universe sends you signs, or that you can get them from people that have passed on. When you’re single you have to make big decisions on your own, so I often ask for a sign like a rainbow.’

Does she ever get them? ‘I remember once I had to make a big decision and I was like, “I’m on the M4, it’s winter, there’s no way I’m going to see a rainbow.” I pulled into the car park of an old church because I needed to use the bathroom and there was the biggest rainbow, painted all across the doors. I was like, “Oh!”’

After starring in Geordie kids’ drama Byker Grove alongside the young Ant and Dec, Donna went on to present for pioneering music video channel MTV

After starring in Geordie kids’ drama Byker Grove alongside the young Ant and Dec, Donna went on to present for pioneering music video channel MTV

She mentioned being single, is that still true? ‘Yes, I’ve been single for quite a while now. Happily so. My life’s great. Also, since lockdown there have been a lot of things to sort out. I don’t get the time I had in my 20s or 30s for such activities.’

No, well, she was all over the gossip columns in those days. Fame gave this girl from Newcastle an entry into high society, and after parting amicably from Aspinall in 2007 she dated James Middleton, younger brother of the Princess of Wales, for five years.

Donna now has elderly relatives to care for as well as seeing her daughter, running her company and acting. ‘It’s a myth that you get more time to yourself as your children get older. You get less time, because your family responsibilities grow. So dating goes quite low down on the priority list. It’s just not been my focus. But you never know.’

She split from Aspinall when their daughter was three, but they’ve continued to co-parent. Freya is 20 now and divides her time between Donna’s homes in Kensington and the Cotswolds, and Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, which was founded by her grandfather John Aspinall and is now run by her dad. 

Freya began to feed the gorillas there when she was very young, forming a bond that has lasted to this day: just before Christmas she was filmed sitting with them in their enclosure – a statement from the park said that Freya and her father are the only people able to do this, after years of building up trust.

Donna trusts the Aspinall method enough to have sat with gorillas in Gabon herself with Damian, and she sounds less concerned about her daughter’s closeness to wildlife than the dangers of posting footage of it on social media.

‘The difference between how things were for me at my daughter’s age and the world kids are living in now is huge. I was in a unique position, people used to go, “Oh my God, a child star.” Whereas today every single child is effectively growing up on a screen. We’ve bred this whole society of kids having to watch themselves in a much bigger echo chamber and I think that’s strange. It’s a worry as an adult and a mother. I was very resilient but not every kid is.’

What advice does she give Freya? ‘I know I sound old-fashioned and I respect what an incredible platform social media is, but I’ve always said it’s a great addition to what you do, it’s not a full-time job. You can use it as a promotional tool or for connecting with people, but it’s not the meat in the pie. Somebody could shut the platform down tomorrow. You could be out of business in a second. I would feel nervous banking on social media.’

Donna shares a daughter, Freya, with multi-millionaire conservationist Damian Aspinall (pictured). The pair split in 2007 when Freya was three

Donna shares a daughter, Freya, with multi-millionaire conservationist Damian Aspinall (pictured). The pair split in 2007 when Freya was three

Donna pictured with daughter Freya (right), 20, who divides her time between Donna’s homes in Kensington and the Cotswolds, and Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, which was founded by her grandfather John Aspinall and is now run by her dad

Donna pictured with daughter Freya (right), 20, who divides her time between Donna’s homes in Kensington and the Cotswolds, and Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, which was founded by her grandfather John Aspinall and is now run by her dad

Does Freya listen? ‘Oh, yeah. In fairness my daughter is not on social media the whole time. She spends a lot of time in the country with animals. She’s happiest in nature. Obviously, she does go to fancy parties and likes a bit of showbiz and fashion, but she can’t wait to get back to the lions. Which makes me happy because you need something to bring you to your centre all the time.’

Recently, Freya posted breathtaking footage on TikTok of her sharing a bed with two orphaned lion cubs, Zemo and Zala, whose mother died of an infection three days after giving birth to them a year ago. She stressed in the clip that she was a trained professional and said the lions were going to be taken back to the wild in Africa once they were old enough, but some people still posted hostile comments about keeping lions as pets.

‘We don’t keep lions as pets,’ says Donna firmly. ‘We’re the only people in the world rewilding animals and sending them back to their natural habitat. And we do it very successfully.’ 

I’ve been happily single for a while now. It’s not been my focus. But you never know 

She seems to be speaking on behalf of the Aspinall Foundation. ‘I’ve learnt a thing or two about this, because my daughter is passionate about it. And her father’s passionate about it. And when you look at the facts I see their point. Zoos are building enclosures when they could be putting that money into reintroductions and protecting habitats. I hear about it at breakfast, lunch and dinner.’

She talks warmly about her ex. ‘When I take a step back, I’m enormously proud of Damian. Whether I agree with him on a daily basis is irrelevant, when you look at the difference he’s made, it’s remarkable. You can’t fault his integrity when it comes to the animals.’

It’s starting to sound as if they’re back together. ‘Why would you think that? No, we’re not. We haven’t been together in any Biblical sense since my daughter was three, I can assure you,’ says Donna. ‘But I can understand why you ask. When you have a child you’re in each other’s lives forever. It amazes me that people don’t understand you can have a platonic relationship with the father of your child. That’s staggering. It’s also quite insulting to women, the idea you can’t have a relationship with boundaries, that doesn’t involve anything else.

‘Obviously we’re both very passionate and opinionated people. We don’t need to agree all the time, but we’re very much there for each other when we need each other because we are family. And that’s not going to change.’ She smiles. ‘It’s not been dull.’

Is the same true of her more recent former partner James Middleton? His big sister has taken a step closer to the crown since she and James split up in 2018, so are they still in touch too? Donna frowns and her tone becomes cold. ‘Damian is a very different thing. And it’s not my place to put new comments out there on old issues.’

An actor, presenter, producer and campaigner, Donna's first role as a teenager was in Byker Grove (pictured)

An actor, presenter, producer and campaigner, Donna’s first role as a teenager was in Byker Grove (pictured)

Right. As we skip away from James, something strikes me about her voice. The strong accent she had on Byker Grove seemed to fade when she hit the London scene, so that some people wondered if she was losing touch with her roots. Today there are flashes of Geordie again.

‘Every time I go back home I see that everybody is the same as me, they have the same drive. It must be what they put in the water there. I would rather hang out with any member of my family than anybody else,’ she says.

Donna is hoping to make films in the North East so she can hang out with her family. ‘They’re hysterical, they’ve got a great sense of humour and they’re decent, strong, real. I was speaking to one of my aunts about a decision I had to make and she said, “Oh, Donna man, just get on with it!” I feel very lucky I’ve had that grounding, it’s got me through so many different chapters of my life.

‘I’m back home a lot more lately, I’m feeling the pull. I like the place. I like the people.’ And the football. ‘I went to St James’s Park a few weeks ago to see Newcastle United and the atmosphere was brilliant, there’s nothing like it anywhere in the world. The day was epic. The sun was shining, I was there with my family and we won 4-1, wonderful. What’s not to love about that?’

  • Donna is starring in 2:22 A Ghost Story at the Gielgud Theatre until 4 August, www.222aghoststory.com.