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Byline: By BETH NEIL

AS Casualty's sexy new paramedic, she's setting millions of male pulses racing every Saturday night.

But if actress Joanne King hadn't managed to sneak off for the audition during her lunch break, life could have been very different.

Joanne was working part time as a pounds 10-an-hour tour guide at the BBC when she cheekily stole her chance to nip away.

"It was a bit of a rush and I had to quickly dash back because I was leading a tour in the afternoon," says the 23-year-old.

"But I remember my agent calling me a few days later and saying, 'I'm really sorry but you've got to pack your bags and move to Bristol.' So it was worth the effort."

She can't quite believe it now but, just a few months ago, she was about to give up her acting dream.

After two years of scrimping and saving in London, desperately trying to get her big break in the theatre, Dublin-born Joanne was beginning to wonder if she should have followed her mum's advice and gone to university.

But then she received the phone call which would change her life. Within a week she had left her dingy London flat and was filming her first scenes for the Bristol-based hit BBC1 medical drama.

"It all happened so fast I didn't have time to think about it," she says in her gentle Irish lilt. "I was honestly starting to think that my mum was right. I should have gone to university and got a proper job.

"Life was hard. I moved to London determined to become a successful actress but it's not that simple and I had so many jobs just to get by.

"I was sweeping up hair at a hairdresser's, packing bags at a supermarket and working nights at a pub in North London.

"I was sharing a flat with a friend and we had to get out in a hurry because we couldn't afford the rent. London has so much to offer young people but I couldn't be part of that because I had no money. Every penny counted.

"I really didn't think it was worth the heartache anymore. All I wanted was to act but it's tough and I've done some ridiculous jobs to see me through."

When she heard she'd won the part of paramedic Cyd Pyke, Joanne was about to start a new job dressing up as a fairy for children's parties.

"Can you imagine?" she laughs. "I was due to start training to be a fairy when Casualty came up. It was all a bit mad."

Joanne can afford to splash out on the odd designer outfit now, but you're more likely to find the thrifty actress rummaging around charity shops.

She remembers how miserable life on the breadline was and still lives on a strict budget. "I love a bargain," she says. "When something's half-price I get all excited about it. I like vintage clothes and get a lot from secondhand shops.

"Moneywise, things are more stable for me now but I'm not at the stage where I can go out and buy a Hollywood mansion.

"I don't live a glamorous lifestyle. I'm more at home in my trackies than I am getting dressed up. When I'm off work I don't bother wearing any make-up. Maybe I should start making more of an effort now I'm on TV."

Although she's been on our screens since September, it's only now that Joanne is getting her teeth into a meaty storyline, finding herself at the centre of a lesbian love triangle.

Millions of viewers have watched Cyd's developing romance with hospital hunk Greg Fallon, played by Aussie Kip Gamblin.

Unbeknown to Cyd, her best friend Kathleen "Dixie" Dixon, is in love with her and wracked with jealousy over her relationship with Greg. …