CATHERINE Zeta-Jones described her honorary freedom of the city and county of Swansea as “an incredible honour”, and pledged to continue her ambassadorial role for her “wonderful home town”.
The Oscar winner paid tribute to her family, friends and various mentors and teachers from her early days at a packed Guildhall.
Swansea had rolled out the red carpet for the arrival of Ms Zeta-Jones, who was flanked by her husband Michael Douglas and their son Dylan.
Inside the Guildhall, council leader Rob Stewart said the actor needed no introduction, but went on to list some of her early achievements.
He said: “It was no suprise that Hollywood woud soon beckon for Catherine.”
Cllr Stewart, who was followed by other party leaders, said it was great to confer the honorary freedom at a time when Swansea was paying tribute to its famous sons and daughters in celebration of 50 years as a city.
“Catherine, you are our famous daughter,” he said.
Ms Zeta Jones said: “It’s just a real honour for me today to be with you in Swansea to receive this incredible honour.
“I am humbled and very touched by your words and those acknowledgements.
“I would not be here if it was not for Swansea.”
She paid tribute to the “unconditional love” of her family, who “always drew me home so I could be ordinary Catherine”.
She also had warm words for her old dance teacher, Hazel Johnson, who “taught me everything I know”.
Ms Zeta-Jones said her husband and their children, Dylan and Carys, loved coming back to Wales’ second city.
It emerged that she was only the second woman to be conferred the honorary freedom of Swansea in 130 years, the other being opera singer Adelina Patti.
“I am particularly honoured that I am a rare woman to receive this honour,” she said.
“I will continue to be an ambassador for this wonderful home town. It’s very special and dear to my heart.”
The young Catherine starred in a West End production of Annie aged 9, was a national tap-dancing champion and said how indebted she was to her former head teacher at Dumbarton House School, Aled Thomas.
“From a very early age I was able to go off to London, knowing I was always welcome back at home to continue my studies,” she said.
She rose to small-screen stardom with The Darling Buds of May, also featuring David Jason, before big screen successes with the likes of The Mask of Zorro, Traffic, and Chicago, which earned her a best supporting actress Oscar in 2003.
The 49-year-old has also been commended for various charity roles, and was a key supporter of the former Longfields disability centre in West Cross.
In 2010 she was appointed CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list for her services to the film industry and to charity.
Speaking after the ceremony, Ms Zeta-Jones said she felt like she’d never really left Swansea, despite spreading her wings early.
She elaborated on her youthful ambitions – the dance festivals at the age of four, the rehearsals with Gendros Amateur Dramatic Society, the first night at the city’s Grand Theatre.
“It was so memorable,” she said, referring to the Grand. “I can remember the smell – it was really smelly, but I liked it a lot!”
She said she and her husband were keen that schools promoted the arts – and said she would like to move behind the camera one day and direct in Swansea.
“It is something I aspire to,” she said.
New York-based Ms Zeta-Jones admitted that she felt a different person when she was in her home town.
“Definitely – I only have to get on the phone to Swansea!” she said.
“There is a public persona which actors have. It’s a protective barrier. It’s a performance, in a way.
“Behind closed doors, or in your home town, you are (different). It keeps you grounded.
“I’m spoilt when I come to Swansea – my mother makes a cup of tea every 20 minutes!”
Ms Zeta-Jones, whose parents Pat and Dai live in Mumbles, said she was partial to Joe’s Ice Cream and a portion of fish and chips from Dick Barton’s in West Cross.