29 Dec 2002: As Sophie Ellis Bextor prepares for a nationwide tour, the girl called Rhombus Face at school reflects on her million-selling album, living with a pin-up mother and Jade Jagger’s cheap joke.
She is not particularly dressed up: grey zip-up top, denim knee-length skirt, black boots with safe heels, stripy socks just visible between the boots and skirt. While she is every inch the modern pop star, there is, at the same time, something innately old-fashioned about this 23-year-old; she could as easily be an actress from the Fifties.
As her assistant potters around in the background, Ellis Bextor rings room service. ‘A pot of tea for three, please. Yes. Lovely. And can I have semi-skimmed milk, please?’ She sits on a chair, crosses her legs and smiles. ‘Apparently, when Julie Andrews takes her tea, she says, “Isn’t this the nicest drink of the day?” I think of that every time I have tea. I like Julie Andrews; she’s great.’
This is to be Sophie Ellis Bextor’s last interview of the year, yet she never really stops working: in the holiday period, she is squeezing in a trip to Moscow, where she will sing at a club, stay the night and return to London. ‘Apparently, it’s minus 20 there. Can you imagine? I went to Berlin recently and it was minus seven, which was cold enough.’
This year, she travelled more than she ever had in the rest of her life: Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, South America, not to mention numerous trips to Europe. ‘I’m not normally motivated to travel greatly. I’m a bit intimidated by the enormity of the foreignness of it. I’m so much happier travelling on Eurostar because it feels like you’re not really leaving the country. I’m really chuffed that I’ve become quite successful in France. It’s really close, I love the culture, there’s something quite chic about it. And I like the way they say my name.’
Ellis Bextor has just one word to describe 2002: ‘brilliant’. In fact, she has had a great few years. In 2000, she famously beat Posh Spice to the number one spot by collaborating with the Italian DJ Spiller on ‘Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)’; last year, she released a handful of edgy, sexy and stylish pop singles, including the lascivious ‘Take Me Home’, which allowed her to be at her cheeky, coquettish best.
But this was the year that her debut album, Read My Lips, sold in excess of a million copies, the year that her reputation as pop diva extraordinaire was cemented. And, of course, the year she took her album on the road. Ellis Bextor has been performing since the age of 15, when she managed to front ultra cool indie band, theaudience, become a pin-up and do three A-levels, all at the same time. The band signed to a major label, had two Top 30 hits and released an eponymous debut album. Yet the band split-up when founder Billy Reeves left, and Ellis Bextor found her confidence bruised.
She was low for a while, turning her attention briefly to modelling (which she hated) and novel writing. There was even a brief time when she wondered if music was for her. ‘I felt so horrendous when theaudience split-up,’ she says, elegantly uncrossing and crossing her legs. ‘When I decided to get involved in music again, I wanted to be sure that if something went wrong, it was my fault. I didn’t want to be able to blame anyone else. Basically, I wanted to take control.’
And taking control meant not touring until it felt right. In spring this year, Ellis Bextor decided the time had come. She felt confident enough to go out on the road with her name on the posters, her name on the tickets. ‘If I couldn’t hold the crowd and do a good gig, then what is my job? That should be me at my best. It’s not something you can pull out of a bag every day, because you’re not always in that kind of mood.’ Does she feel it went well? She nods and grins. ‘Oh yes. I felt the tour went from strength to strength. I have just been editing a DVD of the highlights and it’s looking great.’
‘I’ve always had an intense relationship with music,’ she says, pouring the tea. ‘My dad is a bit of a frustrated rock star and, if he wasn’t tone deaf, I’m sure he’d have been involved in music.’ She pauses, frowns. ‘I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that.’
Her childhood was far from idyllic. Her parents divorced when she was three and her time at Godolphin and Latymer, a private, all-girls’ school in west London, proved quite a tough ride. I tell her that a friend’s daughter who now attends the school was very excited when she was given a text book with Sophie Ellis Bextor’s name in the front. ‘Really?’ She says, looking a little shocked. ‘I never know if there’s a dartboard with my face on it at that school, because there was so much bitchiness when I was there… that’s really cool she was excited.’
All her close girlfriends are from her school days, perhaps because she says she takes a long time to make friends. She has only just learned to trust her assistant, Lisa, after working with her for a year. She says it has nothing to do with being a pop star – she’d be like that anyway. ‘I’m just not good at quick friendships,’ she says with a shrug. ‘I’m always a bit suspicious.’
Despite their divorce, her parents have always been around and have always supported her. Although her dad was over-protective and didn’t want her to go out and meet boys until she was 21 – his plan was rather ineffectual; she has been dating 34-year-old Andy Bond since she was 17 – he now sends her emails saying he can’t believe how grown-up she is.
Her mum, by turn, ‘doesn’t do the heart-swelling thing’ and is more relaxed about her daughter’s job. ‘But I have to say that she is definitely ready to hurt the next person who says, “You must be very proud”. Maybe she could have a T-shirt made up reading, “Yes, I am bloody proud but shut up!”‘
It amuses her that her mum was a pin-up, too, back in the Eighties in her Blue Peter days. ‘All sort of blokes tell me she was their first crush, even ones my age. She deals with it really well.’ A mischievous look crosses her face. ‘Oh yes, my mum is used to being a sex symbol.’ She dissolves into uproarious laughter. ‘Seriously, I think she enjoys it. I hope I’m in that position when I’m her age.’
Sophie Ellis Bextor has been fêted for her striking looks, but she has also been teased. At school, the bitchiness took its form in the nickname of ‘Rhombus Face’. More recently, Robbie Williams described her face as a ‘satellite dish’ and Frank Skinner joked: ‘Why the wide face?’ at this year’s Brit Awards (where she was nominated in the best female category). She says she doesn’t mind such comments. ‘It’s very camp. If that’s the nastiest thing people can think to say… it always makes me laugh the way people get so excitable. And I’ve been on Frank Skinner’s chat- show; he didn’t really say anything rude at the Brits.’
Her face doesn’t seem so wide anyway. She glances in the mirror. ‘Well, it is quite…’ She bursts out laughing. ‘Well, it’s not Debbie Harry; have you seen her face? It’s quite wide. She was called “Moon Face” at school. But that’s why she photographs so well. Her face catches a lot of light. Quite a lot of famous people have got big features.’ She arches an eyebrow. ‘It’s more interesting that way.’
One of the highlights of Sophie Ellis Bextor’s year was being photographed with a skinned dead fox.The poster launched a new campaign for Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) last month with the slogan: ‘Here’s the rest of your fur coat.’ She is glad she got involved, but now doubts its effect. As she talks about the abuse of animals for vanity, she looks downcast; this is not a celebrity getting involved with a charity to raise her profile, this is a genuine commitment.
‘Fur is associated with status and glamour, which I find both obscene and pathetic. Real fur is even in high-street shops now. I went to Shelly’s during the week and they’re selling fur-trimmed boots. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now, because obviously I’ve made such a stance.’ She sighs. ‘When I see people wearing fur, I’m not sure if I should be chucking something at them or saying something. There’s no good reason for wearing fur. And it even looks crap.’
The fur debate has been causing celebrity rifts this season; Stella McCartney, as virulently anti-fur as her late mother Linda, publicly berated her friend Madonna for wearing a wool coat made from baby lambs. And Ellis Bextor herself is surprised at the response the Peta campaign has provoked. ‘A celebrity arrived at the MTV awards wearing a white mink coat. As I walked past her dressing-room, she ran in and slammed the door so that the coat was sticking out. I could hear her shouting “miaow” through the door. How weird is that? I would never have commented on her coat – she drew attention to it herself.’
With a little cajoling, she reveals that the wag in question was Jade Jagger. ‘I always imagined that if we were queuing for the loo together, we’d have a good chat. And I’ve always thought she was really stylish… anyway, I never wanted to be a fashion fascist shouting, “You must burn your fur!” I just want people to question why they are wearing fur, and if their conscience is clear, fine. But I think most people have forgotten what fur coats are actually made of.’
Despite questioning the short-term influence of the Peta campaign, Ellis Bextor may choose to get involved in other charities. Her grandmother died of breast cancer when she was 11, but she worries that there are too many disparate cancer charities when there could just be one. She will consider her choices next year, she says; for the moment, she just wants to enjoy the Christmas break with her family.
Well, it’s almost a break. On New Year’s Eve, she will be performing at GAY at Alexandra Palace in north London. ‘It should be wicked! There will be fairgrounds and everything. I feel very jammy. The crowd aren’t going to be hard work either; they’ll just be brilliant. And I’ve got my hits now.’ She smiles. ‘I’m going to do some covers too: ‘The Kids In America’ and ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’. Really camp. Wicked.’
It’s time for the photos. And so Sophie Ellis Bextor disappears into the bathroom again to check her make-up. Through the door she can be heard singing. ‘Yes sir, I can boogie… ‘
· Sophie Ellis Bextor starts her tour of Britain on 17 January at Preston Guildhall