The Herald Magazine: cover story.

Sophie Ellis-Bextor lives in Chiswick in west London, an area, I’m reliably informed, crammed with yummy mummies pushing Bugaboos. Ellis-Bextor is a mummy herself (of two boys, Sonny and Kit, aged seven and two respectively). She is also, according to at least one male Herald employee who sits very close to me, rather yummy. She’s happy with being called a mummy. But yummy? That doesn’t appear to be something she recognises in herself.

“When I was a teenager the boys weren’t interested. I was quite odd looking,” she recalls as we sit in the basement of a Chiswick members club, all leather sofas and upmarket photography books. “I made up my mind there and then that if I’m not going to be one of life’s beauties I’ll find other things I can do. And since then I try not to take any of it seriously.”

Loading article content

Probably just as well, given the insults she’s been the victim of over the years. She’s been insulted by comedians and newspaper hacks ever since she first came to prominence singing Groovejet in 2000. Famously she was called “rhombus face” at school (a private one as you might not be surprised to hear given that level of linguistic dexterity). Yet in person there’s none of the alien glamour you see in her photographs. Ellis-Bextor is not odd-looking at all. She’s pretty, and very petite. A porcelain doll with a winning sense of humour.

You join us as we’re discussing her other distinguishing features. She’s got one tattoo, she says. It reads “family” -- a word that is clearly important considering how often she mentions her children, her parents (did you know her mother, Janet Ellis, was once a Blue Peter presenter? Oh, you did) and her beau (Richard Jones, who plays in cheesy power-pop outfit The Feeling).

Any scars, I ask? Yes. When she was eight and was given a bottle of wine to carry while getting out of the car, she tripped over the seatbelt. There’s a tiny pucker of white skin on her hand. I can hardly see it, I say. That’s the main one, she says, adding, “you can’t really say it’s the main one. It’s pathetic.” She points to another, even less visible one. A mango chutney jar caused that, she says. “Mine are food and drink-related.”

They’re rather unimpressive, I suggest. I show her my finger, which still has a ripple of scar tissue running the entire length of it. What was that from, she asks. Barbed wire. She sits back. “I’ve obviously got scars from having my kids,” she adds, trumping me. “I had them both by Caesarean. I won’t show you that. You’ll just have to take my word for it.”

Sophie (look, we’re on first-person terms now and I can’t keep calling her Ellis-Bextor all the time -- we’d be here all night) has a new album out. It’s a glittery, pop dance confection full of interesting sounds, topped with her “interesting” voice (you can read it as rather middle-class, affectless, lazy, flat, very English, or kind of cute depending on taste). To put it together she’s worked with all the usual suspects in the arena of British dance pop: Richard X, Cathy Dennis, the Freemasons and Dumfries’s Calvin Harris. Listen to the album in one go and it sounds like a tranche of daytime Radio One with Fearne Cotton edited out.

Its creator makes it sound a little more entertaining than that. If the album was a colour, she reckons it might be “a shimmery, metallic black”. If it was a TV show? “Maybe an episode of Mad Men directed by Tina Fey. I love Tina Fey.” And if it was a kiss? “A really exciting one against the back wall of a club.”

 

Make A Scene is her fourth album. In a way what’s remarkable is that she is still in there plugging away. It’s been 11 years since Groovejet (which at the time seemed like a classic one-hit wonder) and the best part of a decade since Murder On The Dancefloor (itself a true guilty pleasure). “I’ve had at least a couple of comebacks,” she cheerfully admits. “When you start, you see these acts who are still going and they’ve been doing it for 20 or 30 years, and you think, ‘Why are they bothering?’ Then you realise it’s because they’ve settled into something that works for them. They’re comfortable and lovely and they’re maybe getting new fans along the way. It’s just not that heady thing of performing at radio roadshows and such.” Ah, the glamour of the pop world.

The new album has already gone to number two in Russia. Where else is she big? Mexico City, mostly, she says. Then Poland. And the UK. “The longer your career goes on the less you feel that each release defines you,” she says. “There’s not that pressure to be in the top 10. I think my last top 10 single was Catchy, which was on my third album. I don’t know if I’ll have another top 10 single, but luckily I don’t feel that’s going to have much say over whether I keep doing it. Maybe I’m wrong, but I feel I’ve got to the point where I can probably always find a way to put out music.”

Of course when Groovejet came out Sophie was pitched against Victoria Beckham in a chart battle (she won). During it she was painted -- in a dig at Posh Spice -- as the really posh pop star. Which was a little ridiculous. She was hardly minor aristocracy. But the label stuck, much to her irritation.

“What would it stem from?” she says. “Private education. Double-barrelled surname? I don’t know. I don’t think any of those things were particularly accurate. A lot of it is kind of shorthand. The sort of job I do I think I’ve taken myself out of the class thing. You get a hierarchy within the music world, but it’s not a class system.”

That said, she admits there are a lot of middle-class trappings about her life. “The paper I read, the places I shop, the candles I burn …” The fact she burns candles at all is a giveaway, I think. Unless she hasn’t paid her leccie bill.

If anything, in her experience sexism is more of an issue in the music world than class conflicts. In her pre-pop days, at the fag end of the 1990s, she was in a (not very good) indie band called Theaudience. “Certainly a lot of people were slightly irritated that I had opinions on what I wanted to do,” she recalls, “and I think it would have been easier if I hadn’t. But then maybe I was quite bolshy.”

Nah. The fact is all those boys with their guitars were reading Loaded rather than The Female Eunuch. Enlightened isn’t the word for them. “That’s why doing Groovejet in some ways was intentional,” she says. “Regardless of whether it would have been a hit I wanted to do something that was completely out of that world because I felt, as a woman in a band like that, it was so cruel, so misogynistic. You were there as a kind of rent-a-quote.

“There was a lot of talking down to. I remember the head of a record company at the time saying to me: ‘You’re a very opinionated young woman.’ I thought, ‘Would you say that to me if I was a boy sitting here?’ I didn’t like that very much.”

The dance world has been a bit kinder to her. And she’s not had to wander round in her underwear for the videos either. “There are women who can wear what are very revealing outfits but they own it. They really own it.

“When Madonna was doing Blonde Ambition in her pointy Jean Paul Gaultier gold corset I really felt that she owned that. I really felt it was coming from her and it meant something to her. And then you’ll see other people and they’re kind of wearing the same thing and you think, ‘That’s gross. You just look like you’re trying to flirt with my boyfriend under my nose.’ For me it’s about context. And I’ve always done what I’ve felt comfortable with. I think if I was writhing around in a catsuit I’d just feel a bit stupid.”

Really? I do it all the time Sophie. “You must give me some tips.”

When she was 11 years old Sophie Ellis-Bextor moved to a new school. By then her parents were separated, her mother was famous and she went from a state primary school to an all-girls private school in Hammersmith. For a while she felt like a fish out of H²0. “I really didn’t understand where these girls had come from, talking about horses and second homes,” she says. “That was another world.”

There was a girl in her year who was, to put it politely, not very nice to her. “She was always calling me fat. It’s amazing how sensitive you are to those comments. They really seemed to define those years.” The fact that her mum was on TV was another reason to hate her, it seems. In short she wasn’t very popular. With either girls or boys. “I don’t think I was getting into boys then. That’s probably too little. But when I did, they weren’t very interested.”

Who was the first boy she kissed? “Proper kiss? A boy called George at a party. I was quite grown up. I was 15, which was a lot later than my friends. It all went a bit wrong in a very dramatic way. We had this night party -- lots of snogging -- on a Friday night. And on the Monday -- because he was quite good-looking -- two of my so-called friends went to meet him after school and said, ‘You don’t want to go out with Sophie. She’s square.’ He dumped me on Tuesday.” A short-lived romance. I wonder if he dwells on it now. “Probably not.”

Sophie was a bit of an indie kid as a teenager. Who was on her wall? “I liked all the indie boys. Three-quarters of Blur. Quite attractive.” Poor Dave.

“I had weird taste as well though. I remember actually quite fancying Noel Gallagher. Now that doesn’t quite make sense. It doesn’t resonate in quite the same way. But he was the one that wrote the songs. That’s quite an attractive quality.

“I think the first boy I fancied was Elliott in ET. I remember saying to my mum, ‘I quite like him,’ and her going, ‘Yes, he’s got a sweet little upturned nose and freckles.’ And actually, my husband has got quite a sweet little upturned nose and freckles.” You’ve got a type, Sophie. “Yes I do. It was set in 1983.”

How did she meet Richard? Turns out he was in her band. That’s very lazy, Sophie. “Yeah,” she says. “I’d heard before about people who get together with people they’re friends with and I was like, ‘Yeah? How does that work?’ But I can honestly say we didn’t think of each other romantically at the beginning at all. Apparently the first thing I said to him was: ‘Nice amp.’ I don’t think I’ve ever complimented an amp before.” Which reminds me. We haven’t talked about sex yet. “What do you want to know? What I think about it? I’ve only done it twice. It was all right.

“Actually, when I first told my dad that I was having a baby he said, ‘So you’ve had sex then?’ It was awkward. AWKWARD. Because Richard and I hadn’t been going out very long.”

She had a tough pregnancy. Two tough pregnancies. She suffered pre-eclampsia during both. Kit was born nine weeks early, weighing just under 3lbs. It’s not difficult to see why she might talk so happily about the idea of family in the circumstances.

“It has kind of made the whole thing make sense to me,” she says, “and in a professional way I think it’s improved me in lots of ways. For a couple of reasons. Time away -- I feel like it’s got to be more relevant, to count more and I think also it’s the start of a new chapter. Everything that happened before they were born was a different time in my life, so I want to up the ante and make this bit relevant and exciting because it’s their lifetime.”

Sophie Ellis-Bextor is not religious, used to be scared of death but isn’t so much these days, has never been in a fight, reads cookbooks to go to sleep (Nigel Slater is a particular favourite) and is clearly very middle class (which doesn’t make her posh, not even in these post-Kate Middleton days). She’s 32 now. What does she see when she looks in the mirror? “It depends what time of day it is and how much sleep I’ve had. Recently I’ve seen someone who looks a little fatigued.

“Generally, though, I see the same person I’ve always been. I don’t think I’ve changed massively. I’m not obsessed with ageing. My mum and dad were good role models. I think my mum looks phenomenal and she hasn’t done anything.

“I know 32 is not super-young but I don’t think it’s old enough to start messing with your face. I hope I don’t.”

There you go. Her face is fine as it is. It probably always was. She heads off to have it photographed.

 

Make A Scene is released on June 13. Visit www.sophieellisbextor.net.